I finally headed out of San Jose on the 4th of July. Relaxing in Heredía with Mario my host was incredibly easy for many reasons, one of them being just how good a chef he is. I’d make plans to leave, but when I would mention them to Mario he would tell me that the next day he was going to be making yet another delicious thing and I couldn’t possibly go without eating that. The day I left he was going to be making cheesecake, apparently a speciality of his, and I nearly stayed to try it, but I knew if I did I’d never leave.
I decided to head towards the Caribbean coast, mainly following a route I’d taken a bus along with Jamie a couple of weeks earlier. I’d seen the disturbing Costa Rican tendency to not have a shoulder was in full flow, and had been warned that it was the second most dangerous road in Costa Rica, but I wanted to be up on the Caribbean coast, to avoid the PanAm as much as possible. Getting on my bike I headed north and was immediately into climbs that made me realise how I was out of shape from my time being lazy. I had chosen a road that wasn’t well travelled on the way to the main road across the mountains, meaning I only had to concentrate on slowly struggling up the hill, not on any traffic. It also meant I got the looks of confused admiration only got when riding down streets where more sensible cycle tourists wouldn’t think of going.
This diversion lead to the main toll road, and a toll booth. I was disheartened to see a man come out of the office and stand blocking my way, until I realised that it was just like back in Mexico – they don’t mind if cyclists go through, but they have to go along the pavement. I assume the gate has a way of counting the number of vehicles and me riding through might mess that up. There was about an hour more of climbing, although mainly with two lanes, and for some reason the traffic mainly came in waves. The tunnel I’d been concerned went wonderfully, as a truck driver waved me into the lane and then was happy to slowly follow me through acting like a support vehicle. As soon as I got through the tunnel I pulled over and he gave me a long honk of support before going on and having to deal with the 10+ vehicles stuck behind him trying to fly past.
From there it was mainly downhill, which meant long periods without traffic overtaking me, the joys of going along at 50-60km/h instead of 15-20km/h. The main problem was the torrential downpours. It was raining so heavily that combined with my speed the raindrops felt like they were stabbing me in the eyes. I really need to get a pair of sunglasses that sit tighter on my face, breaking the arm on mine a week after getting them means they’re a bit looser than they should be.
On the Caribbean side of the downhill, the humidity was horrible, as were the intermittent downpours. Thankfully the abundant bus stops meant I could find myself in shelter soon after they broke out. I continued along dodging the rain until I got to Siquirres where I went to the fire station and met Oswaldo and Andres, the two main firemen on duty that night. Oswaldo took me under his wing, showed me around, cooked for me and we chatted the evening away. I learnt many thing, including a major gripe – firemen and police no longer get the special early retirement system like they get in the US. It was done away with in the 90s. Now they are supposed to work until they are 65 to get a pension, which is just unreasonable considering the physical stress and risk they put themselves through.
The road met the Caribbean coast in the port town of Limón, and thankfully the majority of the traffic left there. Seeing the cargo ships filled with shipping containers, each container having to be individually moved by a lorry made me wonder what had happened to the train line that used to run to the coast. With the way that technology moves to reduce the number of workers it makes so little sense that 50+ lorries, each with their own driver, are used instead of a train.
The coast road leading to Panama goes through a few small villages and towns where plenty of tourists like to hang out. I’d been there the week before enjoying a few relaxing days with Jamie, and can definitely recommend it. Cahuita is a small little town next to a very pretty national park running along the beach, while Puerto Viejo is much more touristed with large amounts of surfers. I made it close to the border, a town called Bribri, before looking for a place to put up a tent. I had to ask at a few different places, but ended up in a grassy space by the police.
I was up at 5 the next day as the police officer woke me up. I guess I’d mentioned that I was usually up at 5 so he didn’t want me to oversleep. I was looking forward to crossing the border as I’d change timezones and my wake-up calls would be at 6am instead. Being up that early meant getting to talk to people riding to work, which is always fun. I spoke to a finca owner who told me about nearby life, and how his main hope was to get a motorbike to shorten his hour-long commute.
I got to the border 20 minutes after it opened and there was a very slow moving line to leave the country which ended up taking more than two hours to get through. Thankfully, when I crossed the bridge over the Sixaola the very short line moved very quickly and I was back on the bike in under 10 minutes. The road split in two, neither direction having signs, and the way I went was apparently the old road as it turned into dirt and went over some rather primitive bridges.
I stopped to rest at the first petrol station I got to, and spoke with the worker there. When I asked him about cheap food, he spoke of a guy who sold food from his bicycle that would be coming by shortly after. He was right, 5 minutes later a bicycle turned up. I ordered and he came back with a box of food – a wonderfully lazy way to get food!
Between the petrol station and Almirante, the next town, there was a long run of short hills, some parts being as steep as anything I’d had to climb before. I broke up the hills by taking a nap, when there are no convenient locations with AC nearby, a siesta in a shaded place like a bus stop is nearly as good. In Almirante I ended up with the bomberos again. The station was noticeably older than the ones I’d stayed at in Costa Rica. I put my tent up in the entrance to the workout room and was about to go to sleep when one of the firemen came in to exercise. His name was Kevin Hall, a lot of the people living in the area had grandparents or earlier generations that had moved over from Jamaica, and so had English sounding names – even though he for example didn’t speak English at all. He was a history buff and spent a long time talking about the area as well as asking about many things on his mind, including why Canada and the US are so different (mainly foreign policy and reaction to no longer being part of the British empire) even though they are geographically so close.
The next day started with more of the same short steep hills for the first couple of hours before flattening out. There were long stretches running along the bay with nothing more than the odd building, with the only traffic being minibuses transporting people, mainly foreign tourists, between the nearby islands of Bocas del Toro and either Costa Rica or David, the 2nd city in Panama, 180km away. I’d planned to stop in Chiriqui Grande, the last town before the road headed inland to see me cross the Continental Divide again, but I was there early enough that I figured I might as well keep going, especially as the heat of the day was going.
I had a 30km climb up from sea level, and although I wasn’t convinced I’d make it up and then down the other side before dark, it seemed better than sitting round and reading my book. The road started out quite flat, with a couple of small towns, where I went to the small Chinese-owned supermarket, as they have predominantly been since Belize, to buy some biscuits. I probably should have bought more, but as I don’t carry a stove it would have just been more biscuits. The climb kicked up from nothingness to horribly steep very quickly, so much so that after only a couple of km I was stopped panting in the shade.
A packed minibus passed me and a few passengers yelled out to let me know that I could do it. As I was struggling to just stand there at that moment, I wasn’t completely convinced, but a couple of songs on my iPod later and I was back slowly climbing up. The higher I got, the better the views back to the Caribbean got, and the more of a rhythm I got into. I went past waterfalls and viewpoints looking back, and as it got close to sunset the traffic became less frequent, but I knew I wasn’t going to get to the next town.
Thankfully, there is a dam at the top, where about 25% of the energy needs for Panama are met. By the dam, there is a visitor’s centre, and a watchman all day and all night working 8 hour shifts. We spoke all the way until the end of his shift, mainly about learning English as he was using his long shifts of doing nothingness to read English literature such as Of Mice and Men which he wanted help understanding. He said I could put my tent up, or just sleep inside the visitor’s centre. So I got my mat out and went to the visitor’s centre!
I was off early the next day to find food. After 45 minutes or so of more climbing I finally got to the real top and could see down to the Pacific. Then I rolled down, and spent a couple of hours at a restaurant wolfing down the variety of fried things they offered for breakfast while relaxing too. It was about another 15km to the PanAm which would take me the whole way to Panama City, with very little by the way of alternative routes. I’d read many negative blog entries about the boredom of the road, and sat for a nap in a petrol station half considering hitching a lift. As it was, I didn’t see anything stop that could take me, so I ate lunch and headed east. The shoulder had been reclaimed by bushes, but, after a stop for some torrential rain, I found myself in the groove and enjoyed a couple of hours flying along with my music blasting and me singing along.
I’d heard about a fire station in the town of San Félix, and figured I’d stop to ask for a place to sleep. As with nearly all the population centres along the PanAm, San Felix is actually a few k down a side road. I stopped to ask a young guy in a field where the fire station was and he said it was just ahead, before asking me why I was looking for it. I mentioned about my trip and that I was looking for a place to throw up a tent for the night. Two minutes later, after he had said I could stay at the finca, we were rolling my bike through the field and chatting. He was 20 years old and worked there, looking after the finca, and in particular the horses. There were plenty of spare rooms, but as I didn’t want him to have to go through too much effort I stayed in the other bed in his room. Yet another example of the kindness of strangers.
Hiding in a bus stop
Up at the dam
Looking to the Caribbean
Looking at the dam
Looking down to the Pacific