I’d decided that the best way to get to Colombia, was to head to the coast and find the motor boats that take you along the coast. If I’d been willing to sit round for a lot of time, I could have gone to Colón to try to find someone sailing, but that could have meant me sitting round for days on end, which didn’t sound that fun. As it was, off to Cartí.
The last town before Cartí is Chepo, only about 65km from Panama City, that meant that when the rain drummed down I could just hang out reading my book for a few hours, even though it was about 500m away from where I started the day. After finishing my book, I was ready to keep going even though it hadn’t cleared up. No problems, just meant I got a bit damp – but then that’s why I’m lugging around my waterproofs.
The ride was quite flat, and didn’t go through much of interest. I was fine with that, as I knew there was plenty of climbing ahead the next day. In Chepo, I found my way to the fanciest looking fire station I’ve seen yet, and went in to ask. The fireman said that it’d be no problem, and he’d go and find someone to speak to. I walked around admiring how shiny the fire station was, and was bewildered when a couple of guys came over and told me to put my bike in the back of a pickup truck. Even though there was clearly space there, I was getting escorted elsewhere? I wondered where. Turns out the other side of town has another fire station, it’s one more fitting of a town of Chepo’s size, and lack of money with huge amounts of broken down vehicles sat round.
The ultimate bait and switch didn’t seem to be the way I wanted to spend one of my last nights in Panama, and I went for a walk to clear my mind. When I got back, I found that instead of the bed that I’d been offered, there was a lovely place to camp which not only smelt better, but had no mosquitoes. I confirmed with the firemen and went out for dinner before setting my tent up.
After dinner, I went to the supermarket to buy lots of biscuits for the ride and while in there met some local kids. They were amazed to see a cyclist there, and were giving me advice about the best things to buy. A few minutes later, one of their friends – Yitzhak – turned up. He was born in Michigan, and was just down in Panama for the summer. We got to talking, until his mum turned up, and then I started talking with her. She asked me where I was sleeping, and when I said I was going to be camping she invited me to stay at her place. I took even less convincing than normal and a few minutes later was on my bike following along to their house. While there, I was given another dinner and spent the night talking to Yitzhak. A much better ending!
After being made breakfast the next day, I was heading out. My stomach felt a bit off, but the advantage of being on a bike is that it seems to ease that need to go to the loo. Having said that, it was bad enough that 10km out of town I was very thankful to see some gardeners and asked them if I could use the bathroom. They kindly obliged.
I’d not been able to find many blogs of people riding to Carti, most people pay the $500 for a sailboat and leave from Colón, but the ones I had mentioned it as the hardest 40km they’d ridden. It doesn’t get any higher than 450m of elevation, but there are decent length climbs in the 15-20% range and some parts that go well above 25%. To put that into perspective, engineers seem to aim for roads of 6%, at least in the US and that’s probably because “6% grade is enough to cut speed to well under half, and absorb more than 80% of a rider’s power output (leaving less than 20% to fight air resistance and rolling friction).” You can imagine how fun 25%+ is. As soon as I turned off the main road to the Llano-Carti road I just burst into laughter. There’s no easing you in, it starts with 1km of 18% and doesn’t really get that much nicer at any stage.
After about 18km of the hills, my biscuit supply about half gone, and my water the same, the sun was doing it’s best to add some challenge to the ridiculous effort. To make the climbs that bit more frustrating, as you bombed down a short descent you couldn’t use the momentum to take you back up the other side as the trough was washed away and just gravel. So I’d accelerate like an F-1 driver as I plummeted down, but then realise I’d have to brake a little to not go through loose gravel at 60+km/h, which at first was really frustrating, but then I was getting used to it. I stopped to take a picture of the vista and a pickup stopped next to me. I was feeling just fine, other than a slight concern about the heat and water, and so when he offered me a ride I asked about the road ahead. He, a guy who drives the road at least once a week, said that the part I’d climbed was nothing compared to the part ahead. With my stomach still not feeling right, I went with my motto of “why not?” and took the lift. The hills seemed just as ridiculous in a 4WD. I know you get a different perspective sat on a saddle and in the backseat of a car, but the roads just looked ridiculous at times, a couple of them were steep enough that he had to use his 2nd gear stick – I guess activating 4WD. In reality, my concern was more about the descents than the ascents. My brakes are fine, but I’d be concerned that I’d go flying off a curve somewhere.
When we made it to the beach, I asked around and was told that there were no boats leaving that day for Puerto Obaldia, where you have to get stamped out of the country. They all leave in the morning and I’d got there around 1pm. There was definitely something going two days later (Sunday), but no-one knew was sure about the next day (Saturday). The thing is, all of the boats are run on demand, and the demand of one cheapskate cyclist isn’t enough to make a guy go out on his boat for 8 hours. I got a lift to the nearby island of Carti Sugdub, the main one of many that sit there. If you look in the videos and pictures you can get a better idea of what they’re like than from me trying to describe them, so I’ll just explain what happened while there.
I got to the island around 2, and immediately asked everyone I saw about a boat to Obaldia. A few people had no idea, but eventually I got directed to the owner of a panga (motorboat) who said he’d be leaving on either Saturday or Sunday, depending on demand. He said he’d let me know and I went for a walk around the island. The streets, if you can call them that, vary between the couple of main streets which are about as wide as a double bed, and the rest of them which are just about wide enough to fit my bike through but with a bit of intermittent rubbing. I stopped and spoke with a variety of people, mainly befuddled by the bicycle, which they all called a motorbike. I corrected a few of them, but figure it’s just the word they use there. It’s not like there was another one on the island.
The community on the island is very much alive. The Kuna, the indigenous of the 350+ (49 inhabited) islands along the Caribbean coast. They have managed to retain their culture and traditions better than any other group throughout the Americas, and even have representation in the government. On the island, there’s little privacy as the houses are made with thin walls of bamboo and so you can hear the people in the house next door snoring, as I’d come to find out.
While hanging out at the docks in the afternoon, I met an older man called Adolfo. He took interest in my bike, as an Italian had passed through more than ten years earlier and had stayed on the island, with this man, for a couple of weeks. He said he had a motorbike, but I assume he meant bicycle. Anyway, because of this the old man invited me to put my tent up in the small amount of free space in front of his sister’s house. It’s amazing to think of how my interactions will possibly affect a cyclist in 5, 10, 20 years time.
I woke up at about 2am, with a desperate need to go to a bathroom as my stomach was playing up. This would normally not be a problem. It is when there are no toilets in the houses, or at least that I’d seen. I’d seen toilet stalls hanging over the water, making sure you don’t want to go swimming, and even seen a young child being held while they went to the bathroom over the side of the dock. So, I knew I needed to get back to the dock, as there was a bathroom that I figured would be open. There were multiple problems with my plan, one being the rather mazelike setup of the houses in Sugdub. Narrow paths lead past indistinct bamboo housing and I’d not really paid much attention when being shown to where I was staying. So I set out from my tent with a torch in hand trying to find the main street, as I knew the way to the port from there. It only took a couple of minutes of being barked at by a dog while walking, probably in circles, to find the main path. I followed it and bumped into a couple of security guards who shone their torches at me. They had no idea where I was going, because there was complete silence across the whole island, and one tall white guy wandering round with a bright torch. I said I was going to the bathroom, and they let me pass to the docks. I did my business, and started the walk back.
I got to the general vicinity of where Adolfo’s sister lived, and realised I’d been too preoccupied by my needs that I’d not paid attention to try to distinguish which of the many turn-offs I was meant to take. A few minutes of walking round, without a dog barking at me – so I figured I was in the wrong area, got the attention of a guy who came out of his house in a pair of y-fronts and shone a torch at me. I told him I was looking for my tent. He asked me where it was, and I said I had no idea, just that I was staying at Alberto’s house. When I described Alberto as in his 60s, he seemed to know who it was, and led me through some paths, that felt like it was the wrong way, to the other side of the island and then he started knocking on a door shouting ALBERTO ALBERTO. Hearing the name, I suddenly realised that my old man was called Adolfo and so I quickly apologised and the y-fronted man stared at me like I was missing the majority of my brain. He walked me back to the other side of the island, and took me down another path that felt wrong but closer. I mentioned a dog living nearby and then saw some marking on the bamboo that I’d seen earlier, and knew which way to go. About 30 seconds later I heard the dog barking and showed Mr Y-Fronts my tent. He left, and I went back to sleep, hoping my stomach would stay settled until the morning.
I was up at 6am and Adolfo came past just after. He said he’d be going out fishing soon, and that if I wanted to go to Obaldia I would do better at the mainland I’d left the afternoon before. He said he saw lots of boats leaving there every morning, and they must be going where I wanted to go. I trusted him, and so he got me a boat back to the mainland for $5, the same price I had paid the day before.
On the mainland I asked everyone that came to the dock for the next few hours. By 9:30, people were telling me that no boat was going to go, so I settled down and read my book for the rest of the day, while making enquiries anytime anything promising turned up. One person mentioned a panga with a red and blue top that would be going to Obaldia, and it turned out to be the one I’d met the day before when I arrived at Sugdub. He assured me that we’d leave the next day at 7am, so I had better be at the dock for it. He wouldn’t move from wanting $120, as he was claiming $20 for the bike. I’d not heard of others paying for the bike, but he really didn’t seem to have any desire to bargain.
Sunday morning I was up bright and early to get ready for the panga. I’d asked permission to put up my tent the night before, and was told it was OK as long as I was up by 5:30 because people would be turning up shortly after. It meant I’d packed everything up and was ready by the time my panga turned up. We were definitely going, but a couple of passengers were on the way by road so we’d have to wait for them. That gave me time to get breakfast, and when that was done we were ready to bounce away.
The next 8 hours were spent following the breathtaking coast of Panamá, passing countless islands. We stopped multiple times, to drop passengers or parcels off. The sea was not quite a mirror, but apparently almost as good as it gets in that area, so we didn’t get too wet. When the waves did pick up, it felt like a mini log flume, and then when they got really strong we’d all fly off our seats and land with a bang, usually accompanied by a yelp of anger and pain from the lady sat next to me. After a while of that, I realised that sitting on the lifejacket instead of wearing it helped absorb the impact well, so the air became less blue.
Eventually, after lots of podcasts, we made it to Puerto Obaldia. We were told we’d get there by 4, but it was past 4:30. The four passengers remaining of the 10 that started, myself and 3 Colombians, were pointed one way down a street. They were all escorted off by a soldier while I got my bags on my bike. I wasn’t sure which way they’d gone, so started asking for immigration, and got there. I was surprised to find no-one else there, and the office about to close. Apparently it had shut at 4, but the official was on the loo when I arrived. He stamped my passport and all was done. I was free to leave Central America.. almost. As I left, pondering where the others had gone, a soldier came up to me and asked me where I’d gone as I was supposed to go to get my bags checked before immigration. Oh! That’s where everyone else was! I got frogmarched to the office, where he directed a colleague towards my bike for an inspection and went off with my passport. His colleague was obviously tired, so looked inside my bag of clothing and decided that I wasn’t carrying anything I shouldn’t.
I found the man with my passport, and he was surprised to see me there that quickly asking if my things had been checked. I assured him they’d got a thorough inspection and he gave me my passport back. By the time my 3 Colombian friends made it to the passport office, the official had gone home. Apparently that doesn’t matter much in Obaldia, as the owner of the boat on the next leg of our journey, into Colombia and the town of Capurganá set some of his lackeys off to get the passport official back. He turned up, having gotten changed, and stamped their passports. We were free to leave Panama.
We went back to the dock, and were told that as we were only paying $20 each, we would only get the 15 hp engine, not the 75 hp. This lead to the best part of an hour of getting absolutely drenched bouncing along in his boat that wasn’t much larger than a canoe. When I wasn’t getting blinded by the water, I could admire the coast, possibly the prettiest part of the day, but couldn’t take photos considering how wet it was.
In Obaldia, immigration had closed and there was no stirring him. The other 3 travellers set off to sleep, two of them had family, and the other had a hotel. I went to the police station to ask about camping, and was that because of a mandate passed down from on high, it would be impossible to camp with the police anywhere in Colombia. I was disheartened to hear that, and so made up for it by washing my bike to get rid of the salt water. The policeman seemed genuinely happy to see me, and asked me for a souvenir, like some money from England. I said I only had USD, and that was good enough for him. I gave him $1 and he gave me 3000 Colombian pesos, the equivalent of $1.50 – useful as there was no ATM in town. I ended up staying in a hotel, I wanted to get my things dried out as some water had seeped into my Ortliebs. I went to the cheapest place in town, $6 a night, and got the shared room rather than the private one. Being quiet season all that meant was that I got 3 single beds and a double-bed to myself as the only guest. I slept early, needing to be up early to get my stamp in time to get on the final panga to Turbo.