Crossing the Darién Gap: Colombia & The Pacific Frontier

An Eighteen Minute Read

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Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.” ~ Paul Coelho, The Alchemist

The pursuit of happiness. The eternal search and notion which we all strive for. We search high and low with no success. Where we go wrong is exactly within the search itself. Happiness is not a thing to be found. It is something to be earned.

We are told throughout our lives what will make us happy. From advertisements, to our parents and friends. We are conditioned in what to look for. We are taught how to search for this elusive green monster. Little clues are given throughout our lives. But, some of them are false. Some of them lead us down the wrong paths. From there we have to start over and go about things a different way.

We search for happiness because it makes life more interesting. It is the thrill of the hunt which makes things seem worth all the struggle. For many they believe happiness is linked to success. A good job equals money and therefore, happiness. Right? It is why people indirectly sacrifice their relationships for that big promotion. They think having money will make people respect them more. This will then in turn, make them happy. But, sadly the joke is on them. They have sacrificed the only real fountain of happiness available.

Some may think I am in search of some sort of happiness as I cycle about our Earth. But, I would be searching for answers where there are none. I am not on a quest to see what makes me happy. I already have realized many of these things. They are in the simple moments, with loved ones. Mountains and adventures are fleeting glimpses of happiness, but they wont sustain you. No amount of Facebook selfies will fill the void you are looking to fill. Working hard to cultivate relationships and moments that are meaningful and true are what will make you happy. Simple. Fill your short time here with people and moments that are important to you.

There are many reasons why I chose to cycle around the world. Staying true to your goals is the most rewarding part of the journey. Seeing what makes other people happy in far off places of the world is inspiring. It always seems to be in the simple things. Reflecting on long endless roads, I see the commonalities that exist between cultures. Happiness almost seems to play out in similar sequences throughout the world.

After all of this searching, wandering and wondering, I can tell you that happiness cannot be described, measured or seen. It is not found in money, things or fleeting excess. There is no search. You don’t just find it one day. It is procured throughout our lives. Happiness grows likes a cactus and blooms when the time is right. Quit searching and start harvesting. You have more than you know what to do with.
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Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy.” Louis CK, Comedian

Crossing into Colombia was an exciting moment. After getting stamped through immigration my friend Remy and I were off riding in the late morning of Colombia. We were hungry and looking for some lunch. In the small town near the border it seem everyone was only interested in barbecuing ‘Cuy’. Guinea Pigs. The classroom pet was for lunch. Everywhere we went they were being roasted rotisserie style outside for the lunchtime customers. I was actually pretty interested in having a whole Guinea Pig to myself, but it was more than I was willing to spend on lunch. We found a cheap place to eat and set off riding in new territory.

It rained soon after and we hid with some passersby until it ended. While we waited a cycling tourist named Juan from Spain came crawling up the hill. Juan was cycling for cancer awareness with a very unique story. He was cycling to Ushuaia at the end of South America from Nicaragua. However, he was doing it without a stomach, colon, rectum or gallbladder after a cancer operation he had. He is cycling to live life to the fullest and give others hope. Listening to his story was very inspiring to say the least. After the rain passed we said goodbye and flew down the hill our friend had just been struggling up for some 40 kilometers. As I flew onwards Juan gave a lot for me to think about. You can support Juan or follow his blog in Spanish at http://www.runnife.com/.

All good things must come to an end though and soon it was back up the mountain. The roads in Colombia are some of the steepest I have seen in a while. In Peru the climbs are much longer, but built in a way that is more conducive to climbing up. The steep grades of Colombia put all the your stamina to the test. I kept thinking the end would come soon, but with evening approaching we were only 17km into the climb and decided to finish the pass the following morning.

Tired and hungry we went down into a small village and found the local police. We were told we could camp out at the local cultural centre for the night. After cooking my typical pasta that night I was out like a light and up early to make my morning oatmeal. Packing up was some quick business and before long we were at the top of the hill. Racing down to Pasco we took the rest of the day off in a hostel. The first thing on my mind was food.

After a short rest it was back out to the road. The climbs were hard and the scenery beautiful. I felt extremely proud to have made it this far and could taste the end of the continent. One particular climb wound way up into the mountains after crossing a bridge guarded by the military. As I reached the top I could barely see the bridge I had crossed hours earlier. The sun was hot and my face covered in sweat. On the downhill I got a flat tire and swerved all over the road until I regained control, stopped and patched it up. I was still in search of some new tubes and more importantly, new tires. Mine were worn through with the whole of South America under their belt as well as part of Africa. They owed me nothing.

On route to Popayan Remy and I split up once again with dividing interests. I was set on heading to Panama via a Pacific route by boat and he was going to Medellin. After so long on the road on my own the company was nice for a change. However, when I am biking, I truly do prefer to go it solo. Knowing yourself is very important before setting out on a trip like this.

I arrived in Popayan after more steep climbs with lots of buses. I took a day off to rest and explore the markets. I found new tubes for my bike and was happy with how things were going once again. One of my favourite things about travel will always be the markets. I bought a fresh pineapple and had it cut for me in seconds by the vendor. I drank a delicious fruit juice with milk and ate a heap of empanadas. That night I ate Arepa with Chorizo from a vendor on the street and got to bed early. (See recipe HERE) My stomach is clearly encased in iron at this point.

Colombians might live in one of the best places in the world to grow coffee beans, yet their cups of coffee come from dehydrates granules in tiny plastic packages. This is the definition of tragedy.” ~ Bryanna Plog, Author

I left with the sun on the following day through an up and down landscape which eventually shot me out into the Cali Valley. I was making incredible time and for the first day in months the terrain was actually flat. I used all of my stored up energy and ploughed through towards Cali in a single day. On days where I end up riding 150 kilometers I always feel lighter than air. Maybe it is just exhaustion, dehydration or the burn of hundreds of calories, but it is always a euphoric moment in the end.

While in Cali, the salsa dancing capital of Colombia, I discovered there was a boat leaving for the frontier of Colombia in two days from Buenaventura. It was a good two days ride away, but I decided I would make it there. I felt bad about not meeting up with an old friend in Medellin, but sometimes you have to trust your gut. The Pacific route to Panama was known to be the wild west of border crossings. Corruption, apparent drug smuggling and almost no information for tourists made me excited about this adventure. I said yes to the challenge and turned left towards the Pacific coast.

There was a large climb over a final mountain pass before heading all the way down to the coast. Things got very humid and at one point I was even cycling in a mist of low clouds. Riding in clouds is wet business, but always a uniquely awesome experience. I found my way down to Buenaventura. Known for its lawlessness in comparison to the rest of modern Colombia. Largely now in control, Colombia is essentially a new country and very safe in most regions for tourism. I was happy I didn’t see the shady article about Buenaventura until after I reached Panama. However, throughout my time in Colombia with the exception of one person, (keep reading) everyone was nothing short of amazing. Some of the most friendly people in South America. You can read the ugly article about Buenaventura HERE.

The basic dream of many Colombians is to have a secure nation, without exclusions, with equity, and without hatred” ~ Alvaro Uribe, Colombian President

I arrived in the late morning just before the sky exploded with rain. I purchased my ticket on a cargo boat headed for Bahio Solano near the border of Panama. There are no roads leading through the Darién Gap. One must either take a plane, or cross by boat. People have been known to hike across to Panama, but it is still quite dangerous. This wild region of jungle generally where the last resistance of FARC hang out along with wild paramilitary groups and indigenous tribes. If you don’t run into one of these groups, the green wild of the Darién will likely set up other surprises for you. So, I chose the more adventurous boat route instead.

After seeing a bit of the city, the cargo ship left at 7pm. The lights of the Buenaventura and humongous freighters in the port of Buenaventura faded off in the distance as the roar of the motor carried me towards new horizons. I tucked myself into a bunk bed stacked 3 high and fell into a nice sleep.

The following day was filled with watching the beauty of the Darién float by and chatting with people on board. The food was actually really good and crew were quite friendly, as far a cargo crew goes. One crew member dropped his phone in the ocean and complained to me about his terrible misfortune. The salty air blew by comfortably as we rocked forward on low waves.

Arriving in Bahio Solano was where the chaos began. Getting my bike and bags off the boat was a challenge. I had to unload onto another boat and then onto a dock amid large groups of people looking on at the new arrivals. I quickly found the immigration and was told to find a man named Justino, who had the only authorized legal boat to make the journey to Panama. I found him riding his bike around town. His lip had a huge band aid over it as he had recently took a spill off his bike. His eyes were almost clouded over blindness. I felt bad for him, but desperately hoped he would not be driving the boat. We discussed a price that began outrageously high and he was not budging. As the only boat heading to Panama legally, the price was dictated as such. He wanted a large amount to take my bike as well. Claiming his boat was very fast and we would get there tomorrow afternoon. I was not so impressed, but knew that I had no choice and he wasn’t going to move.

I returned to immigration to get stamped out of the country, but the officer seemed uninterested in letting me leave. He told me to come back at five in the morning the following day. However, Justino’s boat was due to leave at five and another would not depart for a week. I was desperate but told him I would come back in the morning. After a restless night of wondering I turned up at just before 5am. He poked his head out of the door and just said no. I was not happy. He came back out and said to bring him Justino. Which made no sense. I brought him along soon after, but he wouldn’t come to the door. I could see him watching TV inside. With no stamp in my passport there was no way I could head to Panama. The boat left.

I went to the police to report the border official on a petty power trip. They were well aware of this type of action on his part. Many people also said that he was indeed a bad man. The police said there was a boat leaving that day to a small village closer to the frontier which had boats also going to Panama. I waited a few hours and was suddenly aboard a roaring speedboat with dual 150 horse power engines. Back on track I thought, as we raced across the ocean for three hours.

In Jurado I was met by a friendly border official named Michael. He was determined to help me out and appalled by his counterparts actions. However, he didn’t have good news for me. There was in fact no boat scheduled to leave for Jaque, Panama. Like Bahio Solano there was also only one man who legally had permission to make the trip. He was currently in Panama. I was told to wait and wait is what I did. Camping on the beach I passed my days reading and walking about the village. Everyone soon came to know me and were all friendly asking when I was going to Panama. I always asked in return if they knew of a boat heading there. No one had any idea, but would tell me that there might be one in a few days.

On the fourth day I was buying some bread for breakfast when I met a man named Jorge. He said he was returning to Bahio Solano on a speed boat soon and I could come back with him. I knew that Justino would be leaving in a day or so for the border so thought I would try my luck back there. I tore down my tent and was down at the boat launches in no time. We roared off back to where I started a few days back. I was back inside the realm of the horrible border guard again.

I stayed at Jorge’s house and we cooked dinner together. Fried plantains and rice was on the menu. There was a tiny airport there with infrequent flights which Jorge was in charge of picking people up at. Sometimes I joined him on these trips to the airport with little else going on in my life. I found them interesting and his van had air conditioning.

I arranged with Justino to leave the following morning but we made sure I would get my stamp this time. It took the majority of the day for him to get all the necessary stamps and papers together just to make the trip in his tiny boat. Once all of that was together we went to the immigration to meet the horrible border guard. He was sleeping when we arrived (surprise) and came to the door with his shirt off. During the whole process he never even acknowledged I was there and took his sweet time. I got the stamp and walked away. It was very hard to keep my mouth shut, given the things I wanted to say to him over the last week. But, I knew it wouldn’t help me at all. I was defeated at this point and just wanted to get out of there.

The following morning at 5:30am we met for the journey to Jaque, Panama. It was myself and big Colombian Mama making the trip. The boat was tiny. The size of a small fishing boat with a little 40 horsepower engine. It was going to be a long and slow trip. Already Justino and the driver were fighting about which way to go. Not a good sign. The driver gave me a smelly old lifejacket and we were off. I remember seeing Jurado pass by as we skirted along the side of the green Darién. I thought about myself hanging out on the beach and wondered if I would still be there if I hadn’t taken action. On this route if you don’t act then you will be stuck for weeks.

Near the frontier we were boarded by a very large and fast Panamanian police boat. Three massive motors rolled up to our tiny fishing boat. They asked a lot of questions and searched to boat for drugs. We had nothing illegal on board so there was no worry. One of the guards asked me if I had a license for bicycle. I just said it was not necessary with a bit of a laugh. I joked with the police and asked them if they would take me the rest of the way. Their boat was clearly much faster. Justino gave them a loaf of bread to remain on friendly terms and we were off. The gas for the boat was beginning to run low and we stopped to syphon some into the main barrel. Yes, it was a barrel. We finally reached the frontier of Panama not long afterwards. I was not through the journey yet though. In Jaque there are still no roads and one more boat was necessary to get to Panama City. However, I had finally made it to Central America. More on the last leg of the journey to come in the following post. Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

Caring about others, running the risk of feeling, and leaving an impact on people, brings happiness.” ~ Harold Kushner, Rabbi

I once thought as I spent more time on the road it would get easier. Though physically I am more fit than I have ever been in my life, the mental challenges are a daily occurrence. Sure I can fix almost anything on my bike now, but things break more often than ever it seems. After almost two years on the road with the same old TREK, this is to be expected. As I near the end of my journey, sometimes it seems I’m being challenged more than ever. There are still many hoops to jump through it seems. All I have learned about myself is being tested. However, my will to go on, to succeed in finishing what I have started, can never be diminished. The strength of mind will prevail in, as one cyclist put it, “Moods of Future Joy.”

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*I am now cycling in Nicaragua. It has been an incredible time in wonderful Central America so far. Tomorrow I will be visiting the village of El Trapiche with Free the Children. I am very excited about this opportunity. I will be cycling with some youth in the village to their community. It is truly a dream come true. Details of this and experiences leading up to here coming soon. A special thanks to Marina Quattrocchi for her generous and kind donation as well as Barb & Arnold Mahon. We are now halfway to the school in Ecuador. Please continue to help support giving children the gift of an education. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

**If you are interested in travelling to Colombia, a truly beautiful country of history and scenic beauty, check out my friend Stephen’s travel guide to Colombia by following here at http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com/colombia-travel-guide/

***Happy Easter to family and friends from all corners of the world.

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My Favourite Comedian: Louis CK Talking Sense

 

About markquattrocchi

My name is Mark Quattrocchi. This site is dedicated to giving people a look into the wonders of world travel. Through my experiences, thoughts and ambitions about adventure, I strive to give motivation to people to follow their dreams.

Posted on March 28, 2016, in Adventure, Around the World, Charity, Colombia, Cycling, Ecuador, Food, Free the Children, Inspiration, Motivation, Panama, Thoughts, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Christine Love

    Thank you again for all the beautiful pictures and for the detailed accounts of your everyday adventures. Happy Easter to you! Joe and I can honestly say that we are happiest with our families. We had a wonderful vacation with his sister, Victoria, and her partner Moe, our niece, Tammy and her husband, Jason in Cuba for March Break. It was the first southern holiday for us in 24 yrs and we had a good time. Nothing compared to coming home and celebrating our grandson’s first birthday and seeing the twins, and family and friends again. Family is where it is at. The Cuban people were lovely and we had a great time. But I am glad to be home to greet the migrating birds, and await the melting of the ice! Stay well until we meet again!

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