Individual Days: Cycling Panama & Costa Rica
A Sixteen Minute Read
“Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.” ~ HG Wells, English Author
Heaving myself over the crest of another hill I stop for a moment to take it all in. I take in the green view on the Panamanian horizon. The morning humidity rises in a haze of heat as if an oven element were sudden switched on. The sound of nature hums to great the day. With a new day the world is busy. Wildlife and modernity collide in a losing battle. A man motions me over for a cold cup of water. I feel the sweat and salt already beginning to form. I am in a new land, new continent and a new day.
The individuality of each unique day, person and experience is what makes life so interesting. It is what fuels the tank for travel. You can see all of the countries in the world, but each day and each person only happens once. It is the people that make travel interesting for me. The unpredictability of seeing or meeting someone new is very exciting. On the bicycle I am in the drivers seat of a daily ethnological experience.
By traveling to a new place you are seeing many things for the first time. That is always why it is so exciting and home may seem like the same old bore. But, no two days are ever exactly alike. Though some days may seem similar and mundane to the untrained eye, I assure you, they are not. To see the world as something that is new and exciting each day is a skill worth working on. To wake up and feel the thrill of the day open before you, is to live in the exact moment as it was meant to be. You, our people, the sun and wind, converging on a single moment. A single beautiful individual day.
The story picks up as I safely arrived in Jaqué, Panama after an eight hour sun scorched foodless journey on a small fishing boat. After over a week of waiting and problems with immigration in Colombia I was ready for my adventure by bicycle to resume. However, I knew this meant at least one more boat.
When I arrived immigration was waiting on shore and I waded through the shallow water with my bike and all my gear towards land. I bit farewell to Justino and was glad to put that part of the trip behind me. I spoke with the immigration official and found there was a boat leaving in a few hours to Panama City. I was so happy. He said I could not be on it. At this point he already had my passport and said he had to ‘verify’ me. Most borders take ten minutes maximum to do this type of thing, so I was having a hard time understanding.
I pleaded with the guy to stamp me in, so I could leave on the cargo boat to the city. I explained I had already waited one week for the last boat, but he didn’t seem to care at all. I sat outside on the step of the immigration building as he said I couldn’t go inside. While I waited the boat left without me, again.
I watched him go in and out of the building and pretty much ignore me. I’d ask when I could have my stamp, but he would just tell me to wait fifteen minutes more. He just walked about the dusty jungle town texting and doing a whole lot of nothing. Five hours later as the sun went down he walked out and handed me my passport. I let him experience my discontent.
I was extremely hungry and frustrated at this point. There was even less in this town than Bahio Solano. I found the single rundown guesthouse and got some dinner into me. I had another bucket shower and dreamed of the day for running water. I then began asking around town and instantly knew my options were terrible. The police said the next cargo ship was the one that just left and would return again in one week. Devastation. There was the possibility of a boat that went to near where the Pan-American highway begins in Panama, but there were no boats going at this time. Even if I got to there it still meant three days of biking to Panama City. One man said he would take me, but for $500. He needed a boat load of people to make it worth his while and drop the price. People were generally helpful at this point though. I went to bed exhausted.
The next morning I set out again to annoy everyone in the little town until I got a ride out of there. The same answers from all new people. ‘One week. A lot of money. I don’t know.’ Until one nurse who actually spoke English had an idea. “Why don’t you take the plane that leaves tomorrow for Panama city?” He said. It was a 35 minute ride on a single propeller plane. It would in turn cost the same if I waited a week for the cargo boat. Time was money and sanity. The point of taking the Pacific route was to cross the Darién Gap by not flying, but I had seen enough and was excited to get going on my bike once again. This was my ticket out. I took it.
We convinced the lady who sold the tickets to book me a seat. She was worried about my bike though. I would have to take it apart and pack everything really small. This was no problem, but took a few tries for her to accept how compact I had my bike. One of my pedals was seized onto the bike and the were totally screws stripped. After an hour of smashing with the local bike mechanic, it wouldn’t move. He found a handsaw helped me saw it in half. For all of the work he wouldn’t take any money, but accepted a cold box of milk. Time to get new pedals in Panama City. I was a bit sad, as the pedals were one of the few parts that had made the entire journey so far. Everything was approved by the lady and I thanked my new friend Javier many times for negotiating and helping me make my escape back to civilization.
In the morning a man with a wheelbarrow arrived to take the pieces of my bicycle and bags to the airport. There are no roads in Jaqué, just walking paths and bike routes. I paid him a dollar and we walked towards the airstrip at the edge of the village. They weighed all my stuff on a scale as old as time itself and told me I should pay for everything including my ticket in Panama City. The first time I’ve ever boarded a plane and paid after. I guess there was incentive for us to arrive.
Once a week a tiny plane arrives in Jaqué. From what I gathered, it is a big event. After a bit of waiting a huge crowd had formed. All of these people surely couldn’t be going on the plane I thought. Then out of the distance it appeared, humming seemingly right out of the jungle. The children were all pointing as it roared up and cut the engine. It was tiny and I was excited. A few people got off and five people got on, myself included. In a few moments we were roaring down the runway. I was sitting right behind the pilot and could see all the little controls and switches. It was actually really cool and a unique experience for me.
“The Panama Canal is like a wound that humans inflicted on the Earth – one that nature is trying to heal.” ~ Abdiel Perez, Locks Superintendent Panama Canal
In no time at all Panama City and the canal came into view. All of the ships waiting to go through the locks passed under our wings and I was taken from the jungle town with one restaurant to a massive city with everything you could imagine. I got all my gear sorted and set to putting my bike together at the airport. In no time at all the crazy man everyone would stop and stare at for a moment had put together his bike and was off riding with one pedal.
Cycling through roaring traffic I found a hostel with an empty bed after a few tries. It was in Casca Viejo, the old downtown. This was my second trip to Panama. I had come four years prior almost to the exact day with my brother Luke on a March break holiday. We went to the San Blas Islands, explored Panama City, visited the canal and walked up Ancon Hill. A completely different trip entirely. It was nice change though, because for the first time in almost two years I was somewhere I had actually been before. Though it had been a while since I was last in Panama City, a lot was still familiar. I enjoyed walking along the harbor and taking in the fish market. I grabbed some cheap fish ceviche and took in a bit of modern reality. One of my favourite cities on the trip and I would certainly return again. (For tips and tricks from the Huffington Post on making one of my favourite dishes, Ceviche, CLICK HERE)
The next day I dealt with my very worn out bike. I found a shop and had a complete tune up to start my final leg home. My tires had been rolling since South Africa and were completely done. I got new pedals and a whole bunch of little parts replaced. My bike had a beating heart again. The following morning I was off riding early. I was excited to be back on the road and see what the next adventure had in store. There was even a new bike path with beautiful flowers along the sides to guide me out of the city.
Cycling in Panama was a nice break from the massive climbs of South America. Though it is an undulating series of low hills I could actually find a rhythm and speed along pretty nicely. In the morning, I got caught up in a bicycle race with people on lightweight road bikes. Along the higheay every few kilometers there were stands with Gatorade, water, granola bars and bananas. They were more than happy to share their snacks and I was more than happy to take a few bottles of Gatorade for the road. Pretending to discover the stands each time was fun for me. On one of the hills I passed by a group of cyclists in the race with my fully loaded bike, I felt proud at how strong my legs had become over the course of the trip. That night I camped near the beach and cooked my simple pasta. Life was back to normal and I was in my happy place once again.
After taking in a beautiful morning ride I set down to pedal through heat. On my second night I camped at the house of a lady that saw me two days earlier near Panama City. Martha was her name. A very friendly women who owned a fresh juice shop. While I waited for my pasta to cook I drank fresh cold pineapple and mango juice. She had to leave early in the morning before the sun rose, but trusted me to let myself out. Moments like this really teach me a lot about the nature of humanity and the good will that exists. The propagated fear and disparity seen on the evening news is not what deserves attention. It is not even the norm of human society, but we choose to promote it and believe. I have seen the true nature of humanity from the seat of my bike. And it is beautiful.
The following days saw a continuation of the up and down slopes towards the border with Costa Rica. I camped at a police station one night. They even gave me a full dinner and a place to shower. The one officer friendly grilled me on my adventure while I ate another pile of fried plantains. As I cycled out the following day there was some serious construction happening along the road. The workers cheered me on and often offered ice cold water they had in big jugs along the road. I must have looked dead tired, because they always offered before I asked. In the scorching heat of over 40 degrees each day, ice cold water breaks were a dream come true. Sometimes I would even hide out in a McDonalds if it appeared, drink unlimited Sprite while using free Wi-Fi and enjoying the air-condition.
“Witnessing Panama’s overnight transition from banana republic to middle-class retirement haven is like watching the Univision version of Extreme Makeover: it feels so tacky but you can’t change channels because you just have to find out what happens next.” – Andrew Evans, Writer
The roads in Panama were generally very good and took me towards my thirty-second country, Costa Rica. I was excited about making good time through Panama and looking forward to cycling the beautiful Costa Rican coast. Overland travelers are supposed to have onwards tickets out of the country, however, the border lady looked the other way and let me pass through. I was becoming worried about my passport filling up as I had no new pages left and a few countries to still get through. I hoped the next few crossings would be understanding and welcoming. I realize that this is a really fortunate problem to have though.
In the first ten minutes of cycling Costa Rica I blew a spoke. I found some cover from the sun and fixed it up while a nice man bought me a Pepsi and watched me curiously. At this point some of the spokes were quite old and becoming rusted from days on the road. They break easily and I just get on with it, fix it up and try to get moving again as quick as possible. These little things which used to be a huge problem are now just daily annoyances which I have come to deal with.
“As the eco- and adventure-tourism capital of Central America, Costa Rica has a worthy place in the cubicle daydreams of travelers around the world.” ~ Lonely Planet
Off rolling in Costa Rica showed a beautiful green scene in amongst the roaring traffic headed for the capital. I met a English cyclist at the end of the day and we decided to try and find somewhere to camp together. We rolled down a quiet road in Piedras Blancas National Park and found a man to ask to pitch our tents. He said he had a cabin we could sleep in not far away. It was actually only half finished surrounded by vegetation, but we climbed up top and threw out our mattresses. With a bit of bug spray there was no need for setting up the tent. We chatted into the night about our rides and said farewell early in the morning. The National Park was buzzing with birds and sounds of thousands of insects. A really memorable sleeping spot.
I rode off looking to escape the traffic. Finding the road towards the coast the highway improved greatly as well as my mood. The riding was nice, green and fairly easy for the most part. However, Costa Rica is much more expensive than anywhere I had been since Europe. When a coke costs four times what it did in Panama you have the feeling that moving quickly is the best option. There is a reason why people have come and will continue to come to Costa Rica, because it is stunningly beautiful and they have made a huge effort to preserve their natural ecosystems. However, all other touring cyclists I met were making a quick route through to return to cheaper territory. It is fine on a week long holiday, but extended travel and Costa Rica are a difficult combination for the budget traveler. I brought most of my food with me from Panama knowing this would be the case.
Over the next two days my bike decided it would just fall apart. In the span of one moment I broke two spokes. I fixed them both and immediately broke another. I gave up on that as night was coming and needed to find a place to sleep. In another moment I had a flat tire. I found a camp site luckily, then begrudgingly fixed the other broken spoke as well as the flat tire after I washed and ate dinner. I spent a sweaty night in my tent and got going early. Not long after my gears seized and my headstock started making awful noises and wobbling all over. I took it off to inspect and the ball bearings crumbled into dust. The original parts of the bike had lasted all the way here, so I couldn’t be too upset. At this point I had a severely crippled bike stuck in only one gear. It had been a while since I had a day off. I headed towards Quepos and got a bed at a hostel. It was Sunday so everything was closed. The next day I had all things set straight again on my bike when the shop eventually opened and felt good about things again for the moment. I relaxed a bit and swam around in the hostel pool.
I headed off for the border of Nicaragua. It wasn’t far from here and camping would be easy for the next few days as I left the allure of the coast behind. Early on the first day I cycled over a bridge that was full of huge crocodiles in the river below. Pretty awesome to see actually. After a sweaty day and one big climb, I was down on the coast again. I camped out on a beautiful beach almost completely to myself. I cooked my pasta and enjoyed the sunset. These moments are what it is all about. When I can soak in the beauty of nature, the quiet of the night and reflect on how far I have come.
Nicaragua was not far now and I had only two more days riding to get there. The terrain became more scrubby and rugged as I approached the frontier. I drank cold fresh coconut water during the hottest part of the day. Something I had missed for a while. A throwback to my beginning days of cycling back in Hainan China where my ride began. Natures’ Gatorade. It was a hot two days but I made it just in time for the border to close after breaking two more spokes. They rushed me through and the sun set as I hurried around looking for a place to sleep on the Nicaraguan side of the line.
I took a deep breath and knew that tomorrow would be another beautiful individual day. Full of victories, struggles, beauty and mystery.
*We are now more than halfway towards the schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. I would like to thank Lori Bryden as well as Annette & Derek Buffam for their recent donations. Please continue supporting the cause by CLICKING HERE TO DONATE.
**Check out a recent guest post of mine featured on Stephen Gollan’s site the ‘Uncharted Backpacker’. It gives insight into my opinions on bike travel and my motivation behind cycling the world. Follow the link to the article. http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com/freedom-bicycle-cycling-home-china/
***I am currently cycling in the rugged region of Chiapas, Mexico. I am now back in North America. Hooray! Keep following along for future posts on Central America. Home is on the horizon and I have been moving quickly. The next post with be on Nicaragua and my experiences visiting the community of El Trapiche with Free the Children and Me to We. There is always more to these stories than I have time to share, but I do my best. Thanks for reading! 🙂
A Cool Time-Lapse of a Panama Canal Crossing
A Relavent Music Video on Modernity ~ Matt Good 21st Century Living
Posted on April 11, 2016, in Adventure, Around the World, Charity, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cycling, Food, Free the Children, Inspiration, Motivation, Panama, Thoughts, Travel and tagged Adventure, Amazing, Around the World, Awesome, Beautiful, Bicycle, boats, Challenge, change, Charity, Colombia, Costa Rica, Crossing the Darien Gap, Cycle Touring, Cycling, Darien Gap, Dreams, Excitement, Explore, Facebook, fear, Food, Free the Children, Freedom, fun, Fundraising, Goals, happiness, Inspiration, Instagram, Kindness, Life, motivation, nature, One Adventure Please, Our World, Pacific, Panama, Panama Canal, Peace, People, Planes, South America, Thoughts, Travel, Travel Photos, Travelpics, World by Bike. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.