Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thunderstorms and Sunburn: San Jose, Costa Rica; through Panama and under sail to Cartagena, Columbia (2nd - 21st May '11)

After about three weeks off riding, and far too much time spent in buses and cars, we were itching to get back on the bikes. Even Jules who often has “emotional riding moments” in times of rain, dirt road, heat and headwinds, and who may end up lying in the road crying “I want to catch a bus now”, was desperately missing the bikes and the riding. It appears that all her bluster and tantrums are just ways to convince me she deserves either more beer, more burgers or a day off, and really she is as much of a cycle convert as myself.
Anyway, we were both very excited to get back to Villas Mastatal, where we were reunited with Norma and Betty and where we once more enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Javier and Raquel. We also did some more work on the farm, which was a good way to warn our bloated and rum-soaked bodies that they were in for some more hard work. After a great breakfast feeding by Javier (to give us ``energia``) we had a beautiful, but rugged ride down from the hills to the coast. The only traffic we saw the whole time were a few kids on their way to school and a couple of farmers on horseback. A perfect backroad.
Back on the main road along the southern Costa Rican coast there was the easy riding of smooth bitumen, nice views of the coast and jungle, and panaderias with day-old bargains. However, this was also accompanied by torrential afternoon downpours, broken gear cables and sweltering in the tent at night. But it was a great few days riding to end off a wonderful stay in Costa Rica.. .and then we were in Panama, the last country of Central America!
During our five days of cycling down the Pacific side of Panama the rainy season really set in. We would get up before dawn so that we were riding when it wasn't too hot, and so that we could actually enjoy the jungle and idyllic farmland views along the main highway. By 9am it was incredibly hot and we would both be drenched by sweat. Later the clouds would start to roll over and it would cool off a little, which gave us an easier time of the riding but which also meant that the rains were on their way. Sometime after our picnic lunch break the sky would blacken and the clouds would open with force. We would quickly seek shelter and wait out the rains as everything around us washed away, drains overflowed, creeks swelled with muddy water and towns ground to a halt (except the soccer games).
Unfortunately the weather put us off spending a long time in Panama, and we rode through fairly quickly – although with enough time to meet some fabbo Panamanians – Alex who bought us a meal and entertained us at our mid-morning stop, Hector who stopped on the side of the road to give us much-appreciated drinks and the generous people that let us camp in their backyards. We spent one night in a horse stables, one night in the yard of a beach restaurant and one night camped on a palapa overlooking a quiet river. The last campsite was thanks to the wonderful Roberto and Arturo who owned `La Isleta`, a fantastic restaurant on the Panamericana between David and Santiago. We stopped for a soft drink but while there got talking to another customer who was very excited about our trip and insisted on buying us our drinks and a meal (even though we had only eaten lunch an hour previously!). While we were enjoying our delicious (second) lunch Roberto casually mentioned that we could camp on his property that night. Even though we hadn`t planned on stopping yet we had to take him up on his offer of the idyllic campsite, then share life stories over some beers with him. Another wonderful meeting.
We arrived in Panama City after barrelling over the `Bridge of the Americas`, at the entrance to the Panama Canal, and straight into the centre of a bustling city with a skyline of skyscrapers. Panama City was a very interesting blend of old and new and we spent our time in the city trying to avoid the violent rainstorms and checking out the pretty old part of town, Casco Viejo.
After a few days in the city we cycled out of town alongside the Panama Canal, through the jungle and then across to the Caribbean coast where we chilled for a few days, soaking up that Caribbean vibe, and organising the next part of our trip – getting to South America.
There are no roads that connect Central and South America, only the Darian Gap, an area of thick jungle, drug smugglers and general lawlessness. Not the kind of place you send your mum a postcard from. Hence, our options for getting to South America were to fly or take a boat. There are no regular ferries that make this trip but a number of sailing boats that do it as a 5 day sailing trip through the beautiful San Blas Islands, at around the same price as an airline ticket. We didn't need any further convincing and we were soon seated on the deck of the catamaran 'Buon Vento' with a cold beer, watching the sun set over the Caribbean Sea.
We had heard some bad stories about crowded boats, lack of food, bad water etcetc. But we somehow managed to find a beautiful catamaran with a great Captain and a fantastic Italian chef! We had some great company as well – the other guests were Tank, a keen traveller and cycle-tourist, and Jason and Mike two very funny Tennessee motorcyclists who had ridden their old `74 Hondas down from the states. We were possibly the scabbiest group of travellers the Captain had ever had on the boat, complete with dirty bikes and smelly clothes.
We weren't sure how we had all managed to get on a luxury boat being spoilt in fantastic Italian style! However, we quickly got used to the lifestyle and spent the days travelling from Panama to Colombia sharing bike stories, laughing, chilling, snorkeling on fantastic reefs, swimming in crystal blue waters, visiting islands and eating our own body-weight in pasta. There may have also been rum-drinking and a caped motorcyclist dancing around the boat... but the memory gets a little foggy there.
A fine way to arrive in South America.. a whole new continent and more adventures to be had.

And for anyone wanting a yacht between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia we can definitely recommend Captain Eduardo on the Buon Vento: 6530 0444

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cuba: Patria o Muerte; (22nd April-1st May '11)

I knew we were in for some interesting times when Jules ordered her first Cuban rum mid-air, on-route to Havana, at 10.30 in the morning. She insisted that drinking in the morning was acceptable if it was a cultural experience. This pretty much set the scene for our 10-day sojourn, lots of eating, drinking of rum and `soaking up the atmosphere`.
We weren't even quite sure how Cuba had ended up on our travel plans. Last time we checked we were cycling from Alaska to Argentina, but on a bit of a whim we had stored the bikes and found ourselves a cheap plane ticket across the Caribbean Sea. One of the things I love about travelling by bicycle is being able to avoid motorised transport, and particularly aeroplanes, as much as possible. However, a few things led us in the direction of Cuba:  we spoke to a traveller who had raved about how fantastic it was, we had the opportunity to gatecrash the travel plans of some friends that were heading there and we realised that a chance to visit Cuba was not going to come along again in a hurry.
Our spontaneous ten-day trip through Cuba turned out to be a brilliant decision as it was a fascinating, place and it was great fun to travel it with our friends Tash and Elli. Tash and Elli were also our saviours as they did a bunch of running around Vancouver before they left, bringing us some much needed supplies. We are reaching the stage in our trip where a lot of our equipment has had enough of its overuse and has given up the ghost and so we were incredibly grateful to receive a care package of bike bits and a much needed new camera.
 Cuba has such a fascinating history, from colonial times through the revolution and during the last 50+ years of communism. In our time there we visited the great colonial cities of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos; had some beach time along the palm-fringed southern coast and had a massive dose of Che at the historically important Santa Clara. We thoroughly enjoyed all the places we visited but really fell in love with ``La Habana``. Havana is everything that you imagined and more. It is filled with colonial grandeur, both restored impressive old buildings and the atmospheric bedraggled buildings that have so much history in all their sags. There is music all around, life lived out on the streets and of course all the classic old cars that were a tourist sight in themselves.

On our first day in Cuba we meet a Cuban named Ray and his beat-up vehicle, which quickly became our personal taxi. He offered to taxi us around the island for the same price as it would cost us on the bus. We were very happy to be driven around, though at times putting up with his blasting Cuban Reggaeton music, while trying to interpret his yelled Spanish was almost too much to bear. The car also required a push-start to get it going - but anything that we didn't have to peddle seemed like luxury to us!
Even while Cuba still retains the majority of its communist systems there are a number of ways (such as Ray and his `taxi`) that you can see homemade capitalism at work. The government has also created the `Casa Particular`network of houses where people can rent out 1 or 2 rooms to tourists. We stayed in these almost the entire way and were warmly welcomed into our hosts` homes.

However, we did spend one night at an all-inclusive beach hotel – Tash and Elli had spent many an hour explaining the all-inclusive concept to us (“Yes but are the snacks free?” “How about the drinks?” “Surely not the cocktails?”) and they finally decided that they had to show us one. On a whim we managed to book into a cheap, cargo-ship resembling, all-inclusive on the beautiful beach of Playa Ancon. Jules and I were like chickens with their heads cut off, and we didn't know what to eat or drink first! Its hard to explain to non-cyclists quite what a buffet means to someone who spends 6+ hours on a bike each day - but basically it is our equivalent of heaven.

Most days while we are riding along (and particularly on the tough days) I go into a little daydream where we are shown a table with all the food and drink I could possibly imagine and told to “go for it”. Well, in Cuba this little dream came true for us. At the all-inclusive there were buffet restaurants, a-la carte restaurants and snack bars, and we were allowed to eat and drink whatever we wanted! We took full advantage of this.... though we did realise we had reached a low point when, after we had just had a delicious seafood dinner in the a-la carte restaurant (yes thats included too), we went and hit up the buffet dinner as well, heaping up our plates for a second dinner.
Of course, being slightly hyperactive we couldn't sit still for too long rubbing our stomachs and belching appreciatively, we had to hit up the sports and exercise activities (yes they are free too!). We played some tennis, some pool volleyball, a spot of pingpong, did some snorkeling, some synchronised swimming in the hotel pool and then tried to re-enact the water scene from dirty dancing – which didn't work out so well.. Tash and Elli were given the role of the Swayze but unfortunately, while Jules and I may look skinny from all our riding, we had managed to store a great weight of icecream from the desert buffet in our bellies and our music montage looked neither effortless nor graceful.
I think the whole hotel was very relieved that we could only afford one night in the hotel and that they could get rid of the scruffy cyclists who raced from tennis court to buffet to pool to snack bar to beach to bar, leaping in excitement and randomly shouting “Its all free!!”. Of course we managed to store our bags on the last day and sneak back in for one last shot at the lunch buffet and a stack of cocktails. But finally we had to tear ourselves away from the cyclists' wet dream and head back to the culture, music and colour that is Cuba.
Cuba is such an unusual country – colonial history, Caribbean culture and a fantastic arts scene are just a few elements. There is also the impact from years of communism, the American trade embargo and the collapse of their main trading partner and backer, the Soviet Union. Cubans have been through some very tough times, and have become masters of making do and reuse. This really opens your eyes to exactly how much we waste (and makes the all-inclusive hotel seem like another world). In Cuba people make very little money, and there is a lack of things that we take for granted, such as food on the supermarket shelves and free speech. However, Cubans can also take for granted a number of essentials that the government provides, such as education and health care. There is also a great appreciation and government support for a number of the things that I love. For instance I spent less than $1 in one state bookshop and came out with three new books. And then we spend a fantastic night at a local live music venue where the entrance cost us only 8 cents each. This night was my favourite in all of Cuba, fantastic original Cuban music, with an eclectic, packed and appreciative crowd all in the setting of an old roofless building, shaded by trees growing out of the ruined building.
Cubans are fiercely proud of their country, and rightly-so as it is an amazing place. However, while we heard many positive attitudes towards their government we also had people raise a number of issues with us. I think the next few years will be some very interesting years for Cuba and her people.
I certainly hope to get back and visit, as Cuba is now under my skin!
And last but not least ..Cuba has provided me with some new material from our experience in the all-inclusive that will make my bicycle daydreams even more realistic...mmm desert buffet....