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

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