My last day in Panama City (I HOPED!). After spending weeks longer here than I expected, I finally had a moderately reliable plan for how to get on with the journey South, to enter Colombia. Having heard that Nici and Philip, my Austrian friends who I met first in Alaska, had also arrived in the city and were hoping to cross by boat into Colombia as I was, we planned to do it together. Given different riding speeds, we’d meet in Carti on the Caribbean coast in 2 days and look for a cheap boat to the Colombian border town of Capurgana. I had a day in the city to tune my bike up and pack.
The amazing crew at Get One Bike in Panama City. Best repair shop in town!
While filling my water bottle at 6:15am the following morning in final preparations to ride out of town, I got a message that Nici had contracted bronchitis and would not be able to leave that day. So sad. I was feeling such a strong draw to get moving, but a pull to wait for them. But how long would it take for her to be mobile again? So hard to say. I couldn’t bring myself to turn the bike back to the hostel and unpack again…. I NEEDED to be riding.
I’d buy them a day or two and get some hours in the saddle while doing it. Ride the 280km down to the end of the Panamerican Highway to the small town of Yaviza. Just to see it. Yaviza would have been the town where I’d have begun my land crossing of the Darien, so somehow it felt right to just tip my hat to the end of the road for North America, literally. I’d bus back up to the Carti Road turnoff from the highway (200km back the other way) and ride out to the coast, hoping Nici and Phillip would be able to arrive in Carti by the same day. From there we could seek boat rides together.
A ways down the highway, the road began bordering Kuna territories. The Kuna are a tribe of indigenous people native to the Southern lands of Panama. There has been much struggle for the Kuna to have their own land and manage it independently of the Panamanian government, but as of the early 1800’s they’ve had independent status as a territory within the country.
Huge natural lake in Southern Panama. I have no idea what it’s called, but it was beautiful!
Riding across a bridge, saw some kids heading down to play in the river. Life isn’t easy out here in the rural towns of Southern Panama. Not many resources and little ways of earning a living. But somehow they seemed content to me. Calm. Grounded. Totally my projection.
Nope. Not THE Darien as in the jungle. The Southernmost province of Panama is called Darien. Of note was how well maintained the highways have been all the way from Panama City. Fresh pavement and wide shoulders. If you have to ride on pavement, this was at least a comfortable way to do it. Until….
A few more kilometers down the highway the road quality takes a turn for the worse. The final 100km to Yaviza is a combination of dirt, pavement and the potholed/broken/choppy mess where those two meet when a road hasn’t been maintained in … maybe forever. I pushed through as far South as I could get that first day out of Panama City, covering just over 210 kilometers. Longest distance I’d covered on the bike in many months.
I’ve now come to learn that jumping on the bike for over 8 hours after taking a number of weeks off does not spell comfort. The problem however doesn’t lay in soreness, in the legs, bum or back. The problem is cramping. The same thing happened in Northern Costa Rica where, after about 8 hours of riding, the uncontrollable cramps set in. The only way to keep riding was to stand up on the pedals and to stop very often to stretch. Still, every 3 minutes or so I’d get a little lazy and try to sit back down on the seat, followed by a rapid onset of pain in my inner thigh. Despite an extra salty dinner and electrolyte drinks, I was awoken multiple times that night to find myself singing that familiar chorus when a deep leg cramp sets in, “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!!!” I try to stretch it out but that sets off a cramp in the opposing muscle group. At worst, the whole leg goes into unbearable lock down for about a minute of excruciating, ineradicable pain. My comprehensive solution: don’t stop riding. Ever again.
Mid morning brought my arrival to road’s end, Yaviza. It’s funny to reach a place of such triumph that overtly refers to the place from whence I began, but yet so inaccurately. I guess if I’d started in Southern Alaska, and only ridden the most direct routes, I could have arrived here having ridden only 12,580km. While I’ve stopped counting very exactly, I estimate my current mileage to total over 34,000km. Just a reminder that each person’s path is their own. Some measure bike touring success in units of units of distance, time, elevation, calories, or other calculable figures. I have done it myself at various times. Numbers are fun to pay attention to during long monotonous stretches of riding, and when those numbers begin to get unfathomably large to the point of losing perspective, the motivation to keep a detailed log decreases. At least for me. It is fun however to once in a while touch back in to that unfathomable number. Sometime I crossed that 20,000 mile mark. Before my ride of this hemisphere is complete I’ll have ridden more than the world’s circumference at the equator. Neat.
I was stopped within moments of entering the town limits by a camouflaged soldier asking for my driver’s license. Confused by the question, I asked if he wanted my passport. “NO,” he stated firmly, and pointed to the bike. Ah…. right. many people have confused my bike for a motorcycle of sorts because of the frame bag and the big rear hub. “Es solamente una bici,” I stated with a smile. His partner standing by his side started laughing. Luckily the sudden raise in tension was instantly diminished. I showed him the passport and informed him of my plans NOT to ride into the jungle, but to turn around and head to Carti. Good thing, because he told me they’re not letting any tourists into the area of the Darien I had hoped to cross due to “dangers” which he would not specify. Seemingly confused by my having ridden all the way down to Yaviza only to immediately turn around again, he returned my passport and let me continue into town.
Yaviza was surprisingly large, and vibrant with commerce, community, military, and public art. People all seemed really friendly as I walked throughout town, tic-tac-toeing my bike up and down each of the blocks. Most stopped me out of curiosity if I was lost and looking for something. Once I said I was just walking around, getting to know the place, most warmed up and said, “welcome!”
Many of the houses and buildings looked to have been very beaten down by weather, but somehow still standing.
After an hour of exploring a a good meal, I needed to decide my plan for the day. I could find a cheap hostel in Yaviza, but honestly didn’t get a strong energy that there was much more to do or see there. Alternately I’d been offered a place to stay at a hostel currently under construction somewhere along the road to Carti. The three Canadian cyclists who originally considered crossing the Darien with me had been helping with construction in exchange for a sailboat ride to Cartagena, Colombia. In order to get there by night, I’d need to get on a bus right away. Luckily I found one leaving in 15 minutes with room on the roof for the bike. Perfect!
Unfortunately there were no non-stop buses to my destination. So every person who wanted a ride to or from anywhere along this one and only road through the entire Southern part of Panama, flagged it down. And it stopped. A lot. The 200km trip back North took about 6 hours. I was dropped off just after sunset at the lonely intersection for the Carti road, also known as the Nuragandi Road. I knew my friends’ hostel was about 10km down the road, so I should be there in about 1/2 hour…. or not.
Immediately the road went straight up, at over 25% grade. Barely rideable, even zigzagging up the paved incline. It continued like this: insane inclines followed by moments of level ground, a curve, then another death climb. the 10km took about 1 1/2 hours. Arriving around 8pm, I was warmly greeted by Kyle with a large bottle of clean water and a large plate of freshly cooked rice, salsa and yucca. Seriously amazing. He and the other hostel volunteers had just cooked a big group dinner and let me finish their leftovers. I slept out in the cool open breeze in the high hills, the lullabies of noctural birds calling each other throughout the night.
In the morning, we shared a big breakfast of eggs and toast and I was on my way. I hoped I had reached the summit of the Nuragandi road, but no such thing exists. These hills were a much more intense version of the egg crate riding I did in Honduras: steep up for a bit, then a super steep downhill, then up and down and on again. Slow going, but actually quite fun!
About 1/2 way through the road, I reached the official entrance station into the Comarca Kuna Yala (Kuna land). Given they operate as an independent sovereignty, they charge an entrance fee into their land ($20USD). No discounts for bikers.
I was told the Nuragandi road had been paved for the first time in recent years. Given the insane grades, I could only imagine what traveling through here would have been like before the pavement. With regular heavy rain and very sticky, muddy soil, it would be a mess.
But at long last the hills flattened out and I arrived at the beach where motor boats operated as water taxis out to the myriad San Blas Islands. Turns out this stretch of coastline has some of the most beautiful tiny islands imaginable, all owned by the Kuna who do not sell to foreign developers. Pretty cool. I immediately found Nici and Philip waiting for me in an adjacent soccer field, telling me they’d already secured a water taxi out to Carti Island from where they’d also secured a boat to carry us all the way down to the Colombian border early the next day!!! Now that’s service!
We loaded the bikes onto a long, narrow fishing boat and slowly worked our way out to Carti Island.
The more populated of the San Blas islands are packed with palm tree huts, using every square meter of dry land for living space. No yards. No gardens. The rare tree.
We pulled into a tiny dock and while unloading immediately were greeted by El Negro, the owner of the boat, bar and hostel we’d be using. Such a great guy. He sat us down, gave us the lay of the land and explained that we’d be riding down to the border with a few other travelers, and that he’s done the ride hundreds of times and felt completely safe about doing it. I was sold, but still a bit nervous about how to protect the bikes on what I knew to be a VERY bumpy ride in the rough Caribbean waters this time of year. I guess we’ll just see….
We got set up in the simple hostel above his bar and walked around town. The main walkway through town was wide enough for a car to pass (not that there were any vehicles on the island), but all side walkways were narrow with lots of low-hanging obstacles to hit our tall Western heads on. It works for them, as the Kuna are by and large very short people (like around 5’ tall) so it’s plenty of headroom for them!
We followed a sign down a small walkway to the Museum of Kuna Culture. A tiny room filled with an assortment of old tools and artisanal work, guarded by a sweet man sitting by one of the only trees on the island. I sat with him and asked him about the issue of photography with the Kuna people. I’d heard that on the one hand they don’t want their picture taken as it might take away their soul, but on the other that for a few dollars you could take their picture. This never sat right with me, so I needed to ask. He told me that the first statement about soul stealing was not correct. The whole issue was that when the first non-native people began visiting many years ago before there were hostels and sailboat tours, they commonly offered some money in exchange for photos. The Kuna got used to this and began to expect it. I was somehow relieved to hear this. At least their souls weren’t for sale. Just making money like everyone else needs to do. Still, I don’t feel comfortable paying someone to take a photo of them. I can’t exactly explain why, but it feels clear. So no photos of the amazing and beautiful Kuna women and their brilliant clothing. But do an online search. You’ll see plenty of photos far better than I can take anyway.
One might wonder how life on the San Blas islands works when there are so many people packed into such small spaces surrounded by water. Well… garbage management seems to be a big issue. Floating piles of trash surrounded the island on all sides.
Then you move on to the issue of sewage. Yep, no running water. No septic system. Just toilet seats on docks over holes into the sea. Needless to say we didn’t take any swims while on Carti Island.
Afternoon siesta. Not much else to do on the tight cramped little island!
The following morning, we grabbed an early breakfast at a local comedor and loaded the bikes onto the same little water taxi we took the day before. With it’s two little 40hp engines, we’d be bouncing our way down 200km of coastline for the next 8 hours. Within a minute of building speed the bikes shook loose, a 50 gallon fuel tank started slapping against them. Yikes. We trolled over to a nearby island where Negro’s father owned a little hostel to repack.
Everything got tied down 3 times, tighter, lower and further to the back of the boat. We used every piece of rope and strap we had to prevent things from getting knocked around. There was no controlling the sea. Choppy waters and small boats mean bouncing, so we just had to let go and hope for the best.
Speeding by island after island, this area was stunning.
Negro would often have to stand out on the bow to direct the boat’s captain so as to avoid shallow sand bars and reefs. He’d hold onto a rope tied to the bow for support and somehow managed to keep his balance through all the leaps and bounds.
At least for a few hours. Honestly, I was really glad to NOT be on a sailboat tour that would stop in San Blas islands like this one for a few days. I think I’d go crazy on such a tiny piece of land. Get me to the Andes!!!
We landed in the final Panamanian town of Puerto Obaldia with 30 minutes to spare before the customs office would close and forcing us to camp there for the night. We had to unload the entire boat for inspection, go through a military checkpoint, then run to the office. We arrived 2 minutes after they closed. Luckily Philip’s gentle begging worked and they let us get our exit stamps anyway. So very kind.
Another 30 minutes of bouncing through even rougher coastal waters and we happily landed on solid ground now in Capurgana, COLOMBIA!!!!!! Far greater than reaching Yaviza, this felt like a true triumph. I had been hoping to reach South America for too many months, and now have finally made it! Let the insane huge mountains begin!!!
I was surprised to see how big of a town Capurgana was. I had in mind that all towns would be like what we saw in Kuna Yala, but here there were cobblestone streets, 2-3 story buildings, hostels, bars, etc. The one thing that distinguished it from any other town of it’s size: no cars. None. There’s no way to get a car here on the small boats that pass by, so the largest motorized vehicles are motorcycles… oh, and one tractor that the town shares to move large objects around. I loved the feeling of walking through town without dodging cars. It carried with it a sense of calm.
Walking past the busy part of town (1 block really), we found this sign for a hostel. Directly overlooking the sea. Hammocks, kitchen use. Plus a ton of happy looking pets. Turns out Hector is the town veterinarian, and houses many rescue dogs, cats, and for the moment a sea turtle.
View from a seaside hammock.
All in all, I feel good about this way of crossing from Panama to Colombia. It was certainly not the most popular route, and among the cheapest and weirdest. Plus, I’m cooking up a plan to ride South directly from here… I think it’ll satiate my “overland crossing of the Darien” fix, at least a bit….
Notes and suggestions for cyclists/travelers considering this route:
1. The ride from Panama City to Carti is totally doable on any bike. There are almost no hills until you get to Nuragandi Road, then you’ll likely have to walk short steep sections unless you’re going very light. It is paved all the way to Carti however, so that helps. I’m running light touring/heavy bikepacking setup and the Nuragandi Road took me a total of 3 1/2 hours to ride the 40km. I’m sure some could do it faster, so I’d leave 3-5 hours for it.
2. There is a new hostel exactly at the 11km mark on Nuragandi Road: called Panchamama. It’s on the left. Big sign. Quite rustic but a cool vibe.
3. If you’re doing the launch (motor boat) route down the coast, there’s no need to plan ahead to secure a boat unless you’re in a big rush (which you shouldn’t be if you’re doing this route anyway!). You can easily find a water taxi to Carti Island and if El Negro (everyone knows him) can’t bring you down, he’ll find someone who can. Plus if you want to spend a night in on a tiny San Blas island, his Dad has a hostel on a cool one.
4. Customs office in Puerto Obaldia closes at 4:30pm SHARP when we traveled. If you miss it you’ll need to stay the night and get your exit stamp the next day (opens at 8am).
5. Customs office in Capurgana closes at 5pm I believe, but no rush to get stamped when you arrive as the boats to Turbo and Necocli don’t leave until the morning. You can exchange money at the customs office for a not-so-great rate, plus locals will trade your dollars if you ask around.
6. If you don’t mind an extra 50km of riding after you cross the bay, take the boat to Necocli (50km North of Turbo). It’s a much shorter ride and that means less spine compression. Plus Necocli is supposed to be a much nicer town to land in. These boats that cross from Capurgana to Turbo/Necocli have 2-3 350hp engines in them. They go fast. Whichever boat you take, try to get on the list early so you get a good seat. The good seat is as far back and as far to the RIGHT as possible.
7. If you’re considering trying to ride the coastline South from here, see my next post. I’ll be giving a bunch of info on it. I’d strongly suggest not having panniers. Trust me.