Paving the way to Panama City — Rolling the Highway with a Twist or Two

1/17/2016

Pavones, Costa Rica.

 

A few deliciously restful days with a friend in an open-air house overlooking the Pacific charged my batteries to push on. Only one more country in Central America and I’d be hitting the famous allure of Colombia and the Andes! Central America has continually surprised me with varied terrain, experiences and wonderful connections. But I’d expected to be in South America months ago and it was time to make a motion. Having studied the maps of Panama, I knew there would be large sections through which the only road was the infamous Pan-American Highway. I did my best to plan a route off of it when possible, and hoped to push the pavement quickly where necessary.

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Final sunset over the Pacific from my luxurious perch in Pavones. I bid one final goodbye hug to my new friend and host, and pushed up the coastal dirt road toward the Southernmost mountains of Costa Rica. Panama was only a day away.  A morning of fun dirt road riding led me through Ciudad Neily, crossing over the Pan-American in order to hit the mountains to the Northeast. I began the 3500’ climb at high noon, just the wrong time of day to be stuck on a steep paved road at low elevation. Sweat poured down my face faster than I could wipe it away. The grade in sections was steep enough that in my low gear I had to bob my chest up and down to put enough power into the pedals to move on, hearing the slow and steady, “whirrrr, whirrr, whirrrr” of the tires agains the road.

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Finally after around 2000’ of climbing, the breeze first hit my cheeks. In this heat, a bit of breeze is the world of difference between joy and suffering. The vegetation transitioned from dry lowland brush to luscious high farm country, where yellows and browns flourished into deep greens with bright flowers. Somewhere around the far Southern town of Aguabuena, I passed a section of these insane eucalyptus-type trees. At least I think they were. I’ve never seen bark like this before. Have you? I only saw them in this one area, and never saw them again…

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The bark was actually these colors. It looked painted. A little internet research informed me of it’s appropriate name, the Rainbow Eucalyptus.

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I’d been given the beta from another cyclist about another “rainbow” experience in Aguabuena. I’ll not attempt to explain the entire history of Rainbow Gatherings and the Rainbow Family as I certainly don’t know it, but it’s a community of open-minded people who focus on peace, love and acceptance. This particular rainbow community was said to have been in place for a number of years in the Southern Costa Rica mountains. As suggested, I asked many town people in Spanish, “Where do the hippies live?” and was quickly directed to the remote property in the hills outside of town.

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The property is privately owned by a sweet guy from Oregon who teaches permaculture practices, he offers this piece of his land to the rainbow community for free use. Aside from the above rules, the gist is just to live off of the land, build whatever inspires you in terms of infrastructure or art, and stay as long as you like. A few people were cooking dinner in a small hut up a trail from the entrance and welcomed me in with water and a place to sit. We chatted for a bit about each of our stories before my fatigue got the better of me and I retreated to set up my camp in an available spot. Moments later I feel into slumber, awoken only by passing visitors who lived in other parts of the property. They were convening for a meal and kindly invited me. It was lovely. Good food, someone playing guitar and singing, all by candle light. On my way back to my tent I met the owner of the property. He’d originally found the place while on a bike tour through Central America many years back. He raised the funds to buy some land here and has been developing it ever since into a school for permaculture.

Yet again, a curious opportunity to stop for a time to delve into an interesting experience with potential to learn about sustainable living. Honestly i was drawn to learn more about permaculture from the owner but the airy new-agy energy of some other people there was just too hard for my East-Coast personality to settle into. As much as I was officially welcomed by everyone on the property, I just didn’t feel at home. I felt like my wit, critical thinking and slightly reserved way of approaching new people were “otherizing” me from them. I just couldn’t connect. So I decided to push on.

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Crossing into Panama, 8th international border crossing by bike. Odd. In the small border town of Rio Sereno the border crossing was nothing short of confusing. No signs telling you where to go. I walked up to the first armed guard I could find, who ended up being Panamanian. He told me to go back to some random unmarked building to get my exit stamp. They told me to pass the Panamanian customs in order to pay my exit fee at the local cattle feed store. Back to unmarked Costa Rica customs for the stamp. On to Panamanian customs, turned around, AGAIN, to be told I needed a photocopy of my passport to leave with them. Back past the feed store to some random room with a copy machine. 45 minutes later, I was legally in Panama! No big official welcome signs. Just some advertisement on a telephone pole.

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After a night in the sleepy town of Volcan, I headed up to the Northern slopes of the largest volcano in the country, Volcan Barú. There would be no road of any kind that continued around the North side of the peak.  Just some hiking trail that I’d hoped I could drag my bike through…

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Supposedly the Sendero de los Quetzales (Trail of the Quetzals) is the most famous hiking trail in Panama. It’s a short day hike, only 8km from where the road ends on the West side to where it picks up on the East. I had no beta about it’s bike ability, but hoped for the best.

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Started out well, just a wide steep two track…

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Register at the park entrance. Pay a small fee. OH, and pet the super cute kitten. Try to get away without said kitten following you.

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Official trailhead. Looks good so far!

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From the ranger station the trail was super fun, very rideable single track. I was excited to finally get on some fun trail for the first time in a while…

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 Then there was a steep staircase leading down into the jungle. It was very difficult to get down as it was quite narrow between the railing on one side and the dense jungle on the other.  “No worries,” I thought, “it’s probably just once in a while.” Not so.

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The staircases continued, completely unrideably steep and very slow going for the next 5 kilometers. Most of the time I just had to hang the front of my saddle over my shoulder with some shorts as a pad, carrying the full weight of the bike up and down countless stairs.

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 Eventually the trail leveled out at the jungle floor. Some sections were actually rideable and quite fun, but lots of down trees to navigate.

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4 hours later I landed back on pavement, bombing downhill toward the touristy mountain town of Boquete.

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Culture shock. After a day of bushwhacking, completely alone, I landed in Boquete during its flower festival. Hoards of people lined the streets, staring at me as I weaved through crowds to find a cheap hostel. I’d been told by a friend that it was her favorite town in Panama and therefore had held high expectations. Perhaps it was the festival but it was way too crowded for me! The flowers were beautiful though.

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I climbed out of Boquete on a steep road heading South the following morning, looking back just in time to catch the double rainbow. Perhaps I should give that place a second chance some day… We’ll see… I dropped down a long fun dirt road to the Pan-American highway. Insane heat. Endless huge tractor trailers. Continuous road construction shifting traffic from one side of the highway to the other. I’d learned from extensive map study that there were large sections of Panama which could not be traversed on any roads other than this busy international highway, so decided to buckle down and sweat my way through the rolling pavement for a few days. Throw on some good beats and crank those pedals.

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  I managed to find a fire station just off the highway a few hours later and was kindly welcomed to camp in the back yard. Moments later a fireman emerged from the building with a plate full of delicious food for me! I offered him some cash for it but he wouldn’t have it. So amazing. We chatted for a while on the lawn while I ate. Turns out I’m not the first Pan-American cyclist to spend the night there. Nor the 10th, nor 100th. It’s a VERY common stop, but somehow the hospitality they show doesn’t seem to diminish!

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 Of course I managed to find a few detours whenever possible on little country roads.

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So long as you’re willing to climb up really steep hills, there are some good off-highway options. This unbelievably steep road climbed up and over the rim of a small volcano to reach the town of El Valle from Penonomé.

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I reached the rim just before sunset and began searching a flat spot to set up camp. It was windy. Like gale force windy. Gusts that would regularly through me completely off balance while walking through sharp lava rock covered fields. I finally found a flat enough spot to clear the rocks away and set up the tent, unfortunately not very sheltered from wind. Moments after I’d gotten the basic tent set up but before I could set up the additional guy lines,

“WHOOOOOMP…..SNAP!”

The tent was flat on the ground and a pole had broken. Shit. Probably better not to try and repair it to risk breaking another pole. I laid my sleeping pad over the fallen tent to protect it from sharp rocks and ate some snack food for dinner, hoping for dry weather.

Nope.

Ominous clouds whizzed by, covering the night sky and within an hour it was sprinkling. Perhaps it was temporary? I wrapped myself in my tent fly to wait it out, but it only increased to a steady pour. Sigh. I packed up the wet gear and rolled down into the ritzy tourist town of El Valle in search of a cheap bed. Luckily there was a great hostel in town, each bed with it’s own private fan to combat the intense evening heat.

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While at the hostel I got a message from Andrew, another cyclist who’s been out on the road for quite a while. Having started in Capetown, South Africa a little over 2 years ago, this lunatic rode across Africa and Asia to Eastern Russia, then caught a flight to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska from where he rode South catching up to me. With plans to cross into Colombia at the same time, we agreed to ride into Panama City together and share the planning work.

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After a hot day of riding the foothills into Panama City, we climbed onto the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal. We made it! Though not a lot of time to stop and enjoy it. The cars drive fast, don’t play well with bikes, and there’s no shoulder.

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We did manage to pull off for a second to get a sweaty bridge shot though!

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 Landing at night in Panama City by bike is not a great idea. But it’s what happened. We ended up in a touristy part of town known as Casco Viejo looking for hostel beds. All were booked up due to it being high season. Sigh. We were about to hop back on the bikes to check another part of town when we were told to check the White Lion Hotel as a last resort. Half the price of anything else around. For good reason. This place is primarily a brothel that has a couple rooms of nasty bunk beds on the top floor. Disgusting. Do NOT go here. You’d be happier sleeping on the street.

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Luckily we were referred to a great little hotel the following morning with  a reasonable price for sharing a room, called the Hotel Casco Antiguo in Casco Viejo. Awesome rooftop view. Breakfast included. Do go here.

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 We spent the next morning running errands around town and exploring. Panama city from the gorgeous seaside boardwalk. So many big buildings! Definitely the most skyscrapers I’ve seen in a LOOOOOOONG time.

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The “belt road” has a paralleling bike/walking route that cuts out and around a section of the city. Great place to watch a sunset.

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Turns out we were sharing a neighborhood with Panama’s president. Though that entire area of Casco Viejo was fenced in and protected by a fleet of armed guards.

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Poverty and affluence are closely abutted in Casco Viejo. Just 1/2 way down a block you transition from fancy churches and colonial architecture to dilapidated, graffiti covered buildings which seem to be held together with rotting wood and luck.

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Many empty building faces are reminiscent of my memories of Old Habana in Cuba.

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Even building that looked in good condition on the outside were often quite dilapidated within.

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I spent some time just walking around the city, resupplying some bike parts at local shops, and eating fantastic ceviche in the public seafood market. Such a different experience to be in a big city after a chunk of time away. Even San Jose Costa Rica seemed like a small town by comparison.

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The graffiti and public art in Casco Viejo are fantastic. Beauty and disrepair contrast one another so well.

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“I don’t have Facebook. My life is real.”

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“I don’t have Instagram. My memory is photographic.”

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The Kuna people are an indigenous group that lives along the Caribbean coast of Southern Panama. Amazing colorful handmade clothing. Seemingly so out of place in the dense urban context, but so common in Panama that nobody bats an eye as they pass.

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I’d finally reached the end of Central America in terms of this journey. I had hopes of finding a way through the infamous Darien Gap via an overland crossing to Colombia, but needed a lot more information before making a decision about it. Time to hunker down and start the research… Coming up next…

Where I Rode:

Day 1: Pavones –> La Union –> Ciudad Neilly –> Aguabuena

Day 2: Aguabuena –> Copabuena –> Santa Rosa –> Sereno –> Volcan

Day 3: Volcan –> Cerro Punto –> Sendero de los Quetzales –> Boquete

Day 4: Boquete –> Caldera –> Gualaca –> Santa Lucia

Day 5: Santa Lucia –> Quebrada de Piedra –> Sona –> Santiago

Day 6: Santiago –> Penonome –> Valle de Anton

Day 7: Valle de Anton –> Las Uvas –> Panama City

2 Responses

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