Yaviza, Panama and Homeward Bound
Wednesday, April 21st to Monday, April 26th, 2010
Panama City to Yaviza to Meteti
Meteti to Panama City Causeway
Panama City Causeway to Guadalupe, Panama Highlands
Guadalupe to Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
Playa Hermosa to San Jorge, Nicaragua
San Jorge to Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Lago Bayano on the way to Yaviza
The rains seem to have come early and I'm planning on riding early in the morning to get to whatever destination ahead of the daily afternoon deluges. The ride down to Yaviza is along a very good paved road along farms and deforested former jungle. It did not feel very wild like I was expecting. There was about a total of 200 metres of dirt/gravel in construction zones and everything else was paved. After one immigration check and 2 military checkpoints I was in Meteti, the last town before heading to Yaviza at the end of the road. The checkpoints were all routine, with the usual "where are you going?", "where are you from?", "how long will you be down here?" and "YOU'RE ALL BY YOURSELF?", "NO HUSBAND???". Then they took down my passport info and sent me on my merry way.
Welcome to Darien
Yaviza is a bustling little town with narrow concrete streets that can basically fit one vehicle. A local person informed me that it was obligatory to go to the "Guardia" to sign in first. After the standard "no husband?" routine I asked about leaving the bike in the military compound for safety while I walked around the town. They checked with the big jefe and it was OK'd. The armed guard seemed downright thrilled to be in charge of keeping an eye on my bike.
I walked around Yaviza, 35 cent coca cola in hand and took in the sights. The air was stifling with the most intense heat and humidity yet. It truly had a jungle feel reinforce by the view into the wilds along the brown rivers. Since the road ends here, the rivers serve as transportation corridors to the indigenous villages in the Darien Gap. Motorized dugout canoes and lanchas were loading bananas, avocados and consumer goods by the river bank. A suspension bridge crosses the river to the other side where the village continues along pedestrian paths. A quick chat with a Kuna woman on the bridge taught me that one of their exports is oranges. The village was very laid back and friendly and I never felt any sense of danger. The town definitely had the feel of a jungle waypoint and it felt exhilarating to be there. I was actually at the end of the road!!
Yaviza, Panama. Pedestrian Village
Yaviza, Panama. Kuna People
This was an emotional point of my trip. I was ecstatic about having made it to the turnaround point; slightly overwhelmed by the fact that I was living my dream; happy to be starting the trip home to be with my sweetie and get my life restarted; sad that I wasn't going any further; and so on and so forth.
Yaviza, Panama. Downtown
Yaviza, Panama. Traditional open walled Kuna homes
Yaviza, Panama. Ellie gets her first barrel fuel ...slurp!
The next day on the way back to Panama City, most military checkpoints had no interest in me except the second one. They seemed to have some problem with a lone biker, who the jefe first thought was a man until I took my helmet off. He insisted that I wait while he consulted his jefe. I could hear the jefe on the radio confirming that indeed a lone female biker had passed the other way the day before and she had indeed indicated that she'd be heading back to Panama City today. After about 10 minutes they graciously allowed me to continue. It makes me wonder what would happen if they couldn't confirm my previous passage. Would I be permanently trapped in the Darien area? Would I have to join an indiginous tribe for survival? Or maybe one of the guerrilla or paramilitary groups operating in the jungle? Who knows?
Yaviza, Panama. The end of the road
I have now discovered that if I needed help in Central America all I had to do was pull over to the side of the road and pull out my map. Within about 30 seconds someone pulled up beside me and greeted me with "Hey bro" in fluent English. He quickly directed me to the Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal. Tonight I treated myself to a $145 hotel on the Causeway by the Bridge of the Americas. That was my reward for having made it to Yaviza.
Amador Causeway, Panama. My luxury reward for making it one way.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
The visit to the Miraflores locks was fantastic. It's quite an amazing feat of engineering, considering the canal was built in 1916 or thereabouts. Dual, gravity fed locks lower the ships in two stages and they transit one set of two ships per hour. Each ship pays an average of $100,000 ...no credit, payment 72 hours in advance only. Six "mules" (little locomotives on train tracks" are attached to each ship via cables. The task of these mules is to keep the ship centred in the locks and to move it forward ...or stop it. The Panamanian canal pilot is in full control of the ship and its' crew during the voyage through the canal. That's probably a good thing since the locks only leave about 12" to spare on each side of the ship.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal. "Mules" towing ship
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, the gates are opening
While loading the bike in the morning in Panama City it was so hot and humid that I had sweat dripping from my forehead and splattering on the ground within less than 10 minutes. The ride back along the Pan American highway is actually quite boring and long. I popped down some spurs towards the beach and saw a Canadian flag pointing to Woody's Beach Bar and Real Estate. Woody is from Ontario and welcomed me into his palm thatched bar with a free juice and two promotional T-Shirts to go.
Bridge of the Americas, Panama City
Indigenous Women, Panama
Panama Highlands. Near Cerro Punta
This was a fairly long day of over 500km's and I was glad to be heading back into the Panamanian highlands into the cool air of the mountains. I was retracing my steps from the voyage down but decided to take another spur road further up into the mountains to Cerro Punto and Guadalupe, the highest towns in Panama. The drizzle was refreshing after a long day in the heat and humidity. I ended up staying at Hotel Las Orquideas, just outside of Guadalupe. It's run by a Chinese mother and daughter team, along with the daughters latino boyfriend. It was a bit strange for me listening to the Panama born daughter speaking a fusion of Mandarin and Spanish with her mother. I'm so used to it being Chinese and English, aka Chinglish. They were a lovely family and I actually managed to get some true Chinese vegetarian food, complete with fake meat and Chinese sauces. The creek rushing by in the backyard lulled me to sleep and I may as well have been in some mountain inn in Switzerland (I'm sure they have Chinese people in Switzerland too). There's even a small village on the way up, called Nueva Suiza (New Switzerland).
Panama Highlands. Near Cerro Punta
Panama Highlands. Near Guadalupe. Las Orquideas Hotel Backyard Creek
At the hotel there was a couple from Paris, France who were country hopping in Central and South America for 7 months. Their purpose was to go hiking all over the place. They had hiked most of the parks in Costa Rica and were about to head onto a trail from near the hotel to the next town, 6 hours away. All along a signposted trail. Now THAT's impressive!
Panama Highlands. Near Guadalupe
Panama Highlands. Near Rio Sereno towards the Costa Rica border
I crossed back at Rio Sereno into Panama and the experience was once more absolutely delightful. The immigracion officer on the Costa Rica side recognized me from before and broke into a smile when he saw me. He asked me to get my map so he could tell me about a nice route through Costa Rica which would avoid San Jose.
Wild Beach on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast
Route 34 along the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica is now beautifully paved all the way and most likely cuts a lot of time off the trip through Costa Rica. It seems that a lot of truckers are using this route. Come to think of it, I barely saw any trucks on the twisty Pan American on the way down. But no problem. The road is fairly straight and passing is a lot easier than on the mountain roads. The road is actually quite boring but there are plenty of little turnoffs to some fantastic beaches along the way.
Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
The skies had opened up once more and I seem to be bringing the early rains with me. Maybe I should pass a hat to the locals and see if they'll pay me enough to get the hell out of their country and take the rain with me. It could very well finance the rest of my trip. Even though the lack of visibility and the stinging raindrops made things a bit uncomfortable, I welcomed the cooling wetness and just kept riding without raingear to cool down a bit. After all, once the rain stops you dry off in about 15 minutes. After another hour of avoiding water spewing trucks and arks full of animals piloted by bearded men I settled into Cabinas Rancho Grande in Playa Hermosa just south of Jaco. Cheap and plentyful food was to be had at Dos Gringos a few doors down. The rain was coming down so hard that it was hard to have a conversation with the noise of the rain on the roof being almost deafening. Sheets of water were coming down from the roof and thunder and lightning surrounded us. I love thunderstorms, mother nature telling us she's still in charge no matter how arrogantly we disrespect her at times.
Coming down in sheets. Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
It's now time to head north some more and cross the dreaded border at Penas Blancas (or Pain in the Ass Blancas) as someone else called it. Yup, you guessed it. Rain, rain, more rain, additional rain, and then some rain in reserve. While taking refuge in a closed muffler shop driveway I pulled out my laptop and uploaded some pictures ...until popping and exploding sounds caught my attention. Accross the street sparks were flying all over the place from a transformer up a utility pole. The power went out and so did my Internet connection. Power outages are common with the heavy rains.
I had chosen to cross into Nicaragua on a Sunday thinking it wouldn't be as busy. There were definitely fewer trucks lined up on the Costa Rica side but it was still pure chaos. The lineup with the truckers at the aduana window was the same as on the way down and the imigracion lineup was only slightly better. No growling at "helpers" this time around. Only polite but firm "no gracias". On the way down a deaf female helper had checked over my documents as a favour and gave me the thumbs up. The same woman got my attention when she recognized me from before. Angela is her name and I was getting some very good, honest and trustworthy vibes off her. She helped me a bit and I then decided to hire her as my "tramitadora" for $2. She even loaned me a few dollars at the immigracion window when I realized that I had left my dollars in my locked case on my bike. This is still the absolute worst stinkhole of a border I've crossed so far. They get you however they can. $3 to use the border with a motor vehicle $7 for the tourist visa (the previous one from the way down doesn't count). Then the municipality past the border crossing whistles you over via police officer to pay a $1 toll. Not the end of the world, and I know there are worse crossings in other parts of the world. But it does make me wonder what their rationale is. Drive away potential tourists by making it complicated and costly? Bring in extra money by fleecing tourists? Oh well, it's all part of the game and a game is what we're all playing anyway.
Ferry to Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Settled into Hotel California in San Jorge to take the ferry to Ometepe in the morning. The server at the local Italian restaurant assured me that even though some of the roads on Ometepe were rough dirt, they'd be OK since it hadn't rained in a while. No sooner were the words out of his mouth and thunder and lightning materialized. He joked about me bringing the rain with me and that it was all my fault. I just hung my head in shame and dug into my delicious veggie pizza. I couldn't really argue his point since he seemed to be right on the money.
Dredging at Ferry Dock. Lago de Managua
Volcan Conception, Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Sandy road to Balgue, Isla Ometepe ...it gets much worse!
Driveway up to Finca Magdalena, Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Finca Magdalena, Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Hiring a local kid to clean my chain
View from Finca Magdalena
It's now Monday and time to head to the 10:30 ferry to Moyogalpa on Isla Ometepe. I got there very early and was immediately corralled by a tout from a competing service that was leaving at 9:30. Same price, different docking spot at San Jose Del Sur. After assuring that there was a paved road where they dock I was on my way to Ometepe. The island strikes me as very, very tranquilo and very rural for the most part. I had decided to check out Finca Magdalena which is an organic cooperative coffee farm. The paved road ended and the last 15 or so km's were not for the faint of heart. A bumpy, rutted dirt road slowly crawls along and throws some little surprises at you now and then. The best one would have been the 2 or so km's of sandy stretches. Poor Ellie was inching along at 10km/h or less with my legs dangling along the ground just in case. I ended up not going down ...barely and am now at the Finca enjoying a cold beer and resting my aching butt.
Coming back from Finca Magdalena
Finca Magdalena is an organic coffee cooperative started by the Sandinistas and it's still going strong. There are pigs rudely grunting away in the distance, horses trotting by, friendly cooperative members and workers cheerfully greeting you, and garrulous tropical birds chattering away. No traffic noise and none of the typical latin american addiction to loud music. Very relaxing to sit on the restaurant balcony enjoying a $1 beer and soaking in the view of the volcano and lake view stretching beyond the horizon. After the Great Lakes, Lago Managua is the largest fresh water lake in the world. There are even some fresh water sharks to be found here.
He happily agreed to have his photo taken.
Cattle Drive, Isla Ometepe
While waiting for the ferry. I met a Swiss couple who were driving from Halifax to Vancouver and then south to Argentina in their safari style camper truck. I got to practice my German and they very quickly slid back into their Swiss German after accommodating me with a more regular version for a while. I enjoyed the challenged and their company. They had closed down their bakery/cafe in Switzerland and sold everything to finance this trip.
Isla Ometepe Water Taxi