IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT THAT THERE ARE NO ROADS FROM PANAMA TO COLOMBIA. IN SOUTHERN PANAMA THE PANAMERICAN HIGHWAY ENDS AT THE DARIEN GAP—150 MILES OF DENSE RAINFOREST, SWAMPS, INDIGENOUS TRIBES, DRUG SMUGGLERS AND GUERRILLA REBELS. THE PANAMERICAN HIGHWAY PICKS BACK UP AGAIN IN SOUTH AMERICA BUT GETTING THERE ON A MOTORCYCLE PROVED INTERESTING.
WEDNESDAY JULY 3RD – DAY 28 – PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – COLON, PANAMA – 24 DE DICIEMBRE, PANAMA
After spending a couple days in the heart of Panama City waiting for a new sprocket and researching our next move we decided to head to Colon, Panama to find a boat captain to take us to Colombia. The journey from the Pacific city of Panama City to Colon on the caribbean side was a quick 45 minutes from one ocean to the other. Arriving in Colon we realized we didn’t want to stay in Colon. Dirty slums in a dirty port city. The whole place felt like it was rotting. We spent several hours asking around trying to find out where the small boat captains leave from Panama to Colombia. Every time we’d get to a dock they’d turn us around and tell us we were in the wrong spot. Our plan to find a crappy supply boat to Colombia wasn’t working out well.
After several hours of frustration I called a captain of a “beautiful sailing yacht,” that according to a local hostel was leaving that day or the next day from a nearby port. Normally these fancy sailing expeditions cost $500/person plus another $400 for the bike. When I called up the captain I told him we could be anywhere he wanted within the day but our budget was $1200 total between the two of us. He was super hesitant but he accepted and gave us explicit directions on what we were to do the next 12 hours in order to get to his boat.
It was about 4pm when I made the phone call and that day we needed to arrive in a suburb of Panama City a couple hours away. We backtracked towards Panama City and headed south towards the Darien Gap. Our soon-to-be boat captain had told us to look for a hotel in a city called “24 de diciembre.” Just as we were approaching the city and about to ask somebody for some info, an older guy in his 50s pulls up next to me during a stoplight on a little motorscooter. Our conversation went something like this…
Old dude- “where you guys going?”
Me- “we’re looking for the 24th of december, we need a hotel”
Old dude- “oh ya, you just arrived, this is it. Do you want to come stay with me?”
The light turns green, he kicks his bike into first and makes a charging left hand turn through traffic. Here we go!
We quickly arrived at his house which looked like an old hotel that at some point became a house. When we pulled up, his wife and adopted daughter were there to greet us. The mysterious motoscooter driver introduced himself as Israel Gonzalez. He sat us down in his kitchen, shared Panamanian civil war stories, fed us, put sweet 80s music videos on TV for us watch, and gave us an old musty mattress to sleep on. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve met… he’s a hotel chef/police negotiator/surveillance camera technician/Hare Krishna lover/war veteran/photographer. But I was mainly interested in hearing about the Panamanian civil war. He had photos, war memorabilia, and a very sharp memory. We went to bed after drinking some banana smoothies and watching old 80s music videos from a broken TV.
THURSDAY JULY 4TH (INDEPENDENCE DAY) – DAY 29 – 24 DE DICIEMBRE, PANAMA – SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA
The next morning we woke up at 5:45 am so we could arrive at the docks in time for our boat. Even at 5:45 am Israel was ready for us. He fed us breakfast, then all in one moment he turned on some loud mariachi music, lit some ear-splitting fireworks and started shouting “Happy Independence Day!!!!” My most memorable 4th of July yet.
We said goodbye, thanked our gracious hosts and got on the road to Carti, Panama. After a true rollercoasteresque road through the Panamanian rainforest we arrived at some dumpy docks in Carti, Panama. From there we had to load our motorcycles onto a small motorboat and ride 30 minutes straddling our babies until we could load them onto the bigger sailboat that would take us the 250 miles to Cartagena, Colombia. When we arrived at our smaller-than-advertised sailboat (named the “Island Fever”)we discovered the Captain wasn’t on board. So, we went to the nearest island to find him, picked him up and then returned to the sailboat where we watched in horror as our motorcycles were winched slowly over the Atlantic Ocean from the small motorboat to the sailboat. An hour-and-a-half after we left Carti, both bikes were onboard the Island Fever. At this point the scummy motorboat “captain” says $150 for the trouble… It was a complete scam. We ended up settling for $120. We later heard from other motorcycle travelers they were charged $30 for the same service.
The rest of the day was devoted to sailing about leisurely through the BEAUTIFUl San Blas Islands. We ended up anchoring near a small island and went snorkeling in the warm, 100+ feet visibility caribbean water. Our shipmates included 4 Argentines, 2 Frenchmen, 2 Colombians, 1 Panamanian, and 2 slovaks. Our captain, a Colombian named Jorge, in my opinion was just a pirate with a charismatic and friendly disposition. Honesty and transparency weren’t really part of his “code” though as we later discovered.
We all soon realized the boat was way too small for the 13 people we had on board. And there wasn’t enough food either. During the course of the trip we all got pretty comfortable sharing waterbottles, beds, germs, and any personal privacy. The First night, however, we were all excited and optimistic about the voyage. That changed the next day…
FRIDAY JULY 5TH – DAY 30 – SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA – SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN
Leaving the absolute “screensaver paradise” of the San Blas Islands we passed through the protecting reefs and entered into the open sea. 10 minutes later I had to lie down. I always thought sea sickness was for ninnys. I guess it’s for me and Chase…and everyone else on board too. The waves were a solid 7-8 feet high and the boat didn’t really do a good job of cutting through it.
For just about all of the day I had to lie on my back in order to feel somewhat normal. haha It wasn’t the sailing adventure I hoped for.
SATURDAY JULY 6TH – DAY 31 – SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN – SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE CARIBBEAN
Day 2 at sea. Nothing in sight. no land. no other boats. just us and the ocean.
At some point in the afternoon we both started feeling better and were able to eat comfortably as long as we stared directly at the horizon. The day’s highlight included seeing some whales and going for a swim in water so blue it seemed to glow. Meanwhile, our arrival date for that afternoon came and went. According to the captain; bad wind, bad current, bad waves.
Towards sunset I thought I had tackled seasickness but the wind started blowing and the waves started getting bigger. I had to throw myself on the back bed again as winds got up to 60 mph and waves reached 15 feet. The boat literally got airborne every time we went over a wave. At one point a wave crashed right over the whole boat and reached all the way to the rear hatch getting the 4 of us on the back bed wet. haha under any other conditions I would have LOVED the thrill of being in heavy seas. But sea sickness takes the fun away. That, and food running out halfway through the day.
SUNDAY JULY 7TH – DAY 32 – SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE CARIBBEAN – CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
As morning arrived we woke up to the first land we’d seen in more than 48 hours. We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia around 8 am and everyone sprinted to get off the boat. Next it was the motorcycles’ turn. According to our beloved captain, who had told me originally over the phone that the onload and offload fees were 30-40 bucks, it was illegal to unload the motorcycles onto the dock. So that was going to be $100 to the dock workers. It was all a load of BS, he was way too friendly with the dock guys. Before I knew it, a huge group of dudes grabbed our bikes and loaded them onto the docks. No more price negotiation.
I suspect the outrageous onload and offload fees with his buddies were his way of trying to charge us more than $600 each (which he constantly reminded me was an incredible deal!) I also blame him for stealing my $13.50 rain jacket!
On a happier note. We met a couple australian dudes that paid $1050 total to cross from Panama to Colombia. At least we didn’t come out that bad…
Back on land, Chase and I suddenly had sea legs and everything felt like it was moving. We ate the first thing we could get our hands on, examined our now completely rusted chains and set off to find a place to stay while we waited on our immigration papers. Not before we took a moment to gloat in the fact that we had ACTUALLY arrived in South America with two working motorcycles!