Archive for the '09 Panama 2007' Category

About boats and mountains (May 24th to July 2nd)

Posted by on Jul 03 2007 | 07 Nicaragua 2007, 08 Costa Rica 2007, 09 Panama 2007, English

Waterways

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Just before we rode down to the docks in Granada (Nicaragua), we quickly bought a typico lunch (fried plantains with cheese, beans, rice, plantain chips and fries) to bring on to the boat with us. At the dock, the boat was already beeing loaded. Huge boxes, baskets and bags were handed down about 2 meters over a steep, narrow ramp with no railings. We had gotten second class tickets for the bottom floor, that´s why we weren´t allowed to load our bikes over a bridge with railings, level to the dock and first class deck, to the first class deck and from there down a stair case to the second class deck. But we ourselves and all our bags with us went that safer route. The captain, or who ever that stubborn person was, wanted the bikes and the trailer to be handed down that steep narrow ramp. We were stubborn too, imagening our bikes to disappear into the waters of the Laguna de Nicaragua. Finally Flo was allowed to carry the bikes down over the first class deck. While I had been carrying all our bags down to the second class benches, Chan had been sitting there by himself, munching away his french fries and watching the passengers getting on board, while reserving a seat for us.

The boatride took four hours and we arrived on Isla de Ometepe at night fall. There was just enough time to unload our stuff and load the bikes and then it was dark. The village was about three kilometers inland, the road was a bad dirt track with no street lights. Slowly we trundled towards the village, followed by a group of boys on their bikes. About half way they passed us and we tried to keep up with them. Obviously they knew where it was best to ride on the road covered with potholes and garbage. It was 3 long kilometers, but we arrived in the village, found a hotel and ordered dinner there; second time beans and rice for that day.

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On the island was hardly any traffic. It was nice quiet. For a few kilometers we had a concrete road, then dirt and sand. But it wasn’t bad. Beautiful views of both vulcanoes which make up the island rewarded us for the work. After an hours ride a narrow path up a steep hill and over a gate was leading to the Finca Zopilote. It took us another hour of pulling, pushing and carrying everything up there although the path was only about 400m long!

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At the Zopilote organic farm we enjoyed 3 days of resting. We could buy fresh yoghurt and milk here, bananas and mangos were free. Chan and Flo had a lot of fun at the beach while I was writing, doing laundry and chatting with other travellers. The rainy season started with our arrival on Ometepe. Everyday our surroundings grew a little greener after the regular midafternoon showers. We didn’t climb the vulcanoes nor did we take any sightseeing trips. It was satisfying enough to just enjoy the break, beautiful home made bread and pizza.

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It was time for yet another boat ride though, for once through the night. We opted for first class this time and thought it would be less complicated for loading and less crowded for Chan to be able to sleep well. Now of course, our bags and bikes had to be on the first class deck and this time everybody and everything was loaded by that narrow ramp leading onto 2nd class. It wasn’t as steep as in Granada but still quite scarry. I was glad about the helping hands taking Chan from my arm and helping me down as well. Now this time it was a problem to find a place for the trailer. It was loaded last and the crew put it on a tiny space above the stairs and almost wrecked it. Then a gringo needed to hang his hammock right in the spot where we had parked and secured our bikes. While I was carrying the bags up to a half empty short bench in the otherwise full first class, a friendly gringo woman watched Chan, who refused to talk to her until she started playing to fix his cars.

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Across the isle was one huge gringo man occupying the whole long bench. So when Flo came, he asked if he could sit there as well. “Of course, we always like to help families!”, was his reply. But when his wife arrived, he just pushed Florian over the edge of the bench with his weight without comment. The nicaraguan guy behind us then made some space for us. Partly through the night, after two stops, we finally had one bench to ourselves and Chan fell into a deep sleep after some exploring on the boat.

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We arrived in San Carlos on the far end of the lake around five in the morning. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and the town was about to awake. We were hungry and I found some fresh, still warm buns and yoghurt drinks for brakfast. Then we waited in line in front of the Nicaraguan immigration office until they finally opened at eight. It took two more hours to get through immigration, ready to board our last boat for a while. A small one this time, for the ride up the river to Los Chiles in Costa Rica. And again, loading the bikes and the trailer was adventure in itself: people telling us they wouldn’t fit, others not seeing a problem. Our bags gor distributed under the benches all over the boat. Florian had to wait in the hot sun until he was allowed to load the trailer, again as the very last one. By now we were super tired. Both Flo and I hadn’t slept much on the boat from Ometepe and now it was sweltering hot. Chan had a blast spotting imaginary and real crocodiles and turtles in the river and Flo saw a kingfisher.

On arrival in Los Chiles the tires of the bikes and trailer got disinfected. Instead of waiting in line at the immigration office, we bought some cold drinks, let Chan play in the shaded grass with his cars and Flo went into the village looking for a hotel. By the time he came back we could get our stamps into the passports ride away and then headed for a shower and bed.

Vulcanoes and other mountains

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With the rains hitting every day around noon, we were out and about only in the mornings, then hiding in hotels to catch up with sleeping and afterwards cooking dinner. Somethimes one of us would go checking e-mails and getting food while the other stayed with Chan.

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Chan loves vulcanoes so we decided to visit vulcan Arenal which is supposed to spit lava every night. But of course the crater was hiding in clouds when we got there. We didn’t see any firework of orange lava just smoke and in the early morning, when we left, some rocks came flying out of the vulcano now showing its full beauty.

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We chose to ride through some mountainous parts of Costa Rica to escape the impossible heat and humidity. Of course, the route we chose was probably the steepest over those mountains. Within 5km we climbed from 200 meters up to 800 meters. I had to push my bike in parts. Again, I don’t know how Flo can pull the heavy trailer so calmly up those steep grades, but he does it patently. Just a few hundred meters before arriving at a hotel in Ciudad Quesada the sky opened its locks at once and we got soaked.

Next morning the road was leading steeply uphill from the first meter and for the next 28km. Half way up the pass of 1800m we got into fog. Traffic wasn’t dense but the drivers reckless. We witnessed an accident with only car body damage, when a truck passed Florian in a blind curve. A car coming down hill had to brak hard and the car behind bumped into him. The truck driver didn’t realize a thing, waving and honking friendly at me a bit further up. We needed many stops to catch our breath. With an average speed of 6.5 km/h it took us 4 1/2 hours riding time only, to get over this pass. For the first time since leaving the Baja (Mexico), we needed to unpack our sweaters in the evening. The hotel room didn’t even have a fan. All of us really enjoyed the higher altitudes even if it was for only two days.

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Next stop was Alajuela much lower again, from where we took a bus up to the beautiful Vulcano Poas (2000??m). We could walk right up to the rim of the crater and look down into bubbling and steaming water. We took an amazing walk through the forest up there, observing hummingbirds from up very close.

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The ride into San Jose (capital) wasn’t pleasant at all. There was too much traffic and exhaust, but we found a room in a nice backpackers hostel with free internet, pancake breakfast and kitchen use. We needed to get some spare parts in the city and tires for the trailer from a good bike shop. After two nights we had to decide, if we wanted to take the PanAm highway through the mountains over a pass of 3400m or if we should try roads of which we didn’t know the condition through mountainous landscape to the Pacific and than follow the coast on a dirtroad of which we knew from other bikers, was full of potholes and big trucks.

We decided for the mountain of course! The climb was streched over 60km. The grades weren’t bad and the views in the early mornings magnificent.

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One to two hours after sunrise the clouds usually started to roll in and the views got limited. What a nice sleep we had up there in the mountains. For once we didn’t wake up throughout the night, sweaty and sticky. In the morning we discovered, that the hotel owner had put an electrical heater infront of our door. We hadn’t missed it!

On the third day on the mountain we reached the pass just before lunch time. It was a bit disappointing that now sign marked the pass Cerro de la Muerte. Only a few kilometers passed the highest point of the highway was a restaurant. We took a break there and then decided to ride down to San Isidro on 700m. While we ate, balck clouds had pushed up the mountain emptying all their collected water from the Pacific above us. But when we were ready to whizz down the sun was sending her rays onto the road again. Only for about 15 minutes though. Quickly we put on our rain ponchos while the next load of balck clouds smiled at us gloatingly. This time the sun was beaten, she didn’t come through anymore. It poured and poured and all the accumulated sweat in my helmet was beeing washed into my eyes. It burned like hell and I could hardly see.

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The breaks quickly wore through and we had to thighten them every few kilometers. We stopped at a pullout so I could take off the helmet, clean my eyes and ajust the brakes again, when an SUV stopped and a big gringo was telling us that we were doing something really dangerous because of limited views and the big trucks on the road. Well he didn’t share his thoughts about how we could have avoided this danger since there were no hotels on this side of the mountain nor a space to camp. Maybe, in his eyes, we should have stayed off the highway till after the rain, which of course would have meant till after nightfall as well. Not sure if that would have meant less danger!

A days ride before the border to Panama we knew of a place called the Paradise Tropical Garden. Somethimes people could stay there overnight and so we asked. The owner, Richard, immigrated to Panama from Main as a young man. He worked for Chiquita, than managed a B&B and finally started the garden in recent years. Here he is growing native and tropical plants for selling as well as maintaining his beautiful garden. We could stay with him for two nights for free and he showed us his plants. It was a good place for a rest and to celebrate Florian’s birthday before entering into our last central american country.

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Ice instead of water

A four lane highway with wide shoulders waited on the other side of the border. It was really hot and after the usual immigration paper work, we wanted to buy a cold drink and take a short break. but there weren’t many tiendas on the panamian side and the coolers were socked quite differently. No more tasty natural fruit juices only cola. The gas station close to our hotel didn’t have a store to buy water. It was really, really hot and we weren’t in the mood to treat the tap water or filter it. So we went to the gas station and bought a bag of ice. It was melting fast into nice cold drinking water. With some chocolate oat powder, we had left over, we mixed refreshing drink.

In Panama we had the rolling hills back. The rains didn’t come regularly around noon anymore. Somethimes it didn’t rain at all, somethimes we got sprinkled already in the morning.

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From David the shoulder and four lanes were cramped into a narrow two lane highway with mostly cracked pavement or slab-built concrete surface. Villages were far apart and somethimes we didn’t see any houses, where a black dot on our map marked a town. The stores weren’t stocked well or at least with not much we could use. There were no more tropical fruits, just apples and grapes. No more street side stands either until we reached Panama City. Tiendas and stores sold water only in 1/2liter bottles, 5 liter container or gallons were rare, so we kept buying bags of ice. That way we could make our own cold drinks.

Panama as well offers some mountains to climb. Here though, even with getting up at 4am and starting to ride at the latest at 5.30am, we only got about an hour of bearable temperatures. By 7am the sun was burning down, sweat was dripping from our faces and arms, our t-shirts were soaked in no time. Luckily by 9 or so, the clouds usually started to come in and take some of the sun’s power. Neverthless, biking wasn’t pleasant anymore!

After 45km of climbing and speeding down to rivers only to climb again, we wanted to take a break and buy a cold drink. But at the only “jardin” there, they had only warm beer for sale. We asked about a restaurant or tienda, where we hoped to buy fluids something to eat and find a place to camp since there weren’t any hotels in these parts of the country. “In about three kilometers up the road is a police station and a restaurant.”, we were told by several people. So we rode on. After about 5km we asked again about the restaurant and the police post and were told to ride one more kilometer. One kilometer further was a bus station. We asked again and this time, what we were looking for was 8 kilometers further. We kept riding, hoping, that eventually either restaurant or the police post would appear. Since so many people referred to them they had to exist. People here just don’t have a clue about distance or numbers. Then finally we arrived in a tiny village, where the police post was as well as a small restaurant and an even smaller store. The police post had a fence around a piece of lawn and a palapa (or parada, that’s how they call a roof made of palm leaves here). We bought at least our cold drink, but they hadn’t any food to offer without chicken, so we bought some white bread and crackers from the sparce selection of the store to satisfy our empty stomachs. Then Florian went over to talk to the police men and we were allowed to pitch the tent under the parada. We went to bed with the sun and got up before her. Even with a flat to fix on the trailer and packing up the tent, we were riding off in the dark. When the sun awoke, she coloured the clouds on the horizon pink and from the valleys around us mist was slowly rising into the sky.

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Only 10km lasted the joy of whizzing down into this enchanted land, then the shoulder ended abruptly as did the nice smooth pavement. For the next 55km the road was turned into one huge construction site. The highway consisted now of two lanes of broken up slab built surface often disrupted by caution signs in front of huge holes or nonexisten surface.

We didn’t have much food with us and nothing anymore to snack on. After covering more than 30km we started to feel really hungry. But as so many times already, the villages marked on our two maps were nonexistent. Again there were neither tiendas nor small restaurants alongside the road either like in all the other Central American countries. The closest to a tienda were the many “jardins”, but they were either closed or had only beer to offer.

After 40km we arrived at an intersection and there was a restaurant and a even a store though nothing else, no other house or sign of the town that should have been there recording to the maps. Hungry we bought quite some “provisions” before we took another 25km under our wheels.

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From Santiago to Arraijan it was rather boring riding, just one more mountain. The landscape had not much to offer. The only excitment were the occasional showers of which we at first tried to escape under our rain ponchos, but then let it be- we were getting soaked anyway, what did it matter if it was rain or sweat? At every opportunity we got more ice instead of water to at least pretend we could refresh ourselves and cool from the impossible heat and humidity of flat Panama.

The closer we got to Panama City, the more traffic was surrounding us and the air was thick once more with exhaust. The highway was again a four lane expressway with mostly acceptible shoulders.

Another mile stone

Other bike travellers had warned us about the Puente de las Americas spanning over the Canal of Panama. “It is not possible to cross it by bicycle”, they said, “Police is waiting to put every cyclist attempting to cross the bridge on a pickup truck in fear of terror attacks.” So we didn’t try. We took a new highway some 10km eastward and crossed over from Central America to the South American Continent ourselves on ur bicycles on the newer bridge Centenario. Though it wasn’t the famous bridge de las Americas, we relished changing continents with our own power, beeing able to stop and admire the Canal and even a big ship sailing underneath us. Then we followed a road a long the Canal, passed the locks, saw big ships, before we entered chaotic Panama City.

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Two days we stayed at a hostel in down town to try and start organising a ship to Ecuador. Then we moved to Swiss friends who had met us riding into the city fully packed. They are living about 20 bike minutes form the centre and Chan enjoyes the company of their two year old daugther very much as well as all her exciting toys. Their neighbour had left his house for a few weeks and eventhough we have never met Dennis, he left his keys for us to use his house in his absence. So here we are, living in a house in Ciudad del Saber, dight next to the Miraflores locks, close to Panama City but outside of chaos and exhaust. Our search for a ship of any kind to Ecuador has been successless and now we are thinking of booking a flight to Ecuadors capital Quito, rather than waiting for months for a chance to get a ride.

We have decided not to travel through Columbia to spare our families months of sleepless nights out of fear we would get kidnapped and because we are drawn to the Andes now. We want to see the high plateaus and get into a more enjoyable climate. We decided that had the pleasure of tropical heat and humidity for long enough now.

 

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