Bridging the Gap

I’ve realized that most of my writing about the trip happens as correspondence with other cyclists, which up until now doesn’t make it on to the blog. I usually tell myself that one day I’ll get around to writing a great post with photos and all, but in reality this doesn’t happen (and if it does, it is too much “Then I this, then I that, then I the other”). And when I do write a post, I think I underestimate my non-cyclist readers and try to over explain things. What I hope to do from now on is post excerpts from emails, with minimal editing, this way bringing to you timely accounts of the road. For better or for worse this will mean less style, but hopefully plenty more content. At any rate I hope that this blog will be useful as others plan a similar trip, so including these emails will be a good way to share knowledge about the route.

The following is from an email sent to some cycling friends, Phil and Manu (also posted on the PanAm Riders discussion group, for those interested in hearing about other boats), who inquired about my boat trip from Panama to Colombia. Currently (and for anytime in the near future), there is no highway linking Central and South America. Some daring travelers have braved the poor trail conditions and lawlessness in the area known as the Darien Gap, but not all have survived!  Boat or plane are a much safer option.

Am currently working on getting all my Central America pictures uploaded.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, check out Greg’s post about the boat trip, as usual, great pictures.


[June 15, 2010]

so far, the trip has just been from turbo up to medellin. there have been some climbs, but nothing terrible. depending the various routes through colombia, there could be lots of climbing. after all, the andes start here.

paul and i ran into greg a few times in central america and biked with him a little. we all got to panama city at the same time, and after a week there we were about to bike to portobelo when dylan showed up, so he joined us for the boat. paul went to cartagena via bus after turbo, and greg, dylan and i biked to medellin.

the broken lever… yeah, it happened on the last leg of the trip, the “ferry” from capurgana to turbo. the guys were just tossing the bikes on with little care and my lever got caught in another spoke. i was planning on replacing them in medellin anyway, but still shouldn’t have to be that way.

the darien gapster worked out pretty well. we packed our 4 bikes up with cardboard around the delicate parts, derailleurs, handle bars, etc. took pedals off, and straightened handle bars. we were able to fit all 4 bikes in the front row of the boat. just assert yourself when it comes to packing the bikes, remind them you’ve done this before! they would have fit better had there not been a 50 gallon barrel of petrol on the floor.

The bikes survived that portion of the ride mostly unscathed. my brake lever covers got a little worn down by the bumps, but this could have been avoided if i protected them more.

our trip was the inagural ride with paying tourists, so we got a pretty good deal. $175 for the ride, $30 for the bike each. this included 4 out of about 8 meals, unfortunately the places we stopped the prices were much higher than we had encountered on the highways in panam. but to be fair stuff does cost more as it is out in the middle of nowhere. so bring groceries and have your stove handy. and beware of the other hidden costs. IE nights at hostals before and after, etc. They have a cooler with pop, juice and beer for $1 each. $5 rental for snorkel gear. i know they will be changing prices in the future, so please get the info straight from them.

paul and i took one route from panama city to portobelo (some of it on the toll way until we politely got asked by the authorities to leave it), greg and dylan took another (which went by some of the canal). from the stories, greg and dylan’s route was much more picturesque and definitely worth checking out.

we left portobelo early tuesday morning, stopped for breakfast at an island when we got to san blas. then to another island to wait while our passports got processed. that night we camped on the beach of a kuna family’s plot on an island. wednesday we went to an uninhabited island for several hours. never really been snorkeling until then, but other folks who had said it was some of the best they’ve ever done. little current and incredible reefs. we swam to a nearby island that had at most 5 coconut trees on it. wednesday night we spent at another kuna island, but this one had one end that was set up more for tourist use (flushing toilets as opposed to outhouses on the pier that go right into the ocean). great time walking around the village, saying hello to folks but generally not being able to communicate more than smiling and laughing. thursday we had another while on the water, spent some time at an island for swimming and lunch, and then got to sapzurro by dusk.

i felt safe in the hands of marcos the captain, but communication lacked at times. if in doubt about anything, ask adam first, marco’s strength is driving the boat and his relationship with the kunas after years of travel in the region. it was their first outing, and i know they were eager to hear our feedback to improve for next time. unfortunately i don’t what they’ll do with bikes in the future, after all, the bikes have to use up a row of seats, and that could mean lost opportunity for passenger fares. but on the other hand, that still leaves 14 seats free, which i thought was a good number for the trip. i do wish them the best in their endeavor, but it just might be hard to fill the boat up every time. that could be good for cyclists though, there would always be a place for bikes, and they’d happily take the surcharge for the bikes.

the first night at the hostel in sapzurro was free camping included in the price, but you’ll necessarily have to spend another night in either sapzurro or capurgana. the immigration office in capurgana, the next harbor east of sapzurro, opens after the ferry leaves from capurgana to turbo at 7:30 AM. though sapzurro was nice and relaxed, and we spent 2 nights there (be sure to find the senora Tila who sells coconut popsicles near the dock), to decrease the amount of bike-boat related stress, i’d head over to capurgana with all your stuff, buy your tickets beforehand (especially since a dozen other darien gapster backpackers will also be heading in to town as well, the lancha might get full) and find a cheap hotel for your 2nd night. that way you can be at the dock at 7:15, instead of having to take a lancha from sapzurro to capurgana at 6:30am.

paul was lucky and got on the boat the morning we were supposed to leave, but there was no way greg, dylan and i were going to get on the boat with our bikes and bags. we spent another day there. the first time we had bought tickets for 50,000 pesos (~US$25) for the passenger part, and that they’d assess the bikes in the morning. we found out that the small print on the ticket says passengers are allowed 10kg each, plus another 500 pesos per extra kilo.

the whole process is really ridiculous, there is no order on the dock. so the second time we gladly accepted the boat owner’s offer for a flat fee of 50,000 pesos for the bike, with nothing extra for weight (i think that is what byron paid?), even though i can guarantee our bikes and gear weighs less than 100kg! makes me wonder if we should have just avoided mentioning the bikes, bought two passenger tickets each… less crowded boat, more space for the bikes!

remember, your last chance for an ATM is off the main highway in sabanitas, panama before turning off to head east to portobelo. you next chance for an ATM will not be until Turbo. Make sure you have enough for a few extra days, you never know where you’ll get stuck!

turbo to medellin was great, we did it in 6 riding days (some really short days, to spend time in Santa Fe de Antioquia), although you could do it in easily 5, possibly 4 but you’d get to Medellin burnt out. the road was quiet, real beautiful. i took notes about the way and i’ll try to post those at some point. one other option is to take a bus or bike to cartagena, but we were anxious to get back into the cooler mountains and skipped it. can’t see it all! costwise, i think you could get to cartagena via turbo for less than directly on sailboat, but the hassle of three boat rides and three bus rides certainly takes its toll (maybe Paul can chime in, that is what he did).

so… maybe you are in panama already? i really don’t mean to scare or discourage you, but i thought i’d give you fair warning that the crossing from the carribean to pacific was BRUTAL. greg had to push his bike lots of the way… and that is saying a lot. but the views were INCREDIBLE from both sides, hopefully the clouds will be clear. paul and i camped the night next to the visitors center at the dam of La Fortuna reservoir. it was somewhat cooler up at the elevation which was nice.

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