From Costa Rica and beyond

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Caribbean and Panama

I left La Fortuna on a cloudy, rain-threatening morning.  The peaks of higher mountains and more volcanoes were hidden as I rode by. Slowly, the road southwest descended and then flattened as the coast neared.  Truck traffic grew in volume. Driving behind big trucks is never fun, but in Central America it can be downright unhealthy as clouds of black smoke billow from the exhaust. On a couple occasions though, the smell given off by these trucks was really nice. Indeed, at first I wondered where the women were who were wearing such strong but yummy perfume. Then I realized it was not perfume, there were no women in sight, instead it was pineapples in the thousands piled high in the back of the trucks. A quick look around revealed fields of pineapple. Those fields soon gave way to others of banana trees. The closer I got to Limon, the more container trucks and the more banana trees. At the outskirts of Limon, each exporter/importer of bananas had their own compound with hundreds of containers awaiting their load of this rather delicate, bruisable fruit. In scale, I have only seen more containers in Hamburg. The fields of green trees were further decorated with transparent blue bags containing the bananas. I figure that is to protect them from pests and probably from falls, if their hold on their branches were to fail.

It was just south of Limon that I again saw the Atlantic/Caribbean - the first time since Belize. The gentle sweep of the beach was a welcoming view. I continued south to Cahuita. Limon is said to be a tough, worker town; Cahuita rather quiet and accomodating. My Lonely Planet guide mentioned a Dutch-owned hostal, The Secret Garden. I found it quickly and almost immediately had new friends. An expected two nights turned into four as a core group consisting of Marilyn (Canada), Doug (US), Larissa (Germany), Nanne (Holland) and I (Vermont) enjoyed each other´s company. Together we enjoyed the beaches, the local jungle trail, we cooked together, and went out to the local bar for Saturday night´s live reggae music. On Friday, Marilyn, Larissa, Doug and I accepted an offer to visit an indigenous village and even meet a local medicine man. We showed up, met our tour guide (arranged by a local charity) and plunged into the forest, walking not along but at times IN a stream. I felt like a 17th century Jesuit searching for the Guarani tribe. The Bribri people live only in this corner of Costa Rica. They have their own language and live in rather remote locations. After an hour of very slippery conditions and a tumble taken by Marilyn resulting in total immersion and a sore knee, we reached our guide´s home. We looked around and didn´t really ask much, as we figured the village and medicine man were next. Well, we were wrong. That was our tour. A bit disappointing, but still a good, muddy bonding experience for us.

I left on a Monday.  By email I had communicated with an experienced KLR mechanic who lives in David, Panama. He was busy Monday, but thought he would have time on Tuesday to look my bike over. The ride to the border at Sixaola led me past more banana plantations. The town at the border looked pretty impoverished and it was certainly isolated. One road led back north and then one road to Panama over an old railroad bridge - one lane wide with loose planks of wood lying on the ties to the right and left of the rails.
Before I could brave the bridge, I had to take care of paperwork with the Costa Rican authorities. This was made a bit frustrating by the hot weather, my heavy bike gear, and by the alarm I have for my bike - it kept going off and I could not shut the thing up (it is, of course, rather tamper-proof). There I stood, beads of sweat dropping and Costa Rican authorities looking bemused at the sight of this very annoyed gringo. Finally, I silenced my foe and rode ahead. After pedestrians cleared the right side of the bridge, I proceeded at about 15mph, my eyes wide and focused on those loose boards and any potentially troubling gaps between them. In my periphery I was very aware of the holes in the poorly anchored fence to my right and the gaps between the ties between the rails.

The Panamanian authorities were generally welcoming and not too overworked by the slow flow of traffic there. The usual onslaught of men looking to swindle you for a few dollars was absent, except a couple young boys who offered to watch your vehicle (not needed here). I was making speedy progress to resume my drive until I had to buy insurance. The vendor was in an Arab-owned store and she was not there.  An hour and a half later she finally returned.  A waste of time. I had, however, chatted with the son of the Syrian owner and learned there are quite a few Arabs in Panama. I also met a really nice young Mexican woman (from Guadalajara) traveling south with her Argentinian boyfriend - not many Mexicans traveling through here. She gets a lot more scrutiny than I do.

By 3:30pm I was admitted to Panama. David would be at least another three hours of driving. Hurry! The roads accomodated me with good conditions, little traffic, and fun hills and curves. At first the path hugged the coast, but then headed into what appeared to be rainy mountains. As I drove up, the temperature dropped and so did the sun. I was surprised to find such mountains in a country most famous for a canal. A reservoir appeared below me. The dam was a couple hundred feet tall. I kept thinking how if I didn´t know better, I would think I was somewhere in northern Canada. A ways beyond the dam, a surreal scene appeared, accompanied by strong gusts from each side. I was on a ridge, probably the continental divide (I later learned it"s called the "Devil´s Elbow"). As I looked southwest through clouds and rain, it was impossible to discern if I saw the distant and dark Pacific or if it was a mountain towering up into the clouds and out of sight. It was very disorientating.  A stocking-cap wearing official manned a permanent roadblock ahead of me. He took a quick look at my papers and waved me on. In December, he decides if vehicles are allowed to pass through there.

By now, it was totally dark. Great. My second night ride and just like last time, it is raining, dark, there are no street lights and I don´t know where I will sleep. The only improvement this time was that there were very few stray dogs on this side of Panama. I stopped a number of times to verify my location and eventually made it to David, where someone gave me very good directions to the Purple House hostel. I was welcomed there by Gustavo, a very kind and conscientious caretaker when the owner, a former Peace Corps volunteer is gone. This friendly place truly lives up to its name - EVERYTHING is purple. It grows on you.

The next day I met Paul Donohue at his home a short ways up in the highlands. This American expat loves to tinker. He has three motorcycles, a big backhoe, and a couple ultralight airplanes. Well, we tinkered on my bike until late in the night. By midnight, my bike´s valves were adjusted, the doohickey (yes, it´s really called that) checked, the airfilter cleaned, and the oil changed. A very productive day.

David is Panama´s second city, although one would not guess that. It´s population is only a little over 100,000.  It has big hopes, though, as more gringos and other expats discover the fair countryside to the north and more surfers discover the coast to the south. A new airport is on the way and hopefully more jobs for the people there. On Thursday, Paul and his friend Jim (both of whom have raced motorcycles for much of their lives) took me for a motorcycle tour of Northwest Panama. We took a break in a town somewhere near Quebrada. The beautiful seaside location belied the economic hardships this community has faced in the years since a banana exporter left the town after the workers demanded pay raises. Crime is reportedly rampant, but this is fertile turf for angling expats.

My bike running tip-top, I bid David ado and drove just one hour north to Boquete. This is another world, up here.  It is cool, the oppressive heat and humidity are left below. Coffee plantations climb the mountainsides, as do the homes of many more expats from all over. A quick glance suggests that the expats and the locals coexist nicely, but Paul told me of disputes even about roosters that disturb the peace and quiet of the new arrivals.

Tourists tend to travel to the same towns. When I arrived at my hostel, I saw Renaud (a Frenchman from Lyons who spent the past two years in Montreal) who I had met at the Purple House. I also saw the Mexican woman I had met at the border a few days earlier.

Boquete sits in the shadow of the 3474 meter Volcan Baru (Panama´s highest point). Tourists flock here for hikes, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, etc. The ultimate goal of the hiking crowd is to summit Baru and take in views of both the Pacific and the Atlantic. Tonight at midnight (weather permitting), Renaud and I will be heading up Baru´s steep slope hoping to catch a glimpse of each as the sun rises.

Our descent from the summit was a long, unrelenting slog. The trail is actually an access road for maintenance vehicles for the antennae near the summit. It is at times sandy, muddy, at times boulders litter the way, but mostly it is loose gravel.  Every step must be selected to avoid twisting an ankle or slipping. The kilometer markers that have not been damaged or stolen are few and far between on this 27 km (16 mi.) round trip trail. Amber and I walked down together and hoped for quick progress, but learned with each sign that there was still a long way down to go. Fortunately the company was good, otherwise we would have had nothing else to do than plead with our joints and muscles, curse the stones and stumbles, and dream of a hot shower and a cozy bed.

That was bad enough, but imagine the way up the the dark!! Headlamps are indispensable, but their light must be focused on the small patch of turf right in front of you as you carefully determine where you can next place your feet.  That leaves everything else in varying degree of shadow. One of my co-hikers, David, asked me if I was feeling dizzy.  I was.  This was a result of the bad lighting. The exertion made me feel nauseous at times as well. I am astonished to have emerged without a vomit-session to write about. The other major factor was fatigue. We had all already been up all day before our 12AM hike began. I managed to reach a small camping area just below the summit in four hours (the total altitude gain is about 1600 meters - one mile). About two hours into the ascent my head seemed to have become heavy physically and mentally I seemed short-circuited as the same couple annoying songs played and replayed and as my thought processing could not choose between French and English (due to Renaud´s presence). Relief was not found at the camping area just below the summit, as my muscles found a new task - shivering. I actually had pretty good gear compared to the others, but the cold attacked my taxed body.

Hiking in mountains is rarely easy. The reward is often found in the exertion, pushing limits, and of course the view.  Well, the latter was lacking at the summit. After starting under a very promising and stunning sky full of stars, fog eventually rolled in, the wind picked up and nothing but opaque darkness and then white gusts greeted us. One could only imagine what the Pacific and Atlantic must look like from that vantage point.  At least there was a cross to guide us to the summit. David, Renaud and I took some quick pics and left the top unceremoniously.

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