A broken Rohloff hub. An angry, biting dog. Daily drenchings as the rainy season switched up a gear. Roads blocked by landslides. A doubling of our daily costs with a return to US prices. To borrow a phrase from our good friend Lee, Costa Rica was, at times, something of a shit show.

It may just have been our run of bad luck, but Costa Rica didn’t quite charm us in the way its northerly Central American neighbours had. With its saturation of “eco-resorts”, zip lines (I’m pretty sure you could zip line across the whole country if someone just joined them up) and “exclusive” gated retirement communities, at times it all just felt a little too clinical and characterless for our tastes.

Yet as always, once we got off the beaten track, we found the tropical paradise of the tour brochures, but refreshingly free from the drawl of American retirees.  We were slowly seduced by secluded, postcard-perfect Caribbean beaches and sunsets; remote backroads snaking through lush rainforest where monkeys, sloths and toucans lurked above our heads; and the warmth of Tico hospitality.

James

After our planned route down the Nicoya Peninsula was cut short by Sarah's wobbling Rohloff hub, we were forced to plot a more direct route towards the Caribbean. From Liberia we headed north-east up into Rincón de la Vieja National Park, through tunnels of blinding white rock.

Daily soakings became the norm in Costa Rica as we climbed into the cloud forests, leaving us running for the nearest shelter - in this case an enormous tree strangled by incredible vines.

After an impromptu overnight stay with Vicente in Guayabo, we cut across towards Laguna Arenal via a network of tracks and the villages of San Bernardo and Santa Fé - through lush fincas...

...over fast flowing rivers popular with white water rafters...

...and up through a series of wind farms towards Tierras Morenas. It was at one of these that I met my canine friend, who decided to take a chunk out of my thigh before I could say "rabies" - and certainly before I could judge whether he was foaming at the mouth or not.

A dash to nearby Tilarán through a beautiful sunset, some hurried medical advice (thanks Steve!), and soon we were on a bus to the capital San José for the jab. Rabies was pretty unlikely, but for the sake of a few dollars, I didn't fancy taking the risk.

With another rabies jab due in a week's time and neither of us charmed by the concrete and fumes of San José, we decided to push on towards the Caribbean. We climbed up and out of the capital past thousands of pilgrims on their way to visit La Negrita (Costa Rica's patron saint) at the cathedral in Cartago, and into the beautiful Orosi Valley. Even by wet season standards, the rain was severe, with flooding rivers and landslides across the country.

Not fancying being swept away ourselves in the tent, it didn't take much to tempt us into the Montana Linda hostel in Orosi. We dried out and warmed up in cosy bunks while the rain hammered outside.

The next morning revealed the damage: roadblocks and landslides on the route to Siquirres, forcing us onto a muddy but beautiful detour up through coffee plantations and tiny villages.

Costa Rican hospitality strikes again: Jami and her family spotted us scouting for somewhere to camp amongst the banana plantations on the road to Puerto Limón, and invited us to spend the night with them.

Finally we hit the Caribbean coast, and headed for Cahuita - a small, laid back hippy town with a string of beautiful beaches. Arriving on a severe sugar low after 100km in sweat-drenching humidity, we headed straight for refuelling at the local supermarket. There we met Daryl - and we must have presented a pitiful sight - because before long...

...we were collapsed on the terrace of his cool timber house just a few km up the road, toasting Bradley Wiggins' victory in Tour mugs, and with an invitation to stay and relax for a few days.

From New York City, Daryl is a former bike messenger turned tour guide who spends four months working flat out in the city, followed by two months decompressing in his Costa Rican jungle hideaway. To us, it looked like he had the perfect balance...

...and so we did our best to fit in. Apart from a day on the bus back to San José for my second jab, we relaxed on his shaded veranda, listened to the monkeys...

...tucked into the plentiful bananas...

...and enjoyed the beautiful beaches. Thank you Daryl - you were the perfect host.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away, but only made it as far as the end-of-the-road village of Manzanillo before we were seduced into stopping again by the incredible sunsets...

...and pristine, bath-water warm Caribbean.

A final dash through the banana plantations (where ironically it proved impossible to buy a single banana) led us to the border town of Sixaola. From here it was just a short hop over the river into Panamá, and the final leg of our Central American journey.

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I hadn’t done a great deal of research on Panamá and except for the infamous canal, I confess I knew very little about it before we arrived at the Sixaola/Changuinola border.  What I had heard, mostly from other cyclists ahead of us didn’t really inspire me; they suggested long, flat boring roads and that it wouldn’t be as vibrant as the rest of Central America.  In short, the only thing I was expecting from Panamá was an anti climax.

Crossing the border I noted that not surprisingly, everything felt much the same as it had just a few minutes before, when we were in Costa Rica.  I deliberately try hard not to compare one country with the next or to compare them all back to Mexico – which seems to have become something of a benchmark for this trip – but it’s impossible not to draw comparisons.

Within minutes of entering Panamá, we had (obviously) found a roadside stall selling pasties and cakes and were instantly and pleasantly surprised.  They were cheaper and tastier than anything we’d found in Costa Rica, and came accompanied by engaging banter with a local taxi driver – the kind of which we both enjoy so much and had not found for a few weeks.

This set the tone for the rest of Panamá; having low expectations paid off as we found ourselves enjoying this little gateway country at the end of the North American continent far more than we had expected.

Sarah

Banana plantation along the Caribbean coast of Panamá

One significant similarity between Costa Rica and Panamá was the abundance of banana plantations along the Caribbean coast, with field upon field of banana trees and workers' shacks as far as the eye could see. Now the humble supermarket banana will hold new meaning for me as I have seen first-hand how many thousands of acres are required to meet our demand for this popular tropical fruit.

Camping by the village of El Norteño, Panamá

Our first night in Panama was spent in a dingy "love" hotel in Changuinola and the following morning we agreed to make an effort to avoid the sticky sheets and camp more if we could. By the end of the day we'd met our target: a beautiful river and a lovely wood. The river proved essential - having spent the hottest camping night of the trip so far, we used it the next day to bathe and wash our clothes.

Clothes drying outside a Chinese supermarket in Ramála, Panamá

Those wet clothes needed drying on the run. Whilst I was inside doing the shopping, James decided that the hot baked concrete outside the supermarket was the perfect place to lay out my underwear! Needless to say the locals though it a little odd...

Sarah in anticipation of a peanut butter sandwich in Ramála, Panamá

...even more so when I returned hysterically excited having found affordable peanut butter for the first time in seven months. The girls in the background of this picture can't quite understand what all of the fuss is about, but those of you reading our blog back when we started in the US will probably recall a love affair bordering on obsession with peanut butter, and so can appreciate my greedy eyes!

Riding to the top of a big climb.  Lago Fortuna in the Cordillera Central in Panamá

Fuelled by peanut butter, we spent all afternoon scaling the Cordillera Central to cross back from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast. Reaching the top we laid down the bikes, took a breather and enjoyed the views.

Oil pipeline, Cordillera Central, Panamá

Here's a familiar sight. Back in July last year when we started the trip, we followed a pipeline carrying Alaskan oil hundreds of miles cross country to the Pacific Ocean. We weren't expecting to ever see the pipe again, least of all in Panamá. It seems the most cost effective way to get oil to the East Coast of the US is to send it all the way to Panamá by boat, pump it back into the pipes and across the narrowest land mass and then put it on a boat again in the Atlantic Ocean and send it back north.

James bathing in a cold river in the Cordillera Central, Panamá

For the second night in a row, we found a great camping spot with a delicious river to take a chilly dip the next morning.

Waiting out the rain at a bus stop outside Gualaca, Panamá

We descended from the mountains and got stuck in a downpour. Pulling into a bus stop outside of Gualaca as the heavens opened, we attempted to amuse ourselves for the next three hours as it showed no signs of letting up....

Car in a rainstorm outside Gualaca, Panamá

...James resorted to taking pictures of passing cars sloshing through the deep puddles while I sang all the songs I knew that featured the word "rain" at the top of my voice - with only two in my repertoire, it got pretty tedious.

Manuel's horse in Higueron near Gualaca, Panamá

We had just decided to turn back to Gualaca and try to find a hotel when Manuel came out of a nearby house and invited us to stay. He turned out to be a true Panamanian cowboy taking part in rodeos and lasso competitions locally. I loved the stripped down simplicity of his life, from choosing to live alone after three disastrous marriages, right down to the fact that his horse was simply called "Horse".

Camping in the hammock room at Isla Boca Grande, Panamá

The following day the rain cleared and after an unwelcome detour to Davíd to get cash, we had a long day's ride back to the Pacific Coast. It was worth it though as at the road's end lay Isla Boca Grande, a tiny island reached by speedboat. We camped here amongst hammocks and howler monkeys.

Playa sign on the jungle path on Isla Boca Grande, Panamá

A rest day here meant the most strenous thing we did was follow signs to the beach...

Tropical plants on the jungle path on Isla Boca Grande, Panamá

...and while away the afternoon looking at tropical plants and watching crabs scuttle across the sand.

Steep steps down to the pontoon on Isla Boca Grande, Panamá

The entrance and exit to this lovely island wasn't quite so stress-free. An ambitious German architect designed this hideaway on the top of a hill and obviously added the staircase as an afterthought. Tiled, steep, slippery...not ideal conditions for carrying a bike up and down to a boat.

Spending the night at the aeronaval base near Quebrada Piedra, Panamá

Leaving the coast behind, we headed inland and towards Panamá City. We took the turning for a well known cyclists' detour off the Interamericana towards Soná and started looking for somewhere to camp. Asking at a deserted aeronaval base really paid off. The marines there didn't just offer us a place to pitch the tent, they gave us our own air conditioned room in the barracks and fed us a tasty Panamanian dinner.

Sarah cycling towards Playa Santa Catalina, Panamá

We underestimated ourselves and the flatness of Panamanian roads and made quicker progress than expected towards the city and our deadline date to meet James' brother, Ed, who was coming out to visit for a holiday. So with lots of extra days to spare, we did another dash down to the coast for a few more days on the Pacific....

Mechanic's workshop in Hicaco, Panamá

...stopping at a workshop along the way to fix one of James' broken bottle cages. This mechanic did a great job on a shoddy piece of kit that's hopefully been given a new lease of life.

Flower, Santa Catalina, Panamá

We whiled away a few days in Santa Catalina, camping in the pretty garden of Blue Zone hostel. Whilst there we bumped into two fellow PanAmerican touring cyclists. Australian Anna set off from Alaska in 2009 and is currently working in Santa Catalina, and Spaniard Salva, who is six years into an epic round the world journey, currently trying to cross the treacherous Darién Gap into Colombia.

A pifa fruit from one of Omar's palms, El Embalsadero, Panamá

Sipping licuados at Omar's roadside stall on the way to Panama City was a real treat. It led to an invitation to camp and Omar cooked us a delicious Panamian dinner of grilled pork with pifa, the fruit of a local palm tree which tastes a bit like squash. He also entered into my country comparisons game, telling us that pifa in Panamá are traditionally served with salt, but in neighbouring Costa Rica and Colombia they are called something else and served with mayonnaise and honey respectively.

The seafront wall looking at the business district of Panamá City

After a country of surprises, we found ourselves in Panamá City and at the end of the North American leg of our journey having clocked up 13,349kms in the 409 days since setting off from Anchorage last year. The final surprise in Panamá was the capital city itself, a disconcerting yet interesting mix of a string of Western skyscrapers, a dollop of Latin American spirit, a dose of restored Colonial buildings and a smidge of traditional fishing culture thrown in. This picture doesn't tell the full story as a snapped gear cable on James' bike that we couldn't fix resulted in us taking the bus for the final 300km....ah, there was the anti climax I was expecting from Panamá after all.

 

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Rohloff hub with worn hub bearings for repair

Bike problem no.1: Sarah's broken Rohloff hub, supposedly the "Rolls Royce" of gear systems for bike touring. With worn hub bearings, it's currently winging its way to Cycle Monkey in California - one of only two places in the world that can repair it. When I write that, it does seem like the most ridiculous choice of bike part ever for touring. Thing is, they're not meant to go wrong...

Seized Rohloff female bayonet connector

Bike problem no.2: my seized Rohloff bayonnet connector, which prevented us from changing a broken shifter cable and forced us into the bus for the last 300km into Panama City. Unsurprisingly, after a trouble-free first year, we're quickly falling out of love with our Rohloffs. Luckily we were in time to get an order in before my brother Ed (aka our kit mule), arrived...

Bag of replacement bike parts

...bearing a lovely pink-spotted Santa's sack of replacement parts and spares. After a year of abuse in all weather, it seems our "kit honyemoon" is well and truly over, with things breaking and wearing out with increasing regularity.

Moody Panama City skyline

Panama City, perched at the end of Central America before the impenetrable jungle of the Darién Gap, is truly a city of contrasts: where a skyline of lego skyscrapers...

Panama City apartment blocks

...meets concrete apartment blocks...

Derelict building Casco Viejo Panama City

...meets Old World charm.

Casco Viejo cat Panama City

We opted for the quieter pace of the Casco Viejo (Old Town), away from the 6-lane motorways and shopping malls. Except it wasn't really that quiet, as the whole area is currently under massive renovation to turn the city into a tourist "destination" in it's own right.

Wooden balcony Casco Viejo Panama City

It reminded us of a mini Havana, Cuba - somewhere between Habana Centro and Habana Vieja, with steakhouses and boutique hotels gradually replacing the gloriously ramshackle wooden apartment buildings and balconies.

Flag on balcony Casco Viejo Panama City

Above the diggers though you could still see signs of the original residents clinging onto their space...

Balcony Casco Viejo Panama City

...and keeping an eye on proceedings below. You have to hope that in the rush to regenerate, the character and soul of the original Casco Viejo is not entirely lost - as we felt it had been in other colonial "gems" such as Antigua, Guatemala and parts of Oaxaca City, Mexico.

Murals Casco Viejo Panama City

Down at street level, these murals by Panamanian artist Rolando de Sedas added a splash of colour...

Mural Casco Viejo Panama City

...and pouting Latina spirit.

Motorbike repairs Panama City

Walking around the Casco Viejo, we bumped into Jorge (with his Mexican wife María) and Jere, both Argentines on epic motorbike trips. Jorge has been on the road for over 10 years...

Rodando por America motorbike

...while Jere is doing the reverse of our trip, heading north from Patagonia up to Alaska.

Fried Corvina fish market Panama City

Our one day whistle-stop tour of Panama City with Ed started of course with food - a delicious lunch of ceviche and fried Corvina (sea bass) at the fish market.

Miraflores Locks Panama Canal

We couldn't visit Panama without visiting its most famous landmark - the Canal, and so we headed out to the Miraflores Locks to catch the afternoon's action. Although sceptical at how excited I could get about some big ships and a lock, it was actually fascinating to watch them line up from the Caribbean side...

Ship entering Miraflores Locks Panama Canal

...move into the lock with the help of some very cool tug trains, and slowly drop as the water level falls.

Miraflores Lock Panama City

Finally the enormous gates opened...

Ship leaving Miraflores Lock Panama Canal

...and they inched their way out towards the Pacific, just 17m lower and their bank account $30,000 lighter.

chat Panama City

Back in the City, it was down to the front for over a year's worth of brotherly catch up...

Stone throwing Panama City

...followed by the first of many editions of the obligatory Butcher "bet you can't hit that" stone throwing game - just to re-establish bragging rights.

Panama City night sky

After taking in the surreal Panama City skyline by night, we called it a day - ready for an early start back over the Cordillera Central to the Caribbean, and the boat that will take us to Colombia and South America.

James

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Sailing in the San Blas

August 31st, 2012

 

Our bikes onboard the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

So we set sail from El Porvenir, Panamá to Cartagena, Colombia. The fact that the Darién Gap between Panamá and Colombia is an inhospitable and dangerous place to be riding a bike was the perfect excuse for us to load the bikes onto a boat and for James' brother Ed to join us for a holiday cruise across the Caribbean to the start of our next cycling leg in South America.

Fellow guests on the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

The eleven of us (Seamus is hiding!) who sailed together on the M/S Indpendence. A mix of nationalities and stories...we all rubbed along together very nicely. The boat has space for twenty four people but we were all grateful for it being less than half full.

Buying fruit and veg from the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Once we were on board for our five day journey, the captain also needed to take on supplies. Handily, the fruit and veg boat pulled up alongside the Independence and he did a little bit of shopping....

Buying fruit and veg from the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

....and the fruit and veg men had their work cut out calculating the hefty bill.

Kuna fisherman selling lobster from his dugout canoe; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Then it was time to visit the next shop. This time it was the lobster man who was selling his catch from a dugout canoe. Our captain Michel bought us a lobster feast for the first night on board.

Kuna tribeswomen selling hand woven souvenirs from their canoes; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

We spent three days sailing in the San Blas, a collection of 378 islands just off the coast of Panamá. 49 of the islands are home to the indigenous Kuna tribe who make their living fishing and selling food and souvenirs to boats like ours....

Tropical island; sailing from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia

...while the uninhabited islands are just cocunut trees and blinding white sand. Close your eyes and think of your typical "tropical island paradise"...yep, exactly. I felt like we'd stepped into the pages of a luxury travel brochure when we woke up each morning to scenes like this.

Kuna's dugout canoe; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Unlike our luxurious 85ft yacht, the locals go for a more simple vehicle, a dugout canoe.

Sunset on the San Blas islands; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

As the sun went down on our first night in the San Blas...

On deck of the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

...we played cards, drank beer and looked forward to our lobster feast...

Eating lobster on the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

...where James got to dissect his dinner a little more intimately than he would have liked.

Sun over the San Blas islands, Panamá

The days then took on a hypnotically laid back routine; spending our time basking in the sunshine and bathing in the pristine Caribbean: snorkelling, kayaking, eating and reading.

Playing volleyball in the San Blas islands

A little more activity on the evening of day two as we headed to one of the islands for a beach bbq. The more energetic of us dabbled with a spot of beach volleyball - Australian Mike showing us how it's done!

The M/S Independence at sunset, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Having delicious grilled fish on the island, we could look back and admire our yacht from afar: the M/S Independence bobbing in the water as the sun goes down.

Mike and Seamus kayaking out to the dolphins in the San Blas islands; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Dolphins came to visit on day three. Most of us watched from the boat but Mike and Seamus were lucky enough to be out on the kayak and gave chase for a close up view.

Clouds gather over the San Blas islands, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

The dolphins beat a hasty retreat as black clouds started to gather; we could see a storm brewing and then someone spotted a tornado on the distant horizon. I half expected the captain to shout "batten down the hatches"! He wasn't quite so melodramatic but it was definitely time to move away from the San Blas and set sail for Colombia.

Reading on the boat; sailing on the M/S Indpenence from Panamá to Colombia

The storm never reached us and a calm day of open water sailing meant nothing more to do except read...

Sleeping through the day on the M/S Indpenence from Panamá to Colombia

...and sleep. We weren't the only ones using the boat as a delivery service. In between snoozing on deck, Marcus kept close watch on his motorbike that he was shipping over to Colombia from Germany.

Ropes on the M/S Indpenence; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

The rest of us had little to do as captain Michel took charge and navigated across the open water. It was a relief not to have to helplessly tackle ropes, sails and nautical language as we had done on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico back in December last year.

Rope and sail on the M/S Indpenence; sailing from Panamá to Colombia

Despite being a sailing boat the wind wasn't right and we did the entire journey using the motor. Michel proclaimed this was the calmest crossing he had made in forty years - much to my relief; the sea sickness I was dreading never came.

Swimming in the Atlantic ocean, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

When Michel cautiously offered us the chance to swim in open water, peppered with warnings of sharks and other beasties, we jumped at the chance to take a delicious dip in the vast ocean. Thankfully all eleven of us came back out in one piece. (Photo: Dean Murphy)

Sun goes down over open water; sailing on the M/S Indpenence from Panamá to Colombia

We made quick time sailing under the motor and as the sun went down on a full day spent in open water we were only a few hours from Cartagena, where we slept in the harbour.

Captain Michél and Dean on the M/S Independence, sailing from Panamá to Colombia

The next morning, before we unloaded, there was just time for our quirky captain Michel to show Dean and the rest of a us a few essential self defence moves for survival in Colombia, and then we went our separate ways.

One of the San Blas islands, Panamá

A final, gratuitous shot of the islands we fell in love with. The memorable boat journey was well worth the expense; blessed with fine weather, capable crew, good people, great food and exquisite scenery we couldn't have wished for a finer way to travel from one continent to the next.

Sarah

 

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