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.
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.
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.
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...
...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!
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.
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.
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.
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....
...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.
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".
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.
A rest day here meant the most strenous thing we did was follow signs to the beach...
...and while away the afternoon looking at tropical plants and watching crabs scuttle across the sand.
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.
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.
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....
...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.
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.
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.
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.