The border crossing into Panama was over Rio Sixiola where there was an old ricketedy old railway bridge for pedestrians and a paved side bridge for cars. Crossing into Panama requires proof of onward passage and unfortunately our bikes are not enough. We had prepared for this and actually got some fake plane tickets stating first class seats flying out of Panama City on a United Airlines flight on June 15; you really can find anything online! The immigration officer didn’t even ask for it and we hurried out of the office before someone changed their minds. Unfortunately, the immigration officer slacked off in checking other things as well as we found out 12km down the road at a military checkpoint where we found out we had missed paying an entrance tax. He would not let us pass, demanding that we go back to the border to pay the $3USD. Bryan jumped into a collective taxi with our passports while I watched our bikes. The men at the checkpoint were actually very nice and I ended up chatting with them for a bit, learning that the supervising officer has a Chinese great-grandfather, has five kids and six grandkids but still feels young at 55 years old. Have to commend them for no corruption at this checkpoint. I asked, “Can I pay you here?” hoping to avoid a trip back to the border. The supervisor replied, “No, there is no cash here.”
We spent a couple nights in Changuinola, a grungy border city with dark bars pounding out loud music into the night, lots of casinos and hotels clustered around the bus stop, through some stormy weather. It was a short but hilly 30km ride through misty rainforest from Changuinola to Almirante where the ferry left to Bocas del Toro. Bocas del Toro is nice but a little overrated. It’s just a backpacker place with a hopping party scene that made me reminisce the quiet jungle and beach around Puerto Viejo. Our highlight of Bocas del Toro was going for a couple dives where we descended into a watery otherworld.
Riding out from Almirante, we camped in a little indigenous village that night where they rarely see outsiders…if ever. We were the celebrities of a reality TV show for the night and the whole village came out to watch us…often silently standing there at the edge of structure we were camping in. The next day was a good, hot ride today with a bit of swim break at a local swimming hole on the river. After the swim break, we climbed slowly at first along the river then we crossed a bridge over the river and afterwards the climb got steep. Later looking at the map, we realized that this section was a 14% climb! My knee was starting to ache on one especially steep part and we stopped soon after for the night at a little indigenous community comprising of four families with wooden stilt homes built into the jungled mountainside. It was episode 2 of the reality TV show though we got to know this group of kids a bit more. They are Comarka indigenous people in the Ngobe Blugles tribe. The oldest boy, aged 16, said that there are about 3 million Comarka people in Bocas del Toro. Hello in the local Dialeckto language is a complicated phrase “Hadwu haydway hodebt” which I could not get completely right no matter how I tried to the giggles of the children.
It was a steep ascent with a notable lack of appropriate switchbacking. It was like Panama’s engineers were preoccupied with the Panama Canal and they had just paved old walking trails over the mountain range. A fair portion of this section was 12% grade.There were beautiful waterfalls including Angel’s Hair 1 and 2 which were a wonderful refreshing break. However, the many instances of falling water attested to the steepness of the climb. We asecended from the rainforest to a lush and wild cloudforest today watching the tall trees with hanging vines shorten and become replaced with shorter, stouter plant varieties. The sides of the road were lined with the big leaves of poor man’s umbrellas as we ascended into misty heights. We camped out on the Lago Fortuna dam visitor centre’s deck with a beautiful view of the lake and the dam. It produces 23% of Panama’s energy and is in the middle of a national park reserve. Since we are high in elevation, it was so cold at night that we used our sleeping bag!
We climbed out of Lago Fortuna, a steep grind with stunning views over the pristine forest, and then it was a crazy steep up to 16% grade descent through jungle and pastureland where Bryan set his new highest speed at 72km/hr. Since we were flying down the side of the mountain range, we had a magnificent view of the flatlands below right out to islands in the ocean. While it was cold at the beginning of our descent and I had contemplated getting out my windbreaker jacket, by Gualaca about 20km down from the village in the mountains, it was sweaty hot and humid again. We made it out to the Pan-American highway and it was hilly, hot, busy with traffic and under construction. About 5km down the road, we realized we had biked through probably the best in Panama and we were not really enjoying the 400km long construction project. We hitched to David and made plans to bus to Panama City.
Panama City is a vibrant place that seems more like an American city with skyscrapers, a modern metro system, and a green park seawall with joggers and cyclists in colourful spandex active wear. We went to the old town in San Felipe where colonial buildings are being restored with beautiful, crisp facades and rode our bikes along the seawall to downtown.
We went to Bicicletas Rali bike shop downtown to get a rattle in Bryan’s back wheel checked out. They immediately started working on it and continued working on it for about three hours first replacing a bearing in Bryan’s back hub which had suffered on the mountains and working with the spokes. When it was all done, we asked how much it would be and he told us nothing! Wow! We went to the Fishermen’s market where there were lots of little eatery-bars set up with plastic chairs and tables under tents selling cold beer and delicious seafood and on our last day in Panama City, we went out to the Miraflores Locks. There are three sets of locks that act as water elevators bringing ships up to the level of the lakes and then back down to sea level in the other ocean. They are amazing examples of technology and the creativity of humans. It is even more amazing that the Panama Canal has been around for 100 years as of this year! We got to see some huge ships going though the locks with seemingly only inches on each side between the boat and the canal wall.
We cycled about 100km back over to the Caribbean split into two leisurely days. We cycled approximately the first 30km on the toll highway from Panama City to Colon and it was like we were transported back to Mexico with wide lane sized shoulders, good pavement and reasonable grading. The last 33km on the quiet, traffic free coastal road to Portobelo was my favorite ride in the whole country – winding through small towns that feels a world away from ultra modern Panama City, through jungles and past streams loud with frogs and riding by beautiful beaches and bays. Though crossing back over to the Caribbean from the Pacific was hilly, the reasonable 5-6% grade hills were almost effortless compared to the crazy 12-14% grades in Chiriqui.
Today, Portobelo is a sleepy village on a tranquil bay popular with people sailing around the Caribbean. There are only a couple little corner-store supermarkets, a few restaurants and fruits and vegetables are sold from the back of a truck that drives around sometimes. However, Portobelo has a big history and is filled with the ruins of old forts and castles. Portobelo was founded in 1597 by the Spanish and became their most important Caribbean port for silver from Peru. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Portobelo was a port for the main route of the Spanish treasure fleet, which other stops were Veracruz, Cartagena, Havana and Seville in Spain. All of that treasure was luring for pirates so the Spanish Empire enstated twice a year convoys, which were also called the silver fleet. Portobelo had its share of pirate attacks including the privateer William Parker who captured and sacked the city in 1601 and Captain Henry Morgan in 1668. Not only pirates, Portobelo was central in wars between the Spanish and the British including the failed Blockade of Porto Bello in 1726 and the British capturing the city in 1739 during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The victory after the diaster just over a decade was wildly celebrated with song and place namings. Portobello Road in London was named after Portobelo in the Americas rather than the other way around such as it is in most colonial cases. The Spanish recovered Portobelo in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741 but it marked the beginning of Portobelo’s decline as the Spanish Empire switched from large fleets going to a few ports to small fleets going to many ports in order to make them less subject to attack.
- Sixiola to David then Panama City to Portobelo
- May 23, 2014 to June 11, 2014
- 9 days from border of Costa Rica at Sixiola to David with 3 nights in Bocas del Toro, 4 nights in Panama city and then 2 days riding back across to the Caribbean
- This section consisted of 20 days
- Day 264 to 283 (of overall trip) in last half of month 8 and first week of month 9 of the trip
- Total km travelled – 372.8 km
- Daily average – 46.6 km per riding day
- Number of rest days – 12 days
- Route – Sixiola to David from theCaribbean to the Pacific over the mountains, bus from David to Panama City and then ride again from the Pacific to the Caribbean Panama City to Portobelo
- Weather – 17 days with periods of rain (often thunderstorms at nigh) and 3 days sunny
- Accommodation – 4 nights wildcamping, 5 nights sailing, 11 nights hotel/hostel