Ups and downs in Panama

For comparison purposes Panama can be grouped together with Costa Rica; they have the highest GDPs per capita in Central America - well above Belize. (Nicaragua has the lowest.) That said, I rode through the remote northwestern provinces of Bocas del Toro and Ngäbe-Buglé before I reached Chiriquí and the second city of David, so I saw a lot of rural poverty before I saw any urban prosperity. (Costa Rica felt more uniformly prosperous.)

I had a pretty up-and-down time in Panama, figuratively as well as literally. I left Costa Rica during a few days of heavy rain, though the weather cleared in time for me to enjoy Panama's gorgeous northwestern scenery.

My first night was memorable. Perhaps slightly thrown by a time-change I left it late to find a safe, flat place to camp and did something I've almost never done before: approached a house at dusk and asked to camp. The huge family - consisting mostly of women and girls - seemed like their eyes might pop out of their heads, but one sister got it together enough to point out a flat spot and introduce the assembled family members. The next day - again thrown by the time-change - I packed up and left before dawn and only several hours later found a tiny shop in the middle of an indigenous village just in time before I ran out of food and water. This was certainly the longest stretch in Central America without anywhere to get basic provisions.

As I approached what I knew would be a mega climb to the top of the Cordillera de Talamanca I realised I simply couldn't be bothered! After having some lunch I waited about an hour for a suitable bus then decided to try my luck with two guys heading in the right direction with a small lorry. Success! They turned out to be very nice, and the driver took considerable enjoyment in pointing out at regular intervals what a ginormous climb I'd have had to do if he wasn't giving me a lift. The scenery was fabulous. They dropped me at the turn-off to a 'hike-in' jungle hostel I wanted to check out, on the southern side of the ridge.

On balance the Lost and Found Hostel was probably a mistake. The view west towards Volcán Barú is super, but were the hostel anywhere else it'd probably go out of business: too few run-down facilities for far too many backpackers. Fact is, I'm in my forties now and an introvert, so it takes a pretty special hostel not to irritate the hell out of me. This one was particularly unsuitable for me on account of having to make three trips up and down a steep, rocky path (about 15 minutes each way) just to carry all my heavy, awkward-shaped panniers up. I had to leave the bike locked at the bottom of the path which I wasn't thrilled about. The highlight was undoubtedly a solo walk the following day, steeply uphill through the jungle to a view point. I saw little yellow orchids, leaf-cutter ants, tarantula hawk wasps, a coati, hummingbirds, vultures, and my new favourite bird a black-faced solitaire. The latter makes an extraordinary metallic sound which at first I thought must be an insect.

The next day while I was visiting a canyon somebody stole my remaining budget for Panama (about $80USD) and my sole means of navigation/emergency contact (the phone Uri gave me a year ago). I take risks with my stuff every day. I can't not. There are a couple of things I could have done differently in that particular situation and I'll be more careful in future. But there's only so much I can do if I want to swim or something. 'Bad stuff' happens to me very rarely, but - fuck - that kind of thing is a stark reminder of how exposed and vulnerable I am.

I had planned to camp there but thought better of it. I did however jump into the canyon. My heart was absolutely racing cos I'm funny about edges, but I did it and had time to feel scared all the way down! Then, after stopping at the local police station - where the officer on duty told me thieves watch from the trees - I continued towards Boquete and found a different place to wild camp. One of very few wild camping nights in Central America.

My visit to Boquete didn't start well either. Outside a restaurant a car driver tried to move my bike - immobilised with my heavy lock through the front wheel - presumably in order to park his car in a position more to his liking, and dropped the bike causing the left-side panniers to detach. Raging, I left a strongly-worded note on his windscreen. I'd really had enough of the Central American culture of viewing bicyclists as obviously less worthy of respect than motorists. Right after this I was turned away from the fire station for the first time in Central America.

Fortunately I found a cheap pension where I could calm down and camp for a couple of nights and wait to see if the weather forecast would offer any hope of clear conditions at dawn atop Volcán Barú. The second night I decided to go for it. A kind taxi driver agreed to pick me up at midnight and drive me to the start of the hike for under the going rate.

Starting at 00:15 I climbed continuously (for 13.5kms and about 1,700m elevation-gain) until 04:30 when I reached the summit at about 3,500m well before dawn. My rucksack was heavy with clothing, food and 3 litres of water, so the main discomfort on the way up was my lower back, followed towards the end by my achilles tendons. Climbing solo through UTTER silence (the most profound and prolonged I've ever experienced) and almost total darkness was a wholly new experience for me and one I might not have enjoyed so wholeheartedly a few years ago. I overtook several groups along the way - some of whom seemed poorly prepared - and was the first to reach the summit where I changed into dry clothes, two jackets, hat and gloves and did my best to get warm. Fortunately there was absolutely no wind.

Just before sunrise most folks climbed to the highest point via a short but steep rock face. I tried, but it was just too precarious for me especially in my cycling shoes with metal cleats on their soles! I was quite content to enjoy the dawn from a less precipitous spot! I felt lucky that there was a clear view into the enormous crater and down to the southwest, though not as far as either coastline.

After taking lots of photos and a short video I followed everybody else back down, though this time I did not catch up with anyone. The road, which is only suitable for 4x4 vehicles, is a strange mixture of volcanic dust and loose rocks. It had been OK (though steep) to ascend, but was seriously hard work to descend. I slipped many times. While the ascent had been mesmerising in an enjoyable way, the descent was mind-numbingly boring not least because it was too cloudy to see anything. I kept my eyes peeled for resplendent quetzals but didn't see any.

I felt shattered and flat as a pancake on getting back to my campsite, whereupon I had no choice but to pack up (in the rain) and ride the 40km into David. Fortunately it was downhill the entire way and there was a good shoulder, though at times I had an alarming sense that I might nod off! In David it was pointless to try to get anything dry so I just ate some nice seafood and went to bed very early, sleeping for 13 hours.

I dread flying with my bike but the journey to Colombia went pretty smoothly really. A bike shop I'd contacted not only gave me a large bike box but also helped me a bit with the packing, in an unobtrusive way. At David airport I expected to have to pay $100 to fly my bike to Colombia. It turned out I was twenty kilos overweight so I'd have to pay $170. Dismayed I asked very politely if he could give me a discount as I don't have much money. To cut a long story short after much rearranging of stuff to create a very heavy 'carry-on' pannier (everybody behind me moved to another queue!!) and much frowning and pushing of buttons on the computadora he somehow ended up charging me... zero. So Panama effectively reimbursed me for the (cash part of the) robbery!

Arriving in Cartagena late at night I was relieved to get a 90-day stamp in my passport without even having to show my outbound ticket, then immensely irritated to find you cannot get a trolley unless you pay a man to push it for you to a taxi. What a racket! 50 kilograms of boxed bike and bagged panniers are not fun things to drag around an airport with your bare hands, I can tell you. Eventually I managed to get some cash and though a taxi driver definitely overcharged me for the short journey into the historic centre it still only cost £5. At my (first floor - doh!) hostel a young woman employee kindly helped me get the enormous, heavy box up the stairs. I was too wired to sleep, so instead did some laundry and hung out my tent to dry, before retiring to my air-conditioned dorm at 2am for my first sleep in SOUTH America. I hadn't dared to open the box.