Saturday, July 25, 2009

Getting to Colombia

Jeff and I had been riding together for a week, and had planned on shipping the bikes into Colombia together. From there we would part ways: I would stay behind to experience more of Colombia, and he would move on towards his goal of Lima, Peru. Unfortunately, do to matters back home that needed his attention, he suddenly had to abort and return to the States. I was back on my own.

I continued with the original plan of shipping the bike out of Panama City with an air cargo company to the capital city of Bogota, in the center of Colombia. Reviewing the map, Cartagena was a “must see” on my list, but was up north on the Caribbean coast. The necessary backtracking, and the fact that the cost of air transport had dramatically increased, led me to seek out other shipping options.

There are three viable methods of transporting a motorcycle into South America:

-Air cargo, which means you drop off the bike at the airport with battery disconnected and fuel tank drained. You then buy a personal plane ticket for a later date, while checking all your gear as luggage. Downside: Its expensive, you are separated from your bike, additional fees can suddenly materialize, and a myriad of papers need to be rubber-stamped.

-Cargo boats, usually banana boats, can get you over the border, into Turbo, Colombia, but you personally have to switch boats before reaching shore, because cargo ships cannot transport passengers. Downside: you are separated from your bike, there can be many unforeseen variables to contend with, and little interest in going to the port city of Turbo.

-Sailboats are the third option. The cruise takes five days to complete and includes three days anchored in the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama snorkeling. The final destination is the colonial fortress city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast. As good as that sounds, I had heard and read many horror stories regarding this method; Drunken captains, poor food and/or shortages, additional fees once out to sea (“your bike scratched my boat, that’s another $200 that you must pay before I will unload the bike”). Downside: cannot chose your shipmates, at the mercy of the captain’s every whim and personality misgivings, and precarious bike loading and unloading methods.

A day after sending out a handful of emails, I received a response from Mark of Freshair Charters. On the day prior, I had found a couple of leads on the “go to” websites for adventure motorcyclists, Horizons Unlimited and Adventure Rider. Mark had just pulled into port earlier that day and still had two large bikes strapped atop the deck of his boat Melody. If I liked, I could come out the following day to watch the unloading process and meet the bikes’ owners. Mark, “Cap’n Marco”, has been doing the trip for nine years and takes an average of 16 bikes a year. The one-hour ride from Panama City to the Portobelo harbor to meet him and Melody convinced me, and I handed over a $100 cash deposit. Now, I just had to wait five days for his next sailing, while he found other passengers to fill the berths and restock supplies. The cost was $370 for me, and the same for the bike, $740 total (I had to supply my own alcohol or soda.) Food and lodging for five days, and transport – not too bad. And, I could sleep next to my bike if I wanted to, never to be out of my sight.

I stayed at Hostel Wunderbar in Puerto Lindo while I waited for my boat. Days were filled with “hammock reading” or wasting time on the beach on Isla Grande - a short water taxi ride away. Everyday at the hostel brought a fresh supply of backpackers who had either just disembarked from a trip or were crashing for the night before their morning departure. Soon enough, I was up to speed on all the local gossip, and realized how important it was to get onto the right boat. Some boats were known as party boats, where drugs and mayhem ruled, others had you bring your own food, or worse, fed you spaghetti and hot dogs the entire time. As people came and went, I kept wondering whom I would I have to share the five-day cruise with.

A week later I was breathing through a tube and taking steady aim at a gilled target, some ten feet in front of me. Like a Revolutionary War era musket, you get one shot with a spear gun, before having to forego the laborious reloading process. I had already missed twice early in the morning with some smaller fish, and felt like this Triggerfish was my day’s last chance. He began swimming away from me. From behind, the wafer shaped fish does not offer much to shoot at, so I calmly followed . . . waiting. And then it happened. The fish abruptly turned left exposing one of his two broad sides. His change of course would prove fatal. I released the spear from the gun dubbed, “Hemingway”, and absorbed the full recoil of the three retracted elastic bands. Direct hit!

The following day the captain’s Colombian wife Paola, served us all delicious Triggerfish tacos for lunch, as I recounted the battle to my captive audience, “it was either him or me”. The rolled eyes belonged to a young couple from London, college student from Texas, and two recent grads from the Air Force Academy. All of which, I now consider friends. Paola made many excellent meals during the trip culminating in a full-tilt Christmas styled turkey dinner with all the trimmings (don’t know how she did it). Cap’n Marco (who doesn’t drink) made sure we went to bed exhausted every night, by filling our days with - snorkeling, fishing, and visits to the nearby Kuna villages – the indigenous people that rule and inhabit the autonomous chain of islands. When he asked if any of us would mind staying an extra day before beginning our 36-hour crossing of the Caribbean due to rough seas – it was unanimous.

We pulled into the harbor of Cartagena a day late on July 20th, Colombia’s Independence Day.


Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia July 15 - 20 , 2009
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sailing to the Next Continent

Yesterday I secured my passage into South America, or at least I think I did. On either Saturday the 11th, or Wednesday the 15th I will strap my bike to the mast of the steel-hulled sailboat "Melody" and take off on the five day voyage through the San Blas islands, and across the Caribbean Sea to Cartagena, Colombia - leaving from the old pirate haunt and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Portobelo, Panama. The alternative was to ship the bike via air into Bogota, and myself on a separate flight. I am guessing the trip on the Melody with be more adventurous, and a whole lot less luxurious.

The problem of getting in into Colombia from Panama is a 54-mile section of jungle that separates the two countries, called the Darien Gap. The Pan American Highway is the longest motorable road in the world, with the exception of this "gap". The road, otherwise, spans from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. The idea for the road took shape in the early 1920's and each country completed it's own portion at various times. The Darien section proved especially difficult due to problems associated with the jungle terrain, insects, foot and mouth disease, and conflicts with the indigenous tribes of the the area. Many of the diseases are no longer a major concern, but the project was never resumed. Today, it is a dense and lawless jungle.

I am very excited and anxious to start the next leg of the journey. I have thoroughly enjoyed Mexico and Central America, but I question whether they have enjoyed me? Things seemed to go my way, but my host countries didn't always fare so well. Looking back at it now, I seem to be the only logical common denominator in a series of bizarre events: Mexico - international flu pandemic breaks out soon after I arrive. My first week in Guatemala the president and first lady are accused of murder by the dead man in YouTube video (you can't write drama like this!) and threatens peace of the nation. The day before I get into Honduras, all the branch heads of the military quit and threaten a coup d'etat. The day after I drive through the capital, the coup takes takes place. The country remains in turmoil.

Now, I could take the blame for these events, and turn myself in, or consider this: "things just happen here". As the guy sitting next to me in the Honduran bar said, (while watching the president speak on TV) "Ah, we're due for a coup, it's been years since our last one".

Or, I could just keep moving :)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

End of the Road

Today Jeff and I reached Panama City. That means that I get to retire another map (Central America), and that is a mighty good reason to celebrate!

Today was a beautiful day of riding- hot, but clear open roads all the way into the city. I did, however, finally have my first run in with the police. We had heard that there were a lot of cops on the road, and had already seen several, but old habits die hard - I was clearly speeding. It all went down just has I had rehearsed it (in my head): I could pay a $18 fine in Panama City or pay $16 right now. I showed him my last $5, which was honestly all the money I had on me, but asked if I could take his picture in front of my bike, and if he would PLEASE take a photo of me on his bike. A new friend was made, and the ticket was "dismissed".

Tomorrow I will start looking into a ferry that is supposed to run from Colon, Panama, through the canal, to Cartagena, Colombia. The alternative is flying the bike and myself on separate flights. I would rather play pirate for a few days.

Unfortunately, it looks like Jeff is going to have to cut his trip short, to return home to deal with some personal matters. It's really too bad because I know how much he has been looking forward to South America. Its been a nice break riding with someone this last week. He will be missed.

Off to the casino up around the corner to "retire the map" :)