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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1 comment:

  1. Yeah Mike!

    What a precarious situation! Love the video. I really think you need to watch Romancing the Stone for some inspiration.

    Take care buddy,

    Micah & Brooke