Costa Rica to Colombia. Getting around the ‘Darien Gap’

I’m writing this about two days ride out from the Colombian capital of Bogota. It took a day of travel to get around the Darien Gap and 3 days of riding to the starting point before I began to drop down south again, to begin the second part of this journey.

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Leaving Costa Rica at Golfico
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Panama and its cloud covered mountains
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This boy has nailed down the best way to travel in Colombia!

 

The story picks up from the Costa Rican border, where my Kiwi friend Andrew and I had crossed over at night, in the company of some fun Cubans heading the other way, starting their own journey, trying to get into The States. Border regions are never the safest of places to be, so we quickly looked for somewhere to camp. I asked a shopkeeper close by if we could set up in his back yard. He gave us space in his two hammocks for the night. Apparently the message hadn’t been relayed to the grandpa, who despite having a room of his own, took exception to finding a gringo in ‘his’ hammock. Whilst me and Andrew were nailing down a couple of Sponches (heavenly marshmallow and coconut biscuits), el grampie wandered up to us and proceeded to collapse into my hammock. He gave me a stare suggesting he couldn’t care less, smiled and then began to fake snore, which eventually turned into a deep real one. Now without a bed for the night, I sat on an overturned crate and waited for my new friend to wake up. Sure enough, an hour later and he was up and off to the bathroom. I saw my window of opportunity, grabbed my mozzie net and set myself up for the night, much to the annoyance of gramps. In the morning, sure enough we woke to grandpa sweeping the dirt next to us, with his thick moustache and glaring eyes staring straight at my face.

We took off quickly that morning to head over the rolling hills of the beautiful Costa Rican landscape. We pulled off the road for a swim with the locals in the rapids to cool off from the relentless heat. This you have to get right in this part of the world as in some of the rivers, you’ll be swimming with the crocodiles if you’re not careful. For cooling down, where Mexico had its ‘jugos’, Guatemala it’s ‘cocos’, Costa Rica had milkshakes (all 900 calories worth). These glorious things kept me cool the whole way through and kept the weight on me a little longer! One strawberry shake later to toast to a good day, we’d set up camp in a field surrounded by Costa Rica’s stunning mountains. The next day, after another unsuccessful iguana hunt, I said bye to Andrew as he needed to head to the capital to pick up something for his bike. I set my sights to the coast road, and the stunning San Antonio National Park.

I hadn’t taken a full day off for a couple of weeks and although I had a few kms to crack out in the morning, I stopped over in Quepos to check out what this park had to offer. I couldn’t afford the $16 entrance fee so I scouted out a way to attempt to get into the park. On thinking I’d cracked it, I climbed around the rocks towards the beach at San Antonio. Grinning from ear to ear, thinking I was onto a winner, I went to gloriously jump onto the sand of the national park, only for a new arch nemesis, a park security guard, to step out of his hiding place with a satisfied smile slapped on his face. I acknowledged the defeat, turned around and headed back where I couldn’t be seen. Not one to go quietly, I tried again, only to be once again caught just as I thought I’d won this game of cat and mouse. The third attempt, I upped my game and attempted a climb up the cliff side which in hindsight, was a little on the dangerous side, especially for the goal prize of saving $16. I managed to drag myself up over the edge onto the cliff tops, where I quickly realised there was no way onto the beach from there. A small victory but with no way into the park, the security guard well and truly won the war as I had to find a way down and walk back to the public beach, tail between my legs.

The following day I headed down the coast once more. I pulled off for a 12km detour through the jungle and into the stunning town of Golfico, a fantastic spot without a tourist in sight. After stopping with a local, I made the crossing over the border the next day into Panama. I was planning on 3 long days of riding to get me to the capital, over Panama’s rolling mountains. The first night I pulled over in the tiny town of Saint Luiz. As I spotted a lady coming out of a shop, I attempted my best Spanish to ask whether there was anywhere to camp. Her response was whether I’d prefer English and I reluctantly accepted. As it turned out, Marion was an American Anthropologist researching the native population of Saint Luis. She showed me to the Missionary she was staying at, where I had a couch for the night at her friend Bob’s place, a missionary from The US. Marion’s Korean side took over, and she inherently went about cooking up a feast for me to see me through for dinner and lunch the next day. The heat cranked up a notch the next two days and after some sweaty riding, I pulled up to the ‘Puente Los Americas’. I quickly realised that cyclists weren’t supposed to ride on this bridge, but faced with having to climb back through the National Park I had just dropped into, I sped ahead for what seemed an age of arse clenching and holding my breath whilst traffic raced past. I was couch surfing in Panama City at the incredible Olivier’s place, which seemed like a hostel in itself with the amount of travellers there.

From here I had to work out a way to head around the ‘Darien Gap’, a section 60 miles thick, of dense jungle, between the borders of Colombia and Panama. It’s the only section of the Pan American which has  no roads. I couldn’t afford a direct flight, but I managed to find space on a flight to the island of Puerto Olberdia, where I’d read it was possible to take a risky crossing around the gap to a tiny coastal town on the Colombian side, surrounded by jungle. After spending a couple of days in awesome company, it was time to catch my flight, as I rocked up to the airport with the bike taken apart and packed into a box, just like I’d been asked. The lady at the check-in desk took one look, shook her head and said the bike was too big and had to be taken in pieces. Not the news I wanted to hear, feeling a little on the delicate side and hot from wearing all my clothes to avoid paying for extra luggage. On seeing the plane, I realised why it was necessery as I wasn’t even sure if there would be room for myself! We took off and I passed out, waking only to see the tiny dirt strip we were about to land on. There were a whole lot more Cuban refugees on the island there to watch me put my bike back together again. Happy the bike had survived the first crossing, I went off to find a lanchaa (tiny boat) to take me around the gap to the Colombian side.

I found a man willing to take me and I took the rough crossing across. The bike was fine though as it was laid across the bottom of the lanchaa and I’d attempted to cover it from the crashing waves. After landing in Colombia, I had one more boat ride to take, across the Caribbean Sea to the beach town of Nicocli, as there were no roads to Capugana. This boat was crossing some rough open sea, so was a little bigger but packed full of people. They had tied my bike to the front of the boat with lengths of string, but looking out, I knew the crossing was about to get choppy. We were all made to wear life jackets, and just to be even less reassuring, the driver wouldn’t leave until he was given a life jacket too. 5 minutes out to sea and the boat was leaping off the giant waves, greeted by some cheers from a few of the braver people on board. Those cheers quickly vanished though, as we got further out and the situation became a little grim. The boat was getting tossed about and water was crashing in. At one point I was convinced we’d sprung a leak, as an entire row of people lept up in panic. In the end it turned out that their bench had collapsed, but with nothing to do about it there, they were forced to sit on the floor. One guy had a panic attack whilst others were crying and praying. I was just trying to take my eyes off my bike getting thrown up into the air and then slammed back down onto the front of the boat. After what felt like the longest hour and a half, the waves subsided as we pulled into port. My bike came off first and I think everyone was eager to see how extensive the damage was. My rear rack had taken the brunt of the force well and although it was all bent up, most of the important parts were in reasonable condition. As I set off north, I quickly realised that the bike was in a worse condition then I’d thought. The thread had gone where my left pedal attached to the bike, so I was left trying to ride without a peddle. I lashed together a temporary solution with the help of a kind local mechanic off the road and limped to the next town where I was lucky to find an incredibly well stocked and professional ‘Specialized’ dealer. They had the spare parts I needed and in no time at all I was off again heading north, 2 more days ride from the start point at Barranquilla. After passing through the incredibly beautiful town of Cartagena, I rode on past possibly the smallest volcano I’ve ever seen, to the northern point of Barrenquilla, where I could begin the second part of this journey south again.

I will miss the people of Latin America and its stunning landscapes, culture and food. I’ll also miss being given directions which included ‘turning left when you see the man sat by the side of the road’. Sure enough these directions were always 100% accurate and never failed to amuse. I will not miss the ruthlessly efficient speed bumps, which work so well on your car or vehicle, which not only slows you down, but afterwards, you may only move again minus a wheel or two.

I’m now onto the second leg of this journey and easily the most difficult section. The fundraising is well past the halfway point, however the miles are catching up with the money raised. There are a few events coming up to raise more money and my school will be taking part in a portion of the ride too to raise money for Comic Relief. It’s been a difficult few months physically and I know that it will only get tougher. It’s always made a lot easier when I see some more money being added to the total. Please sponsor a mile today and help cheer up some desperately struggling children.

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