Time on the road

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sailing from Panama to Colombia & getting to know this wonderful country

Colombia is running an ad campaign on CNN with some interesting tag lines. My favorite is “The only thing you have to fear is never wanting to leave.” Nothing could be more true. We have misjudged this beautiful country, a result of numerous warnings and news reports we received before beginning our trip. From Cartagena, the beautiful walled city bursting with color, to sophisticated yet spicy Medellin, this country has welcomed us with open arms and converted us to loyal aficionados. It has been an event-filled few weeks since we boarded the Stahlratte in Panama bound for Cartagena. Here’s how it went:

The Stahlratte is a 40-meter, 230-ton sailboat manned by Captain Ludwig and first mate Rolly. There were 6 other bikers scheduled on the boat, so we all met at our hotel and left Panama City early on the morning of November 10 to meet the boat at Carti, which is the final land area before the beginning of the San Blas Islands. San Blas is an archipelago of islands populated by the Kuna Indians.

After about 2 hours on the main road, we took a left turn off onto a muddy, gravelly, dirt road which brought us to the Rio Carti. Ludwig, Captain of the Stalratte, had told us that we would have to cross the river on the bikes. He didn’t tell us that the water would be waist-deep.

Off we went, finally getting all of the motorcycles and passengers across. The next challenge was getting to the boat, which was moored about ½ mile offshore. Our transportation to the Stahlratte would consist of dugout canoes manned by Kunas.

 We had to load the motorcycles onto the canoes, then headed out to meet the boat. As we arrived, we pulled up alongside and Ludwig appeared. He threw down some ropes, which were wrapped around our bike. Using a 1.5 ton electrical winch, they hauled bike by bike up onto the deck of the boat.

There were a few nail-biting moments but all went well. The trip was magical, with a group that meshed and laughed all the way across.

We all slept below-deck in beds curtained-off for some little privacy.

After 4 nights we arrived in Cartagena. Pushing through after the dismount, we arrived into the center of the city in the approaching darkness and oppressive heat to search for a hotel. Love the city---people just haul their furniture, couches, everything outside and just sit and listen to salsa and meringue in the street, enjoying life. Coffee vendors patrol the street armed with a thermos and a stack of plastic cups, selling cortaditos laced with sugar.

 Life is colorful, warm and lively. We paid a visit to the local curiosity, a volcano called Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, which is about 50 kilometers from town. This volcano spews mud instead of lava. They have built steps so that you can climb up and go inside, submersing yourself in this quicksand-like liquid. When you go into the mud, locals are there waiting to give you a massage. You wallow for awhile, then climb down and head to the lagoon, where some local ladies wash all of the mud off, scrubbing you down from head to toe. What an experience!

From Cartagena we headed towards Medellin, with a stop overnight in a town called Caucasia. We rode with our friends from the Stahlratte, which was a lot of fun and definitely created a sense of security.

The feeling here is not one of fear; the army and the police are everywhere, with checkpoints all along the roads.
Arriving in Medellin, we went to the BMW dealer there and were welcomed by Mauricio, the GM and the rest of his great staff. Mauricio organized a ride for the following Sunday and invited us all to come. We met at a local gas station, about 11 motorcycles in all, and headed out, following the Colombians…..I have never had an experience like that. Mauricio and Carlos, both on BMW GS bikes, rode at high speed, overtaking cars on curves, and we careened on behind them. We rode to an area called Guatape, which has beautiful vistas, clear lakes and an oddity in the form of a large granite rock called Piedra del Penol, about 350 feet high with a restaurant on top.

The rock has stairs which take you to the top, so we parked the bikes and began the ascent in our biking gear and motorcycle boots. We had a great day, then lunch at a local spot, when we sped back into Medellin in the approaching darkness. Medellin reminds me a lot of Mexico City, with areas full of interesting restaurants, fun bars, music, sophisticated, attractive people, and great energy. Loved it.

Leaving Medellin with heavy hearts we headed to the mountains, to the beautiful, small colonial town of Salento.

During the 6 hour ride we stopped on the road for lunch. Two men and a woman were sitting at table and waved me over. One of them, Jesus, was wearing the traditional poncho, which during the warm part of the day the men just sling over their shoulders, and when it gets cooler, they use as a poncho. He asked me, “Did anyone give you a gift since you arrived in Colombia?” and when I said no he took off his poncho and gave it to me. This just embodies the spirit of the people in this country. We arrived to the town square, just ahead of a major rainstorm. Salento is all about trout. Lots of rivers and streams, and trout on every menu, even down to cream of trout soup. Campesinos in ponchos and hats fill the pool halls, stroll down the rustic streets and fill the town square. We hired a jeep to take us up into the Valle de Cocora, about an hour drive up a bumpy, dusty road. It was amazingly beautiful, and we rode by horseback up into the clouds to a waterfall. The ride was a bit hairy, with the horses climbing the narrow path littered with rocks and boulders, slipping and sliding a bit, but we had a great time.

 Leaving Salento, we headed south to the town of Popayan, called La Ciudad Blanca. On the way, we stopped in front of a little store/restaurant to ask for directions. The owner, Martin, came out to help us and asked if we would like a coffee.

We were stopped and still on the bikes, and he emerged with a tray with china cups of coffee which he was going to serve to us on our bikes…….roadside assistance bar none!
Tomorrow we head for the border with Ecuador. The adventure continues!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

We have covered a lot of ground since I arrived in Panama less than a week ago. One night in Panama City, with dinner on The Causeway, which is an area near a long bridge which goes from the city to some small islands. Great place to see, lots of restaurants and fun bars. On previous trips to Panama we have ‘done’ the Panama Canal so the next day we packed up and headed north of the Canal Zone, destination Gamboa Rainforest + Jungle Lodge. The reason that we wanted to go to Gamboa was simple; on our last trip to Panama (which was for business) just over a year ago, we went to Gamboa for a few days. When checking into the hotel we spotted some BMW GS motorcycles packed to the hilt, dirty, banged up, parked regally in front. We just HAD to know who these people were. We left a note on one of the bikes, and then just skulked around the reception area until we saw them. 2 couples, resplendent in their cool motorcycle touring clothes, sauntering up to the front desk. In true stalker fashion, we descended upon them, full of questions. Turns out they were Germans who had started in Alaska and were headed down to Patagonia. There were actually 3 couples, but one had crashed and had to send their bike home so they were following in a car. We grilled these people as to their trip, their planning, what motivated them…….everything. When they finally got away from us, that was it----we were inspired. The wheels started turning, and between that moment and the time we finished Ewan McGregor’s book “Long Way Round” the die was cast. A year later, 6 months into our trip, with Patagonia being our destination, we just had to return to the scene.

From Gamboa we headed west, towards Chiriqui Province and the town of Boquete. It was a 7-hour ride, through mountains full of mist and fog, and some bouts of heavy rain.

The beauty of Panama really shines through in this part of the country. Lush, green farmlands and banana plantations, waterfalls, beautiful vistas...they have it all.

We arrived in Boquete at about 6pm, tired, wet, and in search of a hotel. We pulled into a small restaurant called Roxane and what a lucky stop it was. The owner of the restaurant is a friendly Swiss-Argentine retiree, Helmut, who had a cattle ranch in Southern Argentina. He decided to retire to Panama, so bought a ‘finca’ or small ranch in Boquete. He brought with him some embryos of Argentinian cattle and thus began raising genuine Argentine beef here in Panama. What a guy. Loves motorcycles so when we pulled in on a German bike, he went crazy. The red wine ( a GREAT Malbec) started to flow, and his enthusiastic and interested attitude was infectious. We chatted with Helmut all night, and this guy knows how to live. In his mid-60’s, he calls the ranch and restaurant ‘his hobby’, serves only home-grown beef and vegetables, imports his own wine from Argentina, has 10 kids and loves women…what a guy!

The next day we did a Zip-lining excursion over the rainforest of Boquete. It was an experience flavored by a little bit of fear, but beautiful and so much fun.

The rain just didn’t stop, so we decided the next day to head further west to the province of Bocas del Toro. Our final destination was an archipielago of 6 islands off of the mainland, with the first stop being Isla Colon.

There are intermittent ferries which take cars and motorcycles and we hoped to catch the ferry that day. After a long day of riding in the rain, we arrived at the port just 20 minutes after the last ferry for 2 DAYS…during the holiday season (it was independence day and flag day) ferry service is suspended. Water taxis run frequently but don’t take vehicles, and we didn’t want to leave the bike behind in the shady-looking port area. Soaking wet and at a loss of what to do, we pulled up in front of the only hotel at the port which looked like it charged by the hour. Then it happened---an angel appeared in the form of a British lady named Marilyn, who advised us not to stay at the hotel—she had some friends, an American couple who had a lodge about 20 miles away. She told us how to find it and off we went.

The lodge is called La Encantada Eco Lodge, and consists of 4 small cabins and a restaurant/bar which is on the water. Ky and Ron are a couple from Florida in their 50’s who just checked out, bought a big piece of land and developed this place. When we arrived, all we could see of the place was the sign and a gate with a padlock. I checked the lock and it wasn’t secured, so in we went. The road down to the lodge was extremely steep, dirt, gravel, mud, with a big sign that said “4 by 4 only”. It was almost ½ mile long, with at least 25 degrees of pitch. We gave it a shot. Almost 2/3 down the road the back wheel went out and we almost went over in the mud. Ky and Ron stood at the bottom, mouths agape, wondering who these maniacs were who broke into their property and then attempted this road by motorcycle in the pouring rain. It was an
instant bond. We checked in, had a great meal, a bottle of wine and we were set.
The next day we took the water taxi to the islands, and realized that one day was enough.

After 2 nights with the wonderful Ky and Ron we headed east again and are now in David, Panama.
Today’s events included getting stuck for almost 2 hours behind a parade in the blazing sun on a one-lane road, then being pummeled by rain, then pulling into a hardware store to get undercover so that Chris could clean his face-shield which was fogging up so much that he couldn’t see---as we pulled over off of the gravel onto the slippery concrete, the bike slipped and over we went. Luckily no major damage to either of us, and the bike only suffered some bent crash bars……just another day in the life!