Panama: The end of the road, the beginning of the next

Sport bike riding to Peru

When I got on my bike, pointed it South and started riding, people asked me where I was going. “Costa Rica”, was my standard response. I’d always been impressed with Costa Rica in theory.

It turned out to be as nice as I’d hoped, if a little overwhelmed by American tourists. However, upon finally arriving at my destination, I came to the realization that Costa Rica had never been a place for me to stay — it had been a place for me to go. I don’t crave a home, I crave a destination.

With that in mind, I informed my employer I’d be taking a couple months off, and solidified plans with my friends Tibet and Alex to go to Peru, get $2000 250cc Chinese dirt bikes, and tear the hell out of the Andean 4WD tracks. They land in Huanaco on August 15, so I have until then to ride down!

I am presently making my way through Colombia. However before I got here, I hit the Big Obstacle in any Pan-American road adventure — the Darien Gap. A hundred miles of impenetrable jungle filled with guerilla forces, migrants, drug smugglers, disease and venemous snakes, it has never been tamed by road and there is no regular ferry service around. The iconic obstacle has an iconic solution — a 100 year old Dutch schooner called the Stahlratte. Famous among overlanders in the Americas, its handful of annual journeys across the Darien offer one of the few cost-effective and reliable modes of transporting a motorcycle across. Still, the journey takes 4 days, costs $1100, and necessitated that I wait a month in Panama for the next scheduled trip.

The back roads in Panama often make for awesome riding.

I thus became very familiar with Panama. Here is a breakdown of the cities I visited:

Cities which one would be better off avoiding

This guy hangs out at the hostel in David and steals food.
  • David. A spread-out, hot, humid, polluted city near the Costa Rican border, offering a complete lack of history or charm. I spent a week there because the internet was okay. Its one saving grace was that I was able to find a guy who, for $8.56, welded my broken luggage rack together, and even added some sweet mods to prevent the panniers from swinging into the wheel.
  • Chitre. Another spread-out, hot, humid, polluted city in the middle of the country, offering a complete lack of history or charm. Again, I spent a week there because the internet was okay. No saving graces.
  • Panama City. A compact, hot, humid polluted city into which the entire wealth of the country is concentrated. Pretty boring, although the drive in is incredible.
  • Volcan. The air is clean and the internet works, but the town is extremely spread-out and almost deserted. The best thing about this town is the twisty backroad drive to Boquete.

Towns that would be nice if the internet worked

  • Santa Fe. A sparsely populated mountain town. The road up is a lot of fun. There is a restaurant in town, which for a mere $3, will serve you one of the least appetizing chicken and rice dishes you’ve ever seen.
  • Santa Catalina. A beach town popular with surfers. The ride in was intense — twisty roads, tar snakes, a heavy thunderstorm and a river crossing all made for a slippery and perilous race against the sunset. The rear tire slid out on me more times than I could count, but I never crashed and still arrived ten minutes before sunset, so I won the race.

Nice towns

  • El Valle. A small town supposedly located within a volcano. 75% of the businesses seems to be owned by Chinese people.
  • Boquete. A larger mountain town with an expat hippy vibe. I spent a week here, and made some good friends.

Boquete was my favourite place in Panama. While clean air and internet are simply necessities, it’s good people that really make a place stand out. While I stayed in Boquete, a couple of special things happened:

The cacao ceremony

Annoushka and Matat are two friendly hippies touring the Americas in their van. Being realistic about the need to procure things like gasoline, they happily participate in our capitalist system by cooking soup for the hostel ($4 a bowl) and putting on a “sacred cacao ceremony” every new/full moon ($25 entrance “energy exchange” requested). I signed up.

Annoushka setting up the ceremony.

The ceremory included a guided meditation, a “sacred fire” rite, some “chakra balancing”, song, dance, etc. Despite taking a double helping of the “cacao medicine”, I did not (to my knowledge) get high off the cacao, but I did feel mildly euphoric by the end of the ceremony. Maybe it worked?

The best part of the ceremony, for me, was the setting aside of time to meditate, and think about what’s important to me. It’s so easy for me to get lost in immediate problems and forget about the big picture, especially when I have so many immediate problems!

Gather round, hippies, it’s cacao time!

Geert

I was sitting at my laptop in the hostel, when I heard the rumble outside of a BMW R1200GS. I went outside and met Geert — a 37 year old Dutchman who’s been on the road for a year. We traded stories, beers and bullshit, and became instant pals.

A couple days later, I returned to the hostel from an evening rum run to an excited Geert.

“Hey man, some guys just told me about this hike that’s going on. You start at 11:30PM, and hike up the volcano to watch the sun rise. It’s supposed to be a rare clear morning, and if that’s the case, they say we’ll be able to see both oceans!”

“11:30PM today?”

“Yeah!”

“Like, in a few hours?”

“Yeah!”

“How long is the hike?”

“Around 14km to the top, and then back down.”

Not wanting to look like a massive pussy in front of my new friend, I signed up and found myself at 11:30PM at the head of a very rocky trail, backpack full of sandwiches, heart full of trepidation, and lungs full of yawns. This was to be my first all nighter since first year university.

The sun rising over the Caribbean Sea. Worth it? Ehhhh

Various facts about the hike

  • We started at 1800 meters, and reached the summit at 3475 meters at 4AM.
  • Sunrise wasn’t until almost 6, so we sat around for a couple hours freezing our nipples off and sharing regrets.
  • Ultralight barefoot running shoes are not made for long walks on sharp rocks.
  • We saw both oceans. That was pretty neat.
  • It was very painful.
The shadow of the volcano reaches to the Pacific Ocean. Dope!

During the long and painful descent, a heavily modded 4x4 passed us and the driver offered us a lift back to town for $5 each. Knowing that a ride from the trailhead would only cost $3, Geert refused the ride, and I promised not to get mad if he promised to stop complaining about the walk. The final hour was thus filled with sarcastic praise of the economical foot massage we were receiving, and we reached the trailhead delirious, almost believing our own bullshit, and thoroughly confusing the other hikers.

I hope Geert and I will be friends for a long time.