Lake Arenal, Costa Rica to Cartagena, Colombia
June 12 to June 21, 2014
Mind the Gap
Most people never hear about the Darien gap until they try to drive from Panama to Colombia, which granted not many people do. They then learn of this 100 or so kilometers of unruly jungle haunted by Guerillas, Narco traffickers and other scary creatures. The Darien Gap is the only interruption in the 48.000km long Pan-American highway. Several sailboats of variable seaworthiness offer travellers a 5 days ride from Panama City to Cartagena. Among them, one has achieved legendary status, the Stahlratte.
Our only dilemna, this 100 year old German monument was scheduled to cruise around Cuba when we needed it. Consequently the Wolf and I had been debating for weeks what other methods we could employ to cross the Gap. The other sailboats were incredibly expensive, and rumour has it, also corrupt and/or unsafe. Using a container ship seemed like a logistical nightmare, as did flying with the bikes. As we hit obstacle after obstacle, it became increasingly difficult to convince the Wolf that it was a BAD idea to try and ride through the swamps between Panama and Colombia. He started to settle for the idea of riding as far south as possible and trying to find small lanchas (row boats) to get us to Turbo in Colombia. I felt very uncomfortable with this, for countless reasons, probably mostly because I’m a worrier.
On the morning of June 12, as we were enjoying a tasty breakfast at Lake Arenal Hotel, we received an email from Markus and Karen with whom we were considering sharing a container. They politely declined stating they had reserved a spot on the Stahlratte departing Carti harbor on June 17. The Wolf and I stared at each other in disbelief, rushed to our laptop to re-check the Stahratte’s schedule, and there it was, Carti – Cartagena: June 17.
Riding under rain
The news the Stahlratte was back was fantastic. But we were still in Costa Rica. And we had no idea if they even had space for us. We spent 10 minutes counting the kilometres and decided it was possible to get to Panama City in 4 days, if we were heavy on the throttle. We decided to take our chances, sent an email to Captain Ludwig to ask if he had room onboard and started riding. We stopped for lunch a few hours later and received the good news through the Pollo Loco free wi-fi, Ludwig had a spot for us. The weather did not cooperate with our expedited schedule and heavy rain pelted us for 2 straight days. We spent the first damp night in Cahuita, a lovely town on the Caribbean coast, and then crossed into Panama in a monsoon the next day. We kept going until Boquette, where we spent a day recovering before the long haul to Panama City. We turned our delightful room at La Casa del Abuela into something that is stinkier than a men’s locker room as we tried in vain to dry some of our sodden things. Luckily our ATG luggage kept everything in our side bags dry, but everything we were wearing – jackets, pants, glove and even helmets, had not withstood 2 days of heavy, heavy rain.
Pushing it on the Pan American
In the morning we donned our damp gear and, for the first time in ages, we headed down the Pan-American. It was a long, boring day punctuated by a strange interaction with the Panamanian police. They pulled us over, asked if we had kids (?), inquired about our Replay cameras, then hastily scribbled a speeding ticket for $50, told us to only pay $20 at the office, and then they sped off like the devil was behind them. We finally pulled in at the Panama House B&B at 17:00, exhausted. The Wolf, finding energy from who knows where, insisted that we rush straight back out to explore Panama City in the last light of day. We bumped into a friendly local and his son and they kindly gave us a 2 hour express tour of the city’s highlights. The next morning we made the acquaintance of several other bikers that were all bound for Colombia on the Stahlratte, and headed off to Carti with them to meet the Captain and load up the ship.
A fleet of flying bikes
We arrived at the dock a little late, having been delayed by more rain and a protest that blocked the road. Once we arrived, Captain Lulu and his crew got to work at once. It was very clear they have done this before and each bike was winched up into the sky and swung onboard, where it would be covered and tied down for the next 5 days. The heavy lifting completed, we were assigned beds below deck – we were all the way up front with the Captain, which seemed like a good thing until we realised that was where one felt the most rocking in rough seas. The course was set for one of the Kuna inhabited islands and en route we were fed the first of many amazing meals onboard. We arrived at the island in grey weather but the rain held off while we were entertained with local dances and dinner, and then we spent a very humid night in the Kuna huts, scattered between beds and hammocks.
The next two days saw us living an island paradise dream, complete with soft white sand, warm turquoise waters, a rope swing, good snorkelling, rum punch and spectacular sunsets. Just as we were thoroughly relaxed and ready to give up on civilised life, Captain Underpants got things moving again and began the crossing. Anti-nausea pills were passed around like candy – everyone but the Wolf took some. He was determined to be the hero that didn’t need the meds, and he was. I did not get ill, but was happy to have taken the pills when I experienced the odd woozy moment. We spent a full day and night at sea – the night being lit up by phosphoresce tickling the bow, and mirroring the stars above – then we pulled into Cartagena. By then Captain Underpants had once again found his pants and was impressing upon us the urgency of getting to the embassy quickly before things shut down – it was Friday after all and there was no telling how early the immigration agents would start their weekend. And so our entry to South America began.
Update: as of Nov 2014 a ferry service is operating between Colon and Cartagena. Early reports suggest it is reliable and a lot cheaper than previous options. More info at ferryxpress.com