The title was almost going to be ‘Wet Wet Wet’, but telephone voters chose otherwise. ‘Wet’ has indeed been a key descriptor of most events of late though. Monsoon season kicked off (at least in my opinion) the day we crossed into Costa Rica, at the sleepy Los Chiles border. With no land crossing available, it took us the best part of day to finally convince one of the small, crowded riverboats to let us on with four heavily loaded bicycles (something to do with safety concerns…). The other three belonging to Matthias and a cool Aussie/English couple we’d met in Nicaragua and lured along with something like “The Pan-Am is busy and full of robbers. This route will be way more fun!”. Whilst ultimately transpiring to be more ball ache than fun, we had at least finally made it into Costa Rica, land of rampant biodiversity and US retirees. Bring it on!
For me though, the clock was already ticking. In another of my triumphs of time management I’d left myself only a few days to reach Panama and jump on a boat to Colombia, where I was due to meet a friend. As such I had to bid farewell to my cycling compadres and start mile munching. From Los Chiles in the northwestern corner, my route took me south across the not-insignificant central mountains to my old friend the Pacific Coast, who I stuck with for the remainder.
Falling for the classic trap of choosing the smallest, most direct road through the mountains, there was inevitably some serious climbing involved. Progress was slow but I remained innocently hopeful that I’d still make it across in one day. My blind optimism evaporated however, at the point the paved road petered out into a slippery nightmare of bewildering gradients. Pushing the bike was the only option for most of it, all the time cursing my map for making the route look so appealing. The rain also decided to join the party, with such intensity that I couldn’t help drawing parallels with the final scene of ‘The Truman Show” (where constant obstacles and finally an ever intensifying storm are whipped up to prevent poor old Truman from escaping). Coming from the UK I thought I knew a thing or two about rain, but really we’re complete amateurs, the Tropics take things to whole new level. Roads turned to rivers and my Lycra shorts somehow filled with water quicker than they could release it, leaving me with disconcerting ‘bulges’. Needless to say, the day ended a substantial distance short of where I’d intended to be, and feeling well and truly beaten I was forced to wild camp in a clearing just off the road. It was one of those “what the hell am I doing?” days, a not uncommon feature of this leg of riding.
Given the jump in prices, wild camping became the norm in Costa Rica. I’d been getting a little too comfortable in the wonderfully cheap countries to the north, but suddenly everything was out of my price range again and it was back to vagabond mode for the most part. The 5 star camp spots ranged from a football pitch to a small village pavilion, open on all sides, affording inquisitive, but friendly locals a good view of what felt like ‘The Gringo Exhibit’ of a zoo. The rain didn’t help matters and as stunning as the explosive rainforest greenery was it made for some tricky camping at times. Soaked gear, insects running riot and general fatigue brought me close to throwing a hissy fit like some blond super model on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” – There’s insects everywhere! Everything’s wet! I just want to go home! But of course when you’re on your own, hissy fits are fairly futile endeavors, so you tend to just get on with it.
After all this negativity I’d like to say my final days pedaling this continent (or is it subcontinent?) were a fitting end, but in truth they weren’t that brilliant either. For the sake of progress I followed the busy Pan-American Highway into Panama, with anxiety alternating between being nailed by a Kenworth Semi and my rapidly depleting stock of puncture repair patches (the downside of living life on the edge and not carrying a spare tube). A rear tyre on it’s last legs meant my poor tube fell victim to a frankly outrageous number of assaults from roadside debris on the final run. So whilst undoubtedly a motivational low point, these days in the saddle did however, serve to get me thinking about how I want to tweak my approach to the trip for South America and I’ll reveal all in an upcoming post…
From Panama the route to Colombia, and therefore South America, is somewhat complicated by the formidable border zone of the ‘Darién Gap’. The missing link of the Pan-American Highway, there is no road across this dense jungle and attempting an unsupported crossing would be something approaching a suicide attempt. After dealing with impenetrable jungle and swamps, you’ve then got a load of guerilla groups ready to kidnap you. So in effect, a possible free alternative to the ‘Tough Mudder’ challenges that seem all the rage these days.
Whilst lacking adventure points, there is however, an easier and somewhat more pleasurable option to reach Colombia: pile on board a chartered sailing boat and cross via the Caribbean. So, after some frantic errand running in Panama City, I escaped the glitzy shopping malls and found myself on a 40ft Catamaran in the serene San Blas Archipelago with a merry band of other travellers. Inhabited by the indigenous Kuna tribe, this collection of tiny islands just off the coast could not have been more of a contrast; a place where, until recently, the principal currency was the coconut. Amazing. Drifting amongst these idyllic islands we were practically rubbing our eyes in disbelief, as if expecting to suddenly wake up and be whisked back to reality. They are truly incredible. If you were playing Pictionary and ‘paradise’ came up, I’m pretty sure most people would end up scrawling something resembling the San Blas Islands.
After three days drifting through dream world, anchoring off different islands, each more splendid than the last, it was time for the 40-hour open sea crossing to Cartagena, Columbia. Stroking his pet cat in almost Bond villain fashion, our Colombian captain gave us a matter of fact pep talk in his broken English – “it’s going to be tough, stuff will be flying everywhere, some of you will be sick, some of you won’t even make it” (ok, maybe not the last bit, but one chap did actually decide it was all too much and went back to Panama). Whilst not as rough as it could have been, we certainly knew we were at open sea, with the associated sensation of sleeping on a rollercoaster (amplified by the fact that I’d opted, in typical fashion, for the cheap, coffin sized berth right at the front). The starry nights and gulf of emptiness were unbelievable though; reminiscent of those mystical evenings camped out on Mexico’s Baja.
Now safely in Colombia (a strange statement), the South American chapter has finally got underway, something I’m really quite excited about. And whilst the cycling aspect has yet to actually commence, a fair amount of time has been spent watching and talking about it, in the form of the Giro d’Italia. If there was ever a time to arrive in Colombia as a cycling fan now would probably be it, with the whole country in a frenzy over their historic 1st and 2nd placed riders, in what is arguably the sport’s biggest event after the Tour de France. From my regular spot watching the stages in a nearby newsagents to an afternoon hanging around a local bike shop,whilst overhauling ‘The Beast’, it’s been non-stop cycle banter. Basically, drop a mention of ‘Quintana’ to any self-respecting Colombian and you’re almost bound to trigger a patriotic outburst. Brilliant stuff. That aside, Colombia is proving a fantastic country in all respects and I’m now with my friend Phil and his missus about to set forth into the jungle for a few days trekking. Following this little interlude I’ll be back on the bike and heading in the direction of Ecuador as cycling fever is substituted for World Cup mayhem….