Sunday, 30 October 2011

Stahlratte (The Darien Gap)

Mon 24th to Fri 28th October

It's a common misconception that you can drive all the way from Alaska to the bottom of South America. For those unaware, there is no road or even a useable track through an area known as the Darien Gap that lie's between Panama and Colombia. Everything moving between South and Central America has to either fly or go by sea. Surprisingly there are no roll on roll off ferries either, and if you want to take a vehicle it is normally transported by air or shipped by container. A few enterprising boat owners have devised a more interesting alternative for the travelling community, however......

For those of you back in the UK about to face dark evenings and cold wet days, stop reading any more of this blog entry unless you don't mind feeling just a little envious.

Our meeting point on the edge of Panama City airport.

Up bright and early this morning (6am) to meet with the other bikes for the 60 mile ride to Carti where we pick up our transport to traverse the Darien Gap. There were 15 bikes including one Ural with sidecar and a number of girls riding solo.

Terry heading for Carti.

Adventure travellers are an independent bunch. We intended to travel in convoy, however, within 5 minutes of setting off the group had splintered into at least three groups all going different ways, but all managing to arrive at the same place within a few minutes of each other.

Arriving on the quayside and seeing the boat sitting a few yards offshore was one of those memorable moments.

Ok we're here, what next?

Stahlratte is a 120 year old vessel that was originally built as a fishing boat and now owned by a German non profit making foundation. It's mandate is to travel the World but for the past six years has been seduced by the warm Caribbean waters. Other than running a ferry service for travellers and back packers, it also cruises to Cuba and some of the other Caribbean Islands.

Once Stahlratte had come alongside the jetty and we had unloaded the luggage, it was a quick process hoisting all the bikes on board.

Once all the bikes were secured........

....... it was time for some lunch

Capt Bob on the Bridge directing operations.

We motored a short distance and dropped anchor for the night off some islands inhabited by the kuna indians.

These islands off the Panamanian coast are no more that a foot above sea level and populated by families living mainly in basic wooden and thatch structures.

One moderate wave would wipe the islands clean but fortunately a large reef protects them from any rough water.

Some of the locals arriving at the boat. The canoes are constructed from a single piece of wood as they have been for hundreds of years.

Dinner on the top deck.

Our fellow travellers are from the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Germany, the States, Canada and one guy from Panama who's originally from Italy.
From what we’ve heard we seem to have got away lightly so far, with one couple being robbed and several others stuck for days in Central America as a result of landslides and bad weather. One girl's bike arrived on the dock by pick up as they couldn’t get the spares needed before the boat sailed.

Tuesday - This morning we waited for six backpackers to be brought by dingy to the boat and then set off for some coral reefs and uninhabited islands about four hours sailing away.

We dropped anchor amongst a group of picture postcard islands.

We wondered whether we could get one of the bikes onto the beach for a photo opportunity but settled for this instead.

The ships crew. Ludwig in the middle is the captain and the only full time crew member. He is also the navigator, engineer, deckhand and stand in cook. The other two are volunteers, Floyd on the left is from France whilst Nicole is German. Our thanks to all three for making our trip such fun. No-one's come up with a better way to cross the gap with their bike that we're aware of.

Who pulled the bloody rope away!!

Once moored it was like rats leaving a sinking ship as everyone dived, jumped or fell into the sea from any available spot on the boat.

The afternoon was spent swimming to the islands, sunbathing on deck or snorkelling among the coral reefs. Is there a better way to spend the day?

Late in the afternoon we set up camp on one of the nearby islands for a BBQ.......

....... and watched the sun go down

With the food cooking and plenty of beer, together with rum, vodka, tequila and a few other bottles of unknown origin out of peoples panniers, the party began.

There were a few sore heads and those who slept on deck were given a soaking when the rains came. Everyone scuttled below, except Bob who spent much of the night on the wheelhouse floor! (not drunk I hasten to add).

Wednesday - Another day chilling out on the boat and in the water.............

Up the mast. I wouldn't want to be here on a windy day!

A boatload coming back from a snorkelling trip.

Bob (top) taking a dip off the boat.

The reef wasn't far away. I hope Ludwig knows the way out!

Thursday - At 5.30am the noise of the engine starting and the anchor being raised, slowly brought us to conciousness. It was the start of the 24hr trip to Cartagena and as soon as we left the shelter of the reef, the boat started to roll gently with the waves like a cork from a bottle. A few people were quickly feeding the fish and I retreated to my bunk (there are some downsides to sailing).

A load of ungainly fish in the water.

The engine was cut for 10 minutes in the middle of the 'Golfo del Darien' to give us the opportunity for a quick dip. It was 1300 metres to the bottom and nothing but water to be seen in any direction.

One of the few bits of excitement during the crossing. A USAF surveillance plane checking out to see if we're drug runners.

Friday - Shortly after dawn we stumbled on deck and momentarily thought we were back in Panama. I didn't expect all these skyscrapers as we sailed into Cartagena.

Terry on a new type of jet ski

Once we had the ok from the agent we started the process of unloading the bikes. First they were winched overboard onto the rubber dingy and then taken to the shore.........

...... where they were manhandled out of the boat. That's a fair amount of effort when you consider most of these bikes are around 200kgs each. I'm surprised there were no accidents or injuries but it was a slick operation with each bike taking less than 10 minutes from being winched off the boat to being on dry land.

A bunch of fed up bikers waiting in the customs hall.

The next bit was a little more tedious. All the bikes were taken to customs for temporary importation to Colombia. An agent was organising the paperwork & inspections but we were still there for over six hours. We had to unload all our luggage from the boat after clearing Customs and it was past 10 o'clock before we arrived at our hotel all hot and sweaty and desperate for a beer.

Welcome to South America........

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Panama City

Wed 19th to Sun 23rd October

Our time here has been spent servicing and cleaning the bikes, buying consumables in case we can't get them in South America and some posh new air flow bike trousers to replace the ones Bob wrecked back in Mexico.

Most of our time in the city has been spent on foot, leaving the bikes at the hotel rather than put everything on to end up in a traffic jam all hot and sweaty .

Like most cities, Panama is full of contrasts. On the one hand there is the ultra modern area full of skyscrapers, designer stores and garages selling expensive cars to those working in the city's large financial services industry.

The F&F Tower, the City's most impressive skyscraper

......and the other half which is much like other Latin American cities, chaotic, seemingly disorganised but much more interesting.

On the street outside the fish market.

Local kids playing on one of the few open spaces in the old city.

We were about to explore the old part of the city when this shot was taken. Unsurprisingly it bucketed down shortly afterwards and we dived into the nearest bar/restaurant for shelter. Built after the original city was destroyed by the English pirate Capt Morgan in 1671, the area is a designated World Heritage site and has some outstanding architecture, although much of it is in the early stages of restoration. We had intended to go back for a better look (and some pic's) when the weather was better but didn't manage it.

The bike gear was donned to take a trip to the iconic Panama canal. We did the touristy bit and went around the visitor centre as well as watching a few ships navigate the locks at Flores.
A useless fact to impress your friends. The highest toll paid by a single ship was 419,000 dollars for a trip that takes 10 hours (not a bad rate of return). The smallest was 36 cents paid by Richard Halliburton in 1928 when he swam the length of the canal.

On the way back we visited Panama Viejo (the original Panama city that was destroyed by Capt Morgan in 1671) an area of ruins that are the remains of the first Spanish city on the Pacific coast and one of huge importance to the Spanish at the time.

Not a lot to see other than a few remnants of walls.

We are off to Carti (San Blas) in the morning to pick up our transport for the trip around the Darien Gap and deposit us in Cartegena on the Colombian coast. Hopefully we will be back on dry land next Saturday and won't have suffered too much from sea sickness. In the meantime we will be incommunicado for a few days.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Boquete to Panama City

Mon 17th to Tues 18th October

We left Boquete and headed back down the mountains to pick up the Pan American Highway towards Panama City. It is the main travellers and truckers route through the Americas and although we have ridden bits of it already, I suspect we'll be using it a lot more as we head into South America

We rode on the Pan American highway most of the day today (200 miles). It is great for getting the miles under the belt.........

..........and spotting the odd fellow traveller. The landscape wasn't much to get excited about though.......

........and neither were the roads, but it got us to our overnight stop in good time.

Our bed was a cabana on the Pacific coast at Playa Santa Clara. The once isolated and unspoilt coastline is fast disappearing under high rise resort hotels.

The beach in front of our cabana.

In a few years it will probably be filled with loungers and sun shades. We thought about staying here two nights but decided to move on to Panama City.

Tuesday: We decided to visit a couple of places before making our way to Panama City as it was only an hour or two away.......

Bob couldn't find a pink one to go with his stetson!

Bob wanted to buy a panama hat and according to Lonely Planet Penonome was the place in Panama to go for one. Panama hats actually originate from Ecuador and were given the name panama because that was where they were originally sold to the American and European traders.

Another place worth a visit according to the books is El Valle, a 20 mile detour off the Pan American highway up into the mountains. El Valle nestles in the second largest volcanic crater (extinct) in the world and is the largest continuously inhabited one. The ride and views are worth the effort although by the time we got to the village the clouds had moved in and the rain wasn't far behind.

We stopped long enough to enjoy the offerings from the 'Gourmet & Coffee Shop' before starting back down again.........

.............out of the clouds and rain to the main road and on to Panama City.

After eventually finding a suitable hotel at the right price we went off to dinner in our usual attire of creased shorts and tee shirts. We are always the scruff bags so thought a change of image wouldn't go amiss............... the time we get home maybe we’ll have the full monty of cream linen suits and white shoes. What more could you ask for girls? Answers are not necessary by the way.

View from the top of our hotel in Panama City.

Back to the modern world for a short while, We have six nights here. Time to service the bikes, do a bit of sightseeing and obtain a few bits and pieces before tackling South America!