The city of David was first on the agenda - not for any great reason, except that it was the largest place within a day's ride of both the border and Panama City. I holed up at a hostel, headed out to the central park (the only place deemed a tourist sight) and quickly established that it wasn't worth a photo. I picked up some groceries, and prepared for the next day's ride.
|The essentials are always cheap in Panama..|
.Panama City was 440km away - pretty simple on the Interamericana. What wasn't so easy was that I only had $9US on me. But with these meagre funds i bought lunch, and filled up with gas. I now know I can make over 157 miles on a single tank, without needing the reserve. Rough calcs put Izzy's fuel efficiency over 70mpg!
|70mpg on roads like this isn't bad!|
Panama City is sometimes referred to as the Miami of Central America (except that more english is spoken in Panama), and as I cought periodic glimpses of the impressive skyline peeking over rolling hills, it wasn't hard to see why. Glass apartment towers lined the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by high end boutiques and american style malls. There is at least one critical difference between the two metropolises - the Panama Canal. As I passed over the Bridge of the Americas I pondered the profound effect that this crucial shipping channel has had on this tiny country. Far more than just a major source of income, the canal played a pivotal role in the continual fight for independence from Spain, Colombia and US in succession. In fact, The canal zone remained a foreign country until the 21st century. The constant flow of international goods through the country has deeply affected the psyche of Panamanians, and they seem to be a most open and visitor friendly nation, with a variety of cultures I had not seen since the US.
I checked into a local hostel and had a quick look around my local area before retiring for the night. The next day I headed out to Casco Viejo (the old part of town) and had a look at the many colonial buildings and museums, including the Canal Museum (where I wasn't allowed to take photos, much to my chagrin). I think it's a real tragedy we no longer take as much pride in the construction of our homes as we did a few hundred years ago, as the stark contrast between the colonial houses of Casco Viejo stood in stark contrast to the slum-like buildings of the surrounding neighbourhoods. The next day I headed out to the end of the road.
The Darién is one of the world's last true wildernesses - the impenetrable terrain of mountains and swamps originally prevented any motorized transport or construction of roads connecting the isthmus to the rest of Colombia. (Panama was originally part of Colombia, until it declared independence with the support of the US, who wished to make a deal with the new republic. To this day it remains remote and impassable, as the foreign powers to be refuse to provide the finances necessary to connect the two ends of the Pan American Highway. Colombian guerilla elements also operate extensively in the jungle, using the dense cover to run drugs and lauch offensives. In short, it's not the safest place in the world. But I wanted to see the end of the road, so I set off mid morning for Yaviza. The road started off good, then rapidly got worse as periodic roadworks and a general state of disrepair became the norm. Then the military checkpoints began. I had expected these, as this is a major drug running route. However, they were far more thorough than I had expected. I had to stop and explain my situation at each post, and after they determined that I was a tourist visiting for the day, they all took down my details, bike and all. The first checkpoint also said they'd make a phonecall for me. It wasn't until I reached Yaviza and the 5th checkpoint that i realized they'd called ahead to organize a security detail for me. I had a fully armed soldier at my side while I wandered around Yaviza, took some photos and had a quick lunch. I think it was partly for my safety, but partly to ensure I don't do anything stupid like going into the jungle, or pick up any packages. There wasn't anything to really see in Yaviza, nor any sign highlighting that this was the site of the break in one of the world's greatest roads. Anyway, I thanked my guard, and turned and burned for Panama City again.
|End of the Interamericana|
Panama Canal is the defining point in any visit to Panama City, and as an engineer I felt it a necessary pilgrimage. I headed out to the Miraflores locks, the closest set of locks to Panama city. For those of you who don't know, the locks help to raise and lower ships as they traverse the canal - as the majority of the canal is above sea level, ships must first be raised upon entering the canal, then lowered at the other end. This is achieved via the pumping of water in and out of a series of chambers sealed with impressively strong and watertight gates. The attached Visitors centre provided an interesting account of the construction history and biodiversity of the surrounding area. A particularly interesting example of the indirect impact of the canal is the eradication of yellow fever and paving of the streets in Panama City - The americans quickly decided that eradication of diseases that previously took heavy tolls on large workforces warranted investment. As a result of paving the streets, sanitation levels greatly improved, leading to a far healthier and more productive workforce. After waiting a bit, a large ship appeared, ready to be lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean. I watched, fascinated at this marvel of engineering and precision - locomotives on either side guided this massive ship through the locks, with barely an inch of space on either side.
The next day was spent shopping - I was hoping to pick up a new radiator pipe, as Izzy had sprung a leak all over the road where I had parked her overnight. These things are not easily picked up it seems, as while a dozen mechanics or stores within a stone's throw could help tune an engine, none carry parts on them. In the end, I hit up the hardware store, and got some glue and duct tape (to be honest, I'm surprised it took until now for duct tape to make it into the inventory!). I also looked at some hammocks, and made a mental note to return to pick up some new camping gear.
The next morning, I woke around 7am, planning to take it easy, do some shopping, and head to Carti by the early afternoon, plenty early for the 4pm loading time. I checked my email, and thank god I did - there was an email from the captain's wife saying the boat was about to leave, and where was I! It turns out the booking agency I had booked through had given me the wrong date: instead of loading on the 7th for departure on the morning of the 8th, I was supposed to board on the 6th, and leave on the morning of the 7th - right then. My heart sank and skipped a dozen beats. I raced down to the hostel front desk, and asked the manager to call the boat and agency, and stall the boat. While he called (as luck would have it, he was perfectly fluent in English and Spanish which helped no end in a panicked situation like this), I packed like a postie on speed.
The bike and I were ready in about 15 mins, and the manager had got in contact with the boat - they would wait for me. I thanked him, bitched about the whole situation a bit, then took off. I was out of Panama city in another 15 mins, and my feet barely touched the ground before I reached Carti, where I had to catch a small boat up the river mouth to the Carribbean sea and the Independence. Once we were both on board, I managed to take a breath, and we took off for the San Blas Islands not long after. I would have loved to stop and take photos of the road to Carti, as it was unbelievably twisty - the map looked like a small kid had not liked his spaghetti, and tossed it against the wall.
All Photos Available HERE