A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: meIan3

Shipping Around the Darien

Panama and Colombia, Central and South America, are separated by a swath of lawless jungle that many travelers call the Darien Gap, locals call it the Darien Jungle.  Regardless of the name, it's known to be a major avenue for smuggling drugs up from South America, north on the road to the States.  I've heard stories about bold travelers attempting to take collective transportation into the Darien only to get stopped by authorities and denied passage.  It is, supposedly, just too dangerous.   For Cheeks and I the Darien meant one thing: A break in the Pan-American Highway and the need to find another way around.


driving over the panama canal

Shipping Cheeks over to Colombia on a freight carrier was our next best option and so after a little shopping around we decided that Barwill Agency's reputation was the best thing we had going.  We set up a meeting at their office in Panama City just over the Canal.  Evelyn Bautista spoke some English and so between the two languages we were able to work out the confusing logistics.  She was direct and matter of fact and she called me "Mr. James". She marked up a handy map showing me the locations for all the bureaucratic monotny I had to navigate the next day: "First you have the vehicle inspection here from 10 to 10:30, customs here from 3:00 to 4:00, back to the office here by 5:00 for the signing of the shipping manifest, ok now for the following day's appointments in Colon..."  
I waited for the  police inspection in a gravel parking lot outside a small rundown station.  The neighborhood was in shambles.  There was garbage, unfinished sidewalks, piles of dirt, junked cars half in the street.  It was a part of town that the tourists were not supposed to know existed. There were two other vehicles in line, both of them campers headed to Colombia.  I chatted with the Frenchman until the inspector came out.  The length of the inspection depended on how long it would take you to sign your own name.  Before leaving I was approached by who I would now recognize to be my German friend Michael, tall, light hair, deep voice, looks like he could be a German diplomat but he's in fact a surgen back in his country.  His girlfriend Antonia stepped out.  I had overheard her before talking to the inspector in spanish and I had myself convinced she was from Spain by her accent.  To my ears, she spoke perfect spanish.  They were shipping with Barwill but could not find someone to share the container so in turn they were carrying the burden of the full container price which was upwards of $1800.


navigating through port

So much unfolded between that chance meeting and us prying open the container in Cartagena, Colombia and turning the key, my key in old Cheeks and their's in their 98' Ford Diesel that they drove from Alaska.  As it often goes, we formed a bond through our struggle.  We challenged Barwill's credibility and what was right was done.  
In Colon, Panama we shut the doors on our 40' container and watched the Barwill representative install the seal, not to be broken until we were present on the Colombian side.  We took a train that ran alongside the Canal all the way back to Panama City.  The Canal now belongs to Panama.  As part of an original agreement, the US forfeited the canal's control and her revenue to the Panamanian government in 1999.  Panama is currently in the process of expanding the width of the canal to accommodate the increasing width of today's cargo ships.  I awoke the next morning in my little hotel room and flipped on the local news.  There was a strike spanning the whole width of the highway from Panama City to Colon.  The canal widening project was having its affects on the local area's water supply.  If we had delivered our vehicles one day later (we had the option) Michael, Antonia and I might not have made it on the ship.


michael and antonia and their ford

Posted by meIan3 21:42 Comments (0)

Give and Surf

Gualaca was 25km outside of David in the direction of Almirante.  I rode up to the town after sunset in hopes of finding a small room to rest for the next day's drive over the mountains to the Caribbean coast.  I've found that smaller towns are almost always better for the short overnight stays.  They're safer for Cheeks, easier to navigate, easier to find a nice local eatery.  This small town of 3,000 didn't let me down.  After asking some locals in the square (rule of thumb: if you want information always drive to the square. I've yet to find a Latin American town without one).  They pointed me to a pensione - "you must have passed right by it." I rang the bell.  An elderly woman came out.  "I would like to stay just one night" I said.  "One night!? You can stay as long as you want!" And she introduced herself.
That night I ate a 1/4 chicken and two greasy empanadas in a restaurant with plastic chairs and very thin napkins.  Everything was just as it should be in Central America.  After dinner I sat on a bench next to the girls watching the boys play soccer on a concrete basketball court under the dim lights.  It was twenty minutes when a loud siren went off and the game split, everyone going their different directions.   Gualaca and her 3000 citizens had a curfew.

cdescending through panamanian cloud forest

Pale Cheek's 30 year old diesel awoke just before sunrise and we were on our way.  It rose in our face and lit up the farmland.  The road ascended to 8000 feet to wind, rain, and pine trees.  We passed through a police checkpoint and started our descent to the Caribbean.  The vegetation changed quickly with the steep descent and soon we were in lush, green, anything-can-grow cloud forest.  Almost every inside turn of a switchback was a waterfall.  One of them we passed was serving as a shower for a truck driver.  We made good time to Almirante and, leaving Cheeks behind in a family owned parking lot, I hopped a boat to Isla Colon to meet Neil.

Neil is owner operator of a non for profit named "Give and Surf."  The idea is simple:  give a donation to the association, volunteer helping at the local primary school or at after school camps or teaching adults English.  In return Neal will take you to the locally known surf spots or, if you want, he'll teach you how to surf.


kids being kids like they are everyday all over the world

The one elementary school for the community is located on a small compound on Isla Bastimentos.  A crickity old dock greets you upon your arrival (the school is only reached by water).  One tin-roofed concrete building makes up the school's only two classrooms.  Across a small grass soccer field is the cafeteria and kitchen which is housed in a wood hut built on stilts into the mangrove, also with its own dock.  Behind the classrooms a steep path leads to a playground built by Give and Surf a few years ago.  From here you can behold the whole bay, her mangroves and blue water and the the Isla Solarte.

tribal leader, father of school children and my tour guide to a remote cave

Long haired, laid back Neal had just bought a boat before I arrived and so he had a funny little anecdote that had to do with the ninos and the boat that I will recount to you now.

All of the students that attend the school are of indigenous descent, of the Ngobe tribe, and so they are, either a blessing or a curse, without 21st century luxuries.  When Neil started Give and Surf and began offering the after hours programs, the kids would be rowed to school by their parents, or they'd row themselves in small groups.  He told me it wouldn't be uncommon for a 5 year old to row across the whole bay in a little craft by himself to make it to a scheduled game of kickball or for a session of arts and crafts.  
And then Neal got the boat.  He began to pick up stragglers and the kids whose parents had a hard time getting them to the school.   Habits were made, expectations were to be expected and now the kids have forgot what was so natural for them before.  They need the outboard.


the unnamed vessel school bus

In the mornings we played school bus and picked up the ninos for the day's activities.  We'd approach a makeshift dock and a little girl in a dress.  Neal would ask her where her brother was.  "He's coming" she would say, and the little guy would come charging down the dock with a big smile.  Across the bay we'd nose up to the mangrove and three kids would leap out of the shack that was their home and swing on the branches to the bow.  Another time, a Dad would stand on the gnarly bank and hurl his kids into the boat.  There was no doubt that these kids were more agile and more durable than any kids I've seen in the States.  
And then we went surfing.  Neal insisted we take the boat to a reef break.  I had never surfed a reef break, it's a type of break that is supposed to be big and fast and with more serious consiquences if a mistake is made.  The swell was big and we found ourselves in a little predicament.  Neal's anchor line wasn't long enough.  If we anchored deeper past the point of any threat from a big set, we wouldn't have enough line and there was a threat of the boat being an ornament on the horizon.  If we came in closer where we knew it would be shallow enough so we'd have enough line for the anchor to hold properly, the boat was almost certainly going to get smashed by the waves.  And, the most serious threat of all, was the fact that his boat didn't have a name yet.  Luck was against us.
We found a "sweet spot" and proceeded to paddle IN to the break (Ha! that was a first).  The salt in the eyes, the empty palm lined coast that was visible over the spray of a set, the clear blue water and two good waves (the best of the expedition) made for a pleasant memory.  We returned to the unnamed vessel to find the anchor stuck in the reef. It wasn't quite time to celebrate.  Neal's tight Give and Surf budget was arguing against cutting the line.  How deep was it? 25'-30'?  Like a Samoan diving for pearls, I descended to the deep, found the chain and then the anchor wedged into the reef.  I stood on the ocean floor and pulled her out.  
It had been one of those days where you felt healthy and alive from the day's exertion.  And we toasted our ice cold Balboa to the day's feats.


a poison dart frog on isla bastimentos

Posted by meIan3 21:42 Comments (0)

Costa Rica and Her Osa


palm oil fields

Cloud forests, volcanic crater lakes, dirt roads and potholes, rivers full with clear water, switchbacks through thick fog, roadside stands stocked with fruits and vegetables from surrounding farms.  It was  "Pura Vida" in Costa Rica.


reliable security on the road

We headed for the country's remote Osa Peninsula.  A gas station attendant affirmed our suspicion: It was in fact a ferry on the map, and it was a shortcut.  He called ahead and confirmed we had an hour to make it there.  We hung a right off the Pan-American and soon found ourselves driving between miles and miles upon rows and rows of closely planted palm trees.  The Aussies figured it out - the locals were harvesting palm oil, a highly saturated fat that is a product of the fruit of the palm, a product that is for first worlders used in loads of process foods and for third worlders used as a butter of sorts.  Because of the size of the plant to yield the product (essentially a big palm tree), huge swaths of wet jungly land are cut to make room.  And you can guess the rest.  Nonetheless it was a unique sight.  If you looked down a row of palms (as if you were driving past a vineyard) it looked as if the trunks were columns, the palms the roof.  Moss hung everywhere and the whole big room of sorts went on and on until it faded into the dark.

We found the ferry unattended resting up on the bank of a wide river.  Pale Cheek's diesel made the sleepy town of Puerto Escondido (good luck finding it on the map) aware of our arrival and soon followed the captain.  This time the ferry itself was without power, just a steel flotilla of sorts.  The captain hopped in an outboard powered dinghy that was lashed to the floating hunk of steel and it was this little craft that he wielded artfully to maneuver us through the rivers current to the opposite bank.  I remember giving him a little man-nod in appreciation of his impressive piloting.  All I got in return was a look that said "yeah I know what I do is impressive to some but it's just my job. Now be on your way."

With the 4wheel drive engaged, we ascended a small group of jungly hills to a point that looked over the whole green peninsula, the northern half of which was Corcavado National Park.  Beyond, the horizon and the Pacific were just perceivable through in the mist.  Daniel and I got out of Pale Cheeks, we stood on a ledge and looked below at the thick jungle, known to be the crown jewel of Costa Rica's vast network of parks.  National Geographic had once named it (and still might name it) the most biodiverse place on earth (ref Wiki).  The bugs were humming and my mind went to that thought, the one where I think to myself about what I had to do to get here and how I am very far from New York.


ferry to the osa

We reached the town of Puerto Jimenez, stocked up, and decided to push to the beach on the southwest point of the peninsula where we had heard we could find free oceanfront camping.  We got lost for an hour and Pale Cheeks got a work out navigating the narrow hilly dirt roads, crossing clean-flowing creeks.  We were able to maintain our morale, and we rode our mojo all the way to the Pacific and our little ocean front piece of paradise.  

one view out from camp

Upon stepping out of our tents in the morning, we beheld the wildlife in our new surroundings.  A city of hermit crabs swarmed around our sandy camp, pairs of macaws flew overhead, spider monkeys hopped from the palms.  I saw a rodent the size of a fat Labrador skirt off the dirt road I was walking.  He jetted into the jungle and I could hear him plowing the thick brush as he ran deep in.  (If I hadn't seen him at first, that sound would have tricked me into believing he was a giant jungle bear)  I remember the butterflies being the brightest most vibrant blue you can imagine.  Daniel spotted tuscans.  Anna was a bird lover and she was not in want.

We feasted like kings on the beach.  I learned early on that the Aussies would never have it any other way.  Their mantra was Fresh Produce.  Roadside vegetable stands, markets, tasty spices, pastas, colorful salads.  I carry a blue plastic milk crate in the back of Cheeks that all new expeditioners that have joined the trip learn to call simply "The Kitchen."  It's filled with misc cooking utensils, pots and pans, a little gasoline powered stove, spices, misc food stuffs, and, if you're lucky to find some left, olive oil.  Well, the Aussies embraced The Kitchen and we had glorious meals.(they were traveling with backpacks and couldn't carry the luxuries that Cheeks' kitchen could).  Reader, I feel sorry if you cannot say this confidently from real experience, but it is true,  Everything tastes better when camping.

I parted with the Aussies in David, Panama.  It turned out having Anna with us yielded no detriment to our luck.  The pair were a win-win.  They both had great Spanish - Daniel by hard work from the months living in Mexico and Anna by natural suave.  (I have learned anyway that women are naturally better at learning new languages and thus in that is revealed one of man's small gender disadvantages).  We made a great team and a great example of this was our success crossing borders.  Dan would help translate and make sense of the confusion while Anna would watch over Cheeks and make sure I maintained a positive attitude through the frustration.  Like I said before, we had a lot in common and so we were able to travel easy south as if we were mingling with the sights and waypoints.  

Sometimes you know somethings right, and once in a while you'll even get slipped a little reminder. One night in the middle of our journey together we found ourselves having a jolly evening on the beach.  A welcoming family had set up a little impromtu resturant on the sand behind their ocean front home.  Our waitress just seemed to be one of the kids carrying out one of her chores.  After feasting on some fish, we ordered some Guatemalan beer, no doubt they of the Gallos brand.  We chatted and ordered another round and maybe even another.  In our general good spirits it came up in the discussion the mention of age and, as usually follows, birthdays.  I heard Dan say the 7th of March and there was a delay before I realized we shared the same birthday.  We yelled and jumped around (lucky we were the resturant's only patrons) and ordered another round.   


dan and anna

Posted by meIan3 07:16 Comments (0)

La Mordida

Before I give this account I want to lay out a disclaimer.  This trip, the planning and its execution, revealed to me many times a certain paradox.  I heard (before and after I crossed the border) more stories of crime, corruption, and general evil in Latin America then I did of anything happy and good.  And yet, I experienced more hospitality, good cheer and general pleasantness in person in relation to anything that could be interpreted as dark.  And there is the paradox: The attention-getting bad news paints a picture of a dark, evil, dangerous, lucky-if-you- make-it-out-with-your-shirt-on place when in fact it's of the majority cheery and safe. 

So, I have come across the bad on this trip, but in relation to the good, it is nothing.  In fact the more I travel, the more I'm convinced that the world is well over the majority in the favor of good, at least when you put two fellow humans together face to face. 

 Now, with that, I will recount a little bit of the bad...You gotta hear this though, it was crazy, these cops were so dirty (etc. etc.)...

I spent some time on the old wide web before I crossed into the parenthesis, particularly spent my time on forums, and especially one particular forum on driving in Mexico.  It was there where I became familiar with the word "La Mordida" which translates into "The Bite."  The Bite is a donation, a little gift, a suggestion, a little piece of money - these are the names I've heard it called in person by the person on the other side of Cheek's car door.  This one forum was particular about fighting against The Bite and they laid out a couple of tactics which I absorbed and used in real time, never in Mexico, but further south and in this instance outside the city of Manugua in Nicarragua.  In a nutshell the advice was simple: First ask, and if not received, demand Due Process.

view near the rim of volcano masaya

It was the four of us - Cheeks, the Aussies and myself - and we came up a small hill climbing out of the city.  We were headed to the Volcano Masaya when we were flagged to the side of the road by two officers standing next to a little compact police car.  The younger officer confiscated my license as he explained I was "driving too close to the car in front of me".  This immediately triggered my senses - everyone and their mother drives close to the other cars in front of them there, one would think it was in Nicaragua's DMV handbook, and at that, I questioned to myself if I really was driving too close to the car in front.
The second officer, an older man came behind and fanned out half a dozen other licenses that had been confiscated.  I noticed half of them to be fake.  This was fishy.  I proceeded with the protocol laid out in the forum:

James:  Ok, well what do we do, officer?
Young Officer:  Well the ticket is $80
James:  Well, rules are rules, right?  Where do I pay the ticket?
Young Officer:  Oh well you  pay right here
James:  Oh no that can't be, you have to pay the fine in the court, right?, That's always what has to be done, right?  And I need a physical ticket, right?
Young Officer:  No, but you see the court is all the way back in Managua.
James:  No problem! Just give us the ticket and we'll spin around and pay it without a problem.  Then I get my license back, right?
Young Officer:  No, the court is closed today so you have to stay overnight (but it was a weekday)
James:  No problem, we love Managua.  Can you recommend us a place to stay?
Young Officer:  No, you can pay the $40 now and go one your way (he was slipping and so we already earned a 50% discount).  and then he said...the court is closed for 5 days.
James:  No problem!  We love it here! Just give us the ticket and we'll head back into the city. at this point the Aussies caught on to the strategy and said "Yeah this city is beautiful, we love it here."

The young officer went back to speak to the older one.  The older came back with my license and gave us an "Adelante!" which in that circumstance meant more or less "be on your way".  

It was a triumph.  We had fought La Mordida and won!

volcano island, lake nicaragua

Posted by meIan3 17:20 Comments (0)

A Guatemalan Local, Aussies, Wooden Ferries, New Years

Antigua and her pastel colored stone buildings, cobblestone streets and the Volcano Agua commanding the view to the west.  I was destined to stay at least another week in Guatemala and this was the place.  

I found a nice private parking lot in the center of the city to house Pale Cheeks for the holiday.  Upon working out the weekly rate, I found myself in a little business argument with the clerk and it wasn't go anywhere.  Manuel I learned to be a true diplomat, and our first encounter proved no different.  He sorted out the confusion, introduced me to the attendant as his friend, and then went on his way.  Later that day I got a tip about a cheap papusa stand in the market.  I took the tip and there I found the cheap greasy thick fried corn tortillas with cheese and cabbage and thin runny salsa.  I describe it exactly like it was and it was good.  I took a seat on a crate next to none other than jolly old Manuel from the parking lot.  He had an easy time of convincing me to order a Horchata (a milky ground up rice and cinnamon drink) and we sat on the crates, the busy market behind us, chatting over the local drink.

Manuel works for a tour company driving a travel van (which explains his good English), he is 35 and still single. He is trying to slim down a little which is why he only had one Pupusa.  We made arrangements the next day to take Cheeks to his town of San Antonio so he could show me around.  

antigua and her pastels

The celebrity that was Manuel showed himself upon us walking through his streets - the vegetable ladies with the little stone shed open to the street, the sausage sandwich shop (they were just hotdogs cut down the middle but I didn't burst his bubble), the card players on the corner begging us to stop and play a hand, the hollering of nicknames, passing his cousin, passing another cousin, visiting his sister and her family, and the Posada.  Most Central Americans celebrate what they call a Posada that takes place over the 9 days before Christmas.  As we strolled the streets into night, the sound of the band became noticeable up on the hill above town.  People began throwing buckets of water into the dusty streets outside their homes in areas where it was known the Posada was going to pass.  The fireworks were going off everywhere.  Guatemalans have no shame with fireworks - all hours of the night, while the mayor is making a speech, during a beautiful christmas hymn.  I'd  look around for reaction, no one thought it as a distraction (and this in itself is a major defining trait of Central Americans).  

The Posada passed with her quaint brass band, her singers, candles, and Mary and Joseph carried on the shoulders of four men.  A generator powering a bright light between the Holy couple was pushed by a few ninos 30 feet behind.  Manuel said we had to go if we were to catch his favorite late night food stop.  It was in another town, "is it alright if we go there now?"  Hard corn tortillas with assorted meats followed.  For the sake of his diet, Manuel had two.

Thanks to the old wide web I got a message from Daniel and we arranged a meeting in Antigua.  Our paths had crossed and now it was just a matter of working out the details.  I met Anna, Daniel's lovely tall brunette girlfriend and we discussed a route south and a timeline.

Now I stop here to touch on some of my philosophy.  An expedition (by sea or overland) is something that I believe falls into the category (with a few others) of being influenced, to a degree, by luck.  The days out in the sticks away from help, the open road and all her potential dangers - there are times when you might need a stroke of it once in a while.  So why would I allow a girl to taint any chance at having any luck?  I thought I was offsetting the luck with two genuine, fun loving Aussies.  And I was right. 

old iron work horses off the pacific coast of guatemala

beachside menu

We left Antigua for the seedy but real Guatemala City, then to the Pacific for some fish and sleeping on the beach.  The next morning over breakfast the map was telling us we might have to backtrack but further probing revealed to us another option in the form of a 25' by 10' wood barge, a 10 horsepower outboard and an average looking man of 35. I couldn't believe what I saw but sure enough a small pickup truck was pulling up from the other side (though that side was out of sight) in one piece.  We agreed to pay the man 11 usd but in reality I had to give him much more.  I gave him every ounce of trust my 28 years had managed to stir us - "he does know what he's doing" I made myself think.  A little technique - "drive forward, ok now drive back, ok now hold on" got old Cheeks on board and we were on our way through mangroves, past marshlands and the volcanos that were a fade in  the distance.  Physics told me that as long as the weight of the water that hole that the barge cut in the water didn't weight less than the wood of the barge, cheeks, her gear and ourselves, we wouldn't sink.  And then the tires touched dirt and I was less $11 on the other side and we moved on down the road... 

pale cheek's private charter

...Down the road to another little hiccup in our route.  The national two lane highway ran out of road.   There had been a bridge that spanned over a ravine and a river below that must have collapsed - this was understandable - but where were the signs explaining "End Of Road" or "Detour."  I had to interrupt a cuddly young couple sitting on a bolder over looking the gorge (without the bridge a nice lookout) to get the story.  "There is a rough road a few km back that will lead you down into the river bed and over a small bridge."  We backtracked and it was obvious, even without a sign.  None of the Guatemalan drivers missed the turn.

?donde esta el puente?

We celebrated New Years in El Salvador.  A tip from a guidebook revealed a remote village on a beautiful palm lined beach.  Little local ninos mingled around our slice of empty beach and answered some of our questions - "no the ocean water will not come up this far when the tide is high" "yeah you can find wood over there", "I live over there" - "Que Bueno" we would say.  Later a father came by camp "I heard you need wood" "Here use this for starting the fire"  "Here let me do that" as he starts our fire in seconds.  Only good vibes.  Later in the night we were startled by the sound of motion close by.  A row of cattle marched between us and the sea - the happiest cows I've ever seen.


Posted by meIan3 16:01 Comments (0)

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