Bocas del Toro to Ciudad de Panamá

Panamá hadn’t really featured much in our ‘vision’ of this trip. Really only as the only bit we wouldn’t be able to ride, as there are no roads between Panamá and Colombia. We both had a feeling about lots of ships and cargo going through the canal, but not a lot else.

Having left (very sadly) our friend Anna in Bocas del Toro to ponder her own onward journey and try to sort her rear wheel out, we set off along the roads of Panamá. The northern (really western) part of the country has lots of mountains covered in forest. There are large areas of indigenous reserves, and we almost felt we were back in Guatemala at times.

We’d not gone to any great route-finding lengths, other than to note that it was going to be pretty difficult to avoid the Panamericana with its cargo-laden trucks. So we resigned ourselves to a few days of listening to podcasts, audiobooks and music to maintain our sanity and set off for Panamá city and the final step to Colombia and America Sur.

It's a relatively stiff haul up from the caribbean coast to the continental divide crossing, with no food shops other than a couple of stalls, we got is wrong and were pretty wobbly by the time we found a shop. The view wasn't bad though

During our climb over the mountains we belatedly celebrated our wedding anniversary by staying at a hostel perched high in the cloud-forests. It was my turn to organise something, and I felt that I’d not really managed anything special enough..

Not such a bag view for a hostel. Unfortunately, though there was plenty of ecological good work and design to laud, it felt a little too far towards the backpacker "experience" for our liking

The slog along the major arterial road of central america began benignly enough with plenty of food stalls and not that much traffic as it was the weekend. Finding places to stay just seemed to work out. During the wet season a lot of the ground gets pretty boggy, needing greater care with campsite choice. We’ve taken to asking people if they know of a flat, safe place for us to put our tent as a routine. Our willingness to do this with its concomitant need for speaking spanish at the end of a long day surprises us. Maybe we really are getting somewhere at last. During this section we stayed in an empty house with coconuts for breakfast, the front yard of a farm, the backyard of the municipal police in Santiago, an open-sided community hall, a quiet grassy area near a beach and with the bomberos (firemen) at Arraiján. Not a bad haul really, and we felt genuinely welcomed and looked after at all of them.

We'd already discovered half-built houses as a potential source of under-cover camping. The owner of this one seemed quite happy for us use it for the night (photo S.Hedges)
At the end of a day, we'd pulled over the ask some people who'd waved at us if they knew of anywhere flat and safe that we could camp for the night. We'd carefully explained that we had food, water, a little house (tent) and little beds (sleeping mats) and would be gone by 8am, when they offered the house next to theirs. It was being renovated, but suited us just fine (photo S. Hedges)
Our panamanian breakfast the next day, served up fresh. Sarah ended up with 2 as the first one had juice but no meat. This was after we'd already made and eaten our usual fodder, so we were a bit full when the road hit us that morning (photo S.Hedges)
For hundreds of kilometres there was no navigation necessary, and the daily task was just to plough forwards and avoid the miriad pieces of glass and shredded truck tyres in the varying shoulder the Panamericana allowed us. We did manage some diversions along smaller roads including a nice stretch to Soná then back on at Santiago, but these possibilities stopped a couple of days out from Panamá itself.
Our final night on the road before a few days in the city, packing our bikes for the plane to Colombia, was spent enjoying the hospitality of the Arraiján bomberos. The captain, who'd been working there for 52 years, was the epitomy of wise calmness and attention to the rain-soaked cyclists who turned up on his doorstep. (Photo S.Hedges)

Along the way we discovered that Panamá has free wi-fi in most towns. We were also minding our own business and slowly chugging along towards the main bridge into Panamá City when the police stopped us and insisted on driving us and our bikes across the bridge to avoid us being taken out by the rush-hour traffic!

I have a habit of noticing public health posters. Most of them in earlier central american countries had been extolling the benefits of clean drinking water and washing your hands to avoid cholera; and mosquito control to avoid dengue. In Panamá city 49% of pregnancies end in caesarian sections, though the rate is much lower in poorer areas of the country. Here the poster says that "Everything good takes time, lowering the rate of surgery is our goal" In contrast to this the australian C-section rate is about 20% and that is considered too high!

Now we have to admit the truth…. We’re flying to Colombia (shock, horror!). It’s easy to get the feeling from other cycle tourists we meet that this is the lame way out and that we should be battling smugglers while catching lanchas (speed boats) along the northern panamanian coast, or finding a kindly sailor to drop us off in Turbo (nearest town with a road in Colombia). I (mainly), want to get back in the groove and catch up the time we’ve lost in various wanderings lately, so that’s basically it. This way we get instant altitude, and a few weeks distance, and it works out as being a year after we left Australia too. We’ve also got some significant mechanical issues (when won’t we from now on!), with a crack that appeared in my front rim in Costa Rica now extending scarily. Flying to Bogotá means that the replacement rim being sent by Velocity can be built into the wheel straight off without a less than ideal temporary measure in the meantime.

That's 2 bikes (21 and 29kg) - the Surly Big Dummy on the right; and our 18kg check-in luggage. Unfortunately the over-size limit may be a problem, so we'll see how much we get stung for.... UPDATE! The nice people at the TACA check-in desk ignored the size of our bike boxes as they were bicycles and just were that size. And they helped us redistribute some things into our hand luggage to bring the total checked-in under the weight limit, so we didn't pay any excess at all

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