05.07.2003-05.22.2003 Puerto Limon, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama|
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|After Limon I enjoyed the most peaceful riding conditions I'd encountered in Costa Rica. I spent my final night in Puerto Viejo, a town surrounded by nearly unpopulated beaches and a few stretches of coastal rain forest. The natural attractions combined with the laid-back Caribbean way of life meant it was also a big traveller's destination. A longer stay than one night would have been more appropriate but I had spent enough time in Costa Rica and similiar, if not better, attractions lay across the border in Panama. Twenty miles from the border the pavement ended and my progress slowed. I was eager to cross into Panama so at first I found this annoying. But then I took comfort in the knowledge that roads like this didn't lead to busy, troublesome border crossings. The border town of Sixaloa was Costa Rica's version of Bethel. In other words, a dump. But there I found the kind of frontier scene I'd come to appreciate. Only a handful of travellers were queued up at Immigrations. From there I passed the frontier--a rickety one-lane bridge carrying all foot passengers, vehicles and banana trains. On the Panama side I cycled through the heart of one of Panama's largest banana growing regions . The next tourist destination of Bocas del Toro was not far away but I didn't want to spend my first night in Panama in Tourist Panama. I pulled up short in the town of Changuinola, the home of Chiquita bananas.
The next day I progressed on to Almirante, the jumping off point for the islands of Bocas del Toro. In doing so I bid farewell to the flat and easy riding I had been enjoying of late. The Caribbean coast here was surprisingly rugged. As our water taxi traversed the waters en route to Bocas I began to question the wisdom of spending several days on a tropical island in the rainy season. I was just getting back into the groove after my break in Costa Rica and the thought of being holed up in a hotel room for several days didn't sit well with me. The boat ride over was damp and the rain began to fall more heavily after I arrived in Bocas. The next day I happily awoke to clear skies. I took advantage of the weather and spent the day exploring the island by bike. I found swimming beaches which were much more refreshing than those on the Pacific side and surfing beaches which produced unexpectedly large waves . The next day I signed up for a day-long boat tour of the area. I gathered early on that two of the most important ingredients for a successfull day tour--a good guide and a friendly group--were present. Our first stop was Dolphin Bay . Dolphins have long since failed to amuse me but the setting was unique--a nearly deserted bay(the only other human presence was a lone fisherman) backed first by mangrove forest and then by coastal rain forest. The weather again cooperated so the two snorkelling stops that followed were enjoyable. A few more island stops rounded out what I consider to be one of my favorite day tours. When I departed Bocas I realized my timing had been most fortunate. That morning the good weather ended with a fierce, prolonged downpour .
The road from Almirante to Chiriqui Grande is fairly new and perhaps due to this the cattle ranchers have made little headway. The riding was again rugged but tropical forest and scattered Indigenous villages were my welcomed counterparts. From Chiriqui Grande the road steers back to the Pacific, entailing yet another Continental Divide crossing. Rain badgered me again on the Caribbean side but again scenery was good. A few Inidigenous villages gave away to nothing but tropical rain forest as the road passed through protected areas. This type of riding had alluded me in Central America so I was glad for my route choice. At the summit the weather cleared and I stopped to enjoy the views of the Pacific Slope the break afforded. From there it was a steep descent to the Pan-Am. I had formed a strong dis-liking for the Pan-Am by then and my experiences on it in Panama did little to improve this feeling. The riding was either hot or rainy, freqeuently hilly and rarely interesting. I proceeded directly to Panama City, completing a 400 mile leg without break for the first time this year.
Reaching Panama City is a milestone of sorts and therefore it is appropriate that the approach into that city is a memorable one. Some distance outside the city I entered a protected area of lush greenery. I suspected I was close to the Panama Canal and soon after the Bridge of the Americas, spanning the Canal, appeared through the brush . As I crossed the bridge I had little time to appreciate the views. The cyclist's nemesis--the combination of heavy traffic and no shoulder--was again present. After the bridge I passed through one of the City's poorer neighborhoods before turning on to Balboa Ave. and continuing on to the waterfront . Satisfaction of arrival was tempered by the fact that Panama City was in some ways the end-of-the-line for me. The highway did continue after the City but it dead-ended further east at the nearly-impenetrable jungle known as the Darien Gap. Beyond that lay another place I would sadly not visit, Columbia. For the first time on the trip I would be boarding an airplane and skipping a major piece of geography.
During my stay in Panama City I walked a lot, sweated a lot and managed to see most of the obligatory sites. A trip to Miraflores locks and a visit to the Panama Canal museum combined to heighten my appreciation for that engineering marvel. While I was walking around Casco Viejo a Panamanian-born woman, now residing in Miami, enlisted me as her tour client. She had lived in the nieghborhood during its better days and was then(with a friend from Columbia) taking a trip down memory lane. She wanted someone to impress with her local knowledge and I happily obliged her. I recieved a tour far better than any organized tour as she took me through buildings in ruins, buildings being restored and buildings already restored(she even managed to get us past security to take some pictures of the presidential palace). All along she described what purpose each building served during her childhood and how it was being used today.
As my departure date approached I had to do the inevitable--dismantle my bike and pack it up. It was the first time I had engaged in this task since my flight from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay. When I booked my plane ticket I was happy to find that the cheapest flight had a stopover in Bogota. At least I could say I'd been to Columbia.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||533 mi/857 km||26730 ft/8769 m||1|
|Trip||11819 mi/19020 km||128 mi/207 km||15||