I somehow found my way to the old part of the city, Casco Viejo, and after asking a couple of street vendors for Luna's Castle, I rolled up outside just after dark. I checked in, parked up, unloaded, e.mailed Tak's friend who lived in Panama City, and rinsed the sweat and dust off me in a cold shower.
I got back to my computer to see that I had a message waiting already form Tak's mate, George, telling me to meet him in Hooters in 30 minutes if I wanted to go to a killer party. Hmm, Hooters..killer party...I thought about it for about 2 seconds, and then started rushing to get ready to go out. I wasn't going to miss this!
It turned out that George, together with his partner, Hector, owned Hooters, and another club called the Roof. We had a beer at Hooters, and left to go to the party which was at the roof.
We turned up, skipped the queue, got ushered into the VIP bar, and got settled at a table with a bottle of Absolut and a load of mixers, and told to help myself!
I was introduced to a bunch of people, made a few drink for some of the ladies, then got into some dancing!
I was mistaken for the lead singer of Anthrax and asked to sign the Absolut guitar, posed with some of the Rock n Roll lookalikes who were there for the Absolut Rocks party.
I stayed a while at the party, but fatigue got to me, and I headed back to the hostel at around 3am.
The next day I suffered. I had caught a cold somewhere, probably in my last ride in Costa Rica when I got rained on all day. My nose was leaking like an old Triumph, and I felt terrible. It took all my strength just to get downtown and buy some medicine, but fortunately the next day I was back on form and went out for a walk round the city.
Panama, a city of contrasts, the shiny modern high rises dwarf the crumbling former glory of the colonial days
The staff at the hostel told me where the areas to avoid were, so I headed straight there. I always find that the no go areas are generally the coolest to explore.
I had no money on me, only my camera and some cigarettes, and as I walked around, the locals approached me, asking what I was doing there. “Mucho peligro”-much danger, they all said. I hung out with the barbers in their shop shooting the breeze as the clippered away at their clients, including a two-year-old boy who, it seemed, really did not to be in the barber’s chair.
Again they said the same to me;this area is not for tourists, much danger, don’t go round this corner, don’t walk down this street and so on. Finally I decided I might just be pushing my luck and started to head back to the safer area around the hostel. I hadn’t felt threatened at all, but with all the warnings, I gave in and headed back up the hill. I got back to the hostel and took my bike out for a ride over the bridge so I could see what it looked like in daylight. I rode down to Veracruz beach on the other side of the bridge and ate lunch in one of the Palapas on the beach, before riding back to the city.
Panama was a city of two distinct sides. There was the fading glory of Casco Viejo, the old city, with once majestic colonial buildings crumbling away standing next to beautifully restored old houses, narrow streets and dilapidated tenement buildings, and then there was the 4 lane highway leading to the high rises, skyscrapers and shopping malls of the new city. There were slum type buildings on the waterfront, with tin roofs and piles of garbage all around. Children would run around playing in the squalor wearing underwear, and directly behind these slums, were the shiny new office blocks and condos. It was a city of huge contrasts.
Brightly painted chicken busses raced through the city, dropping off passengers by slowing down a little, but rarely coming to a complete stop.
I dropped into my new favorite place in Panama, Hooters, to meet George for lunch, and we arranged to meet up again for bike night, which Hooters hosted every Tuesday night. I was introduced to Oscar, the President of the Panama Chapter of the Big Boss MC, and he asked if I would like to go for a little spin with him and a few of his mates round the city. A half a dozen of us got on our bikes and rode out the city to the new bridge over the canal, and we parked up at the top of a hill, overlooking Panama City and smoked. We hung out a while before heading back once more to Hooters. Oscar invited me to meet up with his club members at their clubhouse from where we would all ride through the city back to Hooters for their bike night the next day.
The Big Boss MC Members at the Club House
Bike night rolled along, and I rode up to the Big Boss Club house, at the back of one of the city’s many sports bars, and was introduced to the gang.
I sat in on their meeting, in which they discussed the pros and cons of leaving for their rides earlier in the mornings, and went through he details of their upcoming ride to Costa Rica. At the end of the meeting, I was presented with an “official” Big Boss MC cap and T-shirt, and welcomed as an honorary member of the club.
Photos were taken, and I gave Oscar my Harley Davidson of Florida T-shirt as a reciprocal gift, I had nothing else to give!
We finished off our beers and all saddled up and the dozen or so members of the club and I rode through the city, arriving to Hooters where another twenty or so bikes were already parked.
I had e-mailed the other 3 bikers who were going to cross on the boat to Colombia with me, and they had also come on their bikes to the bike night. The local bikers were all keen to find out as much as they could about our respective trips. I had heard this a few times before from bikers, “You are living my dream” and “I wish I could do what you are doing”, and the usual questions , they always wanted to know if I had a problem with people trying to rob me, steal the bike, damage the bike and so on.
We all told these guys the same thing. Just book it, pack, and go, it’s as easy as that. We had so far had no problems at all with the bike, other than me sometimes not being able to lift it off its stand. I figured that the Harley was a much harder bike to steal than a KLR or a smaller bike. It's like the sign said in the kitchen at Luna's CAstle which read, "FAT PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO KIDNAP!"
We talked bikes, roads, borders, police and roads and routes with the Panamian bikers, swapped e-mails and gave out blog addresses, ate burgers and sank a few beers before the bikes dispersed and us intrepid traveling bikers rode back to our hostels.
I had one day of running round the city in preparation for the next part of the trip, the sailboat from San Blas to Cartagena, Colombia.
I had deliberated over this choice for several days and had decided that sailing would be the best option, and I had picked a boat that a few of my fellow bikers had used before and had a good reputation.
I had been e-mailing the captain of the Stahlratte, a 106 year old fishing boat that was doing the trip from Panama to Colombia, and he had assured me that getting the bike onto the boat was not going to be a problem, all I had to do was to cross a small river, and the rest would be easy.
I knew I was in for quite a tough ride to Carti, where I would pick up the boat, and I was half looking forward to the challenge, and half nervous of dropping the bike and not being able to reach the destination.
At 5am, the Jeeps came to the hostel to pick up passengers, and I put my luggage in the back of one of them. I followed the first Jeep out of town towards Chepo, and then turned off the highway and onto a dirt road. This was a 40km stretch up to the little river that I was going to have to cross.
I followed the Jeep along the road which deteriorated as we went on. The track was made up of vaying types of grave, loose gravel, packed gravel, large rocky gravel, muddy gravel and loose gravel, and in parts, just mud.
I was following the first Jeep up a steep gravel hill when the Jeep stopped. I braked, my front wheel locked, and then the bike started sliding back down the hill. I did all I could to keep the bike upright, but the weight was too much for me and the bike went over.
I jumped off before I got stuck under it and took a deep breath. First things first, take a photo.
I knew I couldn’t lift the bike on my own, but I tried anyway.
It was now around 10.30am and the sun was beating down on me. I took my helmet and jacket off, placed them on the side of the “road” and attempted righting my bike, with no success.
There was nothing to do but wait, and within 10 minutes, the second Jeep appeared at the bottom of the hill, the Jeep I was following had not seen me fall and had continued onwards.
The driver and a few of the passengers form the second Jeep got out and helped me lift the bike, I jumped on, and with a push from the guys, and help from the engine, the bike slowly started climbing the hill, I throttled back gently and the bike stabilized and I picked up speed as I tackled the hill.
There were a few more worrying moments when the back end of the bike was fishtailing wildly behind me in the mud sections and skipping friskily on the loose gravel going up the hills, but by keeping the bike pointed in the general direction of the road, braking with the gearbox, and taking good run ups for the next uphill sections, I finally made it to the river.
My heart sank when I saw what lay ahead. This little river was daunting to say the least. The level of the river was much higher than I had been led to believe. Huge trucks were crossing regularly, the water coming up to the tops of their wheels. As much as I had wanted to have a go at crossing this obstacle unaided, I figured there was too much at stake. The water level was as high as my saddle, and the current was fairly strong, the last thing I wanted was for the engine to stall and the bike to go over and get carried off by the river!
I got talking to Elissa, a lady who was working with the construction crew who were working on improving the road and building the bridge, and she said she had an idea to help me cross the river.
She got on her walkie-talkie and talked rapidly in Spanish to whoever was on the other end of the airwaves. A few minutes later and I heard a heavy rumble in the distance. A minute or so after that, the “solution” came into view in the form of a yellow JCB digger. The JCB crossed the river and lined up with the huge metal scoop alongside my bike, we measured up the scoop and the bike and soon came to the conclusion that this option, novel as it was, was not going to be the solution after all.
Next, I stopped a bunch of the trucks coming and going across the river to see if any of the drivers would agree to take my bike in the back of their trucks, but with no joy.
Then Julie, the boss of the Jeep drivers, came back from the other side of the river after dropping off the rest of the passengers, and told me more bad news. The boat that the captain was going to send to pick up the bike was not going to be able to come down the river as there were sections of the river that were too shallow for the boat to make it down.
I had had one last option, the Kuna.
The Kuna Indians were a fiercely independent indigenous group who inhabited the islands along the Panamanian coast. They had resisted the pull of modern, city life and still lived traditional lives on their island communities. There was a group of 8 or 9 Kuna men at the banks of the river, and after a little haggling, gesticulating and laughing, they agreed to lift the Harley into one of their canoes and walk it across the river to the other side.
Gingerly, I rode the bike down the mud banks and in to the river until it was alongside the canoe that was barely as wide as the bike.
With a few grunts and plenty of huffing and puffing, together we managed to lift the rear of the bike onto the canoe, and then hefted the front end in too. We pulled the canoe across the river, not helped by another truck that crossed in the opposite direction causing a huge wash that nearly knocked the canoe over, but a few minutes later, we were on the other side, repeating the whole lifting process to get the bike back off the canoe.
The task completed, the river crossed, and I was full of a sense of enormous accomplishment. I thanked the Kuna and paid them their $30, they were overjoyed at the prospect of spending it all on beer and having a party!
I got back on the bike on the other side, slid up the muddy bank and continued along the dirt track to the next river where I would take another boat to the Stahlratte.
I rode the last few remaining kilometers to the final river without any mishaps and arrived at the river as the lancha, a big canoe with an outboard engine that was going to take me to the boat.
The Kuna were there to help again, for a fee, and we walked the bike along a wooden plank until the front wheel was in the boat, then lifted the back end in. It was much harder getting the bike in this larger boat, and in the process, the bike sustained a couple of minor injuries, and I had aching muscles for the next couple of days.
Once the bike was safely wedged into the lancha, we set off along the river to where the Stahlratte was moored. We pulled alongside the ship and one of the crew, a tall blond German guy called Roly,also known as "Tachicumba"-the big man- tied ropes around the bike and we began the winching process.
The bike was lifted onto the deck and strapped up against the side of the deck. We then unloaded the rest of my luggage and I was shown around the boat, before getting in the dingy to go ashore on one of the inhabited Kuna islands.
I walked around exploring the tiny island, crammed with small traditional wooden huts, and traditionally dressed Kuna strolling around. The Kuna are amazing people. In their language, there are no words for work, money or time.
If, for any reason, they need to know what time it is , they will ask you “Watchie watchie?”, the word that they use for “work” is the German word, and the word they use for money is the English word. Their culture is one of trade and co-operation. As with many indigenous tribes, you have to ask to take a photo, and normally charged a dollar. I encountered a group of women making the traditional clothes with symbols embroidered on to ward off evil spirits and was invited to join them. We sat and chatted and they explained which animals kept which evil sprits away, and I was allowed to take pictures. Another group of women were sat outside the local store, and were not at all into the idea of me talking with them or taking pictures, even for money.
The funniest thing was to see these traditionally dresser villagers, living on a tiny island, living in wooden huts, chatting into their shiny mobile phones I spent a couple of hours on the island, watching the fishermen bringing their catch in, and then the women gutting and cleaning the fish by the water before I jumped back in the dingy to return to the boat.
The crew cooked up a beautiful dinner, and just as the light was fading, the other bikers, who had left a few hours after me, turned up.
Their boats were winched on board and we all sat down over dinner and talked about our day. They all said that when they saw the Harley sat up on the deck as they approached the ship that they were amazed that I had made it.
We were all pretty exhausted, and after dinner I went down to my bunk to sort out some bits and pieces and fell fast asleep, waking up some 10 hours later.
I sat up in the bunk, banged my head on the bunk above me, and stood up. Every muscle in my body was aching. The previous day had been extreme! The riding alone had been physically demanding, and all the lifting off and on boats had left me with a sore back and stiff arms and legs.
At around 11am,the rest of the passenger turned up and our small group of 4 swelled to the full compliment of 18 passengers and 4 crew.
We introduced each other, had a quick orientation of the ship and then we were underway. We sailed for a couple of hours, anchored beside an uninhabited island, donned our snorkel gear and jumped off the boat.
We swam round the island over the reefs , watching the fish below, and explored the desert island. Then it was back to the boat a nap before dinner. We took the dingy back to the shore, built a BBQ, and threw on a bunch of chicken. While the chicken cooked on the Barbie, we sat on logs around cluster of candles, told jokes and swapped stories.
I made cocktails for the Captain and the crew, and myself, we ate a great dinner on our private island and went swimming in the warm Caribbean waters as the sun went down and darkness rolled in.
Back on board, the music went on and the party continued for a while until bedtime.
I went to the top deck and settled into a hammock to escape the heat of the bunks below deck. I slept peacefully on the deck for a couple of hours until I was awoken by crack of the loudest thunder I think I have ever heard. I sat bolt upright, and for a moment had no idea where I was. The ship was pitch black, and as I was squinting to see anything, a bolt of lightning lit up the deck and the surrounding islands. I sat back down on the hammock and watched the light show.
The lightning wasn’t just a brief flash, but lit the sky up for a good few seconds at a time. It was quite amazing. The ship was quiet; there were no lights for what seemed like miles around, and every few seconds, the lightning lit up everything around in an electric blue strobe. I was in awe. I lit a cigarette and sat under one of the tarps watching the storm. After a while, I went and sat in the lounge and watch through the porthole as the rain came sheeting down. I woke up in the lounge as the day broke, and saw that the rain was still falling. The motor of the boat was put putting along, and the crew were busy preparing breakfast. We were on our way to our next stop, another tropical paradise island, and we were all hopeful that the weather would break.
Unfortunately, it didn’t. We sat and ate breakfast under a tarp supported by two oars on the poop deck, and then we all adjourned en masse to the saloon to watch a movie while the rain fell. Eventually there was a respite from the rain and we all jumped off the boat for a a bit more snorkeling.
The next day we were off again and heading for Colombia, we sailed all day and all night. I was one of the few people who didn't get sea sick, I think it was because I spent the whole time on board on the top deck, in the fresh air. I fashioned my self a kind of seat belt from some spare rope for when I was in the hammock to stop it swinging around too much and I slept in that at night under the stars.
After a few days of sailing round the San Blas Islands on the Stahlratte, we arrived in Cartagena. There was a bit of hanging around while our fixer went ahead with our passports to Immigration. We then all went onshore, as we had been summoned to the Immigration office. We grabbed a couple of taxis and were in and out of Immigration in a short time. We then returned to the boat, unloaded the bikes, and then headed into Cartagena to find a hostel.
We ended up in Media Luna , in the old part of Cartagena, and had a quick walk around to get our bearings before holing up in the hostel and relaxing.
Cartagena was a sensory overload after 4 days on the open water. The walled city was simply beautiful.
Cartagena was a sensory overload after 4 days on the open water. The walled city was simply beautiful.
Narrow cobbled streets were lined with beautiful old colonial buildings, street vendors were selling everything from single cigarettes to blankets, from freshly squeezed juice to mobile phones. Old men played dominos on the street corners iguanas strolled around in the park while kids played double-dutch on the grass. There seemed to be something going on everywhere you looked. The sights and sounds of this city thrilled me, but the heat was intense, and after a couple of days of wondering around , I decided to make a bee-line to the beach. I loaded up the bike and set off for Santa Marta, 4 hours north of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.
Santa Marta is one of Colombia’s top destinations for vacationing Columbians, but when I got there, I could not, for the life of me, understand. The city was grimy, the beach was almost non existent, and I was quite unimpressed. I checked into a hotel, lay down on the bed and slept.
I left Santa Marta early the next morning, hoping that I would find something better in the next town, Taganga, only 10 minutes ride away. The 10-minute ride took more like 40 minutes, due to me somehow getting lost on the road, but when I did arrive, I was greeted by a gorgeous beach and a delightful little seaside town. This was more like it!
I found myself a dorm bed in the Casablanca Hostel, right on the beach, with the balcony of the dorm room overhanging the sea. Oh I do love to be beside the seaside.
Taganga was a lovely little fishing village, with a series of bays and beaches easily reachable by hiring a fishing boat followed by a walk along the coastal bluffs.
The beaches were all pretty busy, but I found myself a little bay all to myself and settled down on the sand for a snooze. I lay undisturbed on the beach for a couple of hours before making my way back to the main beach for some fresh fish. The restaurants had no menus; instead they each had a cold box filled with the catch of the day which they would bring over to the table so the diner could choose exactly which fish they wanted cooked up.
I ate my fill of fish, rice and beans then got back in another Lancha, for the trip back to the main beach and the hostel.
After a quick shower, I grabbed my camera and went for a walk round the village. Kids were playing in the streets and I stopped to chat with a few of them. More and more kids came out of the homes to see what the fuss was about, and within a few minutes, I was surrounded!
The fun went on until the sun started to go down, and I made my excuses and returned to the hotel.
There didn’t seem to be much going on, so I took the opportunity to get a rare early night, and went to bed. I was awoken by a thumping bass rhythm coming from behind the hostel. I tried to get back to sleep, but after a few failed attempted, I decided to go see where the music was coming from. The club was indeed just behind the hostel, and it was jumping. I bumped into a couple of guys I had met in Panama City, and we sat and enjoyed a couple of beers together, before tiredness hit me again and I returned to the hostel.
A couple of days chilling on the beach and I was ready to head South. I had to return to Cartagena to pick up the road to Medellin, my next stop, so I allowed myself another day of wondering round this gorgeous city, watching street dancers entertain the tourists, and watching tourists entertain the locals with their antics.
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