The Caribbean Coast

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One of the great things about this trip so far is the not knowing, not knowing where the road will take you, the things you see that will stay with you forever, where you will end up for the night, the people you will meet, a plan today can seem like a figment of the imagination tomorrow, at times you are living life by the minute, other times you are lost in a world of dreams…the Caribbean coast and Panama so far have been very much like that. We arrived across the rickety old banana rail bridge to the southernmost country of Central America, the one we had given no thought to, it had always been so far away, and now the one we would have five or so weeks in before sailing to Colombia. Sometimes it is nice not to know.

The Caribbean coastline is a little explored corner of Costa Rica and Panama, perhaps because there is only one way in and one way out. The road here is cut into the rainforest, following the coastline, rising and falling steeply as it winds its way along old trails. It is one of the most unique places we have been to. It rains here, lots. In the rain the forest comes alive, dripping glistening green, alive and almost menacing, you feel that you don’t belong, that you are tolerated, that nothing can stop the voracious growth, nothing except maybe a road. And even that is falling apart. The houses are built on stilts, and built from planks of raw wood. The population here is a mix of the descendents of Jamaicans brought in to work the banana plantations and the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people who try to maintain a traditional way of life. There is a different feeling here, but it is welcoming and incredibly beautiful and almost like a lost world.

The cycling here has been tough, full of short steep hills that fall away to reveal more of the same, ripples in the surface of the earth close to the continental divide. Not far over the border is the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, some magical islands in very much an afro-caribbean style. We planned to stay around here for a while. A friend of mine has a house in the area and we were hoping to get out there. That in itself was an adventure. We had also been in contact with a Canadian couple, bike tourers too, who were living in a hilltop village and who had invited us to spend a night. We were treated to some excellent home cooking and learned lots about the area and after only a day were beginning to fall in love with yet another country.

Bocas Del Toro

The decaying town of Almirante is the gateway to Bocas, water taxis and even a ferry transport all and sundry to the nearby islands. We somehow managed to get our bikes into a water taxi and were soon speeding out to the islands, slightly worried about the salt affecting the bikes as a torrential downpour swept over us. Welcome to Bocas! Isla Colon, the main island, seems to get most of the tourists, but few venture beyond the main town, unless on some tour or other. That is a shame. We are lucky to have our own transport and after a day of been trapped by rain, we headed to the other end of the island, both agreeing that the short 20km trip was one of the most beautiful rides we have had. It is a road to nowhere, literally, but you end up at a paradise of beaches and jungle growing almost to the water and a few cabins where you can lose yourself for a while. We were the only people there, sleeping under a tin roof that reverberated with the wind and raindrops and the sea crashing onto the sand just meters away. We spent our last night on Isla Bastimentos, and in typical local style the water taxi dropped us at a little jetty built onto a small posada, a few meters from sea to bed, and a line of hammocks in between in case you were just too lazy to move.

One final highlight on the islands was a Saturday afternoon watching the super classico, a football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. I kid you not. We headed to a bar with Martin, a German we had met and the atmosphere was simply crazy. This was like the world cup final. The bar was full of locals and the banter and jibes and celebrations had to be seen to believed. After four nights we felt it was time to move on, we were hoping to find a contact in Almirante that could get us to the very remote house that Ralph’s sister owns somewhere up the coast. We had no idea of what lay ahead.

Back in Almirante we were seeking out a local woman and getting some strange looks as we headed into one of the poorer areas of a poor town. We certainly looked lost when we heard some guy asking us what we were doing there, or who we were looking for. This guy turned out to be Danielo, and he knew Ralph, and he knew the lady we were looking for, and we soon discovered that she wasn’t in town. Danielo offered us a room for the night. And so we ended up in a little wooden house and got to see how a Panamanian family lives. Danielo looks after his four children while his wife works as a school teacher in a distant, mountainous part of the country, only getting home for two months each year. We cooked up dinner for the family and got a tour around town and had yet another unusual but enriching view into the lives of the people here. In the end we didn’t make it to the house which was a pity but it was nice to see what Ralph, a 70-odd year old eternal traveler living in Newcastle, had done to help out some people living here in a forgotten corner of Central America.

It was time to move on. We had to get back over the mountains to the Pacific side and rejoin the Pan-Americana, the only route to Panama city. We were on the one road out and it would take us over the continental divide.

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