Crossing the Divide

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The Continental Divide follows the line of mountains that form the backbone of the Americas. To get from the Atlantic to the Pacific generally involves climbing over the mountains and crossing the Divide. We were leaving the Caribbean coastline and heading for the Pan-Americana and had to cross the Cordillera de Talamanca, the first real mountains we would be climbing since leaving Guatemala. Although not very high, the landscape has been extremely steep in recent days and we didn’t know what to expect. After a chilled time coming down the coast we knew we were in for some tough days. The ride from Almirante to Chirique Grande was exhausting, climbing and dropping steeply all day. Although we were never too much over sea level, we still climbed 1200mtrs, the only reward being the beautiful landscape we were travelling through. Chirique Grande is not much of a town and it was almost dark when we arrived. For some reason we felt slightly intimidated and headed back out the road to a small pension we had seen, full of truckers and providing us with one of the worst rooms we had encountered on the trip. Still, we were too exhausted to care and had a big day ahead.

On these days we generally don’t talk too much about what is ahead, its better not to think too much about it. This climb turned out to be the hardest we had done, worse even than the mountains in Chiapas and Guatemala. It just went on and on, hard to imagine gradients which you need to drag not just your bike up but all your gear and yourself. On days like this we generally go at our own pace, with frequent stops to catch up and get our breath back. Even the trucks and buses were struggling. Still, we were going over the Divide, our first time, and this was something to savour.

We were counting off each 150mtr gain in height, one more to go until lunch, and then three after that to the top. The gradient was hitting 15% and we struggled on and on, slowly slowly.  A waterfall provided much needed soaking and respite from the sun and heat of the day.

I love moments like this, crossing the Divide, a real sense of achievement. We hadn’t covered much ground, maybe 35km, and it had taken a good bit of the day. I thought the divide would be the highest point, but no such luck. The road rose and dropped over the high mountain valleys and led us to Lago Fortuna, a big lake with a massive dam across which we rode. The sun was still out, blue skies, but in the distance we could hear thunder and grey rain clouds were swirling down the mountains.

Soon we were riding in a storm, rain pelting down and lightening flashing through the skies.

The day had changed. We were hungry and tired, wet and cold, somehow managing to put some sandwiches together at what finally looked like the top, and we had climbed 1700mtrs, a big day by any standards. We were still a long way from the nearest town, maybe 40km, and it was by no means all downhill. We had heard of a couple of accommodation options up in the hills, all well over our meagre budget but at least we knew we had choices. It wasn’t long before we reached Lost and Found, a hostel built up in the jungle. We called it a day.

But what a day. And the location and views from the hostel and sunset over a stormy sky were a good way to end it. There is something so special about being in the mountains, they are a second home, for me at least. The real reward of crossing the divide was yet to come, waking up to another sunny day with spectacular views, and an alpine landscape. Gone were the jungles, replaced by pine trees. Gone was the Caribbean, replaced by the Pacific. Gone were the climbs, replaced by a long and winding downhill.

We were heading for David, a small provincial city. We met up with Dave Briggs, a witty and funny English bloke, on his way by bike from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Another cyclist we will surely be crossing paths with again on the way south. We needed a rest day, before another climb into the mountains and to Boquete, but this time a gentle continuous gradient, almost easy in fact. So Boquete, it is like Switzerland up here, we are staying in MamaLlena, one of the best hostels I have ever come across, we plan to spend a week, taking a few days to hike up Volcan Baru, down the other side and then back around to this mountain village. And maybe celebrate my birthday. Stories for another day.

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