We and our bikes are taking a 112ft sailboat, called the Stahlratte, from Panama to Colombia. To get to the boat we have to drive on a road through the jungle into the Kuna Yala province, an area given by the Panamanian government to the Kuna people, an indigenous population originally from northern Colombia and the Darien area of Panama. After attempts by the government to eradicate their cultural traditions, and uprisings by the Kuna people, they were allotted this chunk of jungle on the eastern side of the country, and the shoreline south from the peninsula of El Porvenir, including the San Blas islands, where most of the population lives. It’s almost like entering another country. They check your passport and you have to pay a fee for you and your bike, so it’s basically the same as all the other countries we have entered but with no paperwork! Then you get to drive on this super windy road with lots of elevation change and lots of dirt sections that come up out of nowhere and are great passing areas for us.
Chris and I first came up the road because we heard there were some cabañas with really good bird watching, so I wanted to spend the night there instead of the tiny motel in the nearest tiny town which isn’t very nice. We found the cabañas and made some noise in front of the locked gate until the guard dog came barking down the road. Once he got close enough and heard my melodious voice his barks turned to squeals and he wiggled under the fence for some snuggles. Disable guard dog: check.
So we climbed the fence and the driveway beyond and it was beautiful. Lush jungle wound its way around the drive way, surrounding the cabañas at the top of the hill; flowers were sprouted from every corner, giant plants were overhanging the road, and the sounds of thousands of creatures you couldn’t see filled the air. So we are standing in front of these cabañas making noise and calling for someone, and finally, after much shouting, a dude came out and told us they were closed. Boo. So we had no choice but to bid our new doggie friend goodbye and head back to said tiny crap town.
Luckily I was starving and there was a small building on the side of this windy jungle road advertising lunch. This is lucky because we were about to eat the best fried chicken of our lives and its all due to my insatiable appetite. A small family, father, mother and toddler, were sitting around a table watching us park our bikes. Once we sat down they got to it, getting us cold beers and making us amazing fried chicken while simultaneously chasing after their toddler. It was amazing.
But then we headed back to the small town of Chepo where Google claimed there was a hospedaje (motel). We drove around for a while and couldn’t find it and after asking some local ladies we discovered it on top of the pharmacy. It was a cheap motel with air conditioning and that’s all we really needed.
When we went out for dinner we noticed that a lot of the restaurants were serving Chinese food, or China Comida (pronounced chee-na co-mee-da) in Español, which has a nice ring to it. Those that were serving local cuisine were still run by Chinese people, as were most of the shops. Pretty much half the town seemed to be Chinese. It was certainly the biggest population of any one immigrant group that we had seen in any one small town. Why? Why this town? This tiny town a couple of hours away from Panama City, in the hot desert? Did a bunch of people come here randomly? Or did one dude end up here and write to his friend who wrote to his friend who told all his friends to follow him to Panamanian heaven? I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming once in a road trip. The proprietor was a lovely man who had come from China some years ago and we asked him why on earth he had picked Cheyenne, Wyoming. His answer: I took out a map of the United States, closed my eyes and pointed. That’s pretty awesome, adventurous, brave, scary, crazy. But China is huge and full of people, so it’s not really surprising that there are pockets all over the place full of Chinese expats, or one cool dude with his restaurant.
Anyway, Chris got a great two dollar hair cut from a dude whose salon was the size of a medium walk-in closet, and we left the town the following morning to head back up the twisty jungle road all the way to the end where we would be throwing our bikes into the ocean. Or something like that.
We arrive in the “town” of Cartí and see all the other bikes waiting around for something to happen. The town consists of a restaurant, two office buildings and a metal gate separating one parking lot from another.
We pull up to the other bikes and start counting. Including us, there are fourteen motorcycles! All on one boat. Luckily the boat is quite big.
One of the German workers from the boat comes over and collects from each person their passport, bike title, registration, and Panamanian entry papers. This is pretty much our whole lives and we have just handed it over to a handsome German stranger wearing only borderline appropriate length shorts. But there’s no time for worrying because now we are to drive through the gate to the other dock that juts out further into the water, because the tide is just right and only now can our massive sail boat get close enough to this tiny dock.
We all line up along this dock and take all our bags off, which then get thrown into a panga, a little wooden boat with a motor, and taken to the big boat. Meanwhile another German dude is tying ropes onto all our bikes. Then the big boat slides up to the dock and they throw a rope down and attach it to two different points on the bikes, while the other end is threaded through a pulley that’s 30ft up in the air coming off one of the boat’s masts.
In this fashion they raise and lower the pulley and the bikes go up in the air, over the rail of the boat, and onto the deck. It’s quite scary and the Germans accidentally gave us a show. A V-Strom was going up and was just about to get high enough to clear the rail when a rope snapped! The back end of the bike plummeted downwards, but the front end was still attached. That’s why they attach the bike with two ropes! The crew recovered quickly and hoisted the bike a little higher so the bottom end would clear the rail, pulled the bike over the boat and lowered it to safety. This particular bike happened to have a Go Pro rolling on it and during the video you can see the rope breaking and the look of horror on the face of one of the crew members. To get the true atmosphere of the moment, remember that all the owners of the bikes are standing on the dock watching this happen. It was pretty amazing. According to the crew, this was a first, but they handled it perfectly and later investigated that in fact a knot did not fail, but a rope actually snapped in two.
All the bikes were loaded and the boat retreated into deeper waters lest it get stuck in the shallows as the tide turned. Now these bloody Germans have all of our paperwork AND all of our bikes! Luckily they’re honest folk and we all piled into a panga and joined them on the sail boat.
Amongst the motorbikers there were about four-ish other Americans, a lone Englishman, a solo Malaysian woman, a French Canadian couple, a couple of German dudes, and a handful of others who spoke German and/or French. The five crew members were all German, and there were seven or eight or nine (I couldn’t keep them straight, they all looked the same) German tourists on a tropical vacation. So basically we were stuck on a boat in the middle of the sea surrounded by Germans. Insert preferred Jew joke here.
But before we really got to the middle of the sea we spent a day at a tiny San Blas island amongst the Coco Banderas group of islands. These islands are what you think of when you imagine Johnny Depp stranded on a deserted island drinking rum: white sand beaches, tall palm trees, beautiful aquamarine water lapping gently at your feet, and the most amazing snorkeling ever. Not that pirates had snorkels, but if they did maybe they wouldn’t have drunk all the rum so quickly.
We snorkeled as much as possible and it was so amazing. The afternoon we arrived we jumped in the water and just snorkeled around the side of the island facing the boat. Among many other cool things we saw a bunch of tasty looking urchins, but we didn’t know what the policy was on collecting your own dinner and we didn’t have any thick gloves on us either, so we left them to live out their tiny urchin lives.
I went out on my own first thing the next morning and saw a barracuda about a meter long. We had a little stare-off until I backed away. It was pretty cool. I also saw a group of cuttle fish who were almost completely invisible in their translucency, until of course they saw me. They then turned crazy colors and settled on army green-ish brown, kind of like old school, poorly done camouflage. They arrayed themselves in a semi circle facing me and stared me down as they slowly backed away. When they got far enough away and presumably had frightened me enough with their terrible paint jobs, they flashed back to translucent and swam away. And so did I.
Chris and I went out again later that day to a reef that went around the backside of another island. Within five minutes we saw a giant eagle ray at least five feet wide with a tail that went on forever. He was huge, and totally not bothered by us. As we went further into the reef we saw tons of different kinds of coral, lots of other small fish, loads of starfish, and on and on. The water got super shallow at one point and there was just coral beneath us, fish swimming around us, and sun-burnt backs above us. It was a bit stressful for me, being in only one foot of water, because while the air was so close, I had no escape route without murdering a bunch of microscopic creatures, but we got through it. We took a break on the back side of this island and we couldn’t see anything except sea and palm trees. It was our own little deserted island in the middle of the ocean. Then we swam back around to where the boat was and were rescued.
The night before we had had a barbecue on the beach, but this night we were having a seafood bonanza. A local guy showed up in a panga full of fish, crab and lobster. I mean full! And we bought it all! He just started tossing them into buckets and throwing them aboard. And that night we feasted on lobster like never before.
There were a bunch of other dishes, but I had eyes only for the lobster. It was cooked in a creamy coconut milk sauce and it was so delicious. I think I had three big hunks of tail. And after everyone was stuffed there was still one big chunk left and we were calling around the 20 person table asking who wanted more and finally someone agreed to eat it. You know it’s been a feast when the last tail of lobster has to be forced down.
The next morning the crew pulled the anchor up and started the engine at five o’clock, and we were on our way to Colombia! I was up with the rumbling of the engine and all was good as I had some tea and we rolled out to sea. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. When we got out into the ocean proper the waves were a little bit bigger than I had anticipated, and a 112ft sailboat rocks a lot more than I had anticipated. Within an hour I was feeling a bit queasy, but I took a Dramamine and thought it would pass. I popped downstairs to grab the playing cards, in the bottom level, indoors, where the beds were. This was a mistake. Within thirty seconds of being below deck I was running back up the stairs and straight to the rail. I did succeed in my mission and retrieved the playing cards, but at what cost?
I clambered back up to the top deck which contained the lounge area, and one of the American bikers, Bruce, commented, “your vomit was three different colors.” And I retorted quickly, “of course: tea, water, bile, in reverse order of consumption.” Obviously. I, along with half the other passengers, spent the next twelve hours laying prostrate on either one of the very few lounge chairs, or on the benches around the dinner table, begging the sea god to relent and release us from this torrent. Eventually our prayers were heard and the waves subsided enough to allow me to sit up right and enjoy the playing cards that had come at such a price. By evening I was even feeling well enough to go back downstairs and lay in bed, though it was very clear that my only option in being downstairs was to immediately lay down. Chris could explain how otherwise uneventful the entire day was, as he was unaffected by the wrath of the sea, but there is not much to say. We didn’t actually sail, although we had a couple of the sails up to help balance the boat in the water. We motored the entire time, 27 hours or so, from the islands in Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.
When I woke the next morning, feeling chipper in my belly, I immediately did the thing I had wanted to do all the previous day, but was clearly unable to do: I climbed to the crow’s nest. Twenty meters above the deck of the boat, welded on to the main mast, is the tiny little metal structure where the pirate with the telescope sits to spot when land is approaching. To reach this structure one must climb the rope ladder coming off the side of the boat and attaching just below the crow’s nest. When you get to the top of the ladder, which is very narrow, you must then grab the metal bars of the nest and step up as much as possible and finally remove your feet from the rope ladder and pull yourself up. The gap from the last rung in the rope ladder to the base of the nest is about five feet, measured by my body length. So while standing on the last rung, my head is just over the base of the nest, and there are very handy side bars from which to do my pull up. It’s actually a bit sketchier getting down because you have to lower yourself almost completely until your feet can reach the ladder, which is so narrow at this point that only one foot can go in per rung.
A few of the other passengers had climbed up, or attempted to do so, but many found it challenging, and I didn’t at all. It is a lot easier than rock climbing, as it’s a ladder. I’m not really afraid of heights, and it turns out I can still do one pull up, so: Bam! No problem at all. I actually quite enjoyed it and went up again as we were pulling into the harbor. The second time I had already packed my shoes and didn’t want to unpack them, so I went up barefoot and that was an added challenge, as the rope does not feel nice on any part of your sole.
Now that we are in the harbor at Cartagena, all we need to do is get imported into the country. We cannot actually step off the boat until this has been done, so one of the crew members (who still has all our passports, remember?) motors off in the dingy, and we sit around for a few hours while paperwork is completed. Then it’s time for us to go, but our bikes haven’t been imported yet so they have to stay. The paperwork should be completed the next day, and then the following morning we will be allowed thirty minutes at the dock to unload the bikes. So we head off into the city (without our passports, still), and wait for the email telling us where to go at what time to sign the paperwork for our bikes. Tune in next time to hear how long it takes to get a motorcycle off a boat.
And don’t forget to SEE BOOBIES.