Eventful as always

My week in Buenos Aires relaxing. I caught up with friends, I enjoyed the atmosphere, I explored parts I hadn’t seen yet. It really is my favourite city in South America. However it wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t some drama, and on the last night the world delivered.

I was at the hostel bar about to go out and grab a quick, final beer before crashing out – early flight the next morning – when a British girl behind me slipped and fell. Phone in one hand and glass of wine in the other, she did not act to slow her fall at all, wearing the full force of the impact on her right temple. I don’t have a huge amount but I have some medical training – and more importantly seemed to be the least drunk – so had the pleasure of taking care of her till the ambulance arrived. Fractured eye socket, concussion, massive swelling; quite a sight.

She also didn’t speak any Spanish – or even remember her name for the first 5 minutes to be honest – so I got to accompany her to Hospital and translate for the next 2-3 hours. What a night, hopefully Santiago – my final destination – isn’t eventful in the same manner.

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Not infallible after all

Ok, so I kinda stuffed up. Not just a small “whoops I missed my flight” kinda deal, more of a “whoops I’ve illegally entered a country and now need to talk my way out of it” stuff up.

Allow me to explain – when I entered Colombia via the Darien I stamped out of Panama, grabbed my bags and walked off into the jungle. Not quite so cavalier as that but you get the picture.

When I then made it to the Colombian town of Capurgana, exhausted and filthy, I kind of forgot to find immigration and stamp in to the country. Whoops. Serious whoops.

Either way, this only clicked while I was in line for immigration control at Medellin airport, on my way out of Colombia and to Buenos Aires. Yea, that was a fun conversation. Thankfully my luck held true and after a wink and a smile the immigration lady let me through with a roll of the eyes and a resigned chuckle, lightly stamping an already full page of my passport with an exit stamp. *phew!*

So I’m alive…

…and in a 5 star hotel in Medellin surrounded by prostitutes.

I probably should explain.

I flew into Puerto Obaldia on Wednesday, a village just near the border of Colombia. From there the normal route is to get a boat to Capurganá at which point there are multiple options for onwards travel.

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I wanted to try to walk as much as I could – ideally to Capurgana! – so after landing and hitting immigrations I grabbed my stuff and started wandering towards the edge of town. I did not get very before some members of the Panamanian Army stopped me and explained in no uncertain terms that walking was not allowed. Not un-advisable, not un-safe (although that was implied), but un-allowed.

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Despite being only 7.5km, they weren’t going to let me walk it. Bugger.

Ok, so back to the fallback plan, the boat. Grabbed one and got him to drop me off around the head of Puerto Obaldia, still on the Panamanian side of the border. Success! From there I started making my way South East, eventually hitting the tiny village of La Miel. Wasn’t the easiest going, but no need to cut my through – a good thing, as I’d sent my machete home with James.

Once at La Miel the route becomes clear, and at one point I even found some guard/lookout huts, the barbed wire overgrown with grass and flowers.

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I eventually made it to Capurgana, filthy and exhausted, and checked into the first hotel I could find. Showered and somewhat refreshed I wandered around town, and quite quickly found there wasn’t much to it, so settled myself at a beachside bar for an celebratory meal.

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While enjoying my cup of decadence I met an Australian (of course…) called Steve and we started chatting. Steve runs a bunch of hotels in Medellin which “cater to rich Westerners,” in his words. “Cool” I think, “that’s different from most people I meet.”

We chat for a while and he advises me on how best to get to Medellin – a boat to Acandi, then a cheap flight to one of Medellin’s two airports. Beats 10 hours on a bus which was my initial plan, and only marginally more expensive.

So, next morning I jump onto a boat with Greg and we make our way to Acandi, where a horse and cart awaits to take us to the airport.

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I say airport. I mean a strip of tarmac, a dilapidated building complete with the shell of a plane, and Colombian Army everywhere. Apparently Farc (or another terrorist group) are still a concern here.

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The juxtaposition of a nice, new shiny white airplane, complete with stewardesses in uniform and makeup, with the broken up tarmac and overall semi-destroyed, overgrown surrounds, was severe.

Once landed Steve offered me his hotel to spend the afternoon in, as my flight out of Colombia wasn’t for 5 hours. Sure, kicking back in a 5 star hotel doesn’t sound bad at all! When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised by the 8-9 girls all lounging around the pool in various state of undress. While we chat over a coffee things start to rearranged themselves in my mind, and suddenly it clicks. They’re all putas, or prostitutes in english.

This is what Steve means when he says the hotels “cater to rich Westerners.”

God the things I get myself into. Well, the eye candy wasn’t unappreciated and when the girls realised I’m not the kind of guy to pay they stopped being outrageously flirty and we started chatting normally. Bloody interesting way to end my stay in Colombia.

May as well try to cross the Darien

So, bike sold, James back in Australia with all the motorbike gear I could stuff into a bag and send with him, and I’m keen to get out of Panama. I’m going to head down to the Darien Gap and see what options exist for crossing into Colombia. Steering clear of the dangerous bits inhabited by Farc, I will try to hike through the jungle around the northern section (Puerto Obaldia) which is meant to be relatively quiet now. Farc issued a statement late last year that they are no longer capturing people for ransom purposes, so that’s a plus.

Wish me luck, see you on the other side!

A sad farewell

86 ride days. 33,708 kilometres. 1,517 litres of petrol. Countless adventures.

West to East, South to well, the Middle – didn’t quite make it up North to Alaska, that’ll have to be Part II.

Total Route
Check out the Route page for the interactive map

The biggest part of my desire to get to Panama was to finish of the South America portion of the Ushuaia to Alaska trip, and in style! Chilling in the San Blas for a couple of days isn’t a bad way to go.

The other reason is that I had a buyer in Panama. So, with both a regretful look and a sigh of relief I parted ways with my bike today. It’s been my mode of transport for the last 20,000km or so, as well as almost being my home. It’s cost me money, saved me money, and at all times been a pleasure to ride. I hope May, the next owner, has as much fun as I did with it. I’m sure she will!

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Never gets less weird seeing a bike soar through the sky

After unloading the bikes from the Stahlratte the 6 of us who were riders headed from the small port of Carti to Panama City. Ludwig had greased the axles with the immigrations officials and we were classified as crew, and so avoided paying a ludicrous entry fee of just over $100 USD – which doesn’t need to be paid unless you arrive by boat. Bizarre.

We did however have to get our bikes temporarily imported into Panama, so the customs office was our first stop. Which took 4 hours. Good lord the workers there are useless. At least the ride there was absolutely magic, with jungle roads dipping, turning, rising and then suddenly dropping about a foot to become dirt road for 50m before continuing the pavement. Absolutely great fun, and I had a blast riding my last on the BMW.

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Once we cleared customs we started making our way to our hostel, close to the centre of Panama City. It was now Friday afternoon though, and traffic was heavy. Ruben, a slightly insane Kiwi riding a tiny 300cc motorbike in shorts and thongs, decided to ram my left luggage rack at one point, knocking it clean off my bike. Barely stopping to recover, he picked it up and balanced it between his arms while we continued to lane split between cars. Insane.

What first struck me upon arriving in Panama City was how western it was. Loads of big (western) name chains, sky scrapers everywhere, casinos, and of course using the U.S. dollar. Add to this the crazy antics of Latin American drivers and you’ve got a very odd mix. Also very expensive compared to the South American countries I’d be in recently, although I had my first taste of Greek Yogurt, fresh (non UHT) milk, and olive-sourdough bread in 8 months! That might not sound like much but damn I’ve missed them.

Look, to be honest not much happened in Panama. I saw a sloth’s back and in 40 minutes it didn’t change position. I also played some BlackJack in Trump Tower (Trump as in Donald Trump), made some money (surprisingly), and was invited to the 63rd level to play further. At which point we discovered there was a open air pool and decided to enjoy the view instead. A complimentary bottle of champagne doesn’t hurt either.

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Soon after we were promptly kicked out. Apparently jumping in the pool at 2 am is a bit of a no-no…

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Relajate y disfruta

After Colombia I’d initially planned to head East through Venezuela before crossing into Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, then looping round the North Eastern corner down through Brazil again.

Unfortunately the Venezuelan government closed the border with Colombia after a shootout with smugglers resulted in the death of Venezuelan security forces. They also kicked out over 1000 Colombians living in Venezuela, whereafter 6000 more fled. All this helped reinforce the numerous instances and various ways that I’d been told – often by Venezuelans – to avoid the country as it was far too dangerous.

So, what else is there to do but jump on a boat for a relaxing 4 day cruise through the San Blas islands?

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After loading my bike in Cartagena along with 5 others, we headed out to our home for the next 4 days – the Stahlratte. Built in 1903, it served a fishing trawler for almost 80 years first with sail, then motor, before finally being transformed into a 2 mast schooner in 1984.

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A fairly makeshift barge taking our bikes to the Stahlratte

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Once the bikes and our luggage were loaded and secured we hoisted the dingy and made sail. Well, kind of. A metal bracket holding part of the pulley used to hoist the dingy snapped, sending it swinging wildly before splashing into the water, half sinking before we managed to right it. Great fun!iPhone_IMG_6164-small

In any case we soon left the port, hoisted sails and were on our way through the Caribbean! Along the way we saw dolphins, flying fish, and surprisingly pilot whales – apparently uncommon to see in this part of the world. After just over 30 hours of sailing we arrived at our destination for 3 days, a cluster of 4 islands only hundreds of meters apart.

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We spent the next few days swimming, snorkelling, jumping off the boat and all other sorts of fun. The locals had set up a crude shelter on one of the islands and we joined them one night for a bonfire and BBQ, with freshly caught lobster on offer.

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Manta ray!

I took the opportunity one day to head to one of the more inhabited islands, a larger one where a community had settled. Quite an interesting community in fact, seeing how the natural resources of the San Blas are few and quite limited. It had rained the night before, I was greeted by countless buckets and vessels beneath roofs to catch as much fresh water as possible.

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After spending some time wandering around the island I came across an interesting sight; the largest canoe I’d seen to date, heavily loaded with sand. Chatting with the locals quickly revealed that the sea levels rose about 6-7cm per year, and as such they regularly (twice a month I think I understood, although that seems to be quite frequent – maybe twice a year?) had to get sand from other islands to raise theirs.

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The next hour was spent carrying buckets of sand around the island exchanging pleasant banter with locals. Really a quite unique experience.