< Cosa Rica | Colombia >



I walked across the single lane wood-paved bridge from Costa Rica and into Panama. There I had an unusually hard time trying to convert my colones into dollars. In fact, business in the black market was so slow that I had to ask around for the man called “El Chino” for over twenty minutes before I again laid eyes on George Washington’s sexy bust.

My first introduction to Panamá was cooler, but still amazingly humid temperatures and broad flat banana plantations. I thought to myself that this country would be a cakewalk after all the hills I’d already climbed. After all, people managed to cut a canal through it, so how high and how steep could the mountains really be?

Of course, I was quickly disabused of this fantasy after confronting a series of sharp climbs and descents between Changuinola and Almirante. My map depicted the terrain in the area as all being under 2000 ft, but I’d guess that I made it up to 1900 ft and back down again on more than one occasion. But eventually the road plummeted into Almirante, I found a boat service through the help of a very industrious 11 year old, and jetted on over to Bocas.

My stay there was made cheap by an indoor campground, and pleasant through the surprise company of my (non) cycling buddy Jeff and a Dutch man on his second trip around the world. With access to a full kitchen I finally got to do some cooking again, and that brought me a lot of joy. I finally scored some snorkeling equipment as well, and floated around staring at fish for several hours. It was quite good.

And after the road began to call me strongly again, I took a boat back to the mainland to continue on my way. Getting off the boat, another 11 year old offered to show me the way to anywhere I needed to go. I was already on my bicycle heading for the main road, and told him that I was headed for Colombia. He told me that he’d show me the way there. I had trouble believing him, and despite his assurances that he’d show me the way to Colombia, I rode off.

The road went sharply up and down again all the way to Chiriqui Grande, where I stopped for the night, and then sharply up and up the next day for around 25 miles to the continential divide. And I had thought I’d finally left the 15% climbs behind me in Guatemala… As I climbed higher, the air cooled off and I was treated to waterfalls decorating the hills. The countryside was extremely lush and forested, and was rather pleasant despite the leg-destroying grades.

After an infinitude of up, I made it to a pass so windy that I had to get off my bike and walk it, caught my first glimpse of the Pacific since Puntarenas, and once I’d walked out of the wind I began a very long invigorating descent back into the lowland heat. That achieved, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. With nothing to do other than ride I pointed my bike toward Panama City and spun down the road until dusk. I found a spot under a bridge, and smelling like a troll, I made it my home for the night.

My original intent when I went beneath the bridge was to pump some water for drinking, but it was too polluted by agricultural runoff to drink even after going through the filter. So for the second time in my trip I went to bed thirsty (the first being the night before I arrived in Guanajuato, Mexico), and filthy (I only realized after dark that I could have still swam in the water).

The next day I stared at my map, saw that next populated center of any importance lay 100 miles further up the road. I also realized that I would force myself to ride that distance. So I cursed myself for putting me through such an arduous day yet again, and set out. Tormented by the heat and endless rolling hills, I eventually dispaired ever making it there before dark. At one point, I took off my socks, rolled up my pants and lay down at the side of the road, my mind spread thin by the heat and effort, and uncaring because of my sheer exhaustion. But as I cooled off and my brain left its heat-induced delirium, I regained hope and determination, and pushed that much harder on the pedals. I arrived in Santiago at dusk.

But not content to let one day of punishing riding stand alone, I did the same thing the second day. The rolling terrain was replaced by a maddening headwind which dogged me for 30 miles. But after those miles were up, the road suddenly turned with the wind, and for the first time that day my speed went faster than 15 mph, and I sat up in my saddle and began to relax.

The wind, as it turned out, was driving a storm down the road as well. I caught up with the stormfront, got well drenched, rode out the front and lost my tailwind. Each time I got to a town I thought I might go a little further, and in that way I went 95 miles down the road before a flat tire stopped me front going any further. I took a hotel room which fronted the highway, and was backed by a cock-fighting establishment. It was a noisy evening.

But I was also only 50 miles from Panama City. I took my time riding down the road, realizing I had all day to cover half the distance I made over each of the previous two days, and before I was mentally ready for it, I was within sight of the Bridge of the Americas.

Now the Panamanian government is nobody’s fool, and they’ve recognized the severe threat that filthy, tired bicycle tourists pose to their national monument. And for that reason (so I was told), I had to hitch across the bridge. This was made easy since the police officer himself flagged down the pickup which carried me across. Seeing as I was already halfway up the bridge before I got pulled over I wasn’t overly happy for the ride.

I later met some bicycle tourists coming down from Mexico City who were allowed to ride across a day earlier, so it seems that the officer recognized the unique threat I alone posed to the bridge. Those same tourists grabbed the last two spots on a boat leaving for Colombia the next day. I thought that karmickly this was somewhat unfair, but was too tired from the past several days of hard riding to get too upset about it.

So I set in for a long period of no riding and lots of eating. The manager of the hostel asked me if I’d been punched in the face since the lines under my eyes were so dark and strong, and I took this to mean that my fast-living was catching up with me. There was only one cure that I knew of for this: a giant block of cheese and enough beer to cut through all the fat. I acquired both, took a moment to reflect that I’d just ridden the ridable length of North America, and set to work.

< Cosa Rica | Colombia >