After we felt we had exhausted our ‘allotted beach-time’ for the whole year, we left the quiet tranquillity of Taganga Bay and turned our back on the coast for a couple of days in search of some respite in the damp foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Now this is where we belong – cool, damp and green! There we found a little village anchored on the banks of a gushing river, boasting idyllic pools of crystalline water and enough hummingbirds to last a lifetime.
We have both now come to the conclusion that the hummingbird is the by far and away the most amazing bird we have come across on this planet. It somehow manages to combine ‘erratic’ and ‘elegant’ all at once. And they are tiny petite little things, so delicate but completely frantic – we became completely entranced watching them as they fluttered and darted about, their bright colours a blur in their incessant, exhausting activity.
After watching hummingbirds for hours on end, we thought we had better get on and do some cultural stuff, so took a visit up to the local coffee plantation. An old-school, family run affair, the finca is now run by a German, but was originally started by a British family in 1892, naming the plantation La Victoria, after Queen Victoria. They had incorporated all the best of ‘industrial-revolution’ technology, much of which was made in UK and is still in use now. We learnt about all the processes of harvesting the bean, cleaning, drying and sifting, before the roasting of the bean can take place. Weirdly, a coffee bean tastes of absolutely nothing before it has been roasted.
After a couple of days cooling down in the foothills, we reluctantly got back on the bikes and made the last dash of our South American trip, over to Cartagena. Not a long ride, but one that took us from lush green foothills to bustling historic city, passing through some incredibly impoverished areas where stagnant water lay pooled in front of corrugated iron shacks, the slum housing huddled down, barely kept water-tight by flapping tarpaulin sheets, tied together with strings of washing.
But this is not a slum on the edge of a big city that is common in South America. This is a town that once thrived from fishing until a massive causeway was built to connect Santa Marta to Barranquilla, effectively cutting off a body of water and creating a manmade lagoon. This has had a hugely detrimental effect on the fish, wildlife and the lives of the people in this town, which now appears to be degenerating at a fairly rapid rate. But beyond the poverty ridden causeway, and beyond the large industrial town of Barranquilla, lay the historic walled city of Cartagena.
This historic city’s vast walls and forts have stood against numerous attacks from English and French pirates, some successfully, some not. Cartagena was the chief Spanish port for the Americas, and therefore the main dropping off point for black African slaves, and the main collection point of all the wealth that the invaders had pillaged from the South American continent. That will be why Cartagena seemed so attractive to those burly pirates like our honourable Sir Francis Drake who were scouting for gold in the name of Queen and Country!
The city’s walls held immeasurable treasures, and as thus, was also a hot bed for the wealthy. Power and wealth oozes out at the seams, but all of a sort of antiquated wealth. Not much seems to have changed in 400 years. The massive walls still stand, the forts still boldly puff out their chests on the horizon, and the cobbled streets still ring with life, noise and bustle.
At night the streets and cosy squares come alive with Afro-Caribbean dancers, boys playing football and other artists displaying their talents. The vibe is electric, yet at the same time, homely and welcoming. The new city sparkles in the background, the glass tower blocks shimmering in the dusk as lights go out and offices close down for the night. But in the old city the Caribbean spirit, playful and lusty, entices everyone out to play!
After several days of absorbing the historic delights within the walled city, we began preparing for our journey across the Darien Gap which would end our epic journey across South America, and introduce us to the new lands of Central America! Woohoo, we made it! To cross the Darien, we were booked onto a 40m sailing ship, the Stahlratte, captained by the jolly Ludwig. Our preparation for this trip was simply taking the bikes down to the docks the day before, for loading. Our queries of how on earth are we were going to get our bikes aboard was casually brushed aside as Ludwig pushed Chris’s bike off the edge of the wooden jetty… Nooo! My bike! Luckily there was a rubber dingy waiting to catch the bike before it launched into the sea, and so it began – Our introduction to Ludwig, the crew, (consisting of Floyd, Max and Maggie), and the boat which was to become our home for the next four days.
Life on the Stahlratte was shared with 10 other passengers from countries all over the place, namely Brazil, Canada, USA, Australia, Germany and Sweden, captained by a German and manned by a Frenchie, a Peruvian and a US gal, we were quite an international boat! Us passengers chipped in with helping to prepare meals and raising the sails, giving us a break from all that relaxation on deck we were getting too much used to! Good meals were had, rum was drunk, and the general joviality was at a high!
After a horribly rough night where everything fell off shelves and nobody slept a wink, (thanks to hurricane Sandy), we thankfully put down anchor in the middle of the San Blas islands, just off the coast of Panama, where the sea was calm and blue, and the white beaches sparkled in the sun. Is this paradise…? Yes, I think it probably is.
We spent a day basking in the sun, snorkelling and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, the storm the night before completely forgotten and hardly comprehensible when faced with such stillness in front of us now. That night we had a BBQ on the beach, a campfire was lit and we all got merry on rum punch. Thankfully we weren’t sailing that night, allowing us all a precious, calm night’s sleep. But it was only a matter of time before the rain set in and we were reminded that we were indeed in the tropical lands of rain, thunder storms and hurricanes. Luckily no more hurricanes caught us off guard, but the rain was a bit of a bore!
After three nights and four days on the boat, we unloaded the three bikes, (ours, plus Winston’s from the US), and unloaded ourselves, ready to make our weary way to Panama City. Stood on dock waving as the ship sailed off into the perfectly blue sky, we slowly turned around to face the ominous black sky of a storm coming our way, dragging itself over the forested mountains which we had to cross, and which was surely going to get us very, very wet!
Very wet and very bedraggled, we limped into the vast metropolis that is Panama City. Probably one of the biggest shocks we have had yet – we could have been driving into Los Angeles – the skyscrapers, the evidence of money, the big ‘American Malls’, and even a Trump tower towered over us in a mass of glass and steel. What a contrast compared to the idyllic San Blas islands, and those islands which are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people in their picturesque ramshackle huts. Of course we expected a big city, but not as Americanized as this – it’s truly unbelievable that this is here, in Central America! Of course what makes it so Americanized is the influx of money from the US and of course the Panama Canal. Funded by the USA, built by the locals, this massive feat of engineering cannot be missed, even if you wanted to!
Back at our little hostel, just outside of the big skyscraper district, our small front patio area was slowly filling up with more and more motorbikes! Just by luck, we had managed to land ourselves in a hostel where bikers travelling south were meeting up before they embarked on the Stahlratte, sailing to Cartagena. And of course when like-minded people get together there is lots of talk about! Over the next few days, (between spending six hours over two days at the Aduana to import the bikes – nightmare!), we chewed the fat, discussed routes and helped solved bike-problems over beers and a bottle or two of wine.
Among the southerly-heading bikers was our fellow Englishman, Harry, who has been following us on our trip knowing we would bump into each other at some point while he was travelling south and us north. Wonderfully, Harry’s steed is a Royal Enfield which has been adapted to run on diesel and vegetable oil, on which he has been courageously trying to circumnavigate the globe using said veggie power! Unfortunately he had to accept defeat when poor old Batty (the Enfield!), decided she was fed up of eating vegetable oil and was just going to continue to break down unless he fed her more substantially with diesel.
So between spending lots of time talking bikes and vegetable oil, we did get into the old town to have a look around. Once again – what a shock! In every other city we have been to, the ‘old colonial centre’ has been the heart of the city, with its cathedral and governmental buildings, and the new developments, offices, commercial sectors growing up on the edge creating a ‘new centre’. But here….! Here, in Panama City, the old colonial centre with its plaza and cathedral is totally run down, verging on derelict, with the less affluent Panamanians living in falling down terraces with leaking roofs.
You could not get any further away from the beautifully kept and restored historic centres of the South American cities we’ve visited. But Panama have realised the depth of their neglect, and are now spending millions of dollars on huge renovation schemes over the whole area. Street after street is a building site, the roads being thoroughly repaved and even new old-fashioned street lamps are being erected. This is a massive scheme. The restoration of an entire neighbourhood, all at once, is not a light feat.
When the time came to part with our fellow bikers, we waved them off en-mass, then packed up our own bags, ready to leave the city and get back to some tranquillity and calm you can only find out in the countryside or on the ocean. This time, we were heading back to the ocean, but the Pacific this time, via a quaint little town called Los Santos where the call for independence from Colombia was first uttered, and where the independence treaty was signed.
After a gorgeous morning riding through rolling hills and bright green pastures that could have been straight from the picturesque book of English countryside, (save for the odd palm tree!), we dropped down towards the Pacific coast. Not before getting thoroughly wet, again. Checking into a little beach-side cabina in Santa Catalina, we settled in for an evening of listening to the sea on the shore and trying to ignore the drum roll of yet another thunderstorm.
Luckily the next morning brought with it blue skies and blue seas…. So we thought we’d check out the fish underwater, and go and practice some diving!! The calm and quietness underwater is like nothing we have ever experienced before. When we were on our diving course, so much time and mental energy was taken up with learning and trying to remember what to do, I suppose we didn’t really get the full diving experience. But this time, with no tasks to perform, or tests to worry about, we were totally free to enjoy. And enjoy we did! Initial panic about having to fall off the boat backwards into the water soon disappeared as the breathing-under-water issue soon took over, and that was quickly replaced by euphoria when we remembered that we could actually breathe underwater!
The visibility was great and the fish performed on cue. We even saw white tipped reef sharks, floating about minding their own business, pretending not to eye us up for their next meal! It really was like swimming around in an aquarium… the colours were spectacular – silver, orange, grey, yellow, blue – everything you could possibly imagine! Unfortunately our camera doesn’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to use your imagination!
After surviving the sharks, and then surviving a near death experience at the hand of definitely-directly-over-head thunder and lightning during the night, we staggered out of bed with baggy eyes and contemplated the road ahead. Boquete was our destination – a sleepy town of retirees from the US, hopefully meaning that the overtly raucous music blaring out of car stereos well on into the early hours of the morning, (celebrating Independence day), would not likely happen. We had sampled that the night before, in between thunderbolts, so weren’t too keen on two nights in a row without sleep! Thankfully our assessment of the town was correct, and by 10pm everything in town was shut! Next morning we were able to enjoy the more tranquil celebrations of the parades, although the marching bands weren’t exactly quiet, at least they were banging away at 11am and not 2am.
This afternoon we have been enjoying the rain (again), so we feel like we aren’t far from home! We are now in David (a town, not a person!), to meet up with a fellow biker and generally nice guy who is holding spare bike parts and clothes for us that we had ordered in from the States – new merino wool t-shirts here we come!
Sharks seen Chloe 9 v 4 Chris (due to sightlessness!)
Tried to fix but then broke indicators Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Gorged on lobster Chloe 3 v 2 Chris
Scared of thunder Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Drank too much rum punch Chloe 10 v 6 Chris
Climbed the crow’s nest Chloe 0 v 1 Chris