The crossing at Sixaola, on Panama’s sketchy Caribbean side, nearly got me a night in the clink. Among all the usual border stress and chaos, the office to buy the required liability insurance was closed. I’d already crossed the border bridge and was now stuck in no-man’s land, all stamped out of Costa Rica, all stamped into Panamá, but my bike wouldn’t clear customs without an insurance policy.
As a practical act of defiance, I started setting up camp in the dirt directly in front of the ramshackle insurance office. That’s when some Panamanian officials showed up, and luckily, my better judgement showed up then, too. The insurance lady showed up after I offered a $10 “tip.” At long last, I found myself riding off into the jungle of Panama, well after dark.
The trip through Panama had to be fast, though, so I headed over the central mountain range, past Volcán Barú, an active stratovolcano, standing at 11,400 feet. The next day, I passed over the Bridge of the Americas, with only a glance over at the massive locks of the Panama Canal on my left, and the stunning skyscraper skyline of Panama City over on my right.
Since there is no road on the isthmus connecting North and South America — nothing but the bottomless swamp and thick jungle of the mythical Darién Gap — I have arranged transport from Panamá over to Cartagena, Colombia on an antique ship called “Stahlratte.”
This 130-foot steel sailboat, built in 1903, is a German-run operation with three on the crew. After loading at Cartí, our voyage passed through the teal blue waters of the San Blas archipelago, an indigenous reserve proudly managed by the Kuna Yala tribe. The route included an overnight stay at anchor among some tiny inhabited islands of white sand and palm trees. The natives provided us with services, including a dozen lobsters, which we boiled for a feast. An ecstatic school of dolphins provided us with some entertainment.
Among the cast of characters aboard this sailboat is another moto man. Tomáš from the Czech Republic had a year earlier departed Europe, crossed central Asia (including most of the ‘-stans) all the way to Vladivostok, Russia. He then transported oversea to Vancouver, B.C., then rode south through Idaho to Panamá, where I met him on the loading dock. He has all the skills, including (in addition to his native Czech), Russian, English, and Spanish, plus nerves of steel. Whenever he spoke, which wasn’t too often, I made mental notes.
On the Stahlratte, I had time to decompress and strategize. My polite emails to the Venezuelan embassy and consulate offices in Colombia have gone unanswered. It’s my understanding that since the U.S. coup efforts began, the visa requirements for U.S. passport holders are now quite high, including carrying a minimumof USD 10,000 in cash. On top of that, I am a journalist (in the strict technical sense), and any internet search would reveal these Dispatches to the IP, so that’s another hurdle to obtaining a Venezuelan visa.
It’s simply not going to happen, which may be for the better. After all, it’s possible that shortly after crossing the border, desperate Venezuelans might’ve stripped me of everything and left me standing naked in the road. (Of course, I would have totally forgiven them.)
Not accessing Venezuela closes one door to my other objective, a crossing through Brazil’s Amazon Basin. This has turned into a convenient excuse for what were exciting but daunting challenges. Instead, once this boat arrives into Colombia, I’ll likely head straight south on more traditional but still spectacular Andes routes.
Arriving into the port city of Cartagena, and with customs a relative breeze, I saddled up again. Approaching the town of Arboletes on the Caribbean coast, around 200 miles south of Cartagena, I got a sense for Colombia’s motorcycle culture. There are millions of motorbikes here, occasionally so many, in such close quarters at such high speed, I have the sensation I’m racing a road bicycle inside a big pack of riders. Combine that with the derring-do of a rodeo.
There’s something sexy about all these Colombians, not just their looks, it’s the subtle passion in which they all seem to exist. In a country with a recent history of some downright incredible cartel violence, on top of 50 years of civil war, I suppose some real “joy of life” develops in the people. After all, many have walked that tightrope of life across the valley of death, and they’re just happy to be standing.
Climbing out of the Caribbean lowlands and up winding roads, it sunk in: We’re in the Andes now, the world’s longest mountain range, and second tallest only to the Himalayas. I could be here until Antártica.
These small Andean mountain towns have the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream. So surreal to see coffee beans harvested from the steep slopes; modest, wiry, weathered men guiding their burros trains down to my temporary residence on the plaza in the enchanted town of Salamina, where I stayed a full week. Those beautiful beans making their way to my favorite little coffee shop, La Cigarra.
Surrounded by towering mountains and cool air, with crops growing and livestock grazing on 45-degree slopes, haunting cloud cover ... if someone said the trip stops here, I’d be okay.
There’s a lively tavern near Salamina’s central plaza, intense rounds of carom billiards underway, a little music going in the background. There are four good beers to choose from (why would we need more?), plus, they haven’t figured out 500 ways to cute up a perfectly rich cup of $0.18 coffee.
Part of the reason I love it down here is the people all seem so tough yet so modest. That sorta quiet, reserved, understated style, embedded in everyone, everywhere.
This thing I’m riding — a Kawasaki KLR 650 — is like the AK-47 of motorcycles. Mass-produced, simple, cheap, heavy, imperfect ... but it also can be dropped, soaked in mud, blood, and guts, and it just keeps on firing. That’s why I chose it in the first place.
Trouble is, it’s a very uncommon brand in Colombia and my battery is showing signs of age.
I discovered the battery problem in Manizales, one of Colombia’s larger cities, where I stopped for a new rear tire. I learned just how uncommon a battery to fit this Kawasaki is whilst running around on foot through the motorcycle section of town, popping into dozens of parts retailers, through driving rain. By the time I gave up and found a room for the night, it was well past dark and I was soaked to the bone.
I’m carrying rain gear but this “getting wet” stuff is a slippery slope. You think you can beat it, “it’s just a little rain,” or “OK, this is getting bad, but the storm will relent,” but it did not. After a week of the easy life sipping coffee up in Salamina, this was a rude re-awakening.
One thing for sure, when the guys in the main moto shop in Manizales found out I rode all the way from the U.S.A., there was a moment of awe, when they’re suddenly looking more directly into me, wondering if I’m joking, crazy, or some Rambo type. Once they settled on “nerd, maybe slightly crazy,” they rolled out the red carpet. Next thing I know, I’m a minor celebrity, a friend of the shop, and special arrangements are being made.
Ecuador and more of the Andes lie just ahead, but I’ve also stumbled into the most outrageous plan to access the Amazon by cargo plane and then by riverboat. The details are in process. It just might work ... .
I’m back to feeling half lost and fully alive.