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July 30th, 2012

Just after writing last time, I had the friendliest welcoming to date.  Another cyclist, Jeff, had told me where to find the “Buga Embassy,” but he just said to go to a certain gas station – “they’ll know what to do.”  So I felt a bit silly as I rolled up, but a knowing smile came over the bomberos face.  Soon a couple kids came along to lead me to a nearby house.  I was ushered inside, shown to a bedroom, and given a towel and soap.  Refreshed (and I had been dirty, even for me, on this trip), I went back downstairs.  In addition to taking in all the backpackers and bikers they can find, the family runs a restaurant, so I was inundated with delicious food for the duration of my stay.  More and more family showed up, and a bottle of alcohol distilled from the ubiquitous caña was produced.  They’re used to meeting travellers, so unlike usually I was immediately accepted for what I am and not treated like an interesting but alien outsider.  They were all lovely and amazing, and it was hard to resist  their entreaties to stay longer. But I’d told another cyclist, Steve, that I’d meet him in Cali the next day, so I was resolute. I put off leaving as long as possible, then cruised to Cali in record time, powered by their last minute gift of a giant chocolate bar.

Steve is an Englishman who has been living in Cali for ten years and planning a long bike trip even longer.  He stumbled on the blog some months ago, and it happens the timing worked out perfectly, as he was leaving on a trial run.  I spent the night at his house in Cali (two beds in two nights!) then rode out with him in the morning.  He had no tent, and planned on covering less ground than I, so we rode together for the day then split up in Mondomo, as he headed into town to find a room and I headed out of town to finda spot to camp.  From there I rode to Popayan, the White City. I very much wanted to split from the main route, but the FARC had been acting up in recent days, and I’d received numerous warnings.  So I asked at the bus terminal – the buses were still running, so I figured it was safe enough for me.  That night I was rescued  by yet another angel from camping in a bad neighborhood, given a place to camp, coffee that was grown, dried, roasted, and brewed within 20 feet of where I slept, dinner, breakfast, and a warm sendoff in the morning.  Then off to adventure!

It started off as a gentle climb along a river that dwindled to a stream as the pavement petered out.  Then a stiff climb brought me to the paramo – the high, cold, treeless Andean plain.  I hit 11,500 feet, the highest I’ve been yet.  On a clear day, this probably would have been my favorite day of the trip; with the wind and the cold and the view-obstructing clouds it was still up there.  I went some 5 hours between towns – when I finally arrived my hands were so cold I couldn’t peel my gloves off. Half the soup would spill from the spoon between the bowl and my mouth, and the way I had to resort to clutching the cutlery to cut my slice of meat would have made my father shudder. Or just remind him of watching James eat.

I was told summer was just 10 km farther along the road, but I couldn’t face more riding in that cold, so I got a room at a nearby residencia, crawled under the seven blankets, and shivered myself warm. (This is very typical of Colombia – as I travel the climate changes daily with the altitude, and a change in season is often a half hour’s ride away.  Invierno, winter, refers not to a period of the year, but rather cold and rainy weather.)  Sure enough, it was warm by 9 the next morning, when I arrived in San Jose de Isnos.  I spent a couple days riding around, exploring the ancient ruins of San Agustin. Lots of well-preserved and quirky funerary statues, but I enjoyed biking through the beautiful countryside separating the various sites more than following the tourist herd among the tombs.

From San Agustin to the jungles of Mocoa, the doorway to the Amazon.  When I arrived, I learned that the road on to Pasto was blocked by a massive landslide, so I spent a couple days exploring nearby waterfalls of crystal clear and gloriously cold water. Then I had the opportunity to camp on an indigenous reserve and take part in a yagé or ayahuasca ceremony.  I’d heard a lot about this plant on the trip.  It is cited by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon as the source for their encyclpaedic knowledge of the medicinal properties of countless plants, and as such is regarded as sacred.  It produces vomiting and leads to visions – calling them ´hallucinations´ suggests they aren’t real.  I asked Christian, a 12-year-old member of the tribe who has been participating in the ceremonies since he was 7, what he had learned. “I’ve learned to respect myself and believe in myself, and love and understand others.” So it was to be with me.  I spent the day harvesting yagé (which has to undergo a lengthy process to yield the final concoction), then napped to ready myself for the 11 pm ceremony.  The yagé was a thick sludge, tasting a bit like Marmite – everyone else had a hard time getting it down. After half an hour, the vomiting set in, though I was uneffected.  Well, uneffected by nausea. I abruptly lost touch with reality, as my mind went swirling through unchartered territory.  I could see but could make no sense of what I saw – an attempt to check the time, or to see my watch, proved abortive.  I was truly terrified and believed that death was forthcoming. (As it happens, yagé’s effect is due to DMT, the compund released by your brain when you dream and immediately before dying.)  but gradually a great feeling of peace set in, a firm belief that everything happens as it should.  First, this made me come to terms with my imminent demise, bus as I calmed I realized that I wasn’t going to die.  What followed was an incredibly beautiful experience – I felt much more a part of nature and of humanity, as well as a deep sense that everything was right with my life.  It’s very hard to put into words what I came away with, but it was definitely a mind-opening experience.

After several days in Mocoa, I learned that motos were crossing the landslide, so I set out to try my luck.  I loved my jungle getaway, but as always I felt the urge to move on.  It rained hard the day I set out, and I was detained for a couple hours by police who said the way was blocked by a river.  Eventually, they admitted I could probably get through, they just wanted to talk to me.  And I was none to keen to get back to biking in the rain.  When I got to the river (10 km and 2 hours up an extremely rocky road) I spent an embarrassingly long time hemming and hawing on the bank.  A couple feet in it was 15″ already, but I knew motos had gotten through.  I finally worked up the nerve and crossed, it never got any deeper.  After that, there were countless more river crossings, but as I got higher they dwindled in size so I could (gingerly) bike across.  I arrived at the top, at a mirador with amazing views back down to Mocoa and out across the endless plains of Amazonia, just as they received news that the road was opened again.  The villagers were abuzz with excitement as they gathered to watch the train of trucks crawl along far below.  it had been closed for 15 days and now the floodgates were open.  I was selfishly disapointed – it had been great to have the road to myself.

From there, I had to contend with an extremely bumpy descent, another pass, and non-stop rain.  Who knew Colombia could be so cold?  Then I arrived at the blissfully flat and beautiful Valley of Sibundoy, and the town of Santiago at the foot of another monster climb.   There I was accosted by two drunks on a moto. One was trying to convince me that Colombia is a beautiful country filled with wonderful and hard-working people (not that I needed the convincing).  He gave me a nice wooden rosary as a keepsake, and bade me take that message back to my country.  Meanwhile, the other was trying to convince me to pay him off, as I was illegally crossing indigenous land.  He claimed to be an authority, and said I would be held 15 days in custody if he gave the word.  It was quite comic – they both agreed with everything the other said as they pursued very different agendas.  Finally I separated myself and rode out of town.  But they caught me up once more on the outskirts of town.  More to the point this time, the second one assumed a goos imitation of a policeman’s stance and demanded, “Papeles! (Papers!)” At this point I was fed up and looking to find a place to camp, so I refused and kept biking.  The shocked, crest-fallen look on his face when he realized I wasn’t falling for his ruse was priceless.  As I biked away, he bawled, “Patrulla, patrulla,” summoning an imaginary patrol to stop me.  Drunken but endearing fool.

Today, I had a beautiful ride, twice crossing 11,000 foot passes and stretches of páramo, before dropping into the (relatively) warm valley of the Rio Pasto.  Here I have high hopes of sleeping at the local firehouse and going to the theater to watch the new Batman movie.

Speaking of Batman, look at what my grandma and I did!  http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/

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July 13th, 2012

Really trying your patience now, but these last days have been amazing, and I want to write it down before the passion is lost.

I left Medellin last Sunday, planning to get an early start, but the Wimbledon final was on so I ended up staying to see Andy Murray cry. Poor old chap.  Then I rode out of the city, never too pleasant to ride the big highway, but it quieted down quickly, and I road through little town after little town along a winding road alongside the river, while most traffic was diverted to a bigger road the other side.  I stopped for lunch and ended up spending a couple hours talking to the ladies running the restaurant – people are too friendly here to make any sort of progress!

I started riding and started climbing, back and forth up the side of the valley. Big climbs are always harder when you don’t see them coming, and at every turn I was expecting the climb to end.  For about 12 km.  So at the top I was quite exhausted, it was 5:30 and well past my normal camping time.  But I was on top of a mountain, and the road abruptly started dropping, so there was no flat ground to be found.  Eventually I found a patch with an amazing view down to the Cauca river valley – same one I was riding along before the mountains. A couple kids came at sat with me as I cooked, snapped a few pictures for me.  In the morning, I had an amazing ride along the mountain ridge, with steep drops into massive valleys on either side, then down I went, down, down, down for 25 miles, until I was crossing the river.  Looks just like it did when I left it!  Just as hot too. So I went back to my river riding, gently weaving alongside between the hills.  I camped by a little stream, blessedly far from the highway – I could hardly hear the engine braking! I bathed in the stream, but the little fish nibbling at me kept me from savoring the cool water too long.  The next day I’d planned to ride to Salento, a town people kept telling me to visit though I had no idea what to expect.  The morning was hot and hilly, on a 4-lane highway, the worst kind of riding.  But in the afternoon it had cooled, perhaps because I had climbed to a higher elevation, and the 15 km climb I’d been dreading was cake, hardly an effort at all.  Around 6 I made it to the turnoff for Salento, a pretty little town across a wide valley from the main road.  The side road immediately started dropping quickly, and I tried not to think about having to climb back up the way I came the next day.  I camped on a grassy overlook, in a field alight with fireflies, then continued to Salento the next morning.  Salento itself was nothing special, pretty town with lots of tourists, not very different from many others I’ve seen except perhaps for its remoteness.  But a mirador up above the town had an absolutely amazing view over the Cocora valley, lush and green, I think it’s what Switzerland looks like.  Leaving Salento, my map showed a road following the river in the bottom of the valley – dirt, but better than climbing back the way I’d come.  So I took it to Armenia, and it was one of the greatest stretches of road of the trip so far.  A bit mucky in places, it was almost totally flat, following a river through very seldom travelled country. It was not so different from landscapes I was used to seeing, but seeing them from a dirt road makes it so much better. I’ve been trying to convince myself, unsuccessfully, to enjoy riding on dirt roads – many roads in Peru are dirt, and sticking to the pavement really limits your options there.  And these massive superhighways grow tiresome, day after day. And all of a sudden it happened! I was riding a dirt road, and I loved it.  I got to Armenia, and pulled out my map to find the nxt dirt road side track I could take.  The map showed a paved road leading west through the Coffee National Park, better than the highway, anyway.  So I hopped on it, lovely and quiet, though more bananas than coffee and more pasture land than either. But the pavement started to develop holes, than gradually deteriorated from there to dirt.  Good! I was worried I was just being swayed by the Greatest Dirt Road in the World, and I wanted to see if I could enjoy some worse roads, too.  I hit the hills and started climbing (heading to a town called “Look-at-valleys,” I really should have seen that coming.), but still with that awesome, “out-there” feeling that comes with not seeing any cars and few people.  But at 4 it started to pour as I rolled into a town of maybe 50 people and with a great park for camping, so I called it a day.  I’d see just how bad dirt roads can get come morning.  I cooked as I waited for the rain to stop, though I shouldn’t have bothered – there was stiff competition among the villagers to offer me food or shelter.  But after all this time, my tent really feels like home, and I’m more comfortable sleeping there than anywhere else, rain or no.

It ended up raining for about 16 hours straight, and I was tempted to wait it out another day in the town.  But part of me was curious to try the road.  So I did.  Yeah, it was bad, but it was still enjoyable, beautiful, fun even.  Normally downhills are awful and bumpy on dirt roads, but with the muddy conditions and my tires, which have worn perfectly smooth since Baja California, it was exciting, almost like a game.  Though quickly “Let’s see if I can get down the hill without falling” became “How few times will I fall down before the bottom?”  At the bottom it was absurdly muddy, I even passed a Jeep stuck in the mire.  So I was eager to reach the pavement when it came, but I was definitely glad I’d taken the side road.  Sure, it was slower, but so much more exciting.

So, as I continue south, I am now resolved to keep an eye open for alternative routes. I’ve been rushing a bit up to now, but I am here in South America, where I’d really wanted to be all along, so I’ve got to switch gears, stop pressing for progress. I’ve got plenty of time to get to Argentina (I recently realized I’m closer to 9000 km from the end than 9000 miles, which I’d thought originally), so I can forget about the clock.  The key to enjoying dirt roads is to be satisfied with sloooow progress.  I’m sure I’ll take plenty of pavement too, but I’m thoroughly pleased that I’ve opened a new avenue in the future.

I’m posting new pictures, and I’ve added a new “Donations” feature on the right, if you feel like chipping in.  Please don’t feel obliged, I just wanted to offer the possibility, in case anyone out there was dying to contribute.  I’m a day from Cali, where I will meet up with Steve, another cyclist, and possibly bike with him as I take to the mountains once more.

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July 7th, 2012

The Andes!

For the first time in 2 months I can finally stop sweating – but only after I got done climbing.

I met another cyclist in Cartagena, fresh off the boat and headed for Argentina, and we toyed with the idea of cycling together.  But in the end I got cold feet and he ended up staying another week, so I set off alone.  It was swelteringly hot, as it has been since El Salvador, but blessedly flat. I’d heard a lot about the terrible traffic in Colombia, especially the trucks, but found the roads to be pretty quiet once I got out of the urban sprawl.  The first couple days were uneventful, just hot flat riding.  But when I rejoined the main road in Sincelejo the scenery picked up a bit, rolling green pastures as far as I could see.  This was a source of great frustration for me, spending all day biking past all this beautiful country, prime camping grounds, but everytime I went into one of the massive fincas to ask permission, I was told “El señor no esta.”  The owner isn’t here. He’s some rich guy in Bogota, of course he’s not there.  And the people that are there can’t give me permission to camp.  But as a result I had a wide variety of camp sites.  Next to a gas station, in a city park on the playground (that brought back memories), and behind a village with an army troop.  The whole troop was comprised of 18- to 20-year-old fresh faced boys, as excited about their guns as you’d expect them to be.  They shared their supper with me (complete with fruit juice) and promised to protect me – “But DON’T MOVE during the night!” As it happened, they went off on a secret expedition in the middle of the night, leaving me to fend for myself.  They rousted me to tell me they were leaving and ostensibly to say goodbye, but half the troop came up to me one by one and whispered confidentially that they’d be back by morning.  So in the morning they shared their meal with me once more – hot chocolate and an arepa – sort of like a pancake.

The easy riding went on for a couple more days, but I knew the Andes were looming in the distance.  By the time I reached them I was so sick of the heat (I couldn’t get to sleep until midnight, when it cooled down a bit) I was no longer worried about the climb, just eager to get up higher.  Well, I was a little worried.  I had another 8000 foot climb, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t be a repeat of the Guatemala affair.  The lead-up to the climb was a lovely road winding alongside the Rio Cauca between steeply rising hills on either side.  I’ll be back on the Cauca when I get to Cali (southern Colombia) so I couldn’t help wishing the road would just continue on as it was rather than cross the mountains.  But I came to Puerto Valdivia, crossed the river and Bang!, I was climbing.  At first glance it looked terribly steep, but it was entirely reasonable.  Short steep bits but for the most part just slow and steady cruising up the mountains.  At about 2:30 I saw an open gate on the side of the road, with a patch of flat ground perched on the edge of the abyss (the road was following a river valley and at this point had gotten quite high up the side of the valley) that looked like a perfect campsite, with such an amazing view.  But by the time the tent was up, clouds had rolled in and I could see nothing but white, then the rain started and I crept into my tent to sleep for 16 hours.  I was a bit disappointed, but it would have been pretty miserable riding and dangerous to boot in all the rain and the fog.

Come morning my amazing view was back, and even better for the early morning light, the wisps of cloud down in the valley following the river.  But my camera had gotten wet during the night and stopped working, so I’ll just have to remember it.  I still had another 10 km or so to go until I got to what I was told was the top, but with the cool of the morning and the magnificent views it went by quickly.  But of course the top didn’t mean the end of the climbing.  Most of the way from there to Yarumal was climbing, not the flat I was promised.  I think I need to give up on the hopes of flat riding until I’m out of the mountains.  But these climbs were easier than the big one, and I knocked of the kilometers at a steady rate, saying wow to myself every time I turned a corner.  In Yarumal I had lunch, fixed a broken link in my chain, and let my sleeping bag dry.  I talked to a few people, who assured me that from there to Medellin was all downhill or flat, and that I’d get there by evening.  I understand that in a car climbs are not so noticeable, but it’ boggles my mind that so many people could not notice the 12 km climb immediately out of Yarumal. And several smaller ones to follow.  I camped in a small town by the school house, having climbed more than I’d dropped since Yarumal.  This was an exciting night for me, as I slept inside my sleeping bag for the first time in months.  I think the last time was somewhere near Mexico City.  Some kindly and inquisitive neighbor-ladies brought me an arepa and hot chocolate, I think mainly as an excuse to satisfy their curiousity about my stove and other apparati.  In the morning, the school children started to arrive and to form a circle around me at about 6 feet, following my every move but too shy to actually speak.

I had 1000 meters to drop to get to Medellin, so I knew I’d have some big downhills, but by 10:30, after amazing, amazing riding, I thought my height was spent and the rest of the way would be more or less flat.  Then I turned a corner and saw an enormous valley, and a red-brick city at the bottom. Not Medellin, it turns out, but close.  The road plummetted down the side of the valley for 15 km, exhilirating at first then just frightening – the turns were extremely sharp, the road often narrowed to one lane, and opposing traffic would frequently use both lanes when rounding blind corners. And it just went on and on and on.

At the bottom, the road abruptly turned into a 6-lane monstrosity, and the rest of the ride was a bit of a drag.   Hot and trafficky, but then I’d look up and see the mountains towering high above.  I got to Medellin and had a crazy ride through it, so much traffic and so few rules, a real free-for-all.  Which is actually pretty fun if you don’t have to do it too much.  I got off the highway, then found that none of the other roads go through, so I meandered quite a bit to get to a hostel.  But riding in a city, slowly and exploratorily, is pretty fun as a change of pace.

I’m posting pictures – the camera works again, except the screen, so I just had to point and shoot, not too many turned out and pictures can’t capture the grandeur so I deleted a lot of them.

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June 24th, 2012

I know this is too soon to be expecting you to read another update, but this last bit was so glorious I don’t want to start to forget it before I write it down.

I left Panama City and headed for Colon, leaving the Pacific behind for I think the rest of the trip, but eager to catch my first glimpse of the Caribbean all in one day.  I got bounced back and forth between the main highway and the alternate by cops who couldn’t agree – the first told me to go out of my way to take the main road, the autopista, but once I was on it for 20 km I ran into a police outpost where they told me bikes were not allowed on the autopista.  So I had to head back to the nearest exit (uphill, of course), then cross over to the older road.  Though the older road was nicer, no shoulder but not much traffic either.  Two flats on the way, too.  Not so glorious, you say? Okay okay, I’m getting to that.

I arrived at Colon around 4 pm, then spent a while searching out the marina.  Once I found it, they confirmed my suspicions that I’d have to head to Portobelo, a further 40 km along the coast.  But a group of pier-builders were just heading that way and offered me a ride … I let my principles take a back seat and accepted.  One of them offered me his house to sleep in and a couple slugs from his bottle of rum, so once again, I accepted.  After a fun ride in the back of a pickup, we got out a couple miles short of Portobelo, at an ex-restaurant where my new friend lived. Supposedly.  It was dark and he had no key and was quite drunk, so after waiting around in the growing darkness for someone to come home, I started growing a bit nervous, wishing I had just carried on to Portobelo where camping spots were apparentlly plentiful.  All of a sudden several other shapes appeared in the darkness – his wife and kids had finally arrived.  There was a bit of a confusion, but I assumed that my friend was among the dark shapes and would explain my presence. Not so.  He’d gone off and hidden, so his family was confronted by a large, raggedy gringo waiting for them in the shadows.  They all panicked, until I realized and started to explain myself.

“You’re not Loco Bill, are you? You don’t kill people?”

Apparently another American recently made local news by going on a killing spree.  I was to hear repeatedly in the next couple days that I bore a certain resemblance.

Berto (my host) emerged from the shadows, very pleased with his joke, and told me that we were going to his friend’s birthday party. And so we did. Fun time, very friendly people, immediately accepting of my presence there.

In the morning I walked with Berto down the beach (his back yard), and he showed me an almond tree – the fruit is edible, and apparently tastes quite like the nut, but it’s easy to see why almonds are so expensive.  It seems quite labor intensive to extract the nut.  Then I bid my hosts adieu and went on my way – another set of friends I’ll never see again.  Portobelo is a really neat little city, with several old forts over 400-years old.  It used to be the site of the world fairs, when all the gold and silver from the New World would be traded away for good from Europe.  As such it was the frequent target of pirate attacks and so heavily fortified.  I asked around about ships heading to Colombia and the tourist office directed me up the hill to Captain Jack’s hostel, a meeting place for all the yacht owners.  There are boats leaving almost every day, so I was able to tentatively get a spot leaving the next day.  I wandered around Portobelo for a few hours, then went back to meet with the captain, Erik, to discuss terms.  I ended up waiting 6 hours, not a good first sign, but he agreed to let the bike on for free (so I ‘only’ had to pay $525), and I took a pretty immediate liking to him, so that was settled.  I would sail on the coming tide on the Flamboyant, a 42-foot ship.

He’d told us we’d leave at 7 but didn’t show up at the hostel the next night until 9:30, but my excitement for the upcoming trip won over any impatience I might have felt.  Finally he arrived and we headed down to the pier, went through the long and tedious process of packing the ship.  By just after midnight, we were underway, but due to the lack of wind we didn’t hoist the sail but rather motored our way to the San Blas.

I’d been looking forward to this crossing since before I left Minneapolis, but what appealed to me most was the sailing, the actual sea crossing, so I knew little about the details of the actual trip.  Most people see the crossing as an unpleasant but necessary part of the voyage but come for the San Blas islands.  These islands, over 400 of them, are picture perfect, white sand and palm tree covered, and you can walk across most of them in a matter of minutes.  They are inhabited by the Kuna people, who have amazingly kept control of their hereditary lands.  They were close with the Americans during the construction of the Canal, providing food and working as cooks, etc, for many of the generals, so in return the American military supported their rebellion in the 1920’s when they threw off Panamanian control. A treaty was signed, and the Kuna Yala remains basically a sovereign state to this day.  They have strict rules about what can be built on their islands, and are committed to retaining their traditional lifestyle, making it a very unique place on the planet.  And I hardly knew we were going there, let alone spending 3 full days!

I had harbored certain fears about getting sea-sick, as it runs in the family, but I never felt queasy at all.  Granted, the seas were always remarkably calm and I scarcely ventured below deck, sleeping in the cockpit every night.  Even though we weren’t actually sailing, I could hardly sleep I was so excited about finally being at sea.  I stayed up most of the night with James, an English small-business owner travelling with his fiancee.  For the first time in ages the sky was clear at night, and we marvelled at the stars, the Milky Way (which he’d never seen before, having spent so much time living in London), and the Southern Cross.  I’d forgotten the stars would change as I went south.  Before long the North Star will disappear below the horizon, for good.

Despite not falling asleep until 4 I was up in time to watch the sun rise, but then had to wait hours before we arrived at the San Blas.  Well worth the wait.  Before we’d even dropped anchor we had boats pulling up alongside offering freshly caught lobster and crab.  Captain Erik is an excellent cook, though having lobster that fresh I think makes it easy.  So we had a delicious lobster lunch.

The next 3 days went by in a blur; the days were spent swimming and snorkelling in the crystal clear, coral-filled water surrounding the islands, interrupted only to eat more of Cappy’s amazing cooking – we ate roast chicken and roast beef on top of plenty of seafood practically plucked from the sea.  At night he would take us to visit his plentiful friends among the Kuna, giving a fascinating insight into their lifestyle. One night we built an enormous bonfire on the shore, helped by a generous helping of deisel Erik wanted to be rid of – for the first 20 minutes we had to stand about 15 feet from the blaze.  And the sunsets, sunrises, and stars were always fantastic.

One of my co-passengers was brought down by seasickness the first night, which was reassuring.  The seas were rough enough to give some people problems, but I escaped unscathed.  In the last 6 months or so, the feeling has been growing in me that I want to go on a long, several months at least, voyage by sea, to the point where it feels like an inevitability – I will do it one day. My only qualm was the sea-sickness, but apparently I can cope okay.  Not so Valentino.  He and his wife (on their honeymoon) had such a hard time they had to be taken ashore to fly to Colombia instead of facing the 36-hour crossing from the San Blas to Cartagena.  This, coupled with the fact that they were very picky eaters, left us with a surplus of food, so Erik suggested that we take advantage of it and spend another day in the islands.  Our final night there, we had to go through the bureaucracy, getting our exit stamps before heading to Colombia.  We dropped by the customs officer’s house after hours, and he stamped our passports as he sat shirtless in his backyard.  Another friend of Erik’s.  After several days on the boat, I felt not quite right on land and was eager to get back to the reassuring rocking of the boat.

We set sail for Cartagena about midnight that night, actually setting the sail this time.  The wind was inconsistent and there was a schedule to be kept to so the motor was often on, but we sailed at least half the way with no motor.  Apart from satisfying my romantic ideas of sailing, it was lovely to go without the noise and vibrations that went along with the motor.  The next morning we woke to a spectacular sight: nothing.  No land was visible in any direction.  Erik had warned us of the cabin fever that often accompanies the crossing, as space is quite limited and we’d already had 4 days together to start to wear on each other’s nerves.  But the group was great – along with James and his lovely fiancee Dionne, there was a German-Canadian couple, Clemens and Cindi.  And Erik was a very entertaining captain – he often trailed off and his stories were not at all to the point, but always hilarious.  I often got the impression he was talking more to himself than anyone else.  He’s a true sailor, having sailed for months at a time alone on his boat, and I think talking to yourself comes with the territory.  So the final day’s sailing went by in a flash, though an uneventful flash.  Dionne saw a dolphin and there were lots of flying fish, lunch was excellent as always, but that’s about it.  As night closed, I wished Cartagena were farther away.  But alas, when I awoke in the morning we were pulling into the harbor, and the trip had come to a close.

I plan on spending a few days in Cartagena before setting out – I still have little idea of my route from here, and I have some other trivialities to take care of as well.  And this morning I spent 45 minutes riding around the city looking for the restaurant where everyone from the Flamboyant had gone for breakfast, and it is a very beautiful city.  The first colonial city in South America, as well as the most beautiful according to some.  So I’m in no rush to leave, and may even have company ….

As to the malaria discussion, I was in fact aware of the risk before I left and have prepared accordingly.  I have malaria pills that I will take for the rest of my stay in Colombia, but after that I will stick to the mountains where malaria is not a threat.

 

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June 15th, 2012

Panama City, the end of a chapter.  Well I still have another day or two of biking in Panama to get to wherever I end up catching the boat, but this still feels like a checkpoint reached.  Anyway, that’s my excuse for going so long without writing, I wanted to get here before stopping.

I rode from Leon to Managua, where I was to meet my old friend Ricardo.  A huge storm arrived just as I did, complicating things – I needed to get his number from my email, but the storm took out the power. And none of the pay phones worked. At times such as these I miss the States, where things can be relied on to work consistently. (Another wrinkle: I asked to borrow someone’s cell phone to call him, but every time I tried to dial a ‘1,’ a ‘w’ appeared instead.  I gave back the phone, and they had no better luck.)  We met up in the end, and Ricardo took me to Grenada. Despite living in Managua, he’s not too fond of it.  Grenada is beautiful, full of old colonial buildings and right on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

From Managua (which I actually quite liked. The old center was destroyed by an earthquake over 30 years ago and until recently little was done to repair it.) I biked to Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful crater lake with very few buildings on it or people living around it, probably as a result of which the water is crystal clear. Up to my neck, I could see my feet as clearly as if I were on land.  But, being a crater lake, I had a long, steep climb to get back to the highway. That’s fine – I like a big climb once in a while to keep from going soft.  I spent just one night at the lake before heading to San Jorge and taking the ferry to Ometepe.  Ometepe is a huge island in Lake Nicaragua, composed of two volcanoes.  I stayed on a coffee finca (cooperative farm) at the base of Volcan Maderas, lovely and remote.  I felt differently about its remoteness as I pushed my bike up the rocky road at the end of a long, sweaty day, but once I got there I could appreciate it.  There was a good group of people from all over already there, and in the morning we all climbed the volcano together – not the relaxing time I had planned!  On the way, we saw all sorts of animals: howler monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, man eating caterpillars, to name a few.  It was refreshingly cold on top, next to a newly discovered crater lake.  It surprised me that the lake could have gone until just 30 years ago without anyone knowing about it, until I saw what tough going it was through the forest, even on the trail.  And it’s always cloudy up there … it’s a cloud forest.

After leaving Ometepe my race for Panama began in earnest.  There was an Argentine couple at the finca who are following my route back to Argentina and will probably overtake me before long and who renewed my eagerness to get to South America.  Plus, everyoen who told me anything about Costa Rica mentioned how expensive it is.  I spent just under a week crossing Costa Rica, preparing all my food myself and stirring up fond memories of the Moist Boys days, exploiting grocery stores for their bathrooms and water.  My lunch specialty: refried beans and carrot slices on Ritz crackers, $0.90.  And I averaged about 8 bananas a day – Costa Rica is the #2 exporter of bananas in the world, so they’re cheap as hell there.  Costa Rica also distinguished itself as one of the few places on earth where you can admire pine forests and have to wipe monkey shit off your forehead within minutes of each other. Within minutes, in fact, of entering the country.  Costa Rica is beautiful; it was awesome to ride through the barely contained and raucous jungle lining the highways, and the abundance of animals made it feel like Amazon Trail.  But the amount of commercialization is disgusting – the highways are lined with advertisements.  I ended up living cheaper in Costa Rica than in other countries – everything was so expensive I’d balk at buying anything.  And I’d often reason that I could choose between getting ice cream now or 3 ice creams somewhere else – the prospect of 3 ice creams almost always won out.  I did cough up to visit a nature reserve, full of snakes and poisonous frogs and butterflies, and to enter Manuel Antonio National Park, full of people.  Luckily almost all of them were there for the beaches, so the walking trails through the jungle were empty.

I had border trouble for the first time coming into Panama. As with some other countries, their policy is to require an onward ticket before letting you in, but unlike the other countries they don’t see a bicycle as a valid alternative – perhaps because I can’t make it to Colombia on my bike.  They told me I’d have to buy a bus ticket, I guess from Panama City back to Costa Rica, but at my first protest they relented.  Riding through Panama was pretty drab for the most part – there were glimpses of beauty but most of what I saw was the highway.  The Pan-Am is a massive 4-lane monster for most of Panama, divided and with 10 foot shoulders.  Between David and Santiago the road was two lanes and pretty quiet, and it wound through some beautiful green hills, but besides that there wasn’t much to see.  The pines persist, to my surprise.

I got pretty fed up with all the rain before the end.  It rains every day, but unlike what I’d heard the rain does not follow a predictable schedule.  Well, it never rained before 11 am, and it always rained as I tried to set up camp, but rain was frequent but randomly dispersed throughout the rest of the day.  As good as my tent is in the rain, I think few tents could stand up to a good tropical rainstorm.  I have often had to resort to lying on top of my sleeping bag, an island in the middle of a puddle.  I camped every night between Ometepe and Panama City, usually next to a house so I could cook under their overhang.  It’s a real drag to be sitting out in the rain waiting for rice to cook, as all my stuff gets wet.

By the way:

-I saw a weird thing in Leon, made weirder by how often I saw it there despite never seeing it elsewhere.  Having more than one person on a bicycle is closer to the rule than the exception in Central America (I’ve seen a family of 4 on a bike), but in Leon they’ve got a unique style.  One person sits on the top tube and steers, while the other sits on the seat and pedals, often not even paying attention to where they’re going.

-Mosquitoes: I was rather dreading this last stretch, fearing that the mosquitoes would make life pretty midserable as I made and broke camp.  There were always a couple mosquitoes, but they were either not brave enough or not smart enough to try anything once I’d put long pants on.  On top of that, they are puny, about half the size of the MN skeeters, so I hardly mind it when they do manage to sting me. As long as I don’t get malaria.  Panama takes it quite seriously, I learned: inspectors seek out water that’s been let stand stagnant as a mosquito breeding ground, and fine whoever’s responsible.  While it’s awesome not to be pestered, it’s forced me to accept something I’d long feared: the mosquitoes of Minnesota are the worst in the world.

-Colombia: I still don’t know how to get there. I can either try to sail from Colon or try to go on speed boat, but apparently for that I should go to Puerto Carti. There’s no road between them, though, unless I come back through Panama City, and cross the Continental Divide a couple times.  So we’ll see.  I think I’ll decide today and set out in the morning.

 

Thanks for reading! Especially my dear friend Caitlin E. Eide.

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May 24th, 2012

At the last minute before I left Maya Pedal, Skye, one of the other volunteers, decided to come along. She’d been hoping to go to Mexico on a bike trip but didn’t want to go alone, so this was the next best thing.  We rode down from the highlands, and into the rainy season, getting soaked in a torrential downpour, which I think is amazing to bike in.  We camped that night at a very buggy finca, surrounded by staring kids, with the adults at a more respectful distance.  The storm that night was stupendous, lightning I could see in my tent with my eyes closed, and no pause before the thunder.

In the morning we got going early, Guatemala had a few more hills to throw my way before it let me go, but by afternoon we got to the border, again in a torrential downpour.  Immigration was a breeze, and we ate lunch for $2.70, together.  They use only US dollars in El Salvador, it was weird to see them again.  I kept thinking people had messed up the change, quarters seem so small.  The roads in El Salvador are amazing, smooth with spacious shoulders, and everyone seems to have spent time in the US; they speak perfect English.  The day after, we spent the morning looking for some ruins that were supposed to be nearby, criss-crossing a maze of dirt roads before giving up the search. Then a hot ride to the coast, before some clouds rolled in and we got to the cliffs.  Much like the Oregon coast, it was all broken up, with long climbs out to viewpoints, then long drops back in towards the mainland.  There were also 5 extremely dark tunnels, the longest over 2000 feet.  As soon as you enter the tunnel, you can see nothing but the speck of light the other side, which doesn’t seem to be getting any closer until suddenly you’re out.  Skye got disoriented and ran into the far wall, losing her shoes to the tunnel.  We’d hoped to get to a beach to camp, but the hills and a flat tire stopped us short, so we asked to camp on someone’s land.  They did one better and let us sleep in one of the sons’ bedrooms, slinging a hammock.

Then we rode down to El Sunzal, a beach town famous for its surfing.  I stayed 3 nights, tried surfing once and realized I was miles from being able to surf.  Great fun though, and it’s amazing to be out there in the waves, watching the people who actually know what they’re doing.  And groups of pelicans would fly back and forth, skimming the water, between the waves.

When I left Sunzal, I left alone – after all this talk I was finally starting my solo journey.  The rest of El Salvador was beautiful, but very hot.  I took the long way around to avoid having to climb Volocan San Miguel, I don’t know if I could stand much climbing in this heat.  My last night in El Salvador (also my 7th) I camped outside a farmhouse near the Honduran border, and they insisted on sharing their food with me.  Altogether, the people of El Salvador   were extremely generous and friendly.

I got to the border by about 8, and for the first time the border crossing was complicated.  Well, relatively complicated.  I had to fill out some forms and pay $3, that’s basically it.  Then a really nice ride to Choluteca, its very hilly but the hills are isolated and the road just winds between them.  In Guatemala, they’d view such terrain as a challenge, and see how many of the peaks they could knock off. On the way, I was stopped by some cops who made me show my passport.  I thought I was in store for one of those “bad cop experiences” you hear about, but the worst of it was their insistence that I wasn’t really American – even while holding my passport.  I think they were just abusing their power to satisfy their curiousity. Eventually they let me go.

I’d hoped to have a warmshowers host in Choluteca, but no such luck.  I didn’t have time to escape the city and find a vacant field, so I found a park by the police station, where they told me I’d be safe.  I immediately attracted a horde of inquisitive school children, who followed me around as I did my campsite chores, peppering me with questions.

Next day I got to Nicaragua by noon, had to go through more immigration bullshit and shell out a further $12, then got directed to an amazing comedor.  Nicaragua is surprisingly different from what I saw of Honduras – whereas Honduras was lush and pretty jungle-y, Nicaragua seems pretty arid, except that there are huge flooded areas all over, sometimes encompassing houses.  It’s also much flatter, and much less populated.  That afternoon’s riding had me nostalgically reminiscing of our northern Mexico days.  I camped on another finca, and one of the workers, Manuel Castillo, came out to see what I was doing.  I had asked permission from the owner. We ended up talking for a couple hours, and I got to share with someone else for a change, as he accepted some of my pasta.  He contributed a freshly fallen coconut which I got to open, spraying myself with the juice.  He also told me what the plant was I’d kept seeing – sugar cane.  And the field I was in was a peanut field, I never would have noticed.  Peanuts grow underground!

Today I had a relatively short ride to Leon, where I think I´ll take a rest day.  I’ve gotten a lot closer to the optimal bikers schedule, I’m usually up a bit after 5 and biking by 6:30, to avoid biking too much in the heat of the day.  It’s be nice if it rained during the day more, but it’s mostly been just after sunset instead.  There are millions of mosquitoes, but they are smaller and relatively benign when compared to the Minnesota breed – except that these are disease ridden.  In Leon, for the first time in 5 months, I drank tap water. I think from here on out the bigger cities have potable water, so that inconvenient phase of the trip is over.

 

New pictures, and the Spot’s been working again.

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