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.