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.