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On the road . June 2009 . Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia

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Artenet Internet, Quepos, Costa Rica, 04-06-09
Nicoya to Quepos (3 cycle days; 1 ferry trip; 221km; 1237m)
Nicoya to Playa Naranjo (75km; 388m)
Playa Naranjo to Jacó (78km; 682m)
Jacó to Quepos (68km; 167m)

Turner green

Even though we sleep through the alarm and are plagued by flats tyres before we even get started, it doesn't deter from another fantastic day of riding in Costa Rica. Take a quiet winding French country lane and pop it into the richest of tropical surroundings and that is what cycling on the Nicoya Peninsula is like. Friendly inhabitants and diverse landscapes filled with mangoes, bananas, corn, rice, all arrays of palms, mangroves, murky rivers; one lane bridges, parks; quaint villages; and not to forget plenty of cows. It is almost unbelievable to think that this area was dry as a bone just three weeks back. I just have a wonderful time admiring each and every view and its potential of becoming a Turner landscape.

Local friendliness
Hardly anyone is using the road leading to Playa Naranja. The trip is a little more rolling than yesterday, but its an easy ride. About 20 kilometres before our destination the road disintegrates before our very eyes and it is hard pedalling. But there is only 10 kilometres of shaking the bones around in the saddle, before we glide back onto bitumen again and into Playa Naranjo 75km; 388m. It is not what you would call a happening place and in fact we can't find any cheap accommodation at all. We decide to hang out the 4 hour wait for the ferry in a little restaurant overlooking the bay. Larry and Samantha pull in on a ATV and convince us that our decision to sail to Punta Arenas tonight is not a very good idea and after a phone call, Larry has teed up a cabina for 10,000 Colones at a friend's lodge. Maquinays is run by a Belgian and Colombian couple and our simple room is perfect for a good night's rest. that is after we have erected the mosquito net. There are an awful lot of little bugs flying about.

Ferries and wild wonders
The one hour and fifteen minute ferry trip across the Nocoya Gulf is a great start to the day. It leaves at 8am, so we get on the road quite a bit later than usual. Since there were no stores in Playa Naranja, we ate our last morsels for breakfast this morning, and the necessary stop at a Pali discount store pushes the start to our day even further forward. The town of Punta Arenas is situated on a long thin peninsula of about three roads wide for roughly 13 kilometres. It isn't a particularly good road but then we make the right hand turn onto a beautifully surfaced CA 32. According to Larry, it is the first time that the area has contracted the building of the road out to a private company and luck has it that it has just been completed. Not only does it have a smooth wide shoulder, but a cycle path leading all the way to Caldera where we turn right onto the autopista. The bike path has gone but a great shoulder leads us safely up and down the highway until the turnoff to Jacó.

This part of journey dishes up all sorts of wild wonders. Apart from an abundance of flying ants, crocodiles: the biggest I have seen in the wild, bathe on the muddy edges of rivers, lizards of stunning blues and greens scuttle away as we ride past and even a giant iguana who didn't quite make it across the road in time lay dead, but on full display. A last hill 12 odd kilometres before our destination is a killer 4 kilometres long at the end of the day and in the hot and humid conditions. The ride down the other side is much more gratifying, though the road is plenty patchworked and not a smooth descent at all.

Sign posting has been completely outrageous the whole way through Costa Rica. Upon entering the country a board stated that Punta Arenas was 280 odd kilometres away, when in actual fact it is barely 200. Even with us taking the longer route down through the Nicoya Peninsula we only manage to clock up 240 kilometres. And now leading into Jacó with approximately 5 kilometres to go, signs contradict one another even just a 100 metres apart.

Including its prestigious 2009 World's Best Surf Spot title, Jacó (78km; 682m) pretty well has it all for such a small town: sushi bars; pizzerias; surf shops; souvenirs and tattoo palours. Many of them run by foreigners. Accommodation is a few rungs up on the price tag ladder and the cheapest spot we can find is 15,000 Colones. The room at Cabanas Iguana is pretty good, though the promise of hot water doesn't come through and the guy at reception seems way more interested in flirting with his girlfriend than seeing us comfortably checked in. The heavens open up just as we have unpacked our bags and are settling comfortably in our room. The whole evening is a spitter and sputter of rain, lighting and booming cracks of thunder.

Miniature but pleasant destinations
A road sign on the CA 34, just past the last turnoff into Jacó says Quepos is 106km. Our estimations suggest that this is 50 kilometres too much. Going on yesterday's territory, we had expected more hills today, but the the ride is an easy pedal. Virtually flat apart from an initial short climb, the road is also pretty good until we hit Monterrey where it gets quite patchy. It picks up again after Parrito. The Pacific coastline lies to our right most of the way, though we only get a few glimpses of it. Friendly waves and thumbs up from locals working the green luscious land.

We hit rows and rows of African oil palms, which typically reminds us of Malaysia, though I never saw anyone there wielding a seven metre pole with a machete attached to end of it. These workers are also on bikes, which is pretty clever considering the size of their work-tool. The outskirt of Quepos (68km; 167m) is run down and doesn't look at all promising, but after the one lane bridge, we hit the actual town. Its again very small and has its fair share of foreigners and consequent facilities. The vibe is good though and our very clean, decent sized room with no-frills bathroom at Hotel Ramu's is okay for a couple of days. The 10,000 Colones for these facilities is about rock bottom price in Costa Rica for double accommodation with ensuite.

The price of tourism?
Quepos is 7 kilometres north of Parque National Manuel Antonio and we find ourselves paying the 200 Colones each (25 euro cents) for the bus trip which takes us up a monster incline that only a madman would want to cycle. It must be well over 15% in parts, but it is great viewing from the comfort of our little plastic covered seats. The biggest surprise is how many lodges, backpackers, eco-accommodation, shopping areas, restaurants, pizzerias and tour shops there are. In fact, they by far outnumber what the town of Quepos has on offer. The area on the beach front is also lined with stalls selling all the same sort of stuff you see in every tourist spot in the world, only it has Costa Rica plastered all over it.

The walk to the park entrance is pleasant enough, but the $10 US fee each is not (Costa Ricans pay $3) and we decide not to enter for that price. The place is small and packed with tourists and we are likely to see only monkeys, lizards and some birds. We experience stuff like that everyday on the road, so its just a wander around the surroundings before spending some time on the beach warding off cigar and pottery salesmen and then moseying our way back to Quepos. Even without achieving our original plan, it is a relaxing morning.

Mamma mia, what a ripoff?
Last night however, had been far from tranquil, though it was entirely our intention. For the first time since we left, we decided to eat out in a semi-upmarket restaurant. We figured, we deserved it and the thought of not having to cook or having to eat pizza was tempting enough to choose a little Italian spot on the next street.

Everything starts off fine as the waiter fusses over us, napkins, olive oil and balsamic vinegar jugs, bread. Both thinking that it was such a long time ago that this had happened, we smile. Menu's are delivered and we are told the special of the day is vegetarian lasagne. Ali's face lights up immediately. Perfect, we'll have that and the spaghetti pesto (€4.30) and the rucola, orange and onion salad (€3 euros). I ask how much the lasagne is just to be sure and it is a little pricey at (€ 6), but the waiter had shown us a recipe book saying it comes out like the deliciously layered pasta dish pictured on the page. I can tell you it looked mouth watering.

Our tiny salad spread out thinly on a large plate appears. The sparingly incorporated rucola is mixed with cos lettuce; the onions are certainly in plentiful supply and so are the massive pips in the tough skinned juicing oranges the chef has used. We had asked for everything together, but other plans in the kitchen meant the salad is finished before the four small spaghetti bundles arrive. Fancy basil-balsamic droplets bordering the square white china plate most likely took longer to decorate than preparing the microwaved dish. Not only the little 'pings' resonating from behind the kitchen door, but the fact that just the centres are warm and the rest of the coils of pasta are stone cold are a dead give away that this meal has been zapped.

The lasagne also makes its grand entrance and it is also cold, but we are more overwhelmed at how small it is. There are just two layers, barely rising above the plate, with three pieces of lasagne measuring roughly 12 x 5cm filled with two thin rounds of aubergine and a few tablespoons of tomato sauce. Now had this instead been oozing with rich tomato concase, a compliment of vegetables, homemade béchamel sauce and tasty cheddar cheese, I could have easily overlooked the fact that even a fashion model might complain about this portion size too. Ali puts his head in his hands. We debate, whether we should say something or not.

There is no way, we can let this slip. It is just too sad for words and the amount they are charging us is worthy of so much more. We wait for our waiter. And we wait. In the end, I pop my head around the swing entrance to the kitchen and say, "I'm sorry but our food is cold". Ali further talks to the waiter about the ridiculous size of the meal. He apologises saying it is the kitchen's fault; that he only works here and will solve the problem by zapping everything for a second time. Furthermore, he delivers the lasagne even flatter than the first time, with the message that we can have it for half price. This is not really what we had in mind. A decent sized serving for the original price would have been adequate.

Before we can get a mouthful in, Mamma Mia waddles out of the kitchen in all her big bellied glory. First, she establishes where we come from and then starts rattling off in German to Ali (all of which I can understand). I wish I could have replied back in German because I would have loved to have dazzled this would-be-chef with some of my kitchen finesse: and anyone that knows me well, also knows the storms I have cooked up: be it campfire, Primus stove or fully fledged workspace. Anyway, her first line of argument is that everything is expensive in Costa Rica and that she only uses the best and imported ingredients from far, far away. Besides she boasts that everything is homemade and we therefore should appreciate and savour her culinary skills. If picking out orange pips in a salad and swallowing cold minimally flavoured spaghetti is her idea of gastronomic heaven, then she is less aware of food and its potential than I thought.

I reveal the picture the waiter showed us and place it next to her dish. It is a dismal comparison, but she retaliates that it is only a picture. She becomes quite abusive at this stage with remarks that it is typical of a Dutch person to make such a complaint and that if we are not happy, then we know where the door is. She also chastises me in Spanish at the top of lungs for not being able to conduct a conversation, or should I say argument in her mother-language. I leave. Ali follows close behind.

A simple baguette fashioned with avocado, mayonnaise, tomato and cos lettuce in our hotel room never tasted so good. The ingredients were just short of €2 for the both of us...

Even though the altercation in the restaurant was not a particularly pleasant one, we didn't have to pay a cent for our untoward experience and we still enjoy our stay in Quepos immensely. Our hotel is perfect: clean, friendly staff with big smiles. The internet café, though double the normal Costa Rican rate at 1000 per hour is well set up for wifi, air conditioned and most importantly the connection is fast. The town has a Pali store, so we can purchase local food at reasonable prices. Four nights after arriving, we finally set off to Playa Dominical.

Internet Café, Panama City, Panama, 19-06-09
Quepos to David - Panama (4 cycle days; 259km; 1627m)
Quepos to Dominical (45km; 152m)
Dominical to Palmar Norte (63km; 552m)
Palmar Norte to Ciudad Neily (77km; 439m)
Ciudad Neily - Costa Rica to David - Panama (74km; 484m)

Bit of dirt never killed anyone
Our route is in some degree of unpaved proportion for the entire journey to Playa Dominical. It starts off reasonably good, where the roadwork department are doing their best to get a bitumen surface down before the monsoons really hit, but eventually the state of the road becomes quite slushy and harder work than normal. Even so, it is a great ride through the little coastal villages, well away from the Pan American and with the sound of waves pounding the beach from behind a jungle strip of palms. This part of Costa Rica has a lovely feel about it: people give us the thumbs up, say either "hello, hola, buenos" or have even caught us by surprise with a "have a great trip". The scenery is so green at this time of year it is almost surreal. There is little traffic and vehicles are generally patient. Worth all the slipping and sliding around on gravel and in the mud.

Our destination comes after three and bit hours of pedalling and we are immediately welcomed by an enthusiastic American family that own a house a bit up the road. Playa Dominical (45km; 152m) has it's fair share of tourist elements and surf culture, but it is by no means pretentious like many of the same spots along the Mexican Coast. Buildings blend in nicely with the landscape and tropical flowers adorn every piece of available ground. As do the giant iguanas, who with their prehistoric features and silly walks, keep Ali and myself snap happy and in total wonderment for hours.

Our first look in at accommodation is Posada Del Sol. It is immaculately coordinated and pretty well perfect, but the 17,000 Colones is a bit over our budget. Though, if you were thinking of spoiling yourself, this price is a steal for what you get. El Coco is a restaurant-come-bar close to the beachfront with a few hostel like rooms at the back and at the more budget price of 8,000 Colones for two. Can't really complain about the simple, clean hut with fan and share bathrooms for that price tag. Shopping is a bit more expensive and fresh produce quite limited, so it would pay to bring in supplies.

Even with all its washed up wood, coconuts, rocks, trees, and shells from such turbulent currents, a walk along the beach reveals a relaxed family atmosphere, though not too many people are taking heed of the tide warning signs. There is basically no rubbish anywhere to be seen, which I admire at once. Camping is easy as the maritime rule applies in Costa Rica, like in Mexico and many countries throughout Central America. From the ocean's edge to 50 metres above high tide is public domain, though security plays an important role in the decision of whether or not to set up the tent. Playa Dominical seems safe enough, however the mosquitoes might have some influence on how many nights you stay. Repellent in some form is an absolute must. Stunning cloud formations and sunset lights are as dramatic as the powerfully thumping surf. The only aesthetic downfall as far as I can see is the black sand: it just doesn't do it for this spoilt Ozzie, born and raised with white powdery grains squeaking between her toes.

Hitting the jackpot
Another fairly easy trip, though more hills to traverse than the previous days. Being drenched by our first thunderstorm cloud in Central America is a relatively short incident and we emerge out the other side into steamy hot sunrays, which are actually harder to bear than the downpour. Playa Uvita also looks like a pretty nice place to stop overnight and it has a decent sized supermarket on the main road for stocking up on any goodies you might like. Palmar Norte (63km; 552m) where we stop for the night has a Super Mas and a Pali store as well.

The first Chinese restaurant and hotel we hit we enquire about the price of a room. It is 8,000 Colones which is the cheapest we have found yet in Costa Rica. The room is okay except for the whopping hole in the window where the air conditioner used to be. It is bad enough that all the mosquitoes and flying things can penetrate the gap, but the fact that a person could easily crawl through it is more worrying. We ask to see another, but they say there are no more available rooms. Seems a little difficult to believe at this time of day, so we move the 30 metres to Hotel Hong Kong where we absolutely hit the jackpot. The well kept, spic and span operation is run by a quite comical, but genuine Chinese couple. Our lovely room costs 10,000 Colones and although our dinner wasn't the tastiest we have ever ordered, it was filling and the enthusiastic wave good night from the owner certainly made up for the lack of flavour.

A couple of wet warnings
I know its getting a bit boring to hear, but its another wonderful cycling day: past momone (rambutan) stalls and farm houses nestled amongst jungle green forests. African palm oil plantations only ever occupy one side of the road at a time and though overcast skies threaten rain, we make it to Ciudad Neily (77km; 439m) just in time to witness the heavens opening up. Our hotel room is 8,500 Colones and infested with cockroaches, so out comes the Teva sandal and we sleep with the light on. The following day, the ride to the border town of Paso Canoas is much the same as any of our Costa Rica journeys, though the traffic does appear to become a little more impatient. The road is atrocious considering it is the main highway: no shoulder and a patchwork of repairs.

Crossing into Panama is easy; no fees to pay either, but everyone else we have spoken to since has paid $US 1 to enter. The highway also looks promising with its dual lanes and wide shoulder, but that disappears after a few kilometres and the uncomfortable feeling returns. The driving is fast and furious and quite hairy on occasions. The gravel side shoulder is impossible to use most of the time and we have to sit out a short storm in a bus shelter just 5 kilometres from David - Panama (74km; 484m). Reaching the city centre in the early afternoon, we ride around a bit before realising that the accommodation prices here are going to force us to do a quick surf in an internet cafe to find something halfway cheap.

Her Lady Purpleness
The Purple House is where we end up after another quick shelter from a longer bout of rain. As the name suggests, the place is very, very purple indeed. Andrea, who is extremely dedicated to this colour, runs a tight purple ship. Maybe a little too tight for us, but we meet and converse with some other really friendly travellers. The $US 20 private room with ensuite is pricey for our budget, but very clean. Free tea and coffee as well as a weak wifi link are also included. Of course there is the bonus of the kitchen, which is also sparkling purple and complimented with colour coordinated washing-up detergent. A couple of days under the directive of Her Lady Purpleness is enough, though we have fun exchanging information and researching our next part of the journey to Panama City. The only downfall is we just can't seem to book our flight out on-line. For some reason, our credit cards keep getting rejected. And no we haven't run out of money quite just yet.

After a trip to the 24 hour Super 99 just down the road and while on the subject of money, we thought it would be useful to include a small comparison chart of the price of a few goods and services in Mexico and Central American countries.

El Salv.
Costa Rica
currency + rate
to the US Dollar
US Dollar
US Dollar
1.5 litre
1 gal (3.78 L)
1 litre
local beer
peanut butter
per hour
budget double accommodation
with bathroom
* All prices in US$ (bold). Local currency underneath. All prices converted to US Dollars using the exchange rate at the time of collecting information.

David to Panama City (5 cycle days; 467km; 3882m)
David to Las Lajas (81km; 640m)
Las Lajas to Santiago (122km; 1503m)
Santiago to Penonomé (102km; 333m)
Penonome to La Chorrera (117km; 924m)
La Chorrera to Panama City (45km; 482m)

A few more hills than expected
Eight o'clock is pretty late to get on the road today, but that is to be expected when staying in a hostel. You can't just do things when you want to, there are several other guests using the same facilities as you. The traffic is heavy duty on the way out, but after an hour, I notice that it has died down quite considerably. The 32 kilometre point marks the beginning of a fantastic stretch of tarmac. Smooth and with a massive wide shoulder for us to use. Riding couldn't be more blissful.

Several blogs we have read recently state that the journey is 'mostly flat'. We couldn't disagree more and would more accurately term the topography as rolling. The climbs are neither long, nor steep, but nonetheless it is an up and down pedal, through a green, but not so spectacular landscape. Plenty of cool tumbling waterfalls to be seen along the way.

Trucks toot with melodious tune and everyone welcomes us with a wave. It's a pleasant enough trip. The turnoff to Playa Las Lajas (81km; 640m) takes us past the village, where we learn that there is no other accommodation this time of year, apart from Paradise Inn, unless we want to travel a further 10 kilometres to the beach. Only problem with this is we'll have to cycle back out again tomorrow and add more kilometres to an already potentially difficult day. Christian, the owner very pleasantly offers us the amazing room at 25% discount. So, for $37.50, we live it up in luxury for just one night. It is our first hot water shower since Chiapas in Mexico which was 47 days ago.

Hellier journey
Try in vain to leave early this morning, but Ali has teed a possible website up with the owners and I need to make some photographs for the page. It takes a bit more than half an hour, which I think is pretty good going, but leaving at 7.45am, when we know we have more than 1550 metres to climb over 120 kilometres is not particularly clever planning. There is not really any way around it, but it still stresses me out, as I know I'm going to find the journey very demanding.

And I am right. It is a non-stop long, hard grind for the entire day. None of the climbs are particularly steep, but they are relentless and normally when you spy one of the microwave towers, you can be rest assured you are at the top. Not today however: it goes up and down like a yo-yo and those red and white masts dot the hillside like lighthouses guiding you through rugged terrain. And for those interested in the nitty gritty of the trip, here's the finer details:

Las Lajas to Santiago cycling details (122km; 1503m)
The first hill you think you have reached after 31kilometres (265m), actually peaks at 36 kilometers (289m). By this stage you will have traversed 513m alitmetres in total. Just a third of the day's effort. A wonderful plummet down over the next 7 kilometres to 50 metres above sea level, gives you time to catch your breath for the short 100 altimetre climb that follows. Again, you drop to 50 metres and from then on a gradual ascend to 315 metres at the 51 kilometre mark of the trip. You are a little over the halfway point on the day's climbing scale.

An up and down affair follows until another peak of 376m at the 58 kilometre point. The microwave tower to your left is no indication of the true top and a further 2 kilometre stretch takes you to 413 metres high. Total altimetres covered by now are 974. Another plunge towards sea level follows. Don't believe the signpost just before the 71km mark saying that you still have 77 kilometres to go. It is wrong. A smaller ascend, though still worth mentioning, to 177m brings you to a completed distance of 77 kilometres so far.

There's a whole lot more up and down for the next 15 kilometres where you will peak once more at 183m. From here the next 20 kilometres to the finish line are pretty easy going as far as the natural landscape is concerned. Your biggest worry will be trying to cut a decent and safe path on the extremely bad road surface. After 122 kilometres you will reach Santiago at roughly 95 metres.

We stop for lunch after 51 kilometres and 754 altimetres of climbing and as a dark cloud descends in on us. Sheltering for long is out of the question; we take off again in light drizzle. The further we cycle the worse the showers get. I get two flats: both caused by wire strands from discarded truck tyres and my front derailleur seizes leaving me with just the middle crank to ride the hills on. Ali also has limited use of his gears. It is times like these, that everything takes on a new perspective: at least it is cold and not hot; I am grateful for use of all seven gears on the middle chain wheel; my recently screwed out socks are better than the squelching soggy ones I rode with for several kilometres; a sweat-damp shirt under a saturated rain-jacket feels way more comfortable than a drenched shirt with no protection; and when we hit the 65 kilometre mark and have to continue the undulating terrain on an atrociously bad surface, I pity all those poor souls who have made this trip before, when the entire length of highway was like a world war took place on it. Nothing short of absolute hell.

Covered in mud, wet, tired and with less than an hour before dark, we pull into Santiago (122km; 1503m). Hotel Hong, recommended by a couple of cyclists in a Crazyguyonabike blog say the place is pretty alright. Their standards must be a little lower than ours, or they didn't care much for details after such a journey. The no frills room with a fan and quite a bit of dirt is cramped, but a place to lay our weary bodies to rest. It is Sunday and hardly anything is open, so it is a delve into the reserve supplies. Anything warm and filling tastes good after a day like this.

Perfect cloud skies
We try all we can to get out of bed on time, but it just doesn't work: neither of us wants to budge and it is almost 6.30am before the aching bones start to creak. My backside is sore and my legs are still tired from yesterday's pedalling. A simple breakfast of peanut paste and jam sandwiches (separate for those wondering) and a couple of cups of freshly brewed coffee do the trick and it is a slow but definite wake up to the day and the realisation that I have a flat tyre.

It is also a flat cycle in contrast to yesterday's roller coaster ride, but hardly boring with the perfect cloud formations starkly picturesque against the farmland green: the type of views postcards are made of. Colourful bus stop murals depicting Panamanian culture keep me entertained for most of the journey, but even they have little amusement in the mid afternoon hours: it reaches 45° Celsius in the sun and I can feel the piercing rays penetrating the thick white layer of 50+ sunscreen on my face and arms. We rest quite often and drink a tonne of water. Ali gets a flat tyre early on in the morning and as we are powering on the last lengths, I get one too, which comes as a bit of a nuisance to the last legs of the journey. The roads in Panama are constantly full of crap!

There never seems to be any decent signage directing you into a town either. Nearly every board you see is a sponsored plaque, with some relevant distance or directional information, but also advertising: the latter seemingly playing the more important role. Street names are almost never represented, which makes me wonder how people know their way around their city. At crossroads with the highway running alongside Penonomé (102km; 333m), Hotel Dos Continentas stands quite majestically and looks ominously expensive for our budget. It is a little, at $22.00, but with such a mixed bag of accommodation in the last few days, we are not certain of what the average cost is. We figure we'll fork out the extra few dollars for tonight.

Our massive room is amazing: tv, hot shower, comfy bed, small dining table and chairs, lounging stool, dressing table, clean, neat, colour coordinated; and wonderfully friendly staff. While Costa Rica is the greenest, Panama is by far the more modern of all the Central American countries.

Pushing on through a day of aggression and a lesson learnt
After a fabulous nights sleep, the 75 kilometres to Chamé, no matter if the terrain is hilly or not, seems like a cinch in comparison to the last few days. Unfortunately, even after a short but sweet side tour of the little village, we find nothing and decide to push on to the next town. Seems quite strange seeing as every township leading up to our proposed destination: Anton; Rio Hato; Santa Clara; San Carlos and at the turn off to El Coronado; has ample accommodation prospects. The next spot, Capira, has a derelict and closed hotel on the outskirts of town, but that is about it. We have to push on again, only this time up a hill from 30 to 217metres. The gradient is not to difficult, but the hot afternoon sun is draining the will out of me.

To make matters worse, after El Coronado, the truck traffic especially picks up and they become inconsiderably aggressive. We are constantly fighting for road space when the shoulder disappears. Which, by the way, happens regularly. Our lives literally flash before our eyes as one truck comes way too close for comfort, even when he had the freedom to use the lane to the left of him. There is nowhere for us to go either, as a couple of semis are parked on the gravel shoulder to our right. If it wasn't for Ali's scream to me to move over, I would not be writing this piece right now. The driver is sandwiching us on purpose. And it makes Aaldrik furious.

So furious in fact, that when he sees the truck pulled in at a gas station, a few kilometres on, he decides to confront the guy. There are only a couple of extreme circumstances when Ali gets hostile: one of them being, when someone tries to blatantly hurt me. Very gallant of him really, but Ali is not a fighter in any way shape or form and I like that very much about him. But, it also means he is no match for the bulky latino driver who is already kicking his legs in the air and has his hands ready for a round of fisty cuffs. He knew exactly what he had done, but is adamant that we shouldn't be on the highway and just as he was ready to wipe me from the road with one of his metre and half high truck tyres, he's ready to fight about it.

I am less than half his weight and not much help either, though I can scream pretty annoyingly in someone's face, which I do at every available opportunity. A bit of a tussle starts and the weakling reaches inside the door of his tool kit. Nice one, that's all we need an angry latino wielding a crowbar. I slam the door shut on his hand to stop this deed from going any further. He grabs Ali and pushes him to the ground, which is when, thank goodness, everything stops. Another man steps in to calm the situation and I grab my camera. This action has our truck driver jumping promptly in his cabin and driving off as fast as he can.

A few other truck drivers come over and ask if we are okay. Apparently, they know this guy and mention that he is a nasty piece of work. "No kidding", I say. He tried to kill me with his truck, when there was absolutely no need for it. I try to get the name of the company he works for out of them, but they say they don't know. I get the distinct impression they are hiding something, but hopefully with a trailer and truck licence plate number and a good photograph I can at least try and contact the company myself.

The rest of the day's journey is just as suicidal and the traffic just doesn't care whether they plough us over or not. The road and shoulder are not always in good repair, so it is impossible to remain on the right side of the white line. We are honked and pushed from the road continually. It is horribly nerve racking and such a divergence from what we experienced up until now in Panama. Today is up there in the top echelon of the most unpleasant cycle days I have ever experienced. Just 5 kilometres before the actual township of La Chorrera (117km; 924m), a backpackers-hotel comes into sight. We decide to move into the town, which is just as maniacal as the highway and stay in a rather drab double at Hospedaje Lamas for $14. The town is dirty and unkempt and not a welcoming sight, though one man that we asked directions from was more than happy to let us sleep on the bench outside his car-workshop.

Ali is quite sombre all evening and rightly so. As well as nursing a couple of sore spots, he feels bad about what happened and how his anger took over his thoughts of reason. I think it is chivalrous, his concern for my safety, but he is no warrior. I make him promise that he'll not go running after any truck-drivers again. Learning to grin and bear the torment a few malicious individuals inflict on us while cycling is part of the tour too. We just have to hope that it will not be the way we leave this planet.

Celebrating the end of a difficult stretch with pizza, beer and icecream
It is raining when we wake at 7.00am; teeming down when we want to leave at 8.30am; and still spitting when we finally take to the road at 9.00am. The journey out of town requires some time and effort and we are glad when a shoulder finally appears, be it muddy and full of debris.

Pushing slowly to the top of the hill remaining focussed on the white line and the 30cm wide shoulder I've got to manoeuvre, I notice a man walking towards me. He won't step aside onto the footpath, he is determined to make me move across into the lane. I don't budge, there is too much traffic behind me. He reluctantly shifts to my right at the last minute. The shoulder disappears and I'm forced to move left. A taxi immediately blasts his horn. I'm still climbing in my second lowest gear. Have been for the last five minutes. The road spray is oily and dirty. My bags are covered. I'm covered. My gears aren't working as well as they should be. Sweat is dripping from my brow. My eyes sting from the salt. Drop by drop it lands on my cross bar. making it the cleanest part of my bike. Buses push past intolerantly pumping black billows of exhaust into my airspace. I have no option than to suck it all in. Someone throws a empty juice can out of the bus window. It rolls in front of me and comes to rest along with all the other discarded rubbish.

The rain stops early on and Ali starts chirping in my ear: "Is it getting flatter, or is it just me?". I reply quite coolly with: "No, its just you!" The climbing is strenuous and once again relentless. The extremely poor state of the roads coupled with the heavy traffic, makes it seriously dangerous in parts. We get to the foot of the bridge and are immediately stopped by policemen from all directions telling us we can't cross into Panama City. This had been mentioned enough on a few blogs that we were prepared for this little obstruction. Apparently a few years ago they closed the bridge to pedestrians and cyclists. The reason behind this is that too many people, in dire financial difficulty threatened to jump, unless of course, their debts were cleared. The police think its pretty crazy that we have cycled all the way from Holland, but they obviously don't think we are about to end our lives just yet. After a courteous and calm intercourse, a motorcycle is promptly organised to escort us across the Puente de las Americas. Though they trusted our motives for crossing, there was no way they would chance a stop to take photographs, so you'll just have to believe me that the views from all angles were pretty amazing.

The navigation through the city was harmless enough, except for the sling-shot stones aimed at us in a not so well-to-do neighbourhood. And there are plenty of run-down areas on the outskirts. We later find out that the incident occured in the suburb of Curundú and you don't want to stop in this area for love or money. According to the owner of our guesthouse, at the height of the monsoon season, the area floods badly. So much so, that traffic slows down to almost a halt and if this happens there is a high possibility that you'll get mugged in your car. I guess we were lucky then.

The skyscrapers in the CBD paint an entirely different picture of Panama City (45km; 482m) and at night time, it's more akin to Vegas with all its glamour and glitsy flashing lights. We find the Gran Morrison on Avenida de España, which is where all the hostels apparently are. After a couple of circumnavigations of the area due to a complete lack of street signs, we end up stumbling upon Zulys Hostel. A decent sized private room with share bathroom right outside costs $22.00 per night. Considering, the neighbourhood is safe and this is actually inexpensive for accommodation in the capital city, we take it.

We glue ourselves to the common-room chairs and celebrate the end of our Central America tour with pizza, beer and icecream. Total heaven after a number of hell experiences.

Internet Cafe, Cartegena, Colombia, 04-07-09
Panama City - Panama to Cartagena - Colombia via the San Blas Islands
Seven of us for six nights and five days in a ten metre boat

Panama City is much like any other city stay for us. Leisurely ambles around the town, not really with too much in mind except for dodging the monsoon rains, filling up on delicious food in the vegetarian buffet restaurants, organising our boat trip to Colombia and visiting the Panama Canal. I had sailed through here in 1972 on a cruise ship with my parents and I remember it quite vividly. Well, at least all the fuss that was made about the event.

It was not disappointing this time either and a spectacular display is put on just as we arrive by two cargo ships simultaneously faring through this fascinating piece of engineering genius. Apart from the monster building from where we huddled with hoards of other tourists to experience the rise and fall of boats and waters, it was much the same as an eight year old could recall. Probably, the most significant change since that time is the handing over of the canal and its locks by the US to the Panamanians on 31 December 1999. Currently, an expansion project is underway to build a bigger and more efficient lock system and is projected to be in operation by the middle of the next decade. It is certainly worth paying the extra fee to wander around the museum and see the explanatory film.

Fabian from SailingKoala had already been around to give us the spiel about his boat and all its finer points and we had accepted our spots for the ocean journey to Colombia. Several hours of procrastination over the pros and cons of either flying or sailing had lead to the decision to face the waves: mostly due to Aires website not accepting any of our credit cards (a common complaint from travellers) and the arduous task of getting ourselves, bikes, luggage and boxes to the airport by taxi. Furthermore, a couple of days on the apparently beautiful San Blas Islands were included in the US$375 per head fee. The downfall will be obvious if you have been following our trip at all as you'll be well aware that my legs are made for being firmly placed on mother earth's firm bits. Still, with much trepidation, I prepare myself for the journey by reading a surprisingly dedicated US Coast Guard's website concerned purely with the ins and outs of seasickness. Following his advice, I fill the toiletry bag full of Dramamine tablets.

Fabian's Isle
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a crazy trip,
that started out from Panama
aboard this a tiny ship.

The captain was a laugh-a-minute man
and his mate was to be allured
from six passengers that sailed that away
for the five day tour; the five day tour.

The weather didn't get too rough,
still the tiny ship was pitched
but nothing would stop the passengers
from their avo aperitif; their avo aperitif.

The ship set anchor on the shore of one
Kuna' tropic isle
with Fabian, Captain Morgan too,
the Cyclist and his Wife,
the Swedish Gal, Pépé and Mr Perfect: Stan
here on Fabian's Isle...

Sorry about that folks, but being a total Gilligan's Island fan, I couldn't resist the parallel. For those of you thinking I've gone completely mad: Gilligan's Island was a very silly, but addictively adorable American television series in the 70's. The theme song went something like the lyrics above. There's plenty of information on internet if you have some time to waste.

It actually went more like this:
The bike ride to the bus station was a cinch and took us less time than Morgan's taxi. Morgan was also staying at Zuly's Hostel in Panama City. The bus driver didn't bat an eyelid when we rocked up with fully loaded bikes. (Turkish bus attendants take note!). Up came the compartment doors and after a bit of pushing and shoving of other customers' luggage, our bikes are slid in with all the bags still attached at no extra charge ($US2.50 each for the bus trip). The change of buses to the local variety on the outskirts of Colón doesn't phase the transport workers either and with a quick hup, hup the bikes are pushed in the aisle via the back entrance. This time they cost the price of a passenger, but at $US1.00 each for the 30 odd kilometre journey, we can hardly complain.

Caribbean reggae is blaring from the speakers; hot pink feather boa's wound around the dashboard and front mirrors are blowing excitedly in the wind; all ages, shapes and sizes board the bus swinging their hips or tossing their deadlock hair. It's all very vibrant and happy. Fabian, also very vibrant and happy, is waiting for us at Portabelo. We make our way to the jetty and it is about here that any form of pleasure in the thought of what we are about to undertake ceases for me.

Don't rock the boat
Our 10 metre craft is rocking and swaying in the wind swept marina like a miniature rubber duck in a bathtub that a sumo wrestler has just stepped out of. I wait quite frantic on dry land before I, like the bikes and luggage, am shipped across by blow-up dingy. On board, I am shown our sardine can shaped bed and here I immediately lay down my belongings and unbalanced head, not before sucking the life out of a Dramamine pill. Yes, according to the wise words of the US Coast Guard, this is the way to achieve maximum and immediate effect. It tastes absolutely disgusting but he was right. Almost instantaneous effect, though sadly not enough stability returned to allow me to raise my head from its horizontal position. Even my overwhelming desire to film the movement moments for all those disbelieving souls is dampened when the boat decides to embark on its daily yoga routine. And left side down to the waters edge and up and right side down and stretch. Ali is on deck with a young guy, obviously from Holland by the guttural tones and they seem to be having a way better time than me.

Minutes later, though it could well be more as the Dramamine has made me quite drowsy, there are some urgent cries of Spanish from a neighbouring boat and a quick peek out the rear-vision sized window reveals a dangerously close vessel in front of us. I gather the Sailing Koala has been drifting, but I quite hopelessly resume my position and pray that the boys have everything under control. Next noise is that of the dingy motor and then Ali telling me that he's going into the town to buy water. He further adds that I should watch out that I don't crash into the boat behind me. Before I can heave myself out of bed, they are motoring towards the shore laughing and waving at me. Well the guys are at least. Linn, on the other hand has a look of panic on her face. I turn around to see what has caused her facial contortions and freeze with fright to see I am only a few metres away from violently smashing into a rather large fishing boat."What the f#*k am I supposed to do?", I scream back as I white knuckle anything in sight to keep myself from being catapulted out across the deck and into the water.

My first thought is: "How could Ali leave me here like this?" He knows full well my fear of any seafaring vessel and that my knowledge of them is about as vast as my love for them. Seeing as I can barely keep myself vertical, I take to lying back down, closing my eyes and praying quite seriously this time. Luckily, the boys got a hold of their senses and came back almost immediately to remedy the situation. Up comes the anchor and we drift away from danger. And while I can't say the ocean came to rest, I at least rested with the peace of mind that I wasn't going to make tomorrow's horror headlines.

San Blas Paradise
Topped up with Dramamine, the evenings sail isn't so bad. In fact I actually manage to sit upright on deck for most of the night, which results in me praising, on more than one occasion, the wondrous little pill I am dissolving in my mouth every 4 hours or so. Sitting upright, I do need to clarify is actually more out of necessity with seven of us aboard such a tiny boat. Over the next five days, we will all be experts in the phrase, "Excuse me, I'm sorry, but can I put my foot there?"

The next morning, we all awake to the distant vision of Chichimin Island in the San Blas Archipelago. It looks like pure paradise, with its white sands, palm trees and perfectly blue waters. The Kunas are the owners of this autonomous territory and they make a living out of selling coconuts foremost. Tourists like us however, also supplement their incomes when we pop into town. They'll be round to sell crayfish and fish, their beautifully handcrafted sewing or beadwork or just to collect the rubbish for a small fee or donation of a bag of rice. They are the most happy and relaxed indigenous people I have had the pleasure of seeing in their authentic environment and apart from thanking all the world's gods for collecting together a bunch of compatible travel partners in the boat, it was the highlight of the trip for me.

For a couple of days we laze around swimming, eating, sleeping and of course readying ourselves for the afternoon's aperitif. And there Ali and I sit sipping on our warm gin and squirt with Florence (Pépé le Pou) from France, Linn from Sweden, Morgan (Captain Morgan) from Belgium, Stan (Mr Perfect) from Holland and of course the real skipper of the boat, Fabian from Colombia. As I mentioned before, it was a blessing that we all got on so well, because for five days and six nights, we are in one and others' faces literally!

So close and yet so far
The last 43 hours of constant sailing is a dismal experience. There is a period during these two days when everyone, except Captain Morgan, who has found his true calling in life, has a moment of weakness. I feel pretty well shaken up for most of it, but much of that comes from untimely monthly cramps. There isn't a shower on board, it is stinking hot on the open sea and very little or no cover from the suns rays on deck during daylight hours. Inside is like an oven, unless you lie perfectly still with a little battery-run fan angled directly on your face.

As we near the habour of Cartagena, Florence is threatening to swim to shore and the rest of us including the skipper are all itching to get to land. The promise of a private room with attached bathroom is the most divine thought possible, but our dreams are dashed when a storm moves in as we are anchoring in the marina. We can see land but I have to wait an hour before I have my lips firmly pressed against the jetty floor giving thanks for the earth beneath my feet.

Welcome to Cartagena
There is a multitude of accommodation to choose from on Calle de la Media Luna, depending on your budget and taste. Ali and I along with Stan end up at the more budget but very friendly run Hotel Holiday. Our double room with bathroom costs us 15,000 pesos each (approx US$7.50). Unfortunately, it is Sunday and everything is shut as it is the next day too due to a public holiday, but when the city does wake up on Tuesday morning, things are immediately alive and kicking.

The promise of great bike shops is a little overrated, though after a nearly 10 kilometre pedal through kamikaze traffic, we find somewhere to replace my dubiously creaking headset and almost rusted in position front derailleur. Parts are dirt cheap and while I'm happy enough with the Trans-X headset, the derailleur is a bit cheap and nasty looking, so we'll see just how long a US$5 part will last me. It is, in any case, working much better than the previous one was. By the way, the hour and a half labour on my bike cost just 8,000 Colombian pesos (US$4).

We find some really good road maps, which keeps Ali happily entertained as I write this update and we spend a good part of our free time sitting in one of the plazas watching locals while away the evening hours. It is great to see all ages out and about together in the evening, whether it be playing communal games, dancing or just contemplating the day. There is a comfortable feel about Cartagena, but after a seven day rest it is time to get a feel for the rest of Colombia.

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