Panama

Summary: I spent barely a week in Panama, with one day running up and down its highest mountain, Volcan Baru, after a hectic bus detour from the main highway. I didn’t get to see much of Panama, other than 5-6 hrs of daily cycling along the many hills of the Carreterra Panamericana, interrupted by numerous stops to quench my unbelievable thirst due to riding in the tropical heat. The Puente de las Americas over the Panama Canal provided a fitting landmark to end the first half of my adventure – I had crossed all of North and Central America before I hastily packed my bike into a box to catch a plane on Christmas Eve for a 2 week break at home in Florida.

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Friday, December 18

Neily to David (Panama)

75km / 13275km; 3.75h / 719h; 550m

I take it easy in the morning and sleep until almost 7am, then have coffee and cereal in the room while checking email and Skype with Jill. I also feel quite tired – like I would like to take a rest day (but don’t have the time for it).
I leave at 9:20am. The first leg is about 20km to the border at Paso Canoas. The road slopes slightly uphill, so I make slower progress than planned. It’s more than 100m vertical up to the border. There the by now familiar truck backup and lots of people everywhere. Leaving Costa Rica is easy, but entering Panama today takes a long time. I have to wait 1.5h in a line (only use the time to write daily notes and get some US$ from a nearby ATM) until I get to the counter; then it takes less than 30sec and I have the stamp in the passport and can finally keep going.
After the border the Carreterra Panamericana is a 4-lane divided highway. From a little hilltop I can see rain at the bottom of the hill. So I stop and wait out the shower under the roof of a weigh station. Eventually I continue with the backpack in the drybag. It’s slow going as it slopes uphill; the road climbs 200m before it levels off. I stop for some coke and food at a super-market. Just as I get ready to leave it starts raining. This time I take the chance and start riding, trying to escape the rain cloud due to tailwind and some downhill. I succeed and stay ahead of the rain, mostly dry. Eventually I get to David / El Varital at about 70km. I find the bus terminal and a hotel where I can leave my bike. I change at a public restroom and arrange for bike storage overnight. Then I head to Boquete by bus, in preparation for tomorrow’s hike of volcan Baru.
Boquete is a lovely little town at the foot of the mountains, with little rivers of clear mountain water running right through the middle of town. The whole setup reminds me a lot of some little mountain towns in Bavaria or Austria. Checking in at Hospedaje Boquete, eating dinner and doing some email & Skype. To bed in a small dorm room at 11pm.

Saturday, December 19

Climb of Volcán Barú

Return from Boquete by bus to David

Sunday, December 20

David to Los Ruices

131km / 13407km; 7.5h / 727h; 1600m

Lots of hills today. Very hot riding, with temperatures up to 36C, which make the hills extremely difficult. I realize that there are about 420km remaining to Panama City, so with a few long days I figure I can make it there in 4 days without taking a bus. It’s harder than I thought to ride here, especially with two big hills at the end of the day where I almost run out of daylight. Once at the top of the second hill I reach a small settlement and look for a place to spend the night. I buy some coke to quench my insatiable thirst and inquire at the shop about places to stay. As it turns out, they recommend I ask at the police station next door. And luckily they take me in and allow me to pitch my tent on their grounds. Yet another night at a police or fire fighter station…

Monday, December 21

Los Ruices to Natá

135km / 13543km; 6.6h / 733h; 650m

First km is hard, as it’s uphill and muscles are cold. The next 10km, however, are almost all downhill for 300m drop from Los Ruices – the fruit of yesterday’s hard labor.
Midway down the road turns into poor quality cement with lots of cracks, which stays that way all day :-( Also, the next 25km or so it’s still very hilly and already quite hot. I thought it was going to be flat… I want to reach Santiago as I’m sure to get Internet access there; but I run critically low on fluids (should have bought more water in the morning). The last 10km I’m very dry and my thoughts focus on water only. At 10:15am I pass a nice looking hotel “Hacienda” in order to get to a mini-mart a few hundred m down the road. There I buy a 2l bottle of orange juice. With that I come back to the hotel for brunch. Over coffee, pancakes (small) and spaghetti bolognese (big) I check email and do some Christmas shopping. It’s almost 1:30pm by the time I hit the road again.
The second half of today is a lot easier as it’s very flat and I seem to have a slight tailwind. I stop at 70km, 88km and 118km (Aguadulce) for refreshments. There are more little villages here along the Carreterra Panamericana in the flat terrain, so I’m never too far from a cold coke or water. I continue to the town of Natá for a daily distance of about 130km. There is only 1 hotel in town, and I don’t see anyone there? I have some coke and pastries at a Panaderia, then ask for Internet and it takes me a while to find the one (of the two in town) which is open. Email and Skype with Jill. Then to the restaurant near the hotel for dinner – they are run by the same family. Nice dinner conversation with the owner and then for a shower in the room! (Needed this one badly after two days of sweating like crazy!) to bed by 9:30pm after typing these notes.

Tuesday, December 22

Natá to Capira

135km / 13678km; 7h / 740h; 700m

The first leg of the day is a swift 35km to Penonomé. There I find a restaurant with WiFi at the second attempt and check email and Skype over breakfast (twice pancakes and once ham omelette). Then I write a post about Costa Rica on my Blog so I’m not falling too far behind.
At 11:30am I’m back on the road again. Thankfully it’s mostly flat and I have a bit of a tailwind at times, so riding isn’t too hard today. I hardly stop for the next couple of hours, just to buy some orange soda or coke. Once a grumpy old lady at the store looks dismissively at my bike; when she asks where I’m going and I tell her, she tries to convince me that it’s impossible to get to Panama City the next day on this type of bike; I ask rhetorically “Why” and let her believe that she knows better…
At 100km I reach Coronado. I was hoping to get access to the nearby beach, but it’s all private, gated communities and the public malls and restaurants are all a few km inland along the highway; so no beach for me in Panama :-( I buy some drinkable yoghurt which tastes unbelievably delicious! You need to be that thirsty and craving milk products to experience how good this drink tastes.
I skype again and soon head out for the last leg, some 30km to Capira. Thankfully the sky has cleared and no rain showers today. There is a nice 200m hill in store at the end of the day. Given that I still have enough daylight and leg energy I actually enjoy this one; it reminds me of the Pass Thurn near Mittersill in Austria. And once near the pass I get a nice view of the surrounding mountains and the bay and Ocean. The sun is setting as I crest the pass and I roll down the other side to Capira.
There is only one hotel on the main road in this little town, and it is in decrepit shape, obviously abandoned and closed. I ask but already know: There is no other hotel in town. The next town is 21 km away, which I can’t ride as it is getting dark now. So what to do?
Well, I pull the firefighter card again: coming into town I noticed a fire-station; I ride back there and ask them for hotels or campgrounds. They promptly offer me to pitch my tent on their grounds. And they have a nice, level and grassy area behind their building, away and invisible from the highway – perfectly safe and comfortable :-)
I walk to a nearby Chinese restaurant for some Wantan soup and Chow Mein noodles and beef, all very tasty and nutritious.

Wednesday, December 23

Capira to Panama City / Tocumen airport

87km / 13766km; 4.75h / 745h; 500m

Ride along poor quality cement road with bad shoulder. Last stretch to Puente de las Americas is really bad, narrow and nonstop traffic.
Very scenic crossing of Panama Canal over tall bridge. When rolling over the crest of the bridge and down the other side emotions are welling up and I cry a few tears of joy. After some 13,750km I had done it: Cycled all the way from the Arctic Ocean down to the Panama Canal, what can be seen as the end of North and Central America.
I reach Panama City at 55 km, rolling along Avenida Balboa along bike path. Very similar to Miami. Breakfast, but no time to relax; then on cuota to Tocumen (another 18km). There hotel, shower, bike shop for bike box, laundry, bought tape, cleaned and disassembled bike into the box, Blog, Skype, email, photo upload, dinner, packing bags…

Thursday, December 24

Flight home from Panama City to Miami for 2 week vacation over Christmas and New Year at home with family.

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