December 2017 (NA)

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95539.5 Post #15

The Darian Gap is a 110 km long break in the Pan-American Highway between Panama from Colombia. The region is covered with thick, undisturbed rainforest and much of it is swamp; no roads pass through it.  To cross the Darian Gap, we booked passage aboard the Stahlratte, a power sailing ship to take us to from Carti, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. The Stahlratte is a 38 m (125 ft) long, steel-hulled, powered sailing schooner built in 1903. It was constructed in Holland, and served as a fishing vessel for most of the last century.  Over the last 15 years, it has been hauling backpackers, bikers and travellers between Colombia, Panama, Cuba and Jamaica. It is owned by a non-profit German Foundation and is captained by Kapitaen Ludwig Hoffmann, who is assisted by a volunteer staff of three. 

An indigenous tribe of people, the Guna Yala, have claimed autonomy over the lands in the Darian Gap region, including the beautiful San Blas Islands.  We were required to show our passports and pay a fee to the Guna Yala to use the Carti road to the loading docks and for passage through the San Blas area. The track wound up and down through the dense, natural rainforest, and was narrow, steep and full of potholes and washouts; several bikers went down on these treacherous roads but fortunately no injuries were sustained. 

Upon arriving at the docks, the bikes were stripped of all luggage and accessories before being loaded onto the Stahlratte.  We then took a tour of the boat (it looked bigger on the website), found our bunks and were assigned our crew duties for the sailing. Our bunks were located at the very back (stern) part of the boat, next to the engine, reached by climbing down a vertical ladder in the Kapitaen’s cabin, into the lower hold, or the “hole” as our fellow passengers joked (eg: “Enough rum for you Tom and Marty – go back to your hole!).  We were to find out later the humidity and heat in the hole was stifling; the upside was the aft of the boat does not experience as much pitching and rolling in the open seas as the bow (front), thereby minimizing sea sickness, or so we were told.

While the bikes and gear were being loaded aboard the Stahlratte, we travelled to one of the San Blas islands via a small Panga boat and spent the night in a monsoon storm at the rustic El Porvenir Hostel, swapping stories with the other 23 passengers and contemplating how we all were going to share the one bathroom on the Stahlratte. The next morning, the Stahlratte picked us up from El Porvenir and we set sail for a tour of several more of the San Blas islands, where we moored for the afternoon and spent the day snorkling, swimming and exploring. 

Members of the Guna Yala tribe made several trips out to the boat in dugout canoes and panga boats to drop off ice, fresh lobster and other provisions for the trip.  After a lobster feast, we set sail at night for the trip to Columbia.

The seas were relatively calm, with swells of about 4-5 feet high; even so, the boat pitched and rolled in the waves and several passengers suffered acute sea sickness – as expected, bathroom time was at a premium. Dolphins swam in front of and alongside the ship and put on an entertaining show by leaping out of the water at regular intervals.   

Arriving in Cartagena the next night, we moored in the same harbour that has seen many pirate battles over the centuries and, under the twinkling lights of modern office towers, we watched large cargo ships being loaded beside us. After one more night in the hole, the Stahlratte docked and luggage and gear were pitched on the pier in a big pile. The gear was sorted, the bikes were loaded, and we all made our way to Cartagena city center to go through the export/import process for ourselves and our bikes, which required spending the better part of the day waiting for government officials to inspect and issue the necessary paperwork.

Finally, we are in South America, and looking forward to spending a few days in the historic city of Cartagena, and other parts of Columbia as we work our way south.

Our first view of the Stahlratte, a 1903 powered sailing vessel that provide passage from Panama to Colombia


Stripping the bikes of gear in preparation for loading at the Carti docks


The entrance “hole” to our bunks in the ship’s stern


Rustic El Provenir Hostel in the San Blas Islands


Wonderful tapestries of the Guna Yala tribe


Coconut trees at El Porvenir; the trees are not native, the Guna Yala planted them to harvest and export coconuts to Columbia


Interesting stool made of coral


Monsoon downpour at El Porvenir


Beautiful San Blas Islands


Guna Yala tribe provisioning the Stahlratte for sailing to Columbia


Setting sail for Colombia


Enroute to Cartagena


Kapitaen Ludwig Hoffmann at the helm


Preparing for docking in Colombia


Offloading the bikes and gear


Kapitaen Hoffmann and crew


Last glimpse of the Stahlratte

95525.52 Post #14

After leaving San Jose for Manuel Antonio late in the day, and promptly getting lost on backroads in a torrential downpour when night fell (incidentally the first rain in 5 weeks of travel) we were blessed to find lodging in the only hotel within miles, the Amatierra Retreat and Wellness centre near San Pablo.

We arrived an hour past sunset in a rather noisy fashion on the bikes, dirty and soaking wet to the core, quite a departure from the other guests, who were there for yoga and solitude of the rainforest, freshly bathed, massaged and sipping on organic Chilean Malbec. We declined the morning yoga sessions, included in the price of the room, and headed out early the next morning, in still-wet gear, for Manuel Antonio.

Along the way, we stopped at a mechanic’s shop in Orotina to change the oil in the V-Strom and reshape the panniers on the Africa Twin.  We intended to do the work ourselves, but Christian, the owner, and his crew jumped right in and helped us out with every step.  

Arriving in Manuel Antonio, we checked into the lovely Paradise Inn Hostel, owned by Dave, a Canadian work colleague and friend. Unfortunately, he was back in Canada and not able to show us around, but we explored the area on foot, enjoying the beauty of this little National Park. From the surrounding hills, the lush rainforest extended right to the Pacific Ocean. Small islands, just offshore, dotted the coastline. Monkeys were all around us, in the trees, on top buildings, and along the fences and power lines. They put on an amusing show, leaping acrobatically, high overhead, from one grove of trees to the next.

The next day it was off to Panama, and our last Central America border crossing. We were sad to be leaving Costa Rica; it is an incredibly beautiful country with stunning scenery, good food and friendly people. The border crossing was busy, but well organized, and we quickly exited Costa Rica and entered Panama.

The Panamanian highways are superb and well-engineered, the best we encountered to date in all of Central America. For the first time in weeks, we used the motorbike’s top gears, at least until a Panamanian policeman pulled us over and requested we slow down; happy to be given just a warning, we complied.

We took lodging in a small guesthouse on the outskirts of Panama City. It was managed by a man named Gilbert, who was from the Bocas region on the north Caribbean coast of Panama, but had lived in New York for many years. Gilbert was a great host, very well-read, and we enjoyed several evenings of stimulating conversation with him about Panamanian history, world affairs, religion and politics. Each evening ended with Gilbert having a hearty laugh about American politics, and how happy he was now that he was no longer living in the USA. Gilbert arranged for his friend, Rueben, to give us a tour of Panama City sights and we visited the Panama canal, historic town, and several of the beaches, which offered great views of the modern Panama City skyline. Gilbert also arranged for our bikes to be repaired, yet again, at his friend’s motorcycle shop just down the street.

Since being fumigated in Nicaragua, the V-Strom had developed leaking fork seals that were getting progressively worse, while the Africa Twin needed more permanent repairs to the panniers.   Manalo and his crew did a great job on the bikes, cleaning every last inch of the V-Strom so it looked like it just rolled off the show room floor. 

After several days in Panama City, we headed for Carti, on the Caribbean coast, where we had booked passage for the bikes, and ourselves, aboard the Stahlratte, a 1903 schooner sailing ship to take us to Cartegena, Columbia, and the start of the South American leg of the journey.  

Tranquil morning at the Amatierra Retreat tucked deep in the Costa Rican rainforest


Thick rainforest surrounding Amatierra


Christian, and his staff, working on the bikes


Paradise Inn Hostel in Manuel Antonio National Park


Islands offshore in MA, reminiscent of the Oregon Coast


Sunset in MA


Monkeys are everywhere, and put on an entertaining a real show



Last Central American border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama



Roadside waterfalls in Panama


Panama farmer taking bananas and plantains to market


Highway construction zones, Panama


Bridge of the Americas, built in 1962, which spans the Pacific entry of the Panama Canal


Panama City center skyline


Interesting office building architecture


Historic buildings in Old Panama City date back to the 1600’s


Rueben, our Panama City tour guide


Atlantic bound ship passing through the Miraflores locks


Manalo and his team working on the bikes


Headed for Carti after saying goodbye to Gilbert and Rueben