Being on the Caribbean coast meant we crossed into Panama through tiny little border crossing which is only open during the day. So small that on the Costa Rica side you have to head into the local shop to pay the small exit fee. Its then a short pedal over the bridge into Panama where we met the nicest border police ever. Maybe it’s because they don’t have many people to see every day or we were complete comedy but we had great fun with them, they laughed at our bicycles and let us hide in their air conditioned office to try and cool down.
Even leaving the border control we started to cycle in the wrong direction and within 15meters were pulled over by a local taxi who told us we were going the wrong way, as apparently the road we were heading towards has not finished being built. It was a great introduction to a country I hadn’t really thought of much apart from a ‘through’ country that happens to have a famous canal. Suddenly in my mind Panama was the friendliest place on earth.
Cycling on the less touristy side of Panama was wonderful, tourists only tend to head over to visit the Boccas Islands and apart from that it’s only locals. We were in proper rainforest country, it was mountainous, hot and humid. Cycling through local villages where houses are little more then wooden sheds and children are outside playing a form of rounders with a bat made out of a tree branch was a real treat. We were definitely off the beaten track. On our second day of lumpy rainforest we were tackling a particularly disgusting hill where suddenly there loomed an oasis in the form of a bus shelter, we pulled in for some shade and mangos. After a few minutes we were passed by a car who give up a beep, we returned with a half hearted wave. This may sound a little ungrateful but we get beeped at a lot and it was too hot to be excited. The car then turned round, parked up alongside us and out jumped an American guy. He started off being super friendly and asking the usual about our trip but before we knew it we were watching videos about Jesus on his iPad complete with portable surround sound. You have to give it to Jehovas Witnesses, they never miss an opportunity and halfway up a steep hill in intense heat it wasn’t like we had many places to hide. After a couple of Jesus videos and an offer of free cookies if we were to cycle back down the hill the JW’s retreated back into their air conditioned car and we added it to the list of bizarre places we have been accosted by religious folk. The other notable one being at the top of Mt Warning in Australia by Mormans. Maybe we look like we need saving?
On we cycled through ‘undulating’ terrain, heading for a warm showers host for the evening. We were quite excited as we heard Charlie had an organic farm and reviews from back in 2015 stated he was currently building a hostel. We naively thought that as two years had passed the hostel might be nearly finished, to cut a story short it wasn’t finished. we pitched our tents on the second floor and headed down to the river with our shampoo for a wash. Yes, after a long day of cycling and being in a fairly vile state of cleanliness we washed in a river, actually Herbie held my head and shampooed my hair ‘hairdresser style’ while I was trying my best not to float downstream or drown from the giggles. I’m still unsure weather this puts me into the category of ‘hardcore bike tourer’ or category ‘stig of the dump’?
We spent the next day hauling ourselves up and over 1700m of mountain and back down to sea level again. Relentlessly cycling uphill for three hours although a real pig does have it’s advantages 1. you are 100% allowed to eat whatever you like for the rest of the day. 2. it’s always beautiful. 2 and a half. there is usually a pretty awesome descent on the other side.
The best thing about crossing over to the Pacific side of Panama was that the main highway was closed for approximately 200km. Now being central america where the rules are a little different it’s totally legit for cyclists to ‘bend’ the rules and take the not yet opened but 99% finished brand spangley new closed section of tarmac, thus giving us access to a lot of free mangos and having a huge crash barrier between us and all the other traffic.
Next time a section of road is closed but theres nobody actually doing any work on it, please let cyclists play on the new bits first.
Hugs and kisses, Laura
It was also in Panama that we first experienced the beginning of rainy season. Now I have never quite appreciated a good downpour before but imagine being in an enormous power shower, on your bicycle, without the shampoo and crossing all fingers and toes that Ortleib managed to invent waterproof panniers. It’s good fun for about 10 minutes but the novelty wears off pretty quickly, it’s at this time that a McDonalds with the promise of a roof, free wifi and maybe some chips becomes a bit like a backwards oasis in the desert. After three days of afternoon monsoons the novelty has completely worn off and there isn’t always a McDonalds within which to take refuge, it’s on one of these occasions that we find ourselves taking refuge in a Christian campground.
It’s a campground which hosts evangelical retreats for up to 140 people at a time, but most importantly for us it was free camping* The campground hosts were wonderful and let us camp in a nice little sheltered spot next to mango trees which were bursting with ripe mangos, they offered us to use their laundry facilities, log onto their wifi and even thew us some left over food (not literally). All of this for only having to politely read a pamphlet on our savour Jesus Christ. We decided to take a rest day and enjoy sitting on our bottoms doing nothing apart from eating mangos. I must have been simultaneously committing some of the seven deadly sins (gluttony and sloth spring to mind) because much to the amusement of Herbie I managed to get myself ‘saved’ again. One of the enthusiastic evangelicals took it upon himself to er, show me the way? I’m not quite sure, but I did manage to sit through a good few hours of christian chat. It was talking to his daughter later on that really got me thinking though, she’s slightly younger than me, was home schooled as her parents were missionaries, went to a Christian college to study nursing and now works in a missionary run hospital. Although she is well travelled through both her and her parents work in missionaries I couldn’t help but feel immensely sorry for her in that she was leading such a sheltered life. The thought then struck me that she was probably thinking exactly the same about me. There I am thinking I need to grab her and show her the world as I know it, people of different faiths, science, the goodness in people no matter who or what they believe in. She is probably feeling sorry for me and thinking I need rescuing from a world of sin, evil and temptation. Which one of us is right?
Anyway, apart from the rain and washing in rivers who would have thought Panama wold have ended up being such a religious experience? Rolling into Panama city and across the Panama canal felt like a bit of a monumental achievement. I hadn’t really though about it too much before we arrived, but crossing the Panama canal, wow we’ve just cycled most of the way across a continent and 12,000km through eleven countries.
*We did leave a donation, because their generosity was incredible!