The Darien Gap sits between Panama and Columbia. And it means the end of the road, not just for me, but for EVERYONE who rides either north from South America or south from North America. There have been a handful of people cross it, don’t get me wrong. But they do so at their own risk, and without the aid of any roads or services in some pretty harsh conditions. Picture loading your bike into a dingy and rowing it through swamps, riding where you can and then disassembling you bike to carry it in stages around obstacles for miles and miles before putting it back together or using your bike to power a boat (remove the chain and replace it with a paddle wheel mechanism…) around the gap, etc.
Repeat – there are no roads across the Darien Gap. One of the first questions I am asked as a rider traveling toward South America is “How are you crossing the Darien?” because that’s just a given. You have to have a plan, or make one, because the road will end and you have to find your way around it.
For some time we debated about flying the bikes from Panama to Colombia. That’s what Brian did when he rode from Ushuaia to Alaska a few years ago. But you can also choose to ship the bike in a container or… One of the choices out there is to sail on the Stahlratte, a 120-foot schooner from Germany, with your bike lashed to the deck and you bunking below deck, and make the crossing together. It’s a slower-paced trip and gives you the chance to stop for a day or two in the San Blas Islands and swim in turquoise waters off these deserted islands.
You had me at turquoise.
We booked our places on the boat in May from Guatemala which gave us a deadline for traveling through Central America, something I hadn’t had to work with for a while. It wasn’t a problem really, but it meant less flexibility and having to budget time between the several countries so I could hit all the highlights I wanted to. I would have liked a little more time in C.A., maybe just a few weeks…but isn’t that always the case.
We arrived in Panama about a week before the boat was to sail in mid-June. And after a few days of getting supplied, seeing friends (old and new) and seeing the sites, off we went on a Monday morning bound for the pier in Carti. We were advised to get out of the city early in order to meet the boat at 11:00 am. Even though we had less than 80 miles to ride, it was a slow ride, especially the last 30 miles or so. We got going before 7:30 and headed east and toward the city of Chepo. Just before we got there the traffic ground to a complete stop. I was afraid there was an accident ahead, but as we filtered to the front we saw it was a protest. And just like everyone else on the 4 lane highway, we were told we couldn’t pass.
Another rider started chatting with the crowd and we introduced ourselves. He is Ryan from the states, riding a Triumph (so right away I knew he was a cool guy), and he is bound for the Stahlratte too. He chats with the locals and finds out its got something to do with these people being forced from their homes and land because of development of some kind. So in a way I’m ok with the delay. I’m American, through and through, and I believe in freedom of speech. More power to them, just please do it calmly.
Matt and Pamela ride up on his BMW also bound for the boat, and then I really relaxed. Knowing there were at least 4 bikes and 5 passengers missing from the boat meant it wouldn’t leave without us even if we were late.
Lots of buses come from Panama City to meet other buses stuck on the other side of the blockade. People get off the bus on one side of the blockade and walk through it to the bus waiting on the other side, and life goes on. I get to check out the colorful buses while we kill some time. Panama, like almost all C.A. countries knows how to pimp out a bus.
Finally, after almost two hours of waiting, the police are able to talk the protesters into opening the road up again and since we have filtered to the front of the line, we are some of the first to get going. It starts to rain. We have more than an hour of riding left to go to get to the boat, and we make it just after noon and ride right up on the concrete pier. I get my first look at our temporary home/ride, the Stahlratte…and she’s lovely.
Just a few minutes later the others arrive, 7 more bikes. Three of them are riders we already know. They were all stuck further back in the traffic jam.
Captain Ludwig and crew are here to greet us and give us instructions. All gear and boxes come off the bikes while Captain Ludwig ties ropes to each bike himself before returning to the ship. He runs the winch he uses to lift them using a boom mounted to the foremast, and into the boat.
We each wait our turn.
And when it’s your turn you have to help two local men hang on to our bikes so it doesn’t swing too far from the pier and ram into the ship after it lifts off the dock. Thankfully, Brian takes care of mine for me.
And when my girl is on board, she gets moved to a place on the right side (I think that’s starboard?) of the deck and gets tied into place and covered with plastic to protect her from salt water. She’s tucked in for the next few days.
We all settle into our bunks/berths before going on the top deck for an incredible lunch. Stahlratte and her crew definitely know how to eat well, and it makes the trip even better than it was already going to be. We motor over to one of the Carti Islands to anchor for the night and all the passengers are taken by water taxi to one of the small islands to stay for the night. The locals live in palm/reed huts with thatched roofs and we are all put up in private homes for the night. It’s primitive living for sure, but I really appreciate being welcomed into someones home.
We are treated to local dancing and food.
These are Kuna people and I feel privileged to get to experience a day in their life.
The next morning we motor out to the San Blas islands for an evening in the water, and stay over all the next day and night. It’s heaven. The crew grills fresh food on a fire on the beach for us and we linger into the night. I stargaze and watch jelly fish glowing a soft neon blue as they pulsate through the water. Only later do I remember that I have to swim in these waters tomorrow and sure enough the next day I get a sting on my leg. Brian is a believer in WD-40 the same way that the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (a movie) believes in Windex. And he gets it out to spray on my sting and after a while it feels better.
After 36 hours of anchorage here we start to sail out beyond the reef on the morning of the 3rd day after leaving land. I watch two dolphins play in the wake of the boat for a minute before they disappear. The captain puts up all the sails and off we go, for the short, but oh so long, run to Cartagena.
And after 30 hours of sailing we arrive on Friday just after lunchtime, in the bay outside Cartagena.
Then to offload…use the boom again to lift the bikes and set them down onto a raft of sorts and float them to a ramp and unload them to ride to customs for in-processing. It doesn’t look as scary as it felt. Riding over the wakes of small boats and feeling even a little rock made me nervous. A new city, a new country and a new continent. An incredible journey with incredible people.