Mind the Gap

We left Panama House B&B with a small contingent of other Stahlratte-bound riders. Our ride to Carti, Panama was fairly uneventful, but was certainly highlighted by the incredible road from the highway to the coast through the San Blas Hills. We were treated to a well-paved road winding through the steep twisting hills, something we haven’t seen much of up until now on our journey; most of the mountainous roads have been washed out dirt and gravel roads. The slow hairpin turns led us to an alternating view of wide-open vistas of perfectly green wilderness, the occasional ranch or herd of livestock, and dense jungle bush that towered over the road.

We arrived to the port about twenty minutes late for the Captains 11:00 A.M. timing. This isn't the army though, right? What's the worse that could happen! We quickly unloaded all of our luggage off the bikes and watched as a few of the Kuna indigenous people hurried back and forth, carrying all of our possessions to the little putt-putts that would take us and our things to the Stahlratte, which was anchored a few hundred metres offshore.

The Stahlratte herself was soon alongside the concrete pier, and Captain Ludwig directed a fine crew from behind his winch that lifted the bikes one at a time on to the vessel. Built in Holland in 1903, the boat measures 126 feet in length and easily accepted its load of 14 motorcycles. Now, we could breathe. We made it.

After an evening spent swimming and relaxing on one of the nearby islands, we 'set sail' Friday morning with an additional few passengers on board - bikeless backpackers catching a lift to the southern continent. By lunch we were diving into the beer fridge, flipping off the gunwales, and rope swinging from the same winch that had lifted the bikes aboard. Playtime continued through Saturday; snorkeling through corals, free diving to the anchor, and swimming in the warm bioluminescent water once the sun had long since faded. Along with another guitarist, Dom and Tym took the opportunity to treat a crowd to some old favourites from the 90s and early 2000s.

The boat was often visited by local Kuna people in their hollowed out canoes and hand-carved paddles to deliver lobster, octopus, drinks and ice - obviously there is a good relationship between Captain Ludwig and the indigenous people, helped along with a few greenbacks... We thoroughly enjoyed our time off the pavement, and gained lots of valuable insight into the lives of the other riders on board. It became quite apparent that five months was fast for our trip, though all but one of the other riders were well seasoned with the time to permit their lengthy adventures and probably deeper pockets! We decided we liked our trip - we're young and impatient and the constant deadlines suit our thirst for adventure. Sure it would have been nice to spend more than a night in some of these areas, but for us that wasn't in the books. Anyway, it's the adventure in your days, and not the days in your adventure that count! That's what we tell ourselves anyway...

Sunday morning we were rudely awoken at the break of dawn by the big, old, inefficient and incessant diesel engine. Bakataka-bakataka-bakataka-bakataka... the four stroke, four cylinder 88 litre engine shook us to the bone from our cabin adjacent to the hot engine room. Far from seasoned sailors, we (mostly Ben and Dom) felt the ups and downs of the swollen seas deep in our bellies and the day was mostly spent trying to keep the First Mate's rum cocktail from the previous night below deck. 

While we suffered on board, back on land the dubious Daríen Gap was sitting in its mysterious, dangerous, and impassable glory. The stretch of land was settled at various times with disastrous results, and is now only inhabited by the Kuna people. It serves not only as a barrier for transportation, but also for diseases such as foot and mouth, which have not been able to cross this border. The gap is also a valuable environmental sanctuary, which biologists long to preserve. Time will tell if the road will be completed, though it is certain it will bring much controversy as the completion of the Pan-American Highway would mean a choice for infrastructure and commerce over rainforest destruction and indigenous preservation. And then there's the drug smuggling. Needless to say, we were happy skirting the wild narrows of the Darien Gap aboard the trusted Stahlratte.

By late morning on Monday we were on our final approach into Cartagena where tall skyscrapers sparkled in the bright sun, towering above the old stone-walled city founded in 1533. Our arrival coincided with the signing of a historic peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, ending a 52-year conflict. Roads were closed down, police lined the streets, and alcohol was banned from the old city centre during the ceremony which saw the government welcome the FARCs to democracy as a political party in return for a promise that the rebel group would turn in their weapons and move their fight to Congress. What amazing luck to be in Colombia, not to mention Cartagena, for such a momentous occasion. Several heads of state from surrounding countries and members of the UN were in attendance for the signing, and we even caught a glimpse of John Kerry strolling through a park, surrounded by sunglasses and earpieces, on his way to the big event.

The following day we made our way back to the Stahlratte where the immigration process was completed before bakataka'ing for half an hour to where we would unload. In the hot sun we winched the bikes off the deck, and manhandled the luggage on to the dock. Back and forth we went between the shipyard and the dock, all the bikers bustling past each other with loads of gear, like ants carrying scraps of leaves and grass back to the colony. It was hot work and we were once again ready to get back on the bikes and put in some miles. In true Alaskentina fashion we were feeling right for time, with only 18 days to make it almost 5000km to Cusco, Peru. And then we received the wonderful news that we could visit our Free The Children programs in Ecuador, and meet the kids that you, our readers, have been so helpful in raising money for. The date was set for October 5th, and the city was Riobamba, about mid-way down Ecuador. We had work to do!

Our first day in Colombia was a pleasure. The roads treated us well and we made good time. Colombia picked up where Central America had left off, with infinite agricultural potential and a lot of hard workers that live off the land. The living is tough, and the many faces we saw, though concealing their age could do little to obscure the hardships they had endured. Their houses of mud seemed to struggle at times to stay standing, however their doorless frames, like their hearts, remained open for all to see.

By early evening we were just leaving the small town of El Viajano when we spotted a small hotel that seemed open for business. The building stuck out from the rest of the village, shiny and new, and the man in charge was proud to show us around. A slight oddity presented itself rather quickly when we noticed that the hotel was still under construction! Some rooms didn't have beds yet, ours were still unfinished: the windows and doors lacked frames and the mattresses were still wrapped in plastic. We were each treated to our own room, fully equipped with AC and a bathroom for less than a tent fee in North America. Perfect! As we went to bed a lighting storm brewed off in the distance, low in the sky, as stars flickered above the dark clouds that lit up often with sharp flashes of searing light.

Leaving the hotel in the morning we quickly began our ascent into the prominent Colombian high country after passing a motorcycle vendor ladling milk out of his large aluminum containers, a cart of pigs towed behind a wobbly motorcycle, and a man on the roadside holding up a hand-sized puppy for sale. Once on the steep roads, we followed their tight path, made more treacherous by the continuous convoy of semi-trucks and loads of motorcycles weaving in and out of place along the one-lane highway. Blind corners were a common adversary in the battle to pass the long 18-wheeled vehicles that occupied both lanes around the curves. We fought our way up into the fog, and as the temperature dropped so too did our average speed, giving us some brief opportunities to peer out over the endless green landscape and many inaccessible ranches that were sprayed across the valleys and slopes. Our travels took us down again along the muddy waters of Rio Cauca, next to which the untameable springs poured out of hoses plugged strategically into the rock. These hoses sprayed water in all directions, and most of them were unmanned but before long the secret was unveiled as motorcycles and semi-trailers were pulled over into makeshift lanes where the hoses were put to use cleaning those vehicles that opted for a wash. It was quite inspiring to witness the resourcefulness of these people who use whatever offerings the land gives them towards making a living.

We climbed for a while again and then equally steep hills and tight turns carried us back down again, into the once infamous city of Medellin. At one point in the 1980's the city was considered by some to be the most dangerous city in the world, however through consistent efforts to improve the safety and prosperity of the people, it was recently recognized as one of the most innovative cities in the world and has seen a dramatic decrease in homicides and poverty. What we noticed was a lively valley draped in thousands of red brick buildings, homes and shops for the 3.7 million inhabitants of the old city, and utter chaos on the streets as swarms of motorcycles split lanes, rode the shoulders and darted through the heavy traffic. We did our best to fit in with the small 250s buzzing along through their daily commutes though our big bikes and wide loads made the experience all the more interesting!

We made it out of the Medellin area unscathed despite a couple of Howie scares: A loose rear rotor bolt locked up the KLR's rear wheel in the heart of the busy city, and a pressurized gas tank blew a stream of fuel two feet in the air at one of our fill ups. Other than those oddities, the bikes handled the day’s roads beautifully and sometime around 5 we stopped for the night at a lonely Hotel & Restaurant perched on the steep hills of the Colombian countryside. Watching our delicious meals cook over a long open fire trench was a treat, and we slept soundly in the mountain air, no fans or air conditioning required at these temperate elevations. 

Feeling confident in our progress since the Stahlratte, we planned a short day today to the mountain town of Salento. Despite accidentally splitting up in Pereira, the one-way capital of Colombia, we regrouped and made it to our hilltop hostel by lunchtime. Dom and Tym braved the elements for a three-hour horseback tour of the local waterfall and the boys' belongings are now safely tucked away in one of the many tents that overlook the coffee rich slopes below, currently being treated to a healthy watering after a lengthy dry spell.

With Riobamba and Cusco calling our names we have our work cut out for us over the next two weeks. As always, we are enjoying the ride, the surprises, and the people who continue to welcome us with eyes that smile and ears that forgive our lacking Spanish vocabularies. Next week: stories from the children, and our efforts to make it there in time!

The San Blas Islands from above. We played and swam in these waters for a couple of days before sailing to South America.

The San Blas Islands from above. We played and swam in these waters for a couple of days before sailing to South America.

The Stahlratte in its natural habitat.

The Stahlratte in its natural habitat.

Unloading Babar on to South American soil!

Unloading Babar on to South American soil!

Team Alaskentina with Team Stahlratte before parting ways in Cartagena. 

Team Alaskentina with Team Stahlratte before parting ways in Cartagena. 

Rio Cauca and the bridge that took us across its muddy waters. 

Rio Cauca and the bridge that took us across its muddy waters. 

Officer Luis Miguel helped diagnose the loose rotor bolt - all in a day's work for Medellin's finest.

Officer Luis Miguel helped diagnose the loose rotor bolt - all in a day's work for Medellin's finest.

The view from the Popa Nova Hotel in Santa Barbara, Colombia.

The view from the Popa Nova Hotel in Santa Barbara, Colombia.

Our bikes enjoying the sunset in Santa Barbara, Colombia.

Our bikes enjoying the sunset in Santa Barbara, Colombia.

This long open ended woodstove heated about a dozen pots and pans, and kept us warm in the cool air of the Colombian mountains.

This long open ended woodstove heated about a dozen pots and pans, and kept us warm in the cool air of the Colombian mountains.