Monday, April 29, 2013

Episode 15: Sailing around the Darien Gap

Hola amigos! We’ve finally made it to South America! We’re here relaxing in the beautiful city of Medellin, in Colombia, lounging by the pool and wondering whether we’ll have another empanada, some tasty local rum, a nap in a hammock or all three. We’ve been in Colombia for 3 weeks now, and it’s just been getting better and better - from the friendly, attractive people, to the amazing motorbiking, and the huge step up in food quality from Central America. The only complaint to be had is that time is running out for Atley, Wendy and Ferg, but there hasn’t been much time to dwell on that, as Colombia has been radical on a daily basis.
The Stahlratte sailing ship that took us from Panama to Colombia
Dukin' it out in Medellin
Beautiful view from San Blas Islands.
Our last update left the motorbike story at Panama City. I’d just flown in from an awesome, yet increasingly confusing 2 weeks in Melbourne. After so many months on the road, living so simply in Latin America, Australia, my home land, actually felt foreign. Here in Latin America we’re constantly given attention and assistance, and I had grown accustomed to that. On the train in Melbourne, I tried to make conversation with the person beside me on two occasions, and they acted as though I was crazy for saying hello. Maybe it was my haircut? I bought glasses of beer in Melbourne that could feed, house and allow me to travel for a day in Latin America. I found the colour-coded parking lots, the electronic highway toll tags and the ridiculous cost of living total overload. I missed fresh juice made on the spot by some kid, gazing at epic landscapes all to ourselves and just the simplicity of life on the road. Regular World has obligation, responsibility and generates the fear that you NEED to participate, to stay abreast of the progress, and to have, see or do that new thing. In Australia I saw kids demanding to play with $1000 smart phones. In Nicaragua I watched children make an old tire roll down the road by hitting it and running alongside it, screaming with laughter. Clearly Australians have significant advantage to those who live in Latin America, our amazing trip is the perfect example, but I saw more smiling faces walking down the street here this morning, than I did in my 2 weeks back home. I guess it just shows that you don’t need development to be happy, it’s all relative.

They've got the sky here.
Man Enough?
Danny's loaner bikes that we did a day trip on from Medellin
So yeah, I’d just flown in from Aus, and Wendy had just flown in from Bolivia where she’d spent the last 3 months volunteering as an Occupational Therapist for kids with disabilites. She and Atley had a few days together in Panama City, then I rolled in, fresh as a daisy from 30 hours of international travel, by employing my well-practiced time-zone change method: valium and whiskey. And lucky I did so, because the next day we had 7 hours of motorbiking ahead of us, and no room for yawning dawdlers. My motorbike was exactly where I’d left it, chained to a scary window at Hostal Villa Vento Surf, and I was very pleased to be back with my baby, who’s taken me 29,000kms so far on this trip. We loaded up the next morning, and rather than a dry-duffel bag full of camping gear occupying the passenger seat of Atley’s bike, it was filled with a squirming and giggling Wendy. His newly reinforced tail box was put to good use, having her big backpack strapped down to it, where it shall reside for the next few thousands of kilometres of adventurision.

The Birdman of Cartagena.
The green surrounding in Columbian mountain ranges.
Ferg had finally escaped his voluntary surf detention in Costa Rica, and had ridden solo into Panama. Not wanting to miss out on the Panamanian waves, he headed off the beaten path, to the remote surf oasis of Santa Catalina. From there he issued a flock of messenger pigeons to the rest of us, carrying his positional co-ordinates. Richie, Durham, Atley, Wendy and I converged on his location over the next few days, and established temporary residence among the banana trees and hammocks. There we ate fresh, whole fish, surfed and swam in the various beaches nearby and relaxed in the simple life of the little beach town.
50km or so out into the Pacific Ocean from Santa Catalina is the amazing Coiba Island National Park. It is a collection of tropical islands, teeming all sorts of fish, sharks, crocodiles, rays and various other rare marine life, and is a well known scuba diving playground. There were only so many days that Atley and I could ignore this, and eventually caved in and went diving. It was way out of the budget, but sometimes you’ve just gotta grab the puppy and run. The boat ride out there was interesting, watching tiny islands appear out of nowhere, dolphins and other fish leap into the air, and having our crusty old dive instructor strut about a highly irresponsible speedo arrangement. It was our first time diving in a strong current. At one spot, in order to get down to the ocean floor, we had to drag ourselves down a barnacle-covered chain, in very poor visibility, with the ocean rushing forcefully over us. It was like being in a James Bond film, but with better moustaches. At the bottom we had to cling onto rocks while waiting for the all members of the group to descend. Once down there we were treated to millions of fish, darting around in big and small schools, of all sizes, colours and shapes, including a few small sharks and a lot of tiny, almost invisible, stinging jelly fish. Alas in the end, the poor visibility was a disappointment and we quietly let out dolphin calls to Coco and Isla Utila. We stopped on the beautiful, tropical jungle covered Coiba Island during our break between dives, and there we met, fed and teased Tito the crocodile with chunks of meat thrown by a Park Ranger wearing a Wu Tang Clan shirt!

The Panamanian launch pad for our bikes to the Stahlratte.
Gourmet lunch on the top deck of our ship. 
Our time in Panama was drawing to a close and our sailing date to Colombia was nearing. We saddled up after a few days in Santa Catalina, and rode back to the strange, somewhat soulless sky rise landscape of Panama City. By this stage Richie and Durham had both sold their KLRs, and with hung heads purchased non-motorbike luggage to travel home with. We had our last couple of nights together there in the city, celebrating the successful completion of Richie and Durham’s Excellent Adventure, riding their motorbikes from San Francisco to Panama in 5 months. It was sad to say goodbye to our great friends who we met at a gas station in Nicaragua, and watch them wander off into the sunset for new adventures.

The women loading the bikes onto the boat.
Motorbikes port side.
The sailing begins.
Couldn’t stay sad for long however (sorry fellas!) as after saying goodbye, we packed up and rode north east, through the hilly, jungle awesomeness, to the Caribbean coast, where a 140 foot German-owned yacht was waiting for us! The Stahl Raht has been sailing the world for over 100 sinky-free years, and recently has been taxi-ing motorbikes around the Darien Gap, the impassable section of jungle between Panama and Colombia. We were very excited to watch our bikes get strung up, and hoisted off the dock with the ship’s “crane”, into the clutches of 3 muscular German women and Wendy. Ludwig and his crew on the ship organised everything for us on our tour through the San Blas Islands off the Panama coast: all our delicious meals for 5 days, our immigration and customs paperwork to switch countries, protection from splashing sea water by wrapping the bikes in tarps, and a considerable pile of beer and rum to ensure our comfortable passage over the Caribbean Sea. On the way we anchored the ship between some uninhabited islands for a couple of days, and spent our time flying off the rope swing into the sea, snorkeling around the surrounding reef, barbequing epic shazlicks and drinking Cuban rum with the crew.

We spent a couple of days anchored between three islands
Rope swing fun off the side of the boat.
Sand floored huts in San Blas islands
Once we’d tired ourselves with the island life, we hit the sea at 5am and sailed for the next 30 hours to reach Colombia. Captain Ludwig laughed as he answered my question, “No, these are very calm seas!” I vomited 15 minutes later with 20 people watching. With the deck swaying to-and-fro, Ferg handed me the seasickness medication we’d brought, and we all settled in for a very comfortable, tranquilized journey over the mighty Caribbean Sea. We arrived safe and sound, as promised, and were amazed to hear that the bikes would be lowered by rope into the 8 foot rubber dingey, motored to the dock, and then hauled 2 feet up, by 4 burley locals. Atley’s bike was first to come up, and clearly looked heavier than it was, so up it came an extra foot, very nearly falling back in! But all 10 motorbikes aboard landed on South American soil incident free, including a few heavy 1200GSs and a Super Teniere owned by some questionable characters.

Tropical Paradise await. Note all our motorbikes tarped up on the ship deck.
First day of 30hour sail to South America!

Practicing the ancient art of the ninjas.
We’d made friends with the other motorbikers on the boat, and all checked into the same hostel in Cartagena who regularly accept the Stahl Raht’s motorbike guests. There we verbally dissected motorbike travel, aided by good food and a little tequila. Cartagena has a nice old Spanish colonial district, and we explored it in various ways, before gearing up and hitting the road. Our departure of the city was with 8 bikes, our biggest gang yet. Gene and Neda were continuing on with the Stahl Raht to Jamaica and Cuba, so rode with us on their BMWs just for the morning before turning back. Kornelius, Trevor and Octavio were all solo riders, but were heading the same direction so also rode with us for the morning. The 4 of us parted with everyone at the turnoff to the south, and we headed north east, following the coast towards Venezuela and to the backpacker town of Taganga, set in a nice little mountainous cove. There we did the same thing as always: swam in the pool after a hot, sweaty day of riding, watched the sun set over the ocean with big beers in our hand, and watched people milling around the beach town waterfront. As it turns out, it’s still a good time doing that. Lucky.

Ferg's Party Suit never fails to bring out everyone's emotions
Island chillin'
Tourist photo in Cartagena.
We spent 2 nights freezing beside the air conditioner in Taganga, before heading south, paralleling the Venezuelan border on the Colombia side. The capital city of Bogota was our general destination, but it was going to take us a few days to get there at our pace (Hi German Matt!). The first stop was a town called Aguachica, and apparently they don’t get many Dual Sporters through there. From the moment we stopped in front of the hotel, about every 10 seconds another motorbike would pull up beside us, carrying an inquisitive local or 3. We were out there for about 5 minutes all up, so had approximately 30 bikes, grandmas, kids, families, officials and cross-eyed homeless guys surrounding us. The stares were cavernous. The questions were incessant. The Spanish was razor-fast and indecipherable. Some felt comfortable pawing at various bits on the bikes, while some stayed back, content to consume our souls via eyeball transfer. Being the centre of attention of a rapidly growing mob becomes very stressful very fast, so we were very relieved to get the bikes off the street and ourselves into the hotel. We jumped into the hotel pool, but were greeted with 40 sets of staring pool eyes. At least now I know what Atley feels like in his g-string speedos.

We rushed our exit in the morning, but the mob still formed, injecting terrific urgency in our box loading and bag strapping-down. Alas, just as we waved goodbye to the 20 or so bikes that had gathered, we realised we should have taken a photo to capture our non-internet-based street fame. Sorry Internet, you’ll just have to believe us.

Perfect front flip attempt.
Taganga's beautiful beach. 
Mean streets of Cartagena.
During the next day of riding we turned off the busy truck route to Bogota, and entered the Eastern Andes Mountains. With little warning the road became less busy, inclined, twisty and exciting. We hugged the corners and worked the throttle on the ascents, and gently eased the brakes on, on the long descents. On a particularly tight, twisty descent section, a local couple on a dirt bike whipped past me. They disappeared into the distance pretty quickly, then a couple of corners later I found Atley and Wendy pulled over on a tight bend. I pulled in behind them, to see the dirt bike on its side and its two occupants laying motionless on the ground a few metres away. Atley yelled at me to wave down a truck, to get them to call an ambulance, which I did. The couple had overtaken Atley and Wendy way too fast, on a short downhill stretch, and the next corner was closer that they’d anticipated. The bike scraped the ground trying to make the corner, then fell on its side, sliding off a small cliff, falling a few feet down onto the dirt. The passengers were thrown off with enough force that they didn’t sit up for about 5 minutes. The four of us seemed to lose most of our Spanish language skills during this scene, so when another phone-wielding local motorcyclist stopped, and calmly talked with the victims, we gladly put the situation in his hands. There was nothing more for us to do, so we saddled up and hit the road. It was a major reminder to stay present while riding, keep our speed appropriate for the conditions, and have patience and caution with other vehicles.

Paragliding in San Gil.
Are you sure this is safe?
San Gil is a cool little Spanish colonial town and we stayed on the main square, with lovely views of the red-roofed houses covering the surrounding hills, Taxco-style. Our room was on the 3rd floor, and our bikes were parked in a gated area, on the ground floor, directly below our bedroom window. I found that if Atley was down with the bikes, I could toss tiny stones down at him, harmlessly striking him, and have time to lean back into the window before he threw an annoyed glance around to find the cause of this tiny tap to the cranium. This happened several times, with him never realising the source. After 10 months on the road together, it’s the little things that keep you entertained. We spent our time there working on the bikes, relaxing, eating delicious empanadas (rice, meat, egg and potato covered in a light batter and deep fried) and parasailing. San Gil is marketed to the tourist world as a town with extreme sports, and after reviewing the available options of white water rafting or abseiling down an 80m waterfall, we decided sailing off a mountain top in a parachute was choice bro. We were each strapped to the chest of some Colombian dude, and when the rushing wind filled out chute, his assistants ran us off the end of the mountain, and we went silently sailing over the tree tops, riding the winds and thermals. It was very exciting, and we were each in the air for about 20 minutes.

Beauty contest overlooking San Gil.
Dual Sporters nap anywhere.
Vultures enjoying the view.
From San Gil we continued on the twisty mountain roads, and climbed up the side of an enormous valley, on the same scale as the Rocky Mountains in Canada, with spectacular views in every direction. Once over the mountain, we found ourselves chugging along scenic country roads and ended up in the small town of Villa de Leyva. Once there we realised how noisy the previous towns had been, as we were in such wonderful silence, surrounded by alpine covered hills and quaint farmland. We stayed for a couple of nights, walked up the small mountain behind the town during the day, and strummed the guitar by the campfire in the evening.

Huge town centre of Villa de Leyva.
Tough guys
The hike up Villa de Leyva mountains.
Bogota was the next stop, the capital city, and we avoided the huge traffic jam entering the city by following the other motorbikes, and rode on the footpath. We stayed in the historic part of town, in a quiet hostel that required us to roll the bikes down several steps to get to their “parking spot”. The way out was a bit of a show, with plenty of heaving and wheelspins, but we got our babies back up to sea level in the end. We went on several walkabouts round the city, and found some areas nice, some drab, some creepy and some funky. We met a couple of drunk local engineers, and they took us to see some amazing Cuban music round the corner, and periodically yelled into our ears, “Very happy to meet you!” late into the night. Atley and I climbed the huge mountain that the city is backed up to, and were treated to excellent views of the huge city and the farmland beyond.

Bogota central square.
Tourist's favourite activity - people watching.
Mummy incased in the Bogota gold museum.
The next step of our journey was from Bogota to the hip city of Medellin, and it took us three days. Not because the distance is particularly large, but that going from the Eastern Andes to the Western Andes means crossing some geotechnically challenging terrain. A challenge, it would appear, that Colombia is yet to conquer with their road and bridge construction. We were met with a variety of roadblocks, accidents, closed roads and general confusion, each requiring us to either wait until later, or go back the way we came. But eventually we conquered, and rode past the late Pablo Escobar’s Jurassic-Park-themed mansion and into Medellin from the North.
Miss proportioned Horse in Medellin.
Epic mountain riding here.
Bogota from the mountain

Here in Medellin we’ve been working on bikes, creating this blog post, going on various tours of the city and dashing into the hostel pool when the sun comes out, and hiding under cover when the rains come each afternoon. A free walking tour of downtown Medellin was very informative, with us hearing about the general history of Colombia and Medellin: 20 years ago this city was the most dangerous in the world, and now it’s one of the most livable. While sourcing some bike parts we met the owner of the local Kawasaki dealership, Danny. He was most helpful with our bikes, then offered to take us for a ride round the area. Even more awesome was that he let us take two awesome bikes of his, a 2012 Versys 1000 and a 2012 W800. We had a great day touring around on the amazing bikes. The food here has been great, and it would be easy to spend plenty more time here. From here we will head south, touring a few more towns and mountain ranges, on the way to cross the equator in Ecuador. Which means that after 10 months on the road from Canada, and we’re still in the Northern Hemisphere! Crazy! We send our best wishes to all our family and friends. Byeeeee!

PS. Stay tuned for our Colombian Television appearance in the next few days!

Danny the tour guide pointing at things.
Danny and Atley at El Penol

Day trip on Danny's bikes!

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  1. Excellent video guys, I really enjoyed it. You are having way too much fun!!

  2. Great post as always.