This was going to be a big day. Today I needed to arrive in Carti and load the bike on the boat. Majo from the Independence had sent instructions on how to get out to the port of Carti to load the bikes, there were more that just me, by 3pm. Before heading out of the city, I needed to go pick up my Heidenau tires that I had shipped from Guatemala.
Heidenau is one of the sponsors I was able to contact and were great about getting me some tires for the trip. These will be a great once I start riding in some of the National Parks and the dirt roads of Peru and Bolivia. I had gotten the call from Copa Cargo the day before as I was driving into the City. As the call came in on my Sena headset, I pulled off to the shoulder to take the call. The lady said the tires would be at their airport cargo terminal, exactly where I went.
For those who have not been to Panama, let me warn you that as of January of this year, the toll roads can no longer be paid for with cash, only with their prepaid card. So, much to my chagrin, I got up to the toll where it clearly had posted $1.50 for motorcycle. I hand the lady a $10 and she hands me back a this card.
"And my change??"
"No, but you have $3.50 left on your card"
"What???, I only want to pay the $1.50 toll, please give me my change back"
"You need the card"
"I don't want the damn card" - I'm beginning to fume and now have a long line behind me.
The lady at the toll booth could of cared less. You could tell I was amusing as this smirk came to her face. I was obviously not the first frustrated tourist, clearly being used to this reaction. The plume raised and she waived me through. I bolted out of there with a huff.
So, you have been warned. Be wary that YOU WILL GET JACKED at the toll booth in Panama.
And of to the airport I went, took the exit ramp and then headed to the left where the cargo terminal arrow pointed. The road was under construction and it was a very long way around the entire property of the airport. I made my way through the traffic only to run into a blockade on the backside of the airport as there was a national nurses strike, so no getting through. A police officer gave me scant directions to hear around back to basically circumvent the nurses. I ended up getting lost, going into this shanty town of little winding roads that weaved up and down hills and little rain run-off channels mixed in with odor au sewer. Finally, I caught up with a taxi and asked him how I got back out towards the Cargo Terminal. He was headed that way so he had me follow him. I don't think I would have ever made it out of that maze with a little help, so thank you Mr. Taxi Man.
Back onto the main road and away from the threat of the disgruntled nurses, I made my way to the Copa Cargo terminal. Got up to the right office, gave them my code and voila... "Sorry Sir, your tires are not here, they were sent to the Oeste Business Park" - and you guessed it, that was back in the city. *"CRAP" - ok, so off I go. Finally, after about another 40 minutes I have my tires, strap them up to the top of my topbox and start programming Waze to show me the way to Carti. But wait, Waze has no idea where this place is. So I ask Google Maps, nope, nada. Ask Apple Maps, nada again. Ok, I know its towards Darien, so I punch that in and off I go.
Towards the edge of the suburbs I stopped to fill my tank and asked about Carti. The station attendent had no idea what I was talking about, but a Taxi Driver across the pumps overheard the conversation and chimed in, letting me know that about 20 minutes after passing Chepo, the next major town after Panama City, I would see the turn to the left marked for Carti. With those vague instructions, I was off.
Just as the taxi driver mentioned, sure enough, shortly after the turnoff for Chepo, there was the turnoff for Carti, but just to be sure, under the shade of a tall tree where a couple of soilders hiding from the heat, so I stopped to verify directions. "Its the only road, just go strait and you'll get there."
This has to be the single funnest road I have ever been on. The road has been built on top of the terrain as is, laying asphalt on what must have been a horse trail at one point.
There were some incredibly steep runs going down into a revean and the up to the hill top, then back again. In some spots, the bottoms had been washed out, so the black stuff quickly turned into gravel, sand, large rocks, so you had to be careful to slow before you hit the bottom, as you didn't want to be breaking going one of those dubious sections.
Now, an important side note about the Kuna Yala region and the Kuna people. This is likely the largest*indigenous*population in Panama and they have a significant amount of autonomy over their land and how it's governed.
It was therefore surprising to be stopped at one point during the roller coaster ride by the "Kuna Authorities" and asked to pay a "right of passage" for myself and the bike. "No pay, no pass." I think all said it was about $8 for the bike and me. Paid it and was on my way.
A few miles ahead, I was stopped again at a military checkpoint and asked for my papers and passport. First time in Panama. A few minutes later I rolled into the port of Carti, I say this quite*facetiously, as all there was is a small shack, a fence, and a single dock. I did however see a couple of bikes under the overhang roof. SWEET!
As I got off the bike and walked I would meet for the first time the three others who would be my cabin-mates and fellow bikers for the next few days. Erik, Zack, and Erin.
Erik was the first to introduce himself. He's traveling alone on a 400cc off-road Suzuki with nobbies. He's a terrific guy, very practical, super helpful, and an avid outdoorsman. Not only has that been the industry he's worked in for most of his career, but he loves being outdoors and doing all manner of long distance hiking,*mountaineering, camping etc. Having left from Tennessee, he's barely seen any asphalt until he got into Panama. He's got a huge gas tank on his bike, which allows him to simply go out into the wilderness and just get lost for a week at a time.
The other two, Erin and Zach, were traveling down from California on Kawas KLRs. They were both laid back, easy going, and just good people. They've been traveling for about a six months, heading south to Argentina. They I found putting away a couple good size plates of chicken and rice just as I arrived. After the roller coaster ride I wasn't really all that hungry, so I just sucked on my camelback and worked on keeping hydrated.
While they were finishing up eating, I walked around and started asking about how we got our bikes out to the Independence. You could see out near the island off the coast, maybe about two kms away. A young man at the counter of the shack said he would make the arrangements. About 15 minutes later we were told we were ready to go and we were instructed to head to the dock. From what I had seen in my research, they usually load bikes off the dock into mid-size boats (lanchas) that are often used to transport goods out to the islands and boats.
As I pulled up towards the dock and start to point my wheels in the direction of the dock - mind you this is the only one there - I am waved off and told to move ahead down this dirt path further up the beach. I then see at the edge of the water a small dug-out, with two Kuna dudes pulling it up on shore. They then pull the motor off the back and lay it out on the beach. This basically looks like a bike canoe.
"So how do they pretend to get the bikes into the lancha?," I ask myself. At least my bike is quite heavy and it would take quite a few folks to awkwardly carry it through the muck on the edge of the water to get it into the boat. Then as if out of the blue, they start finding old wood pallets and piling them up, making a makeshift ramp, up into the boat.
"That might work" I think to myself, but those pallets don't look like they can carry much weight and that's a pretty steep drop into the boat. They find a few more pallets and put them into the boat.
Erick, having the lightest bike decides to be the ginny pig and simply starts up his bike and rides right into the boat. But as he goes up, you could see the pallets seriously bend, and his bike weights about half of what mine weighs. I start by pulling all my gear off the bike, including all the*panniers*and top case to make it as light as possible. Then we evaluate and we basically have two choices, ride it up, like Erick did, or walk it up. I decided that it's better to just walk it up and Zack volunteers to push from the back to get some speed and stead the bike. I'll walk it on its side and handle the break once we get it into the boat.
Once on the boat, I actually put down the kickstand and went to grab my gear and load it into the back of the boat while the Kuna Lancha Captain reattached the motor to the backend of the boat.
It was then time to get back on the bike and ride the waves out to the Independence. The ride out on this little dug-out boat together with Erick was a bit otherworldly.
I really never saw myself on my bike riding in a lancha out to sea, holding her now steadfast, straddling the bike and balancing through the waves with my feet propt on each edge of the boat. The cool salty spray coming up was cooling and after a few minutes it was simply a delight after a hot day of riding.
At the boat, were were*greeted by the Captain Michel who quickly asked what we were doing on that little boat. Apparently, we had all four taken a wrong turn somewhere and there was a larger boat waiting for us, also, at half the price. This little ride cost us each $30. I think we had just been taken by a little Kuna ride.
We quickly started to tie up ropes to the bike's frame as the hook from the wench was lowered. Erick's bike was upfront, so it went first. Mine followed.
There really isn't a way to describe this particular experience, as you see your bike lifted high above your head hoping the winch and ropes hold and that your bike doesn't take a spill into the drink. We were in some deep water and that would likely be the last you'd see of it if it went in.
After our bikes were loaded, the lancha headed back to pick Zach and Erin. They arrived about 30 minutes later. We then dropped our gear in the galley, grabbed a few essentials and we were off with Germain to the Kuna Island, to spend the night at Germains Hostel.