On this great odyssey that we have chosen for ourselves, the travels have taken us from South America to Central America; from Colombia to Panama; from vast Andean expanses to the dense jungles of the intercontinental isthmus. There is no road between the two. The Darien Gap, as it is called, is the impenetrable buffer zone between Colombia and Panama where the Panamerican highway ends; it is inhabited only by certain indigenous groups and remains one of the great untouched wildernesses in the world. Those wishing passage must find another way around.
For us, this “other way” involved 2 bus rides and 3 motorboat rides. We called it the “Backwater Option” since we’d be passing through the small port town of Turbo and several isolated villages on the Caribbean coastline.We could have taken a boat directly from Cartagena to Panama, but we opted for the backwater to save money and have an adventure—the two goals often go hand-in-hand, we have found.
After an unremarkable land-transit day from Cartagena to Turbo, we bunked down in a hotel lobby for an early departure the following morning. At the port, amidst fresh fish and genial shouts we secured a boat ride northwest. We aggressively bartered down the extra fee which the captain required for our bicycles, and winced as our three poor “babies” were haphazardly thrown into the hold. The ride was choppy and harsh. We landed with burnt arms and sore buttocks, and with the chronic concern of bike damage looming in our minds. Another boat ride, a couple of passport stamps, plenty of sit-bruises, and two hours of careening sea landed us in Panama, ready to hunker down for the night in a small coastal village.
Upon several inquiries for free lodging, we were directed to a municipal open-air patio, where we met 6 African men also staying there. Hailing from Cameroon, Ghana, and Eritrea, they each arrived individually and undocumented to South America in search of refugee asylum or passage northward to the US. Now they were held up by the stringent border control in Panama yet also under the care of a government program which deals with asylum appeals.
As we talked and ate with these men we began to realize the uniqueness of their situation. Within their group they spoke a pidgin English, they were all Christians, and they all arrived by hiking through the notorious Panamanian jungle for days with barely any food. Their travels through the same countries and with the same scope of distance painted a sharp contrast with our trip. What for us is a choice to experience new cultures and learn Spanish is for them a unplanned exodus for a better future with the risk of being deported. But we could still commune as fellow travelers. We all went out to the far end of the local dock for some fresh air after the sun set. With the stars shining above and the placid coral reef resting below, we lay there and passed time telling each other about what faith means to each of us. Their vulnerability and perseverance inspired us. It was sacred space.
The next morning we managed to find passage to Cartí, which meant a 7-hour motorboat ride along the Islas San Blas. These small, Carribbean islands are known for their beauty and for the “fiercely independent” indigenous group, the Kuna, who inhabit them. In an area near the filming site of Pirates of the Caribbean, our boat was coincidentally called La Perla Negra, “The Black Pearl.” Comfortably breezing by picturesque palms, rocky shoals, and emerald inlets, we didn’t know that the captain was going to let us out on one of these indigenous islands and not on the mainland. Soon enough we found ourselves camping in a public square in the island village. An elder living nearby recounted the social change he has seen in the community within his lifetime, particularly a shift toward thinking economically–once catching lobster for meals, now for export and money. Meanwhile, our portable stove sputtered dead when the rice was halfway done, so the villagers just laughed and graciously took the pot to their own stove to finish the job.
In the morning we took a motorboat to a remote road on the mainland where a cold deluge poured down on us. In 30 minutes it let up, replaced by an oppressive humidity. Through this back road we traversed the mountain jungles of Panama. In the sunny rainforest we sweated rivers, pushing our bikes laboriously up insanely steep hills, being passed by electric-blue butterflies and strange birds. We saw a toucan. High upon a ridge we took a final glimpse at the Carribean and within an hour we looked southward and could see the Pacific, with the skyscrapers of Panama City hazy in the background. Coast to coast—all in a day’s work.
Lunch that day was at a Chinese restaurant, supplemented with groceries bought from the Chinese-owned supermarket across the way. It was here that we noticed how many products in the grocery store are imported in Panama. Cans of beans with full English labeling from the United Arab Emirates sent through Singapore, raisins from California, maracuyá juice from Guatemala (3.1 liters that spoke to our thirsty selves in a profound metabolic manner). In contrast to South America, where markets made finding local products easy, Panama’s grocery stores felt like we were back in the US. The imports might also be a result of our proximity to the shipping of the Canal.
We’ve stayed with an indigenous Mennonite Brethren family in Panama City, who treated us to a traditional Panamanian birthday meal (though it’s no one’s birthday in particular). Most of the Mennonite Brethren churches are in the forested east of Panama with indigenous groups in the Darien. We spent most of the day servicing our bikes for the new continent, repacking hubs with fresh grease, oiling pedals and switching out brake pads. Tomorrow we cross the Panama Canal.