Location: Cartagena, Colombia
We arrived at Nicaragua’s jungly border crossing with Costa Rica in the late afternoon and by the time we were through it was dark. We expected to find some kind of basic lodgings next to the border, but there was nothing, so we had to make do with the patio of a roadside cafe, next to a petrol station. Sleeping at the side of the road elsewhere in Central America would have made for a fitful night’s sleep but Costa Rica is a lot safer than its neighbours so we made a makeshift bedroom out of tables and didn’t worry too much.
The next day we got up early and cleared off before the cafe staff arrived. We pedalled off in the early morning light, up a road enclosed by thick forest, and we saw trees full of sleeping monkeys and multi-coloured toucans swooping overhead. To find such a healthy assortment of wildlife right on a main road was really impressive, and we would loved to have gone into the country to explore further but we were meeting our families for Christmas in a couple of days so we sped on, dodging rain showers where possible by diving into roadside shops and cafés.
With our families around, we didn’t do much adventurous cycling in Costa Rica (apart from getting horribly lost whilst taking a ‘short cut’ on Google Maps) but we did have a fantastic time, slobbing around, eating, and generally bring Chistmassy. I wondered how Costa Rica could be so prosperous, safe, and bursting with wildlife, in such a troubled part of the world. Undoubtedly, one reason is that they are the world’s only sizeable country without any military, making it almost impossible to establish nasty dictatorships, and simultaneously freeing up huge amounts of cash for things like education, social welfare, and the environment.
Next up was Panama, where our long and winding road from Nova Scotia would finally peter out into a jungly dead end, know as the Darien Gap. This troublesome 200 mile blob of rainforest forms the only land bridge connecting Panama and Colombia, and is the bane of all Panamerican travellers because it is essentially a no-go area, infested by leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers.
- Hire a guide, throw caution to the wind, and attempt to cross by land on rough trails (dangerous, verging on suicidal).
- Charter an engine assisted sailboat with a group of fellow travellers for a 6 day cruise / sea crossing (small boats make me violently ill).
- Fly (no fun).
In the end we decided sailing would be best, so we went online and booked ourselves onto the nicest, safest looking boat we could find. A few days later, we got an email from the travel agent, breezily explaining that it had sunk with a load of tourists on board (nobody hurt) so we were being moved to another boat departing a few days earlier.
This meant we no longer had time to cycle through Panama, which was very disappointing for Emily, but extremely good news for me (see complaints about Central American climate in previous blog). So we said goodbye to our families in Costa Rica and set off on the three day cycle over the Panamanian border to the city of David, where we hoped to find a bus to Panama City.
On the way into David, a cycling enthusiast called Antonio pulled over in his car and invited us to stay at his place. Staying with a nice family is always an emotionally recharging thing to do on a long distance cycling trip, and we were especially grateful for the chance to meet some Panamanians, given the short amount of time we would be in the country. The evening was spent practicing our Spanish, helping Antonio’s teenage daughter practice her English, and cooking up our camp-supper piece de resistance: pasta with tuna, veg, and tomato sauce, followed by a partially melted Tesco Christmas biscuit selection box left over from our family’s visit. They were suitably impressed (or at least suitably polite), and we departed the next day to a fanfare of photos and heartfelt goodbyes, cycling only a few minutes over to the bus station where we caught our bus.
Two mornings later we were on our way with 11 other travellers, to a secluded beach on Panama’s Caribbean coast. From here we would be ferried out in a motorised canoe to our sail boat which was moored up, offshore somewhere in an archipelago of postcard perfect Caribbean Islands called the San Blas. After the sinking of our original boat, we were all apprehensive about what we would find, but excited nonetheless.
Our Spanish captain called Israel, looked like a stereotypical extra from a pirate film. He was short, scruffy, deeply tanned, very fat (accentuated by the fact he was topless most of the time), and chain smoked Marlboro cigarettes. He seemed like an experienced captain but his boat had seen better days. Henry, the Colombian deckhand had gotten pissed the week before on New Years Eve, and managed to destroy both the yacht’s ladder and the life boat’s outboard motor (two fairly critical safety features). Henry was now banned from drinking on the boat and had obviously been given a huge bollocking by Israel because he could barely look him in the eye. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the boat was four people over its maximum capacity so there wasn’t enough life boat space (or beds) for everyone on board.
It seemed pretty shambolic, even by South American backpacker standards but against our better judgement we all decided that if Israel and his boat had gotten through the last decade in tact, they could probably manage another six days.
And they almost did, but unfortunately not quite.
The first three-and-a-half days were great. We meandered lazily through the sheltered San Blas Islands, swimming, walking along beaches, polishing of all of the booze we had brought along, and generally having a good time. Being stuffed together on such a small and rickety old boat seemed to draw everyone together and we made some good friends.
The last two-and-a-half days were not so good. Emerging from the San Blas Islands, we now faced a 48 hour crossing over very rough seas to the Colombian port of Cartagena. The boat was tossed around in 5-10 metre swells for the entire time. Nobody enjoyed it, but some fared better than others. At one end of the sea sickness spectrum was the captain – cigarette in mouth and seemingly unaffected – and at the other end was me – either immobilised in bed with a bottle of water, or vomiting over the side of the boat.
On the second night, having eaten nothing for 36 hours, I lay rolling around in my bed trying to go to sleep. I was looking forward to getting up the next day, hopefully with Cartagena in sight but then around 12 midnight, a few apparently unrelated things happened in quick succession that were all very bad. First of all the engine died – this woke me up and I lay in bed for the next 30 minutes listening to Israel trying to restart it before the battery (and starter motor) died. This was upsetting but not actually dangerous. After all, it was a sail boat so we could limp along without power if need be. But then the rudder stopped working. This was dangerous. The boat was now completely uncontrollable and at the mercy of the waves. To make matters worse, around the same time the boat’s only remaining tank of drinking water mysteriously became contaminated with unidentified brown stuff, so we really couldn’t afford a long delay.
From my bunk at the back of the boat I watched a topless sweaty Israel come below deck with Henry and start removing pieces of floorboard from our cabin to get into the bowels of the boat. Israel disappeared through the hole in the floor and started making lots of metallic clanking noises as the cabin filled with diesel fumes. Perhaps the Darien rainforests would have been safer after all.
In any case, I was too helplessly sea sick to contemplate any kind of action so I just watched from bed, and hoped for the best, as the boat lurched around in the dark. Nobody else seemed to be moving from their bunks either, although I’m sure they were all awake and acutely aware of the events that were unfolding.
After a while, Henry and Israel (still topless but now covered in black grease) went back above deck having failed to solve the problem through the clanking approach. Thankfully, I stayed in bed so didn’t know what happened next, but sometime later Israel – resorting to desperate measures – made an SOS call to the Colombian coastguard, put on a snorkel, tied a rope around his waist, and jumped overboard into the churning ocean, to try and fix the broken rudder by hand!
It was a pretty ‘badass’ thing to do, as my Canadian friend remarked the next day, and it worked. The rudder was fixed, and when the solar panels had recharged the battery, the engine chugged back into action and miraculously, we were back on our way. When I finally staggered above deck, Israel was sitting at the helm looking even more frazzled than me, staring blankly ahead, still topless, still chain smoking. Up until now he had been putting his butts in a little plastic bag but now he was just chucking them overboard. He’d had enough and there were a lot of exasperated mutterings about being ‘finished with this job’ as we eventually cruised into Cartagena’s beautiful marina. I felt quite sorry for him. He’s not the owner of the boat and claims only to get a measly $250 for each 6 day trip. Not a lot considering he’s responsible for 13 tourists’ lives.
Stumbling off the boat – unwashed and starving – into Cartagena’s wealthy waterside district was a major culture shock. We all went to the nearest supermarket, slightly disorientated to be back around normal people, and guzzled everything we could get our hands on. It was wonderful! But definitely the last time I willingly get on a sailboat that’s going anywhere near open water.