Friday, January 14, 2011

Portobello, San Blas Island Paradise, Crossing from Panama to Colombia by boat-



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Today I drove from Panama City to Portobello Panama.

Like I mentioned before, I got into Panama without a way to ship my motorcycle from Panama to Columbia as passage through the Darien Gap is dangerous and trekking takes a very long time. Needless to say, yes crazy Alex wanted to venture into the gorilla infested rainforest and hack my way through with the bike, but I wasn’t about to spend 3 months crossing 80 miles of everything trying to kill you.

Maybe something later in life…..

I was very fortunate to speak directly with a sailing boat captain by the name of John, from the vessel Wild Card. He was very nice and we worked out my passage with him on his backpacker boat that was already full.

I had spoken with many backpackers at the Mamallena Hostel in Panama City and got his info from there.

The hostel said they needed a $35 deposit for the booking. Well captain negotiator here smelled a scam and researched with others to find out it was just a booking fee for the hostel. So I paid my stay, skipped out on the deposit and off to Portobello I went to catch Wild card!

The drive to Portobello, of course started with getting lost getting out of Panama and getting lost taking the correct turn to Portobello. What’s new right?

I decided to stay the night in a hotel, the previous few nights I’ve been stuck at backpacker hostels with 10 people to a room and haven’t gotten more than 3 hours of sleep a night. It was time to relax. I negotiated a $20 room for the night. After hanging out in the party hostel of Mamallena for close to a week with heavy drinkers and chain smokers, I needed a rest, and a breath of fresh air.

I’ve noticed that there are some particular traits that most if not all backpackers have in Central and South America. Either they smoke, like to read books, or drink excessively, or the special cases do the drugs.  It’s a funny little niche I keep encountering in all the hostels, this completely different life style I have completely immersed myself in to observe, has given me a healthily appreciation for my own lifestyle and own decisions and customs I hold to myself to keep healthily, be athletic and maintain and overall good health. I'm not saying every backpacker is like this but these seem to be reoccuring traits. I sometimes feel like I’m back in high school, all the cool kids that smoke, drink and do nothing but chat around are the backpackers, and the lone wolf that does everything differently, aka the motorcycler is on his own doing his own thing-that’s me, but still with the ability to fit in well with the others.

So like I mentioned, I was sleep deprived from all the crazy party people roaming around the rooms and yelling every night at the hostel, so I went to bed at 6pm and didn’t wake up the next day until 10am. A beautiful and much needed slumber it was.

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The next day I was on the hunt to find this boat I had spoken with, I came an extra day early to scope out the place and make sure I got on this boat, otherwise another 3 weeks I would have had to wait for the next one.
Like any good little town, I randomly talked to people near the ports and got the low down on what vessels were there, and when they were arriving. Some ransom man told me the vessel was gassing up in Colon and wouldn’t be there until later.

So I bummed around the town like a good hippie the whole day eating chips and people watching.

All throughout Panama have been these cool painted buses, pretty artistic, and Portobelo was no exception


I believe that they absolutely nailed it on the Rambo drawing lol

Saw a nice church

And an old Spanish fort that got taken out by a mud slide a few weeks ago. 





This meant there was no phone service or internet here yet, as it all got taken out by this massive act of nature.

 So I couldn’t call the captain to confirm my spot. I was starting to get worried this crazy plan of dealing directly with the captain and not a third party to make this more expensive than it already was, was not going to work and I would have to wait 3 weeks for passage to Colombia, Crazy Alex money saving tactics at hand.

I hung out at the dock talking to various people getting off ships asking about the Wild Card. I even asked the workers to drive around and see if it was there, which it was not. Finally I found a couple on a boat called sunshine that knew the Wild card. They happily called the captain but no answer and left him a message. Dang so close, it was looking grim for this sketchy boat charter.

As I sat in the street near the church, a tall freckled face man walks by and sees me. He comes up and we start to chat. Turns out he was part of the Wild Card crew and was dropped off in Colon to get supplies and took a bus over to Portobello to catch up with the boat.

He had a cell phone, called the captain and basically got my confirmation that my bike would be on that boat!

I was lucky Captain John was a nice guy; this could have been bad waiting around a month for a boat.

I then bunked down for the night at the only Portobello hostel called Captain Jacks. This is where you’ll find all the captains of the boats that take backpackers from Panama to Colombia and back, that dock at Portobelo drinking and talking about stories from many decades ago. This was obviously owned by Captain Jack that also did tours with backpackers and motorcycles.

I got a chance to meet all the other travelers that were on the Wild Card, and small world, I saw 3 backpackers that were in the same hostel in Panama City with me that would be on the same boat.

As the night began, the famous captain jack rolled into his hostel that had a very nice and convenient bar. I could already smell the musky alcohol off his breath as we started to chat. He tried to convince me I should go with him on his boat in a few days. Lucky I already had a boat but I didn’t tell him.

As more drinks were passed, I kept overhearing captains talk more and more. I overheard a conversation of one captain saying if he had to do another journey to Colombia he was going to go crazy and run the ship straight into a reef, another that had stories of running out of food and water for days with backpackers, another that seemed solely focused on how many people he could jam onto his boat for profit etc. It was crazy to see these people discuss all the crazy stories you only read about on the internet of those traveling this same route to get to Colombia.

As Captain Jack, age 60 something, was officially drunk, as well as his 24 year old Panamanian girlfriend, he proceeded to yell excessively at everyone for no reason, you could even hear him down the street.

He even got into a business argument with a partner that ended his partnership with the man after insults and drunkenness took over him.

I thought, man… glad I didn’t take that offer with Captain Jack. Other captains also were heavily intoxicated and gave me an idea of the danger it is to have a bad captain. I sure hope my captain isn’t too crazy.

**Reader disclaimer**--** (A few months after this post I was contacted by one of the people mentioned above in disapproval of what I had written, to be diplomatic I have put this disclaimer. To make a long story short, I am not trying to insinuate that the way these people acted is the way they act while they are working out on the ocean, nor do I insinuate they are alcoholics or crazy. This is the merely a recollection of this perhaps isolated incident that occurred that night. This is not an attack or conclusion on any individual, but just a recollection of what occurred).

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The next day, after drunken captain stories and fear now with me of imagining a boat without food, water, and perhaps dropping my bike into the ocean or leaving me in a port far from Columbia, or bad weather issues etc. I met up at the dock. I met two other gentlemen the night before at the hostel that were also on the boat, they had KLR’s as well. Things were looking up, and knew I wasn’t alone with my concerns.



Getting the bikes on the boat first required the removal of all our side panniers, and all excess weight.

Then we had to drive on a dock that was no more than 5 feet wide, and put it into a small dingy. The other motoryclers and I looked at each other when they said, ok put them on, like are you serious?

After a match of rock, paper, scissors to see who the first test dummy was, Joe was the lucky guinea pig, we all rolled one bike at a time onto this very unstable boat on a piece of wood brought down from the village as the biggest they had.



I was thinking the entire time, man I’m so glad I’m not the first one, thank you rock!

Brian and his bike- Guinea pig #2
Once on the boat, 3 people had the job of balancing the bike for transport to the main ship, making sure it didn’t fall straight into the ocean.



Joe's bike looking like its about to fall over
Massive rain storms don't help this process at all


Don't Fall!


After 45 minutes, and a rain storm, we hoisted the bike onto the ship’s deck, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Ok only 2 more to go

Finally after putting all the bikes onto the deck, the bikers celebrated with rum and coke and I with my soy milk. I’m such a loser, I know.

The other 13 backpackers boarded soon after.

Motorcycles make good boat seats and recliners, who knew

This fit his personality perfectly- Pride full Aussie he was








10 of the backpackers were Australians. In particular one gentleman by the name of Shane was the epitome of a good Aussie; he arrived at the boat with 8 cases of beer, which amounted to 256 beers for a period of 5 days and 4 nights all for him.  I would bet he couldn’t finish them all, but who knows. He had probably the best suiting tattoo’s I’ve ever seen on anyone as well. Not much into tattoos myself, but this one was pretty interesting.







As we set sail for Colombia, the Aussies realized that we had only a block of ice for the trip, and were not happy. They were told there was going to be ice for the beer, and it was merely a block they couldn’t even chip.

This caused havoc, and a 50 min angry discussion proceeded with the crew and captain, ideas of going back to the town to buy crushed ice, more beer, not paying for the trip, accusations, etc all irrupted.

Finally an ice pick was agreed on, but they sacrificed having cold beer the last 2 days, and we were off! 

Leave it to the Aussie’s to put up a major fuss about the ice for the beer and delay the boat.

As we set off, the drinking began. The wind of the ocean in our face, people tanning, this was going to be great….or so I thought.

About 2 hours into the trip, myself along with 3 others were sea sick and puking off the side of the boat.
We had some pretty rough seas.

Every half an hour for the rest of the day I spend doing some nice involuntary ab crunches regurgitating nice stomach acid and liquids along with half the others.

Seeing I didn’t have a bed on board because of being the last one on board and exceeding the maximum occupancy, I managed a nice spot to sleep next to the diesel generator and gas behind the boat.


The next day we arrived at the first set of the San Blas Island. It was spectacular! 



All those pictures you see in postcards of tropical islands came alive right before my eyes.


Everyone was so excited they started to take pictures.

The view was great, and got interesting when everyone jumped in front of me to take pictures as well.


I guess chicks dig bikes, who knew… I've been riding motorycles my entire life for all the wrong reasons



We got a chance to visit an indigenous Kuna village. Turns out I was the only fluent Spanish speaker of the entire boat and crew. So lucky me was designated official ambassador and translator. I engaged in translation for ports for the captain and negotiations over the radio and cell phones for people.

They should be paying me to do this, not the other way around.

Local kids paddling out from the village to say hi. 





So as we arrived on a random island in the middle of nowhere with the Kuna people, we started to see some interesting stuff.









I'm jealous of his awesome shirt



This is Antonio, leader of this little village.

I’m 6”2 and was bending my knees; you can only imagine the true size of this man.

He’s 75 years old, and has 10 kids. I learned about the entire culture of these people in less than an hour. How the girls are considered women at age 12, have a huge party with food and drinks and invited neighboring islands, and slaughter a huge pig, one of which was on the island that Antonio told me cost him $250 from Panama and was a pain to transport to the island.



He even introduced his entire family of 30 people to me and had some interesting conversations, pretty philosophical about the end of the world in 2012 and such.

Walked along the island, a little more, saw some nice sea turtles that are cultured for 2 years and then eaten.



Finally we were off back to the boat.

As sea sickness once again creeped from underneath my bowls, we luckily parked ourselves close to an uninhabited island later on that day.

Fantastic it was.

We had an entire island to ourselves.




(Part 2 Coming up)