Panama – The End of North America…

I made it, over 19,000km from the Arctic Ocean in Alaska to Panama City, Panama. Two weeks ago I rolled into Panama City, that’s the one in Panama rather than Florida. The end of the road for the North American continent and 2 out of 6 continents completed!

After Costa Rica, Panama was a massive let-down. I hate having to be so blunt but Costa Rica was an incredible place, Panama just wasn’t. Sure the scenery was nice but the people, by and large were aggressive, obnoxious and, well, just rather unpleasant.

On a high for the first day across the border, and enjoying rolling along some back roads I started out oblivious to the attitude of the people I had been passing. The tendency to aggressively inform me of directions that I hadn’t asked for. Rolling out along a disused railway track about half a dozen locals felt the need to tell me the highway was in the other direction and that I was going the wrong way. When I spoke politely to a less obnoxious local he confirmed that I could indeed head out along the track I had started down and similarly as indicated on the map, that it rejoined the Highway a few miles out of town.

Back on the highway, and about 20km from the border, a clueless customs official decided that I needed paperwork for my bike and left me with no option but to return to the border to sort this. It was a little frustrating but no big deal. Though my return to the border was much to the amusement of the official’s colleagues who were perplexed at my request for paperwork for the bike! Explaining the situation, hopefully resulting in the later ridicule of their colleague, they agreed to add a customs stamp to my passport for the bike. Bicycles in Panama have licence plates, and to complete my customs declaration they needed a VIN number. Here was a slight issue… Normally a frame number, stamped under the Bottom Bracket, would fit the bill; but my bike, with its extensive customisations, doesn’t have one – a frame number that is rather than a Bottom Bracket! Pondering the best way to get around this it was Rohloff to the rescue – conveniently the Rohloff Speedhubs are all stamped with a serial number, and this was enough to satisfy the cheerful customs staff, who were equally amused at my slightly mixed Spanish accent and dialect as they were to my request for papers for my bike!

Back out of town to the checkpoint, only slightly annoyed at my seemingly wasted journey, I was duly checked once again by the army officials there. Mr Clueless the customs official was out of the way having lunch and had it not have been for my rolling back to the Army checkpoint to ask to refill some water bottles then I’d have passed through unhindered. It was whilst chatting to the soldiers their that the official reappeared, when he insisted on papers and that the stamp in my passport wasn’t appropriate I gave him a little, and polite piece of my mind; much to the amusement of my army acquaintances there – hopefully the slight ridicule continued after I departed!

The hassle of customs was barely more than some inconvenient amusement. The real fall in respect for Panama came on arriving in Almirante, the port town for a transfer to Bocas del Toro, the beautiful Panamanian Caribbean Islands. Arriving late in the day after the earlier hassle I rolled into town, after that is being escorted off the highway by a hustler taking me to his company’s launch office. With no real desire to jump straight on a boat to the islands I turned around to head into town, just now a little better informed on the costs of getting to the islands. More obnoxious directions off locals pointing be back to the tourist port for Bocas but a roll around the town and exploring the waterfront and actual port was pleasant and unhindered. Returning to the quayside where the tourist transfers take place I was just in time for the last crossing. And here’s where I got fed up with the country.

Passing the junction a teenage hustler, hell bent on his commission, sprinted alongside my bike to escort me to his boss’ office for the last transfer of the day. Amongst the chaotic presence of locals I was about to purchase a ticket. Clearly advertised as $6 single or $10 return. Knowing that there was about 4 companies operating the route, for convenience I wanted a single which I deemed worth ultimately wasting $2 given my slightly tight timescale for the flight out of Panama City. That wasn’t an option. Despite the advertised price it was $10 return or $10 single. In short I told the boss, in my ever improving Spanish, to go do one (coupled with some insulting expletives). I wasn’t too fussed about seeing the islands, I’d seen other Caribbean Islands and ones much less touristy too.

I was about to roll out of town and find somewhere to camp when Vernon, a local, offered me to pitch my tent in his yard. Which was kind and I accepted given that he didn’t want anything for it. But as the evening developed his intentions became more obvious. More born out of failed expectation than from deliberate bad character. I was welcome to head to the store with his friend and pick up some beers and supplies – “I don’t drink” as I’d said and I had supplies for the evening but thanked him gratefully. Later as he and a friend were conversing with a Gin or two, the offer of purchasing a spliff off his neighbor was made, not really keen I declined but was informed of the cost none the less. Five dollars was the price. Which was actually double what Vernon had told me in conversation that he had to pay earlier. And when my innocent failure to fulfill the expectation of a few beers or funding a little party cigarette for my host, the fee of $4 was politely demanded for my campsite. Not too steep at least. Vernon was pleasant enough compared to much of the other populous. Just a little high on cocaine!

Turns out the Vernon’s neighbor was a well known local drug dealer. Rather than concern this did at least make my camping spot reasonably safe – what self respecting criminal wants unnecessary police interest right on their doorstep! The next morning I left at first light, that was normal, and coincided with my rather worse-for-wear looking host departing for work!

The previous day set the scene for Panama. Though without any disrespect from the recreational undertakings of my evening company, the aversion cultivated from the overtly pikey nature of the place. I set out for a day of climbing.

By the end of that day I’d crossed the Sierra for a 5th time. Back on the Pacific watershed. And some time after dark, without working lights of any worth I made camp at around 1600m having already descended a little. Mountains for breakfast that morning, for the next breakfast I’d have a glorious 25mi descent. Come 3am I needed a sleeping bag.

So, that’s it for the length of North America. It’s not over yet as I’m now heading back north to Canada for a little detour via the UK. The next continent will have to wait a little…

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