Friday, February 26, 2010

Panama Canal

The last week we spent in the historic neighbourhood of Panama City, relaxing and observing the streetlife from our third-floor balcony. Then, one day, we learned of a boat that needed line handlers to transit the Panama Canal. We got together with two other travellers, Romina and Ayack, and went to meet our captain in Portobello.
We got there early, so we had a few hours to explore the old fort that protected the once-richest Spanish port on the Carribean.
Then the captain showed up and we went aboard his yacht.
Next morning we motored to the port of Colon to pick up our advisor, a man telling the captain what to do but not responsible if something goes wrong.
On our way to the first set of locks, Gatun, we saw a lot of big container ships, auto-carriers and oil tankers.

For the Gatun locks, we were scheduled to go in after a ´small´ contasiner ship, so we had to wait to let him pass. As soon as the ship went into the locks we rafted up with two other yachts, us in the middle, and went into the chamber after the ship.
We lucked out the first time, because the linehadlers on other boats had to do all the work and we had nothing else to do but take pictures. We have to say that it was very surprising to see the level of water rise so fast, 30 feet in 3 minutes or so. The procedure was quite simple: the boat (or a raft of boats) is prevented from hitting the wall by four lines attached to cleats on the sides of the dock. The workers onshore throw us their light lines, we attach our heavier lines to them, they drag our lines up and secure them on their cleats. We, in turn, maintain tension on the lines as the water level changes. Easy.
It was getting dark as we got our onto the man-made Gatun lake, so we tied up to the bouy and raised a toast to the succesful first transfer.
Next morning, before the first light, we were underway to the next locks to lower us back down to the sea level. Shortly before the Pedro Miguel locks, we saw the biggest excavation on the Canal - the Gaillard Cut, an impressive mountain moved out of the way a hundred years ago. Wow.The final set of locks, Miraflores, made us sweat a little bit more. This time we arrived well ahead of the other yachts and we did not raft up with anybody, so everybody onboard had a job to do. The things got interesting when one of the workers on shore decided to simply let go of the line, which Anastasia was holding. It took us another five minutes to get the line back to him. Anastasia could not secure the line until it was attached onshore, and by the time the worker caught up, the rope was running out fast. By this time we were already pushed by the strong current dangerously close to the opposite wall of the lock (any captain´s worst nightmare). The advisor made things worse by jumping in and sticking his foot into the cleat (what was he thinking?), instead of helping doing the proper stoping knot. The rope jammed on his shoe and destroyed it, and we had a hell of a time trying to straighten out the boat and undo the mess.
We missed the wall by about a meter, and made it fine to the Pacific. Captain shook our hands and dropped us off at the marina. We went home, showered and went to sleep.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


When we were in Costa Rica, we heard about this Sendero de los Quetzales, a mountain trail that connects the villages of Cerro Punta and Boquete. It is said to be one of the most beautiful trails in Central America, and it is also famous for the occasional spotting of a local bird, a Resplendent Quetzal. Such a description lured us in, and Cerro Punta became our first stop in Panama.
The trail turned out to be a mostly downhill muddy slide, with huge sections washed out, going through some second-growth cloud forest and wet. No quetzales for us. The best part about hiking that trail was... ready?... a ride in a back of a 4x4 pick-up, down some steepest, narliest gravel road we ever been on. Sometimes it seemed that there is no way this old beaten-up machine can make it up this crazy hill and we had to hold on really tight not to roll out of the box. It was raining too. But the truck made it. On the way down, the driver picked up six other hitch-hikers, local farmers in rubber boots, with machetes slung over the shoulders and a mother with three kids. We were all dropped off at a bus stop, where the paved road began.
A cozy camp sot in an abandoned commercial building and a ride to David the next morning, where the pleasant coolness of the mountains was once again replaced by the unbearable tropical HEAT. After a 3 hour wait in the burning sun, we got one of the shortest rides ever, about a kilometer, which took us to a bridge over a clean, fast running river, on the outskirts of town. We tried hitching again, but the river was too tempting, so we bought a watermelon for a buck and had the rest of the day off, as well as the next day, too. We swam in the river, sat in the shade, did laundry... In this magical spot, we hanged onto the roots over the stream and the water gave our tired bodies an all-over massage. A natural jacuzzi, it was great. So we had ourselves a mini-vacation, if you wish.
The next day hitching was rather slow again, lots of very expensive, brand new SUVs with tinted windows (they even tint the windshield, you can´t see the driver at all) were not interested. Finally, the spell was broken and we got underway. All three rides that day were very quiet, even speachless. The last one brought us to Panama City well after dark. We called our CS host and were soon having a beer with him on his balcony, looking over Avenida Central in a beautiful neighbourhood, Casco Viejo. People say that it resembles the old Havana, with lots of boarded up dilapidated, beautifully ornamented buildings and narrow cobble-stone streets accentuating the colonial glory of the past. Fortunately for us, we arrived right after a big, four day Carnival, a local varietion of Mardi Gras, and we only caught a glimpse of it: the floats being dissasembled, lonely mascots, sitting on the sidewalks, their jobs done, and confetti being swept up by the morning sweepers.
We visited the local marina today and posted out little note there. We will do the same tomorrow in Colon (the other end of the Canal) and patiently wait for the results.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Costa Rica

We ended up staying for four days with Tim in San Jose. During this time, we thoroughly relaxed, ate proper meals at a properly set table and spent hours on-line...
After San Jose we went to Dominical, where we were hoping to catch up with a couple we met on a beach earlier. The Chance would have it otherwise though, and instead of meeting our friends, we met Noel, who stopped for us just outside of San Jose, his friend Bernadette, who invited us to have some pina coladas and a dinner with a whole bunch of friendly Quebecois from Sept-Iles. After diner we went swimming in a salt-water swimming pool under a heavy tropical rain. It was the first time in our trip that we were getting wet on purpose!
After such a party, a few days of rest were in order, so we camped on a few beaches in the area, entertaining ourselves by splitting found coconuts and chewing the contents for a long while, taking in the sunsets, swimming... It sounds very romantic and relaxing, but believe us, it was SO hot that the sweat was pouring down our faces even we calmly sat in the shade of the palm trees. It got worse during the night, when the feeble breeze seized completely, and it started raining hard, so there was NO air in our little tent. Anastasia had three sweaty nightmares in a row that night.
Two days of doing nothing was enough for us, so we went back to the main road. We wanted to climb the highest peak of Costa Rica, but a $50 entrance fee to the park was way too steep. So instead we headed for Panama.
It was a sublime hitching day for us because we traveled some 300 kms without even raising a thumb! Both rides saw us walking and stopped of their own accord! The second ride, a police officer off-duty, dropped us off near a big river. He kept saying that there is lots of "cocos" in this river at night. We thought that he was talking about cocaine trafficking, but later we figured out that he was saying "crocos", short for crocodiles. He told us to camp further up stream from the bridge, because crocos there were smaller than downstream from the bridge. With such reassuring advice we found a campsite right near the water, upstream, and had a rather sleepless night, listening to the sounds of rustling leaves, which seemed like crocodiles moving around, scheming to devour us together with the tent. Our fears were fueled enormously by the huge crocodiles we saw two days earlier, about 400 kms north from where we were.Nothing happened, of course, and we did not even see any, but we hiked out of there pretty quick in the morning.
The last day of hitch-hiking in Costa Rica we spent 5 hours waiting in San Vito and got into Ciudad Neily after dark. Looking for a camping spot at night is always an adventure in itself, too. We did well though, encamping under a bridge, near a river (too shallow for the crocodiles, we made sure).
All in all, we liked Costa Rica, the cleanest country of Latin America we saw so far. It is expensive, though, and swarms with tourists, which never makes hitching easy. Moving on to Panama, where the Pan-American highway ceases to exist, and we will have to come up with a way to get across the fabled Darien Gap.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

El Salvador-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica

El Salvador greeted us with good and smooth highways, on par with Canadian ones! Right from the border, we got a ride that was going straight to San Salvador, but we got off early because we wanted to find a good place to camp and not get stuck in a big city. The camping spot was perfect: tall grass, full moon and nobody around. Really hot though. In the morning we hitched to the city, where our senses were assaulted by the noisiest market we ever saw: everything from sweet buns to pens and bra´s can be bought right there, it was difficult to brush off the insisting vendors! In San Salvador we splurged for the first time in our trip: we got a room with hot shower and laundry included, and had the most relaxing evening in months. Next morning, a bus out of town and a ride that was supposed to take us all the way to Managua (capital of Nicaragua). When the pick up pulled over, we did not think there was room for us in the box, but the driver said:¨tranquilo, tranquilo¨, shuffeled a few bags around and we got in.Too damn bad that we did not have enough cash to pay the entrance fee into Nicaragua! So we had to overnight at the border and in the morning go back 50 kms and search for an ATM that is actually connected to the international system... We felt like schoolkids, taking the same exam third time in a row, when are we going to learn the f...g lesson!? Have extra cash stashed away!!!
Having this figured out, we rode from the Honduras-Nicaragua border in the comfort of a vacationing family, and in Nicaragua we were picked up by a Nicaraguan land surveyor, who invited us to stay the night at his house at Managua. His two sons and their friends played a rock gig in our honour in the living room and it was great to meet the real people of the land, you know... Father singing along with the tunes his sons are hammering out, it was goood!
From Managua, a straight ride to Rivas, where we camped on the shore of a freshwater lake, what a blessing! To be able to wash the road dirt off at the end of the day!
In the morning we had some good camp-stove coffee and when we were packing up, an ox cart went by, the driver casually said ¨buenos dias¨ and sped away...
The crossing of the Costa Rican border required quite a bit of patience, for the line up to get your passport stamped was 5 hours long!
From the border to San Jose we got a classic ride in the sleeper of a tractor trailer, spending the night in the cab with the driver...
In San Jose we are staying with a CS host for a few days and then we´d like to explore the country a bit more before moving on. We´ll see what happens!