Day 27 to 31
February 1 to 4, 2019
From Portobelo, Panama to Sapruzzo, Colombia
My research before the trip led me to the current situation, me and The Motorcycle sailing past the impassable parts between Panama and Colombia.
During the next four days at sea, I’d get to see many of the 365 San Blas Islands, gaze out into the thick Panamanian Jungle, and learn more about all those aboard the Catamaran Jacqueline.
Only 50 of San Blas Islands are inhabited. Most, are home to the Guna people, the indigenous people of Panama. We would often see the Guna people fishing the waters in their traditional hand-built dug out canoes or wandering about in their villages. When the catamaran would anchor for the end of a day of sailing, some Guna men approached and requested payment for our stay in their area. This was only about $2 (US) per person. During one visit on an island, we got to see how their lifestyles were so different. The Guna Rebellion of 1925 was against Panamanian suppression and they were able to maintain their traditional way of life in the Province of San Blas in Panama. While walking in their village, we saw how they live in huts, survive off of fishing and sales of traditional molas, and other income gathered from the occasional tourists. We saw a church with a cross, believed to be a remnant of the missionary work in the communities, traditional gravesites, and animals being held for consumption, including an iguana. Although they want to maintain their traditional way of life, solar panels, satellite dishes and cellular phones were common on the islands. Prior to leaving the island, we were treated to fresh picked coconuts which were chopped open by a village elder.
The southern part of mainland Panama and northern part of Colombia has few inhabitants and only one road leading to the Darien Gap, where the Pan-American Highway ends. While sailing, I kept looking out towards the jungle and wondered what it was like. Captain Fritz, was very adamant that travelling through those parts was simply too dangerous because of armed gorilla groups, drug smugglers, and the extreme wildlife. He mentioned a story of a Swiss man who tried to hike the Darien gap a few years back but never made it. Two years after his disappearance it was revealed that he was shot by a group in the Darien gap who thought he was a spy. Another story told was of two Dutch women, about 21 years old, who were hiking through the jungles closer to Costa Rica and their remains were eventually found. It was believed that animals killed and ate them.
The Catarmaran Jacqueline is owned by the Captain Fritz Breckner, an Austrian who has been sailing for several years, and the past 6 in the San Blas Islands. I found out about him and his ability to transport motorcycles from Panama to Colombia by making several internet searches and eventually being referred by another sailing charter. Captain Fritz pointed to a shipwreck and said “want to see where all of my life’s earnings have gone?” He pointed to a shipwreck in the distance and said he purchased the former Bay of Fundy ferry, the MV Grand Manan in 2011 so that he could start a ferry service between Panama and Colombia. But while he waited for approval from the government departments in both countries, he tried to retrieve a shipwrecked catamaran, one of the engines stalled and the ferry ended up on the rocks. I was able to see the wreck in the distance but not close enough to see details or take a picture. (I later found a CBC report <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/grand-manan-ferry-panama-fritz-breckner-1.3897918> which confirmed the story) (MATTEO or SONYA please add this link https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/grand-manan-ferry-panama-fritz-breckner-1.3897918).
I got to know the other passengers and crew during the sailing trip and was happy to share my time with kind and interesting people. Although the turbulent waters during the first morning made me sea sick and uncomfortable for hours, I was well enough on the second morning to do a little snorkelling. I was able to see a lot of colour and life by the coral reefs, including lobsters, pipefish, and cuttlefish. Later, Tülay saw a large turtle and I saw a dolphin and lots of flying fish leaping out of the water.
On the last day, I came to realize that the risky transportation of my motorcycle was far from over. We arrived at the first Colombian city of Sapzurro and dropped anchor about 200 metres away from the shore. The Motorcycle was then tied up and hoisted up into the air, as it was when we first got it on the catamaran, but this time it was offloaded onto the dingy! As it was placed on the dingy, José, Vic and I made sure that it did not fall into the water. With the side stand down for some (little) security, I sat/stood on the motorcycle to keep it upright while Vic and José held on to different ends. José then started the motor and we made our way towards the shore. As I held on for the dear life of the Motorcycle, I thought that it was too bad I didn’t have my helmet on so that I could film this ride on the water. As we approached the shore, the harder part started. Getting the elephant out of the dingy! We tried from the back end and were not able to lift its rear. After many attempts we decided to turn the dingy sideways towards the beach and deflated it enough so that we could lift the front wheel over. Soon we were able, with the help from another guy on the beach, to get the motorcycle totally out of the dingy but slightly in the water on the shore. a few pushes later we were able to get the Motorcycle off the beach, onto the boardwalk and eventually to the hostel where I would be staying the night. As I was hosing down the Motorcycle with some fresh water to get rid of the salt water, Vic and José returned to the Catamaran and brought back all my luggage.
So, step one was done. Now it was time to get my exit stamp out of Panama… yeah, I’m not really sure how and why we set foot in Colombia first, but anyway… so we got back on the catamaran and set off for Puerto Obladía, Panama’s easternmost port. As we approached, Rose told me that she knew this place to make its money from tourism, fishing, and smuggling; but not necessarily in that order. I quickly observed that there was only one person who looked like a tourist and that there were no fishing facilities. After getting my outgoing immigration stamp, we tried to get me a boat to take me to Capurgána for Colombian Immigration, and then back to Sapzurro. No one was willing to do it for only one person. Eventually, Fritz referred me to Carlo, who reluctantly agreed to take me back for $60. I said goodbye to my friends on the catamaran and was left in the hands of Carlos. For the next while I watched Carlos exit his very well furnished home (relative to all his neighbours), pack some items, including a large knife that he slowly (likely deliberately) placed with his gear. I then followed him about 200 metres to where he bought some gas for the container he carried and then to a boat on the shore. During all this time, Carlos hardly uttered a word and never looked me in the eyes or smiled. This was a really weird experience. The boat ride to Capurgána was extremely uncomfortable as we often crashed down onto waves. The trip lasted about 25 minutes and was definitely worth the money Carlos settled for. After seeing Colombian Immigration and having to pay them an $80 (US) entrance fee, I was brought back to Sapzurro.
Supzurro, is the first Colombian town past the Panamanian border. It is a very nice place with clean beaches, lots of backpackers, coffee shops, restaurants, and hostels. It backs onto the Darien Gap and is isolated from other communities by land. I met with Jorge Mario, the hostel owner and person who would be able to arrange the transportation for me and the Motorcycle to the Colombian mainland. He made arrangements for the Motorcycle to be brought to the mainland city of Turbo by getting it on a cargo boat that night. It was going to cost me another $150 (US) Since I had spent more than I was expecting and none of little costal towns I was in had an ATM, payment was now an issue. In a short time, Jorge Mario was able to call and convince the boat’s captain that I would pay for the transportation in Turbo before retrieving the Motorcycle. I had just enough money left to pay for the hostel, a meal, and a ticket for another boat ride for myself, this one to Turbo.
Getting the Motorcycle on the boat was much easier than it was to get it on and off the Catamaran. All that was needed was a ride on the town’s main dock and then on a small ramp to get onboard the boat. I loaded and secured it and all my luggage and then went back to the hostel. I felt a little uneasy leaving the motorcycle in unknown hands.
During that evening I got to know Jorge Mario a little more. He reminds me of Mr. Wolf from the movie Pulp Fiction. He is a Colombian who spent several years studying and working in New Jersey, Miami and Spain before deciding to settle in the remote and charming community of Sapzurro. His hostel, La Posada, and another one he runs with friends, La Dule, are wonderful and inexpensive ways to spend time in Sapzurro. Jorge Mario, an architect by trade, has come to know how to get things done in this part of the Caribbean. He said he has arranged motorcycle transportation for MANY riders wanting to get South or North of this impassable land. He then explained some of the many dangers and events that have recently happened. He said a few weeks earlier, about 17 migrants coming from somewhere in Africa by boat, died when the boat capsized near Sapzurro. He then talked about the many tourists that have tried to wander into the jungle but never make it out alive. He said that he has had to deal with the removal of several venomous snakes in and around his properties. He also mentioned being woken up by huge animals that got out of the jungle one night and were on the hostel he was building… which was exactly where I would be staying… gulp!
Because the City of Turbo is complicated and has a high crime rate, Jorge Mario suggested that I use one of his friends, Louis, to get the many things I need done in Turbo before I could travel off. I took his warnings and agreed to get the assistance of his friend. He suggested that I should probably give him about $40 after I get his assistance.
Next day will take me to Turbo and whatever unexpected situation will arise from there.