When I left the France to make my way back to the starting line of the South American stage of my expedition I underestimated just how long it would take me to get there. It certainly wasn’t just to jump on a plane, pick up my gear and get going. The Darien Gap was going to make things a lot more difficult and add a lot of time.
I left Bordeaux Airport at 6am on Wednesday, 1 July and headed to Amsterdam where I spent 5 hours waiting for my flight to Panama City. I arrived there at 5pm local time and then made my way to the hostel where my stroller was being looked after. I arrived only to find that it was fully booked and there were no beds available. After a long flight this was hardly ideal but with a little bargaining I manaeged to claim a space in the movie theatre and managed to catch a few interrupted hours sleep.
The next day was spent catching up on admin, getting supplies and preparing for my journey to Turbo in Colombia where I was to start the next leg of my adventure. There are three different possabilites for getting to Turbo, Colombia. The first option is to fly to Medellin and then get a bus 300 km north. I discarded this option because, well it was too easy and it would also mean that I would see the route I then had to run down. Knowing where you are going is not as exciting… The second option was to get a sailing boat from Colon to Cartagena, via the San Blass Islands. This is the preferred route by travellers and tourists but takes 5 days and costs about $550 which is slightly out of my budget. The last option was the most adventurous and obviously the one I took.
This blog will serve as part one of this particular adventure and take me to an island just of Puerto Carti. It started a 5am on Friday, 3 July, with a 4wd journey from Panama City to the coast. My first hurdle was to attach my stroller to the roof of a jeep in a secure enough fashion that nothing would escape while on the motorway. Once that was achieved we criss-crossed the city picking up other passengers. As the first to be picked up I had the privileged position to be in the passenger seat. However this was taken away from me when the driver pointed out that I was the shortest and was banished to the back seat with my knees up by my ears. A blatant form of size-ism if you ask me!!!
My previous journey to the Darien took me down most of the road but after about 70km we took a left into the San Blass Hills. Here we climbed up steep hills and then delved back down the other side for about an hour. While I hadn’t actually run this section I didn’t feel guilty for not jogging. With a month off running undertaking these hills first would have been a mistake.
When we finally arrived at Puerto Carti I was informed that there were no boats to the Puerto Olvidia and was told I couldn’t camp at the port. The only option was to take a quite boat ride to the closest island that was a Kuna settlement. I was assure that once I was there I could find a cheap place to stay and would be able to find a boat to my next destination. So having removed my stroller from a jeep, I transferred it to a speed boat.
The journey over was uneventful. However the island where we arrived was remarkable. Every inch of the island was used in some way and piers branched out in to the sea like tentacles. The boat pulled up next to a restaurant and I was put ashore on to a rickety wooden pier. I made my way inside to a room with a concrete and sand floor with parrots walking around. I was informed that there would be no boats today and was shown up stairs to a dormitory with 7 beds and no luxuries. After a little sleeping (something I have felt deprived of recently) I set off to explore the island.
There are no cars, van or even bikes on the tiny little island. The streets are narrow (just over a metre wide) and crisscross every available bit of land. The huts are mostly made of wood and have mud floors. As with other parts of Central America they all have TV aerials and huge plasma TVs that seem very out of place. The great thing about communities like this is that all the doors and windows are open which means you get a real sense of what life it like. The people all seem very kind and welcoming. One thing I love is that they are all very short which makes me feel like a giant! The men mainly wear shorts and t-shirts but the women are mostly dressed in traditional clothing. This normally includes a piece of cloth covering the head and then brightly coloured cloth over their bodies. Their arms and legs are covered in colourful beads and they quite often have gold rings in their nose. I am not sure what the significance is but many have markings down the length of their nose, I am not sure if it is a tattoo or simple decoration.
After my first night on the island I tried to get an update on the boat situation. I found a member of the local military police and he took me to the gas station where the boats refill. They all directed my back to my hostel. I returned and got introduced to the fixer whose name was “Negra”. Using his two phones and after a lot of procrastinating he informed me that there was one more person arriving from Panama to take the journey and that I would have to wait an extra day.
So that is where you find my now (4th of July)– sitting on my bed on a small island community off the coast of Panama.