Panama city is a strange place. Home to thousands of international corporations, banks and the like, some streets are a window into a world of riches so far removed from your own. Despite this, we heard it to be one of the most dangerous cities around. One big Ukrainian bike tourer I had met back in Peru, described fighting seven guys off to save his bike, although the same couldn’t be done for his phone and wallet. The next afternoon he went back in the middle of the day with another guy to see if they had dumped his passport nearby, only for four guys to try and jump them again! Hence we were keen to keep our wits about us as we crossed town to meet a friend of a friend. Surse is Panamanian, but I had met him in Bristol through a good mate there. Upon seeing I was in town he reached out, inviting us out to join him and his Dad for a beer. So we donned our best clothes (mine being a silver silk shirt with some leopard print for those wondering), before joining them at a pub. They were keen to hear about what we were doing, and took great interest in our boat escapade across from Colombia and what we had seen regarding the migrants crossing there.
After a few hours of good chat, they offered to drive us back to our hostel. On the way I asked Surse (his Dad was also confusingly called Surse) whether the area we were staying in was safe, to which he said, ‘it’s pretty good, but you did have your incident not far from here didn’t you son.’ The obvious question was of course what was the incident? To which he described being stabbed three times in the chest and left on the pavement to die… Bloody hell! We thanked them both for the lift and didn’t leave our room all night! Later that same evening we found out that Surse’s dad was the General manager of the free Zone of Colon in Panama. Essentially he controlled the Atlantic side of the Panama canal’s trade zone and port surrounding the city of Colon. It is one of the biggest free trade zones in the world, stationed right next to the most sought after piece of engineering in the world. We had no idea whilst talking to him, but now his interest in the story about the migrants crossing into Panama seemed to carry more weight.
Riding out of the city, we headed for the Panama canal. It was awesome to see it up close, watching huge cargo ships and navy vessels pass through the system being pulled along by these small trains. After enjoying the museum, we opted to watch the 45 minute movie about it narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman. A huge gig for Morgan that one… After listening to his dulcet tones describing the French being killed by yellow fever carrying mosquito’s, we were back on our bikes heading north.
The roads weren’t anything to shout about, there is practically only one road that runs along Panama and it’s a big motorway. We hopped into the hard shoulder and began pedalling our way along what we suspected would be a dull few days, or possibly few weeks of this up central. After 100km’s I was feeling my bike reacting in a strange way. You become so in tune with how the bike feels that any small changes are picked up immediately. Something felt loose around the back wheel when descending quickly – not ideal. It was the end of the day anyway, so we went over to the local bomberos (fire station) who were happy to let us stay on their land. I checked the hub and found some play in the wheel that hadn’t been there before. My brake in turn was no longer functioning properly and there was globules of grease that had seeped out of the hubs housing – this was really not good. Hubs are not something you don’t wish to be prizing open and playing with inside a disused dusty room of a fire station, far from a bike shop. Allowing any more dirt inside the housing or grease to leave could dry it out completely, then it wouldn’t be long until it seized.
This was not the kind of mechanical that I could just ride on with, so a trip to a bike shop was needed. With Panama city easily accessible by bus from here, I decided to take the wheel back to a good mechanic for it to be fixed. I messaged a couple that night, with one guy replying pretty positively that he thought he could fix it. The next morning we grabbed an early bus back into town, before dropping off the wheel with him. With the day to kill, we ended up watching a horror movie in the cinema about a group of people who downloaded an app that tells them when they’re about to die. It was all a bit surreal, walking around a shopping mall and going to the cinema, I haven’t loitered with intent like that since i was about 14. Unfortunately after all the hanging around, it turned out the repair hadn’t gone as smoothly as hoped – the mechanic couldn’t swap in a new part into the housing – instead he had serviced the hub. I took it back on the bus, praying that it would see me through at least to Mexico where I reckoned I could get a proper replacement.
The next day was a hot one full of yet more mechanicals for me. My panniers fell apart for the millionth time, prompting me to fit more metal nuts and bolts to replace the Ortliebs feeble plastic/metal combination that has been the bane of mine and many tourers lives. Promptly after, I then had a problem with my brakes, front mech and then to top it off, a huge nail went straight through my tyre. Eventually I was back in action, riding into the sunset with Rodrigo in tow. We made it to another bomberos, where they were kind enough to let us camp in their yard. Whilst setting up our tents however, a neighbour poked her head over the fence to tell us that there were some nasty snakes that frequent where we were setting up. Brilliant. She talked to the guys from the fire station who also agreed, then directing us to a path of floor to sleep on inside. We joined them for dinner before all having a good laugh and joke about cycling and being a fire fighter. Whilst we were sat down, the neighbouring girl walked round with a few friends, one of which was having a birthday party, carrying a load of food. They decided we must have been hungry, and had brought us yet more food to eat. We had a chat and they wished us the best. The fire fighters looked on in dismay, ‘you’ve been here 10 minutes and people are bringing you free food?!’ Bloody gringos!
The next days were tough. Undulating roads and more of that heat. We stayed with a nice family that we met in a small town the following day, but apart from that, it was just a case of putting in miles in. Crossing into Costa Rica we found the big roads shrank to beautiful two lane things, with dense jungle imposing on either side. Immediately it felt as though we were in a paradise, making cycling all day a much nicer prospect. After one day of riding in the new country, we found ourselves a cool beach hostel in Uvita, where we could celebrate Rodrigo’s birthday. The place had a great vibe, and we spent most of the day playing frisbee on the beautiful beach and surfing the constant waves that rolled in. It felt like an alternative universe to that of the bike touring. We decided to take it easy the next day, riding 60km’s in the morning which would allow us to catch some waves in the afternoon in Quepos. The surf was steeper here and we didn’t have much luck on the boards, but still it felt nice to be in the water.
Another big shift brought us to Puntarenas and El Roble. We had organised for a care package of spare parts to be shipped over to a local guy called Alex, so we headed over to his place first thing. The package hadn’t arrived, so we worked out a rough plan of action, deciding to hole up on the beach spit that is Puntarenas for two days. I was scheduled to have an interview for PhD application I had made, so it made sense to stay put in an attempt to allow me a chance at blowing two years worth of cycling cobwebs from my chemistry knowledge. Two days passed without word from the post office despite FedEx saying the parcel was situated there. What to do? The package contained Rodrigo’s laptop that he had wanted to do some work with, so we reckoned it might be its value that was holding it in customs. That evening I made a route on Strava going from Puntarenas all the way up to New York, via the places we wanted to visit – it was frightening. In order to make it back to the UK for our Grandads 90th birthday, we needed to average 750km’s a week, for the next 10 weeks. Oh dear! All that time we had spent riding the TEMBR route in Ecuador and getting a boat to Panama, this is where it had bit us. We knew we faced some long weeks ahead in the saddle, but averaging, averaging over 100km’s a day everyday for 60 days was way more than we anticipated.
Rodrigo said he would wait for the package and join me once it arrived, leaving me able to finish my line around the world. We thought it could only take a day or two and then he would be able to jump on a bus and catch me up in next to know time. Oh how wrong we were…
I set off at dawn the next day, watching the sunrise reflecting off the sea as I made my way of the Puntarenas spit of land. It felt strange to be cycling without Rodrigo, we had been a team for over two months now, negotiating the highs and lows of bike touring together. Of course I had ridden mostly on my own for the past two years, but you soon adjust to riding as a pair. To kick things off, I put down a solid morning of riding, keen to eat into that huge kilometre count. By lunch I had done 135km’s to the city of Liberia, it was a good start. I checked my emails on the McDonalds wifi just before leaving to find I was being asked for another PhD interview the following day! AH! I hurriedly found another hostel with good wifi nearby, deciding to stop my riding here to give me time to prepare. The interview was scheduled for the next morning at 11AM, so it would entail writing off the majority of two days – I could feel the miles slipping between my fingers.
By the time the interview was put to bed, I was back on the road for a stunning sunset ride. Volcanoes to my right and the sea to my left. I cycled the 60km’s to a town close to the Nicaraguan border where I bedded down for the night. Crossing into Nicaragua the next day was unfortunately a bit of a hassle. To leave Costa Rica you have to pay a tax at a small office, then queue to get stamped out, then in Nicaragua you have to pay another tax and queue. Once at the front of the queue, the woman took issue with my bike. She handed my passport to a colleague who took it away to a back room without letting me follow – shit. I stood there like a lemon as people passed through without issue, hoping there wasn’t a serious problem. Between people the woman said I might fall off my bike on the dangerous roads here and she needed to refer my application to enter. It was unbelievably stupid, and as I look back now I think they were just wanting a bribe. But I stood right next to her box for over an hour, making my presence known until they finally decided I could go through. It was all a game, but when that game involves passport officers, you have to just stand there and smile. Don’t do anything stupid.
It had taken me the best part of three hours to get through, and riding to the capital of Managua before dark was looking a little touch and go. I wasn’t looking to take any chances in central America, I knew some cities were incredibly dangerous and didn’t fancy conducting an experiment to see if Managua was one of them.
The first thing I noticed about Nicaragua was the volcanoes. They are like something out of a kids comic – huge cones rising out of the ground spewing out ash. I had never seen an active volcano before, and I eagerly watched them for hours. At almost any point in the country you can see at least one poking out. So my ride was split into volcanic markers, with my position relative to them being my indicator of how far I’d come. Unfortunately the wind wasn’t on my side as I slowly battled away from one volcano to the other. Come 5 and I was still 25km’s away from the city after a long day in the saddle. I turned a corner at the top of hill and felt the wind at my back for the first time. The road was arrow straight into Managaua, I reckoned I could go the distance before dark. I pushed hard, chuffed to make it to the hostel before sundown.
Of course it was a quick turn around – me leaving before sunrise at 5am the following morning. Yet more volcanoes to aim for on my journey north, and many, many more podcasts to devour. I had happily set aside the audiobook on batteries that I had been listening to for my interview, instead opting to listen to Jonny Wilkinson walk me through his world cup winning drop goal back in 2003. I pretended I was 9 all over again, screaming at the tv as it happened – it was a good temporary distraction from the monotonous roads. Around lunchtime I met a tourer coming the other way. He was the first cyclist I’d seen in ages so we stopped for a chat. An older bloke from Manchester, he made me laugh calling all the border guards in Nicaragua ‘a bunch of wankers’ in a thick manc accent. ‘They made me go back and forth and then pay for their bloody tax in dollars, they don’t even use dollars here the bunch of wankers.’ If Jonny’s podcast interview was a small slice of home, then this was a full helping – it tickled me for hours.
The last few hours of the day were spent circumnavigating halfway round a big volcano, before heading straight for the Honduras border. It was getting on a bit and I had no intention of crossing that night. I watched one of the most beautiful sunsets unfold from the bike and then put in an hour in the dark. There were no real towns to stop beforehand, and I didn’t want to pitch my tent in the dark, unsure if it would be safe to do so. As I clicked over 200km’s ridden that day I started to feel uneasy. On the outskirts of the town kids began shouting at me from places in the dark. It wasn’t that fun shouting ‘ah there’s a cyclist’, it felt malicious. I stuffed my passport and debit card into my bib shorts whilst cycling as fast as possible to where I knew there was a guesthouse. Knocking hard on the metal door, they let me in before closing up right behind me. After sorting out a spot to sleep there, I asked if there was somewhere close by to get food. The guy looked at me and said that I should stay inside tonight. ‘To the left, it’s a bit dangerous, to the right, back the way I came, it’s very dangerous for you.’ I wasn’t about to question him, it had been stupid to push so hard into the dark to get here, so I was more than okay with biscuits for dinner that night.
I’d heard a lot about Honduras, almost all of it centred around it being one of the most dangerous countries. A few years previous it had been the genocide capital of the world, but I had never heard of cyclists having any problems passing through. Part of the reason I was so keen to ride to the border the night before, is so I could ride across the narrowest part of Honduras and into El Salvador in one day. I had no problems with the border this time around, leaving me plenty of time to ride. There was a stiff headwind the whole day, slowing me right down to a snails pace. One things I immediately notice about the country was the sheer numbers of gun there. Every petrol station had a bloke with a shotgun, and random people just seemed to be walking about armed. It was noticeably poorer than Nicaragua, with a lot of people living in higgledy piggledy huts similar to those I’d seen in Tajikistan. These people have had to endure a tough life, after the 2009 coup d’etait, crime surged until the country was reporting 20 homicides a day, making it the most violent country in the world in 2012. It is also known as a drug trafficking stop from south America as contraband makes its way up to the US. Combine the two and you can imagine the problems the country faces.
However that morning, as I cycled through a wooded area, a young girl, maybe only 2 or 3 years old was walking besides the road with her family. She saw me cycling along, shouted something and blew me a kiss. Her whole family were watching on, instantly breaking from sullen expressions into laughter, and there in that beautiful moment brought about by a child who knows nothing of the world she lives in, was an example of what is really important.
I was happy to be away from all the guns though. Crossing into El Salvador that evening I felt marginally safer. Not wanting to be out in the dark again, I grabbed a cheap guesthouse in the border town. The guy that owned it was dead friendly but slightly inconveniently had no arms. I mean it was definitely more inconvenient for him, but ‘umm, yeah, i’ll just leave the money on side for you then…’ After all I had seen today, I wasn’t about to ask. What followed after the armless man was two tough days on the bike. It was extremely hot again and the road quality was poor to start with. I was suffering after clocking up 500km’s in the past three days, all which had been into wind, so I decided to spend less time on the bike to allow myself more recovery time. I can’t say they were rest days, but two days of 110 km’s back to back definitely felt a load easier on the body. That brought me out to the awesome surf town of El Tunco. I had found the place completely by chance and it was buzzing with life. A chilled hostel gave me a cheap bed and I enjoyed a few hours watching the sun set into the sea with a book in one hand, and a beer in another. Local surfers rode the steep waves next to the rocks and I made a vow to return here whenever I needed a cheap surf holiday.
I had been in touch with Rodrigo most days since Costa Rica. The sheer amount of riding and tiredness already made Puntarenas already feel an age away – in reality it had only been just a week. He was at a surf hostel celebrating spring break with a load of American girls so I wasn’t too worried about him. Of course he wanted to be out here with me, but I reckoned if I showed him where I was now, he would happily wait out a couple more days of spring break parties for his laptop to arrive.
Time warps when riding long hours in the heat, you have to set yourself small milestones to tick off one at a time to keep motivated, yet even that can start to wane. The next morning I cycled into Guatemala following a beautiful coastal road for the first few hours. The country boasted a luscious green landscape punctuated by large brown volcanoes on the horizon. I watched them slowly move closer and then away as the hours ticked by. There was plenty I wanted to see in Guatemala, but in the past week the Coronavirus had made huge inroads into western Europe, and already country’s borders were starting to close. I’d heard Nicaragua was no longer open and I was worried Mexico would do the same. In Mexico I would have more options if I needed to move, but my main concern was not being able to get into the States. At least if I scrambled across the Mexican border, I would give myself the best possible opportunity to complete my trip cycling to New York. Get stuck in Guatemala and I would be in a real mess.
A day into the country and I reckoned I could be in Mexico come the following afternoon. It would be a big ask, but it seemed silly not to go for it. AFter a tiring day on the bike, I found a slightly run down looking motel and decided to call it a day there. ‘Numero tres’ said the guy, so I wheeled my bike into the garage and tried to open the door to number three. The room was locked but I could see a woman inside cleaning the room. I waited for a coupe of minutes before knocking again. She opened up the letterbox demanding money – ‘what?’. Then I noticed a sign on the wall, 1 hour = $12, 3 hours $30, oh bloody hell the place was a brothel! I was knackered and was so ready just to conk out asleep, but instead mounted the bike to the sound of ‘hey, hey, te no gusta la chica?’ Another half hour of riding saw me find a room that didn’t house a prostitute, and I was out like light.
Another hot day saw me to the border. A temperature test to see if I had coronavirus and I was in. I’d made it! The buildings were colourful and the town had a completely different feel to that of the other central American countries – it was alive. I celebrated arriving in Mexico with some tasty tacos for dinner and a suitably run down guesthouse. It was a welcome milestone. I was hoping for some more interesting riding to come in the new country, in reality I ended up cycled along a dull motorway for the next three days in the heat. One day I decided to go for a swim in a river to cool off. I spotted a nice enough looking river by the side of the road and quickly jumped in. Immediately I noticed this black mass coming towards me in the water from the other side of the river. An entire shoal of fish making a beeline for me. The fish started biting at my chest and I jumped out the water terrified I was about to be killed by Piranhas! I sat by the side of the river and put one of my feet into the water, watching as one of the fish came to investigate. It came closer and started nibbling the skin underneath my foot – it was one of those fish they use for spa treatments back in the UK. More and more then joined this one and I had to laugh. There I was thinking I was about to be eaten alive, when in fact people pay good money for this exact thing.
Whilst I was riding that evening, a car pulled over beckoning me to stop. Inside was a man called Rodrigo, he was apparently an active warmshowers host and invited me to stay with his family the following night. The next day I arrived in his beautiful little house, where he had two other French tourers staying. We had food and cracked a couple of beers together. They had decided to go back to France – the coronavirus was getting too crazy and they thought that was for the best. I was still adamant on carrying on up to the States and assessing the situation in a weeks time up there. I went to sleep only to wake up and hear that everything was changing, the States was starting to have huge outbreaks and the UK had entered a lockdown. Family were calling me to come back and almost every central American country was shutting shop. Rodrigo was scrambling to get his bike on one of the last flights out of Costa Rica and Mexico would soon surely be doing the same. The realisation hit me hard on the little concrete step outside Rodrigo’s house – the last two years of trying to cycle around the world was over, I had no choice but to go home, go home having not completed what I set out to do. I knew in the grand scheme of things it was insignificant, but departing from that goal in the space of half an hour, right then and there wasn’t made any easier.
I promised I would come back to this exact spot and finish riding to New York, it was non negotiable, but for now, I would take a bus to Mexico City before flying back to London. It was heartbreaking, but it was reality. Seeing me deflated by the situation, Rodrigo invited me to come with him to school – I was to help out in the kids English class. All was well until he gave them free reign to ask me question in Spanish! I tried to hold my own, now being peppered by questions about my love life by 17 year old girls – ‘te gusta las chicas Mexicana?’
Then it was time for an overnight bus into the Mexico City to meet Rodrigo. He had landed safely and we were both booked onto a flight back to Heathrow. Here we talked with travellers over the coming days, all of which were struggling in one way or another to get home. Eventually our time had come. With bikes packed into boxes for the last time, we negotiated Mexico City airport to board the daily flight to London Heathrow. We toasted one final cerveza to our hopefully imminent return, to finish what we started and to be again free on the road. Beyond our two-week self isolation at home, the future was uncertain, but maybe this was an opportunity. I vowed that I would ride my bike everyday, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from the past two years, it’s the simple things that make me happy. We boarded our plane to find the cabin crew knew who we were – a family friend at BA had tipped them off. Two glasses of champagne were brought back to us, as the cabin crew wished us ‘happy birthday’ followed by a wink. Well, if we’ve got to come home, we’re coming home pissed.