Tracey says “you always say you travel for the food, but you haven’t really written about it.”
Well, here it goes.
As a chef, I learned that Mexico has one of the five ‘master’ cuisines, along with India, China, France, and the fifth one which I cannot remember (too many Pisco Sours I guess). Mexico did not disappoint – Standouts included:
Menudo: a tripe soup with fresh oregano, onions and lime in a thin broth with hominy. One of my all-time favourites.
Limonata: a wonderful fresh lime juice with a touch of sugar and sparkling water. This was made outstandingly by the bartender on the Mazatlan ferry.
Horchata: a rice-based drink with vanilla and cinnamon. Wow! Made in a small village near Mezcal.
Hot Chocolate: made fresh for Tracey. The chocolate was ground in a mortar and pestle, added to rich milk, and cooked on a tin sheet – over a cactus wood fire no less.
I don’t think we had a bad meal in Mexico. We searched out roadside stands and only ate inside once! The people are eager to add complex spices to the meals and the freshness was outstanding.
I have to mention the Chorizo. Being a sausage freak, I was happy to try out every variation of sausage to be found. Where was the best? Easy answer! We stopped at a roadside stand in Guatemala, where a man with a mop was brushing his grill with water to create steam for the cooking sausages. They were amazing! Just the right amount of smoke and stuffed with a very herbal mixture. I could have stayed at this roadside stand for a week.
Antigua,Guatemala surprised me. Confit? That’s what the menu says. Do they actually cook them in the melted goose fat? I must order it to find out. It’s just OK – not completely traditional, but the ambience and the 35 year old rum contributed to a great night out. The Sangria was pretty good too and Tracey said the bread pudding was her favourite. This same night we had an aperitif of hibiscus flowers and aguardiente (fire water) a great blend, not too toxic and very unique!
Nicaragua. In Leon we went to a traditional restaurant and I had the local specialty ‘Chanco con Yucca’ otherwise known as Sauerbraten. It was a fermented/pickled pork roast with a southern twist!
Gallo Pinto – rice and beans – all the time, everywhere – you can’t escape them. The same with Pollo Asado – roast chicken. In Mexico I kept screaming ‘pollo asado’ every time we passed a sign advertising roast chicken, harping on about getting some. Never had any the entire time we were in Mexico. Good thing, Seven countries later and it is the only thing on every menu and most times the only thing on the menu. I’m ready for something different. Oh, the Gallo Pinto was best in El Salvador.
Motoring down the highway in Costa Rica, we spot a couple of semi trucks out in front of a restaurant and a couple of local workers seem to be enjoying their meal inside. The decision is made, we pull in. Uh Oh, it is a Chinese restaurant. Well let’s try it anyway. One of the best chow meins we have ever had!
Panama forgot how to cook. No salt, no spices, no flavour? We ended up cooking our own food here, not for lack of trying the local fare. We went down to the ‘row’ where all the best restaurants were and……. Still the same result. Pack your own lunch here.
From Panama we hopped onboard the Stahlratte. One night we set up a grill on the beach and made skewers of some local fish. I did not see the fish but it’s meat was the toughest I have ever seen! I could not cut it with a knife let alone chew through it. Pass the salad. Otherwise the food on the boat was quite enjoyable. I volunteered to do the cooking for our merry band of 25 travellers for a couple of days and had fun rifling through the galley and trying to build a meal. Thanks Ludwig for letting me play.
Colombia beckons. Stayed tuned it starts to get funky now.
Eventually we head off again, toward the end of the road. The Pan-American Highway does not go all the way through Panama but terminates in the middle of the jungle in the vast wilderness region of the Darien Province, before starting again 150km further on in Colombia. This is the famous “missing link” of the Pan-American Highway that runs from Alaska To Puerto Montt,Chile – the break known as the Darien Gap. It’s literally the end of the road. Although a few intrepid travelers have crossed the gap, the area can typically be reached only by foot, boat, or small plane and any of these options are not terribly safe.
Regardless of the lack of road, we are headed that way. Our ride this morning takes us over seemingly endless steep hills and tight curves, largely on gravel roads. It takes us into Panama’s wildest region, the most difficult to reach, and the reason that we were about to surrender our three wheels in exchange for a sailboat.
We have booked passage on the SV “Stahlratte”, not a commercial sailing vessel, but a boat owned by a non-profit foundation for the purpose of providing a traveling platform for group life experience. The boat’s crew is composed of a captain and volunteers who work in a rotation system for three to six months without being paid. The income generated by carrying passengers pays for the expenses of the crew and maintenance of this historic ship.
Stahlratte, a 40m long, 235 ton traditional sailing ship built in 1903 in Holland is very well maintained and equipped for worldwide high sea sailing. It will make a spacious and comfortable home for the next four nights.
When we arrive at the dock, Miles quickly gets to the task of removing the sidecar from our Ural before both parts are lifted onto the Stahlratte directly from the dock by ropes and pulleys. It is strange to have our three wheels separated for the first time in their life and even more strange to see our Ural dangling from ropes over the ocean.
On this journey, the Stahlratte will be carrying 15 bikes and their riders along with six other travelers. There are several familiar faces as 13 of the other passengers had been staying with us at Panama Passage. Captain Ludwig and his crew, Floyd and Nichole, are doing a fabulous job of making all of us feel at home onboard.
Our route on the Stahlratte will take us along the Comarca de Kuna Yalais, a narrow, 226km long strip on the Caribbean coast that includes the Archipelago de San Blas, which stretches from the Golf de San Blás in Panama to the Colombian border. The islands are home to the Kuna, who run San Blas as an autonomous region with minimal interference from the national government. They have their own system of governance, language, customs and culture.
Most Kuna women continue to dress as their ancestors did. Their faces are adorned with a black line painted from the forehead to the tip of the nose, with a gold ring worn through the septum. Colourful fabric is wrapped around their waists as a skirt, topped by a short-sleeved blouse covered in brilliantly coloured molas (reverse appliqués). The women wrap their legs from ankle to knee in long strands of tiny beads, forming colourful geometric patterns. A printed headscarf and many necklaces, rings, and bracelets complete the wardrobe. They are a beautiful sight.
Forty of the San Blas islands are inhabited acre-sized cays packed with so many bamboo-sided, thatched-roof huts, people, and dogs that there is barely enough room to maneuver between them. On our first day on the Stahlratte, the boat is anchored near a few of the inhabited islands and we have an opportunity to visit two of the them, wandering through the villages and enjoying a barbecue dinner and a presentation of traditional dance by a dozen of the islands’ younger inhabitants.
As tempting as the waters appeared on this hot afternoon, there was no swimming today. A look at the number of outhouses perched over the ocean, was enough the change the mind of anyone tempted to dive in.
The next morning we awake to the view of dolphins swimming around the boat and islanders in their long carved canoes carrying passengers and goods between the islands.
Today we head out on about a two-hour sail, heading toward what many would consider paradise-on-earth, Cayos Coco Bandero, a group of six uninhabited islands where we will remain anchored for two nights. Most of the nearly 400 islands of San Blas look as if they are part of the set of Fantasy Island: uninhabited islands covered by coconut trees and ringed by white-sand beaches with the turquoise Caribbean lapping at their shores. It feels like heaven-on-earth to be able to jump off the side of the boat and swim to a nearby uninhabited island through warm clear waters and arrive on picture-perfect beach covered in 12 inch starfish. A Kuna boat returns us to the island later in the day for dinner and a huge bonfire. Later in the evening, we watch sea turtles and rays swimming past the ship. Even better, we are here for a second day, allowing us to repeat the experience all over again. What more can I say. Everything about our surroundings makes it feel as if we are living in a dream.
In a protectionist move to preserve local culture, the Kuna Congress passed a law several years ago that prohibits outsiders from owning property in the Comarca. The law has kept foreign investment out of the region. Knowing how protective the Kuna are of their environment it was difficult not to think about the impact that our visit was having on this community. The revenue from our time on the islands, the transportation that we hire to get us from land to the boat, our dinner on the inhabited island, and the few coconuts that we purchase could play a role in the development of the region. But we remain aware of not doing damage to the nature on the islands and of being sensitive to the plight of the Kuna. We are conscious of being respectful of their culture, keeping covered up in the same way that they do. Knowing that tourism is developing rapidly in the region, the invasion of foreigners poses a major threat to the preservation of Kuna culture. The Kuna Congress has now started to debate the extent to which foreigners should be granted access to their Comarca. In the years that follow, it is likely that the Kuna Congress will ban photography in certain areas while prohibiting tourist traffic in others. We feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience this culture while it is still possible to do so.
On our fourth morning on the boat, we awake to find that the ship has now set sail to Cartagena, Colombia, a trip that will take over 24 hours. During the course of the day, the boat is passed over twice by a U.S. KC-135 military plane and also passes a submarine. Knowing the volume of drug trafficking that takes place in these waters, all of this action makes me feel like we are somehow in the centre of an international drug ring. Perhaps we are.
Heading up to the deck the following morning, we are already heading into the bay at Cartagena. After several hours enjoying the views in the bay and waiting for our turn at customs, the time comes to unload the bikes. Miles supervises the Ural being lowered onto a dinghy and then gingerly sits on top of two of our three wheels as they are transferred to solid ground. Once the side car arrives on the next dinghy, he is back at work re-joining our three wheels and getting us back on the road, now on an entirely new continent.
Thank you to Sandra, Jordan, Mirjam and Daan for the great photos of unloading our Ural in Cartegena.
Arriving in Panama we have a feeling that we have actually re-entered the U.S. as we roll down a four-lane divided highway with police speed traps everywhere. Our first couple of nights are spent in the city of David, the country’s second-largest city and half-way between San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) and Panama City(the capital of Panama).
As we begin to head further into Panama, we recognize that this thin squiggle of land offers a surprisingly diverse selection of landscapes and a melting pot of cultures.
We arrive in Panama City on the Pan-American Highway, first crossing the famed Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas before arriving in the Balboa district of the city. Panama is a centralized nation, with about a third of its population of three million living in Panama City. As we look over the canal toward a sea of skyscrapers, it is obvious that Panama City is reinventing itself as something more than home to a canal.
Our destination in the city is Panama Passage, a guest house specifically for overland travelers. Staying here is a great decision. It is a nice change to be surrounded by like-minded people who don’t think we are completely insane. Our fellow guests included travelers from the U.S., Britain,the Netherlands, Germany, and Ecuador. We were part of a great mix of individuals traveling on their own, as a couple, with friends, by 4×4, and on motorbike.
On our first evening, we head out with the other guests of Panama Passage to the Amador Causeway at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The causeway is a 2 km palm-tree-lined stretch of land connecting four small islands to the mainland. Once the haunt of pirates, the islands were connected in the early 1900s with rock and dirt excavated from the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal to form a breakwater for a protective harbour for ships waiting to enter the canal. Along the causeway, we enjoyed views across the water to the city’s glittering skyline.
Panama Passage is situated in a great location allowing us to walk to the Mercado Público, the covered farmer’s market of Panama City, where we purchase fruits, vegetables, and most of the makings of our meals for a few days. We create a connection with four fellow travelers to share dinner-making duties over four days which allows us to have some fun in the kitchen and also enjoy the great cooking of some of our fellow travelers.
One morning we head off with Mirjam and Daan (www.farawayfromflakkee.nl) to Parque Natural Metropolitano, the only protected tropical forest within the city limits of a major urban area in the Americas. This 265 hectare park is located on the northern edge of Panama City and partially overseen by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which carries out scientific studies here. This land is the protected home of more than 200 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. We quickly delve into the earthy environs of thick jungle, enjoying the quiet and dappled sunlight. Almost immediately, we spot a group of tamarins (pint-sized primates) making their way across our path. We see plenty of birds, duck out of the path of the occasional butterfly, and spend time watching the mesmerizing army ants trekking across the trail. Eventually our trail heads up Cedro Hill to a 150m lookout point with sweeping views of the city, the bay, and the canal.
Later the same day I join Helen and Paul (www.goingoverland.com ) on a visit to Panama’s star attraction, the Panama Canal. We visit the Miraflores Locks, watching a couple of ships pass through the locks and touring the fabulous visitor centre which provided a wealth of information about the canal’s history and its impact on world trade as well as information on how the region’s natural environment is crucial to the function of the canal.
A few nights into our stay at Panama Passage we are joined by fellow Calgarians, Sandra and Jordan (www.hasselmann.wordpress.com ) whom we met at home earlier in the year. We had been hoping to meet up with them on the road and although they had left Calgary a few months before us, they had enjoyed a longer tour of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico and then faced some weather challenges in Central America getting them into Panama City just a few days behind us. It is great to see some familiar faces.
On our final day in Panama City, we join Helen and Paul to visit Casco Viejo, the city centre during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the last century, as population growth and urban expansion pushed the urban boundaries further east, the city’s elite abandoned Casco Viejo for other parts of the city and the antique mansions were left to rot. The neighborhood rapidly deteriorated into somewhat of an urban slum with low-income families and squatters moving in. Regardless, it is a charming neighborhood with narrow streets, turn-of-the 19th-ceutury Spanish, Italian, and French-influenced architecture, bougainvillea-filled plazas, and a breezy promenade jutting into the sea. There is now a public and privately-funded project underway to restore the areas buildings and the neighborhood’s historical importance.
Many people have commented that we need water wings or scuba gear for this trip. While it is entirely true that we have commented about the rain, it is not a continuous thing. It just seems like the adventures have been happening around it.
A quick recap:
USA – ten minutes of rain while we are at a gas station.
Mexico – 2 minutes while at a market and a great thunderstorm, while in the comfort of a room with a great view.
Guatemala – maybe an hour, can’t remember where.
El Salvador – rained just as we got our hotel sorted in La Libertad. Rained hard the next morning all the way to the Honduras border.
Honduras – rained at the border then cleared up.
Nicaragua – Rained as we came into Leon.
Costa Rica – rained at the border, then again as we entered La Fortuna. Rained big-time from San Jose to just before the Panama Border.
Panama – rained a bit at David.
So looking back we actually only got good and wet a couple of times. The side benefit is that it is usually very light and usually still a hundred degrees outside. We probably could have stayed dry in most places by choosing to get a hotel a bit earlier or lunch a bit later.
In ten thousand kilometers it is amazing that we have only really been caught in one big storm – in Costa Rica while climbing out of San Jose, heading over the mountains and toward the ocean. (Incidentally, this is where we saw a perfectly good jetliner parked beside a river in the jungle. No idea how it got there or why!) The flooding in Nicaragua was caused upstream from where we were, so we got wet from the bottom up on that one.
The rain that I encounter during my commute from Calgary to Red Deer every week is a lot more unpleasant!
We are still laughing. We knew this was the rainy season and it has actually been far less unpleasant than we were prepared for. The Ural continues to allow us an opportunity to experience our world through the smells, the sights and the smiles of the locals.
Oh, I have stopped chastising Tracey for bringing her hair dryer – I have been using it to dry my boots out!