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.