After receiving confirmation and encouragement from our boat captain that we would be able to ride unobstructed all the way to Carti, the four of us Daryll, Naomi, Alberto and I set off at 7 am to catch our boat. Seventy-five kilometers later we arrived at the same Police blockade controlling the road that we had encountered the day before. This time we were not taking no for an answer. Alberto, in his fluent Spanish and swift strategy, decided to tell the officers that we were going to visit a motorcycle friend just past the blockade and that our “friend” was going to meet us to take us to his “non-flooded ranch”. The police bought our story and let us pass through the blockade.
The four of us had agreed earlier that before we maneuvered our motorcycles through any potentially hazardous situations that we would stop and assess the situation, and definitely not put ourselves in any danger. We however did not want to be stopped by a fickle road blockade and by people who had not actually experienced the road conditions themselves and who were simply reporting on hearsay. After the blockade the road swiftly became full of potholes and while we stopped to put on our rain gear, we noticed the flooded forest beside us.
About 25 km past the road block we came upon our challenge. It was a standing river, flooded over the road, about 2 feet deep, mid-thigh level. After we watched a small 4 x 4 truck drive straight through, we discussed the possibility of pot-holes and getting water in the exhaust, and then Alberto jumped on his bike and started to drive through the river.
photo by Naomi
Three quarters of the way through he purposely killed his engine as he was losing power, and did not want to risk sucking up water. Daryll and I splashed through the river to help him push his bike up the small hill on the other side. Although we were tired from the effort, and our boots and motorcycle gear were full of water, we realized it wasn’t that bad (kind of fun actually for 9:15 am on a Friday) so we were willing to do the same with the other three bikes. The only problem we had was that Alberto’s bike was having trouble starting again now that we got it to the other side. We decided to simply push the other 3 bikes all the way through the river and give Alberto’s spark plugs time to dry out. We covered our exhausts with plastic bags and Daryll pushed and steered our bikes through the river while Naomi and I pushed from behind. In the water we noticed spiders walking along the surface and snakes swimming to the top. We tried not to think about the potential of disease as clearly Naomi and I were having a good time (compared to Daryll and Alberto).
photos by Alberto
We were quiet ecstatic when all four bikes were on the other side of the river as we emptied our boots and tried to assist Alberto in getting his bike running again.
We were concerned about the condition of the up-hill dirt road through the mountains to the coast that we still had to encounter but we inquired with the emergency vehicles and police trucks that passed and everyone seemed to confirm that our particular road would be passable but the mud may take us 3 hours or so to get through. Everyone we met were super supportive and encouraging and nobody seemed to question our presence in the area other than to inquire if we needed any help. One police officer pulled out a string of about 30 little connected packages, I thought he was handing me condoms at first (ha, ha), but then I realized they were water purification tablets. He went on to explain how to obtain 10 liters of safe drinking water from each package and asked me to share them with my friends. I was quite touched by his gesture. I took them but pictured myself leaving this valuable resource with one of the locals as we boarded our boat. As we worked to drain Alberto’s spark plugs and jump start his bike, we watched trucks loaded with people and possessions drive to the other side of the river. We saw men, women and children fleeing with live chickens and TVs and an emergency pontoon boat was dispatched on our side of the river to help with the crossing, as crew distributed candy. It seemed a bit crazy that we were working so hard to get deeper into a community evacuated due to flooding, but in order for us to cross the Darien Gap with our 4 motorcycles we were adamantly pursuing one of only two options. When a 4 x 4 private vehicle coming in the opposite direction stopped to tell us that the port was closed, the San Blas Islands were under an evacuation order, and that Fitz the boat captain had canceled our sailing, our whole plan changed. The lady kindly let us borrow her cell phone and Naomi confirmed with Fitz that we should return to Panama City as presently it was too rough to sail and he had actually damaged his rudder under the sever weather conditions and it would take a week to fix.
As we were digesting this new information and continuing repairs on Alberto’s dead bike, we realized the river we had to turn around and re-cross had actually risen significantly – about half a foot higher than our last crossing. And then it began to rain again. Besides Alberto’s dead bike, my bike was of the next concern as it is the lowest of all the bikes. During this re-cross we were no longer worried about getting water into my exhaust but the concern was now getting water in my air intake, located just below the bike’s seat. To test the depth of the rising water, we pushed Daryll’s bike back across the river first and the water just about engulfed the height of his entire wheel. As the water continued to rise and the rain continued to fall even harder, the urgency of getting the bikes back across the river increased. Smaller trucks that were crossing the river began to stall in the middle of it and some of them had their front fenders bent due to the force of the water they were pushing. Daryll and Naomi brought my bike back across the river next and we tested their efforts by starting my bike which purred to life effortlessly. As Alberto took apart his bike under a tarp, Daryll moved our gear back across the water. Since the emergency personal and boat was not actively being used to move evacuees at that moment they happily agreed to ferry our stuff across the water.
The emergency people were so amazingly kind, they offered to feed us lunch and even apologized for the weather!
Once Naomi and then Alberto crossed their bikes back over the river, the volunteer mechanics which were standing by, agreed to help Alberto jump-start his bike. The issue with his bike was not the spark plugs as when he reached them, they were bone dry. First they tried pushing Alberto’s bike down a hill, which we had tried earlier on the opposite side of the river without success. Then the mechanics offered to pull Alberto behind a moving vehicle while he popped the clutch and started the bike. On the second attempt, in first gear, Alberto’s bike roared to life. The bike actually crashed once it got started but Alberto managed to stay on bike and pull in the clutch as it hit the ground so that his bike would not stall again. Now that’s commitment. By this time it was about 4 pm so we were so thankful that his bike was running again so we could all ride back to Panama City before night fall. We have now returned to our same hotel in Panama City – Residential Alameda which is beginning to feel like home. Our bodies are sore and we are tired but we have now been inspired to look into the option of flying to Colombia.
**Special shout out to Naomi’s parents reading our blog for the photos – welcome, we’re having a great time!
New photos added to the Panama photo album. Marked photos courtesy of Naomi and Alberto.