Mundo Pequeño: Part II — The Long Road Home

The Sea Crossing: Colombia to Panama

Eli, on the five-day crossing to Panama.
Eli, on the five-day crossing to Panama.

At the end of our adventures in South America and Colombia we were faced with the challenge of traveling to Panama. The Darian Gap marks the no-man’s land between the two continents—a wilderness with no roads and notorious for cartel activity and smuggling. Our choices for travel were between air and water. We boarded the Wild Card, a 60-foot steel hulled sailboat, to make the crossing from Colombia to Panama. Cameron had flown on ahead but we (Eli and Noah) would spend the next five days living on the ship with 20 other passengers, four crew, and a one-year-old dog named Max.

Our first two nights and full day on the boat were spent on the open sea. The experience of being out of sight of land was new to us and reminiscent of the feeling of the two days we had spent crossing the salt flats in Bolivia.

There was nothing but the horizon line in all directions and no reference point other than what you were immediately surrounded by.  There was sense of drifting in a void—a feeling of being in a place not meant for humans. Of intruding upon an empty world of wind and open sky unbroken but for the occasional pod of dolphins or school of flying fish. Aboard the boat we passed the time watching the waves and getting to know our fellow travelers.

We awoke after our second night of rolling in our bunks to the sight of the San Blas Islands, a chain of 378 islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. With crystal clear water, white coral sand beaches, and lolling palm trees they embodied a vision of paradise. We jumped off the boat to swim to shore in water only slightly cooler than the tropical air and spent the rest of our day snorkeling and lounging on the beach. The next few days passed in much the same way. Days were spent on paradise islands enjoying seafood and coconuts in the sun, exploring the bright and lively world under the water with snorkels, and lots of rum.

When our voyage came to an end, we were ready to get off the confined decks of the boat and to be back on the mainland. The trip had been a good adventure but it felt good to be loading up the bikes again. This would be the first time that the road we set out on would eventually lead us home.

After waiting for Cameron to rejoin us in Puerto Lindo, we put tire to pavement again and crossed from coast to coast ending our ride in Panama City.  We regretted not having enough time to explore more than a few blocks, but enjoyed a night stroll through the historic district, a strange mix of the dilapidated and abandoned, standing shoulder to shoulder with refurbished and modernized opulence.

This was a pattern we would see more of as we crossed the country—a mixing of two worlds: the American dream (roadside shopping centers, mega outlets, and new car dealerships) standing stark against trash-lined streets and corrugated iron roofs. We passed a protest march demanding to improve the local school because it had dirt floors and no running water, while just down the road stood billboards for half-a-million dollar beachfront condos. It was unsettling to see a vacation destination in the process of being transformed into something resembling Florida, rising up next to shacks and farms where people still live off the land and sea.

NEXT PAGE>> Three men, no plan, a canal — Panama!