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Wheel Adventures: Smooth cycling and a dodgy detour in Panama

David Sovka is a Victoria-based writer who loves to explore the forgotten corners of the map, and to be left the hell alone.

David Sovka is a Victoria-based writer who loves to explore the forgotten corners of the map, and to be left the hell alone. This winter, he is writing about cycle tours to sunny, exotic places by average, middle-aged Victorians — to be precise, himself and his wife, Roseanne Sovka. This is the last of five reports from Central America

To paraphrase Groucho, outside of a dog, a bicycle is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to cycle. On the long, slow climb (of course there’s a head wind!) to the town of Boquete in western Panama, I no longer feel as though my bicycle is my best friend. In point of fact, I hate this bike. Specifically, the seat, which I feel is not, er … appropriately distributing the load, as it were.

We have crossed the continental divide, passing from the warm and wet Caribbean, up and over steep cloud forest, to the drier and warmer Pacific side of Panama. Volcán Barú dominates the landscape.

An active stratovolcano and the tallest mountain in Panama at 3,475 metres (11,401 feet), Barú catches the moist air and dumps it on the many coffee plantations above Boquete, which remains dry and relatively cool, given the altitude.

Boquete is a pretty town, and growing quickly due to the swell of expats from Canada, the United States and Europe. They crowd the cafés, doing what old white people do everywhere: Share their strong opinions on everything, at volume. They talk politics, religion, real estate, health issues … and coffee.

Coffee grown on the side of a volcano in Panama is not like the coffee I’m used to at home: it’s fresher, lighter, and more powerful.

My usual cup turns out to be over-roasted, low-quality rubbish from a multinational more interested in me rolling up the rim than enjoying what pours over it. I’ve got the coffee sweats right now as I write this, jonesing for another cup — just one more, I swear! — of Panamanian Geisha, the world’s most expensive coffee.

We are the only visitors to Finca la Milagrosa (“miraculous farm”), Tito Vargas’ working coffee plantation, which affords us a get-your-hands-dirty appreciation of the implausible coffee process. There is an art to it, naturally, but the basics are as follows:

1. Pick the coffee plant’s juicy red berries (delicious, would make a nice jam)

2. Scoot local chickens out of the way (also delicious, best with gravy)

3. Sun-dry and roast the “green” (as in raw) beans

4. Grind the beans and mix with hot water

5. Tell everybody how the coffee back at home is crap, and generally act like a know-it-all the rest of your life

The New Normal

The first time I was confronted with the classic “si/no” pictogram explaining what to do on a Central American toilet, I was tempted to think, “Nope. Uh-uh. I can’t do that.”

The sign is common in the developing world, where narrow gauge pipes in the sewage system mean that toilet paper is a no-no — hotel and restaurant plumbing can only handle what your plumbing can handle.

When travelling, you discover a long list of items just like this that might tempt you to think: “I can’t do that.” But you are mistaken. You and your brain are remarkably adaptable to pretty much anything the Third World throws at you. What is surprising is not that you can — and will — adapt to bizarre new situations, but how quickly you will adapt.

“This is what we’re doing now?” says your brain, looking for confirmation of the abnormal. “I guess so,” says you. “OK,” says your brain, and you’re off to the races, suddenly OK with throwing soiled toilet paper into a little plastic garbage pail next to the toilet, rather than flushing. This new normal, taking place in 35C heat and 100 per cent humidity, turns out to be a stinky normal.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal connects the world through a bloody gash in the isthmus between North and South America. I say bloody because more than 25,000 people lost their lives during its construction, mostly due to mosquito bites.

One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken — and I’m including last summer’s kitchen reno — the Panama Canal is really impressive.

The French began construction in 1881, but failed due to the terribly high worker-mortality rate, and engineering problems (the same techniques that built the Suez Canal in Egypt were not suited to Central America). Eventually, the project brought down the French government in a series of scandals and suicides.

The Americans took over the project in 1904, and opened the canal on Aug. 15, 1914.

They kept control of the canal and the surrounding territory until 1999, and today you still see many remnants of their protracted stay, such as fast-food restaurants and the Panamanian currency, which is called the Balboa but is actually the American dollar. I mean that literally: Panama uses American bills.

Every year, more than 14,000 ships navigate the 77-kilometre canal, thus shaving off about 20,000 kilometres they would have had to travel around Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America.

We bike alongside the canal, tracking the progress of the big ships that contribute about $2 billion in tolls to the Panamanian economy each year.

This is probably a lot less than the amount taken in by the highly corrupt Panamanian banks, but it’s still a lot, and I hope that some of it ends up helping the people. Quiet musing on government corruption is made possible by the flat ride, which is the entire point of the lock system that allows big ships to travel from sea to sea in just a few hours.

Our pleasant and easy cycle along the canal takes place on the same day, and in the same area, as our more demanding mountain-bike ride along the Las Cruces Trail in Soberanía National Park.

The Las Cruces Trail is more than 500 years old, part of the ox-cart route Spain’s slaves cut through the poisonous jungle to get the precious gold from the New World to the Old.

Both routes are a wonder, by which I mean something to marvel at, as well as something to wonder about.

When we really want to, with the right payoff in mind, our species is capable of great accomplishment and great tragedy.

Lost in Casco Viejo

The first thing you want to learn when picking up a new language is all the good swear words, the lingua franca of humanity.

Every language has them, and they allow for a certain honest enthusiasm and linguistic colour when conversing with the locals. The locals might not understand every mispronounced word out of your foreign mouth, but they get the gist: This gringo is upset about something.

Tonight I’m letting fly with the colourful language because I’m upset about what may have been the world’s worst attempted robbery and/or kidnapping, in one of the most dangerous parts of Panama City.

I’m OK — we’re all OK now — safe in a restaurant with two pints of excellent Panamá beer, one in each hand, telling the locals about the evil and/or lazy cab driver who abandoned us in a dark and dangerous corner of ancient Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City.

Our excellent guide Hanzel had arranged for two taxis to deliver the group to a restaurant for a final meal at the end of our ride. The first taxi, the one with my darling wife in it, took off and arrived at the restaurant in about four minutes.

The second taxi, the one with me and the darling British couple, veered off the agreed-upon route to drop us on the corner of a dark and lonely park on the edge of the zone clearly marked “do not enter” on every tourist map.

Our cabbie charged us double the normal fare, waved vaguely at our unknown destination, and zoomed away, leaving us to predation by his scumbag pals or, possibly, one of more than 200 violent gangs in the city.

It’s tough to navigate when you’re scared and tired, when it’s dark and there are bats flitting about your head, and — this is the critical bit — when you neither know where you are nor where you are headed.

I’m still not sure how we got out of there, but thank God we did.

After many frantic phone calls, Hanzel got the first cabbie to track us down and bring us to

the restaurant, hardly any the worse for wear despite the ocean of adrenalin washing my system.

There were kisses from my worried wife, the aforementioned beers with our group, hugs all around, and many Spanish swear words.

Bad-guy taxi drivers aside, today Casco Viejo is a mostly safe part of the city to explore.

Casco Viejo was built and settled in 1673, following the near-total destruction of the original Panama City in 1671, when the latter was attacked by that jolly English privateer, Capt. Henry Morgan. Again. That guy really got around.

Today, the district is a World Heritage Site wonder, its beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture slowly being renovated by

deep-pocketed developers who have ousted most of the squatters and gangs who once made

Casco Viejo very dangerous indeed.

Homeward bound, maybe

Leaving Central America is difficult for us.

I mean that literally: The catastrophic blend of a) Panamanian airport efficiency with b) a certain national Canadian airline that really — truly, deeply — does not care, means that we don’t actually leave on time, or day, or week, as planned.

Eventually, we do return to the Great White North, by which I mean a snowy Toronto, before heading west and home. It’s a long journey, long enough to get tired and jetlagged and sore, because we are old.

Long enough to ponder the beautiful places and peoples of Central America that now live happily in our memories.

Long enough to start planning a return trip.

About Panama

• The Panama Hat actually comes from Ecuador (but is shipped through Panama)

• In 1821, Panama broke with Spain and joined Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to form the Republic of Gran Colombia (which broke up within a decade)

• Coffee comes in varieties, just like wine. Growing international demand is driving up prices

• Last year, roasted Geisha coffee sold for more than $600/pound

• Indonesian Kopi Luwak coffee, famously ingested and pooped out by a civet (a small

ferret-like rodent), is just a novelty for tourists — you’re better off saving your money for non-pooped coffee

> Find more tales from David Sovka's travels here