After 3 days in Puerto Olbadia, Rodrigo, Marcela, and I decided to make a break for it to Colombia's mainland. Rod and Marcy are my newfound Argentine friends, riding two up on a Yamaha XT600. Puerto Olbadia might make it on the list for the strangest place I have been. It is stuck on the border, but within Panama, and is fully occupied by Panama's military--you cannot leave the village. You cannot take photos. And everywhere is heavy artillery to fend off guerrilla attacks, which have happened in the recent past.
Normally a guerrilla has to ask permission from his or her commander to kill a person. One rumored exception is an American--the guerrilla's response to the U.S.'s $15 billion counter drug trafficking aid package to the Colombian government.
And we were stuck in the middle of it, and heading deeper. Here also lies the Darien Gap, the zone between Panama and Colombia where there is no road and no way to drive a vehicle through. It is a major via for drug smuggling from Colombia through jungle trails on foot. Protected by the guerrillas, of course. One theory about the gap is that U.S. controls South American immigration by secretely supporting the lack of a constructed highway. Another theory is that some Panamanians and Americans are pro-confrontational in the area, hoping for the U.S. to return to Panama with a large army base in the region.
All we wanted was to get to Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where guerrilla activity is fairly quiet. From there it is a short jaunt into Venezuela. We hoped for a boat directly to Cartagena, which never came. After three days in Puerto Olbadia it was apparent we needed to pursue another option. Already, the bikes were disarmed and put on a 20 passenger plane from Panama City to the border. What ensued from Olbadia proved to be the journey's most adventurous undertaking:
Against the Panamanian army's better judgment, we loaded the bikes into a 20 foot wooden boat with a 15 hp motor and headed to Zapzurro, Colombia--a one hour voyage. There were heavy seas, with waves two stories tall, and when entering Zapzurro's bay, I discovered fear. Not so much from the giant wave breaking 10 feet from us, but rather from our pilot's face. I feared what he feared. But with the skill of a weathered seaman, he coaxed the 15 horses to bring the boat softly into the bay. Upon arrival, we immediately found a fiberglass speedboat ready to take us to Turbo, on the Colombia mainland.
"How big and heavy are the bikes?" asked the pilot
"The Yamaha is a 250cc, weighs 200 lbs, and mine is a 600cc, weighs 250 lbs." The reality is that the Yamaha weighs 300 lbs, and the BMW 450 lbs, not to mention 200 lbs of luggage. Lying like this makes the difference between go, no go, and $100US or $200US.
"Esta bien. Vamos"."
We agreed upon a $100US price tag with the pilot from the speedboat. To transfer the bikes from boat to boat in the middle of the bay, we paid $20US to four very large Colombians. Even then, they stressed when they lifted the heavy BMW--and for two seconds, I feared my bike would be fish food. It wasn't, and we bolted for Turbo, three and a half hours away. The sea still swelled, and the boat jumped and slapped hard with every wave, making a sick cracking sound and taking on a little water each time. I thought it strange that my leg was getting soaked, until I looked down and noticed that with every slap landing, a crack in the hull opened and water would shoot in. At this point I regretted the lie about the weight of the bike...
After arrival, customs (whom we surprised), and more frightening stories of guerrilla violence from locals, we shot out of Turbo on the bikes. I held my breath. A week later, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, I exhaled.