11 October 2011

San Blas, Panama to Capurgana, Colombia

This post covers the evolution of my idea to cross from Panama to Colombia under my own power.

In Panama, extensive research into crossing via the Darién Gap told me that right now is a bad time to cross And dragging a bicycle through is nothing short of a total schwackfest nightmare, necessitating heavy weaponry to boot.  So, I decided to go around, via the Carribean Coast.

Somone informed me that the coast is passable on bike, but I assure you, YOU CANNOT bicycle the Carribean coast of Panama.  It is mangroves and coral, which becomes jagged rocks and cliffs at times.  The few isolated beaches are steep and soft, due to the small tides.

I decided to build a bamboo skin-on-frame catamaran and power it with my bicycle turning a propeller.  Just pedal down to Colombia.... Why not, right?

Upon arrival in Cartí, I wasted no time and got to work hunting bamboo in the river with Nemesio, a Kuna kayaking guide in the islands.  
We found some bamboo.  The machete of omens gets busy.

Adolfo was all about the fattest pieces, but I insisted on the smaller tubes.

some of the smaller tubes split off higher up, necessitating aerial machete work.

We loaded up his cayuco and headed for Cartí Sugdup, my home for the next 2 weeks.

Haulin 'boo!

Rolling up to Cartí

View of Main Street Cartí Sugdup from my bedroom window.

view from the other window.  most houses are pole framed with metal or palm roofs and cane walls.

here is my workshop, with a section of billboard tarp I planned to use for the skin of the kayaks.

why bend bamboo when it grows curved?  Selecting tubes for the frame...

lashing begins...

Nemesio helped out alot as he was very interested in alternative kayak  construction.

A day's work...  not bad.

55 lb test fishing line yielded better results.

how a bottle of soda is still 50 cents here is wonderful.  bread is 10 cents.  a meal of fish, rice, beans, fried bananas, salad, and a drink is $3.25

two frames done, ready to put some skin on...

the tarp man told me the size was 10 x 20, but he sold me 11 x 13, which drasticaly limited hull size :(

i had been using the tarp as shade, so the last few days of sewing the skin on were scorching.

trimming the tarp

i stitched up the tarp according to info I found online.

starting to take shape.  at this point, the Kuna people started spreading the word that a boat builder was on the island and I began receiving requests for price quotes.

i later sealed all the stitching with polyurethane

Nemesio says it looks like a kayak!

This is how the Kuna get around....  Wooden dugouts with sail rigs.  So simple it reminded me of Bedonkatron, and how the Guatemalans asked Biff, ''Why don't you just get a cayuco and a wheelbarrow?''

The fat bamboo came in handy for making the crossbars.

here is my base of ops, which I rented for $5 per night.

we all make mistakes.  the sprocket i bought for running the propeller was 1/8'' and I bought 3/32'' chain.  So, about an hour of hacksaw work made me a gear of the right thickness.  Sigh.

here is a view of the chain drive propeller rig

here is tatanka with propeller drive mode.  I tried it out and it was too slow for my liking.  I should have used a bigger propeller.  Steering at such slow speed was a pain while sitting on the bike.

so I switched the catamaran to a rowing rig and made a sail.  more like a cayuco, but still so complicated.

Those Cayucos are so simple... and durable!  The truck tarp would not stand up to the coral reefs...

bathroom break!

you poop into the ocean and get to watch the fish eat your poop.  it is gross and fascinating.  then you go eat more fish.

each family has an outhouse pier, which doubles as cayuco parking.

Stahlratte, a 100 year old iron boat came cruising by one day with 13 motorcycles on deck.  485 dollars to Colombia they said...  Quite tempting.  It seemed so easy!  Why do I always make everything so hard?

So I went in search of a cayuco...

This little guy taught me how to rig the sail and steer with the paddle

little feet trim the sail

we took a lap around his island which had 3 houses

and a nice little harbor big enough for 3 cayucos.

despite telling me the cayuco was watertight, the owner helped me pour boiling tar on the leaky spots.

put hot coals on the wet spots to dry them out before pouring the tar
 After buying the cayuco, I was invited to partake in a ceremony.  After it was assured that I would not take any photos and would participate in the ceremony, I was welcomed.  Initally, when introduced as Mateo, people didn't respond much, but soon everyone was laughing at my new nickname ''Siga Ginnit'' which means ''red beard.''  The Kuna men don't grow beards, so I especially stood out.  All the children would shout at me until I chased them, scattering in giggles into the huts.  If I caught one, they were picked up and dunked head first in a mud puddle, which they found absolutely terrifying and hilarious at the same time.  10 massive urns of ''chicha fuerte'' had been prepared for the occasion and were guarded by several men inside a cane hut.  thousands of green bananas, a mountain of yucca and smoked fish, and infinite coconut water were readied and cooked on a huge fire in 40 gallon pots.  chicha fuerte is made by fermenting coffee mixed with sugar cane juice.  it's effects linger well into the next day.  Well, the celebration is 4 days and nights.  I barely survived one.  The boss of the chicha determines when it is fermented properly, between 8 and 10 days usually.  Then, the men begin drinking in the afternoon, serving eachother gourds full to the brim with chicha, which is chugged.  After they are well on their way, the women come into the hut and then the party starts.  Lots of singing and dancing and smoking and drinking.  When you are hungry, go to the food hut for bottomless coconut soup with yucca and green banana.  smoked fish with lemon juice on the side.  I remember stuffing my face with fish and soup in the wee hours of the morning and chuckling when I looked at the label on the old liqour bottle used for lemon juice: Duke Winner.

The chicha was a powerful experience.  I was honored to take part in such an intimate event. At some point, i was directed to a hammock for a nap, only to reawaken at 4am when things really got going....

we then towed the cayuco back to cartí, so I could prepare it for the journey.

it was disappointing to abandon the catamaran, but i felt much safer in the cayuco.

The Kuna are all about protecting the environment, so we mixed up some eco-friendly paint.  AKA tar dissolved in gasoline!  hell yeah!

mahogany canoe before

after.  good stuff.

Looks better with a fresh paint job, huh?

I cut up a flip flop and used it to stamp this design, a Kuna pattern...

Binna Binna is Kuna for Poco a Poco, a shout out to my pal Biff.  The full name is Binna Binna Naoe, which means, ''little by little, I arrive''

Saying goodbye to Cartí and heading out to sea

Here is the cayuco, loaded with way too much crap.

WTF did I just sign up for?

Trying out the sail rig for the first time.  Close-hauled in a headwind, it was just possible to paddle forward.

At the end of the brutal first day, I sought shelter in the mangroves,  feeling like a pirate.

But there was no dry ground to camp on, so I snaked through the mangroves.

And camped here.  most nights I was eaten alive by Chitres, AKA Jigenes, AKA chiggers AKA no-see-ums.  DEET was my only relief.

the cayuco sailed smoothly over the reefs in very shallow water.

the glare burned my face, so i went bandito... 
 this didn't help the local legend that a  ''waga'' AKA gringo was coming to cut out the eyes and hearts of the children.  sometimes a motorboat would pass me on the way home and spread the word before my arrival that I was coming to steal eyeballs.  Needless to say, there were some deserted streets a few evenings.

Tatanka + Binna Binna Naoe + Paradise = yes

Wanna camp here?  why not?

San Blas.  Always an island in sight.

where I sit.

Lots of starfish here!

old toy trucks wash up on these islands too.

showing how my sunburn feels

I used a pole to push through the shallows.  The cayuco draws only a few inches of water.

good morning!

lunch stop

Kuna Yala flag

I was on dawn patrol pretty much every morning

the color of the water was always changing

obviously, i was talking to myself the whole time...  ''Are those rocks ahead?  If they are we'll all be dead!  No more rhymes and I mean it!''

These ''canoas'' bring supplies to the islands.  they are usually in a sad state of repair.

some communities live along the coast instead of on islands

I would stop to buy bread and tie it in back for a snack

captain's view.  steering with the paddle, and trimming sails with my foot.

another cayuco out sailing by Aligandí

i swapped to the more-breathable panamanian flag...  more stylish as well

downtown playon chico, where i stayed at the police station because the community was afraid of the eye-bandit.

showing off a bloody nose from sunburn while heeled-over

the boat weighed about 400 lbs fully loaded, so i had to shuffle it in and out of the water on palm fronds

when you are sailing hard, sometimes you get water in the bilge

I added the life jacket in back for comfort and something to grab if i fell out for some stupid reason

This is for Jeff.

South, there is less reef and more open water.

the machete of omens proved handy for trimming sails

one day, there was nowhere safe to land, so i surfed these waves and swamped the boat, drenching almost everything I own.  Sadly, this is where I lost the Machete of Omens.

That is the ridge of Darién, for all you dreamers...

here, I lamented the theft of my polarized sunglasses.

there was always a good storm brewing somewhere

La Miel, a gorgeous beach and the last town in Panama.

Cabo Tiburon, the border between Panama and Colombia.  Try biking that.

That there is Colombia.  Woo-ha!

In Capurgana, I visited customs and splurged on a hostel.  A kind chap lent me his tricycle to haul all my crap down the street.  A big small town. everything comes by boat.

Here is where Binna Binna Naoe stays.  I sold her to some new friends and got a speed boat to Turbo.  
The last stretch was extremely rough seas with fierce headwinds and lots of nighttime ''traffic''.  I just didn't see the point in spending 5 days suffering through that.  So instead, I sold the boat for what I paid, spent several days relaxing and snorkeling, then hopped over to Turbo.  But I made my goal of paddling to Colombia.

Here are some stats from the trip:

Start: Cartí Sugdup, Kuna Yala, Panama
Finish: Capurganá, Chocó, Colombia
Days of paddling and sailing: 9
Rest Days: 1
Weight of cayuco: approximately 400 lbs

This trip was at times exhilirating, terrifying, horrible, inspiring, breath-taking, hilarious...  it ran the gambit.


RCH said...

Looks like a good adventure crossing the islands. It looks like I am heading to Peru in early November with plans to find our way to Patagonia at some point, hopefully we will be able to cross paths.

shawn and chris said...

Matt, such an adventurer! I love that you sailed that section in a boat you built!!! The bike-powered-catamaran was a sweet idea sorry it didn't work out, but the sailing kayak was rad! Thanks for sharing and keep enjoying your adventuras.
Que te vayas bien,
s/v Tao

Geoff Cotter said...

Dude, unbelievable. I would have cried the whole time.

jacob said...

Epic adventure. I'm stoked on the DIY mission you pursued and the Kuna dugout you finally went with - am eager to catch up with you one of these days and hear more details of the story. I'm hunting for a hidden treasure right now, but am considering a little adventure in Colombia... be sweet to meet up. I'll be in touch.

valley girl said...

matt, all of it. the blog, the boat, your pictures and stories, the adventure... you are amazing. really. i can't wait for the next installment. take good care buddy.

Anonymous said...

dang. stay alive!

some of those paisajes were breathtaking even in photos...glad you got to Colombia!

Anonymous said...

matt! it was SO fun to read about your latest adventure! love the name of the boat & the paint job :) --abby & scott.

Anonymous said...

That is just amazing, i am such speecless, i did that trip in 6.30 hours of speed boat, not that fun. I hope you will enjoy South America as much as i did.Besos

dd_traveler said...

love it :)

Unknown said...

7 years later I get to see all of this amazing awesomeness! 🙀😻

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