Panama is such an amazing little country. Of course everyone knows about the Panama Canal, but what many people don't know is that the north of Panama is absolutely gorgeous. You have the Bocas del Toro archipelago just off the eastern coast and then you have beautiful mountains in the mainland, topped by the mighty volcano, volcan Baru.
Our plan was to escape the cold of February in DC and spend a week exploring these areas. Given our restless nature, we spent almost every night in a different place and experienced everything from scuba diving (it sucks in Bocas, btw) to ziplining in Bastimentos National Park (ton of fun), to climbing volcan Baru. We stayed in a bed and breakfast, an eco-resort, a regular hotel, and kid-you-not an actual treehouse.
|Arriving in Panama city|
|Our legitimate treehouse|
Not a chance in heck that I'd be caught dead on such a trail. Fortunately an alternative route does exist but is really difficult to find. After hours scouring google for information, I gathered some basic beta from the two people on earth who had decided to post about it online. Basically, you have to drive all the way around the mountain to the other side where an obscure trailhead marks the beginning of the hike. Its pretty clear why this side is rarely used or marketed -- just look at the elevation profile on the sign at the trailhead. The jeep route starts on the right and our chosen route starts on the left. They meet up at the top. Need I say more?
So off we went one bright early morning, a bit later than an alpine start given Natasha had spent the entire evening spewing her guts thanks to food poisoning. I offered to postpone or cancel but she's one stubborn girl and refused to be distracted by minor life inconveniences such as severe caloric depletion or dehydration. Food and water -- way overrated...
The trail was quite well marked and steady at the beginning but very quickly turned nastily steep and littered with volcano scree. We didn't really see anyone on the trail except for a few locals who were surprised to see us there. But I can easily pass as a local and Natasha speaks fluent Spanish so we ended up having some fun conversations. We were so glad we weren't on the jeep trail.
Here, the going got really tough as each step forward was followed by half a step sliding back on the scree and we struggled for handholds on the steep terrain. After what felt like eternity, we conquered the major steep bit and could see the summit and made the final few boulder scrambles to the top.
Overall, Panama was great and we saw so much of it in just a week!
|Two happy explorers|
Recent Amtrak changes have made carrying bikes on trains much easier but back in May of 2015, there weren't many options. But there was one very attractive one -- the slow train from DC to Pittsburgh that allowed bikes on board. Well technically they provide these large boxes where you slide your bike in.
We wanted to ride from Pittsburgh to DC with panniers on bikes. This was my first real bike touring trip so I was stoked and happily carried most of our weight on my newly acquired rear rack on my self-converted old cross bike. Natasha was in charge of route planning and made a killer itinerary for us -- we really didn't want to do the conventional route of the GAP/C&O trail for several reasons. Chief among them were that everyone else does it so we should do something different, and also that riding on a rail trail is excruciatingly boring. Riding on an endlessly flat course with basically the same scenery (even if its great scenery) for miles on end just doesn't excite me at all. So instead, we charted out our own route on the road with ridewithgps. It was hard -- day 1: 72 miles, day 2: 101 miles, day 3: 107 miles. Did I mention the 20,000 feet of climbing?!
Undeterred, we boarded our train one long weekend in May. The train ride was long, I can't remember exactly how long but it was over 7 hours. But the train was nice and the seats were comfortable and we were pretty excited so it wasn't that painful.
|Arriving in Pittsburgh around midnight|
|On the GAP trail|
Indeed, the journey did not disappoint. Our planned route took us over what seemed like the continental divide with gravel roads and double digit gradients. Riding all of this with panniers took a lot out of me, as evidenced here:
|One of our many stops along the way. Notice my knee-high socks -- very fashionable indeed|
Tour de France
Not the one you're thinking of but every bit as exciting, at least for us: Tash and Bilal do France
Wedding Bells in Mexico
No, we didn't get married but it was Natasha's best friend's wedding. Marianna and Xavier were really nice and invited me to their ceremony as well and I was delighted to go as I've never been to Mexico. Another good place to practice my budding language skills plus I wasn't going to miss out on the chance to visit Mexico City where Natasha grew up.
The only downside of this trip was that it fell smack in the middle of cyclocross season and I was having a good time there with some top 10 finishes. But the last race I did before this trip I crashed and broke my rear derailleur so perhaps it was good timing after all.
Mexico City is huge! I guess the Spanish really like big things and the influence has stuck. This flag for instance, in the main city square, was humongous. The picture doesn't do justice but I'd reckon its as big as a house.
|Thats one ginormous flag -- lest you forgot you're in Mexico|
Of course, being bikers we utilized the local bikeshare and saw the whole city in a day. Thankfully we were out and about on a Sunday so many of the streets were closed to traffic.
After two days in Mexico City, we met up with the wedding party and headed over to the little town of Tepoztlan for the festivities. For the next few days we explored some local gems in the area such as a massive cave and some castle ruins. We also hiked up to the top of a local hill where a temple is located and found this massive tree along the way.
|Inside the cave|
And then it was time for the wedding. We clean up alright when we absolutely have to:
And shortly thereafter we were in our element: