Detained at the end of the road: Panama to Yaviza and back
The Pan American Highway stretches from the north of Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina… almost. The road network ends twice, once in Panama at the notorious Darien jungle (aka Darien Gap), then once more at the true end in Ushuaia, Argentina. I really wanted to ride to the “first” end of the road. We had heard the road was rough in places, thus Jayne opted out and I went solo on a trek to Yaviza. I fought my way out of Panama city mid-day traffic, and rode to the end of the road. Like any time Jayne isn’t around, I got myself into trouble.
Driving through the rain and traffic to get out of Panama took ages, and just outside of the city’s clutches I almost had to go right back in again. A police checkstop asked me for my passport and driver’s licence. I had neither. In fact I had no photo ID whatsoever. In our travels Jayne holds onto our passports and bike papers so that in the event we get pulled over, the police talk to a pretty female instead of, well, this:
Without Jayne around, THAT had to try to explain why he had no photo ID of any kind. All I had was a printout of a scan of a temporary driver’s license extension that was written in English. After some hairy sweet talk, the police let me continue my journey instead of forcing me to ride all the way back to get my ID’s. Since it was now past noon, that backtrack would not have left me enough time to reach Yaviza in one day. Deep sigh of relief.
Past the checkstop I found myself riding through farmland. As I passed through and passed Chepo and other small towns I realized that this would not be a ride through the jungle that I had imagined. There were some small sections that looked a little jungle-y beside the road, but for the most parts along the road is clear cut ranch land.
I stopped for lunch at a roadside shack and started chatting with Kenny, a Panamanian-American who has picked Panama as his choice of residence. Great chat, love meeting folks in random places on this trip.
An hour later I reached the Darien Province!
Then I reached the first Darien “Border Police”. Panama has no army, but they treat their border police detachment as though they are army, complete with camouflage uniforms and automatic weapons, so it’s just semantics.
The not-army border-police didn’t like my lack of ID either, but I fortunately realized I had a photocopy of my passport photo page tucked away and they were willing to accept that. They even signed and dated my photocopy to help “ease my passage” at future police checks up the road.
The first police check in Darien also signals the end of nice potholed pavement, and the beginning of nice potholed dirt and gravel.
A bit of fun riding and another not-army border-Police checkstop later, I had arrived in Yaviza, the town at the “end of the road”. What does the end of the road look like? I had envisioned a paved road turning to gravel turning to dirt turning to an overgrown path guarded by howler monkeys and guerrillas.
This is the end indeed. You can keep riding for about 150 meters, then you have to turn left or you will run into the river. From there carry on and turn left again (sneaky river), and then left once more. Suddenly you are right back where you started: at the end of the road. Except now the entire town knows you are here. Here’s me talking about an identical place called “Yakima” (I was tired after the ride I think).
I wandered the town to entertain my evening.
It was a great wander and I met lots of kind folks. After angering all the neighborhood dogs and their owners by setting up my tent under cover of darkness, I slept well at the end of the road in the corner of a parking lot.
Before leaving in the morning, I sauntered over the bridge again and talked myself into a tour of the local hospital. My nursing sense was tingling, and it was a nice, small community hospital bustling with mothers and children all over.
The main focus at the hospital is on maternal and child health, start em’ young! Their vaccination rate is well over 90%, and that includes all the hard to reach natives who live hidden away in the jungle! Take that stat, Western world. The one downfall of the hospital is that it’s on the other side of the river from the “end of the road”. If a patient turns for the worse and needs to be transferred, the staff have to wheel the patient on a stretcher down the path, over the suspension bridge and into a truck. From there they drive 5 hours to Panama City over some pretty rough roads. Basically: don’t get really sick at the end of the road, or it’ll be the end of your road too. Malaria and Dengue aren’t the big culprits here like I thought they might be. The main health problems at the end of the pan-Americana highway: Diabetes, Hypertension and STD’s… not much different from home.
I left early enough on my ride back from Yaviza to contemplate a boat ride over to “La Palma”: the capital of the Darien Region. I walked over to the ticket lady to find out how much the boat to La Palma cost and was intercepted by a couple border police who asked, once again, for my papers. Unconcerned I passed them over. That was the end of my quest to La Palma…
Two hours sitting there, eating my peanut butter and waiting for the chief to call back and say I could go. Nobody really explained exactly WHY I was being detained, though the photocopy and machete were factors, but they did explain that since they had started to detain me I couldn’t leave without clearance from the top. For clarity, I love coconuts and picked up a machete in Nicaragua to help eat the impossible-to-open fruits. Also EVERYONE walking around these parts has one hanging off their hip. I was not out the norm in these parts. But I digress… Several officers came into the office at different times, all of them very friendly and interested about my trip, none of them willing to let me leave and continue it. The fact that my photocopy was signed and dated by the other police did not “ease my passage”. When the chief did eventually call back, the call was 4 seconds long and the officers sheepishly handed me my machete and papers and said I was free to go.
I really would have liked to visit La Palma, but it wasn’t to be. A little peeved at my lost opportunity and from sitting in the penalty box for 2 hours, I loaded my bike back up, sheathed my machete and rode back for the highway up the hot dusty road. But luck was turning back my way:
Refreshed with delicious coconut water and with renewed justification for carrying a two-foot-long knife on my bag, I head back over the potholed highway towards Panama city.
Re-entering Panama I was reminded about the atrocious traffic that resides there. Once all the construction is complete and they have a functioning metro system the gridlock will hopefully improve. For now, Panama is left with the worst traffic I have experienced in all of North America. I split lanes for 20kms to get back to Raul’s condo. 20 kilometers of, hot, sweaty stopped traffic that I felt fortunate to breeze past.
It somehow felt like a fitting end for a two day trek to the end of the road. If you’re down this way, I highly recommend it. Just don’t forget to bring your passport.