Sunday, August 22, 2010

Crossing the Continental Divide

August 1st to 4th

Today is going to be a killer! It's one of the biggest single day climbs we have attempted on our tour so far. We're going from sea level to 2000m (6,700 feet) and back down again taking us all the way from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. We set off under a beautiful cool dawn sky to give us the most time possible....

We pass small indigenous villages of wooden stilt huts topped with palm thatch. These are the villages of the 'Ngobe Bugle Indians' - the traditional hunters and farmers of the region. The children flash wide eyed and big, toothy smiles at us as we pass; the women wave shyly, resplendent in brightly coloured, geometrically patterned dresses....

The Ngobe Bugle number around 120,000 and live by raising cattle, chicken, dogs and pigs. The rivers provide water and a place to fish and wash clothes in stunning surroundings....

After seeing their traditional dress, the Western styled uniforms seem to clash as the children head off to school, proving there is nowhere in the world to escape the call of the school bell....

20 kilometers of flat to get the legs turning and then the climb begins, steep roads aimed at ever higher peaks....

The road undulates for a while, short nasty mini-summits followed by rapid descents that lose nine metres for every 10 climbed. It's a little frustrating, but you can't complain too much when the scenery is so incredible and the people so friendly.

Then the climb proper begins and there are no more downhill sections. Days like this you just dig in and try and set up a rhythm of smooth pedal rotations - it's all about conserving energy. Rushing is pointless as it only pushes speeds up from a drowsy 4 mph up to a dizzy 5 mph whilst killing the lungs and legs. Patience is the watchword - almost a lazy way of achieving total exhaustion. Each false summit merely reveals the next....

Behind us is the accumulation of our efforts, the view across La Fortuna Forestry Reserve and The Carribean Sea, 15 miles distant and one mile below us....

After six hours of climbing we finally reach the first summit before dropping a couple of hundred metres down to Lake Fortuna, a man made body of water dammed at one end with a hydroelectric plant.

The winds pick up, the skies drop and darken and the wet stuff falls from the sky as we resume climbing out of this flooded valley. It's possibly the steepest part of the climb and the nagging wind coupled with leaden legs makes it tough going...

Finally.... finally, after around nine grueling hours, the gradient reverses and the front wheel tips lower as we crest the last peak and roll gratefully over the top. The mountain is defeated and we have conquered the Continental Divide! Suddenly the world is moving more quickly again and the legs can take a breather. We won't be needing them for the next 25 miles now as gravity takes over and does all the work for us.

It's pouring down; and unbelievably we are cold! I just can't remember the last time (or country) when we were last cold!

10 kilometers or so later we reach Valle de la Mina (Valley of the Mine) and see a guesthouse. It would be a shame to head straight back down to the Pacific and not enjoy the view we worked so hard for so I head in to inquire about a room.

And so we meet Frankie and George.

The 'room for rent' turns out to be George's house next door. It's huge - 2 bathrooms, kitchen, a bar area and 'la piece de la resistance' a massive picture window with panoramic views of the entire valley. It's amazing! I get the sinking feeling that our $20 dollar budget for accommodation won't really cover this and we start to negotiate. The best I can do is knock Francois down to $40, which is an absolute steal; but still too much for us. He then offers to throw in as much food, wine and beer as we can manage and the deal is sealed! We join them for supper...

It looks like they have been at the wine for a good few hours already, but we tuck in to a huge plate and the drink flows. Francois is a raconteur with an endless supply of tall tales, one about how they managed to install the piano that George (the concert pianist) effortlessly plays in the background. More wine flows and this has all the makings of a memorable stay.

So we do.... for an extra day.

Why not when the views from our backdoor terrace are this good....

After being unconscious for 12 hours straight we head for breakfast the following morning. It's an entertaining affair as Francois is already several glasses of wine to the good and he's in a voluble mood.

He tells us he is setting up an eco-hostel on several acres of land he's managed to acquire, growing organic coffee. His plan is to set up a connoisseur's coffee bar (Cafe in the Clouds) with his first crop of high quality 'arabica robusta' ready next month. The roasting machine is on it's way from Korea and the expresso machine from the US. He plans to export some coffee direct to France cutting out the middle men who control the coffee industry in Central America. He also helps the locals to do the same thing to try and keep the money in the local community. As well as coffee he's nearly self sufficient for power, using solar, wind and hydro electric. and also has milk cows, chickens for eggs and orchards of fruit to make the wine he is so successfully testing this morning. He happily admits that the wine might not be as lucrative as the coffee as he drinks most of the profits....

Our day off is spent quite happily exploring his land, enjoying the views and tinkering with the bikes that need a little TLC. It's so nice to be in the cool mountain air after the sweaty heat of the rain forest.

That night we pop over to see Frankie expecting to be fed again only to discover that he's now paralytic drunk and it's pretty obvious there's no chance of food. We have a couple of beers with him and enjoy some free entertainment listening to his theories about the world. It transpires that:

1) the world is going to end in 2012 when all the planets are in alignment and it's going to be terrible. The Mayan's predicted this five thousand years ago!
2)We have to create this little slice of Eden together to grow food and survive the coming apocalypse.
3) The Chinese are aliens and need to be destroyed as they're taking over the world starting with Panama.
4) Viking warriors have saved the world in the past and are the dragon slayers having defeated the Chinese last time. They are our only hope of salvation.
5) Sue and I with our blue eyes are obviously descendants from the vikings. Of the pure blood, we can help save him and defeat the Chinese hoard.
6) We only use 5% of our brains and we have to find the key for the other 95%
7) By coincidence only 5% of the world is real matter - the rest being hidden as anti matter.
8) If we can find the key to unlock 95% of our brain we will be able to see the 95% of the universe that is anti-matter
9) The 95% anti matter is in fact invisible Chinese people.
10) He wants to give us a piece of his land here with a house so we can become his soldiers in the fight.

Starving and at at mid-night we leave to consider his offer, and also - to cook our meal on our little stove....

Give me one entertaining and unique individual over a hundred dull clone type people any day. Thanks Francois for the wine, the stories the (occasional) grub, the entertainment and especially for cutting us the best accommodation deal of the tour so far.

Francois - a fine and splendid human being - good luck against the Chinese!!!

The next day is the easiest 60km we have ever done. It's all down hill with just a couple of little ups that we sail over using momentum. They only serve to slow us down a bit and to save our brakes.

It's taken us 4 days to get from Changuinola to David which is a four and a half hour bus ride away costing just £12. No wonder the locals think we are crazy! The difference is the views we get to see and the chance to meet people like Francois!

We're now back on the interamericana (the big highway) and the plan is to cover the distance to Panama City pretty quickly, hey that's the plan but who knows what'll distract us next.


contrabland said...

If you think that road was bad wait for the one from Bucamaranga to San Gil, hours and hours of climbing - doing it on a bus was tiring enough. Great views though, hope that's enough to keep you going if you come this way.

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Unknown said...

Yes, I totally agree with everything you say in the post. If you want your customers to keep coming back you have to show them that you are a true professional and that you know what you are talking about. It's all too easy to forget about the little clues that we send out - the non verbal messages. In fact, they can be the most importand ones.
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