Mutiny on the Bounty – Crossing the Darien Gap

By Charles

Panama is separated from Colombia by a frustratingly short piece of the most impassable jungle in the world called the Darien Gap.  For 60ish miles there are no roads, no towns, not even a goat path.  The only living things are a few interspersed native Indians, dead Colombian rebels and enough Dengue Fever, Malaria, and fetid swamp to have killed several ambitious travelers that have tried to cross in on foot and canoe.  Panama has refused to develop this area for fear that the Columbian civil war and drug trade would filter north. 

We chose the sailing option from the ones Ben outlined in a previous post for several reasons including the cost, the chance to stay several nights in the UNESCO recognized San Blas Islands, and the romanticism of sailing through the night to another continent. 

As Ben said previously, a boat had two openings at the very last minute which left us little time to tour Panama, but we’d gladly trade that for more time in Colombia.  On our second day in Panama we made a beeline from Panama City to the tiny town of Puerto Lindo where our boat is docked.  After touring the Panama Canal we ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic in under an hour!  We pull into town and are greeted at the Hostel Wunderbar and told to head to the beach to load our bikes.

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(antes y despues Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, built 1913)

The boat is Capitan Herve Guitar’s Metacomet and costs $725 each for 5 days, $375 for the body and $350 for the bike.  Apparently, the bikes eat almost as much as a person!?!  The Hostel Wunderbar’s website lists many of the regular boats and claims this one is a “sailing motorboat.”  The language promises afternoons of snorkeling and nights of “freshly caught fish” dinners in the beautiful San Blas Islands.  Wow, paying upfront for a chartered sailboat you’ve never seen for a week touring pristine islands!  What could possible go wrong?

The loading procedure of bike to launcha and bike to boat has to be seen to be believed.  After a few tense moments and some blood, sweat, and tears KLR and KTM are safely on board.  Now begins the real adventure…

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Yes, you ride your bike in the launcha, don’t slip!

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(They just use the halyard to yank it aboard, El Burro’s moment of truth between launcha and boat)

Rather than detail the trip and list the innumerable points necessary to paint a complete picture of this fiasco I will jump straight to the punch line.  We been had!  Ben and I were conned so well, so thoroughly, and so blatantly into participating in this boondoggle it is amazing in hindsight we did not heed the numerous warning signs.  Let’s recount the major problems.

The Capitan: Herve Guitar. We first met this Alice Cooper look alike at dinner the night before leaving.  In spite of his ratfink like appearance his demeanor exuded assurance and normalcy.  C’mon he’s a “Capitan” after all, right?  He was short on details initially, but we assumed that all will be answered in the morning and that our fellow passengers who had been in Puerto Lindo for several days had more information than we did.  In reality this waste of a human soul turns out to be incredibly bipolar, however neither personality reveals a single redeeming quality. 

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On the second day, after one of his several daily joints, he confides to one passenger that he just quit doing cocaine after 15 years of addiction.  We also find out that the moniker “Capitan” requires no actual training to attain in this swindlers paradise.  French douchebag becomes a more aptly earned title as the trip continues, but one not nearly descriptive enough alone. 

On the 2nd day we go through the process of securing everything, stowing all the threadbare bedding below, and pull the anchor only to be told within a minute to reverse all the steps as the douchebag had just changed his mind and decided to stay put for another day.  During one drug and alcohol induced stupor on the 4th evening he demanded we be ready to leave at 2am to sail into the night.  He was so high he must have envisioned our boat floating over the giant reefs that surrounded our anchorage on all sides because the boat had no running or spot lights to aid navigation. 

Near the end of the trip I brought a mattress covered in mold spores to him after his insistence all the bedding was clean.  His response was to threaten to put me, my bike, and my passport on the next deserted island.  One of the other riders reminded him that there were 17 of us and only 1 of him.  Shabby and unsafe conditions are the sign of a poorly run business, but threatening your customers directly is crazy.

While working as a prosecutor I dealt with criminals almost every day, many of whom were skillful and honed professional liars, but this asshole has raised the art of lying to an entirely new evolutionary plane beyond reach of these mere part time pretenders.  Simply put, when his lips were moving he was lying, no matter the context, the question, or the importance.  After lying to yourself as a addict for so many years it must become second nature.  Ben and I and the other passengers were constantly deceived about the most basic details including when we would arrive, where we were going each day, how long we would be motoring, was there sufficient food or water, how many people would be on board, the prices of every last dollar of cost, and the availability of the launcha in Sapzurro.  EVERYTHING!  Even worse, none of the lies were consistent.  Prices, schedules, and other decisions often changed several times per day.  Apparently utter confusion and misinformation is the best method to prevent a mutiny.

Our naiveté was fueled by the constant assurance we received from the two hostels we contacted and the numerous captains we talked to before departing.  During the trip we also met several of this French expat’s friends, and this profession seems to attract the most dysfunctional, anti-social, criminal elements of society that cannot find refuge in even the most squalidly hole in their own countries.  Almost every person we encountered from Puerto Lindo to Sapzurro attempted to swindle, cheat, or extort money from us.  These decrepit, worthless humans were in sharp contrast to the generous and helpful populations Ben and I had encountered in every country from Mexico to Panama.

The Boat:  For the exorbitant price we shelled out we were delivered far less than promised by the Hostel websites.  Due to lies from that asshole “capitan” We end up spending about $150 more for each rider than he originally quotes us for the all inclusive price. 

Our boat was a converted fishing trawler with masts stuck on for no apparent reason.  We did not spend a single minute actually sailing.  Instead we motored under the power of a 1944 tank engine at a blazing 8mph at full cruise.  Living on this floating wreck for a week cannot be truly understood by merely reading about the numerous disgusting and unsafe elements.  The sum of this experience is far worse than I can relate. 

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(Ben and I felt sorry for other boats when we would anchor nearby.  Here you are in your expensive yacht or schooner enjoying the peacefulness of the islands and this rusting wreck pulls up with 17 loud, cranky people on board. What would you think?)

First, the lack of safety was apparent in every corner.  The only lifeboat on board was 5 years expired, and only had room for 1/4 of the people on board. The pressurized gas line for the propane cooking stove was a water hose attached with a hose clamp. The only working light was zip tied to the non working light it was supposed to replace.  The mainsail was trimmed simply by looping a line over the boom and tying it onto the railing.  Had something happened the boat contained no ELT, no working radio, and only one small working fire extinguisher for the entire boat.  Ben asked about life preservers and was quickly rebuffed.  I’ve raced motorcycles over 170mph inches from other riders and not been as concerned for my safety as on this wreck.

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(the wiring mess that was the helm, and the lifeboat that says it needs service by the expiration of May, 2004!)

Second, the sanitary conditions on board were appalling.  The boat contained no black water tank, so every time someone pump flushed the toilet it exited the side of the boat.  This was especially pleasing when someone was swimming next to the boat or gathering sea water for dishwashing.  There was no shower, no soap for washing hands after going to the bathroom, and no hot water or bleach for dishwashing.  The two bathrooms were separated from the bunks by only a slat screen, and with no actual water to flush the toilets the boat quickly stank heavily of stale urine below deck.  The sleeping conditions were equally disgusting, so dirty that Ben and I did not want to soil our protective travel sheets by exposing them to the filth we were forced to sleep on.  The permanently wet mattresses and blankets were covered in mold and had clearly never been washed.  I have gutted homes in ceiling high mold and mud in post Katrina New Orleans and not been as disgusted as sleeping on this boat.  Night time presented two options, sweat in the unvented urine sauna below decks, or sleep on deck and be forced to make friends with the breeding mold spores.  We always chose the deck.

Third, the crew, or lack of one:  The facade of a professional journey was kept intact just long enough to sucker all of us out of reach of the port and under the “Captain’s” control.  We departed with a cook and a first mate, and despite the cook making sandwiches for lunch in the crotch of his dirty shorts using his oil and dirt stained hands the first day went fairly well.  However, on the second day reality set in as both the cook and first mate left the boat, choosing to be literally marooned on an island rather than suffer another four days under the “Capitan’s” drug induced dictatorial control.  After a few more days I would have gladly shared their fate.

Fourth, food and water:  The captain, in his infinite wisdom, assumed we could all get by on his cigarette, joint, wine, and 4hrs sleep regimen.  He provided only 20 gallons of water for 17 people for 5 days, and the boat had no clean water tank or desalination equipment.  The fruit ran out after 2 days, the meat spoiled after 3 without sufficient ice, half the vegetables went bad after the douchebag allowed them to swill in salt water on deck for days, but at the end of the trip we did have several pounds of butter left.  Clearly he felt doing the shopping in the same drug induced hazed he sailed in was the best method.

The Cost: Had this trip been priced around $400 for a person and a bike I might not have written such a description of our asshole captain. With all the backpackers, riders, and bikes on board the douchebag raked in $8,475 for 5 days work.  For only 170 miles of motoring he could not have spent in excess of $300 on gas in Panama.  We were told by the crew, before they jumped ship, that he only spent $800 on food and water and only after the crew balked at his proposed budget of $500.  The bikes required $45 to load in Puerto Lindo, but the riders were stuck paying the unloading fees in Sapzurro (despite the Capitan’s initial promise this would be included).  The douchebag was clearly not reinvesting any of his profit into his floating trash heap, so he was simply swindling thousands in profit by deceiving his customers.  With no expectation of return customers or two way travel what does he have to lose?  Also, all the riders and backpackers had to arrange to get another boat from Sapzurro to Turbo, Columbia since there are no roads or airports out of the former.  Despite the captain promising at one time to pay half of the fast launcha required to get to Turbo it ends up costing $85 more from each rider, or an exorbitant $8 per kilometer!  Further, rather than being a fast launcha it ends up being a slow 14hr cargo boat ride.

The People: The sheer number of bodies on board exacerbated every other inadequacy.  When we first looked at the boat I surveyed the available beds and concluded that it would be comfortable for 8-10 people.  When we showed up to board 18 other bodies lined up with Ben and I.  The douchebag captain claimed there were 17 beds, but this only added up correctly if every inch of space on deck was filled with hammocks and mattresses, and every twin bunk below was shared by two guys.  When it rained those on deck were given no place to go.

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(Overcrowding!  Imagine 5 days of this intimacy with no where to find relief)

However, the passengers on board were the only shining light at the end of the tunnel.  They were interesting, kind, humorous, and we all found common bonds in complaining about the trip.

There were the three Australians who dressed up as pirates in floaties and tried to board other ships in the harbor, there was Tyler who, in his desperation for money, ate a giant fish’s raw eyeball on a $9 bet, and there were the 4 retired guys also riding their way through South America who provided sarcastic commiserating humor and support the entire way.  These riders thankfully brought $100 worth of bottled water on board that was the only liquid we had to drink after quickly exhausting the douchebag’s meager 20 gal supply.  They also selflessly took over the cooking duties once the crew left and did a great deal with very little to work with.  Without all the amazingly agreeable passengers on board I would have organized a mutiny and keelhauled that douchebag long before we reached port, and many others contemplated the same idea.  I will post links to the entries on other passenger/riders blogs as they come.

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(Patience wearing thin on hour 10 of the 7th day of our 5 day boat trip)

This is intended to be a cautionary tale to any future travelers who google this post.  We have heard many stories of boats like the Stahlrat that actually provide an enjoyable experience for their passengers and are captained by experienced and honest people, but we did not encounter any semblance of this on our “sailboat vacation.”  Check every detail of the boat before you depart, run a criminal background and maritime license check on the captain, and make sure you see the boat before you pay anything

Thankfully we finally made it to Sapzerro and Turbo.  Onward to Colombia!

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Categories: Colombia, Darien Gap, Panama | 21 Comments

Costa Rica & Panama

The winds are howling and we battle the gusts all the way to Playa Tama-gringo Tamarindo. At one point we pass an 18 wheeler that has been blown over on the road. And I thought we had it rough… By late afternoon we arrive to our beach front homestead. Charles’ second mother, Ginny, house swapped a few months for this beautiful place with her house in Aspen, Colorado. Massive amounts of snow or beautiful tropical beaches… I think she made the right decision. Ginny and Rodney made us feel right at home and even cooked up a delicious mahi-mahi dinner for us! Here’s the view from the backyard.

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Tamarindo was once a small fishing village but has blossomed into tourist hub. This horseshoe cove is still a beautiful piece of the world, and the restaurant, Nogui’s, has delicious pie. mmmmmm. The beach house came fully equipped with boogie boards and we put them to good use in the waves right in front of the house. Charles also went off the coast of Playa Flamingo for a 2 tank scuba dive. He encountered lots of eels and stingrays – how beautiful that must be. We said goodbye to our friends and hit the road. Thanks, Ginny!!!

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Starting off with about 15 miles of dirt road we cruised around the bay and back towards the main land. A downed power line smacked Charles’ windshield and nearly decapitated me. Good stuff. By late afternoon we passed through San Jose and decided to press on until sunset. We had hopes of catching a boat in Panama in 2 days so unfortunately we’re flying through Costa Rica. After San Jose the the elevation climbed until we round ourselves, again, riding at night. Soon after the sun set the rain started to fall. Because we’d gained altitude the temps dropped too. Cold and wet we were desperate for a hotel and finally found some little cottages down a dirt road somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We pulled the bikes right in and called it a night.

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Early the next morning we set off for the border. We continued to climb to about 11,000 feet, the highest elevation of the trip so far! Riding through the clouds with poor visibility and steady rain we pressed on. As we begin to descend, the rain stopped, the clouds disappeared and the beautiful Costa Rican countryside shined through.

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I’m sad to be leaving Costa Rica so early but we must press on. Besides, it’s so close to home and I’ll be sure to come back again 🙂

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Riding swiftly we arrived at the Panama border by midday. Leaving Costa Rica and entering Panama was refreshingly simple. We tried to convince the Panamanian officials that our US insurance cards were valid in Panama. They weren’t having it and required us to purchase the $14 insurance. Their currency is the US dollar so it made for easy math as compared to Costa Rica. The Costa Rican currency exchange rate is something like 568 Colones to 1 USD…

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Wooo Hoo! Panama!!! All afternoon I’m screaming Van Halen’s “Panama” through my helmet. The country side was beautiful as we rode up to the mountain town of Boquete. We enjoyed this valley surrounded by finca plantations. They were having a flower festival that week. This means there was one small garden and about 9823749838 speakers blasting music all night. With rumors of a boat leaving in the next two days we made a break for Panama City. Before leaving town we explored the the mountains and popped into a coffee farm. Here they are drying the beans in the front parking lot.

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By late afternoon we came into Panama City. Of course we got lost quickly but we found so many friendly and helpful people to help us find our way. Three military guys saw us looking lost and they ended up telling some car driver to show us the way into the city. It didn’t take long to get lost again and so we paid a taxi driver $2 to show us to the  hostel. Good thing we did because the sun had gone down and there was no way we would have figured it out on our own. The hostel only had one bed left. Charles took the bed and I convinced them to let me sleep on the balcony. I prefer to think of it as a secure private room with a gentle breeze and a city view.

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At the hostel we met Andy, an Australian who has been riding north from Ushuaia. In Colombia, he and his riding partner built a boat out of their KLRs and motored up the coast. Ya, it sounds crazy. It is crazy… but it’s damn cool and it makes me think about how lame I am looking for a sailboat to take me across the Darien Gap. Unfortunately, their bikes got trashed in the salt water. He’s been stuck at the hostel for a few weeks working on his bike and hopes to continue riding north to Alaska. Andy’s making a video of his journey. Be sure to check in on his website, Four Strokes Of Luck  in the future.

Hostel Mamallena helps travelers hook up with captains to sail around the Darien Gap. Unfortunately, the boat we had hoped to jump on was full… We began to think about our options

  1. Wait around for a week  until another boat departs. A loss on time but at least we’d be able to explore more of Panama.
  2. Ride up to the sketchy city of Colon and hang out on the docks and ask every boat we see for a ride to Colombia. Even if we did find a boat how sanitary/safe /enjoyable would it be?
  3. Fly the bikes (and ourselves). COPA does this but we called and they aren’t shipping Cargo for another few months. Girag does this service but it’s about $900 for the bike and another $300 for the person. YIKES!

The night went on and the hostel manager tells us that the captain has kicked two people off of the boat (for reasons unknown) and he now has space for us and our bikes. SOLD! We’re going to sail through the San Blas islands and into Colombia!

Categories: Costa Rica, Panama | 4 Comments

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