Peligro Road Trip

Trucks marked Peligro

Trucks marked PeligroOur great South American road trip has begun in earnest. From Santa Marta, Colombia to Lima, Peru – 3,500 km in three weeks. Doesn’t sound too far if you imagine driving, say, from London to Ankara or across the USA but this is South America we are talking about – where the traffic plays footloose, fast and free with such concepts such as ‘risk’, ‘safety’ and ‘overtaking on corners’.

The first five hundred klicks, then, are dominated with 30 ton fuel tankers marked ‘Peligro’ front and back. This is Spanish for ‘danger’ – and never a truer word have I read on the back of a vehicle, to be frank; these monsters rushing fuel from the coast to the capital drive as if their load has a limited shelf-life or, maybe, like the drivers themselves are approaching their Best-Before… Fresh in my mind, you see, was the horrific story of a fuel tanker crashing near Mexico City – the trailer separating from the tractor and exploding as it veered into the opposite lane and the houses lining the highway.

The thing is that our truck is not that fast or powerful and thus when we hit the magic 95 kmph we want to stay there as long as possible. There’s plenty of stuff to slow you down; roadworks, busy hamlets, police checkpoints, speed bumps, wandering livestock and slower vehicles. And from that list the only item that you can do something about legally (and without wrecking the suspension or having to wipe cow off  the hood) is the slow vehicle in front, passing them as quickly as possible, trying to conserve that momentum and joining in the fun with all the other maniac drivers out there who are trying to do the same.

Anyone who has gone to battle on the highways in India will remember the encouraging messages posted by the government by the side of the road: Stuff like, “Overtakers make business for Undertakers!” – I’d be wondering if that little play on words could be translated into Spanish except for the fact that every ounce of concentration is focused on the traffic.

You see, regular readers will recall, of course, that I, the driver, sit on the right hand side of Jigsaw, our English truck. And this means that there are certain difficulties in seeing the road ahead when trying to pass a slower vehicle. I have often fantasized about installing a couple of mirrors, one of which is angled forwards like a kind of periscope, to help me in this respect – but, until I do, our safe passage depends on the accuracy of the information supplied by my co-pilot who is in the hot seat, in the middle of the road, with the necessary clear view ahead if I pull out just a bit.

So, cruising fast a day south of the Colombian Caribbean coast, coming down off a mild slope, we hit the magic 95. There’s a slow mover in the distance in front of us, billowing black smoke, its off-side rear wheels wobbling strangely.

<< OK, go out a bit, Dunia shouts over the din of our engine, OK back in – there’s a truck and a silver car – after the car pull out again, she says.

We’re rapidly approaching the slow vehicle in front and I relax our 95 down to 90 so that we don’t have to seriously reduce our speed while waiting for the moment to overtake. The truck whizzes by the other way, then the silver car, and I pull out a little again to give Dunia another look.

<< The road bends, I can’t see, she says.

I slow us down further going into the corner, frowning; we’ll be right behind this thing soon, matching it’s slow speed which makes it all the more harder to accelerate past it when there’s a chance.

<< OK, go out. Half a moment of silence – we’re nearly right behind our obstacle, half a moment before I have to hit the brakes.

<< Can I go? I cry, Is something there?

<< Yes! Dunia shouts, the rest of her sentence drowned out by the engine roaring one gear down.

<< Yes, I can go? I scream back – Dunia’s flapping her hand frantically…

And I pull out, stamping on the gas and getting ready to slip into top gear and take this sucker. Shit! No! There’s a fuel tanker coming straight for us, out of nowhere and going too fast for us to complete the manoeuvre safely.

<<Peligro! We both scream and I swerve back in, switching my foot from the gas to the brakes. We slow right down to 50, so close to this guy in front that we can make out his “How am I driving?” sign beneath the dirt on the back of his oil-burning jalopy. The Peligro fuel tanker screams by, sounding its air horn in a fit of rage, through the space we’d nearly been in a millisecond before. And, then, another bloody fuel tanker that has crept up behind, overtakes, sounding its horn, warning us that he’s passing me and the rust bucket in front all at once, conserving his momentum, swinging out in perfect time and thundering off ahead at the magic 95. As I mentioned; these things dominate the highways round here.

<<Christ, I say, sorry, I thought you meant, yes, I can go; not, yes, there’s something there.

Dunia was silent. Fused to the hot seat, in the middle of the road – a witness to the close shave and near death.

And after two days of that, twelve hours each, we sat in the shade of the gas station where we’d parked up for the night, a cool beer washing down the dust, the alcohol washing down the buzz. You’ll never read much on here about rock climbing, parachute-gliding, zip-wire flying or any of that stuff. But by the time we reached the quieter hills climbing up to Medellin I understood this about myself: I am an adrenaline junkie.


Nations Unknown: Guna Yala

Swastika - ancient indigenous symbol

SwastikaOf all the nations unknown that Earthcircuit has visited these past three years, Guna Yala is the most established. It has borders, it has a language, a distinctive culture and an independently legislative existence within the Republic of Panama. You even have to pay $10 to get in.

Possibly, though, it’s one of the strangest nations; a thin strip of land on the north coast of Panama has almost no roads, as wild and inhospitable as when the Scottish first attempted to settle there hundreds of years ago. The Kuna people mostly inhabit the thousands of islands that lie just off shore, using hand built canoes and speedboats to move around, it’s almost like a waterworld of the future as much as an authentic vision of an indigenous past.

Guna Yala has, by and large, always maintained an independence. When Panama was part of Colombia, the area was known as the San Blas Islands by the outsiders who saw them as stepping stones  (and continue to do so)  from South to Central America. With support from the USA, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and, over the next two decades, the Kuna people began to be oppressed by the policies and institutions of the new leaders from Panama City.  By 1925 they had had enough and there was an armed revolution with the aim of establishing a truly independent republic called Tule. After a few months, after two dozen non-Kuna police were killed and with help from American individuals who supported their cause, they came to an agreement with the Panamanian authorities to lay down their arms in return for cultural recognition, rights and safeguards.

The swastika, of course, is an ancient symbol – representing to the Kuna, the four directions or winds. During the Second World War, the Kuna decided to drop that for a depiction of a bow and arrow under green stars in recognition of events going on in the world around them. Both flags are proudly displayed on pick-ups and boats.

The Kuna population is around 80 000 strong although a significant proportion of them live in Panama City where the women-folk are easily identifiable because of their distinctive dress. But it’s only out in the islands, of course, that you see the Kuna living in pretty much the way they always have…

The Price of Paradise

The province that separates North and South America

The province that separates North and South AmericaOur friend, Inti, was the first to come up with this phrase when trying to understand why there isn’t a road from Panama to Colombia, through the Darien – and to be honest it’s as good as an explanation as any other…

The Panamerican Highway comes in two parts: North and South. The north part, fresh from its 4-12 lane iteration in Canada, USA and Mexico, continuing as a purposeful hardtop road threading through the states of Central America, dies out somewhere east of Panama City, just a couple of hundred miles before the first proper roads in Colombia begin again. In between there is a thick, tropical jungle known as the Darien Gap. Getting your vehicle around this tiny piece of uncivilisation, using container ships, costs more than crossing that other, much larger, natural barrier known as the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, the Darien Gap represents something of a conundrum: Why does it exist? I can’t believe it exists. Why, when there are roads going everywhere, there are no roads here? And why the hell do we have to pay $2500 to get round it?

For it is indeed the price of paradise and always has been. But who has paid that price? And who receives the money? Let us start at the beginning – or, at least, the time when Europeans first heard of Darien. The seventeenth century.


Scotland's Darien - their price of paradise

The paradise for the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French were the colonies – the massive land grabs that brought riches to those countries and ushered in the new world of empires. Scotland was then not part of a union with England and wanted desperately to join in this race for resources. They came up with the Darien scheme, a plan to send a few ships and over a thousand people to this thin ribbon of land between Panama and Colombia, to establish a colony and a trading company that would enrich the folk back home. And, if you look at some of the oldest maps there is a New Caledonia and a New Edinburgh located on the Darien’s Caribbean coast. But then they paid the price: the expedition was a complete failure. The indigenous people didn’t want them there, the Spanish gave them problems and the English refused to help in any way: Their food rotted, they succumbed to the heat, humidity and disease and only a few hundred survived after a few months. And, in real terms, the price was enormous for Scotland: a fifth of her wealth had been invested in the Darien scheme. It is generally thought that this disaster quickly convinced the Scots that their future had to be with England, to share in the benefits of being a world power and to be an integral part of the British Empire. A few years later, then, there was the Act of Union and the rest is history: this Darien, indeed, seems the price Scotland paid for paradise.

Inti wasn’t referring to Scotland, though. Of that I’m sure. He is from the Amazon. He saw his first ever road when he was ten years old and hitched a ride on the first ever truck he saw to a big city somewhere that he’d never heard of… After a career working for the military as an underwater welder, he has these last four years settled in Panama City. He’s done pretty well for himself here – his workshop profiting from the money-bubble that this international zone has become. Is this what he meant? Has the Darien Gap, a barrier that isolates Panama from the economic and political confusion of South America, contributed to the success story?

This does seem a realistic proposition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the USA helped Panama separate from Colombia and remained to build and operate the Panama Canal. They wouldn’t have appreciated the difficulties that a land border with Colombia would have brought: That they had annexed part of an independent nation could be dispelled by the fact that Panama had always been geographically cut off from the rest of the country. In general, in more modern times, the popular idea is that a road would have brought an increase in drug and human traffic but, I think, more importantly, it would have brought distraction for the Panamanian/American authorities whose attention was focused on linking the oceans together rather than being a through-fare for revolting banana republics. One the one hand, then, the Darien Gap is a buffer-zone; a good example of the colonial custom of divide and rule. On the other it is the price Panama pays for its paradise.

But, no, Inti was referring to the price we are paying to get to the paradise of the South America that he knows; the Amazon, the Andes, the original New World and his home.

So who profits now in the twenty-first century from the Darien Gap? Who actually receives money for its continuing existence? The price that we paid for our paradise, our slow orbit of the earth is nearly $4000 in all – to ship the vehicle, to transport ourselves, to exist in hostels while we wait for the return of our home at the port in Cartagena, Colombia…

Last year there was talk of a new ferry route that would have provided a much cheaper option for both the gringo overlanders and the thousands of Latin Americans who want to travel between north and south. After many press releases, advertising and even the opening of a booking office, the ferry remains a dream, the boat itself still docked in Greece. As others have put it, the idea seems to have sunk under the weight of bureaucracy or, at least, because of the lack of ferry-terminal facilities in both Colon and Cartagena. But one thing is obvious; those who profit from the continuing situation are those who happily reside over the remaining travel options: Copa Airlines mostly, who charge $350 for an hour’s flight over the jungle, but also the Guna Yala people (who have paid their own bloody price for this paradise – LINK) – they too must profit from the small amount of people who prefer, like us, to travel by speedboat around it.

But is it right to demand that a road be built through the Darien? Through a pristine, original growth jungle? A road is just a road, after all, and can be constructed with those green bridges and tunnels that encourage wildlife to cross safely and minimizes the disruption to the continuum of the surrounding environment. It could be a showcase road – an example to the Brazilians where their jungle roads are simply tools for the land clearing, destruction that spreads like a disease through the Amazon – capillaries that feed the cancer of a disappearing rain forest. Could that ever happen? Could the Panamanian authorities resist the corruption and self-interests that bedevil good intentions? Probably not. So this is the price we all pay for one last piece of paradise: maybe the Darien should always remain a gap…




How To Cross From Panama City to Cartagena Via The San Blas Islands For Less Than $250

guna-yala-map The last couple of weeks has been a fortnight of firsts. The first time in Guna Yala and the first time in Colombia. The first time on a speedboat for nine hours straight, another one the next day for two hours and then a third shortly after for four hours. The first time I’ve ever stayed in so many hostels. And the first time I’ve been talking with so many people about baked beans.

We had decided to get to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands, keeping step with our truck transported by container ship. This option is the danger option because it’s not at all certain that there are boats available and that you won’t be stuck on an island somewhere for days waiting. Not to mention the vagaries of the weather, running into cocaine smugglers or drunk captains with boats that sink. As it happened we got lucky and after a bumpy ride from Panama City by jeep, we were immediately put on a speedboat that was going all the way to the Colombian border. We weren’t really expecting this and we hardly had time to dig out sunscreen or waterproofs before we were speeding across the waves getting repeatedly burnt and then soaked. That ride, I hope, will forever be etched in my brain. Not just because it was fascinating, stopping at various islands to pick up and drop off Kuna passengers, but also because I’m not sure my back could ever put up with nine hours of slamming into wave after wave ever again.

That first day, then, took us from Panama City’s Magnolia Inn hostel to Villa Rosa hostel in Puerto Olbadia. The next few days we rested in Capagurna at the Posada del Gecko, checking to see when our truck might be arriving further north. After another speedboat from there to Turbo, we were on buses; first to Monteria – where we stayed in Hotel Tarada – and then, finally, to Cartagena – where we spent the next few days at Iguana’s House. Wow. Journey completed. On time and on budget. But never mind the exotic places we were passing through; the really interesting thing for me was (a) living out of a backpack for two weeks, (b) the joy of not having to pilot any of the vehicles I was traveling in and (c) paying money to share a room with strangers.

Seems like these hostels remind me of squatting a little. The communal kitchens with names on bags in the fridge; coming together in the lounge to watch the football; transient people you may never meet again; drug-fuelled sessions on the roof-top; you know, that kind of thing. Or, maybe, when I think about it, when I wonder at how many hostels I’ve been frequenting recently, in actual fact, I’ve been living in something like hostels for years…

Thinking about it even more: When I’m at home, I’m usually living in a big, communal squat and when I’m traveling I’m living in my own space, with my partner – a tiny bedsit on wheels that we don’t have to share with anyone. Kind of the exact opposite to everyone else. We met one guy on the way through the San Blas who kept banging on about how great Luna’s Castle in Panama City was. This infamous hostel attracts all the party-minded back-packers passing through and he was raving about the Scandinavians, Israelis, Italians and Brits he’d met there, not getting to bed until dawn most nights. Equally, in Cartagena, it was pretty good fun where we stayed – long term residents able to offer advice for the newcomers; the Colombian staff relaxed and eager to learn more languages and cold, cheap beer in the fridge. And now back in our tuck, on our own, self-sufficient and able to shut the front door on the outside world, I’d imagine that, in truth, our style of overlanding isolates us somewhat from our peers, cutting us off from all the other travelers who seem to travel as much for the spirit of camaraderie than for the experience of far off places.

So, yes, we finally got our truck back in Cartagena. Fairly painless procedure which involves relaxing in air-conditioned offices and bargaining with a street seller to rent his shoes for a couple of hours so that I’d be allowed into the port. Usually Latin American bureaucracy can be scary stuff but, for me, in Cartagena where it is hot enough to melt, I’m, like, sitting there, people-watching, catching some TV news and enjoying the artificially controlled temperature. Take as long as you want, mate, I cry. You can’t find the inspector to sign the blah blah permit? No problem, we’ll wait.

Part Three of Earthcircuit awaits us. We have driven up the nearest mountain, to Minca, to ponder our future and plan ahead in the beautifully green, cool and pleasant surroundings of this large and friendly village. And, to be honest, after the linearity of the Trans-Siberian and the northern half of the Pan American, with which the countries pass by as if they were on a conveyor-belt, we are a little bit lost – limited by funds and time indeed, but spoilt for choice with the possibilities of this vast continent that neither of us have ever been to. We have options. Left, right. Westwards, eastwards. Machu Pichu or the European Space Centre in French Guyana? After reading about overlanders who crowdfunded their travels – we have hit upon an idea, however: We’re going to auction off our future. Send us some money, tell us where to go and the highest bidder (and us) wins. I tell you what; we’ll give the 10% that would otherwise be taxed by kickstarter to your chosen charity and we’ll offer you our spare bed so that you can travel with us for a while. Or, no, unless you’re a squatter, of course, traveling with us might  just seem like dossing on the sofa at your friend’s apartment

And the beans? The baked beans that we left as bait in the truck? The test of honesty that we’d laid out for all the rough and ready men between Colon and Cartagena? Get this: cartagena-baked-beans

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