Border into Panama

No signs at this border crossing

I recently wrote a post about a very pretentious traveler whom I met in Guatemala this past March. Lots of you commented, and it would seem that it was a common experience shared by most of you at some point or another. I wanted to follow that post with this one dedicated to a traveler named Martin, who was the antithesis of Miss Fancy Hula-Hoop Pants, but whom I incidentally met on the same day and at the same hostel.

A group of us were sitting down to dinner. We were having a typical conversation about where everyone had been and stayed. Sitting at the end of the table was an unassuming looking man with brilliant blue eyes freshly dreaded dreadlocks, who was eagerly tucking into his food. During the first 15 minutes of conversation, he didn’t really engage. The conversation turned to Lake Atitlan, as Arnaud and I would be traveling there next and were looking for a good hostel recommendation for Panajachel. A few people interjected their thoughts, and then I turned to the silent guy at the end of the table and asked him whether he had been to the lake, and had any accommodation recommendations?

He mentioned the name of a hostel, but pointed out he had only chosen it because it was extremely economical and was pretty far away from the main action of the downtown area. He did tell us about a great little bar that had great live music. He casually mentioned that he typically camped as he was traveling to save money, as he was on an extended trip.

Up to this point we hadn’t really noticed anything special about this person. He was friendly and trying to be helpful. Pestering him with a couple more generic questions, we discovered that he had just had his bicycle stolen. This wasn’t all that incredible either, until he explained that he had basically been cycling for the last year all the way from Tierra Del Fuego in South America to Guatemala!

This information got me extremely interested. This was a traveler with a unique story, and certainly one that a lot of people would’ve chosen to brag about. However, in a very mild-mannered English accent, Martin began captivating us as an audience as he began to explain how he had actually been traveling for the past eight years, and how his decision to cycle from the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost tip of North America wasn’t really anything special. He explained that hundreds of guys did this every year, and so he didn’t really think he was that unique anymore.

Well. I’d certainly never met anyone doing this! I was interested!

Aconcagua, 22,841 Feet

Mighty Aconcagua, 22,841 Feet

We were fascinated and started peppering Martin with questions about what it had been like, what tools he had used to get from place to place, how much gear he was carrying with him etc. It turned out that in addition to cycling, Martin was an avid mountaineer and was climbing high altitude peaks along his journey, including the mighty Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the continent. He was even carrying all of his cold weather gear on his bike; everything except an ice axe and crampons.

Martin was happy to answer our questions, but he never once took any credit for his outstanding achievement, and brave forays onto a truly unbeaten path on the back of a standard road bike. He told us about his bike rides through winter blizzards, his Aconcagua ascent, his malaria and water-borne sicknesses he’d endured because like the locals, he no longer treats his drinking water. One particular story stands out in my mind, and it concerned his crossing the border from Colombia to Panama, overland.

“Well, you see, crossing the border via the dense jungle on a road bike is a bit tricky,” he explained.

“I basically don’t carry any roadmaps, because they are so unreliable in Central. I typically end up following a compass, rudimentary markings in the lonely planet guide, directions from locals along the way, and my gut. I was passing through during the rainy season, when I knew it would be especially difficult to get across by bike. And since it’s considered a rather dodgy area, there are not very many road signs,”

“At one point, I think I’d been biking about two days on one small road I thought was the correct route only to find out later that it looped back to where I had started from. I was gutted as it had been especially physically demanding. Not wanting to be discouraged, I set about on a different route only to find that the rain started coming down so heavily that I had no choice but to pull over, set up my one man tent in the bog, and wait for the weather to clear.”

“After a rather crazed, mosquito-filled sleepless night, I awoke to water inside my tent, and when I peered outside, there was a river flowing where yesterday there had been a road! Some locals had come across my tent in a boat and were just sitting there waiting to see what crazy person had set up a tent in the middle of the jungle so close to the Colombian border. I think these guys were Wounaan Indians, so they didn’t speak a word of Spanish or English. It was rather difficult trying to get them to understand where I needed to go- that I need their help was, believe me, rather obvious! “

Map of No-Man's Land: Border between Panama and Colombia

“Eventually I understood that they wanted $10 for me to get in their boat and be paddled across the border; at least, I hoped that was where they were heading! I remember thinking that $10 was a lot of money because based on my best guess-work; I was no more than a few miles from the border. Turns out, I was in that boat with those two guys for the next 15 hours before safely crossing over into Panama. It was absolutely wild. I can’t begin to tell you how precious and unique that experience was for me. Being paddled to Panama by those guys.”

Martin’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, and we sat listening with rapt attention. The writer in me kept asking him, “Have you written any these stories down or blogged about any of them? Seriously?!”

He just kept insisting that he’s an ordinary guy who loves to travel, loves to climb mountains, surf waves, and have adventures. He didn’t think his stories were anything special.

“People who can live in one place. Have a home, a family. Keep a job that they go to every day of the week. They are special. Not me. This is my life”.

I found him inspiring. He was the epitome of cool- because he didn’t consider himself to be.

After my encounter with hula hoop girl earlier on in the day, I can tell you that meeting Martin was a refreshing change. He had experienced so much and been traveling for so long, he even admitted that he looked 10 years older than his mere 29 years. Yet despite this, he was more than happy to discuss where I might like to stay in Panajachel. Only after probing him did he offer up this array of colorful stories of adventures into the wild unknown that most backpackers don’t get to experience.

Funnily enough, I met another traveler in Rio Dulce who had encountered Martin and was likewise struck by his tale and accompanying modesty. It seems Martin is leaving a trail of positive impacts in his interactions as he heads north. I did give Martin my e-mail address, and let him know that he had a place to stay once he got to Seattle sometime next year, but I haven’t heard from him yet.

“So… Where’s next for you? Now that you’re bike-less?” I asked Martin as I left the table.

“Well, turns out that the police in Panajachel found my bike today. Which I really wasn’t expecting. So I’ll just enjoy my bus journey back to the Lake…and then I’ll be on the road again. Maybe find some work for a while to save up some more cash before heading to the States.”

He smiled and hungrily shoveled some more dinner into his mouth, clearly content that he could enjoy some food that wasn’t packaged noodles boiled on his camp stove.

I am curious to know if any of you pretension-hating travelers out there have met Martin? Or at least someone like him that inspired you?