A little more than five years ago I introduced the running community to the notion of a remote and rugged long-distance foot race in Costa Rica called The Coastal Challenge. It was an exciting time for me. Over the years we've had the opportunity to stage the race throughout different parts of Costa Rica while meeting competitive runners from all over the world.
Recently we set out to create something new and different. After a recent scout to Panama to help lay out our TCC Panama: Island Run course I can say that we have created an event in a place that surpasses our wildest expectations.
"This place is freakin' sweet" I heard myself say countless times as we touched down upon multiple exotic islands to map out a three-day running route. The odd thing is that it's an expression I never use. It seemed that while marveling at the beauty of this place I was suddenly channeling a young OC surfer dude in some sort of dreamy, overstimulated state-of-consciousness.
This quiet corner of Panama was simply stunning on so many different levels that it made my mind swirl with thoughts of the race we were planning, early retirement, Corona beer commercials, Life is Good t-shirts, Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoots and ultimately brought me back to the simple and youthful dreams of one day finding some authentic adventure in an otherwise misspent life.
But let's jump back to where our scout began. After leaving Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica I drove with Sergio and Andres to Sixaola, a town that borders Panama, and here's where our brief odyssey begins.
Day 1: Rio Sixaola
Crossing an enormous bridge to Panama I look down through wide openings and gaps between loose planks placed on top of decaying railroad ties. I see flowing water the color of milk chocolate...so inviting in this oppressive heat. There is a fleeting hope that a railroad tie might give way or I get bumped off by one of the large trucks that come within inches of clipping people as they squeeze between the steady cross current of pedestrian traffic. All the bridges in this part of Costa Rica were originally part of a vast railway system. This bridge is no different, only more sketchy than most. The span of the bridge is impressive because the river is so damn wide.
That water has got to be cool but it's moving very fast and we are very near it's mouth spilling out to the Caribbean. Crocs...? Probably. They seem to inhabit every other brown muddy river and delta in these parts. So just keep walking.
About half way across the bridge a smiling, energetic man in his 50s named Salomon greets us. He's our driver and guide for about an hour. Once across and into Panama Solomon helps expedite the complex three-door, three-office process of getting our passports stamped and returned. He then drops us off in the bustling town of Changuinola for a bite to eat. We're hot and hungry so we waste no time or energy talking about sports or the weather while devouring lunch.
Solomon picks us up an hour later and now has two more "fares/bridge crossers" in his truck and we rush off to nearby canal put-in for our next bit of transportation. We hop out of his truck and run toward the put-in just in time to catch a zippy little dual-outboard riverboat. It's still sunny and warm so the voyage on the boat is incredibly refreshing. We see enormous birds, including cranes and blue heron. The canal is home to fisherman and river guides and we come across plenty of them or their families in dugout canoes.
The boat slows down and comes to nearly a complete stop whenever we pass a home along the side of the canal. It's like a 5 mph zone without the speed bumps.
The boat continues down this lush and beautiful tropical canal for 30 minutes until we hit the mouth where we round a spit of land and look out on to the gleaming blue Caribbean. Thirty more minutes on open water and we start seeing the scattered islands that make up the archipelago of Bocas del Toro.
As we near the northwestern coast of Isle Colon and pass Bocas del Drago the boat driver slows down and points out at the water. Two dolphins surface and their arched backs gleam silver-grey in the afternoon sun...a great maritime omen.