IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT THAT THERE ARE NO ROADS FROM PANAMA TO COLOMBIA. IN SOUTHERN PANAMA THE PANAMERICAN HIGHWAY ENDS AT THE DARIEN GAP—150 MILES OF DENSE RAINFOREST, SWAMPS, INDIGENOUS TRIBES, DRUG SMUGGLERS AND GUERRILLA REBELS. THE PANAMERICAN HIGHWAY PICKS BACK UP AGAIN IN SOUTH AMERICA BUT GETTING THERE ON A MOTORCYCLE PROVED INTERESTING.
WEDNESDAY JULY 3RD – DAY 28 – PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – COLON, PANAMA – 24 DE DICIEMBRE, PANAMA
After spending a couple days in the heart of Panama City waiting for a new sprocket and researching our next move we decided to head to Colon, Panama to find a boat captain to take us to Colombia. The journey from the Pacific city of Panama City to Colon on the caribbean side was a quick 45 minutes from one ocean to the other. Arriving in Colon we realized we didn’t want to stay in Colon. Dirty slums in a dirty port city. The whole place felt like it was rotting. We spent several hours asking around trying to find out where the small boat captains leave from Panama to Colombia. Every time we’d get to a dock they’d turn us around and tell us we were in the wrong spot. Our plan to find a crappy supply boat to Colombia wasn’t working out well.
After several hours of frustration I called a captain of a “beautiful sailing yacht,” that according to a local hostel was leaving that day or the next day from a nearby port. Normally these fancy sailing expeditions cost $500/person plus another $400 for the bike. When I called up the captain I told him we could be anywhere he wanted within the day but our budget was $1200 total between the two of us. He was super hesitant but he accepted and gave us explicit directions on what we were to do the next 12 hours in order to get to his boat.
It was about 4pm when I made the phone call and that day we needed to arrive in a suburb of Panama City a couple hours away. We backtracked towards Panama City and headed south towards the Darien Gap. Our soon-to-be boat captain had told us to look for a hotel in a city called “24 de diciembre.” Just as we were approaching the city and about to ask somebody for some info, an older guy in his 50s pulls up next to me during a stoplight on a little motorscooter. Our conversation went something like this…
Old dude- “where you guys going?”
Me- “we’re looking for the 24th of december, we need a hotel”
Old dude- “oh ya, you just arrived, this is it. Do you want to come stay with me?”
The light turns green, he kicks his bike into first and makes a charging left hand turn through traffic. Here we go!
We quickly arrived at his house which looked like an old hotel that at some point became a house. When we pulled up, his wife and adopted daughter were there to greet us. The mysterious motoscooter driver introduced himself as Israel Gonzalez. He sat us down in his kitchen, shared Panamanian civil war stories, fed us, put sweet 80s music videos on TV for us watch, and gave us an old musty mattress to sleep on. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve met… he’s a hotel chef/police negotiator/surveillance camera technician/Hare Krishna lover/war veteran/photographer. But I was mainly interested in hearing about the Panamanian civil war. He had photos, war memorabilia, and a very sharp memory. We went to bed after drinking some banana smoothies and watching old 80s music videos from a broken TV.
THURSDAY JULY 4TH (INDEPENDENCE DAY) – DAY 29 – 24 DE DICIEMBRE, PANAMA – SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA
The next morning we woke up at 5:45 am so we could arrive at the docks in time for our boat. Even at 5:45 am Israel was ready for us. He fed us breakfast, then all in one moment he turned on some loud mariachi music, lit some ear-splitting fireworks and started shouting “Happy Independence Day!!!!” My most memorable 4th of July yet.
We said goodbye, thanked our gracious hosts and got on the road to Carti, Panama. After a true rollercoasteresque road through the Panamanian rainforest we arrived at some dumpy docks in Carti, Panama. From there we had to load our motorcycles onto a small motorboat and ride 30 minutes straddling our babies until we could load them onto the bigger sailboat that would take us the 250 miles to Cartagena, Colombia. When we arrived at our smaller-than-advertised sailboat (named the “Island Fever”)we discovered the Captain wasn’t on board. So, we went to the nearest island to find him, picked him up and then returned to the sailboat where we watched in horror as our motorcycles were winched slowly over the Atlantic Ocean from the small motorboat to the sailboat. An hour-and-a-half after we left Carti, both bikes were onboard the Island Fever. At this point the scummy motorboat “captain” says $150 for the trouble… It was a complete scam. We ended up settling for $120. We later heard from other motorcycle travelers they were charged $30 for the same service.
The rest of the day was devoted to sailing about leisurely through the BEAUTIFUl San Blas Islands. We ended up anchoring near a small island and went snorkeling in the warm, 100+ feet visibility caribbean water. Our shipmates included 4 Argentines, 2 Frenchmen, 2 Colombians, 1 Panamanian, and 2 slovaks. Our captain, a Colombian named Jorge, in my opinion was just a pirate with a charismatic and friendly disposition. Honesty and transparency weren’t really part of his “code” though as we later discovered.
We all soon realized the boat was way too small for the 13 people we had on board. And there wasn’t enough food either. During the course of the trip we all got pretty comfortable sharing waterbottles, beds, germs, and any personal privacy. The First night, however, we were all excited and optimistic about the voyage. That changed the next day…
FRIDAY JULY 5TH – DAY 30 – SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA – SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN
Leaving the absolute “screensaver paradise” of the San Blas Islands we passed through the protecting reefs and entered into the open sea. 10 minutes later I had to lie down. I always thought sea sickness was for ninnys. I guess it’s for me and Chase…and everyone else on board too. The waves were a solid 7-8 feet high and the boat didn’t really do a good job of cutting through it.
For just about all of the day I had to lie on my back in order to feel somewhat normal. haha It wasn’t the sailing adventure I hoped for.
SATURDAY JULY 6TH – DAY 31 – SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN – SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE CARIBBEAN
Day 2 at sea. Nothing in sight. no land. no other boats. just us and the ocean.
At some point in the afternoon we both started feeling better and were able to eat comfortably as long as we stared directly at the horizon. The day’s highlight included seeing some whales and going for a swim in water so blue it seemed to glow. Meanwhile, our arrival date for that afternoon came and went. According to the captain; bad wind, bad current, bad waves.
Towards sunset I thought I had tackled seasickness but the wind started blowing and the waves started getting bigger. I had to throw myself on the back bed again as winds got up to 60 mph and waves reached 15 feet. The boat literally got airborne every time we went over a wave. At one point a wave crashed right over the whole boat and reached all the way to the rear hatch getting the 4 of us on the back bed wet. haha under any other conditions I would have LOVED the thrill of being in heavy seas. But sea sickness takes the fun away. That, and food running out halfway through the day.
SUNDAY JULY 7TH – DAY 32 – SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE CARIBBEAN – CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
As morning arrived we woke up to the first land we’d seen in more than 48 hours. We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia around 8 am and everyone sprinted to get off the boat. Next it was the motorcycles’ turn. According to our beloved captain, who had told me originally over the phone that the onload and offload fees were 30-40 bucks, it was illegal to unload the motorcycles onto the dock. So that was going to be $100 to the dock workers. It was all a load of BS, he was way too friendly with the dock guys. Before I knew it, a huge group of dudes grabbed our bikes and loaded them onto the docks. No more price negotiation.
I suspect the outrageous onload and offload fees with his buddies were his way of trying to charge us more than $600 each (which he constantly reminded me was an incredible deal!) I also blame him for stealing my $13.50 rain jacket!
On a happier note. We met a couple australian dudes that paid $1050 total to cross from Panama to Colombia. At least we didn’t come out that bad…
Back on land, Chase and I suddenly had sea legs and everything felt like it was moving. We ate the first thing we could get our hands on, examined our now completely rusted chains and set off to find a place to stay while we waited on our immigration papers. Not before we took a moment to gloat in the fact that we had ACTUALLY arrived in South America with two working motorcycles!
ALMOST 6,000 MILES ON THE ODOMETER. OUR SPRINT THROUGH CENTRAL AMERICA WAS A SHORT ACTION PACKED THRILLER WITH RAIN, TRAFFIC, MUD, BEACHES, VOLCANOES, ONE VERY LARGE FAMOUS CANAL AND NEVER-ENDING CUSTOMS PROCEDURES.
MONDAY JUNE 24TH – DAY 19 – PALENQUE, MEXICO – HUEHUETENANGO, GUATEMALA (CONTINUED)
First impressions of Guatemala..Similar to Mexico but everything is twice as old, everyone is twice as poor, the mountains are twice as steep and the roads are twice as crappy. Mexico has an upper class and a lower class, it seems like Guatemala only has the lower class.
The border turned out to be a lot easier than I imagined. Everything was straight forward. We got back our $300 deposit on our motorcycles, stamped out of Mexico, got our bikes fumigated for a few bucks, paid a couple bucks to enter ourselves and another 20 for our bikes. Again, not a very popular border crossing. No one wants to go to Guatemala apparently. In the hour and a half we were there, we didn’t see a single car or bus pass through. haha does everyone know something we don’t?
After the crossing it was almost dark and we broke the cardinal rule of driving at night for about an hour. At one point I asked a police officer how far to the next town. His response, “Well, it depends on how fast your motorcycle is.” haha No speed limits. Good to know. We found the first city Huehuetenango and we soon realized… we like Guatemala! We paid $3.98 each for a private hotel room and then $4.50 for a dinner sufficient for a 400 lb. lucha libre wrestler. The family that ran the restaurant didn’t know where California was but they knew how to throw together a GIANT bowl of chicken soup.
Side note: The tortillas here are fatter and DELICIOUS!
We went to bed quite content.
TUESDAY JUNE 25TH – DAY 20 – HUEHUETENANGO, GUATEMALA – JALPATAGUA, GUATEMALA
We woke up the next morning and returned to our new favorite family restaurant for some big cheap eatin’. Then we hit the road for the El Salvadorian border. We soon realized how daunting a task this would become. Crappy roads, construction stops and thousands of unexpected speed bumps kept our speed down to a crawl. The terrain in Guatemala was not as I expected though. It was for the most part it was extremely high mountains with loosely populated indigenous villages strewn about all over the place. Our one detour of the day was visiting Lake Atitlan, we didn’t have much time to appreciate it though. Chase and I both agree that of all the Central American countries we would have liked to have had more time in, Guatemala takes the cake. There’s a lot to see. After our bodies couldn’t take anymore speed bumps and an approaching thunderstorm threatened our warm-blooded bodies we pulled over to find a hotel. $6 each for a private room and found good food across the street for $1.50.
WEDNESDAY JUNE 26TH – DAY 21 – JALPATAGUA, GUATEMALA – EL SALVADOR – CHOLUTECA, HONDURAS
Getting on our bikes in the morning, we were only 15 minutes away from the el salvadorian border. The plan- complete 2 border crossings and travel all the way through El Salvador in one day. The border crossing was a little longer when there were “problems” with Chase’s paperwork. We arrived on the El Salvadorian side to pay $10 for insurance. When I asked what it covered, the stoic government lady simply says, “if you die, your family gets $4000.” hahaha oh. GREAT! I tried to not laugh out loud at her response, but I couldn’t help it.
My observations of El Salvador are as follows. Lots of Volcanoes, lava rock fields, great roads (the panamerican highway is well developed in El Salvador, If there is a Panamerican highway in Guatemala, we never found it), and lots of farmland/deforestation. The highway is littered with Papusa shops, we stopped at a cafeteria and ate their 1/2-inch thick tortillas. DELICIOUS!! They also use the dollar, that’s nice too. We made great time on the highway and within several hours we arrived at the honduran border.
From here I’ll go into what a typical Central American border crossing is like. I’ll describe our El Salvador-Honduras experience, but all are about the same.
For about 1/4-mile leading up to the border there’s people sitting around. Sometimes in shops, sometimes on the streets. When we come into sight, half of these people perk up and start waving their arms wildly for us to come talk to them. For the most part they are “border helpers”. At the beginning of the 1/4-mile frenzy a guy practically throws himself in front of my bike. I have to swerve to avoid him and then watch him sprint the 1/4-mile in my rear-view mirror. hahaha. When we make it to the government customs building generally we are immediately swarmed by people offering to do all our paperwork for a small tip or by people who offer to change out the old currency for the new one. When the sprinter finally arrived at the pack I felt kind of bad for him, he couldn’t even get his words out because he was so winded. Then I have to sternly say to all of them “we don’t need help! We’ve done this before, thanks but no thanks, go away please.” Some don’t believe me and they start guiding us through to the right buildings. I have to tell them things like “I promise you, I’m not going to pay you anything, don’t waste your time.” They usually give up after a few minutes when they realize we’re competent gringos. First we stamp ourselves out of the country we started in, cancel our vehicle permits and then stamp in to the new country and get new vehicle permits and/or insurance.
During the process there’s a series of 20 police/border agents that check your stuff along the way. Just as we get to the bridge to cross into Nicaragua a Honduran police officer starts pointing at dates on Chase’s motorcycle title that relate to his old registration that were expired. He was a worthless excuse for a human being. he grabs the title and says “Oh if you don’t need it then i’ll keep it.” So I had to explain how California titles and registration work. This thug thought if he could catch us doing something illegal he could force a bribe out of us to get the title back. His little scheme failed. When I didn’t back down he finally relinquished the title and then asked me to give him my boots. haha I wanted to throw him off the bridge.
Assaulted with more helpers on the Honduran side and slow moving border agents we spent $35 to enter with our motorcycles and hit the road for the nearest city. We arrived in Choluteca and since we needed money for dinner, a hotel and breakfast the next morning we took out $10 each. 🙂 love it.
My observations of Honduras. Similar to other Central American countries in most respects. As poor as Guatemala but without all the indigenous culture. Roads were the worst we’ve seen in the whole trip and maybe for the same reason, NO ONE has cars, they all walk.
We found a hotel that fell within our $10 24-hour budget and hit the hay.
THURSDAY JUNE 27TH – DAY 22 – CHOLUTECA, HONDURAS – NICARAGUA – LA CRUZ, COSTA RICA
Waking up it was an hour or so to the Nicaraguan border. Another day. Another 2 border crossings and one entire country knocked off our list.
We both recognize that at this speed we can’t ‘truly’ appreciate a country. It’s true. But in this way we’ll have more time to appreciate South America.
Our grand exit from Honduras was marked with 2-foot-deep pot hole mine fields littering the highway. I felt like a skier going through the moguls. It was pretty interesting to look ahead and see oncoming semis swerving left and right into your lane to avoid the potholes. Crossing into Nicaragua was pretty uneventful. Similar to all the others.
My observations of Nicaragua. The people have enough money to buy bicycles, Honduras NO. More Volcanoes, more green stuff everywhere, and big lakes. We didn’t make any real detours through Nicaragua. In part because we were stopped on three occasions by corrupt police officers pulling retarded infractions out of their butts. I was so annoyed, I just wanted to get to Costa Rica. The first stop was just a “routine stop” they held us while they thought of something we did wrong but they came up blank. The second stop was for chase following the car in front of him too closely. I didn’t get all the info from the cop BUT I WAS IN FRONT OF HIM. The cop started out at $100 and then I came back to see what his deal was. I laughed at him and threw him a $20 and we got on our way. The third stop occured when I saw our fellow travelers we met on the Baja Ferry on the highway. I pulled up nearer to their SUV and honked my horn; in my excitement I wasn’t watching for the freaking POE-POES. $10 and a whole bunch of stern warnings and fake threats from the cop and we were on our way. I was glad to get to Costa Rica. $35 for insurance and we were set loose in the country. We stopped at the nearest city and soon discovered, everything is practically American prices. This is the worst country of them all! Chase and I reminisced about our beloved Guatemala after paying $12 each for the crappiest hotel of the trip.
FRIDAY JUNE 28TH – DAY 23 – LA CRUZ, COSTA RICA – JACO, COSTA RICA
BEST first half of the day followed by the WORST. First thing in the morning we took a road prohibited to all vehicles except those with “extreme off-road” capabilities. We traveled 10 miles through the santa rosa national park to the a surf spot called “witch’s rock.” We didn’t have surfboards, so it was the off-road journey to the beach that motivated our quest. A few hours traveling through the jungle and swimming in a pristine and isolated beach was a fantastic detour.
We got back on the road only to get caught in a never-ending downpour. It started out uncomfortable in the warm weather but by the second hour it became a mind game of blocking out the pain. Our original plan was to make it to a beach where we could camp, but the rain soaked our camp gear and with it our hopes of camping comfortably. At a gas station we decided to call it quits and headed for a nearby coastal town called Jaco. It turned out to be a great stop. Jaco is a little surf town that seems to thrive entirely on foreign surfers. We got a cheap hotel and I paid $5 bucks for a board to use the next morning.
SATURDAY JUNE 29TH – DAY 24 – JACO, COSTA RICA – DAVID, PANAMA
I woke up to glassy head high beachbreak and surfed for about 3 hours with just one german to keep me company. The waves were great, but the water was a little dirty from a river dumping poop a few hundred yards away. That might have been my undoing.
After Chase slept in and I had my fill of waves, we set off for Panama. The road was beautiful! The highway curved along with the Costa Rican beaches on one side and the jungle on the other. Other than that nothing of special importance during the ride. The Panamanian border crossing was the longest and most complicated yet. Somewhere during the border steps I felt my stomach feel funny. And then I knew. The next few hours or days would be unpleasant. We stopped in David, Panama and got some street hamburgers and spent the night at a hostal. I dreamt that I was sick and I woke up the next morning to see my dream come true.
SUNDAY JUNE 30TH – DAY 25 – DAVID, PANAMA – SANTIAGO, PANAMA
That morning we went to Church, just 10 blocks away from our hostal and then I felt like the grim reaper had me in his clutches. Extreme fatigue and achiness, accompanied with the usual intestinal problems. I had a gnarly fever too so I went back to the hostal to take a nap. Waking up, I felt surpisingly better but everytime I exerted myself in anyway I felt like crap. We got on the road anyways and made it to Santiago, Panama when Chase’s bike started trembling under acceleration. It should have been an easy diagnosis but in my sick and exhausted haze it took me awhile to notice that his rear sprocket was totally obliterated. So there we were…on the side of the road in the rain. Changing a sprocket (We brought an extra, because boyscouts are always prepared) while my body felt as if it suddenly aged 70 years. It’s a memory I will hold dear to my heart. We got everything sorted out and had to spend the night in the same city.
MONDAY JULY 1ST – DAY 26 – SANTIAGO, PANAMA – PANAMA CITY
Feeling just as crappy as the day before we set off for Panama City. We needed to get another spare sprocket now for my bike which looked like it only had a few hundred miles left on the sprocket. Poor chain maintenance had cost us a bit. We crossed the Panama Canal and took a little detour to get as close as we could before we entered the city to begin our hunt for a sprocket for a bike that isn’t really sold outside the US. It was quite a hopeless endeavour but we found one that was almost identical except it didn’t have 8 screw holes, it had 6. So we went to a machine shop to get it redrilled. We stopped later at La Casa de Carmen, a well-known hostal here in the city. Most of the guys here are from Jamaica or the Carribean. More than anything it was nice to have a place to lay down while in my sickly state.
At the moment I’m still trying to get the sprocket thing fixed on my bike; the guy that drilled the holes did a poor job and I need him to re-do it. We hope to leave for Colon, Colombia today to find a boat captain to take us to Colombia for a cheap price. It is the second day here waiting on sickness, sprockets, other random mechanical problems and boat captain responses, etc. Aside from that we’ve just been chillin with the Jamaicans and Carribean Islanders that live here.