One continent down, one to go..

Trip Start Jul 17, 2012
1
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Trip End Nov 30, 2012


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Flag of Panama  ,
Thursday, September 13, 2012

    Arrived at the border to Nicaragua and immediately was approached by half a dozen fixers all decked out in green tabards which I guess they thinks adds an air of officialdom. Knowing exiting the country should be easy we went straight to immigracion - passport stamped out. Next Vehiculo's - bike stamped out. 5 mins later leaving them in our wake we were on the Nicaraguan side and unwittingly recruiting a fixer ! He sidled up and was wearing the ultimate stamp of authority - a white T shirt with writing on it and holding a clipboard. Bikes fumigated again (pay a few dollars), passports stamped and tourist card issued (pay a few dollars), vehicles imported (few more dollars). Pay fixer $20 - job done. Took about an hour and thought we were home free so promptly rode straight past the last police and passport checks. We were called back and took our telling off. It was unnerving having some strange bloke running around clutching my passport, driving licence and reg document but I guess he saved some time and knew all the officials who seemed to process us reasonably quickly. I guess they get their cut later !

    Nicaragua immediately appeared poorer but with well surfaced quiet roads and the ultimate sign of civilisation - road signs ! Not just with road numbers but place names and distances too ! I really can't explain how much easier and less stressful this makes life. We had a nice ride through the morning towards Granada with an occasional short shower to cool things down a bit. My good opinion of the country was dashed though when a fat sweaty copper stopped us, took our licences and demanded $70 each for speeding. I feigned stupidity, lack of Spanish, empty wallet etc etc all to no avail. He did say we could pay at the local bank (when it opens on Monday and he would keep the licences until then) or pay him direct. We both eventually coughed up but it's an unpleasant feeling knowing you've been done. He kept mumbling 'you people' and asking how much my camera was worth as well as to be more discrete when counting out the money. I don't think he was passing comment on my speeding I just think he particularly enjoys ripping off foreign 'rich' people. Yes, we are rich relatively speaking but firstly I can't afford to keep forking out $70 and also we 'people' are bringing in tourist money to help drag his country out of the gutter. Rant over ! We were speeding by the way.. Just to add every other (must be dozens and dozens)  police and army checkpoints have just given us a quick look and not stopped us. The checks in Nicaragua are far fewer - In Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala there is a checkpoint on the way in and out of every town. The only search we have had (which was cursory in the extreme) was by a Mexican soldier prior to leaving into Guatemala.

    Still fuming we arrived in the main square in Granada next to Lake Nicaragua. Rooms in the nicest hotel on the square - (stuff the expense I've been roughing it for weeks!) and I started to feel good about the day again. A quick visit to an ATM to replenish our dollars was needed too - all split into smaller amounts and hidden amongst our bike gear and luggage. Granada's claim to fame is as the first city in the Americas. Parts of the atlantic coast including Granada were once invaded by the British including pirate groups and apparently parts of the indigenous population still have English as their first language. Whether that is Queens English or a strange 1600's Jack Sparrow pirate drawl I couldn't tell you. Spent an afternoon overlooking the main square from the verandah of one of the hotels then took cover from an evening storm. Steak and chips went down well in the square. Next day a short hop to San Juan del Sur was on the agenda. It's a pacific coast beach resort good for surfing and a hang out for yanks. Also a short hop from the Pan American Highway border into Costa Rica which unfortunately is really our only option for moving on towards Panama. Bit of a shock before leaving as JB noticed both our large bags which had been bungeed to our back seats had been stolen overnight. Not a showstopper but the bag is worth a few quid and is needed for my hold luggage on the flights. Both of us just had our tents, sleeping bags and thermarests in them. I was cursing Nicaragua after the police officer incident as well. As we left the receptionist pointed to our bags in the lobby and said he had brought them in out of the rain so they wouldn't get nicked ! Bit of a relief and handshakes and thanks all round. 
   
    Leaving Granada a KTM going the other waved then turned round and stopped us. Juan Carlos was from Costa Rica and couldn't speak a word of English but his enthusiasm for bikes was infectious - clearly knew loads of bikers and told us the BMW GS Trophy (big annual event run by..BMW) on a different continent each year was being held in Panama so loads of bikes around. Gave us mobile numbers for himself, his English speaking Costa Rican mate and the BMW Motorrad Panama manager should we get into trouble. Top man ! 

    San Juan del Sur turned out to be just a beachy version of other Nicaraguan towns - just a handful of nice hotels and a big beach added on top. Think we collared the best hotel in town mind. Big verandah overlooking the bay and a pool. Turns out it was built by an Englishman about 100 years ago who came over and started a business in the area. Don't think it was piracy - something more prosaic like cabling I think ! Any how he shipped all the materials from England and then the locals put it all together. Nice cool off in the pool and then put a hand in the sea - first time I've encountered the Pacific Ocean. On a different note the seasons/ times must be changing. It starts getting dark at about 6pm and I guess we are still northern hemisphere so it must still be end of summer. Presumably we hit Ecuador and the days will then start getting longer and it will be spring - all very disorientating bearing in mind we were having 20 hours a day sunlight in Alaska. 
   
     Whilst relaxing on the verandah a German Doctor (I won't name him on a public blog) approached us and told us he ships in people from all round the world for stem cell treatment for various ailments. Very controversial and illegal all over Europe and the USA. I don't know enough to pass judgement but if you have to go to Nicaragua to carry out your business I would suggest you have a problem. A quick google search reveals many other people who have had odd conversations with this chap including a claim that he can make you live to 120 with a $10,000 pill ! He left his thick glossy brochure with us claiming that he can cure everything from an ingrowing toenail to cancer. Conclusion - mad, a conman, a fugitive on the run or a world leading expert who can only progress his research in the forward thinking liberal democracy and cradle of medical progressive medical thought that is Nicaragua. I'll let you decide ! And why is it always a German Doctor!? Anyway, these are the strange encounters of the road.

    Our border crossing for Monday was the notorious one on the Pan American Highway into Costa Rica used by all the freight traffic. We'd hoped to avoid using a fixer on the Nicaraguan side but on arrival it was organised chaos on a grand scale. We chose the one who ran fastest after us and spoke a few words of English he then called his mate Jorge on the other side to help out in Costa Rica. I couldn't tell you how many desks, officials and pieces of paper were involved but if you didn't have help then you could be stuck there for weeks. Some of the lorry drivers (of which there are dozens all parked up in the compound) apparently do just that. How any trade between central american countries takes place I've got no idea. About two hours later and only one time consuming queue we had our umpeenth stamp and form signed including our bike insurance (Nicaragua and Costa Rica were the two not covered on our policy from the states) and we were good to go. $20 each to the fixers on both sides was money well spent in my book. We were both hot and glad to get away and all my paperwork was starting to crumble under the avalanche of sweat ! Sorry - just gives you a better picture of the situation ! Into Costa Rica and lots of police checks but only one stopped us and that was just to ask how big the bike engines were. We are being doubly cautious with speed limits to give them no excuse to pull us over. A few miles later already having noticed how clean the place is and how civilisation is returning (well McDonalds) we turned off towards the volcanoes national park and Lake Arenal (having seen the signs - lots of lovely, lovely signs - with mileages and everything - aah ! Signs - you don't appreciate them until there's only 3 in the whole country)

    Lush green countryside, well tended pretty little houses and signs that the inhabitants care for their country. The national greeting is Pura Vida - and it seems to ring true. Roads were good with the odd massive pot hole and we even got some camino sinuosa (impressed ? That's 4 spanish words I know now). The area is the one of the most biodiverse in the world and we had warning signs for monkeys by the side of the road. Jaguars, Toucans and Tapirs live in the jungle and Costa Rica is also home to the fastest running lizard which can outrun a human ! Temperatures also cooled as we gained some height - I was beginning to like Costa Rica ! The weather has been kind to us generally over the last week. The tropical set up of hot clear days with rain rolling in late afternoon has been the norm with some really heavy stuff overnight including thunder and lightning. First nights stop a Swiss chalet type hotel complete with old Swiss school bus, railway and a previous retreat of US President Jummy Carter ! As I write this can hear the noises of the jungle - exotic birds and insects with an overlay of swiss yodeling from the restaurant sound system ! Following day was the Caribbean / Atlantic coast so we have ridden from the Pacific to Atlantic in two days. Total mileage went through 10,000 miles so we've covered almost 3500 since Tucson.

    The Pan American Highway has been a constant companion all the way from Deadhorse, Alaska and soon we will reach it's northern end in Panama City. There is no road link to South America - thick impenetrable jungle in the Darien Gap sees to that. It's a wild area inhabited by indigenous tribes and has only been driven or ridden through a handful of times. Well I say driven / ridden - more like physically pushed, winched and carried down river on make shift barges. The only option for us is to crate the bikes up and fly them. Anyway we moved on through Costa Rica in the pouring rain dropping down out of the rain forest towards the Caribbean coast. The road then ran right along the sea for 20 or so miles until we reached a beach resort area full of small hotels. We got an apartment next to the pool and about 15 paces from the sea. They'd clearly had a bit of the rough weather too as everyone was out working furiously to tidy the place up. The friendly lady who ran the place also took time to point out that they had a family of sloths move in recently and she could spot them in the higher branches pretty much instantly - it took me about 5 minutes before I could pick out one of them. Great to see especially as we had passed a sloth sanctuary on our way in and it crossed my mind to stop and have a look.

    The border crossing in to Panama was supposed to be easy - it turned out to be the worst one yet. Nice ride through banana plantations and along the coast followed by 5mins on the Costa Rica side - gave a pleasant bloke with one leg a few dollars as he helped us out. The normal route is over the banana bridge - an old train track piled with wooden boards which apparently is a bit of a challenge - a fall into the river awaits if you get it wrong ! Unfortunately a guard saw what we had planned and the old bridge is now foot traffic only. Over on a new bridge alongside and the fiasco began. Usual stuff - insurance, passport stamped by immigration, bike imported through customs - it was just that customs were operating on extreme slow mode. It was really rather comical looking at them shuffling paper, stamping paper, looking at computer, more stamping, more shuffling ad infinitum. At least it would have been if we didn't have a 275 mile day and it wasn't 32C in full bike gear. Job done we found ourselves in Panama and back to very few signs. If it wasn't for locals helping and taxi drivers showing us the way we could still be there until the end of the trip. Ride down to the Pan American highway would have been a highlight of the trip - magnificent views across to Boca del Toro (group of caribbean islands just offshore) and a climb up into the mountains to cross the central mountain range that runs the length of Panama (the same range we have tracked since Canada in fact). From the top I wouldn't have been surprised if you could see the oceans on either side of the country. Unfortunately none of this happened apart from snatched glances through the cloud because it poured with rain all day, again. All our kit has been damp for 3 days now which is not much fun. Hung a left on the PanAm running short of time so rolled into our target for the day which is half way to Panama City in darkness and stopped at the first hotel we saw. Quite a day ! The concentration of looking out for potholes animals and other vehicles whilst riding on a super twisty road with overbanding and trying to navigate takes it out of you after a while ! Think this is the only time I've dodged pigs, dogs, people, cows, horses, donkeys, chickens and lizards all in one day ! The lizard looked like one of those super quick ones - up on it's hind legs, a crested head and it covered the width of the road in 2 seconds flat ! Still, only one road to follow to Panama City which is a 150 mile day to complete our first continent end to end.

    On arrival however things have taken a turn for the worst. Contacting Girag cargo took an hour of constant phone ringing to get hold of someone and another half hour to get hold of someone who spoke english. Upshot was the cargo manager was not available and the next flight we can use is Saturday week and they want us to drop them off on Wednesday. This was all via the translator so we still need to confirm with the cargo manager which could prove a challenge. Also means we are twiddling our thumbs in Panama City for at least 6 days ! We got hopelessy lost on arrival, couldn't find the airport so pulled into the first decent looking hotel with secure parking which now seems to be in the Panama version of Croydon. All this also puts our itinerary in jeopardy so have started considering options. All is not well at the moment - trying to stay positive but the thought of jumping on a plane home from Panama and being back in the UK within 24hrs is quite appealing -would have to leave my bike behind though ! Our good run through North America has come to a grinding halt.


Update Friday: Cristina kindly phoned Girag for us and used her fluent Spanish to find out that if we got to the Tocumen Airport Cargo terminal by 4pm we could get our bikes flown to Ecuador next wednesday. That would have to do. Head off to the airport but a sign directing to cargo leads apparently nowhere so we ask a cabbie at the passenger terminal to lead the way. He insists on $30 then speeds off back in to town ! Exasperated and with time ticking by we stop and the cabbie pulls on to the hard shoulder 100yds away. Before we know it we've got two bikers, a reversing taxi driver, Cristina on the phone and then two cops turn up - great ! Cristina saves the day and all the Spanish speaking people realise it is Tocumen after all - like we've been pleading with them for the last 10 mins. Cops are friendly and we eventually get lead to the cargo area to an unsigned building which turns out to be Girag. After much confusion they finally confirm we can get our bikes flown to Bogota over the weekend - they have 2 flights - and we can collect Monday. We shall see if that actually happens ! 2 hours later we cough up $902 and ride into their compound and leave with an Air Waybill. Will I ever see my bike again !?

UPDATE 2:
The following day, my birthday, proved interesting. We first went on a trip to Miraflores locks on the Panama canal where they have a visitors centre. Great views of the big ships coming through the canal along with museum, theatre, that kind of thing. Interesting ride there in the cab as well which went via Clayton, an upmarket area housing the American Embassy, Kings College British school and lots of big comfortable houses with people playing tennis and sprinklers watering the lawns. A different side to Panama. The city is also full of newly built luxury hotels and flats overlooking the ocean including a new Trump tower. Apparently Panama is big (or they hope it will be) with retirees due to the tax breaks.

    In the afternoon after some web browsing we got a panic on - our passports have a Panamanian stamp saying not allowed to leave without our vehicles. Clearly we no longer have them so worried that we will turn up for our flight to Bogota and be barred from leaving. Quickly grabbed a cab for the 30min drive back to the Girag cargo area where we thought there was a customs post - hopefully producing our air waybill would do the trick and this appears to be what other people have done - although Girag had told us none of this. Fortunately for 4.30 on a Saturday found a customs officer picking his feet who told us to go to the passenger terminal (the main airport) to get this done. We couldn't understand exactly what he meant but our ever patient cab driver took us there (another 20 min drive) and agreed to wait outside. Checked with Copa airlines as asked - they don't do cargo (according to their staff - later discovered this is wrong). Spoke to a copper who recruited an airline desk as interpreter - still no sense. Searched for customs office - nothing. Went back outside but no sign of cabbie. Eventually reunited as he had had to move after the police told him he couldn't wait - the poor bloke parked outside the complex and walked back to find us. Deep despair and what a way to spend a birthday ! Keeping fingers crossed that we can just breeze onto the Bogota flight tomorrow without any problems - if not we are stuck in Panama City.

Update 3:
Sunday morning we set off early and got checked in at the Avianca desk. Next up - passport control ! My passport clearly has 2 Panamanian stamps - one the normal entry one at the Guabito border the other a stamp saying 'not allowed to leave without vehicle'. The passport bloke looked me up and down, checked my photograph then started flicking through the passport looking for the entry stamp. 'Guabito?' He asked - 'Si'. One last look and then he waved me through. Same for JB. At least now we are back on track and hoping that the bikes have also made it to South America !
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Comments

Mark on

Great update. Hope you get the transport sorted, and at least you get to dry out your gear!

Matt on

when the going gets tough, the tough get going.! Don't lose heart - I can think of worse places to be stuck, but seriously, hope you get the issues sorted out and are on your way soon. - don't fancy a bit of off-roading then to go the overland route :-)

v5rcb
v5rcb on

Thanks for your support. Really starting to think we've bitten off more than we can chew at the moment. Every little task seems like a massive challenge and always seems to be tough going. This is most definitely not a holiday - more like an endurance test !

cristina baker on

By the end of the trip, you will have wonderful memories. AND you will be so experienced with all this "hard work" you will be ready for the rest of the world!!! You wanted an adventure to experience the world, not a holiday :-)

Rick scholey on

Hey Guys,

I kinda lost the link to your blog so have been furiously catching up.....epic reading. I am just trying to sell and buy a new house at the moment, but it aint a patch of the stresses that you guys have been going through at crossings. Stay safe

v5rcb
v5rcb on

Thanks Rick,
No new countries left now - but still 5 more borders unfortunately !

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