Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Panama - Twinned with anywhere in the world underwater!

Still seething from the damaged camerea and I-Phone we left Club Fred in the rain, Joe and I rode the bikes back down the track to the main road while Sue and Lynn rode down with Ely in the 4x4. On the way down Joe dropped his front wheel into a rut and came to an abrupt halt with the bike falling gently onto its side, no harm done except a bit of cosmetic damage and 'Zuki' would visit the dirt once more before we got back to the main road.
The border should have been a breeze.... everything seemed to be going well until the Aduana, we had a young guy helping and if nothing else it beats standing around waiting for something to happen. Well something happened alright, out of an office full of border officials all frantically processing paperwork some muppet gave mine and Joe's passport to the new kid on the block. Of course we didn't realise this for about an hour, we just thought it was the Central American School for the Diplomatically Challenged going through their 'see how long we can make this queue' routine.

"Only another 3 and half hours to go Lynn"

OK, so you're fed up with reading about me whinging and whining about border crossings, same shit-different day stuff but why give the kid our documents? give him something easy like a Panamanian or a Costa Rican passport or anything in Spanish! after watching him open and close my passport a dozen times I would have been quite happy to go back into Costa Rica and wait until he retired! our helper did eventually manage to get into the office and convince someone to let the lad go for lunch. All to no avail, by the time we were set to go (3 and a half hours after leaving Costa rica) the skies opened up and we were in for a long wet ride.

Here comes the rain again.

Unfortunately the photos of the ride through  Panama are few and far between, in fact they're non-existant. Having ruined one camera already we weren't about to ruin Sue's just to show you flooded roads and wet livestock.
All geared up in waterproofs we set off into Panama, by this time it was teeming down, it's hard to explain how difficult it is to ride when the rain is so heavy your visor never clears. The bikers amongst you will have some idea of what I'm describing but for everyone else, next time you're in the shower get the jet of water on your face and then try and open your eyes! The sensible thing to do would be to pull over and stop until it eases, but there is never anywhere to shelter so we slowed to a snail's pace and continued.  As soon as the rain eased up we picked up the pace and started looking for somewhere to have lunch, I was in front of Joe doing a comfortable speed and missed the 40kph sign on the brow of a hill (honest), the cop unfortunately didn't miss me with his bloody radar gun! We pull over and immediately go into fixed penalty evasion mode, the cop shows me the reading on the gun....91 kilometers per hour!
 "Surely not officer, this bike won't do 91 kilometers per hour".
" No honest, if I'd known it was a school zone".
" What sign?, really, 40 kilometers per hour"
Even with a basic grasp of the Spanish language we were able to make out that a fine was in order, I was still playing the dumb tourist and it was starting to pay off, a string of self abuse and stupid tourist claims and he must have got fed up because after checking our documents he wagged his official finger at us and told us not to do it again (I think!)
These Panamanian cops are real gentlemen.........

We eventually found a suitable spot on the Pacific coast to spend the night, I took advantage of the pool and after laughing at Joe falling back into the pool trying to get out, promptly slipped on the wet tiles and landed on my arse! I thought 'sod this for a game of soldiers' and headed for the surf. The sea on the Pacific side of Panama is as warm as a bath, and apart from being battered by the surf this was a fitting end to another tough day on the road.(Yeah Right!).

This place reminded me of the deserted beaches in Northern Queensland.

They even had the same sand crabs.

Las Lajas Beach Resort.

"Come on in the water's like a bath"

Another Pacific sunset.

The next day we left at 9am and managed to ride for a couple of hours before someone turned the shower on again, a quick pizza for lunch and back into waterproofs. We rode for most of the day until we got fed up and then started looking for a place to stay, we must have ridden for a couple of hours with no sign of a hotel so decided to push on to Panama City. Normally we would check out the route into a city beforehand but as we had planned to reach Panama the next day we were 'riding blind' so to speak, we may as well have been riding blind because within half an hour we were lost! (well technically we weren't lost cos we could see Panama City in front of us,  we just didn't know how to get there).

Crossing the Centennial Bridge over the Panama Canal.
Someone at a gas station spoke English and gave us directions so off we went straight into rush hour traffic. I managed to lose Joe and Lynn in the chaos so pulled over to wait for them to catch up, when they eventually arrived I turned on the ignition, hit the start button and Nothing!...no life in BOB at all. After turning everything off and on again (cleaned the mirrors, crossed my fingers) a bit of jiggery pokery with the gear lever and Woohoo! BOB springs into life, it turned out that the problem would repeat itself for a couple of days and then disappear (I can only think it was water in the system and it eventually dried out).
Panama City is suprisingly clean and organised, apart from the obvious trade association with the Canal it is now the biggest money laundering city in the world (no guessing where the money is coming from) and contains more banks per square mile than anywhere else in the world. The harbour front is a cosmopolitan stretch of hotels and casinos with construction going on at an alarming rate.

Down town Panama City.

The Harbour front.

Got directed to a crummy hotel which was better than driving round the City at night looking for alternatives,  the next few days would be spent organising getting us and the bikes to Columbia. Central America is separated from South America by a 100 mile stretch of swamp called the Darrien Gap, there are no roads through it and no one lives there except indians and drug smugglers. It's a kind of buffer zone between the drug producing cartels (Columbian) and the end users (American) if anyone ever considers extending the Pan American Highway through it, don't expect any US funding!!
There are only two options for getting to Columbia, by sea, sailing from the Caribbean side of Panama to Cartegena on the Columbian coast or air freight from Panama City to Bogota. I would have loved to do the sailing trip but we missed the last sailing by a couple of days and would have to hang around for a couple of weeks for the next one.

Bloody Tourists!
Before we flew out of Panama we had a couple of days to see the City and the Panama Canal so arranged to do a tour with an English speaking guide who would show us the usual touristy stuff in one day. We took a ride up Ancon Hill from where you can get a 360 degree view of Panama City, the old City and the Panama Canal.

The Bridge of the Americas from Ancon Hill.

Panama City

The Old City.

The Panama Canal, with the Centenial Bridge in the distance.

The Panama Canal is impressive in a 'technical achievement' kind of way, it allows vessels to travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific or vica verca in 8 hours (one direction in the morning and the other way in the afternoon) everything from small yachts to super tankers take advantage of this time and money saving marine link. When I say money saving, the cost of using the canal varies greatly, a small yacht pays around 1,300  dollars whereas the most expensive passage was by the new super cruise ship the 'Norwegian Pearl' the cost for the vessel and 3,000 passengers was somewhere in the region of 370,000 dollars one way!! The cheapest crossing was 36 cents, paid by Richard Halliburton an American who swam the length of the canal in 10 days in 1928.
We toured the visitor centre at Miraflores Lock and watched a tanker pass through, accompanied by a couple of smaller boats. If you want anymore information on the canal...Google It!!

Panama Canal Pics

Panama Canal container port.

Panama Canal administrative buildings, the grassed area bordered by palm trees is the exact same size as each of the locks on the canal. The dimensions determine the size of vessel capable of passing through and is termed the 'Panamax'

Negotiating the locks.

Miraflores Locks

Work is underway to extend the size of the canal to accommodate the new 'Super Panamax' vessels.

The French Cemetery commemorating the 21,900 workers that died during the French attempt to build the Canal.

The old city was very much as you would expect for an area that has been neglected in favour of the glitz and glamour of the modern Capital. The Presidential buildings are among a few that are maintained in pristine condition, however there is an ongoing project to renovate the rest of the city to it's former glory. It still has it's slum areas and the barrios on the outskirts are strikingly poor, for any boxing officianados this area is the birthplace of Roberto Duran, probably the best pound for pound fighter since..well, since the other best pound for pound fighter!

The entrance to the Old City.

Presidential Buildings.

Non presidential buildings.

Who said there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Panama City is also the home of 'Hornese' a language used exclusively by drivers in the City. At home there are restrictions on when to sound your horn, here you're expected to flatten your battery at every opportunity irrespective of time of day or night. Sometimes drivers will park up and blow the ruddy horn just to stay tuned in (so to speak), we've got used to it now, I'm not fluent yet but I am getting to like it! BEEEEEP!

Sorting out getting us and the bikes to Columbia was not so much of a hassle, it was an expense that we knew had to be accounted for (apart from Sue and I being charged for four tickets instead of two) and the process was dealt with fairly efficiently by Girag the freight company.

BOB stood in the rain at the Girag depot.

The four of us would take a separate passenger flight with Copa Airlines and collect the bikes in Bogota, Columbia.

Panama Hat....rhymes with PRAT!

Well that was Central America, apart from our time in Mexico and Guatemala it was 7 countries in 5 weeks, some places we would have liked to have spent more time, others we would quite gladly press the 'Nuke' button!
Everywhere had something to offer, good or bad and I guess we will be richer and wiser for the experience when we reflect in the future. BOB now has a little over 21,000 miles on the clock, we have managed to service him on schedule for the most part but I expect the next 10,000 miles will be slightly different.
South America, a new continent....On the old maps they would write 'Here be Dragons'

Bring It On!!!!!

Sue's Central American Summary
Central America - well what can I say?  I have to admit to being really scared about this part of the trip. So much so that at times my anxiety levels were through the roof. I kept imagining all the things that could go wrong and all the What if's? - What if we broke down in the desert? What if we came off? What if we get robbed?  Well we are still here and I've relaxed now and can take a much more pragmatic approach. Mexico was just amazing. The history and culture is truely awesome and the temples and pyramids were a wonder to see. It's a huge and beautiful country and we met some great people. Thanks again to Bill & Laurie in Loreto and Gary & Ivonne in Mexico City. You have no idea how much your generosity and hospitality helped me.  Belize was a bit of a disappointment but I think we maybe just picked the wrong place to stay but at least I was able to eat Armadillo, which was not an unpleasant experience. Guatemala - Loved it. The colours have to be seen to be believed. A beautiful place and I thought all of the Mayan people had been wiped out. Well there were still lots around when we were there. El Salvador and Honduras were a bit of a blur as we went through quite quickly. Nicaragua was very relaxed. My overriding memories of Costa Rica is the rain and of Panama, the Canal. I never thought I would ever be stood next to the Panama canal, another awesome experience. In all of the countries at the police and military checkpoints the people were polite and courteous and I never felt threatened or uncomfortable. The border crossings were unfortunate experiences that had to be tolerated and are best forgotten. I don't think I'll ever forget the heat and especially the humidity, at times very uncomfortable. Thank you to Joe and Lynn I really appreciated your company and thanks to Graham who never ceases to amaze me how he can deal with riding the bike, avoid the potholes in the road (when there is a road), whilst trying to work out the right directions when the GPS is lying. Not to mention the challenges set by driving in cities and the other traffic. Watch out when he gets back, his new best friend is Bob's horn and when not on Bob he shouts BEEP!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Costa Rica....Costa Packet!

It had rained heavily all night at San Juan del Sur and when we awoke we had to make the decision whether to leave in the rain or stay another day, I was keen to get moving so we donned the waterproof gear and set off. Fifteen minutes down the road and the rain had stopped and we were riding in sunshine, we reached the border early, quickly changed our Nicaraguan Cordobas into Costa Rican Colones and apart from Joe and I having to trail all over looking for the border Police we were out of Nicaragua in an hour.

We found out later on over the border that the fat little bastard in the striped shirt had given us some fake Colones. If you're coming through the border, change as little as possible and check the bills (Costly expense No.1)

So long Nicaragua

Getting into Costa Rica proved slightly more time consuming only because we missed the immigration office and rode 200 yards further on to the Aduana (Customs) We parked the bikes only to find we needed to go back an get our passports stamped by Immigration, as is the case with most Border crossings their seems to be no logical flow to the process sometimes the buildings are clearly signposted and sometimes they aren't.

Dont get comfortable just yet.

We left Sue and Lynn minding the bikes and decided to walk back to Immigration to get our passports stamped, we arrived just as the coaches were unloading passengers for the same thing. Joe and I kind of pushed in and got to the counter only to be told they wanted to see Sue and Lynn in person, so off back to the Aduana to get the girls. Joe and I stayed with the bikes and sorted out the Customs side of things whilst Sue and Lynn walked back to Immigration.

This was the Costa Rican mobile Customs Office

The guys in the Customs bus were relatively quick for Central America but when Sue and Lynn returned they had additional forms that had to be authorised back at Immigration, so off Joe and I went and by this time half of Costa Rica was trying to get back into the country. To cut a long story short we took an hour and a half to get into Costa Rica when it should have only taken half that time.

 Joe and Lynn heading into Costa Rica past the usual two mile tail back of trucks waiting to get through the border (sometimes it can take a driver two days to get into the next country)

Passing the first Police checkpoint.

Good roads and no traffic.

Costa Rica is incredibly clean and tidy for a Central American country, it is also relatively stable both politically and economically. It's a bit like Switzerland in a way, it has remained neutral in an area of civil unrest and tends to go about it's business without upsetting it's neighbours. We had decided to stop for the day not long after the border, there is no guarantee how long crossings will take and it's always good to get off the bikes early and plan for the next day. Liberia is a fair sized town with a population of around 35,000 it's one of those 'on the way places' and the first intersection in town was surrounded by shopping malls and American fast food joints, Burger King, Mcdonalds, Subway, they were all there and if the people here didn't speak Spanish you could have been anywhere in the US. It was here that we discovered the forged note (or rather the guy behind the counter at Burger King did!) luckily there was only one and it was a lesson learned.
100 yards down the road was our hotel so we unloaded the bikes and relaxed for the day (again!)

"No you just sit there and look all pretty"

Noise....That night it rained again (nothing new there). Costa Rica has some of the highest rainfall in Central America, in the highlands they can get 20 feet of rain a year which makes me think as I lie in my bed 'why would you put a bloody tin roof on a hotel'! The trucks on the PanAmerican are using engine brakes to slow down and the whole place shakes and to cap it all off first thing in the morning the gardener decides to trim the grass using a sodding petrol strimmer! everywhere else in CA they'd use a machete.
Right! let's get out of here and find somewhere more peaceful.
The next day's ride took us up into the central highlands and around the shores of Lake Arenal, we were heading for La Fortuna a town in the shadow of Arenal Volcano and popular for its thermal springs and adventure activities.

I love these jungle roads.

The road round the lake was a pleasure to ride (except in the rain) stunning scenery of the lake with the active volcano in the distance and the road subsidence and potholes were a minor inconvenience. Every so often you would emerge from the jungle to find perfectly manicured lawns and verges bordering fincas (farms) or tourist resorts, Costa Rica relies heavily on tourism and the efforts made to cater for the likes of us is all too evident.

Too neat and tidy for my liking,
(give me a washed out riverbed and a dead cow by the side of the road any day).

Lake Arenal with the volcano in the background.

Getting closer.

Things growing on a hillside.

Leafcutter ants doing what leafcutter ants do. Here's a question for the ant at the bottom of the picture, wouldn't it make sense not to stand on the piece of leaf you're chewing off?

We got somewhat of a shock as we rolled into La Fortuna the place consisted of tourist shops, tour companies, restaurants and hotels. This town exists solely to cater for tourists and the prices in the shops and restaurants must be crippling for the locals unless they have some secret outlet for day to day commodities. We simply compounded the problem and booked into a decent spot with views of the volcano trying to look impressive.

The volcano is constantly puffing out smoke but hasn't erupted with any force since 2005.

2005.....Impressive Eh! (courtesy of Google images)

Whilst staying in La Fortuna there are numerous activities to keep one occupied, you can climb the volcano, quadbike tours, horse riding, white water rafting, zip line canopy tours, thermal hot springs or just lazing in the pool.

I can do the lazing in the the pool bit really well.
The next day we considered the options:
1) Hike up the volcano...No thanks, done that, never again. (see blog entry for November, Antigua)
2) Quadbike tour...Why after riding 20,000 miles on two wheels would I want to sit on something I can't fall off? (easily).
3) Horse riding....Lynn is allergic to horses, and I'm wary of travelling faster than walking pace on anything that doesn't have a throttle and can kick the living daylights out of you.
4) White water rafting....Done that before.
5) Zip line canopy tour...We were all in agreement that this was doable.
6) Thermal hot springs...A good way to relieve the aches and pains if the zip line thing doesn't go well.

Just another bug shot, that's my hand in the pic, nobody else would pick it up. Hold out your palm to get an idea of scale.

Nature Section

The zip line tour was part of a package provided by a local resort and included lunch, entrance to the thermal springs and a access to a nature reserve.

Bloody tourists!

The guides give you all the instruction and point out that if it starts thunder and lightning they will stop the tour for safety reasons, we were just about to clip on when there was a distant rumble....true to form they assured us everything was OK and we were good to go (what's the worse that can happen if lightning stikes a mile and half of steel cables?)

That's right son keep looking down and stop fiddling with my carabiner!

They give you a piece of leather to use as a brake and the only thing to remember is not to put your hand in front of the pulley, and then off you go. The tour consisted of a dozen zip lines of various lengths and height above the round, the biggest danger was being swatted by a branch as you whizzed through the canopy.

Looks quite tame really.

Here's Sue in action.

I thought I'd be really clever and film the run across one of the lines and nearly forgot to brake!

There was ten of us in the party so it took about an hour to get all the way round, the last line was by far the best and longest at just under a quarter of a mile, in fact it was so long I ran out of film.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about in the thermal pools at the resort, as always it rained but then when your lounging about in water with temperatures ranging from 30 to 42 degrees centigrade who cares if it rains.

Leave the top on your Pina Colada, it keeps out the rain!

"Stop being stupid and get me another Pina Colada"

The next day we visited the hot springs at Baldi and did pretty much the same as the day before...nothing.
It was our last day in La Fortuna and the next day involved a long ride to the Pacific coast through the Costa Rican central highlands and the Cerro del Muetre (Mountain of Death).

What's that saying about the fat lady singing?

No fat ladies here thank you!

The Cerro del Muerte (Mountain of Death) is the highest stretch of the Pan American Highway in Costa Rica somewhere between the Capital San Jose and San Isidro, it was recently listed as number 4 in the world's most dangerous roads. What a load of rubbish! apart from the freezing fog, blind hairpin bends, thousand foot drops on either side and oncoming traffic in both lanes it was just another day on the road for us.

Heading up into the mountains.

We have not photographic record of the ride over the mountain as it was so foggy the visibility was down to less than the length of two or three vehicles, the scary part was occasionally headlights would appear out of the gloom on our side of the road. As we were limited to driving below 40 mph it was turning out to be a long
day and the worst was to come, no sooner had we dropped down out of the mountains than it started to rain.
What is frightening is the amount of rain that falls in this part of the world, God it rains! within minutes the roads are flooded and it's impossible to stay dry even in waterproof gear. If you ride too fast the weight of water hitting you is actually painful even with protective clothing and we foolishly decided not to stop and put our rain gear on. We continued to ride through the rain and hoped to dry out after it stopped...it didn't stop.

When we reached our accommodation for the evening we were completely sodden, It was only when we were changing out of our wet clothes that I discovered my camera and I-phone were also full of water (Costly expense number 2).
Club Fred is an Eco-lodge overlooking the mouth of the Terraba river and the Pacific Ocean beyond, it is only accessible by a mile long track of washed out mud and rocks (not advertised on the web site!) Sue and Lynn got off the bikes and walked whilst Joe and I somehow managed to get to the lodge without dropping the bikes, although Joe would have a couple of minor 'offs' when we left a couple of days later.

We had a good couple of days with Fred and Ely as hosts, we would be woken in the morning by the squawks of flocks of scarlet macaws and we even had a resident three toed sloth.

 This thing almost moved slower than Honduran border officials!

I was so annoyed at having flooded the camera, even after several attempts at drying it out it still won't work so we are faced with having to replace it when we get to Panama, the I-phone on the other hand did finally work after being plugged into the mains for a day!.
So all in all Costa Rica has been fairly expensive (totally avoidable of course which makes it more annoying) we are now heading for the border with Panama and our final destination in Central America.