The "Law" Got Me in The End - San Juan Del Sur, Panama City, Panama
Wednesday, April 14th to Tuesday, April 20th
Las Penitas to San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
San Juan Del Sur to Arenal, Costa Rica
Arenal to San Vito, Costa Rica
San Vito to Panama City, Panama
Two Panama City days
Darn those corrupt cops!!!
OK, Yesterday I had a kind middle aged gentleman on some tiny old motorbike lead me out of Leon to make sure I found the road to Las Penitas. Today and the next day are going to be my worst days of the trip so far. Don't get me wrong, the trip is absolutely fantastic. But I suppose negative things have to happen so we can realize how good life really is. Compared to what's happened to a few others this is nothing, but a bit infuriating nonetheless.
Las Penitas, Nicaragua
So there I was minding my own business and safely riding down the road about an hour north of the Costa Rica border. I had been pulled over by the National Police earlier for a passport and import permit check for my bike. All routine stuff. The speed limit was 70km/h and I was puttering along at 74km/h. I had noticed that the local drivers were taking it easy and there wasn't much of that crazy passing and speeding that I had noticed in other countries. When in Nicaragua, do as the Nicaraguans do I thought to myself.
Las Penitas, Nicaragua
Another police check and I got pulled over again. Routine stuff I thought. "We've got you on radar exceeding the speed limit" the cop tells me. "It's a school zone" he continues. The signs said 25km/h when students present. There were no students. The cop then spotted another victim, an out of country trucker. So he left to pull him over and now the "bad cop" took over. He proceeded to lecture me "since you're a foreigner" he kept saying "I'll explain it to you". I could no longer pretend not to speak any Spanish since I had already given myself away. My protests about there being no students on the road had no effect. He insisted that it meant when school is in session. I protested that I didn't know this since at home it literally means when students are walking along the road ...it really does in BC. He kept showing me his little ticket book and a laminated sloppily typed up card with various fines on it. He was going to be nice to me and only give me the fine for not obeying a signal for a $10 fine, instead of the $75 fine for speeding. When I gave him my "licence" he asked for the original. I assured him that my laminated colour copy was the original. He wouldn't believe me and he probably got stuck with a few of them in the past. I kept insisting and he said he was going to give me the ticket and I'd have to come back after paying the ticket at the bank, but he also informed me that he was not convinced that it was my original licence. He insisted on keeping my import papers as well. Without them I'd be kinda hooped and wouldn't be able to leave the country legally.
Las Penitas, Nicaragua
I could probably have persisted but watcha gonna do. I asked if there was an option to pay him, or if it could only be done at the bank.
Only at the bank. Well, I could deposit the money for you. Or you could give me a gift and I'll forget about the fine.
Ok, how much?
Well, that's the same as the fine. $5?
I handed him 100 Cordobas and off I went muttering "ve chingate" under my breath.
San Juan Del Sur is a surfer town with lots of backpacker type accommodations as well as more expensive options. A beautiful bay with sandy beach lies at its' side. Fishing boats are anchored off the beach and I sat there having an ice cream watching the sun set.
I stayed at Hotel Elizabeth were the very friendly family helped me push the bike up an abutment, around a corner into the hotel lobby.
Inside Hotel Elizabeth, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
Overall I actually didn't care too much for San Juan Del Sur.
The next morning I left early to head to the border into Costa Rica. I wasn't looking forward to this since it's the only legal crossing for motor vehicles between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. As you're probably guessing it's pure chaos.
On the way down I encountered some very turbulent wind blowing off beautiful Lago Nicaragua. There were windmills to take advantage of this natural resource. The twin volcanoes of Isla Ometepe were beckoning to the east. I'll have to take the ferry across on the way back. As I was riding along I noticed literally thousands of birds flying near the road. This was a bit freaky since I didn't know wether one would smack into my helmet as I rode along. They were zipping along like Mexican drivers. There must be a lot of insects around since there's so many birds I said to myself. No sooner had I finished the thought I was peppered by thousands of little insects the size of mosquitos. My visor and fairing were coated with splattered insects in a matter of seconds. The sky around me turned slightly opaque with the clouds of insects. Being hit by these tiny critters actually stung quite a bit.
Finally it's border time again ...yah!
This has got to be the worst border crossing so far. I could put up with the 1 1/2 hour crossing into Honduras and the 3 hour delay coming into El Salvador (computer problems). But at this one I finally lost my patience. One helper simply wouldn't leave me alone and kept ignoring the fact that I had said no gracias several times already. He kept following me and hovering nearby, distracting me from everything else. I finally "barked" at him to leave me alone and he got the message. Several buses had pulled in and there was a huge lineup for Migracion. "I can get you through in 30 minutes, no lineup" said another helper. "nah!" I replied as I leaned back against the wall and smiled at the local person standing in line behind me.
There were so many stamps, stops and procedures in exiting Nicaragua and entering Costa Rica that I've forgotten what's involved. Aside from the $3 fumigation charge, there is no charge for entering Costa Rica. But the Nicaragua side charged me $2 to exit ...oy vey!
Tow hours later I was done with everything and the very friendly, and cute, customs lady happily told me I was good to go. That's when I realized that my tank bag was gone. I had stuffed it into my helmet and it must have been swiped while I was filling out the customs forms for the bike. I checked everywhere and the cops and customs people were sympathetic but there's nothing they could do. So I lost my cell phone, binoculars, swiss army kife, two cheap flashlights, tire guage, headphones and a few other things. As for the bag, I actually glad it was gone since it was a piece of crap that just didn't work properly.
Truckers Lining up in Costa Rica, Waiting to get into Nicaragua
I rode on into Costa Rica and dropped the bike at the turnoff to Laguna Arenal. Riding up to the lake I thought "thank goodness my SPOT device wasn't in the bag", as I patted my side to feel for the SPOT device on my belt. Yeah, you guessed it. It wasn't there. Crap! I'll have to make some calls to block my phone and cancel the SPOT service when I got to Arenal. I dropped the bike again attempting a steep gravel driveway into the German Bratwurst and Camping place. There was no way I could pick it up again on that slope and I had to flag down a couple of chicos in a pickup truck with a trailer with a dirt bike on it. I decided against the Bratwurst Camping and went on into the town of Arenal.
Unsuccessful Attempt at Climbing the Steep Driveway
When I parked in front of a restaurant/hotel and dismounted, the kickstand gave out under the excess weight and uneven ground. The whole thing came crashing down, throwing me to the ground in the process. A sting of profanities escaped my mouth. Sailors were blushing all over the place.
Thirty minutes later, with the help of a friendly expat Canuck and the local motorcycle/bicycle shop the broken clutch lever was replaced with a bicycle brake lever for $4.40. I was now so tired and flustered that all I could think of was food and beer. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the same morning my laptop gave up the ghost and wouldn't start up at all. I guess the problems I'd been having with the mouse, then the screen ...and the fact that parts were literally broken in two, were an indication that it was on its' last leg.
Afterwards I headed to the Internet place to call SPOT and Rogers to put a block on the SPOT and my cell phone. When checking my email, my heart fell into my pants and I was borderline freaking. Someone had my SPOT device and had pressed the 911 button. For 4 hours Patti (my partner) and SPOT central search and rescue were freaking and thinking I was in danger. My attempts to use SKYPE to call Patti didn't go well as there were problems with the computers. I was turning into a bit of a bitch and the fellow who ran the Internet let me use his phone after I offered to pay for the call. I was completely demoralized and close to tears when I talked to Patti. She reminded me of this woman she knows who was travelling by bike from Victoria to Panama and back, and suggested I read the blog. Thanks to Patti, I felt reenergized and ready to continue.
Road to Arenal
Some of the problems I've had with dropping the bike were due to all my weight being in the back. So I spent several hours McGuyvering something to put all my tools and spare parts at the front of the bike. This involved several trips to the hardwared store where the puzzled staff gave me quizzical looks every time I returned to buy duct tape, some tools, bungie cords, oversized pipe clamps, etc. The handling of the bike immediately improved after this makeshift changes. Even the cornering is better and the front end doesn't feel as squirrelly as it did before.
Laguna Arenal is simply beautiful. A large lake looks up from down below while the rolling hills with farms and cows might as well be a scene from pastoral Germany or Switzerland.
Switzerland? Near Arenal
I had decided to get through Costa Rica quickly. It's expensive and I can always come back on a separate trip by plane. Today I encountered my first extended periods of rain. The skies opened up. Luckily I had my rain pants, rain jacket and waterproof hiking boots for riding. Well, the boots were not waterproof and the pants and jacket had lost their waterproof qualities.
In The Mountains Along the Panamerican Highway
Going through San Jose was not a lot of fun. No signs and the usual confusing road system prevalent in these parts. I'm thinking it's deliberately designed this way so that any invading force would simply get lost and perish from hunger and thirst. While stopped to look at my map, another friendly driver with a Harley Davidson sticker stopped, got out of his SUV and ended up having me follow him to the correct route. The ride through Costa Rica was mostly in high mountains and in some places the temperature couldn't have been more than 15 degrees. Instead of heading to the main border I turned off towards San Vito to cross into Panama at Rio Sereno in the morning instead. I have an aversion to large border crossings.
Towards San Vito, Costa Rica
To get to the Panamanian border from San Vito you have to follow a very bumpy dirt road for about 10km's. Passable on any bike but bumpy nonetheless. There I was in Rio Sereno and went back on to pavement. As I rode down the road something didn't feel right. The licence plates were all from Panama and there were little stores/shacks all along the road, as in a free trade zone. I stopped to inquire and my suspicions were confirmed. I had entered Panama without properly exiting Costa Rica and without going through Panama immigration and customs. It was tempting to just continue but that could cause me a lot of problems down the road. So I looped back and entered Panama customs from the Panama side. They thought I was leaving the country to enter Costa Rica. A bit of explaining took place and it was no big deal. This was the friendliest border crossing so far and they shook my hand, smiled a lot, complimented my Spanish and wished me the best.
For this crossing there were no helpers to be seen, no charge for anything except the fumigation ($1) and the fact that I had to buy mandatory liability insurance for $15. They were going to fumigate my bike by having me leave it in something resembling a mini carwash. I reasoned with them about not really wanting to sit down in the fumigation chemical and asked if it could be done by hand. Not a problem.
Further along into Panama was simply amazing. A beautifully paved, twisty, hilly road winds its` way along more pastoral swisslike scenery. During a stop in Volcan a 89 year old gentelman chatted me up and we had a wonderful conversation about the odd fact (to him) that I was single and travelling alone. Once you come down from the cool hills, the road flattens out and becomes hot and humid. Quite boring, to be honest. I had made up my mind to make it to Panama City that day, even though it would be a longer day. Nothing held my interest along the way. The skies had also opened up and rather painful huge drops of rain by the bucket were coming down in sheets. I was so overheated that I chose to continue in the tropical downpour to cool off. When the rain stopped I dried off from the heat and wind in about 20 minutes.
Self Portrait in Volcan, Panama
Finally there it was. The Bridge of the Americas across the mouth of the Panama Canal. It was quite emotional to be crossing this bridge so close to my final destination. I`m glad I came into Panama City on a Sunday. Slums were greeting me as I entered and a lump formed in my throat as I just wanted to head to a nicer area. I had no idea where I was going and drove around in circles. That`s when the long day caught up to me. My brain was a bit frazzled and I saw someone standing on the sidewalk. I wanted to stop to ask him about hotels and went to make a left turn, forgetting that I was on a one way street with two more lanes to my left. A car bumper went by on my left with inches to spare between it and my front tire. At least the gentleman was helpful in pointing me in the right direction. Another 20 minutes of driving around in circles I checked into a hotel with rooftop pool and headed to the brew pub I had spotted on the way in.
Bridge of the Americas, Panama City
Panama City is delightfully chaotic. Traffic is absolutely nuts, everyone honks at everything, kamikaze types on little motorbikes zip in and out between lanes like bumblebees on crack AND meth. Drivers just stop along the curb to do whatever they need to do since parking is near impossible. This adds to the chaos and honking and just makes me smile when I think of the sheer madness of it all.
Panama City Traffic
The bike is being serviced at the local BMW dealership and I`ve been taking taxis all over the place trying to find a replacement laptop with English keyboard. Not an easy task in a Spanish speaking country. After my first ride I gritted my teeth and asked "how much". That's when I found out that a ride within the core is about $2
View From Hotel Rooftop, Panama City
If you love chaos and getting lost, please ride in Panama City. It's insane with very little signage and a complete lack of a grid system, compounded by one way streets going in opposite directions at strange angles to each other. I had some fun driving around in circles ...hey! there's that Dunkin' Donuts again!" But I did manage to get all my errands done, including a new laptop, replacement SPOT device and even a couple of stops at the local Buddhist Chinese vegetarian restaurant. I've taken to crossing myself before I head into traffic on the bike.
Panama City Chicken Bus
This is a pretty safe area and one of the main entertainment areas in the city. I've been walking all over the place with a sweat soaked shirt and dripping forehead. Decorated chicken buses roar all over the place, conductors jump out and yell out destinations. There are regular people everywhere going about their business or cramming into the overfilled chicken buses. Traffic is gridlocked and crazy motorbikers mount the sidewalk to get around the traffic. A man lies on the sidewalk with his head on a small bundle of clothing. He's wearing nothing but a T-shirt and large testicles are resting on the sidewalk dangling from his side. He has a very peaceful and contented look on his face. If ever I had thoughts about being with men, I'm now cured!
Panama City Chicken Bus
Tomorrow I head to Yaviza and then start making my way back home.