Closing the door on Central America – Costa America to Panama

Buenas all…. I am writing you from the skinniest part of Central America, Panama City Panama. That is right folks we have ridden our motorbikes from North America, through Central America and we are ready to embark on the 2/3rd of our trip in South America.

During this last portion of the trip, we left you in Granada, Nicaragua with the impromptu paint job on our bikes… which is still a part of the color scheme to this day. We headed out of Granada with high hopes of a quick border crossing and good roads, we only got the former. To this point, our experiences at border crossing have not only gone without the assistance of the citizen border agent help but also without too much delay or hassle. The NIC exit border crossing changed everything.

This included the border agents not giving the proper paperwork, giving bad directions, going to lunch, and just not being of any service. Come to find out that the official and the unofficial agents were definitely in cahoots. Without going into too much detail, it took me around 45 minutes to an hour to complete my immigration and customs. Usually, the exit process is 15 minutes. Keith on the other hand, with all the right documents (learned from my hassle), took only 15 minutes. Breath deeply, you are on vacation.

Into Costa Rica, immigration and customs were completed in about 30 minutes, but buying insurance took us nearly 3 hours. Mind you, this insurance is well known to not be worth the paper that it is written on. Our first stop in CR was the quiet and aptly named beach pueblo of Playa Hermosa. As in other cities, sorting out a place to sleep was the priority. This was the first foray into CR and its American prices. The absolute cheapest room that we could find, in the off-season, was $70USD! It was too late to move on and go back inland so the dent in our wallets was quickly made. It was dark, we were hungry so we unpacked and headed to dinner.

We found a quaint little place called the Pescado Loco. We enjoyed a nice dinner, fresh fish for Keith and I had Octopus. After finishing dinner, we had 3 options for paying the bill. A.) Pay American Prices in Costa Rican Colon’s 2.) Pay American Prices + 15% by Credit Card D.) Change a 100-dollar bill at a rate that is 15% less than the bank rate. Well A.) We had no Colon’s 2.)That extortion D.) See #2. We changed the $100 bill and I gave a piece of my mind to the happily grinning owner of the place. This was not the best introduction to CR and unfortunately, it would be lasting.

The next morning, excited to find Costa Rica in the brochures and stories, we headed east towards the famed Lake Atitlan and Volcan Atitlan. We decided to take some back roads and about 40 miles of dirt road with some expected river crossings. The route that we chose started with a newly paved and wonderfully twisty road to access a dirt path that skirted along the southern shore of Lake Atitlan.

This was a highlight of the trip. Along the route, we only passed a couple of locals on their motorbikes, a few families on horseback, all the while gifted with breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan. It is a pleasure to be out on your motorbikes on a Sunday afternoon in Latin America. The people in this region have an inspiring sense of family and togetherness. Most people work 6 days a week in these parts and it is nice to see that the day that they have to offer, they share with their families.

The southern road did include one river crossing that was quite interesting. It was over 100 yards and there were spectators on both banks waiting for some entertainment. One local said that he does it all the time on his dirtbike so “you will have no problem.” I asked how much his bike weighs, “140 kilos.” “What a kilo”. “Ha Ha Ha” Contemplation never helps when undertaking a feat such as this, so I just went for it. Come to find that the water was only about knee-deep, but there were invisible bowling balls in the water. I made it across…. Barley.

The whole way I could imagine trying the dry everything out in the incoming rain event. (see Keith’s video) I whipped out my iPhone and figured out that 140 kilos are about 310 pounds. Our bikes weigh 750 pounds!!! At that moment Keith comes on the communicator and asks, “how was it?” “Piece of Cake, no problem.” I figured, why to get the guy worried with the truth. I didn’t have any good advice and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go back across to double back. 🙂 With a couple of wobbles and bobbles, he made it across. He even had some time to collect extra drinking water… in his boots.

A short drive later, we pulled into the small town of La Fortuna. This is a small village that serves as a jumping-off point for people to access Lake Atitlan, the volcano, the hot springs, and a couple of waterfalls and other lakes. It is a nice place with less of a party and tourist feeling and more of an adventurous vibe. We found one of our favorite hotels in this town, Hotel Rancho Cerro Azul. We were not only pleased by the accommodations, but also by the service and the Price. It was half of the cost of the hotel in Playa Hermosa and far nicer.

On a side note, Keith and I have come up with a bit of a rating system for hotel/hostel accommodations. The categories are as follows:
Bike Parking Security
Price – as it relates to the other points in the rating system
Bathroom – Size, Water pressure (i.e. Temperature Roller coaster), Soap (unlimited pump soap dispenser or small bars in bags that are difficult to get open, and when you do it is a crushed mess)
owls – What type of animal do they contort our towels into
Availability of Electrical Outlets – ABC (Always Be Charging). Communicators, GoPro, Camera, Phone, Computer. You NEED outlets
Bed equality – I get Right, KF gets left… who gets the cot?
WiFi (or Wee Fee as we say) – Speed and continuity.

We decided the next day that we would take a hike on Cerro Chato, an extinct volcano that now has a lake in the crater. Duly advised that the hike was strenuous and steep, we dawned our camel-backs and were excited for a bit of exercise. They weren’t kidding. The Costa Ricans haven’t heard of switch-backs. This trail went straight up the hill.

No turns, no flat spots, we climbed more than hiked. It was great to get into the jungle and feel the climate change as we moved into the cloud forest. The hike took around 2 hours to get up the hill and about 1 to come down. Although riding the bike is a workout, it was nice to find another way to move the body.

The town of La Fortuna was fairly dead at night. We found the local spot to eat and walked around for a bit. I did some shopping and finally acquired a machete and a sheath for it. I plan on seeing how long I get to keep it as I travel south.

We headed back to the hotel and as we arrived the rain started. Big rain, for hours. If California got one of these storms, the drought would be over in about 3 hours. These storms have now been the norm at about 2-5 pm every day.

The next morning we were off and decided that Costa Rica was going to make us broke, so we headed toward Panama to find some fiscal shelter. Heading out of La Fortuna, a secondary road led us through rural scenery and again roads that curved and bent through the picturesque countryside. After about 2 hours we started to climb into the mountains of central CR. When describing climbing on a road in this part of the world, I mean gaining 5,000 feet in about 10 miles. The two-laned Pan-American Highway took us through the clouds and into the lower atmosphere. Conversations went like this.

“Oh my gosh, there are 8,000 feet,” then “there is 9,000 feet,” then ” 10,000 feet” and we topped off at 11,300 feet above sea level. This is the highest road that either of us has ever driven. Our bikes started to chug with the lack of oxygen and discussion turned to the passes that we have planned for South America. Several of them are nearly 16,000 feet! We jumped off the bikes, took some pictures, and enjoyed the COLD weather at altitude. We did our best to find a camping spot, but unfortunately, there is no camping allowed in the National Forrest.

In traveling down the mountain range, we descended into the dark clouds and it became evident that we were descending into a rainstorm. Interestingly, the dark clouds soon became thick fog, which in turn became rain. I had never experienced the atmosphere this way. The afternoon quickly turned to even, and as one travels south towards the equator, the dark happens earlier. We pulled into another town of San Isidro, got a room at the only (and overpriced) hotel, enjoyed 2 hours of rain, and went to bed. On a positive note about the hotel, it had one of the highest ratings. Excellent plugs, good beds, and big.

I don’t mean to complain too much about Costa Rica, but it was really hard to come from 3 dollar dinner in Nicaragua and El Salvador to $20 meals in CR, with no change in quality. Nuff Said.

The next morning determination had us on the road at 7 AM. Panama was in our sights. We made it to the border and without too much hassle, we had crossed into our last Central American country. Our first stop was the small town of Boquete. The roads were very nice in Panama, but as it turned about 2 pm, the rain rule happening. It unloaded on us and we still had another 3-4 hours of riding left. 4 hours later, without a reprieve from the rain we arrived in Boquete, Panama. We booked a room at the first place we pulled into, which turned out to be a nice hostel called Refugio del Rio.

Prices were very affordable and we were out of the rain. It continued to rain through 11 pm. Heavy rain. Riding in the rain is not such an issue with regards to us getting wet, but rather a matter of visibility. Our Klim riding gear handles the heavy downpour very well, but when putting your feet down into one foot of rushing water, inevitably your feet are going to get wet. Wet feet are not a huge issue during the event, but dawning wet boots the next morning is not fun.

Boquete is a small mountain village with an extremely comfortable climate. We come to find that there is a large American Expat community in this small town. A bit weird to find a remote Panamanian city that is mostly English-speaking white people. After spending some time here, I could imagine that the community, weather, and cost of living would be comfortable for a retiree.

Closing in on our boat trip out of Panama, the decision was made to stay two nights in Boquete, do some laundry, and find an excursion. The next morning with our laundry handled, we decided to make the hike to Tres Cascadas (Three Waterfalls). It was a 1-hour round trip and there were, in fact, three distinct waterfalls. All with very nice jungle settings and clean air to enjoy some exercise. On the hike, we were fortunate to cross paths with a group of four that seemed to be traveling together.

It turns out that they had met just recently and were all staying at our hostel. We chatted for a minute and set plans to have dinner later that evening. We continued our hike and made our way back down the hill. we ended up in the same small van with the 4 travelers and 20 other locals. The bus is designed for 12 people. 🙂

Dinner that night turned out to be a treat. There were some 10 other people there from all over the world, mostly from the Spanish school. Countries included USA, Germany, and Switzerland. Some of the group had planned to hike up Volcano Baru to see the sunrise the next morning. This entailed leaving Boquete at midnight, hiking for 7 hours to the top, seeing the sunrise, and hiking 7 hours down. Keith and I asked them to send us pictures.

The next morning we were up early, our boots had dried and the decision was made to push to Panama City and post up for a couple of days of stillness. The ride into Panama City was uneventful, long, but hot. Plans for shopping, working out, and relaxing before heading to our sailing vessel for the passage to Cartegena, Columbia.

See you in COLUMBIA….. SOUTH AMERICA!!!!

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