Monday, December 29, 2014

Rained Out in Costa Rica and Panama

Once we entered Costa Rica, the clouds opened up and unleashed rainstorm after rainstorm.  We thought we had missed the rainy season in Central America, but we were wrong. This was the kind of consistent rain that turns streets into rivers, dirt roads into mud, and finds the weak points in any kind of riding gear.  Costa Rica was one of the countries in Central America we were looking forward to the most due to its vast jungles, beautiful beaches, mountains, and volcanoes.

The  border crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica was the first one where we had to hire a "fixer" to help us through.  While the fixers work for "tips," their service really isn't optional.  In our case, the fixers we hired were very good, and got us through the thick lines of tourists quickly by pulling a few strings.  They ended up costing about $20 USD, but we didn't mind paying after seeing how quickly they got us through.  The Costa Rica side was another story.  While we made decent time getting through immigration and customs for our motorcycles, we had to wait a couple hours while getting the mandatory insurance for our motorcycles.  The process was so slow due to the handwritten forms, lunch breaks, and long line of truckers needing the same thing.  Overall, the total crossing took about 4 hours, the longest one yet.

Our first stop in Costa Rica was Lake Arenal and its nearby volcano.  We decided to splurge on a room at a mountaintop lodge that night because you could see the volcano, and even its lava flows at night.  This would be one of the highlights of the trip.  The first night at the lodge was too cloudy to see anything beyond about 20 feet, so we figured we'd take in the view in the morning.

We were greeted in the lobby by gigantic butterflies

In the morning, it was still clouds, and torrential downpours.  Rather than waste the opportunity of a great view like this, we decide to stay another night and give the weather a chance to clear up.  We spent the day waiting out the weather inside the lodge, watching rainstorm after rainstorm come and go, drinking beers, and watching the wildlife out the window.

After a day and a half of trying to see the Arenal Volcano, and racking up a hefty hotel, restaurant, and bar tab, we decided to give up and hit the road.  We'll have to return another time to see the sights.

Looking at the weather maps online, it looks like the rain is unavoidable, but possibly less on the Pacific coast. So, rather than stay in the mountains as we planned, we decide to head to the beach town near Manuel Antonio National Park.  On this ride, we get our first taste of Costa Rican driving.  It is much different than anything we've experienced so far.  Cars drive the speed limit, or slightly under.  Large trucks drive about 20 mph, and unlike everywhere else,  no one really passes them.  This made for about double the travel time we had expected, but I guess in the end was much safer than a lot of the other traffic we've been in.  On the way to the beach, we cross a bridge over a muddy river with what appeared to be many small logs.  We finally realized that the logs were actually crocodiles in the wild.  By the time it had clicked in our minds, it was a little too late to turn around for a photo.

The beach was very nice, and the water was much warmer than in the Pacific Northwest.  This was our first beach experience so far on the trip.  Although very touristy, the town was still nice and we enjoyed the stay and a brief pause in the rain before it resumed the next day.

Tired of riding in the rain, we figure we'll have to experience the beauty of Costa Rica another time.  It's easy to fly to from the U.S. anyway.  In the morning, we ride a nice dirt road to the town of Golfito, where we'll stay before crossing the border in the morning and possibly do a jungle tour or something.  We were welcomed in Golfito by some of the hardest rain of the trip.  No jungle tour for us with this kind of weather.  I guess our whole ride so far has been a jungle tour of sorts anyway.

Again, in the Costa Rica - Panama border crossing, we were "required" to hire a fixer.  In this case, our friend Roland had been through the border a couple days before and recommended the fixer Luis for us.  When we arrived at the border, Luis was ready for us, spotting our motorcycles.  The border crossing was straightforward, and Luis helped us get through quickly.  His services cost us about $15 USD.  The total border crossing time was just over 2 hours.

Shortly after crossing the border, the rain started again.  The road was pretty straight, with construction for miles.  It was not the most fun ride, and all things considered, we made the decision to push on to Panama City as fast as we can and try to make an earlier ferry.  We spend our first rainy night in Santiago, then make it to Panama City the next day to stay with our friends Carlos and Alison.

Panama City is a very large and international city.  Much different than anywhere we've stayed so far.  Our hosts Carlos and Alison take good care of us, and take us to some great sites and food.  The city is the bottleneck for all travelers headed south to Colombia, so during our time there, we run into many other motorcyclists doing the same trip, including Roland.  There is no road between Panama and Colombia because of a reserve called the Darien Gap.  Anyone with a motorcycle or overland vehicle has to either hire a sail boat, ship by plane, or take the new ferry that just started sailing in late October.  The new ferry is by far the cheapest and fastest option but lacks the adventure of the sailboat which makes several stops at islands along the way.  For us, the ferry is the way to go with our limited time and budget.

Unfortunately we weren't able to bump up our ferry reservation, but fortunately we had a nice place to stay for the extra two days, and great hosts.  We spend the weekend exploring the parks, reserves, and historic areas of the city.

Our ferry reservation was on Wednesday, and Monday was a public holiday (Mother's Day), so we would have to do all our paperwork for the motorcycles in Panama City on Tuesday.  On Monday we have time to change the oil on both of the bikes and do a little maintenance. While we planned to spend the first half of Tuesday taking care of the paperwork and the afternoon exploring the locks, instead we spent the entire day with the ferry process.

The routine was similar to the Central American border crossings we were accustomed to, but with the bureaucracy amplified greatly.  We spent the whole day riding between offices on opposite sides of the busy city, getting stamps, waiting for offices to open, and getting final approval for the export of the bikes by boat.  On top of all that, we learn that we are required to be in Colon the next day to start the customs process for the boat with the motorcycles at 8AM  for our 7PM sailing, instead of the 3PM that was listed on the website.  Tomorrow is going to be a long day with an early start.

We woke up early and rode the hour and a half to Colon, only getting lost a couple of times, and arriving at the port about an hour late.  It turns out it really didn't matter, and we could have shown up much later.  We spend the day sitting in a sunny parking lot, waiting for the agents to process our paperwork.  

By the time our bikes were inspected and bags searched 3 times, our and the rest of the motorcyclists' patience was stretching thin. After riding the bikes up the passenger ramp and waiting for another couple hours, we finally board the boat and set sail around 8pm.

Once on the boat, the crew was so nice that we instantly forgot how frustrated we were that day.  The food was good, the room was nice, and everything was great.  We get a good night's sleep in our cabin, and wake up the next morning for more relaxing before arrival in Cartagena.  We are excited for the next leg of our journey.  Everyone says that once you hit South America the whole trip feels a lot more real.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Adventures in Honduras & Nicaragua

With our friend Roland, we arrived at the Guatemala-Honduras border around noon and spent the longest time crossing yet: three hours. Most things are written by hand, some with carbon paper, always with several stamps and signatures. Also, we decimate a forest at each crossing with all the copies required of each important document we carry along with new important documents created. The copying process at this particular border was even more interesting because, as Matt learned after trying unsuccessfully at three different tienditas, the power went out on the Guatemalan side of the border. Evidently, this is a regular occurrence because the Honduran side had backup generators, so with a cheerful attitude and a little finesse, everything worked out.

The destination for our first night in Honduras was the large Mayan ruins at Copán, which were happily just a few miles in from the border. The town of Copan Ruinas itself is quite small, all hilly cobblestone and quaint. We stumbled onto a nice, family-run hotel, who even greeted us with complimentary coffees! Soon enough, we were all enjoying some Honduran beers and complimentary nachos. 

In the morning, we hiked to the ruins, and they did not disappoint! Before we even reached the remains of the archaeological site, we were struck by all the macaws flying—and shrieking—around. Turns out, the Copán ruins site is also a macaw refuge with the goal of restoring the macaw population to its former glory. Macaws were clearly worshipped by the Mayans, as we saw repeatedly in their ruins, so it'd be great to see more of these beautiful (and noisy!) birds around. We spent several hours wandering all over and even through some caves that archaeologists have dug into the temples as they investigate what's inside. A very neat morning indeed.

Eventually, we got back on the road and soon pulled off to put on our rain gear. Turns out, the whole country is flooding with landslides everywhere, making for a wet ride. We didn't have a firm destination in mind for the day, which was helpful because between the morning at the ruins, the weather, and a minor mishap I had on the bike made for a short riding day. My bike got a little beat up, but the neat thing is—as has been the case this entire trip—the locals were helpful, curious, and lent us a covered workspace for some quick, roadside repairs. Our friend Roland was very helpful, too. Something we love about traveling by motorcycle is the unique situation it puts us in to meet people, and we have certainly been doing a lot of that along our way. 

Back on our way, we thought it'd be poetic to end in the town of Gracias, Spanish for "thanks," as today was Thanksgiving. No turkey and potatoes for us this year; carne asada and enchiladas instead. Nevertheless, we all recounted what we have to be grateful for, all of our friends and family being chief among them.

We got to know the family running our hotel there, and the next day, Matt and Roland went over the map for route recommendations… and then we proceeded to accidentally go down the route we were warned against. The highway quickly turned from pavement to gravel to mud and beyond. At some point, Matt noticed that no tire tracks were present, probably around the time we had to negotiate around a tree across the "road." After navigating through mud, sand, rock, and water, we finally connected back up with paved highway. What appeared to be a shortcut on the map ended up taking a couple hours. Adventure!

Photo by Roland Traub (

Photo by Roland Traub (

Photo by Roland Traub (
After suffering through the traffic of Tegulcigalpa, we decided to push on to a small border town for the night and crossed into Nicaragua the next stay. This crossing into Nicaragua took the typical 2-ish hours, and then we were on our way again. The first thing we noticed was the greatly improved road conditions! It also got hot and sunny, which was certainly a welcome change. As the sun started to set, we pulled into Granada, set on the edge of Lake Nicaragua.

Our usual protocol is to pull into the central plaza and then look around for lodging. One of us scopes out options while the other stays with the bikes. While Matt was checking with nearby hotels and hostels, I met a handful of folks interested in our bikes and travels, which is always fun. One group was fellow riders headed down to Ushuaia on the same timetable as us. I'm sure we'll all bump into each other again along the way. Another person was a local Deaf guy who offered advice on where to find affordable lodging. While I know American Sign Language, I definitely don't know Nicaraguan Sign Language. Still, we got along at least on a rudimentary level, and his advice was much appreciated!

We spent a night on the town with Roland, stumbled onto an opening ceremony of Christmas festivities, and ended up enjoying the town so much we decided to stick around for another day. Roland's timetable is a little tighter than ours to get to Panama, so we bid farewell. After spending the last nine days together, it felt a little sad. Again, though, I'm sure we'll bump into each other again down the road. 

Our rest day in Granada was a mix of sightseeing and a more complete workup on the 650 with the luxury of time on our side. We even wandered down to a ferreteria to help straighten some parts, which was a very local experience and pretty fun.

Tomorrow, we cross into Costa Rica. It's ironic that Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, yet we spent the least amount of time in it. It's no slight on Nicaragua—we enjoyed our time here and see its beauty. Perhaps we'll have the opportunity to return and explore more in the future. For now, though, we'll have to settle with two-ish days and look forward to more adventures in Costa Rica and beyond.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Colorful Guatemala

All said and done, our first official border crossing into Central America went well. We arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border at about 10:30am on a Sunday, and the whole process took about two hours. Compared to the US-Mexico border, it felt slow, but everything was straightforward. We just brought copies of our documents, patience, and friendly faces, and everything went smoothly. As will probably happen many more times along this trip, we also bumped into more riders heading down to Tierra del Fuego like ourselves. We know we're by no means pioneers on this trip of ours, but we're still excited about it and can tell everyone else we meet along the way is excited about their own adventures, too. We even got permission to leave one of our Willson 120 stickers on the bulletin board in the Guatemala immigration office!

As we get further into the country, we notice what the towns may lack in repair, they make up for in color. Everything is painted in bright, bold colors—even the public buses, which appear to be hand-me-down school buses from the US. These buses, by the way, do not ever come to a complete stop; people just hop off and on while it continues rolling. There are also workers who periodically pop out the rear emergency exit to scale the ladder (while the bus sails down the road, of course) and pitch down the large items like 50-pound bags of beans, luggage, and furniture.

After getting through the usual border towns, we enter a lush canyon with a river flowing at the bottom and little houses dotting up the sides. The scenery is impressive, although we also have to always keep one eye glued to the road because the conditions are noticeably worse with frequent, severe potholes. Then, just as the road started to become more pothole than street, it turned into a veritable 4-lane raceway through the mountains! We reached the highest elevation so far on this trip: 9,700 feet above sea level. This highway was truly a treat, a curvy and perfectly paved surprise.

On recommendation from John in Palenque, our first destination was the little town Panajachel on the edge of Lake Atitlán. After the border, Roland took off for his own ride, and we weren't really sure when/if we'd see him again. But, after pulling into our chosen hotel for the night, who should come strolling by but Roland, of course! Guess our bikes are unique and kind of hard to miss. Lucky he happened by when he did, though, as the hotel owner let us park them in his locking storage unit for the night—very cool. So, it was the three of us again for an evening of street food and local beer. Good times.

We spent a lazy morning wandering Panajachel and scoping out Lake Atitlán and its surrounding volcanoes. Supposedly, there's a whole city underwater that fell in centuries ago. We'll have to check out the Discovery Channel when we get home, as they apparently made a documentary about it. While the lake was lovely, Panajachel itself was a bit touristy for our taste, and we felt we had to be on alert for people trying to take advantage of us gringos. We set our sights for Antigua and hoped for a richer taste of Guatemala, which we luckily found.

The route to Antigua, though, was an event in and of itself. What should've been a quick, 50-mile ride became a 2- or 3-hour affair. We followed a small mountain road back to the highway, which turned from asphalt to mostly patch to dirt… to a shallow river crossing! Everyone made it through without incident, and we had a good time doing it. 

After that, road conditions improved considerably again, and we finished the rest of the route at a good clip. Along the way, we passed by a few different instances of large, outdoor pools where women went to hand wash their laundry and people took public baths. Very interesting!

Antigua is a cool, old colonial town with interesting sites of rubble all over from the multitude of earthquakes it's experienced over the centuries. We even toured one main church that's been partially restored and partially left in shambles. 

The whole town is a very interesting scene. After getting lost in one of the largest markets we've ever visited and grabbing dinner, we spent the evening chatting (read: practiced our Spanish) with our hostel manager and a local guy, learning about everything from Mayan football to cultural customs. The manager was incredibly gracious and helpful, and we highly recommend Hotel Mi Casa to anyone who finds themselves in Antigua!

We originally planned to head close to the Honduran border from Antigua, but some bike maintenance issues brought us instead to the BMW dealership in Guatemala City. The 650 needed a few parts, and Roland needed new tires and brakes. 

After all of that was taken care of and catching up with friends, most of the day was eaten up, so we ended up spending the night in the capital city. Finding a hotel that was budget-friendly and nearby was a bit of a challenge, but on a tip from a random lady on the street who was an excited fellow rider, we secured a place. Shortly after Roland chatted up the general manager of the place, we found ourselves with free beers in the lounge and ultimately a ride to the nearest ATM. The ATM wasn't far, but we were informed under no uncertain terms that walking was not an option. Evidently, Guatemala City is not as friendly as Antigua after dark. We were therefore thankful for the armed guards and locked gates of our hotel, and as a result, never experienced any safety concerns.

Thanks to our friend Jose at the BMW shop, we got a great route to leave the city and avoid most morning traffic. Also at the BMW shop, we met yet another motorcyclist headed to Tierra del Fuego who also happens to be registered on the same boat as Roland to get from Panama to Colombia. So, off all four of us set for the Guatemala-Honduras border. Heavy rains overnight led to several mudslides along the highway. At one point, all traffic was stopped by road crews cleared a section that was completely washed out. Another section was detoured into oncoming traffic lanes with just a sign at the beginning and a half tire or cone every once in awhile as indicators. That seems a bit minimalistic by US standards, but all the traffic reacted calmly and appropriately, so this is obviously par for the course in these parts.

By noon, we made it to the border for the next installment of our Latin American adventure!