Goodbye Costa Rica – Hello Panama

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Before leaving Golfito and Costa Rica behind for new experiences in Panama I took a ride downtown to check email and post a few stories. By the time I pulled up in front of the Hotel Golfito which on its ground floor is a nice air-conditioned internet cafe complete with wireless and a station to plug a laptop directly into the internet, Ricardo was asking me if I had a friend with the same bike and who had problems with his wheels a week or so back. Sure enough, Ricardo helped J.J. get on the road again after the Costa Rican roads did a number on his front and read rims.

The more miles I put on my bike and the bigger I find the world to be, a coincidence like this puts it all in perspective.

The border crossing into Panama was fairly easy. At 20 years old, married, with a clean haircut and nice cloths, Ruben was one of the more older and more professional tramitadores I have met. I told him I could handle the document processing myself, but he followed me around, pointed me in appropriate directions and overall just hung in the background. Another Panamanian boy was marveling over my motorcycle and told me another motorcyclist on a long journey like mine had stayed at his home in Panama. Small world again. But for Ruben’s unobtrusive efforts I pulled out a handful of Costa Rican coins and poured them into his hand and thanked him. And oddly enough he didn’t want his picture taken.

With the sweat of the day beading on my forehead I decided to head to the mountains when I hit David, Panama taking the road to Boquette. Boquette sits nestled in the forest below Panama’s tallest peak, the still active Baru volcano. Also known for perhaps the best quality coffee grown in Panama and perhaps Central America, it sits amidst lush foliage with the Rio xxxxxx running through it. At a coffee shop I meet a fellow Gringo, Peter, who just finished building a house here. He tells me that the Panamanian government is offering lucrative benefits, such as property tax amnesty for life, for those who build and develop here. And the evidence of a pending boom is seen along the rather boring road from David to Boquette.

As the wind starts rather violently blowing the foliage and kicking up the dust on the side streets I settle into a simple and no frills $9 motel room. Then it starts pouring rain. Just in time.

After dark Boquette at this time is rather quiet. It’s Tuesday, perhaps the slowest evening anywhere I’ve been in Central America and Mexico. So I walk in the rain along the streets looking for a bite and a beer.

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The next morning it’s still raining. Figuring it’ll stop soon, I spend some time at the local internet cafe. It keeps raining. A couple hours go by and I’m getting antsy. There’s no way I want to spend another evening in Boquette, though I would like to climb the volcano. That’ll have to wait. So I fit my rain gear on and head south. All night I’d tossed and turned thinking about my schedule and what I wanted to do in Panama. High on my list was a visit to Boca del Toro. But this involved taking a fairly long ride over the mountains and to Caribbean coast and taking a ferry to the islands. Alternatively, the Pacific side of Panama offered interesting culture and a good collection of beaches, though less developed and more remote.

Then there was the tiny village of El Valle, a couple hours north of Panama City. Set in the crater of a dormant volcano I figured that I could make it there before nightfall. So that was the plan.

At the turn off to Bocas del Torro, I headed to the Caribbean. With a journey like this there are plans and then there are plans that change. And of course, there are no plans. I had no idea I’d take that turn today. But within a few hours I was heading back toward Panama City. The lush tropical forested mountains of Panama are scenic not only in the foliage, but in their ragged cut jagged peaks with volcanoes adding color. I climbed and climbed till I hit the cloud forests. And then came the rain. And then came the wind. I pushed on until I couldn’t see anything in front of me. Nor in back of me. I hate turning back. But I reasoned that it might be just the elevation, or it just might be a storm that’s battering or going to hammer Bocas. I didn’t want to ride there for a day only to visit a tropical paradise to sit through a storm.

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Never made it to El Valle, either. The tiny sign to Las Lajas at dumpy turnoff caught my eye. I’d read of a quite beach with great body surfing waves. The sun was starting to do its daily descent so I took the road and 20km later found myself in a small concrete cabin sitting on the beach. And the place was empty. Quite deserted actually. After unpacking and getting out of my “uniform” I meet a couple girls from Canada. They’d been here for three days. Wild horses roam the secluded and deserted beach. The man running the cabañas I’m staying in cooks meals, sells soft drinks and beer. Five miles down the road toward the highway is the town of Las Lajas. After riding through there earlier I knew nothing is going on there. It’s just peace and quiet.

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As the only three people at the beach, other than a taxi driver and two or three locals, we told stories, practiced Spanish and contributed to increasing beer sales for our solo business man on the beach.

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Photos: (1) Golfito, Costa Rica in the morning before departure (2) Notorious rain grounds me roadside while I wait for the calm; (3) Brooding clouds mean doom of more rain causing a change of plans and abandoning Bocas del Torro; (4,5 &6) Hammock swinging in the night at Las Lajas, Panama; a great hotel room a better price; wild horses couldn’t drag me away from staying here.

Rainforests. Cloudforests. This is Costa Rica.

Cloudforest Doc Costarica

Despite my issues with Costa Rica over the last couple days, today I had the most glorious ride of perhaps all of Central America. That’s a big statement that perhaps I’ll withdraw someday, but the sheer magnitude of riding from see level to over 10,000 feet from Cartago to San Isidro and onward toward Golfito and the Osa Peninsula was breathtaking. Sure the madness of San Jose and the bustling and growing town of Cartago had to be dealt with but as the Pan American Highway climbed outside of Cartago through rainforests then higher into misting cloud forests, the lush tropical foliage swallowed me as a pothole free road twisted and winded it’s way into the clouds. Tall palms, ferns, cedar and colorful flowers of red, yellow and white framed the road and formed a canopy as it climbed up steep hills around me. Traffic was light today making for the experience even more exciting. I had driven this road by car the last time I was in Costa Rica. But the night riding experience was a nightmare as dozens of trunks grinding their gears and tried to maintain speed as they climbed. And on the downhill stretches they’d barrel behind me riding my ass like an impatient New Yorker on the Bruckner Expressway.

Costarica Cloudforest

But today the occasional bus and truck were easily passed as Doc and I fell into a Rhythm I haven’t felt since leaving Chiapas nearly a month ago. By the time the road started to drop through more rainforest, I continued my ride through the jungle, then through tropical lowlands as made my way through miles of pineapple plantations and what must be the Del Monte run town of Buenos Aires. Then the Pan American makes an abrupt change of direction at Paso Real and begins to follow the meandering Rio Terraba. While the scenery only changed by the appearance of this grand river, I couldn’t help but craning my neck and looking at the rich green foliage surrounding me. Imagining pumas, howler monkeys, yacking macaws and the odd toucan all living in their natural paradise while the drone of my F650 GS was muted by the exquisite melodies and guitar playing of Mark Knopfler. Paradise.

Rio Terraba Costarica

That is until I got into the twin pueblos of Palmer Norte and Palmer Sur, when the rain started pouring. I shouldn’t complain this is on the edge of a rainforest. But then the potholes made their haunting return. I thought to myself this could be where Jeremiah’s El Viento’s rims met their destiny. I decide to spend the night in the sleepy yet set in an idyllic location of Golfito. Once the Costa Rica headquarters for United Fruit, Golfito has struggled since high export taxes and a detrimental banana disease forced it to move its operation to Ecuador.

Golfo Dulce View

I pull into the Hotel Mar y Luna just on the outskirts of Golfito and negotiate a good price for a room on the water. I sit and have a cold Imperial as the sun sets of Golfo Dulce.

“I’ve got 5 Harleys!” the older Canadian man sporting a good sized beer gut, round face and a waft of breath that only could be created by just a bit too much vodka. “What’s all this,” he asked gesturing toward my riding suit, “you gotta be real hot!” Cheerful and with a throaty laugh broken only by the occasional deep cough. “I once road from Canada all the way to Florida in a t-shirt.” He didn’t think I needed my protective riding gear and insinuated that I wasn’t really riding. “Not that I got anything against this or you, but you don’t need this.” Bleach white hair and a red nose and jolly demeanor not unlike Alan Hale’s skipper on Gilligan’s Island he asks me to sit down and have a drink.

Rainforest Doc Costarica

He’s in a different state of mind and a bit in my face. But friendly and eager to tell me that walking 10 miles a day has kept his diabetes in check. “The air and climate is different here than in Canada.” Did he really have to tell me this? But then he revealed something we didn’t talk further about. “The doc gave me a year.” Nothing like a bomb dropped to change the tone. But he kept his pace, laughing and smile as more locals dropped by the bar.

I notice tables in the waterfront restaurant set up for a party of more than thirty, complete with flowers and balloons. A baby shower. I guess I’m going to find somewhere else for dinner and bid my new friend farewell and make my way out of there. Tomorrow? Panama.

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Photos: (1) Doc high at 9,000 feet in the cloud forest with beautiful winding pavement; (2) Costa Rica in the clouds; (3) Rio Terraba north of Palmer Norte in central Costa Rica; (4) View from my hotel in Golfito of Golfo Dulce and the Osa Peninsula; (5) Doc in the tropical jungle of southern Costa Rica

Why Costa Rica Roads Have The Most Potholes.

An early start out of San Ramon has me wandering the streets of San Jose in no time. Another pothole ridden adventure I finally figured out what must be going on with Costa Rica potholes. I don’t think they have any intention of repairing them. You should see the cryptic moves cars and trucks make all over the highway trying to avoid these craters. But all efforts are futile. At least with the bike I can soften the blow by avoiding more than cars and trucks.

Costarica Ambulance Pothole

But fact is people don’t drive fast through pot holed stretches of primary highways. So while speed traps might work in those busy metro areas, tit’s just not cost effective to place cops and cones in rural areas. Plus, the government in its miserly methods certainly wouldn’t want to put speed bumps to slow traffic. This is too costly and would require maintenance. So why not let the roads deteriorate and therefore keep cars traveling slower and ultimately reduce traffic related injuries and fatalities?

Truthfully, Costa Rica is perhaps the country with more tourism revenue, the highest import and export duty and maybe the highest taxes in all of Central America but has the notoriously worst roads. Where is the money going guys? Remember that 30% tax on the speeding ticket? That money certainly isn’t going to road repair.

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Photo: Potholes certainly make for a rough ride in an ambulance. Why won’t the Costa Rican Government repair its major highways? Because they must be too corrupt and too cheap.

Burned Out On Costa Rica!

Costarica Potholes

I didn’t really know where I wanted to go today. With no plan but just to cruise daringly close to the Monteverde Rainforest, Vulcan Arenal and several other national parks I figure I’d be inspired by something when I saw it. But enduring more than a couple hours of pothole avoiding and loaded bike agility testing and another run in with the law just burned me out. Dusk came a bit too early for me today so I decide to stay in San Ramon figuring if the weather looked good in the morning I’d take a ride up toward Fortuna, Arenal and the Tabacon hot springs.

But cruising carefully and doing my best to avoid a rim crunching fate with a deep pothole, a couple cops sitting under a tree flanked by a series of orange cones pull me over. I try to stay in the middle of the road with my engine running, but they point me to the side. I refuse. I figure the more I get in the way of traffic the more likely they’ll let me go. The plan backfired. So I pulled over as one of the cops flashes a radar gun in my face wit LED numbers blinking 74. And friends this is kilometers per hour, not miles. The net speed I was traveling was about 45 mph. But I guess I was in a 50 kph zone or about 30 mph. They start writing the ticket. Our conversation turns to paying the ticket. They tell me that I have to pay the ticket on Monday in Cañas because the office is closed today (Sunday). I explain to them that I’ll have a friend pay the ticket for me. A lot of balking and shuffling. The ticket will cost $20 plus a 30% impuesta (tax). I hem and haw and explain that the tax is crazy. Who ever thought a speeding ticket would be taxable. I guess in California we do have a penalty assessment, so perhaps it made sense. But I still wasn’t buying it.

Costa Rica Speeding

I knew they were fishing for a bribe. And I wasn’t chomping at the bait. Soon the officers were suggesting that if I paid them there, I could avoid the 30% tax. Fat chance. I explained I’d rather pay the ticket on Monday. Of course, they threatened to hold my passport until I paid. But I said no worries the could have it. I could see in their eyes their plan to extract dollars from this gringo wasn’t working. Finally, just as I was about to pack my papers back into my top-case I suggested that perhaps there was a special Sunday discount. I only regret at this point I had stashed the cash from my recent ATM withdrawal so when I reached into my pocket at pulled out 5,000 colones (about $9.50) they agreed this would be sufficient to take care of the infraction. But when I asked for a receipt that flatly refused explaining that if they gave me a receipt I’d have to pay the full amount.

I’ve been riding for more than 5 months and over 16,000 miles through 6 countries and haven’t ever been pulled over. In a period of less than 24 hours the Costa Rican police tried to extort money from me. I was beginning to get a bad taste in my mouth from Costa Rica. And the more potholes I encountered the more I wanted to be in Panama and then onto South America. Not that Costa Rica is a bad place. My trip here last April was phenomenal, so today I think I used up my Costa Rica allocation and by the time I was settled in San Ramon I mentally was prepared to beeline for the border over the next two days.

Keeping Up.

Vultures Nicaragua

Keeping up with my journals and photographs is sometimes overwhelming. I sit here in shabby motel room. A cheap fan whirs back and forth and the sound of diesel trucks grinding gears sneaks through the slotted windows. My motorcycle boots caked in mud lie on the floor next to my dry bag. Various clothes are spread across the foot of my bed. My jacket hangs from a hook on the door and I lean on lumpy pillows with my computer on my lap. I think of the past few days and start banging out the stories. I get stuck. Perhaps tired. The adventure is incredible. The people I meet interesting. And the ride is phenomenal. But it does go fast. As the fuel is burned and pavement fades in my rearview, I fall behind. But I’m too tired to write tonight. Not interested in staring at this screen and viewing the photographs I’ve taken over the last two weeks. But it’s important. I must.

But tonight I must relax. Take a night off. And stare at the ceiling. Meditate to the drone of the fan. Reflect on what’s been and what’s to come.

Another Border Crossing. Welcome To Costa Rica.

Have Your Papers In Order!

Everything I’d heard and read about the Costa Rica border crossing at Peñas Blancas had been negative. Perhaps only overshadowed in notoriety by the Guatemalan/ El Salvador crossing which I unfortunately missed. Weekend border crossings are always a bit sketchy. Stories of long lunches, closed offices and under staffing fill the pages of internet travelogues. But riding into Peñas Blancas on an early Saturday afternoon, I breezed through Nicaraguan immigration and customs and then their Costa Rican counter parts in less than an hour. Not once did I have to wait in line. And interestingly enough this border crossing was only the second time I had to have my motorcycle fumigated at a cost of $2.50. Of course, there was the usual running around with documents, but never was I harassed and swarmed upon my “tramitadores”.

Fumigated Doc Costarica

Penas Blancas BorderSo with immigration documents and temporary vehicle import permit in hand I cruised down the highway towards Liberia through the Costa Rican highland province of Guanacaste. With grassy savannah flatlands leading to the Pacific Ocean to the west and ominous mountains and volcanic peaks to the east I breathed easy for making another border crossing and excited to revel in the culture of a new country. Of course, then again there’s not much left of any distinct Costa Rica culture, but the Guanacaste province with its miles of cattle pastures certainly owns up to a cowboy (called saberno) culture that perhaps is good and bad. Once Guanacaste was a vast dry tropical forest. But that forest has given away to the miles of pasture and ranches I pass on my way to Liberia.

Just an hour outside the border crossing I am stopped by the Costa Rican police who ask to see my passport, license and temporary vehicle import permit. The two cops start ogling my motorcycle. The younger junior officer with thick dark hair and an angular face peers through his cliché Ray-Ban style sunglasses at my GPS. Then he goes back to scanning my paper. Pointing to my tank panniers he asks to take a peek. Before I can finish zipping open the bag he’s pointing and asking about things. I pull out the 1.5L Sigg fuel bottle. This results in a conversation about fuel capacity and range. He finally walks behind the motorcycle and then points me to the vehicle permit.

Costarica Cop Cesar

“No placa,” his index finger sits squarely on a box on my form that simply has an “x” typewritten in it. He explains that the license plate number must be on the form. “Hay problema,” he says. I explain to him that the people at the border simply forget to type it in. I tell him to check the VIN number, walking to the front of the bike and pointing to the BMW plaque where the VIN number is etched. He verified that the number matches the import permit but insists that I need to have the plate number.

His superior walks over and they have me pull my motorcycle off the road because the traffic of speeding busses and cars is shaking me and my motorcycle. I finally pull out my California vehicle registration which matches the VIN number with the plate number. HE doesn’t care. More questions are asked and they just stand around holding my passport and documents. At this point I’m sure they’re fishing for a bribe, figuring if they delay me long enough I’d try to buy my way out of the problem. But that wasn’t going to happen. In this case there was not a thing I had done wrong. No speeding. No traffic violation. The older and more svelte officer started chatting. There was a problem.

Xylophone Player XmasliberiLiberian Santa Liberia Xmas Angel

Finally, I agreed to go back to the border and have the documents corrected. This wasn’t much of a solution for these guys. Finally I asked if I could take their photos. The younger officer said no I should get a shot of the superior officer. The guy walks over to the bike and poses nicely for me. We all laugh, they hand the documents back to me and tell me to be careful, not ride at night and when in the capital city of San Jose to watch my things.

The whole process was fun but hanging with these cops ate up nearly an hour of my daylight. I begin to wonder how far I’ll get before dark.

Liberia sits at the crossroads of major routes south toward San Jose and west toward the increasingly ex-pat populated Pacific Ocean beaches and the Nicoya peninsula. As I fill Doc with gas and dusk settling in, I decide to stay in Liberia for the night. But a huge Christmas parade featuring students from elementary school to university has all the roads through town blocked off. I try scooting by some cones but a cop waving his arms has me turn around. I settle for a nice hotel on the highway. They let me park the bike inside the pool area and I take in the parade and town by foot.

Photos: (1) Doc sits in a pool of fumigation liquid, legal and ready to enter Costa Rica; (2) Leaving Nicaragua; (3) Cop Cesar lets me go after his pic is taken; (4,5 & 6) Photos from the xmas parade 12/3/05 in Liberia, Costa Rica.