Welcome To South America — Hello Colombia

Hello South America. Happy Birthday, too.


The little over an hour flight to Bogota was quick, easy and extremely scenic from my window seat as we flew over the Darien Gap and pristine islands with crescent shaped white sandy beaches.

I blast through immigration and customs at the airport and in less than an hour I’m at the Girag office just outside of the airport working on getting my bike cleared through customs. I mention the word “moto” and the girl behind the glass pulls a paper and says “Allan Karl”? This makes my day.

For the next hour or two I walk around the vicinity of the airport, fill out paperwork at the DIAN (Columbian customs authority) and arrange to have a customs inspector visit the Girag shipping doc to “inspect” my motorcycle and process the appropriate paperwork so I can get on my bike and ride. About 30 minutes later the inspector shows up and together we compare VIN numbers and in 15 more minutes he signs the paperwork and I’m off.

Sort of.

I’ve got to get the motorcycle out of the loading dock. The loading dock is set up for trucks that back in and load or unload. They won’t let me drive the motorcycle through the rear of the building for security reasons. No problem. They tell me I can take it out of the warehouse through the lobby. This lobby is quite tiny but I manage to squeeze the bike through the double doors with my Jesse bags in tact. Then the Girag representative opens the two glass doors leading into the lobby from outside. Except that there are two sets of stairs. for a total of about 15 stairs going down including a landing area and a few more stairs to the parking lot.

I fire up Doc and ride it down the stairs and officially onto the ground of South America! I thought I’d hear applause and screaming when I finally hit the pavement. What I did hear was my heart racing and the excitement building in my brain. Now I’m in Colombia.

Colombia, South America and the adventurer’s dream all sounded good. But remember? I hadn’t planned on visiting Colombia. That means I had done no research and had no idea what I would do next. I had no map. No guide book. Nothing. Just me, my motorcycle and my desire to ride and see this country that everyone is so afraid to visit — let alone ride a motorcycle solo.

My next adventure was to find a road map. The Girag rep directed me to the airport but suggested I leave my bike and things with him. I visit two bookstores, the information desk, rental car agencies and the Colombian Tourist Office at the airport and nobody has a road map. This two hour excursion frustrated me. As I trudged back to the Girag office, sweating and tired I sensed that I burned most of my birthday dealing with customs and looking for a road map. No I needed to get to a hotel before dark. After all, I was in Colombia.

The Girag people had made a reservation for me at a hotel just 5 miles down the road. Sounded easy enough. But when the road split into two, one going over a bridge and the other under I soon found myself in the wrong lane and moving down a four lane highway with three medians. I needed to get back to that bridge. But there was no way over the medians. I rode on. And on. Now it was dark and I was heading into Bogota. Slightly freaking but maintaining my cool, I asked directions at stop light. I couldn’t understand the taxi driver so I offered to pay him if I could just follow him to the hotel. He pulls out a paper and pen and scribbles his cell phone number down and hands it to me. I guess I didn’t get my point across. As the thick, diesel choking traffic crawls to another stop, I ask another cap driver. A young boy on a motorcycle pulls up behind and overhears the conversation. We chat and he agrees to lead the way. We do some median hopping, slight off-roading and next thing we are turned around heading toward the hotel. Twenty minutes later we are at the hotel. And to be sure, there was no way I would have found this hotel even if I hadn’t taken the wrong road.

A birthday dinner at the hotel was a bit of a splurge. But I deserve it.

That night I send an S.O.S. message to community forums on the Horizons Unlimited (HU) website requesting tips on a route out of Bogota that would take me through scenic and interesting destinations in Colombia. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to visit Cartagena or Santa Marta. So my direction was southwest toward the Ecuadorian border. By choosing to visit Colombia I had to split the time I originally allocated for Ecuador between both countries.

The response from HU was amazing. Within a few hours I had offers to visit and be guided in Cali, Medillen and Bogota. As luck would have it Mauricio worked just a mile off the road to Manizales, a destination I had set for my first night outside Bogota. The plan would be to stop and visit briefly with Mauricio and then continue on to Manizales. Mauricio drew a map, scanned it and sent it to me via email so getting out of Bogota and finding the “finca” he worked at would be easy.

Capital Hotel Bogata

The next morning everyone from the bellhops, to the hotel manager, tour operators and taxi drivers hover around me as I pack up my motorcycle. I ask for directions toward the main road that would take me toward Manizales and Mauricio’s work. Seconds later the taxi driver retrieves a Colombian road map, courtesy of the Colombian Tourist Agency, and hands it to me. Good god. Yesterday I spent two hours looking for something like this . Grinning and ready, I took of.

The Panama Canal

Miraflores Locks Main

The Panama Canal represents an amazing feat of human accomplishment. Perhaps most amazing to these eyes is the fact that completed more than 90 years ago, the “technology” behind the workings of the Panama Canal hasn’t changed. The canal extends nearly 50 miles from the Caribbean at Colon to the Pacific at Panama City. If you;re up on your Latin American or canal history you probably know that the French, under the stewardship of Suez Canal kingpin Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction of the Panama Canal in 1880. But climate, disease and mismanagement spelt doom for the two attempts at completing the canal.

In 1904, after Panama had declared its independence from Colombia the United States purchased the rights of the failed French company for $40 million. Ten years later the Panama Canal opened for business. For those interested in trivia or statistics here are a few to swallow:

  • It takes 8 to 10 hours for an average ship to transit the canal
  • Locks (water elevators) raise ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake (about 80 feet above sea level) as they cross the Continental Divide
  • There are three sets of locks each 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long
  • Commercial ships pay $30,000 to pass through the canal (based on weight)
  • Massive cruise ships pay $150,000 or more per transit
  • The lowest fee ever asses was thirty-six Richard Halliburton who swam through it in 1928
  • The fastest transit through the canal took two hours and 41 minutes by the US Navy hydrofoil, the Pegasus, in June 1979. I couldn’t find out why or where it was going.

I made my way to Miraflores Locks which is perhaps the the easiest and best way to see the canal. A four story museum and observation deck tell the story of the canal and give visitors a birds eye view. Unfortunately, my timing didn’t allow me to see a ship pass through the locks. Just another reason to go back.

Miraflores+LocksaMiraflores Locks2Miraflores Locksb

click to enlarge photos


Photos: (1) Panama Canal Miraflores Locks from observation deck at Miraflores discovery center; (2) Canal locks looking forward Pacific Ocean; (3) Miraflores locks water elevator overview; (4) Miraflores locks looking forward Gatun Lake and the Panamanian jungle

Getting Ready For Colombia.

Panama City Skyline

Though I thought South America and I would be very acquainted by now. But as these things go timing is everything. And in this case, my timing was a bit off. As the days draw closer to my birthday, I hope to have my first day riding my motorcycle through the lush tropics of Central Colombia. Colombia, you ask? For those of you who know me and the others who are getting to know me through this site and my travelogue and photos, you probably know my original plan was to bypass Columbia and head directly to Quito, Ecuador from Panama.

Columbia perhaps has a deserved reputation for being one of the most dangerous countries to travel in the world. I say deserved because there are a number of documented incidents of kidnappings (Glenn Heggsted in 2001 and author of The Most Dangerous Places on Earth, Robert Young Pelton in 2003), armed robberies on buses and most recently a group of tourists robbed and locked up in a building near the Parque Nacional Tyrona.

So why the change in mind? Stories from travelers, on motorcycle or with backpacks , are one reason. Another? For the couple weeks I traveled with J.J., he insisted that Colombia was one of his most anticipated destinations on his journey. Finally, I as I sit in the Hotel Las Vegas in downtown Panama City I ask myself, “Why not go to Colombia?” To be sure, due to weather and misinformation I never made it to El Salvador and Belize. So in a weird way, Colombia makes up for a couple central American countries that I unfortunately missed. So letting whim and spontaneity drive me I decide I better go to Colombia. Porque no?

With a little help from the Horizons Unlimited motorcycle travelers bulletin board and some words of advice from J.J., I made my way the cargo terminal for the Tocumen International Airport and found the office of Girag, one of several shippers providing service to Colombia. Within a couple hours I’ve completed documents, drained the gas from my gas tank and ushered my motorcycle into the dangerous good area of Girag’s Panama City facility. The process was fairly easy. The hardest part was getting a taxi to take me back to Panama City. Two calls to taxi’s and they still couldn’t find the Girag office. How did I find it?

Panama City3

More Panama At Night

Girag Panama

The non-descript Girag office in Panama. Those are my bags that won’t go with the bike to Colombia.

Carry-on bags for Avianca flight tomorrow?

Giarag Panama2

Yes. It’s an airport shipping terminal. Just what you expect!

Colombia Bound

Doc is classified as dangerous.

Muy peligroso.

Don’t I know it!

Girag tells me my motorcycle will fly out around midnight and be there tomorrow. Problem is customs in Colombia is closed on Sunday, so I won’t be able to pick up my bike until Monday. So I plan on taking the late flight tomorrow, taking advantage of the hotel recommendation from Girag and pulling my bike out of customs on Monday morning to fulfill my desire to ride my motorcycle on a new continent on my birthday.

Perhaps most important was to clear my motorcycle with Panama customs. Normally this is handled at the border, but shipping a motorcycle requires proper documentation for customs to clear the bike without actually seeing it leave the country. I had the taxi driver stop at the customs office on the way out of the airport and the gold-toothed customs officer glanced at the documents and then went happy with his rubber stamp. He wasn’t going to stamp my passport clear until I asked. Then he simply asked what page. With an exaggerated motion and flashing a shining gold smile he slammed his stamp on my passport taking up an entire page!

My plan to catch the late flight on December 11th backfired. In fact, flights were completed booked until later in the week. I pulled out my passport and explained that tomorrow was my birthday and I must be in Bogota to celebrate. I tried both Avianca and Copa — the two airlines servicing Bogota from Panama City. Why was everyone going to Bogota? I pleaded to stay standby. This became an issue because to fly standby, I must have a ticket for a later flight. Even though I talked my way onto standby/waiting lists for all the remaining flights to Bogota, my 4 hours in the Panama airport were fruitless. But I did manage to get a ticket on the first flight in the morning on the 12th.

Not all bad I guess. I’d wake up in Panama and and have dinner in Bogota for my birthday.

Panama City At Last!

Panama City Cerro Ancon

Panama FlagRiding over the Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge) over the Panama Canal sent chills down my spine. It was a weird feeling because for the first few moments, I thought I was riding over a river. But remembering the image of the tall towers of this suspension bridge as graphical icons on Panama license plates, it hit me mid stream that I was riding over the Canal. I’m not sure what kind of milestone this is, but to think that just 100 years ago the United States took over where the French left off and endured challenge after challenge to build what is one of mankind’s most amazing feats of engineering.

But rolling into Panama City the tranquil setting of Playa de Las Lajas quickly fades to honking taxi drivers, diesel soot spewing trucks and massive traffic and confusing streets filled with McDonald’s,Casco Viejo department stores and banks. And more banks. I’m told that Panama City is the second largest international banking center behind Geneva. I’m riding aimlessly into the city as I had no plans. Just to get to Panama City. After riding around for an hour exploring anything that looked interesting, I pull into a Marriot Hotel and enquire about their rates. Beyond my budget, but I convinced the sweetheart receptionist to make a couple calls to a couple budget hotels I pulled from my Lonely Planet guide book. Most important as usual is parking. And this is not easy in downtown Panama City unless staying at one of the luxury hotels. So I opt for a cozy B&B style hotel just outside the city up on the Cerro Ancón — in the former Panama Canal Zone which until 1999 was managed and governed by the U.S. Government, but today is little known by tourist who visit yet it offers great views of the city, the Bridge of the Americas and the Panama Canal and Miraflores Locks.

Originally from Hong Kong, Gustavo and Tammy have been living in Panama for nearly 30 years. Five years ago they moved to Panama City and just a couple years ago opened La Estancia — a small 11 room B&B away from the hustle and bustle of the city, yet just a couple dollars in a cab will place you on the ocean, canal or in city centre. I wanted to stay there for 2 or 3 nights, but they only had one room available for just tonight, though they went overboard in getting me set up with another even less expensive hotel for the next couple days while I ironed out the logistics on getting my bike to Colombia.


Photos: (1) The view toward the Pacific Ocean from Cerro Ancón above Panama City in the former Canal Zone; (2) The Panama Flag now flies large and high above the city, proud of its management on the Canal after the U.S. handed it over in 1999; (3) A crumbling colonial building, one of many you see cruising the old city Casco Viejo just outside Panama City Centro.

Panamanian Transito Cops


I’d already been stopped at two or three police or military check points when the policemen standing next to an orange cone and wearing a reflecting vest bear the words “transito” waved me to the side of the road. He went through the usual array of questions and asked to see my documents. He then asked how fast I was going. And while the roads are exponentially better in Panama, I’d been cognizant watching my speed — especially through areas of population.

He spits out some more Spanish words I can’t comprehend and then starts walking toward the building across the street. And with the arm and flapping wrist gesture that I have become used to he becomes me to come with him. Moving his wrist in a series of rapid motions with his fingers pointing downward and slightly cupped, I am to follow him. This type of hand motion would certainly be considered rude or be more suited directed toward a young child, but is common practice here in Latin America.

In the police building he tells me that I was speeding. Questioning this I request proof. Again the Spanish starts pouring from his mouth even faster, but he’s trying to tell me another policemen caught me on radar just up the road.

“Where?” I insist he give me more details. He tells me back by the bridge a policeman on a motorcycle saw me. I do a scan of the room. It’s painted drab beige with only a calendar on the wall. The room is divided into two by a tall counter which he stands on an elevated floor behind. I step up and through the walkway look around. He quickly motions me back to the lower level. There simply a telephone and some books on a desk behind him which sits under a window looking out at the road. I can see my motorcycle.

Without a radio there’s no way another cop could have contacted this “office”, so I asked how did the cop contact him? My friendly police officer just whips out a book and points to a series of fines and demands that the ticket will cost $60. I insist on proof. He tells me that the motorcycle officer called him using his cellular phone. This was either a comedy sketch or the cop simply thought I was a fool and soon would be digging dinero out of my pockets to buy my way out of this situation. But not me.

“Let’s call him. I want to talk to him.” This infuriated the cop a bit further as he insisted this was not possible. I said sure it is you’ve got a phone right there and let’s have him come down here with his radar gun and have a look. The cop continued to balk and claimed this was not possible. He started writing the ticket. Then he pulled his book out again and pointed to another violation. This one for passing, or something. It’s fine was printed as twenty dollars. I see so now the fine has been reduced to $20 for something — both things — I had not done.

I demanded to call my consulate. “I want to call my embassy!” He asked me if I had a phone. I said no and pointed to the black dial phone sitting on the desk behind the counter. He told me that was only good for local calls and that it could not call Panama City. I questioned this. We had been arguing for nearly 30 minutes when I realized I was burning time and still had quite a long way to go. I wanted to be in Panama City hours before nightfall so I could find a reasonable hotel. I told him I had to go because I wasn’t going to drive in the night. He pointed at his book and pad of tickets.

I was tired of this whole game I was almost ready to hand him some money but held back. Then in a slight turn of events that I still don’t understand he took his hands and gestured with an imaginary piece of paper tearing up a ticket and tossing it over his shoulder, handed me my documents and told me I could go. As I walked out of the office back to my bike with my cop as my shadow I reached into one of my pockets where I still had about $2.50 worth of Nicaraguan Cordobas and asked him if it was possible to convert them back to dollars . He said at the bank. I stuck the bills in his hand and told him to go to the bank. I’d been in Latin American banks a couple times on this trip. Take a number. Sit. Wait. And wait. That would be his punishment because I was sure he had no idea what they were worth and it would be wroth more to him waiting an hour in a bank and completing paperwork to exchange $2,50 worth of foreign currency.

One thing I neglected to mention was Panamanian currency. For the most part it’s non existent. Some time back Panama moved it’s currency to the U.S. dollar. ATM machines spit out dollars. Prices are in dollars. Dollars are everywhere. Except occasionally I’ve received some coin Balboa’s (Panama’s foreign currency named after the Spanish colonial explorer who claimed the Pacific Ocean and all that touched it as property to the crown). With a $10 bill in my pocket, I hopped on my bike and rode on.


When I came up upon the vintage miniature Renault with the tongue tied down with string and the car leaning a bit hard to the right as if the passenger side rear wheel was smaller than the others, it was driving about 20 mph on the famed Pan American Highway where at this juncture the speed limit was 50 mph. So I did what most Panamanians and other Latin American drivers do, I passed it. When the motorcycle cop came up behind me honking his horn, I replied with the kind gesture in return and threw in a wave for good luck. And I continued to ride. He honked again. I honked back. Soon the gesture to the side of the road I couldn’t ignore.

I started up the usual conversation with my Panamanian officer when he kept uttering the words linea doble. Okay. So I did cross the double line. I’m sure the last 20 cars the drove by did too. He just happened to see me. Catch me. And he was ready to write the ticket. And haven’t I heard all this before. Of course, I would have to wait until Monday to pay the ticket. I had no leg to stand on as I was in the hot seat. It was a $20 violation. At this point I realized I hadn’t been following my own advice. That is just to keep a few singles in my wallet. But all I had was $10. As he started barking out advice about watching my things in Panama and not to drive at night, I was scanning my brain for a way out of this one. There’s no way I wanted to pay him $10.

I pulled the $10 out of my pocket and told him that was all the money I had. More importantly, I told him that I had lost my wallet and had to get to Panama City to retrieve a new ATM card. Half of this was true, as in Granada my dummy wallet somehow disappeared. But that’s another story. I pleaded with him that I needed to buy a couple gallons of gas so that I could make it to Panama. I was still a couple hundred miles away. Don’t laugh. But I asked him if he had some change! Truthfully, why not. I’ll pay the guy $5 for catching me do something that all Panamanians do an this road. He shrugged and said he had no money. We were at both ends of our respective rope. I asked if he’d just let me off this time. When he was just about to say yes I could see a light go on in his head. He then pointed to my tank panniers where I pandered to his curiosity as to what I carry on this bike. He remembered the fuel containers. The 1.5L Sigg emergency fuel bottles I have for those long stretches where gas might be hard to come by. The bottles were empty.

He told me to grab the container and we walked over to his 600cc Yamaha police bike. He then disconnects his fuel line and fills up my fuel bottle. What could I do? I’m sure I’m the only guy who has received change from a traffic violation in gas — from a police bike!

I handed him the $10 and headed to Panama City.


Photos: (1) When your highway budget doesn’t lend you enough Balboa’s for road signs, why not offer to the highest bidder. Panama does have some of the best road signs I found in Central America. National Car Rental has no comment on the return on its marketing investment. But I’m sure the number of impressions is quite high. (2) Pulled over for a Panamanian bribe and falsely accused of exceeding the “posted” speed limit.

Goodbye Costa Rica – Hello Panama


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.