December 7, 2006

Bocos Del Toro, Panama

One of the most handy things we have on the bikes is walkie talkies. With little speakers in our helmets and a push to talk on the motorcycle hand grips, Doug and I can communicate while we are on the move. It has been really handy in numerous situations. Helps a bunch in full on traffic conditions and generally makes the traveling more efficient by cutting down on stopping to communicate. My friend Smitty (Dave's Tech Shop in Pinedale, WY) set me up with a handy box that allows me to listen to my iPod while on the move too. Certainly makes the long days in the saddle more bearable.

In San Jose we ran into another BMW rider heading south. He was from Colorado, and was in getting some service done on his bike. He had been traveling with a buddy, but they had a little mishap on a tope/speed bump in Mexico. This guy slowed down for it, but his buddy didn't see it until he was on it and rear ended this guy, hitting his luggage box on one side. The other rider, flew over the handle bars and tumbled across the pavement. His bike nearly totaled. So the guy we talked to, spent the next several days getting his buddy patched up (broken collarbone) and sent home, and then figuring out how to ship the nearly totaled bike back to the states. Doug and I were both taken back a bit, because it has happened a few times where one of us sees the topes and slows down, and the other doesn't. We've been lucky and have only had some close misses.

As for packing and our own luggage on the bikes. I bought mine and they are top of the line and pretty spiffy. Aluminum, waterproof, and with locks. They are hinged and big enough to fit everything I need. Doug basically built his from surplus aluminum military food canisters. He put some time and effort into modifying them to work on the bike and for our purposes, but they work. I spent $1000, he spent $20. But like he says, he had more time than money. In the end they both work, mine are just more convenient to deal with. We have about the same amount of stuff, but I don't have to strap as much stuff on the outside of the cases as Doug does. I look at his and think of the money I could have saved and he looks at mine and thinks about how easy they are to deal with. The real test will come when we get on some rough roads. We both pack them pretty much the same way. Certain things on each side and always in smaller stuff sacks that are easy to deal with, rather than having everything loose. I have a big "topbox" mounted on the back of my bike and I really don't need the space. But it has proven to be invaluable as extra storage for water, stove, and mostly food. We call it the truck and it is extremely handy. Doug bought a small cooler in Mexico, mostly so we would have cold beer after a hot days riding. It carried warm beer for a few days, because we never put any ice in it. And now, it has turned into extra, convenient storage for Doug on his bike. Mine cost $300, Doug's cost $16.Enough said.

We did get in about 30 miles of hard traveling on gravel and muddy roads. This was from Quepos to Dominical, Costa Rica. The road was pretty challenging because of a recent rain shower that turned the road to mud. Quite a few places the mud was rutted and deep and about four times I was certain I was going down. It was all I had to keep the thing from slipping out from under me. Fortunately we both made it through without incident. However the bikes are caked in mud, so maybe we'll have some rain the next few days to clean them off.

The southern part of Costa Rica turned out to be fabulous. Doug and I have both been to Costa Rica before, and feel it has been overdeveloped and overrun with tourism. And as a result, it's generally overpriced and overcrowded. But as we headed to the Panama border, all the hotels disappeared and we saw the real Costa Rica and it is amazing.

I set a new world record getting through the border from Costa Rica to Panama, an hour and a half. It was on a Sunday morning, and as a result not so crowded, so things went pretty smoothly. And Panama seems to really be well organized compared to many of the other countries.

The roads and landscape in Panama are amazing. A four lane highway all the way to Panama City through some lush jungle and mountainous landscape. The bikes really like going fast on these sorts of roads. We found a nice beach about an hour outside of the city called, Santa Clara. Turns out to be a beach as far as you can see in both directions. It is the best beach we have come across. It cost us $2 to pitch our tent under a thatch roof right on the beach. Soda were 65 cents and beers 80 cents. We landed in paradise, just by happenstance. And the best part is... we had the place to ourselves. The local worker told us on weekends it is packed but on the weekdays it is very, very quiet. We spent two nights there... once on the way into Panama and once on the way out. I could have spent the rest of the winter there without too much trouble.

We had another day of rain as we explored Panama City and the Panama Canal. Panama City was a bit of a surprise, as it's a bit like Miami Beach. Skyscrapers everywhere, and crazy wild traffic jams. We visited the canal and the very interesting visitor center. Pretty wild to watch mammoth ships pass through the locks. They are built with only two feet of clearance on either side to make it through. Not so different than the lock and dam in my hometown of Dubuque on the Mississippi River, but on a much grander scale.

After Panama City we drove as far as we could into the Darien district, south of the city. We had ample warnings about it being unsafe, and due to rain, impassible roads. We found none of that to be the case. It was very scenic. Not much traffic and we got to see some of the most indigenous and primitive people anywhere I have been in the world. Small, elevated shacks out in the Darien jungle is the best way to describe it. I didn't really think it was living in poverty, just very, very primitive living.

And the further south we drove the more serious the guns and military became. The last checkpoint we came to they were not real happy to see us. We continued on for a bit further. Past that, the last 10 or 12 miles of the road we heard was too muddy and really impassable on a motorcycle.

We traveled back up north that afternoon and spent our second night at Santa Clara and watched an amazing full moon come up over the ocean. Unforgettable night, with the beach to ourselves.

We decided to explore the highlands, and headed towards the Caribbean side of Panama. To get here we crossed some amazing jungle and mountains, with roads that were great fun to ride and extremely scenic. We jumped on a boat and ended up in Bocos del Toro, a small island off the Panamanian coast. Small little surfer village. A really nice Caribbean flavor, and pretty good spot. Tomorrow we´ll head north towards Costa Rica. We have heard rumors of two bridges on this road that will scare our socks off. We´ll see what those entail.

Oh, one other interesting thing we had happen. We got pulled over by a policeman in Panama. For speeding, what else. And actually we weren´t speeding but he showed us his radar and said we were. He was pretty impressive, looking much like Ponch from the old TV show CHIPS. He was on a beat up Yamaha 525 and decked out in full uniform and black leather boots. We chatted with him for awhile, and he wanted 60 bucks, which we pretty much refused to pay. After about 15 minutes, he got tired of dealing with us, handed our documents back, but not before he started laughing at me. He was saying every Spanish word he could convey, something about weakling. It took us awhile to figure it out, but he thought I looked exactly like singer George Michael. Now I´ve been called a lot of things, but never George Michael. And what he thought was so funny, was that I resembled a skinny George Michael. When Doug told him I WAS George Michael, he believed it until Doug started laughing. We all had a pretty good laugh and I wasn´t sure if I should be offended or not. He thought it was great, and I wasn´t sure I should push our luck trying to explain Ponch to him or not. So we were on our way.

Anyway, more stories next time. Signing off from Panama.
George Michael