Patience is a virtue…

30 September – Day 70

Panama City, Panama to Bogota, Colombia
Distance 771kms (by air!!!)

It was kind of nice using a different mode of transport for a change… especially one that covers a few hundred kilometres in the space of less than two hours, and one where I can sleep while in transit!!

So yes, the flight was good. The subsequent six hour wait in the cargo terminal of Bogota airport, inhaling truck fumes and cigarette smoke, while Adrian was off doing bike-related import paperwork was not!! Seriously… six hours… sitting outside the shipping company’s office, next to their loading dock. Not the ideal way to spend one’s first day in Colombia, that’s for sure.

The good news was that the bike got through totally unscathed and – other than lengthy delays in various bureaucratic offices* – there were no issues with the importation. We’d heard stories of people having to wait up to a week for their bikes to arrive, so the fact ours made it in a couple of days was positive too.

It was getting close to sunset by the time we had got the bike out and repacked it, and the peak hour traffic and dim light, combined with a street naming and numbering system that is hard to understand at first, meant that we struggled to find our hotel… a couple of times, Adrian parked and walked around looking for it while I watched the bike. Eventually we found it and pretty much crashed for the night.

 

* Two examples of bureaucratic delays we have experienced first hand:

  • The ‘right’ person has gone to lunch/is not currently available = wait for up to two hours for them to return (and spend maybe 60 seconds stamping our papers twice)… note we have experienced this on multiple occasions
  • Wait right at the counter while the immigration officer rips individual pages from his pad of immigration forms (like one of those notepads with glue along the top edge) until he has completed the whole notepad of forms so that they are now all loose-leaf. For no apparent reason!
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Panama City

Water basin at the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal

Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal

29 September – Day 69

Panama City, Panama
Distance: 0kms

Today was the first time in a long time that I’ve been on one of those red ‘hop on, hop off’ tourist buses… and it was excellent! A really good way to get an overview of the city – with some interesting information along the way.  The tour included a stop at the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, although there weren’t any ships any coming through when we were there so we didn’t get to see the lock working first hand. Even so, it was still impressive. Equally impressive is the work currently underway on an expansion to the locks, including a new lock that will be massive ie four football fields long and three basketball courts wide. And from a historical perspective, I hadn’t realised that some of the earliest work on malaria eradication happened in the early 1900s when construction work on the canal started: the death rate due to malaria in employees working on the canal dropped from 11.59 per 1,000 in November 1906 to 1.23 per 1,000 in December 1909 due to the introduction of seven compulsory measures including drainage requirements and flyscreens.

It was while we were at the Canal that it started to pour (again). So we jumped back on our red bus and headed towards the old town, lured by the thought of lunch and, dare I say it, coffee. However… several streets were closed due to a huge parade of students, marching bands, dancers and more… so the bus dropped us off in some other dodgy part of town a 30 minute or so walk from where we actually wanted to be. We got there in the end though – absolutely drenched, which made the deli café we found seem all the more inviting! We ended up hibernating there for longer than expected… we kept thinking that if we just waited a bit longer, maybe the rain would ease up a little. It was still torrential, the streets were flooding and being outside just didn’t seem all that exciting. Finally though the downpour reduced to rain, so we braved the streets and went for a walk around the old town… on a sunny day, it would be a lovely area with a great view and some interesting little shops and restaurants. Next time maybe…

View of cranes and shipping containers in one of the ports along the Panama Canal

One of the ports in Panama City

View of an old run down building in Panama City

One of the poorer parts of Panama City…

New office buildings in Panama City

… while elsewhere in the city, business is booming

Lauren standing in the rain wearing a waterproof jacket

Raindrops keeping falling on my head…

Goodbye to the bike (for a few days)…

BMW GSA r1200 with mirrors and windscreen removed prior to shipping

The bike packed up for shipping

28 September – Day 68

Panama City, Panama
Distance: 0kms

After a later start, we headed for the airport cargo terminal to drop off the bike for shipping to Columbia. Although it’s a Saturday, I’d called ahead and the office was open… as long as we got there by noon. So we raced around getting ready and only just made it. It took about ninety minutes to get all the paperwork done (more specifically.. it took Adrian about ninety minutes to get the paperwork done while I sat with the bike… however there was shade and I’d brought a book, so it wasn’t so bad!!).

It’s the first time that Adrian has been separated from the bike since arriving in Alaska a few months ago – so it’s quite a big deal! It’ll hopefully get to Columbia on Monday, although the shipping people were a little bit hazy on the details… as in it might get there tomorrow… or maybe on Monday. Maybe also Tuesday. So we’ll see!

 By Adrian

Why the need for shipping the bike? Unfortunately the Panamerican Highway does not run the length of the Americas. A short section known as the Darien Gap exists between Panama and Columbia that has no road and is considered impassable to all but drug runners and the desperate few individuals with motorcycles trying to prove a point and who have written novels about their exploits.

There are a few preferred options for circumventing the Darien Gap. Take a yacht and strap your motorbike on the front, get a few motorcycles together and use a container or take it to the airport and fly it. The first option has been recommended by some and opposed by others. The experience of each seems to depend on the yacht used and the weather experienced. Most agree that the journey through the San Blas islands is spectacular, however the overflowing toilets, confined spaces and lack of edible food on just one reported journey was enough for me, together with the fact that the Stahlratte (the best of the bunch) was booked full, was a bit of a turn off. Charges range from $250 per person + $300 for the motorcycle on short trips (3 days / 2 nights) to $500 per person and $650 for the motorcycle on longer trips (5 days / 4 nights) on one of the larger boats with a decent reputation.

We chose to take the third option of flying. I’ve flown my motorbikes from Beijing to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpar to Perth and Sydney to Anchorage so feel pretty comfortable with the requirements for arranging each. Of the two options I’ve looked at for flying (Panama Solutions Logistics and Girag), I chose Girag for no other reason than they seemed to be the most widely used. There are positive and negative reviews on both Advrider and Horizons and whether my bike turns up unharmed remains to be seen. Fingers crossed.

We arrived at the Girag cargo terminal on a Saturday practically unannounced besides a phone call two hours earlier to see if they were open. The cargo area is on the other side of the airfield from the passenger terminal and navigating to Girag was quite easy. The bike although recently cleaned was once again covered in filth and although I tried in vain to clean it with some water and paper towel, Girag did not seem to care. After the paperwork was completed and the cash paid ($902 US) I set about removing the windscreen and mirrors to try and protect them from damage. They made sure I locked the panniers and that I had the keys, hopefully they haven’t been busted open by a customs inspection. Girag had no idea about the final step of paperwork involving clearing the bike out of the country at the Aduana (Customs) at the entrance to the cargo area. Once this was completed I made sure Girag also had a copy of this paperwork. Maybe due to being Saturday afternoon the usual people weren’t around to ensure the process was completed, fingers crossed this doesn’t also mean that I won’t see my bike in Bogota on Monday as scheduled

Panama City!

View over the ports on the Panama Canal

First look at the Panama City ports

27 September – Day 67

Boquette, Panama to Panama City, Panama
Distance: 484kms

Not too much to report from today other than that the roads in Panama City are crazy! I got a quick look at the canal / shipping ports on the way in and wow – it’s a big port. I’m looking forward to having a much closer look over the weekend.

 

By Adrian

It was a long day in the saddle today and close to our longest distance covered in one day through Central America. Not that Panama is lacking in scenery or potential stopover destinations, however the lure of South America and the chance to escape the ongoing heat, humidity and rain combination was enticing. That speeding in Panama has been noted as a potential show stopper was made worse by the inconsistent signage along the way… Basically I stuck on 100 where indicated and slowed for towns and built up areas. In the one area showing 60, I had just overtaken a car and was slowing down using the engine, low and behold there were the boys in blue, just off to the side in the shadows. A quick look for a radar gun showed nothing and although I was speeding I called their bluff as they guessed at least 20 over what I had actually been going.

The driving is similar to the rest of Central America in its haphazard, aggressive, five rows of cars in three lanes behaviour, although most notable were the number of accidents. We passed two rollovers and one in a ditch and witnessed a very near miss. Suffice to say that there is a distinct lack of actually driving ability in Panama. Be warned if you think about renting a car here. The usual drive around to check out a few hotels would have been a nightmare and we aimed for and stayed at the first hotel I plugged into the GPS.

Crossing from Costa Rica to Panama

26 September – Day 66

Puerto Viaje, Costa Rica to Boquette, Panama
Distance: 286kms (time on bike = 8.5 hours including 3 hours at the border)

So… which way to go? The direct route, risking potentially getting stuck in a roadblock for an indefinite period and/or having to turn around and go back across the border (=bleh) into Costa Rica and then around the long way ie 600kms + through Costa Rica. Or – just go the long way, thus not risking having to get back across the border.

We asked around in the morning and one of the local travel agents phoned someone –no idea who – to ask if the road was open. Apparently, it had been blocked the day before due to a protest but was absolutely fine today and we’d be able to get through. So we decided to go the way we’d originally planned – ie directly across the border. Yay! At the border, I also asked the officials there and they said they didn’t know either way. Then I asked a guy who was crossing from Panama into Costa Rica and he said the road was fine. And it was!! So that was a relief… it was nice to know that we were going the shortest/most direct route.

Nevertheless… I’m sick of border crossings with the bike. Seriously – I’ve had nine now on the trip, and that’s enough!! It’s not even that I have to do all that much.. as per a previous post, because the bike is in Adrian’s name, he’s the one who has to do the back and forth with the import and export paperwork etc. Sometimes, I think that would be easier than just standing, for hours, in full sun and motorbike gear, waiting. Just waiting. At least doing the paperwork means I’d have a focus!! So yeah – suffice to say that this most recent border crossing, from Costa Rica into Panama, was long and hot. Three hours, in fact.

We’d heard from other travellers that Panama is a country where you just don’t speed, because there are radars everywhere and they take speeding very seriously. The evidence would suggest that there’s no problem with cars and trucks literally belching out thick black smoke, or cars so rusty I’m not sure what’s actually holding them together, or cars with no mufflers and so sound almost as loud as a plane taking off… however based on my limited time in the country (less than 24 hours!), speeding is definitely a massive focus. I’ve never seen so many motorbike police standing by the side of the road! Sure, many of them seemed to be playing a game on their phone or texting or something rather than actually using a radar, but that’s beside the point! We were pulled over by one policeman in a 60 zone. I think we we’re doing about 70-75kms.. he told us that we’d been doing 95kms. Eventually, he just waved us off and said “slow down.” I think the fact he didn’t actually have a radar probably worked in our favour.

Boquette seems to be a US retirement town… it’s so much like the US that you could blindfold someone and drop them here, and I don’t think they’d be able to tell that they were actually in Central America. Dinner at Mike’s Bar and Grill, where they served San Francisco garlic fries and were showing a NFL match on the big screens, certainly helped cement that picture.