Adrian loves waterfalls

Adrian with one of the many waterfalls we saw today

Adrian with one of the many waterfalls we saw today

14 October – Day 84

Banos
Distance: 0kms

It was raining when we woke up this morning so after a leisurely breakfast, Adrian and Jeremy set about repairing the handlebars on Jeremy’s bike. They’d bent out of shape after his bike was hit by a car at 4.30am a few mornings ago while parked outside a house. They spent ages playing with the various screws and taking of the risers… only to eventually fix it by just bending the handlebars back into place.

The Banos area is famous for its cascading waterfalls, so after lunch we jumped on the bikes for a bit of a waterfall tour. Although I’m generally not a big waterfall person, even I was impressed by some of them, especially ‘the devil.’ It was huge. Seriously, the volume of water coming over this particular waterfall was like nothing I’ve seen before. It was loud – very loud – and there was so much spray it was like walking through mist and rain. Very impressive.

At another one of the waterfalls - there were lots of them!

At another one of the waterfalls – there were lots of them! Adrian’s standing on a ledge again.

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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…

Riding under a waterfall through fog around cows…

Truck driving through a waterfall

We went through just after this truck….

23 September – Day 63

Fortuna, Costa Rica to Siquirres, Costa Rica
Distance: 240kms

It was sunny today when we woke up, so we got going early(ish) and stopped along the way for breakfast, and then stopped again for coffee. We were making good progress so decided to detour past Poas volcano. To be honest, I wasn’t that hopeful… every other lookout we’ve stopped at in Central America has essentially been fogged out. As in all that we see is a sea of white, like we’re wearing goggles that have been covered with shaving cream.

Before that though, we had the hairiest riding experience of the trip so far. We’d been riding along quite happily for a while, past coffee plantations, on a smoothly tarred and curvy – albeit somewhat narrow – road. All of a sudden, we were stopped by red and yellow tape across the road… think a roadworks version of police tape… and a bunch of guys sitting around roadwork machines, not seeming to be doing all that much. We thought that road was closed and so were all set to turn around, but a guy unrolled the tape and waved us through, saying that a bridge had washed away but we’d be able to go around it and yup, on a motorbike was fine.

Ha. What he meant was that a rather large waterfall had washed away the bridge and part of the road, and had since effectively become the road, and that by riding ‘around’ it he meant riding ‘through’ it. The picture of the waterfall doesn’t really do it justice. The water was flowing very fast, and the pool was deep… with my feet on the pillion pegs, I had water up to my ankles at one stage… so I’d say it was at least 30cm, and rocky. And loud! On our right was the waterfall coming down the cliff face; on our left was the cliff going down into the valley. In between, the water was flowing quickly through the pool I mentioned. Suffice to say that when I first saw it, I thought ‘oh deary me, I’m not sure about this’ (or words to that effect).

One of the workmen (part of a second group who were standing around near the waterfall, also not working) got out his phone to take a picture of us going across – and actually fist pumped us after we safely made it. So even though beforehand he seemed to be gesturing casually ‘yeah yeah you’ll be fine,’ clearly he was pleased/surprised. As was I!!!

Anyway, we made it to the volcano, paid our $20 USD entry fee and saw… a total white out. Oh well. At least it was an interesting ride to get there! And on the way to our destination for the night, we experienced a new trip record for cheapest road toll: 10c!! Seriously…  you have to wonder whether it is really worth the cost of the infrastructure and staff when it’s only 10c a pop.

It took us a while to find accommodation for the night, with our two initial destinations being, well, undesirable… but we got there in the end (albeit after dark…breaking that golden rule for the second time this trip…).

Cows walking on the road

Another example of some of the riding conditions… and this was taken in the middle of the day!!

 

22 September – Day 62

Fortuna, Costa Rica
Distance: 0kms

It was absolutely pouring when we woke up this morning, which was unusual… it does rain here quite a lot at this time of year; usually it happens in the afternoon and the mornings are sunny (or if not sunny, at least dry!).

Psychologically, there’s something much less enjoyable about setting out to ride in the rain than if it happens to start raining when you’re already on the road. When the latter occurs, it’s no big deal – we just stop and put our wet weather gear on. But the idea of starting in a torrential downpour… it’s just depressing. So – we didn’t!

Instead, we lounged around our rainforest retreat, reading books etc and listening to the rain on the roof and the parrots outside. It was lovely!

From Mexico to Guatemala – border crossings with a motorbike

BMW r1200 GSA in on a busy market street just inside Guatemala

The bike just across the Mexico-Guatemalan border.

5 September – Day 45

Comitan, Mexico to Panajachel, Guatemala (Lake Atitlan)
Distance: 305 kms

Border crossing day!! We left Comitan by about 9am and made it to the border by 11am. Armed with blogs from other motorbike travellers who’d crossed at this border, we started by trying to check out of Mexico… only to be told that there was a $30 fee to exit. Notwithstanding that the signs in the customs office clearly said (in both English and Spanish!) that the fee only applied to those tourists who arrived in Mexico by air – ie clearly not us – there was no budging the official. If we wanted to leave the country, we had to pay the fee.

Here in Central America and I think probably also South America, there’s a bit of a circuitous process to get into the country: first you go to the customs office and get some preliminary paperwork. Then you have to take that paperwork to the bank (usually located very close by) to pay an entrance fee / tourist visa fee and get a receipt. Then you have to return back to customs with the receipt, hand it over and then – and only then – do you get stamped into the country. When there are queues in both places, it can take a bit of time.

Anyway, we paid the fee – and figured out that it was the same fee we’d paid when we first arrived in Mexico, so theoretically we shouldn’t have had to pay it again. However because we had to hand over our initial receipt to get our entry visa, we didn’t have a receipt to give to the customs guy at the other end. Good to know for next time…!!

Once we left Mexico, it was a pretty straightforward process getting into Guatemala: first we had to get the bike fumigated, then change our pesos for quetzals with one of the many guys standing just over the border waving wads of cash around, then pay for the fumigation, then get our own passports stamped, then start to get the bike officially imported and registered, then go to the bank to pay the import and registration fee, then back to the vehicle import office to finalise the paperwork and get our rego sticker. And then, finally, we were off!

The whole process about two hours.

And then we were on our way in Guatemala. Straight away we noticed that there were fewer speedbumps – and more armed soldiers. Banks, for example, keep their doors locked at all times and there is an armed guard or soldier standing on the inside, peering through a thin clear panel on an otherwise frosted glass door. If he thinks you look ok, he unlocks the door. Inside the bank, there are a couple of other heavily armed guards (I’m talking semi automatics/AK47s/other assault rifles) standing at various points. This was the scenario in two of the banks I went to, looking for an ATM. Ironically, ATMs are outside the bank – and not at all guarded or secured!

Our first day of riding in Guatemala was possibly the hardest day of riding so far. Blinding, driving rain.. so much so that often the streets were flowing. Pot holed roads – and often the potholes were hidden by the volume of water flowing over the road. Thick fog, reducing the visibility to less than 20m – it was a total white out. And it was soooo cold – particularly after we got back above 3000m. And to all of this, add crazy traffic with cars overtaking trucks on blind corners, other trucks using the whole road to make some of the bends, speed bumps that weren’t marked at all, cobblestones and all the usual challenges of driving in Central America.

So we were pretty happy to make it to a hotel Adrian had found the day before… only to quickly become less happy when we discovered the price has gone up from $22 a night to $70 a night in two years!!! Such a rip off. Under normal circumstances, we would have just kept looking… but it was still raining hard, we were really cold and had just spent the past several hours riding in atrocious conditions and neither one of us could really face getting back on the bike and riding slowly around town checking out other hotels in order to save $20.

So – here we are. We’ve been for a walk (and couldn’t see much due to the fog and rain), we’ve had dinner and have got a day off the bike here tomorrow so I’m really hoping for some sunshine!!!

Three tequila shots…. on the house!

Church in the old town square in San Cristobal de las Casas

The Church in the main plaza in the old town at San Cristobal de las Casas

1 September – Day 41

Oaxaca, Mexico to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico
Distance: 641kms

By Adrian

When I first looked into a basic itinerary for our trip through the Americas my primary thought was to ensure that the distance travelled each day was achievable both in terms of the roads to be travelled (condition & twistiness) and Lauren’s relative inexperience with long distances on the bike. A long distance in this case is not the Iron Butt (1000 miles in 24 hours) type but comparative to the distance I’ve ridden on several occasions with and as preferred by my dad (circa 350kms). Lauren has more than proved her ability to accommodate our relatively long rides and on more than one occasion cracked the whip to keep us going a little longer to the next town. I had planned this section – ie the trip from Oaxaca to San Cristobal – over 3 days however we acknowledged our preference for more time off the bike at our destinations by covering this distances over a single day.

The road from San Cristobal to the mountains was fairly flat and straight and we made good time. Leading up over the mountains, the fresh tarmac allowed me to have some fun and keep a little more momentum than usual through the corners. Of course then came a little rain, and the road turned to old tarmac and then to dirt through some roadworks and we were back to the slow going slog typical that has been typical of Mexico. From 1,500m we dropped back down close to sea level and once again hit the hot and humid coastal weather.

After we jumped on the toll road we started making good time to our destination. We passed through apparently the world’s largest wind farm which is quite an awesome site in terms of the staggering number of windmills however they are quite a controversial topic amongst the local indigenous population. While the location takes advantage of the high winds that pass through the area during monsoon season and the outcome is relatively environmentally friendly power generation, the locals have been unfairly compensated in terms of the rental paid for the use of their land (in the region of $100US per hectare per year) and the subsequent harm that the low frequency vibration causes to local fish and animal stocks.

Pushing on, we left the coast and once again climbed back into the mountains where the road traverses its way around every bend and contour, however there is now a toll road that uses a series of tunnels and bridges to whisk those who prefer it to their destination in about a third of the time… Lauren’s preference was obvious and I crumbled… however to be fair I did revel in tackling the high-speed corners of the toll road on a for once smooth surface.

The rain had been on and off for most of the ride and so the wet weather gear had been worn for most of the trip. Upon cresting the top of the mountain and onto the plateau it was soon obvious that the dark grey wall on the horizon was waiting for us. Suffice to say we copped a downpour and the road was quickly covered in 2 inches of water. At least the stream of water down my visor was easier to see through the usual spots – it was literally raining in sheets, not drops. The locals didn’t surprise with their actions though, some kept going at full speed dousing everything around them as they aqua-planed on by, some stopped in the middle of their lane and put their hazard lights on, others slowed to a crawl until two foreigners on a motorcycle overtook them and they did all they could to get back past. I do remember overtaking one car in the middle of all this and then seeing that car getting stuck behind me in the pile of sand that had been dumped and extended across the lane at least a foot deep. While visible when not raining and possibly avoidable it was completely invisible under this deluge. Needless to say, had I not fortuitously changed lanes at that moment, the outcome may have been a disaster.

As we passed through Tuxtla Gutierrez, the major city for the region (thankfully on a bypass that missed the chaotic traffic that would have been downtown… except for a short segment where the GPS and road signs didn’t agree with each other and then the road signs disappeared altogether..), the rain ceased and the road wound its way up from 800m to 2,000m with an associated cooling of the temperature. The fun began almost immediately as the massive change in altitude combined with a single lane in either direction meant that we were coming across slower vehicles thick and fast, with faster ones coming up behind us just as quickly. Two actual lanes effectively became five unofficial lanes as everyone jostled for position. You would think you were in the queue to overtake the semi-trailer in front and then find a car next to you facing off with the car coming down the hill pushing them and us off the road. Utter chaos really, I’m just glad the Beemer has a bit of go when needed.

Arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas we once again commenced the search for a hotel that could accommodate both us and provide secure parking for the bike. While we usually try at least two or three, we wisely (luckily?) found one slightly off the town square but still right in the centre that ticked all the boxes. We made a bee-line for the plaza and walking streets to fill our famished bellies and found an excellent wine bar selling regional wines and tapas. After quizzing the owner about the motorcycle pictures gracing the back page of the menu, we managed a brief but entertaining Spanglish discussion of bikes that lead to a round of tequila shots on the house as we left after our meal. An excellent end to a long and tiring day!

Windmills in a windmill farm along the Panamerican highway

Wind power farm along the Panamerican Highway, Mexico