Coast to Coast In Four Hours

Written March 14, 2016

It’s Pi Day.  The nerd in me loves this.  And tomorrow is an even bigger day for us.  We’re going to the airport here in Panama City to load the bikes onto a plane bound for Bogota, Colombia.

These past two weeks have been super-busy and eventful for us.  We came into Panama at the little border crossing of Sixaola over on the Caribbean side of the country.  You can feel the influence of the Caribbean, the heat and humidity, the music, the multi-racial ethnicity seeing skin of all shades, and just the vibe of the place.  The border crossing went okay, but it was a good thing we did our research, as we had to find three separate offices to be sure we had all the proper stamps and insurance before we headed into the country.  Crossing out of Costa Rica and into Panama took the usual 3+ hours, but there was no trouble other than locating all the little offices.  For the last one, we crossed the street, went up some old crumbly concrete steps, walked along the railroad tracks, and, once on the bridge, turned right into the second office.  Of course.

Our first night we stayed at Chirrique Grande, a small town on the Caribbean side, at the recommendation of a friendly cop at the gas station with weather closing in fast.  We had intended on continuing over the mountains to the dry Pacific side, but he warned us we would not make it before dark.  So we pulled into the little hotel nearby, and then enjoyed a terrific shrimp and lobster dinner in town, a short walk away through the now heavy rainstorm.  Next morning, we headed up and over the mountains, crossing the range that runs down the spine of the country.  We climbed steeply upward through the rain and fog and jungle, giant trees shining green, crossing bridges over fast-moving rivers, and dodging the many breaks and holes in the pavement.  It’s an old road that climbs fast, like a roller-coaster up, down, and around we go.  As we crested the top, the wind was blowing very strongly, and we had to really lean into it for about a mile or so, then we dropped down and crossed a dam, where we saw a huge double rainbow down the valley toward the Pacific side, with it’s blue skies and the promise of warm air.  We rolled down, down, down, and someone started to turn the heat up rapidly.  Soon we had our liners out, and then within another ten miles we were baking in the lowland coastal heat.  As we reached David, our destination for the night, it was 100+ degrees.  We had crossed from the Carribean to the Pacific - coast-to-coast in about four hours.

Jalene, Ondrej, and Peter in awe at the Panama Canal Locks.

We had briefly met Michael and Annie at a party in Newport.  Now, in Panama, they invited us to come up and see them at their home in Boquete, a town back up in the mountains at a cooler, comfortable 1000 meters (3200’).  We enjoyed four nights of complete rest and comfort with them, munching on great food in town and at their table, playing golf, and getting a little maintenance work done of the bikes, as always.  We also met another local motorcyclist, Jim, who had us over to his house where we enjoyed the terrific view out over the valley.  It was a wonderful break for us, giving us a chance to research where to visit on our way to Panama City, and play backgammon and cards each evening.  A much-needed respite for which we’re deeply grateful to our friends.  If you get to Boquete, make Sugar & Spice your first stop for breakfast - it’s where the whole town seems to meet.

We then headed east along the Pacific side, reaching a beach village at Las Lajas and spending the night in the tent under the stars.  We were camped at Nellie’s, a somewhat dirty but very cheap place, and could walk out into the warm Pacific for a swim.  The burgers and other food were pretty good, and so we passed a comfortable evening.  In the morning we packed up before the heat could build too much, and continued east and then north, back up into the mountains to the little town of Santa Fe.  We stayed in the dorm at Hostel Qhia, and enjoyed a cheap price and a very comfortable place.

While in Santa Fe we met up with our two present travelling companions, Peter, from New Zealand, and Ondrej, a Czech fellow from New York.  We had met Ondrej at the Panamanian border briefly, and then caught up with him on the PanAmerican.  With the internet to help, we all hooked up in Santa Fe and agreed to team up for the effort needed to get across to Colombia.  So we rolled out of there and headed east into Panama City, where we found a somewhat dodgy Airbnb house for a couple of nights, then moved ourselves into a proper palace on the golf course, where we could relax in the pool, do some serious work on the bikes, and really get things done.  The place was rented through VRBO and by the time we spit it 4-ways, it was cheap.  We headed down to the airport and met with the airfreight company to make pre-arrangements for the bikes, and then I was able to pick up some mail that was sent ahead for me.  (Big thank you to Clara and Richard for receiving it for us!)  After that I was able to get some spares at the BMW shop, which completed my big tasks, so we all headed out for a ride along the Panama Canal as tourists.  That was fun, and we stopped at the Miraflores locks and watched ships lock through, as browsed the museum.  Amazing watching that much steel rise 8 meters in about 10 minutes.  But even more amazing is looking up through the Culebra Cut, where they had to dig down through about 300 feet of hills at the Continental Divide to make the canal.  Hard to imagine how they did that with steam power back then, but those machines could really move some dirt.

When we first came into Panama City, and rolled across the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the Pacific entrance to the canal, it felt as though a big chapter was closing, and a new one just beginning.  It was a little hard to grasp that we had come through 8 countries over the course of 7 months.  There have been times along the way that we’ve been very near to throwing in the towel, but we kept at it, and it feels like we’re over the hump now.  The hardest borders are past, and soon we will cross the big hurdle of the Darien Gap, where there are no roads between Colombia and Panama.  It’s either boat or plane, and we have chosen to fly.  It’s more expensive, but faster.  When you figure in hotel bills and taxi costs while waiting for the bike in a sea port, air made more sense to us.

And so where are we in this journey of ours?  For me, I’m both relieved and anxious.  Relieved at having made it to Panama City with bikes intact, where I could visit a BMW dealer and get plenty of spares that I had ordered ahead of time.  Relieved that my new registration and sticker, which was due to expire March 31, arrived with the help of friends both known and unknown.  Once DMV issued them, they were sent to our friend in Toledo who acts as our mailing address.  It then went to a forwarding service in Miami, at an address given by a volunteer here in Panama, a friend of someone we’d met in Guatemala.  The forwarding service then in turn sent them to a real estate office in downtown Panama City, where Clara held them for us.  Somehow everything arrived as promised, and I can cross the next border into Colombia with legal plates on the bike.

That mail is an example of how crucial web forums have proven to be on this trip.  As I mentioned above, ADVrider is a huge website with motorcyclists the world over, as is Horizons Unlimited.  A call for a Panama mailing address on these two sites yielded many volunteers, and in the end, our Guatemalan friend, who we met through ADVrider, volunteered his friend in Panama.  There was little thought of whether we could trust him, he was a fellow adventure rider, and so the mail was sent.

Tomorrow morning we take the bikes to the airfreight company for loading and inspection.  We’ve been told to expect drug-sniffing dogs and a thorough search, but nothing outrageous, as we’re heading south.  All our paperwork is in order, and so we’re hoping for a smooth operation.  The bikes actually fly on Wednesday via ServiCarga and DHL.  We fly on a separate plane, via Viva Colombia Airline.  If all goes well, we pick up our bikes Thursday morning, and we already have an Airbnb booked, along with Peter and Ondrej, for a few days in Bogota, allowing us to see the city.  It’s up at about 8,600 feet, so we have another layer ready to put on once we arrive.

That about wraps it up for this continent.


But wait...there's more...

Photos through the Panama are HERE. We'll add the photos showing the bike airfreight process in the next blog post.

Way back in November, Jalene jotted down the top 10 things she'd learned thus far. As she sussed out each one, they evolved and expanded and, no doubt, there's plenty of learning yet to come. Check out Travel Lesson 10 of 10: Fear. 

Thanks to Ondrej Snasel for hand-holding his GoPro so we could all do a ride by on the Pan-American Highway in Panama.