We have been in Panama a week and the bikes are already on their way to South America.
Panama City is surprisingly modern but you still know you are in Central America. Fancy shopping malls and shiny skyscrapers contrast with traffic chaos, hawkers on street corners and an army of police and security guards.
The modern skyline of Panama City.
There is lots to keep us occupied here, lots to plan and time to catch up on all those things we haven’t done for the last few weeks. Yes the postcards are on their way!!
The border crossing from Costa Rica into Panama was one of the easiest so far and one of the cheapest. Leaving Costa Rica cost 200 cordobas and entering Panama cost U$1 for immigration and U$4 for each bike. I am sure we should have driven through the fumigation tunnels and paid accordingly, but it was raining so hard, no one was venturing out from their offices unless they absolutely had to. There was one moment when we thought we were going to have to camp out at the border. The travellers in front of us, in the immigration queue, told us that they were asked for an onward ticket and not having one were told to go and buy a return bus ticket to San José. When we were asked the same question, we said we were travelling by motorcycle and pointed to the bikes behind us. Without further ado, we were stamped in and pointed along to customs. Phew!! One of the customs guys noticed we were carrying a few spare tyres and made sure they were entered into the paperwork, then had a look in our panniers before we were able to leave.
Waiting for the rain to stop at the border to Panama.
Not that we were in much of a hurry, the rain was still lashing down with a vengeance. We did eventually leave the shelter of the border and headed toward David on a 2 lane highway, in search of a camping spot by a waterfall, mentioned in a well known guidebook. None of the locals had heard of it, however, and so we ended up camping wild, our first night in Panama.
Boquete was a nice town in the hills above David, where we spent a night, it was windy though and threatened to rain every evening, so we were soon on our way again. We rode to Santa Clara in one long day. The countryside was very dry and in many places scorches where fires had been burning. On one stretch of road, the vehicles coming towards us started flashing their headlights and hazardlights, so we prepared ourselves for the usual carnage of a road accident. This time however the delay was a demonstration. The demonstrators took up one side of the road and slowed the traffic down so their point could be made.
A demonstration slows down the traffic.
At Santa Clara, we met Guido and Sabine, who are travelling in a VW van. Georg had travelled with them previously and they had lots of gossip to catch up on.
After a few days at the beach, it was time to go to Panama City, meet the shipping agent and part with some money. We also had to decide where we wanted to ship the bikes to. The price was the same to either Ecuador, Peru or Chile, in the end we decided on Chile. We really want to visit Patagonia and preferably before it gets too cold, this way we could be there by the end of February, then ride leisurely back up away from the cold weather.
The bikes are going by sea, and because the ship is a roll-on roll-off ferry, we don’t have to worry about making crates, draining the petrol and oil etc. It takes a little longer than by air but is about half the price.
Outside the police station in Panama City, our bikes about to be inspected.
We had a few days before we had to take the bikes to the port, so we did the touristy sights; Miraflores Locks, the causeway, the parks. In fact we actually camped for almost a week in the Parque Natural Metropolitano. A lovely spot to the north of town, lots of wildlife and friendly rangers, a great place if you have your own transport.
A container ship, in one of the locks at Miraflores.
By the time we had to take the bikes to the port (in Colon - OooErr), we had quite a group together. Joining Georg, Guido, Sabine, Arno and I, were Yukiko - a Japanese woman on a Suzuki 250, and Mauricio - a Chilean who had ridden his bike down from Toronto. It was a regular convoy heading down the autopista to Colon, talk about attracting attention! It took almost all day to sort out the customs paperwork and then the port paperwork, we had to actually go into Colon to the customs office, just inside the Zona Libre. However we had an escort, in the shape of a gate guard with a clapped out DT125 and a big gun, who was assigned to us until the customs papers were done. Our bikes were then checked out by the nose and 4 paws of the K9 drug unit and once pronounced clean, labelled with their destinations, while we filled out lots more paperwork. By the end of it all we were glad to see the back of Colon, and return to Panama City, even though it was by bus!!
We then had a week to see the rest of the city and do some relaxing before flying south to Chile.
Clean streets, orderly traffic and German beer in the supermarket – hard to believe we are in South America. Santiago was a little different than expected, a pleasant surprise really. We met up again with Guido and Sabine and also Yuki who had also decided to ship to Chile. We had a few days to kill before the bikes arrived and so explored the city before heading to the coast.
The town of Valparaiso was our destination, a good marketing campaign has ensured lots of visitors, but the only attraction seemed to be the ancient ascensores, funicular railways that connect the upper and lower parts of the town.
One of the ascensores dating from the early 1900’s that link the mostly residential upper town to the lower town.
There is no beach and most of the town is not particularly attractive, so, together with Yuki, we went to San Antonio, a little further along the coast, where our bikes were due to arrive. No tourists here, well apart from the crowds from Santiago, but lots of fish so we treated ourselves to a good fish lunch.
A day late, the ship arrived with our bikes. We went to the port with the agent from Broom and Sepp and Susi, a German couple who were shipping their huge green van with the same company. There we saw our bikes coming off the ship. They seemed at first sight to be ok and we were very pleased to see them.
San Antonio, with the ship in the background. Reunited with our bikes – the fun was yet to come.
On closer inspection however I saw that my pannier had a large dent and the whole thing was closer to the bike – it had been dropped at some point, heavily enough to dent the exhaust! Yuki was missing a few small things that were attached to the bike, nothing very valuable, just annoying to loose. We pointed all this out to the agent, who just shrugged his shoulders
The real fun came when we went to leave, only Arno's bike would start! The batteries on Yuki and my bike were flat. With the help of some port workers (not the agent who had done a disappearing act) we charged the batteries from Arno's bike, but still no use.
Trying to get Yuki’s bike to start.
Had to take out and clean the sparkplugs on both bikes before we could get going. Then we had to sort out the paperwork, for which we needed a form from the agent. A few calls were made by our new found friends at the port and the agent eventually returned. The paperwork was done and we were able to leave the port by late afternoon. It was easy doing it all ourselves, only cost us time. We heard later that the 3 riders that shipped to Peru had lots of problems getting their bikes and had to part with rather a lot of money.
So, the big question, would we recommend the roll-on roll-off ferry? For us, it was a good option. We didn’t have the hassle of building and transporting crates, it was cheap and it got us a good distance south. For 2 bikes it cost U$585 including all the paperwork. I don’t think we will use it to transport our bikes to Australia though. The ship takes around 3 months, plenty of time for someone to mess with the bikes!!
We spent the next day checking out the bikes. Arno finally got some welding done, my pannier was bent back into shape and we all did some re-packing.
Finally we had our bikes back and were ready to ride off and explore a new continent.
From San Antonio, we took the Pan Americana (Ruta 5) south, it’s a boring road that you have to pay for, but there is no real alternative if you want to get anywhere without zigzagging around like a demented insect.
We took it easy on our first day riding in a new country and decided to camp off the Pan Americana near Parral. After stopping there for provisions, we headed off the tarmac and up into the mountains on a good gravel road. While we were stopped at a junction to check the way, a jeep pulled up and the guys inside asked where we were going. One of them said he had a campsite up in the mountains and we could stay there for free, after a drink and a chat, we followed Marcelo and Alejandro up towards the village of La Balsa. The road was pretty rough but the views were good compensation.
After one photo stop the road was really stony and I hit a big rock which punctured my back tyre! We were still 8kms from the campsite but didn’t want to leave the bike so arranged to meet them at Alejandro’s place near the school, after we had repaired the tyre.
Repairing the puncture in the middle of no-where.
By the time the new tyre and tube were back on the bike, it was dark, we left the old tyre as a marker and rode on slowly towards La Balsa and our waiting friends. Surprisingly there were a lot of people around having a huge party and it was easy to find the way. Found the school but there was no sign of Alejandro and the revellers we asked couldn’t help. So onward, in the hope we could find the campsite.
Had to cross a rickety wooden bridge, after which the road turned uphill and was strewn with football sized rocks. Arno went ahead and blasted up, I almost made it but dumped the bike, Yuki and I were in the middle of picking up the bike when Arno came sprinting back down the hill with 5 guys hot on his heels. Arno had abandoned his bike outside the police station and ran back to see how I was doing and the police – being the suspicious sort - had followed.
The bike was soon upright and Arno took it up the hill, followed by Yuki. I followed on foot with the 5 policemen who bombarded me with questions, first finding out if I was ok, then the usual, who, where, how and why questions. After a while, Marcelo turned up and said we should come to the campsite, however, only now did he tell us that we would have to cross a river to get there. Arno went on foot to have a look and declared it too risky to attempt at night. The police also told us we should wait until morning.
We unpacked the bikes, left them in the care of the police and went in Marcelo’s jeep to Alejandro’s place. By now it was past midnight but beds were found for us, a meal cooked and we were made to feel really welcome.
The next day we walked back to the police station and onto the campsite. Decided to give the river crossing a miss, although the campsite was in such a wonderful place. Went to reclaim our bikes, exchanged souvenirs and thanked the police for their help, then rode the bikes back to Alejandros.
Arno riding near the village of La Balsa
After another night in the mountains, we reluctantly headed back to Ruta 5 and towards Puerto .Montt where we were due to take the ferry through the fjords to Puerto Natales.
We made a short detour into the Lake District where we camped by Lago Villarica for a couple of days then onto Puerto Montt. Found a great place to stay in a hospedaje where there was ample parking and we could also do our oil changes. We had a few days before the ferry sailed, so had time to change our tyres, glad to see them on our wheels and no longer strapped on the back of the bikes. Also did a couple of day trips, the best being a ride around Lago Llanquihue, and to Lago Todos Los Santos, both lakes having volcanoes looming over them, the snow capped Osorno Volcano most impressive with its perfect cone
Lago Llanquihue and Volcan Osorno
The road, for some stretches dirt, followed the lake winding up and around, giving some wonderful views of the lake and the volcanoes, great fun.
Sailing on the same ferry, were Asher on a BMW F650 and a German couple driving an Iveco truck that resembled a security van, so we could talk petrol as well as look at the spectacular scenery from a comfy chair in the warm. The ferry took an unexpected detour to one of the glaciers in a fjord and we got to spend a few hours watching big chunks break off and float away.
First view of one of the many glaciers in Patagonia
When we arrived in Puerto Natales, were a little non-plussed to find we had to go to customs!! Here they stamped our temporary importation paper, then we could leave, weird!!
The sun was shining the next day so we decided to head south towards the end of the world, Ushuaia.
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