Guatemala was calling, we just had to decide which way to get there. Through Yucatan and Belize, back towards San Cristobal or the loop, along the Guatemalan border past Bonampak, Yaxchilan and the Montebello Lakes. We decided on the road less travelled and take the loop. According the guide books, the road hasn’t been paved all that long so it sounded a bit more adventurous. Ruth and Merv decided to come with us, the Belize option being an expensive one.
First, however, we wanted to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque, the town itself is largely unmemorable, the only good thing about it was we stayed in a hotel with excellent parking and a pool!! All for 50 pesos each a night. Normally the only pools we get are on the bathroom floor, just a pity it was too cold to take advantage and go for a swim.
The ruins at Palenque were as spectacular as I remembered ,the sheer size of the site and the jungle setting making it so memorable.
The next day we left our posh hotel and headed towards Bonampak. No sooner had we left the main road from Palenque, the rain began, at first just a light drizzle but then full on, we were glad we were taking the paved road and not some of the muddy tracks that branched off. We reached Bonampak in about 3 hours, parked the bikes and were taken by the local Lancandonian Indians to the ruins.
The rain actually stopped for the couple of hours we were looking round the ruins, which were worth the ride, but kept up for the rest of the day. Accommodation was a bit tricky to find, due to signs that pointed off to non – existent campsites or cabanas in the jungle. Tarmac turned to dirt (read mud) as the daylight threatened to disappear before we were safely off the road.
We found a place across an interestingly constructed bridge
that had wooden huts in the jungle for an ecological rather than economical price, but it was preferable to camping. As we lugged our stuff from the bikes, down the ever darker jungle paths the rain continued. I read that there were only an average of 3 rainy days in November in Mexico, I think we have had all Decembers rain too. Good news for those here this month then!!
We survived our night in the jungle, despite the spiders, mosquitoes and our own cooking. It wasn’t actually raining the next day, so we set off for the Lagos de Montebello, several beautiful lakes near the border, hardly visited and a great place to camp, walk and swim – ha, we should be so lucky!!
The road, was in the morning rather boring, only made a little more interesting by the military checkpoints about every 75kms. The same routine; stop, hand over passport and tourist card, chat politely until all details entered onto their forms then off we go with a smile and a wave. The afternoon brought much more interesting scenery and roads and less checkpoints, manned ones anyway. The hillsides were jungle and the road wound up and down through the mountains. At one point we were so high, and in cloud so thick, we couldn’t see more than 15m or so ahead.
Unfortunately this cloud followed us and discharged its rain as we entered the Montebello National Park. So, as we rode past, we could only just make out the lakes I had so wanted to see. There was no point staying by the lakes in the rain, so we rode straight on to Comitan and checked into a hotel with hot showers!! It would have been a great trip, but for the weather!!
An early morning start is the norm for border crossing days, however, with only 160 km’s to ride today and news from other travellers that the border at Ciudad Cuautémoc / La Mesilla is reasonably quick and painless we took it a little easier.
We almost missed the Mexican side, but got stamped out and received confirmation that we had exported our bikes. It was all very calm, with only a few people hanging around, and the odd bus coming from the direction of Guatemala. Odd, I thought, this being a Saturday too, I expected a little more to be happening.
We then rode the 4km’s to the Guatemalan side – a completely different story!! It was like Piccadilly Circus, there were so many people that we could hardly drive our bikes through. Helpful bystanders pointed out where we needed to go, first stop was the fumigator who sprayed our bikes for 18.60 Quetzals each. Of course we hadn’t got quetzals yet, so off to find the money changers, ah the “helpful bystanders” should have guessed!! After a bit of haggling we changed our pesos, paid the fumigator and then headed to immigration. Another stamp, a piece of yellow paper and 30 pesos lighter (good we didn’t change all of our pesos!) then it was the turn of customs. This took a little longer, photocopies of everything, forms filled out, data entered into a computer, into the bank next door to pay 46 Quetzales, then we were given a blue sticker for the bike and they wished us a nice stay in Guatemala.
I somehow don’t think that other borders are going to be as easy as this. After all the formalities were finished with, we chatted to Robert, a Spanish guy travelling on a Brazilian registered XT, who was coming into Mexico. Swapped information and our last pesos, then it was time to do some riding in our third country.
Our first volcano climb of the trip so far, hard work but worth it. No flowing lava or burning rocks, that was all happening on Volcan Fuego, out of bounds to climb, but visible from Antigua on clear nights. Volcan Pacaya is definitely active, we could see the clouds of steam erupting from the crater peak as we walked, but it is considered safe enough to allow tourists to visit.
It was a long walk up to the summit of the volcano, the guide kept stopping for short breaks, pointing out things of interest and ensuring that the group didn’t become too spread out. We had all heard the stories of the robbers who used to target groups of tourists and relieve them of all their money and cameras. Increased security has improved things here and the robbers seem to have moved on elsewhere. Our guide still carried a few good sized rocks in his jacket however, and there were a few uniformed lads with guns, just in case. We got to the steaming crater, that was the summit, as the sun was beginning to go down.
Sian holding her breath at the summit of Volcan Pacaya
After the obligatory photos and the odd lung full of sulphurous gas, we started the descent.
By the time we got half way down the volcano, the sun had set and the only light we had was from the moon and a couple of torches. We all stumbled ungracefully down to the waiting minibus, now very glad that we hadn’t ridden here. It was good to be able to sit and rest our aching legs while someone else fought with the night-time traffic. Day time riding was bad enough, the difference was noticeable immediately on crossing the border, no-one pays any attention to any of the rules and drives as fast as possible. I think only the lack of traffic prevents more major accidents of which we saw surprisingly few. However, I never saw one vehicle on the road that didn’t have a scratch, dent or broken light.
We had planned to learn Spanish in Todos Santos, but ended up in Antigua along with everyone else.
The Famous arch in Antigua, with yet another volcano as a backdrop
December is apparently a slow time for the language schools, so we were able to pick and choose – not easy with 60 or so to choose from. We decided to share a teacher to save a little money, it worked out well as we learnt the same things and were able to practice together. Diligent students that we were, we didn’t have too much time to take part in the laid on activities, we also had ‘bikey’ things to do.
We had been given the name of a local guy, Roberto, who rode a K100, we met up after class one day and went to the local café where the riders from Guatemala city hang out on the weekend. Swapped stories, speaking a mixture of English, Spanish and German, as it turns out that his wife is of German descent. He offered to let us use his place to do our oil changes and some routine bike maintenance, so the following Sunday we rode up the racetrack that links Antigua to Guatemala city to Roberto’s house, picking up some oil from the petrol station along the way. The oil change done in a few hours, Arno took the starter motor out, it has been making very strange noises since Mexico and he feels it is only a matter of time before it gives up the ghost. Of course I am just as keen to find a solution as guess who will be pushing Black Betty if the electric starter doesn’t?! Roberto offered to take the part into his work place and get one of the electrician’s to look at it. So after a lovely BBQ with him and his family, we left the BMW at his place and rode back down to Antigua on the XT.
Roberto looking on as Arno changes the oil
A couple of days later, we went back to Roberto’s, to re-fit the starter motor, which had been fixed. Arno was delighted and so was I, no more pushing the bike for me, or so I thought…..
We had arrived in Antigua on a Sunday afternoon, having ridden with Ruth & Merv from Huehuetenango, where we had spent our first, almost penniless, night in Guatemala. The ATM’s in town wouldn’t accept any of our proffered cards and it was pure luck that we found a bank just before it closed, where we could get cash advances on our Visa cards.
Parked by the famous arch, noses in the guide books, our search for accommodation was interrupted by Gustavo, who lived in a nearby village. He told us that he and his wife Leonore, had ridden their motorbike down to South America a couple of years ago. We swapped email addresses and agreed to meet up while we were in the city. We finally made it to their place one afternoon after class. They lived a lovely 45 minute ride from Antigua, the road winding through several villages and hundreds of fields that must have totally supplied the area with all its fruit and vegetable needs.
Their house had been built by Leonore’s father, who had at one time worked in Switzerland. It was the Guatemalan interpretation of a Swiss cottage, complete with sloping roof, balcony with flowers and inside a huge stone fireplace.
Us with Gustavo, Leonore and the bike they rode down to South America
It was a wonderful place and a wonderful afternoon as Gustavo & Leonore told us of their trip and also a little of their history. An added bonus for us was that we managed to speak Spanish almost the whole time – 2 weeks of lessons do make a difference! A shame we didn’t have more time, but our 2 weeks in Antigua were over and it was time to move on if we were to see more of Guatemala than just a classroom.
Our bikes were packed, we’d waved goodbye to our family and our final task in Antigua was to check email. Arno’s bike however had other ideas. The repaired starter motor, now refused to work!! While I was internetting, Arno was outside with pieces of BMW spread over the pavement, trying to fix it. He got it working, but we decided enough!! Time to replace the wretched thing. We rode into Guatemala City and were taken to the BMW dealership by a biker that we had asked directions from. We knew that they had the part in stock, we just had to speak to our contact and hand over the Visa card – Ouch!!
Arno taking the dodgy starter motor out for the very last time!
Arno put the shiny new starter motor into Black Betty in about 30 mins, on the forecourt outside the dealership. Alongside him, brand new cars, waiting for their owners to come pick them up and put the first dents into the bodywork. Another bike rider led us out of the city and by lunchtime we were finally on our way to Lake Atitlan.
It was nice to relax at the lake for awhile, no homework or classes to go to. We drove a little way around the lake, but were nervous about going too far.
Recently a European tourist had been killed when shots were fired at the minibus she was in. There was now quite a noticeable police presence, but we didn’t want to take any chances, so hung out at the very touristy Panajachel. In hindsight, it would have been more interesting to have stayed in Solola, high above the lake, less touristy and more happening, especially on market days.
We had to ride through Guatemala City yet again, to get to Coban. Despite trying to go around, we ended up in the middle again. People were really helpful and gave us good directions or told us to follow them, so we were soon on our way. Once we had left the crazy traffic of the main highway that led to the coast, the road up to Coban was great to ride. Nice scenery and a good road that twisted up through the mountains. The rain came to greet us for the first time since we had crossed the border, so we arrived in the town a little soggy. Found a nice Hospadaje, not yet in the guide books – always a bonus, that had parking for the bikes. The owner had a lorry and backed it out of his garage, so we could squeeze the bikes in front. The bikes were holding each other up almost, Arno had to lean his against the wall, no room for the side stand! At least we knew that they wouldn’t be going anywhere.
The bikes squashed into the garage
The next day the rain had stopped, and we headed out of town towards the junction that would take us towards Lanquín. The maps that we had, showed the road as being of the same standard as yesterday, i.e. tarmac. The road out of the next village was most definitely not tarmac. We turned back and asked directions, thinking we had missed a turn. No, we were pointed back to the dirt road, where an earth mover was busy doing its thing. I thought to myself, “ah, that’s ok, they are just digging up the road here, it will get better soon” After 10kms, I had to face the fact that the next 180kms were not going to be any better – in fact things got rather worse. The road was nice and wide, something to be thankful for as there was plenty of traffic, buses, pickups and lorries, but it was also nice and muddy thanks to yesterdays rain and it wasn’t long before the bikes and ourselves were plastered.
Plastered with mud, on a pretty good section of the road
We got to the Lanquín turnoff at around 10am, now clear that stopping off for a “quick look” at the caves was not really possible, we rode on. The road began to narrow as it climbed higher and by the time we got to a largish village I was finding it tough going. The usual one way system was in place, even here and we were directed around the houses and up a really steep stony road that would have been difficult in the dry. Now nice and slippery, I couldn’t make it. Arno having ridden ahead, and then seen a lorry, wheels spinning and sliding, came running back down the hill to ride the XT up for me, while I ran up the hill to look out for his bike. He made it up, no thanks to the chain, which jumped off at a crucial moment and the bus coming up behind him with no room to pass!! We had a break here and for the first time on the trip really, a group of people gathered around the bikes.
Ready to go again after our break
It was all good-natured and we practised our Spanish as we were asked all the usual questions plus a few more. Time was moving on and we had to get going, at the Sebol junction we headed for Frey, where there was tarmac, but only in the centre of town! The road then turned to gravel, but good solid gravel and we were able to speed along, much easier than trying to avoid the many pot holes. At 3pm, after 7 hours of riding dirt, we finally reached the junction at Modesto Menedez and tarmac. From there it was a rainy but smooth hours ride to Poptún, to the Finca where we stayed the night.
We hadn’t planned to go to Tikal, but so many people had said how good it was and we had met other people who had driven or ridden there without any problems, that we decided to ride up there and see what all the fuss was about.
We left Poptún and got to the park gate far too early. We wanted to get to the site in time for the sunset and be able to see the following days sunrise. This was possible on one days ticket but only after 3pm. Tried to convince the guard that we wouldn’t actually go into the ruins until after 3, but if they could let us in so we could pitch up our tent and have lunch…….. No chance!! Instead we rode back to El Cruce, by the lake, had an early lunch, then went and sat down by the lake. I crashed out and slept for 3 hours!!
Sian asleep by Lago Petén Itzá
Got back to the gate at 3pm on the dot, bought our tickets, then headed for the ruins. Left the bikes at the Jaguar Inn, where we were going to camp and went in to see the ruins. They truly were spectacular, bathed in the glow of the setting sun, tops of pyramids poking out of the jungle. After the sun had done its thing, we went to put up our tent and fell asleep to sounds of the jungle.
We got up the next morning around 5 and walked back to the ruins. Climbed a pyramid and waited for the sun to appear. It was really misty and as we waited the mist thickened instead of clearing and the sun stayed stubbornly hidden. It was very atmospheric though.
Tikal in the morning mist
After another few hours, wandering around the ancient city seeing lots of wildlife and not many tourists, it was time to ride back to the Finca near Poptún, where we were going to spend Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve, but before we could relax, we had to do some ‘bikey stuff’ The first task was to wash the bikes and get rid of the mud that was still baked on to most surfaces, that done, it was the turn of my chain. It had lengthened to such an extent it was jumping off at regular intervals. We wanted to get a few thousand more kilometres out of it, so decided to take out some links. I had a couple of chain connectors with me, so Arno took the chain off, gave it a good clean and oiling, then fitted it back on. It was only when he came to fit the chain connector did we find out it wasn’t the correct size, too big!!
After lots of swearing and forcing, we rode into Poptún to see if we could get another one. We weren’t really surprised when we couldn’t, it being late afternoon on Christmas Eve. Back at the Finca, we tried filing the holes a little bigger, also without much success. Luckily there happened to be a nice big bench drill in the workshop, so Arno used that to drill the holes just big enough to get the connectors through. Whew, with only 3 days left on our bike permits that could have become a tricky problem!
We did manage to relax a little more on Christmas Day, thankgoodness, spent a lot of time chatting with Mike & Sharon, swapping stories and infos. They are driving their Landrover around Central America for a few months and are searching out all those lovely dirt roads.
With Christmas over, it was time to leave Guatemala and head to Honduras. Ruth & Merv had done the border crossing 2 weeks ago or so at El Florido and we were headed for the same crossing, with a list of what we were prepared to pay. Honduran border officials are renowned for being the most ‘inexact’ in Central America. No one ever seems to pay the same fees, it has been reported as costing between U$20 and U$60 and taking between 2 hours and 3 days!!
We had spent the night in Chiquimula, less than an hours ride to the Guatemalan side of the border. Things went smoothly, we paid 10 Quetzales at migracion to leave and nothing for the bikes – they didn’t even remove the blue stickers. Rode the 30 metres to Honduras, arriving the same time as a bus full of Copán bound tourists. Now wishing we hadn’t lingered over breakfast, we had to queue for a good hour to pay our U$1 to get our passport stamped.
Waiting around, we noticed that there were oranges in little piles everywhere and every now and again, people would just help themselves. The mystery was solved when we looked across the road and saw the underside of a lorry staring back, the axles at a rather strange angle. On closer inspection it seems that the vehicle had toppled off the road and into the riverbed below, its cargo of loose oranges escaping for all to help themselves. As we started the customs process, another lorry arrived to pick up the ever diminishing pile of fruit, which was now being transferred into sacks by an army of workers.
The source of the border oranges
Customs or aduana is usually the tricky bit, it took awhile as our bikes were thoroughly inspected, the details noted and then laboriously typed up onto forms. Receipts for everything were written out and the amounts actually corresponded with the huge notice on the wall detailing the fees, and with what we were expecting to pay. It took about 2 hours and cost us each U$28, a border crossing to be recommended. Welcome to Honduras.
It was a 15 minute ride to the tiny town of Copan Ruinas, on a brand new tarmac road, still no signs though! We parked by the main square and cast about for accommodation. An American by the name of Jessie came over for a chat and invited us to his place for a beer, when we had settled in. A nice start to our visit.
The hotels mentioned in the book were not that appealing and so when a tout offered to show us somewhere, we followed. It had parking and hot water, so we booked in. Decided to see the ruins in the morning, so had a relaxing afternoon, then walked up the hill to visit Jesse. He had colourful house, full of Grateful Dead posters and an even more colourful history, which we enjoyed hearing about. Jenny his Honduran wife, was away visiting her family, but due back the next day, so we were invited for supper and to spend the night so we could meet her too.
The ruins of Copan were not that smashing, after the likes of Palenque and Tikal, although the carvings were splendid, we both felt it was overpriced. I suppose the Hondurans have to make the most out of their biggest attraction. I found it more of a shame however, that for most of the people visiting the ruins, this is all they get to see of the country, as they only make a quick trip over from Guatemala.
When we got back to our bikes, we were surprised to see another parked beside them, and with German plates. We waited for the rider to return and so met Georg, who has been on the road on his Africa Twin since May.
Another German bike in Honduras
Chatted over coffee in the café until we were kicked out as the park was closing, swapped email addresses and agreed to meet up later on the north coast. We then rode up the hill to Jesses place, squeezed our bikes into his garage and spent a very enjoyable evening with him and Jenny.
After a quick trip to Gracias, it was time to visit the coast and hang out at the beach for awhile, something we hadn't done since Los Angeles! Along the way we saw lots of stalls selling fireworks, so decided to stop and buy some as New Years Eve was just a few days away. In Guatemala, the stalls had much more selection and for some obscure reason sold apples and grapes as well. Here the fireworks were of the showy type instead of the louder explosive type that we had tried out at Christmas. We bought a string of crackers and packed them carefully away in the panniers.
How much of this can we squeeze into the panniers?
Omoa, a small village by the beach was our next destination.. We stayed at Rollis place, as he had plenty of room for the bikes and a nice area to camp. Here we met Robb, also heading south on his R100GS. We spent 3 lovely days here, recharging our batteries, with little to do but walk on the beach or read a book.
Arno relaxing for a change
The only minus points were the ferocious mossies that attacked constantly, our only respite being in the tent behind mossie nets.
We let off the firecrackers around midnight on New Years Eve, out on the street with everyone else. Kids had been lighting fireworks and bangers the whole day and I was surprised that there were any left, but plenty had been held in reserve for midnight.
With the New Year came rain, we postponed our departure by a day as the rain wouldn’t stop long enough for us to pack. We eventually left for Tela, drove in the rain for most of the way and booked into the first cheap hotel we found. It was at the bottom end of the pile, but had great parking. Arno came down with a severe case of food poisoning and spent a good amount of time in the toilet! We decided to leave ASAP, the crappy hotel room doing nothing to make him feel any better. After a visit to the chemist, I packed the bikes and by noon we were ready to ride to La Ceiba. Arno wasn’t really fit to ride a bike, but he managed and we only had to stop once for him to be sick. We found the hotel in La Ceiba easily enough, checked in and Arno slept for 24 hours, while it rained and rained.
If it rains anymore we’ll take the boat and leave the bikes!
We were supposed to leave the next day, but the rain didn’t let up, so took the time to catch up on email. Georg turned up after having completed his diving course out on the islands, and so the next day, despite the rain, we left the coast and headed inland. Drove all day, almost right across the country, in the rain until after we had passed the capital, Tegucigalpa. We had decided to cross the border at Las Manos, supposedly a lot quieter than those to the south and our last night in Honduras was spent in the tiny town of El Paraiso, where at last the sun shone!!
We made the usual early start the next day and got to the border early, it was very quiet and we signed ourselves and the bikes out of the country, changed our last Lempiras into Cordobas, all within an hour. Over to the Nicaraguan side, where we were immediately surrounded by moneychangers and tramitadors. Both were out of luck, as usual we did the whole thing ourselves. This time we had it a bit easier, an American couple had arrived about 10 minutes before us with their pickup and had employed a helper, so we just followed them around. They were done a little quicker than us, had the forms filled out correctly the first time, etc, but it wasn’t worth the U$5 they paid – in our opinion anyway.
This sign was tucked away behind all the trucks at the border, the road, was in fact much better than this one!!
For the record, we paid for immigration a whopping U$7, plus 10 cordobas each, making Nicaragua the most expensive country yet. For the bikes we paid 147 cordobas, which is about U$8. The bikes were inspected and we had to get all paperwork copied for the police, then after the time it takes Liverpool to beat Manchester United, we were off, Granada bound.
The road to Granada was easy and in good condition, the driving too was a lot less hazardous, so we took it easy and got to the hostel in the late afternoon. Parking was right at the back of the building, through the restaurant, bar, reception, laundry, toilets, rooms and into a leafy patio. For once we didn’t lock the bikes together – they weren't going anywhere without someone noticing!!
Through the restaurant to where we could park the bikes
Leaving was much easier.
Spent a couple of days looking around the city, it was a little too busy with tourists and consequently very expensive – by Nicaraguan standards anyway. We tried the local speciality “vigarron” from one of the booths in the park, fried pork skin served with coleslaw and yukka, on an enviromentally friendly banana leaf. Not bad, like pork scratchings on steroids. Another real treat was ice cream, reasonably priced here and great in the heat.
Leaving Granada, we rode towards Masaya Volcano. At a big junction we stopped at the side of the road to look at the map and were told to stop by the police there. Because I had come to a brief halt actually on the road before pulling onto the side, he took my driving licence to examine. He then wanted to talk to Arno and Georg, who, by asking for directions to Managua and being very polite, managed to get my papers back without parting with any money, while I stood and looked repentant on the side of the highway. At the entrance to the National Park where the volcano was located, we got more info and found we would need at least the whole morning to make the most of the $6 entry fee. Decided to wait until Costa Rica to go and see volcanoes and instead rode back past the policeman (that will confuse him!) and towards the border with Costa Rica. We took a quick detour to the beach, the Pacific side this time away from the rain. Took a dirt road from San Juan del Sur, along the coast to Playa Majagual, where you can camp by the beach for $1.
A peaceful sunset on the Pacific Coast
The evening started well with a lovely sunset and improved when the generator failed, so no loud music!! One drawback here in Central America, you can’t get away from the noise of TVs and radios. Even if you choose a nice quiet restaurant, the owners will turn on the TV or stereo especially for you!! So we spent a peaceful evening in front of a real fire, with only the sound of the waves and the insects to disturb us.
The following day, we were ready to face another border. We spent only 5 days in Nicaragua and I feel a little like those Japanese or American tourists who “do” Europe in 2 weeks. More time would have been great as the people are friendly and there is lots to see and do away from the tourist stop of Granada. If we are to see anything at all of Costa Rica however, and be in time to book our bikes onto the ferry to Peru, at the end of the month, we need to get a wiggle on.
The road took us along Lake Nicaragua and we got a good view of the volcanic island of Ometepe.
Lake Nicaragua and the island of Ometepe
It was a windy ride, the wind coming from off the lake and blowing us almost off the road in places. The border was huge, the biggest yet, no wooden shacks here! As we arrived, we were surrounded with a bigger than usual crowd of money changers, tramitadors and hawkers. Ignoring them as usual, we tried to work out where to go and what to do. We took advice from someone in uniform (not always a good idea) and had documents copied, which we never needed, and paid a 14 cordobas “special payment” to enter the customs area. We had been warned about this little scam, but still fell for it! Had to fork out U$2 to leave Nicaragua, at immigration, had to pay in dollars too as they didn’t take anything else, but didn’t pay anything for the bike, just had to get the paperwork stamped by the right person.
Over on the Costa Rican side, things were at first glance much the same, but cleaner. The differences soon became apparent and started with the buses lined up to take people towards San José. No second hand school buses from the USA here, luxury coaches were the norm. The immigration building was huge, complete with café and air conditioning.
Didn’t have to pay a cent to enter the country, we also didn’t pay to have our bikes fumigated (although I’m sure we should have). The only sting in the tail was the compulsory insurance, 4 months costing 5190 colones – about U$14. Had to wait awhile for the customs officer to come back from her lunch, so she could type all the details into a computer, then we were finished and ready for the Costa Rican roads. And yes, they are as bad as everyone says. Most countries so far, have at least attempted to make a good impression with their roads, at least for the first 5 or 10 km’s. Not so here, in the so-called Switzerland of Central America.
The main route through the country, the Pan Americana in fact, was paved, well in a sort of patchwork fashion, that didn’t quite cover the huge potholes that dotted the road like a bad rash. There were also numerous police check-points, at some of which we were stopped and our papers checked. It was a relief to turn off the main highway, away from the traffic, the checks and the terrible surface, onto the road towards Tilarán and Lake Arenal. The road was narrower, but in better condition and not so windy as the highway to San José. The views were also more spectacular, especially as we got close to the lake, and to the village of Nuevo Arenal, where we hoped to spend the night.
We had missed out of the volcanoes of El Salvador and Nicaragua and hoped to make up for it here in Costa Rica, home to some of the most accessible and the most active volcano in Central America.
Our first meal in Costa Rica was goulash with dumplings, and Arno spent the morning making apple strudel and croissants. We had spent the night with Tom and Ellen a German couple who run a bakery and provide accommodation in the village of Nuevo Arenal. For the ride around the lake to La Fortuna, we were joined by Steve, a Canadian who had seen our bikes parked outside the bakery. It was raining as we left and the lake was shrouded in mist and cloud, the volcano hidden completely – not a good sign.
The road once again took a lot of concentration, narrow, half paved with huge potholes, it wound along the lake towards the volcano that was hiding in the clouds. Arno and Steve rode ahead to try and reclaim a tyre, that Steve had that morning left at a bike shop, fed up with carrying it around. Georg and I took it a little easier, stopping to take photos of the lake and the Volcano Arenal, which was clear for a good 10 minutes, just as we rode past.
A brief glimpse of the active volcano from afar.
Met up with the others again, with the tyre and rode towards San José. No point staying to view a volcano when it is covered in cloud! The weather gradually improved as we rode over the mountains, the roads too! Driving into San José was easy too, a 4 lane highway almost to the centre of the city. Stayed at Gaudys Hostel, a new place where we could squeeze the bikes in behind the security gate.
This space is great for 2 bikes, 4 was a bit of a squash.
Arno and Georg spent the next day hunting down a good tyre deal, a place to change oil and looking for stickers for the bikes. We are collecting them for each country and are surprised sometimes how difficult they are to find. In Nicaragua the search was fruitless, so one country is already missing!! In the evening, they provided the entertainment for the neighbours by changing my chain and sprockets out on the pavement in front of the hostel.
Heading out of San José we got caught up in traffic heading out to a Fiesta in Palmares, once past that town it wasn’t long before we reached the turnoff to Monteverde and Santa Elena. The road was tarmac for the first 20kms or so, then dirt, my new chain is going to love this!! Once again I battled, and one steep dusty corner defeated me. The views almost made up for it though, we could see all the way to the coast as the sun started to go down.
We had come up the mountain to see cloud forest and instead of trudging through the mud in the reserves, decided to do the Sky Walk. A series of suspension bridges link a trail through cloud forest, taking you up to canopy level.
One of the suspension bridges in the cloud forest
It was fun to do, and we saw a little wildlife as well.
We took a different road down from Santa Elena, not so demanding and by mid morning we were on the Tempisque ferry, heading for the Nicoya Peninsula and the beach. Playa Junqillal was at the end of another dirt road, and so more peaceful than the likes of Playa Tamarindo or Coco. We camped almost right on the beach, under the palm trees away from it all with only the wildlife to amuse us.
This large stick insect, together with a variety of crabs and a scorpion inspected our cooking kit.
Spent a couple of nights here until it was time to return to San José to collect the tyres that we had ordered. We had hoped to detour up into the mountains to see the volcano, but we could see from the highway, that the mountains were covered in black clouds and it even rained lightly as we rode into the city. Are we never going to see a volcano!
Back to the hostel where our bikes were safe and we could use the internet for free. The tyres hadn't arrived, manaña we were told, but Georg managed to find us stickers! We even managed to meet up with Merv and Ruth who were in town again together with visiting relatives
We picked up the tyres early the next morning and, having given up on the idea of seeing Arenal Volcano, rode up to Volcano Poás. Here our luck was in, the cloud wasn’t yet covering the crater and we got a great view of the acid lake and plumes of sulphur steam.
At last we get to pose in front of an active volcano.
Eventually the clouds rolled in and the crater was lost once more in the mist. It was time for us to get going too, back for the last time through San José and towards Panama. We camped wild, after Cartago in the mountains just off the highway and the next day rode over a 3400m pass and then down into the steamy lowlands to the border with Panama.
We hadn't eaten chicken the whole time we had been in Costa Rica, but we didn’t escape from it completely. An indecisive bird crossed the road in front of me, changed its mind when it saw my bike bearing down on it, flew upwards and hit my knee, feathers flew and it flapped in the road awhile, while Georg and Arno swerved around it, before it ran back from whence it came! A memorable end to our time in Costa Rica. A country that for us, didn’t turn out as expensive as we had feared, by cooking ourselves most of the time and camping wild where possible, we spent less than U$16 a day each. A sum that included buying tyres, brake pads for the XT and insurance at the border.
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.
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