December 15, 2002 GMT
Nicaragua-Quito: Finishing up North America (for now)

Although it was hard to leave Nicaragua so soon, James and I felt the pressure of the onset of winter in Patagonia already, despite the heat and humidity. It would be OK there until March, but we had a LONG way to go! So it was time to pick up the pace a bit and many interesting spots in Nicaragua were placed on each of our "to do on the way back" lists. This list would soon swell in each country we passed through.

Crossing from Nicaragua into Costa Rica was a painfully time-consuming process, and without the help of a tramitador it would have been nearly impossible. At this point there were four of us: Sylvain and Pierre from Quebec City, and James and I. Four jaws dropped as we rolled up to the border and saw the horribly long, non-moving lines for both migracion and customs. As luck would have it, the tramitador we hired was a smart, likeable kid who seemed to be everybody's best friend, and his clients as a result got preferential treatment from the uniformed officials. He stepped up to the front of each line with our papers, and when others would complain the official simply told them to pipe down and wait their turn. His streamlined process included shortcuts through holes in chainlink fences to bypass lines and control points. For the customs line a fee of $5 was collected which was the cut-in-line charge. We were all happy to fork it over rather than wait three more hours. Despite the help of our tramitador who had mastered networking in his profession, the crossing took a hot, sweaty five hours.

Immediately there was a noticable change upon crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The poverty looked much less severe, things were much more clean and orderly, and environmental destruction seemed to be less widespread, even in the cattle-ranching country of the north. The roads, however, got worse. I am not sure why this is the case, but Costa Rican roads have more holes than a Swiss cheese.


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New friends Sylvain and Pierre from Quebec



At the town of Liberia we parted ways with Sylvain and Pierre, and headed toward the Pacific coast on the Nicoya Peninsula. The road gradually deteriorated more and more as we got farther away from the Panamerican highway. We passed through the slightly arid grasslands and woodlands, until finally the bumpy, potholed dirt road emptied us out on a fantastic white-sand beach, Playa Junquillal. Aside from a few seemingly permanent foreign residents, the place was devoid of any signs of tourism, and the palm-lined beach was empty except for a handful of fishermen. Big, rolling, pipeline surf beckoned us to stay and boogieboard for a while. We didn't, though. I regret it a bit now as it was one of the nicest of all the beaches, but we had such a limited time in Costa Rica we felt we had to keep going. It was great fun riding the challenging tracks of the Nicoya Peninsula with our loaded bikes. Although the tracks were rutted, loose or otherwise in abysmal shape, the main challenges were the numerous water crossings, some of which were deep and swift streams. The horrible roads seem to have kept the place relatively isolated. We passed countless beaches without any hotels or anything built up on them, only a few fisherman and some surfers catching waves here and there. It is a fun area with some nice towns, many streams with waterfalls and swimming holes surrounded by tropical vegetation. Great fun!


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Wah...



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hoo! Costa Rica



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Deserted beach, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica



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Water crossing, somewhere in the Nicoya Peninsula


Based on negative reports from others, we passed by Jaco, and decided to spend the remainder of our "allotted" time in the Osa Peninsula, near the Panamanian border. No southbound traveller interested in nature and wildlife should miss this area. We based ourselves out of Puerto Jimenez, and went for a three-day trek in Corcovado National Park. I could spent a week in Corcovado National Park alone. Never have I seen such a beautiful beach lined with palm trees in pristine condition. The hike was mostly along the beach, which meant I had jungle sounds coming in the right ear, and the sound of the ocean into the left ear. We saw lots of scarlet macaws, toucans, monkeys, all kinds of cool stuff which is relatively common in the area. People sometimes see tapirs, jaguarundis, jaguars, and sloths but we were not so lucky. At one point in the hike in, I stopped to have a look at a pair of scarlet macaws that were sitting in a tree, and got right beneath one to try to get a closer look at the bright yellow and blue plumage on his underside, and maybe get a good photo. All of a sudden as I was pulling out my camera, I felt something hit the top of my head. My first thought was that this cheeky bird had deposited a big dollop of shit on the top of my head. Carefully I reached up to inspect the damage but it was just a piece of a fruit that he was tearing to pieces. What made it better was that the other one was making "haaw, haaw, haaw" sounds. He was laughing at my expense! And I didn't manage to get a good photo of the pair before they hid themselves in the leaves. No, I didn't feel picked on, it was a great encounter with one of the most beautiful birds on earth.

The timing of the hike was crucial, because we had to cross some estuaries. When the tide is coming in you can see the bull sharks (responsible for many shark attacks) swimming up the shallow, murky rivers searching for prey. Not the best time to cross. I'm sure they would've loved to dig into my bare, fleshy legs, and so they got our respect and our arrival at the Puesto, or camp area, of Sirena was timed according to tidal activity.

A group of female Swedish biologists was at the Sirena puesto, a few nice specimens among them. This of course sparked my interest a bit, but they were much more interested in hermit crabs' mating habits than a couple of motorcycle travellers with backpacks. Ah well. We spent the firefly-lit evening in the Sirena puesto with a group of much less aloof Americans and played cards. Wonderful place, despite the incessant rain.



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Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica



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The trek to Sirena



Our first run-in with police came in Panama on our rushed race for Panama City. James was leading and I was about 50 meters behind, on a good, fast road. Coming into a straightaway, James passed a slow-moving truck, and immediately a policeman who had been lurking behind a tree emerged, energetically blowing his whistle and waving his arms for James to pull over. James just blasted right by. Because I was following, I was motioned to pull over, and rather than have the guy radio ahead and have the entire road be crawling with cops looking for us, I stopped. Evidently, the cop had dollar signs flash before his eyes as James passed, so he held my licence and passport hostage until James slowly puttered back to the scene of the crime. The cop started bellowing about how a pass in front of a policeman is illegal, no matter that the centerline was dashed, no matter that it was below the speed limit. He was the embodiment of the law, he explained, and must not be disrespected by passing a vehicle in front of him. That is an INFRACCION! The fine was $20, payable on the spot, of course. We argued for a while, and not seeing the problem, we suggested we go to the police station and have a word with the police chief about this, and maybe get shown exactly where in the Panamanian law it talks about vehicular disrespect to transit police. And suddenly, the ticket book was put away, and we were waved on our way, no fine or anything. Nice try though, fellas!

Because of brewing troubles in Venezuela, rumors of ghastly expenses for customs, and hints that the Venezuelan gasoline supply would soon be cut off, we opted for Quito as a shipping destination from Panama to get around the Darien Gap and Colombia. Ecuadorian customs makes it very difficult to bring in a vehicle without a carnet, se we were hoping for assistance from Ricardo Rocco, who as a representative of the Ecuadorian Motorcycle Federation gives a sort of "sponsorship", which eases customs clearance tremendously. He had e-mailed me that he was leaving on a trip of his own on Tuesday, December 17th, and because we didn't want to trouble him the day before his trip, we passed right through Panama City en route to the airport at Tocumen in search of a shipper for the bikes.

We settled on the company Panavia, trusting the bikes to a messy yard, flimsy pallettes, and stone-age airplanes. Our flight was the next night, on Thursday. We passed the day wandering around the bustling hot city, and had a look at the passing ships at the Miraflores locks. I was slightly disappointed because the visiting area was a small tourist trap with lots of package and cruise ship tourists, and usually this sort of attraction with visitor center makes me want to run fast the other direction. Although I know the place is restricted for security reasons, I would have liked to have a closer look at the lock gates and maybe inspect some of the massive systems to move water from lock to lock. But we had to settle on watching ships pass and be lowered and raised, from a safe distance surrounded by a confining fence. Because of the significance of the canal in the world, and the depence of Panama's history on it, the canal was well worth a visit, even though it was underwhelming for me.

Later that night, James, Koji, and I arrived safely in Quito, Ecuador. This is country number eight of the trip and continent number seven for me. The next morning, the struggle at customs began in earnest. We met up again with Sylvain and Pierre, who coincidentally shipped their bikes on the same flight. We spent a good amount of time searching for the right offices, and finally left everything in the hands of a customs agent to help us through. At 4:30, as things were shutting down, the last required signature was obtained and the bikes rolled out of the customs yard, only very slightly damaged. Phew! We and the bikes were in South America, legally, and the continent was now open to us! Without Ricardo's help they would have turned us back, so a big thanks to him for going out of his way to make sure we all entered Ecuador smoothly.

After our arrival in Quito, it came to my attention that we had just barely crossed the equator on the plane ride down, and at the airport we were 15 miles into the southern hemisphere. It was decided that we absolutely HAD to roll the bikes across the equator, and thus we would "do" the southern hemisphere properly. And so north we rode, to the "Mitad del Mundo" monument. Indeed, just as it's shown on most globes, there is a solid yellow line marking the the middle of the earth, and a grandiose, globus-crowned cinderblock monument marking this imaginary line. The problem is that this grandios, globus-crowned cinderblock monument marking this imaginary line is about 150 meters off the real equator, as established by GPS. True 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds goes through the backyard of a family near the monument that seems to have capitalised on the recent discovery of the error, and they have set up a small museum. Along with a few ho-hum cultural exhibits, there was a demonstration of the Coriolis effect using a tub with a drain at the bottom. This was filled with water and allowed to drain a few feet into both the hemispheres. Sure enough, as expected, the effect was visible. I was a bit sceptical, however, that a few feet could really make a difference, and would have liked to investigate the funny-looking, channelised tub some more.


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James, Arne, Koji. Equator monument, Ecuador


We have some time in Quito, now, as our KLRs are being worked on for five days at the good Kawasaki shop in Quito. It is only too bad that the rainy season is well under way, and it is quite cold. It feels as if the equator temporarily made a dip a few thousand miles to the south, placing us firmly in the wintry northern hemisphere again. This is a good place to stop this entry, and will pick up the stroy again with the adventures in South America.


Posted by Arne Bomblies at 09:38 PM GMT
 



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