August 30, 2011 GMT
Panama (North)

Panama twists itself through 90° compared to its neighbours to the north and south so that if your travelling south through Central America you have to travel east in Panama and if your heading north then you have to travel west. Contrary to my expectations the well known shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Panama Canal runs north and south rather than east and west. I found this very confusing after travelling south for so long so decided to avoid looking at a compass and to ignore where the sun rose and set so that my brain could continue heading south when really it was travelling east.

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Volcan - Cerro Punto Road

In the hour or so I spent at the Rio Sereno border I was the only person crossing into Panama and there was just one colourfully dressed indigenous Indian couple crossing on foot coming the other way into Costa Rica. The short ride to Volcan was on an excellent road although like many in Central America, poorly signposted. The road did not appear on my traditional paper map or the GPS map which meant I had to ask for directions to find the road at the border post and again to locate a hostel once I had arrived.

It started to rain heavily shortly before arriving in Volcan, the rain persisted while I located a hostel a mile or so from town and got the bike unpacked and settled into my room. Then I was hungry, had no food and was waiting hoping the rain would ease up so that I could ride back into town but in the end I had to put the wet bike clothing back on and ride through the increasing downpour for supplies. I don’t mind too much if it starts to rain while I’m riding but I wasn’t keen on having to put damp clothing on to ride an already wet bike in heavy rain then dripping water onto the floor of a café then a supermarket. One of the joys of travelling in the wet season but at least it‘s not cold.

The following day the weather was fine and I rode north to the end of the road at Cerro Punta stopping on the way to clean my chain with what I hoped was kerosene but came in an unlabelled bottle. I tried several hardware stores asking for kerosene with the name written down in Spanish and English but they didn’t seem to know what it was although I have seen bottles of kerosene and know it is available. In the store where I eventually made my purchase I explained that kerosene was used as a fuel and a solvent which resulted in the production of the unlabelled bottle. Any number of other liquids can be used as a solvent and fuel and some of them rot the O rings on chains, I just hope that what I have is O ring friendly. Whilst on my knees in the dirt cleaning the chain a rider pulled up on a Honda African Twin to see if I had problems. This turned out to be John from the USA, now living in Panama City with a country retreat on the Volcan to Cerro Punta road. He invited me up to his place for coffee, a very nice house overlooking the river. We then went up to Cerro Punta for lunch together.

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Parked In The Centre Of David Runway!

Another day I took a ride to Lagunas de Volcán, three interconnected lakes a short distance from town. It was a tarmac road until it intersected with a runway, no warning signs and no barriers. For the first time in my life I checked left, checked right and then checked above before venturing ahead. The road on the other side of the runway was dirt with plenty of mud and seriously deep pools of water which had my severely worn tyres struggling for grip while I tried to stay upright and keep my feet dry. The ‘wetland habitat’ around the lakes was exceptionally wet including the footpaths so I was unable to do any walking but I was pleased to slither myself and the bike back to the runway without getting my feet wet.

I used the Rio Sereno border crossing to avoid Paso Canoas on the Pan Americana Highway which has a reputation of being worse than most of the other slow, frustrating and confusing Central American border crossings. In addition the Rio Sereno crossing would lead to a new road from Cuestra de Piedra to Dolega which has been compared favourably with the “Tail Of The Dragon”, one of the best and most famous roads in the USA.

I got instructions on how to find the new road as it wasn’t on my paper map or GPS, “Head south from Volcan towards the Pan Americana Highway, turn left when you get to a large transmission mast on the right hand side of the road onto the new road then always follow the yellow centre of the road markings”. There were a number of unmarked junctions on the road but the new tarmac and the yellow lane markings led to Dolega. I’m not going to attempt a comparison with the ‘Tail Of The Dragon’ road in North Carolina which I rode several times when I was there in May 2009, two months into this trip but smooth cambered tarmac twisting its way down the mountains with virtually no traffic and great scenery makes it a road well worth seeking out.

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David Central Park

In the hot and sticky city of David (pronounced Daveed) on the Pan Americana Highway I spent two sweaty days walking to all the tyre and motorcycle shops I could find looking for new tyres without success. I had intended to wait until I got to Panama City to look for tyres but sometimes it is easier to find what your looking for in a smaller town that is simpler to navigate your way around, unfortunately that wasn’t the case this time. The $10 (£6.66) per night hostel I was staying in had a swimming pool which was great for cooling off after the failed tyre hunting expeditions.

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My David Home

I met Jeff in the David hostel, he had bought a 90cc bike in Mexico to travel around Central America and planned on returning to Mexico to sell the bike at the end of his trip. He had lost the vehicle documentation which made complicated border crossings even more complicated although so far he has always been allowed to continue. Going against normal convention he had a local welder construct a luggage rack that hung over two feet (615mm) behind the bike and he carried ten litres of fuel behind his luggage at the end of the rack. I guess the rack or frame hasn’t broken yet as he sticks to paved roads and slows to a walking pace going over the numerous severe speed bumps.

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Jeff With His 90cc Bike With Homemade Rack Sticking Two Feet Behind Bike

After a few days in David I was keen to get back to the mountains and headed for Boquete which is listed as the fifth best place to retire to in the world according to a website I stumbled across. Fearing that it was going to be full of geriatrics I was even more concerned when I found that most of the retirees I met were around my age and that I fitted in rather well! I got into a routine of meeting up with a group of retirees from the States, Switzerland and Denmark for coffee in a cafe overlooking the central park where we sat watching life go by and telling each other what is wrong with the world we live in today.

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Boquete Central Park

I met Rudy who had lived and worked in the USA before opting for the good life, moving to Panama and buying a coffee plantation in the hills outside Boquete. He had three motorcycles, a Harley Davidson, a BMW and a 400cc Enduro so I asked him where he got his tyres. He made a phone call to a bike shop in David, no doubt the only one I failed to find and they had tyres in stock, Pirelli MT-60s which I haven’t used before. They were cheaper than I could find on the internet which was a pleasant surprise as I expected to pay a Central American premium for import duty. The supplier even apologised that I would have to pay $4.28 delivery to have them sent to Boquete! Having gone to the bank and transferred the money into his account I nervously waited for the delivery scheduled for noon the next day. I was thinking that the tyres may not arrive and that my money would be lost but they were duly delivered half an hour early. The local tyre shop would change the tyres for $2 each if I removed and refitted the wheels and there is no way I’m going change tyres myself if I can pay someone else $2 a time. There was a bit of a problem, after I refitted the wheels and put the bike back on the side stand the front tyre was flat. The tyre fitter had nipped the tube so I had to remove and refit the wheel a second time and use my spare tube.

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Boquete Central Park In The Rain

Boquete is renowned for its high quality coffee and has achieved the highest price paid for coffee anywhere in the world for the last six years. At the last harvest a Japanese business paid the wholesale price of $170.20 (£112.00) per pound to one of Boquetes’ coffee growers. I have been paying 55 cents a cup for decent coffee in ’my’ café and wonder if I would be able to taste the difference if I had some of the really good stuff.

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Coffee Plant

There are a number of scenic loop roads climbing further up the valley from Boquete. Some of these climb high enough to feel the temperature drop but it never got really cold. The loop roads pass numerous coffee plantations, the occasional small village and one follows the river back into Boquete via a large waterfall. The wet season continued to be reasonably predictive being dry most mornings allowing me to explore the surrounding area by motorbike and then spend the wet afternoons drinking coffee. Initially the rain fell as short showers but as time went on the rainfall became more persistent changing the water in the fast flowing Caldera River from clear to almost black as floodwater washed soil from the fields.

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Boquete Waterfall

‘Mi Jardin Es Tu Jardin’ (My Garden Is Your Garden) is the private garden of a 99 year old Italian who allows visitors to stroll around among the ornamental koi carp ponds, sculptures and as always in Panama, colouful flowers and plants.

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Mi Jardin Es Tu Jardin (My Garden Is Your Garden)

The ecological Lost and Found hostel towers over the David to Bocas del Toro road and is reached by climbing up a long, steep rocky footpath. Vehicles have to be left at the bottom of the hill by the roadside or the family running the fruit and vegetable stall will offer secure parking. Most visitors, myself included are panting for breath and in need of liquid refreshment by the time they have carried their luggage up to the hostel. The thing that staggered me was that all the supplies including furniture for the hostel and before that all the building materials to build it were hauled by hand up this steep path. Gabriel who now works at the hostel was a labourer working for the building contractor when the hostel was being built. He hauled bags of cement up the path two at a time for 60c per bag, a feat I cannot begin to comprehend.

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My Lost And Found Hostel Dining Room

On a day trip to the Caribbean coast I rode over the continental divide, swept down to the Fortuna dam and on to the small town of Almirante in overcast but dry conditions. I intended to have an early lunch, pick up some groceries then return the way I had come but once a few drops of rain fell I cut my visit short, donned my wet weather oversuit and headed back the way I came hoping to get a few miles in before the rain got worse. The rain increased quickly, and I was caught completely by surprise when a 10 foot long bushy branch with a stem of 2” diameter fell from an overhanging tree directly in front of the bike, there was no time to take avoiding action and I rode over the centre of it, fortunately without problem. After many years of motorcycling I think I now ride defensively instinctively (always assume every other road user is trying to kill you) but there was nothing I could have done to avoid the falling branch even if it had been large enough to bring me off. The wind wasn’t noticeable up till this point, still at sea level but it became more pronounced as I climbed back into the mountains. By this time the rain was torrential and it was difficult to keep my visor and glasses clear of water. I counted a total of twelve trees that had fallen into the road that hadn‘t been there on my outward trip. One blocked all but a narrow, motorcycle width section of road while others left plenty of space to navigate around. I suspect the trees were partially washed down the steep hillside by floodwater with the wind helping them on their way as the rain and flood water were exceptionally impressive while the wind was blowing fairly strongly but nothing out of the ordinary and nothing like hurricane Irene that struck the Caribbean and the USA a few days previously.

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Almirante On The Caribbean Coast

By the time I got back to the hostel I was soaked, my ’waterproof’ oversuit and boots have seen a lot of service by now but I don’t think any clothing would have stood up to the 2.5+ hours of heavy tropical storm I had ridden through. Yet more of the joys of travelling in the wet season!

Posted by at 04:37 PM GMT

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