October 07, 2006 GMT
Last stop in Costa Rica

I'm getting a little out of order here, but I wanted to finish writing about Central America before going on to my first impressions of Colombia. I am in Medellin now, and everything is good.

Oct. 4, 2006

I left La Fortuna, headed for the Carribean coast. I originally thought I would just stop for the night in Puerto Limon, and head for Panama the next day. When I got to PL, it seemed pretty dumpy. This is basically a shipping town, and supposedly the center of Costa Rica's underage prostitute business. There were billboards up saying how strict Costa Rica'a laws are on sex with minors. So, I took a quick look at my trusty Lonley Planet book, and decided to try Puerto Viejo, another couple hours down the road. I'm sure glad I did, and ended up spending a couple days there.

Puerto Viejo is touristy, but not in the industrial way, it is a bit sceney though. This has a real Carribean vibe to it, lots of rastas and reggae. If I hear "red,red wine" or "buffalo soldier" one more time, I'm gonna scream. Met a guy from Madison here last night at a bar shooting pool. He is about 30, got hurt in a car wreck and got a settlement that lets him live here on the cheap. Once again, you never know where you will run into someone with a Madison connection. I think a lot of the gringos are just here for the drugs. I don't know where I have ever been asked as repeatedly and openly if I wanted some ganja or a prostitute. Being Costa Rica, part of the sales pitch is that it is organic marijuana. I didn't ask if the prostitutes were all natural, I suspect some of them have artificial ingredients. People smoke openly in the bars, and I got enough of a contact high to get the cotton mouth thing. It's a good thing I don't have a job, I probably wouldn't pass a drug test now. This is all at night, during the day the town doesn't have a sleazy feel to it. There is a strip of beach about 10 miles long that has small hotels and restaurants dotted along it, but the actual town is small, and you can walk everywhere. I rented a bicycle and some snorkel gear, and rode out of town to a beach with a reef just off shore. The water was nice and clear, but I can't really say I saw any significant wildlife. I did get 25 miles or so in on the bike, which felt good.

From Puerto Viejo, it is only 50 miles or so to the Panama border. I was hoping this border crossing at Guabito would be easier than the Paso Canoas crossing on the PanAm that I used on my other trip here. This border ended up being really small, with only some semi trucks waiting to cross. Paperwork wise, this made it very easy, but physically crossing the borde was the most interesting yet.

The bridge across the river dividing costa Rica and Panama is an abandoned railroad bridge. They just laid some 2 x 12 planks on the ties outside of the rails for the trucks to drive on. It was drizzling rain, so the planks were greasy, wet and slippery. There are actually 2 bridges like this, the second one is a few miles into Panama. There were guardrails for most of their length, but in the places there weren't, it was a long way down to the river. I just crept along, with both feet down. After the bridges the road was in excellent shape, the best I had been on since Mexico, I think. The islands of Boca del Toro are the attraction in this corner of Panama, but I had spent my time budget for Panama in Costa Rica, so I had to pass them by. The road goes south, over a suprisingly high mountain range, where you climb up through the clouds, and then back down through them. After getting down to the valley floor again, I went through some farm country before meeting up with the PanAm highway, just east of the city of David. I rode for another 100 or so uneventful miles and got a hotel in the city of Santiago.

The next day I hoped to have an easy ride of 200 miles into Tocumen, where the airport is, just past Panama City, all on freeway. Wishful thinking. In the first 2 hours, I was stopped by cops 4 times. The second one wanted money. First you have to understand that in this part of Panama, the highway is a modern 4 lane divided road, not the quality of a US interstate, but close. The posted speed limit is 80 kph (50 mph), which is absurdly low, and is ignored by everyone. When you go through a town, the limit is 50 kph (30 mph), and if you actually went that speed, you would be flattened from behind. So anyway, the first cop flagged me over, asked for my liscense and passport, looked them over and sent me on my way. The second cop was on a motorcycle on the shoulder, and pointed me to the side of the road. I pulled over onto the shoulder, and he walked up to me with his ticket book ready, and said that I had a big problem, that I was speeding. The fine was $100 dollars, and I would have to pay it in Panama City. This was in one of the 30 mph zones, and I was going faster than that, but like I said, there is no way you could actually go that speed. I argued that point for a while, and the fact that he had no radar or anything, so he didn't know how fast I was going anyway, and then he suggested that if it was a problem for me to pay the fine in PC, I could pay it on the spot for $200. To make a long story short, I offered him $20, and we settled on 30. He took the $30 pretty quickly, so I think I should have started at $10. This is the second bribe I have paid in about 20,000 miles of Latin American motorcycling, I don't know if that is more or less than most. The third cop stood in the road, and held up his hand for me to stop. I pulled over and he asked for my liscense and passport. He just asked my a bunch of questions about the motorcycle and sent me on my way. By the time the fourth guy pulled me over I was pissed. We went through the liscense and passport thing, and he said I was speeding. I said I was not speeding and would he please return my passport and liscense so I could get on my way. To my surprise he did.

It was still early in the day, and I thought I would get a chance to look at the locks in the PAnama canal, but before I got there it started raining hard. I said screw it, I'm just going to the airport. Even though it was raining, I wanted to take the road along the ocean through Panama City, so I headed into town. Mistake. Because of the rain, many of the streets were flooded. I got caught in a one way flooded street, and after watching trucks go through, could see it was pretty deep. I was still pissed, so I said screw it, I'm going for it. The water was over the brake caliper on the front wheel, but the engine never missed a beat, I kept it revved up and slipped the clutch through the water. At least I got to see all the new construction going on in PC. There are high rises going up left and right. PC is a very modern looking city, not like most of the other central american capitols. So, I got to Tocumen, where the airport is, and found a hotel close by. It's most important feature was they had ESPN on the lounge TV, so I could see the Packers on Monday Night Football, plus it was only a $2 cab ride to the airport. Unfortunately, I left my overpants draped over the bike to dry, and forgot to bring them in, and somebody swiped them. So let's see, I got busted for speeding, got my rain pants stolen, and the Packers got their asses whupped, not a good day for the home team.

The next day I got things orangized with the air freight company. I used Girag Air Cargo, as I had used them once before to ship my bike from Panama City to Miami, and they did a fine job that time. I knew the drill from the time before, very little fuel in the tank, disconnect the battery, remove mirrors and windshield and that's about it. They placed the bike on one of their standard aluminum pallets that lock to the floor of their planes and strapped it down. This took most of the day, partly because it was raining again, of course. I took a cab back to the hotel, did laundry, checked email, and got ready for my flight the next day. It was only an hour and 10 minutes in the air for PC to Bogota, so I didn't get much of a chance to wonder if I had made the right decision.

Colombia. That has been the biggest question in planning this trip. Through it or around it? From what I have been able to read, it seems to be quite a bit safer on the highways than it was a few years ago, but it is still the kidnapping capital of the world. Naturally most of that is among the criminals themselves, or wealthy Colombians held for ransom. I eventually fell off the fence in favor of going to Colombia, mainly because I know several people personally who went through without any problems and loved it. Past the point of no return now.

Posted by Andy Tiegs at October 07, 2006 05:03 AM GMT

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