Days 116-118 – Cahuita, Limón, Costa Rica to Santa Catalina, Veraguas, Panama – 18,223 km
The Route: A) Cahuita, B) Guabito, C) Santa Catalina, D) Panama City
We left Cahuita first thing in the morning and we rode the remaining few kilometers east to the Panama border. It was a sleepy border crossing at Sixaola-Guabito but just over the bridge into Panama we were greeted by several German bikers on BMWs who had just finished their paperwork and were eager to get underway. All went well enough with the customs and immigration officials except that here, as in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, the municipality of the border town extracted a small tax.
Río Sixaola at Costa Rica-Panama border
‘For some reason it just makes me furious,’ I said to Jess after we had paid the tax of two U.S. dollars each. ‘These border towns are always the worst and, rather than clean themselves up so that you might want to stick around and buy something, they just slip their hands into your pocket as you pass through.’
But the biggest inconvenience of the Costa Rica-Panama crossing was buying the mandatory vehicle insurance before the Panamanian customs would issue a temporary vehicle permit. Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama require auto insurance, which is a reasonable enough requirement, but they do not recognize any foreign or international insurers. In these countries our Central and South American motorcycle insurance was invalid and we had to buy local policies at the border. In each instance, we would walk or ride over to some rickety office in a kiosk where three ‘agents’ – somehow it took that many – would copy our driver’s license and vehicle information onto a form, stamp it, and then collect our money.
Jess waits for vehicle permits at customs office
Each time, Jess’s comment was the same: ‘I’d like to know what the terms of the policy are in case we get into an accident.’
And my response was also always the same: ‘What does it matter? Do you really think this bullshit policy is going to be worth anything if we do get into a scrape?’ At one border – I think it was Nicaragua – I tried to satisfy Jess’s curiosity and I asked one of the several ‘agents’ who was handling our policy, ‘So what coverage do we have if we get into an accident?’
‘You call this number,’ the agent said.
He pointed at the phone number that was written on a printed sheet that was taped to the wall.
‘Ok. That’s fine,’ I said. ‘But how much are we covered for if we get into an accident?’
‘Just you call this number and they will handle it,’ he said.
He took one of the pages of the policy document from my hand and he scribbled on it the phone number that was on the printed sheet on the wall and that was already printed in the header of that and all of the policy documents that he had issued us.
This time in Panama my cynicism was fueled again when we entered another office-in-a-shack a dozen or so meters from the customs office. This time there was only one ‘agent’ and, although there were no other customers looking to buy auto insurance, this helped me to understand why issuing an auto insurance policy in one of these border towns was normally a team effort. He sat at the computer where the online form was open. In the heat and humidity of the late morning it was absolutely excruciating to watch as he assumed the herculean task of transferring the information from our vehicle registrations into the text boxes and dropdown menus on the computer screen.
‘Why did he write United States over and over again in the address line?’ Jess whispered as I shifted my attention between rolling my eyes at her and watching over him to catch mistakes. ‘Wouldn’t writing it once be enough?’
‘What’s worse than that is how long it takes him just to write it the first time!’ I whispered back.
Then he got confused on which was our VIN and which was our engine number and which was our driver’s license numbers.
‘He does this every day, doesn’t he?’ Jess whispered when I turned back to her after sorting out these mistakes.
‘Not only that,’ I said. ‘On the table beside the computer there’s a stack of copies of policies that he did for tourists with our same California registration.’
In all he erred on each of our names, both of our VINs, Jess’s engine number, Jess’s license number, and my vehicle type. Not only that, but after each time he printed a policy for signature, he erased the form on the computer. The errors were scattered and each time we caught an error, he had to redo the policy from scratch. Finally, after more than an hour of us sweating in the cramped kiosk office and two versions of Jess’s policy and three versions of mine, we had our motorcycle insurance and we went on to the customs office for our vehicle permit and then to the local police station to pay our municipality tax of two dollars each.
After completing the border crossing it was mid-afternoon and we were eager to make Almirante, which seemed to be the last place to find a hotel before a long stretch through the central highlands. Instead of following the tarmac road out of the border town of Guabita, I decided – under the influence of my GPS – to lead us down the dirt road that would eventually link up with the highway. It was hard packed and none too rocky but the real excitement came at the several small, wooden bridges that we crossed along the way. The excitement was not that they were not study enough because they looked to be in decent enough repair. The excitement was that twice I decided not to ride over the bridges properly.
I rode the bridge nicely in this photo
The first time, I stopped before the second bridge to let Jess catch up because she lags a bit off the tarmac. When I started up, I accelerated too slowly before I reached the bridge. Speed, or rather the lack thereof, is often a motorcyclist’s worst enemy and this was never more heart-stoppingly brought home to me than when I rode so slowly over that bridge. The lack of speed made each crevice and each step between the uneven planks an enormous hazard that threatened my balance so that twice I was almost certain that both bike and I were going to fall over and then into the crevice where the small creek ran below.
Jess rides through Reserva Forestal de Fortuna
Seeing me teeter here, Jess became very nervous about crossing the bridges. For that and the several remaining bridges she parked some ways before and signaled me to walk back and ride her bike across for her. My second scare came on the second to last bridge when Jess had parked her bike too close to the bridge. This left me very little space to accelerate before lurching onto the particularly uneven planks of this bridge. Again I teetered, although not as badly as before, until I pulled hard on the throttle and remember to look far ahead and not just in front of my front tire.
View from Ruta 21
‘I saw you lose balance on the second bridge and I got so scared,’ Jess said that evening when we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant beside the hotel in Almirante.
‘You got scared?’ I said. ‘My heart stopped and pounded out of my chest at the same time.’
The next morning we rode south from Almirante away from the Atlantic coast and through the lushly forested mountains of the Reserva Forestal de Fortuna. Then we took the Pan-American Highway east and then went south again through lower, dryer hill country until we reached Santa Catalina on the Pacific Coast. Santa Catalina is a small surfing and scuba diving haven that seems to consist only of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and dive shops so that you wonder where the few locals actually live.
Small islands beside Parque Nacional de Coiba
About an hour’s motorboat ride from Santa Catalina is the national park island of Coiba where there was once a penal colony. That afternoon we visited the Coiba Dive Center and the next morning we joined a group for diving. I did three dives along the smaller islands near Coiba and Jess had her first proper experience with snorkeling. Two Brits among our dive group brought their GoPro cameras along and this made me disappointed that I had opted not to bring mine, which we had bought after Jess twisted my arm about it back at the BMW dealership in Guatemala City when we had the tires changed.
The diving was good and it was my first time to see a shark, which in this case was, I think, called a White Fin. We also saw eels, a variety of colorful fish, a seahorse, dolphins, and several rays that jumped high into the air apparently to shake the parasites off their backs. It was a beautiful day and we had a good time of it but rolling over the choppy waves, which were nothing compared to those further out at sea, we were reaffirmed in our decision to ship the bikes out of Panama by air and fly ourselves to meet them in Colombia, rather than all go together by boat as had originally been the plan.
A day of scuba diving
‘Every blog I’ve read about it says that at least half the people get sick on the boat from Colón to Cartagena, even on the Stahlratte,’ Jess said.
‘I believe it,’ I said. ‘I was sick as a dog when my dad and I did a few years ago. It was miserable.’
‘Then it’s decided?’ Jess said.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We’re flying.’
The next day it was off to Panama City to arrange shipment of ourselves and our bikes to South America.