Escape from Central America Part II – In the Back of a Pick Up

Although Guatemala was plagued with landslides and extreme flooding along the coastal route to El Salvador, we were able to make our way continuing on CA-1.  It wasn’t long before we were descending to the border of El Salvador and since all but 2 crossings were closed due to flooding, we were met by line of trucks more than 5km long!  But, because we are on bikes, we simply weaved in and out of them to the front of the line.  This is where Jordan learned (the hard way) that his panniers are wider than his handlebars, he actually got stuck between 2 semi trucks and had to force his way back.  Clearly, the trucks had been there for a long time – many of the drivers  had hammocks rigged up between the front and back wheels and were napping under their trailers.

El Salvador Border

We had been warned against ‘helpers’- muchachos who insist you need their help (for a fee) to manuever through the red tape at the border.  You don’t need the “helpers”, and we never used them in Central America, but what you do need is  a lot of time and the right attitude.  Due to the terrible weather and road conditions, there were hardly any travellers on the road, which meant we were not assaulted by a wave of aggressive “helpers” jockeying for our business, as we drove up to the line separating Guatemala and El Salvador, only two fellows pointed us toward a building on the Guatemala side for our exit papers.  Of course, it was the wrong building, and these guys were just some more of those “helpers” that we did not need and did not hire.  Leaving Guatemala was easy enough, and the helpful border staff even managed to get the exit signature we needed just before that one and only official took her lunch break.  I’m sure it saved us over an hour of waiting.

Entering El Salvador was also extremely easy & efficient.. no helpers pounced on us, the official spoke perfect English and even though one is only allowed 48 hours in El Salvador before having to pay an entry fee, he granted us 60 days at no cost because “there might be problems leaving due to the flooding” (!!).  We even used a money changer for the first of many times in Central America and came out unscathed (we were prepared and knew what the exchange rate was).

It was raining relentlessly and a state of emergency had been called so we simply made tracks.  Driving through San Salvador (which we were warned against) made me sad to have to pass through the country so quickly.  Everyone waved at us, honked, and even hung out their car windows with shiny new iPhones to film us (where were we, again?)  But, like I said, we have a boat to catch.  We were out of the city as it approached 5pm and starting to get dark, we needed to  find a place to stay.  This proved more difficult than you’d imagine.  Then it really started to pour, probably the heaviest rain either of us had ever seen, so we pulled into a town, but guess what?  The town did not have a hotel.  A security guard directed us to the Gold Star Auto Hotel.

We are not fans of these no-tell motels.  It’s not because they are rented out by the hour, or because they have ‘special’ TV channels but because of their location.  They are usually out of the way, located on the side of the highway – away from people, towns or good local food.  But, since it was now officially dark, and we were completely soaked to the bone it fit the bill perfectly.  And you get your own private garage (secure parking for the bikes is a must)!

secret entry from parking garage

Rain, rain, rain – all night and all morning.  So, after putting our wet clothes back on, we zipped through the rest of El Salvador and made it to the Honduran border before noon and just as the rain was letting up.  This is where we bumped into Len, another rider from Canada (http://earthwindandtires.ca/)   He is on his own and had tried the coastal route before we met him leaving El Salvador so we went through the 3 hour border crossing to Honduras together.  Here’s a photo of his bike at one of the closed Guat-El Salvador borders we were advised against.

Len's first attempt to El Salvador. Bridge out

Yes, this is an official gov't building - Entering Honduras

The three of us shared accommodations and travelled together through Honduras & Nicaragua – still riding as fast as we could to get away from the rain and on to that boat to Colombia!   There were so many landslides and road works in our path but since we were on bikes we could weasel around the traffic, bob between all of trucks and even took to driving on sidewalks… whatever kept us moving.

Len safe from the pouring rain - Honduras

Leaving Honduras - grey skies

1 hour later – blue sky at the very cool looking Nicaragua border

It was a fun to travel with another rider for a while.  When we parked our three bikes in the lobby of a small hotel in Nicaragua, it looked like a very crowded BMW showroom, but only after Jordan took off his panniers – he could not fit through the door – his panniers make his bike pretty wide (see the comment about being stuck between two trucks…).

Len riding into the hotel

Sandra negotiating a landslide

The worst border, by far, was Costa Rica, which surprised us.  It’s practically the 51st state so we assumed it would be logical & easy.  It started with a crowd of 20 “helpers” literally running toward us as we approached the border, but we just blew past them.  The rest went like this:

1.  Pay for fumigation, its the first unmarked booth on your right as you approach.  You will probably pass it, then have to go back.  They will tell you to go to the Aduana (customs) once you are done.

2.  When you get to the Aduana, they will tell you to go back 500m to buy mandatory insurance, first.

3.  The insurance office will tell you to go back again 500m to the unmarked Migracion office in the restaurant across from the Aduana- so you can have your passport stamped.  Once stamped and copies have been made you can then come back 500m to get your insurance.

4.  After migration, copies and insurance… go back once more, 500m to the Aduana, where your vehicle will receive the permit for entry.

Fumigating the bikes - Costa Rica

All told, it took 3.5 hours.  Luckily, there were a few diversions, including an entire zoo that was also crossing the border.  It was amazing to be so close to tigers, we even got to pet them until one of them took a sudden dislike to Jordan and let him know in a big way.

Tigers at the Costa Rican border

Relief!  We were in Costa Rica – only this and Panama left!  Despite the roads, the weather and natural disaster, we were going to make our boat!

If the rain, and the landslides, and the detours were not enough of an obstacle, my bike developed some serious issues not long after entering Costa Rica.  My bike would not run smoothly at low RPMs and would eventually cough and grind to a stop.  We thought it was bad gas but the issues kept getting worse despite fuel additives and running the tank dry for fresh gas.  It got to the point where it became more or less unridable, especially in traffic.  The only fix was to constantly be on the throttle – even when stopped.  We hobbled our way into San Isidorio but not before one last major landslide.  The road was closed to road works, but after some discussion with a helpful police officer they let us though providing we used the police motorcycle escort.  There was just enough room to travel in single file, on what road was left, past the truck towing the car that succumbed to the landslide.  (no one was hurt)

Road collapse near San Jose, Costa Rica

Newspaper photo of the same landslide

We sensed we were slowing Len down.. we travel pretty slowly in general, but my bike problems were really impacting our time.  We let him know we would understand if he moved on, but he offered to ride with us for another day or two.

Finally, about 40km from the Costa Rica – Panama border my bike just stopped.

We took it apart on the side of the road and found that the issue was my throttle body manifold… it had a huge tear in it.  The air-to-fuel ratio was too high and the bike would not run unless on full throttle or at all, at this point.  A pick up truck happened to pass and we asked if he would take us to the border.  We lifted my bike into the back of his truck (there was no ramp), and on we went.

Ride to the Panama border

FIX #1: At the border, still on the Costa Rican side, Jordan took the bike apart and wrapped loads of duct tape around the manifold to close the hole.  It worked!  For 15 kms.  At least we crossed the border.  It looked like the tape had lost grip from the heat and the new seal was breached.  We turned in to the first roadside hotel we found.  Len kept on, riding to David, our planned stop for the night – I don’t think he could take our slow pace anymore, and who could blame him.

FIX #2 – into the night: we put an old credit card on the outside of the hole to provide some structure and wrapped it up tightly with ‘rescue tape’.  It looked solid!  In the morning we rode just 50kms before it all went to hell again just outside a large farm.  When we looked at it, it seemed that the rescue tape succumbed to heat as well.

FIX #3 – roadside: we applied more rescue tape, but added a ‘heat shield’ (tinfoil from our kitchen supplies).  I was not confident that I would make Panama City (still 500km away) on the fix, and since we were conveniently outside a farm house, we arranged another pick up truck with the help of the farm owner.  After a very confusing conversation, we understood we were going to the town of David where a trucking company would take the bike to Panama City.

The repair we thought would work

It was now October 21.  We had to be in Panama City in 2 days and my bike was not running.  The trucking company said they would take my bike on a semi truck to Panama for $100.  But, it would be overnight.  Having no other options, we trusted them with my bike and our two bags of everything we needed for a year.  We then hopped on Jordan’s bike and made our way towards Panama City two up – ending the day in Santiago, Panama.  Long day!

We were up early, anxious to get my bike and into Panama.  We rode over the Panama Canal but couldn’t stop to admire it … we still had to find the trucking company in an urban wasteland full of construction without an address (apparently, they don’t exist in this area of Panama City).  We were close, but couldn’t do it without help, so we hired a taxi to lead us there.

The owner of the company greeted us with a couple of ice cold cokes and we spent about an hour visiting with him and his friends before retrieving the bike.  We found the bike exactly as we left it, strapped down inside an empty semi trailer.  Instead of lifting the bike out by hand (that’s how we got it in… heavy!) they slid a wood palate under it and Jordan sat on the bike while they lifted it out and lowered it with a forklift, now that’s more like it.  The bike started up on the first try and it seemed like our last repair would last forever.  Unfortunately in this case forever lasted about 15 minutes and the bike came to a rest in the parking lot of the Panamanian equivalent of Canadian Tire, which was actually kind of convenient as we needed to buy more supplies to repair the bike.  We did a bit of shopping and then got to work on stripping down the bike for the next roadside bodge job,  sadly it was not to be, as the manifold had self-destructed and was beyond repair.

Luckily there was internet connectivity in that parking lot!  A couple of quick emails to our friends Miles (who we knew from Calgary: http://smilesandmiles.com) and Daan (who we knew only from email:  http://www.farawayfromflakkee.nl/?lang=en) who were waiting for us in Panama City had them arriving to our rescue on Miles’ super cool Ural sidecar rig.  We stopped every pick up truck in that parking lot and eventually found someone who would take the bike to  Panama Passage, a well known hostel catering to overland travellers.  As it turned out, it was also the spot where a number of other motorcycle travellers were meeting up to catch the boat from Panama to Colombia.  It was fun to exchange stories with other motorcycle travellers.  Since the start of our trip, we had only met 2 other riders, Bas and D from The Netherlands, and that was back in Mexico.  We exchanged stories about routes, adventures and life on the road until late into the night with our new found friends.

Panama Passage

The guys spent the next day trying engineer a fix for my bike (FIX #4?), calls the day before to the local BMW shop confirmed that a replacement part would take about 3 weeks, we had about 24 hours.  The guys settled on making a collar for the manifold our of JB Weld liquid metal.  It looked very sturdy, however since no one was sure how it would stand up to the vibrations of my 650cc thumper, we kept it as a last resource… we were worried about the engine sucking in bits of metal so, I started making arrangements for another pick up to take me and my bike to the boat.  This was not finalized until 6pm the night before we left.

Around the same time Jordan received an email from our good friend and fellow motorcycle traveller, Ekke (http://ekke-audrey.ca/) in Calgary.  He and Audrey have a number of bikes back home, and one of them just happened to be a 2001 BMW F650GS, a perfect match to my bike, and he kindly offered to take the part off his bike and have it shipped to Colombia, where with a little luck it would be waiting for us when we arrived in Cartagena.  Now that’s a good friend!

At 7am we headed off to the small Kuna town of Carti near the spectacular San Blas Islands, about 1 hour north of Panama City.  While everyone else rode an amazing winding road to the port,  I rode in a taxi pick up truck.  My bike was on the back and Jordan followed behind.  Occasionally, I’d put my helmet on in the truck (to the dismay of  my fellow passengers) and talk to Jordan on our headsets.  “do you think we’re going to be late?”.

Sandra not looking happy in another pick up truck

We eventually caught up with the other motorcyclists at the Kuna border/toll station and when all 14 bikes (including mine) were eventually lined up on the pier next to the Stahratte it was quite a beautiful site.

14 bikes awaiting boarding

We hoped that riding through Central America would be interesting, especially since not that many travellers make their way there – we felt lucky to be in the area.  Well, we did have fun and it was certainly interesting!  Despite the 15 day ordeal from being robbed to the race to meet the boat and the stress of mechanical breakdowns, and despite the rain and the landslides we look back fondly to that part of our trip.  Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to slow down and enjoy it much more.

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