Central America

Dec 2010

So we’ve been in Colombia for about 2 weeks now, which means we left Mexico well over a month ago. About time for a retrospective update. We did a full run of Central American countries bar El Salvador (who wants to go there, right?). After staying in Mexico a bit longer than expected (1 month turned into 4.5), and finding out that the Blue Hole was miles off-shore, we were in a hurry to get to a boat to Colombia before the windy season set in, and the seas got really big. This meant lots of border crossings in a short time span.

In Belize (2 nights), we took a boat up a river to visit some really ancient ruins. Pretty cool, but overall we didn’t really rate the country (except for the excellent Chinese food), and we never felt very relaxed there, although the border was easy.

In Guatemala (2 nights), we visited Tikal, which has to be the best set of ruins in all of the Mayan empire, and in the best setting. The rest of the way through Guatemala, we cursed not taking the crossing directly from San Cristobel, as it had a much nicer feel than Belize and to be honest, skipping the Yucatan would not have been that big a deal, and it would have left more time for Antigua, and Huehuetezanalgo. However, it’s probably the only regret we have in our rush tour of central.

We crossed into Honduras (2 nights) via the northern crossing to Copan. These ruins, at the eastern reaches of the Mayan kingdom, were also interesting for the scriptures and carving, and the town was very cute. Sadly, it’s the only nice thing we have to say about the country. They are the worst drivers we have seen in our whole trip (and after 9 countries the bar is set low); Chris was grinding her teeth so badly she thought she had major dental problems. The picture is something like this: you wind your way on twisty roads, and every single blind corner you come up to you must anticipate your response for 2 cars coming at you, or 3 cars coming at you; in Honduras they don’t pull back in if you have the right of way, they expect you to move. We were run off the road multiple times in an afternoon (no easy feat considering there is stuff all verge) and witnessed our first major head on accident. On a positive note you can overtake easily, even if there is a truck coming the other way – they expect you to slide between. In the capital (Tegucigalpa) there are 4 lane merges into 2 lanes right next to the bus station, so you better be ready to move your legs in case the taxi wants that space, or the bus, or the idiot coming the other way. Needless to say we were pleased to be out of there.

people in a doorway

In Nicaragua we received news there had been a delay with the boat. Yeah, we could take our time, or so we thought (10 days). And we had the best place to do it. We stayed in Esteli for the chocolate and Santa parade with fellow bikers Dom and Tracey, and unlike in Honduras we managed to find a restaurant we could all eat at (vege and dairy free needs make things a little difficult). From there it was down to Granada for us. We managed to get a bit lost, and ended up in the slums on the outskirts of the city. Puts a fresh perspective on the impacts of tourism and unlimited international property purchases; international purchasing price wars have pushed locals to the outskirts of town, leaving the centre a little dead, and building growing resentment among locals. We found a great hotel in Granada called Hotel Terrasol, run by the sweetest couple Victor and Katya who gave us so much insight into nica culture, the sandinistas and political history, where to go and what to do. The night after fantastic day pottery shopping, Chris caught a horrific bug that had her doubled over crying in agony between bouts of puking. Victor and Katya fixed that too, sending Al to buy her meds for bacterial food poisoning (its viral poisoning in Australasia, so we would never have guessed). While in Granada, we also discovered Tip-top, a 100% Nica version of KFC but done better… Al’s idea of heaven. We then rode a great 100 km dirt road around the lake to Rio San Juan, where we slept on the riverfront due to the town being chocca with Ticas (Costa Ricans) on holiday. Needless to say we felt quite safe in Nicaragua, unlike Honduras. We spent a couple of days down the river, came back for another dose of food poisoning, and between bouts of puking and dry reaching managed to organize a barge for the bikes for the 1 hr rio frio crossing into Costa Rica. By far the easiest border crossing ever, the guy from the aduana (vehicle import office) was the best, looking on the internet for pictures of New Zealand and developing an itinerary for us in Costa Rica. Nicaragua ended up being a highlight for us in Central America… definitely not worth skipping, it seems the less you have, the richer you are.

In Costa Rica (5 nights), our boat was rescheduled, and again we needed to push on towards Panama. We visited Arenal (nice wildlife), a frog place, and then had 2 days of rain as we set across to the sloth sanctuary to catch Dom and Tracey, and try the supposedly easy Carribean crossing into Panama. Nice place, but expensive. Not much more to say really.

On Christmas day, we crossed into Panama (5 nights). This was the border crossing from hell, with incompetent arseholes on duty: they searched out bags for around an hour, we waited 2 hours for the aduana to look at our papers, and when they did, there was a problem with the computer, and they had to fill in two pieces of paper and stamp our passports. This took 45+mins per bike. And to top it off, they forgot to stamp Al’s passport!. However, the ride around Boca del Toro across to David made up for it, with one of the most stunning mountain passes yet, KFC for xmas dinner and a nice hot shower too. Into Panama city, we were nearly blown off the bikes. We arrived under nightfall, after the police decided to divert all traffic around the city (did we mention we are not fans of Panamanian officials?) We found a nice but expensive hotel, and settled into our list of things to do the next day, only to complete one, and nearly die of terror in a taxi (again, not good drivers). We headed up to Portobello 2 days before our sailing. What a mistake that was… power was hit and miss, internet was off, water mains were off (flood and landslide damage), and we were stuck at a way overpriced place run by an American operator who spent the next two days telling us about a brothel she wanted to open. Still better than a crowded hostel, especially given that the next six days would be on an over-crowded sailing boat.

Our sailing was interesting. Al will soon post on ADV rider more detail, but the short of it all was nice views, excellent bike loading on and off (the most important thing for us), shit job with customs at both ends (no exit stamp for the bikes means we won’t be easily able to go back to Panama, not that we want to anyhow…), mostly great company, reasonable food, and some good luck that our bags weren’t covered in leaked sewage.

So, in hindsight we only have one regret: not enough time for Guatemala; despite food poisoning we enjoyed Nicaragua, but would happily skip the rest of central. Harsh, but it just doesn’t rate compared to Mexico or Colombia.


River trip

5 December, 2010

We had a fantastic day riding up the river from Orange Walk to the Lamanai ruins.

After a bit of wildlife spotting from the boat that included hand feeding two Spider Monkeys, we got to Lamanai for a guided walk, although running around trying to get photos of the Howler Monkeys was just as much fun.


6 December, 2010

A moderately sized travel day with a border crossing. It went well up to the point that we needed photocopies of some papers. While Chris went down to the copier, the immigration officers changed and the new guy was not going to let us in due to the fact that both bikes were in Alan's name. So we had an hours wait while he sat on his ass waiting for the original officers to return, then it was smooth sailing. Sadly, this meant that we had no time to see Tikal at sunset.


On our rushed trip south to catch our boat, we didn't have much time to really look around Guatemala, which was a shame as this was one of the countries that we wanted more time in. So from 2 to 3 weeks, our stay was reduced to just two nights.


7 December, 2010

Tikal was the best ruins of all that we have seen so far.

It has the biggest and best Mayan temples and is set in the middle of a lush national park that is teaming with wildlife.

dirt street


Into Honduras

8 December, 2010

We got up early, and hit the road to Copán. The first 30 km was fairly easy traveling, until we hit the main road connecting the eastern and western coasts. There was one word for the traffic - loco (crazy). The drivers were as pushy as the worst Californian drivers and simply mad, overtaking at any time no matter if they could see the road ahead or not. After nearly two hours of this crazy driving, we got onto a busy side highway that seemed to have more sane drivers.

The border crossing was fairly painless, albeit expensive ($80US for both bikes), our passage only slowed by 30min while waiting for the customs officer to finish lunch, and another hour walking back and forth from the customs offices and the photocopier place 200m away. In the end, we had 6 trips back and forth. Luckily, Copán was only 10 km down the road.

¡Bienvenido Honduras!


9 December, 2010

We wandered down to the ruins and were blown away by the details in the ruins. Most of the altars and stellas were replicas, but they were very impressive. Here are a couple of pics.

spanish cathedral


What a day…

14 December, 2010

Having escaped the crazy Honduran traffic on the 11th (nothing closer to a death wish than riding in Honduras and being run off the road multiple times in one day, with cars overtaking trucks overtaking cars on blind corners only 2 lanes wide) we settled into nice sedate nica driving. A few days later and it's the 14th, we're in Granada. We managed to find the nice part of town after an accidental sojourn into the slums and back, and a fun day out buying pottery. Chris wakes feeling queasy, we check email to find our boat to Columbia has been prolonged indefinitely, there's flooding in both Panama and Columbia, and we're not sure how we will now get south. Chris feels worse after breakfast, goes to bed, and then the horrific stomach cramps start and she has uncontrollable bouts of gut wrenching and vomiting. Luckily, thanks to the advice of the hotel owners (in fluent English) she downs some antibiotics that seem to do the trick and by midnight the vomiting has stopped, and on the 15th she can keep food down even. Now we just have to sort how to get around the gap!

Costa Rica


22 December, 2010

A fairly rushed journey through Costa Rica. Just a short visit to Fortuna with a walk around the now dominant volcano and a tour of the frog house.


24 December, 2010

On our way to the border crossing, we stopped by to visit Dom & Tracy at the Sloth Sanctuary. These must be the cutest animals in central…


Costa Rica to Panama, with extra detail for Dom and Tracey

25 December, 2010

We crossed the Honduras/Nicaragua border with Dom and Tracey after meeting them and their bike but failing to find a restaurant we could all eat at in Danli. We stole their choice of hotel off them in Esteli, and caught up with them again in Costa Rica where they were volunteering at the Sloth sanctuary, and we were avoiding major border crossings. For once we are ahead of them, so this contains special guide notes just for them about the border crossing.

Our Christmas day started badly… rain, diarrhea, and the thought of another border crossing so we could make it to our boat to Sth America. No Santa hats for us today, just bloody determination to get there on time.

  1. After signing out of Costa Rica, the bridge is just fine… Tracey may prefer to walk it, but keep and eye out for loose ended planks. Seriously, Chris rode it without wigging out.
  2. Customs guys are ARSEHOLES here. Be prepared to open everything and let them rummage through. They asked Al to remove the seat, but stopped when they realised how much time it would take. Sit and weep Tracey while the ricos cars get the 2min treatment and the bike gets a minimum 1/2hr search. Seriously, someone ought to tell them drugs are being smuggled in the other direction! Telling them things are 'para mujeres tiempo del mese' works wonders.
  3. Get your sticker ($1) then stamp ($5) then go down and cross the pedestrian bridge on your left, turn left and visit the office for insurance/($15) and copias (they call it the policia). Insurance needs X1 of your title, and you need X1 of your title, licence, passport photo page, new passport stamp for the aduana.
  4. Take another very deep breath and join the que while you wait for the imbeciles at the aduana. Wait 1/2-3/4 hr for them to finish the last guy’s paperwork (they'll tell you there is only one person on, although there are 3 of them in the office). When it’s finally your turn, they'll tell you the computer system is down, and you'll go through a 40min process it takes the guy to fill in two sheets of paper, that only need your passport number, licence plate, bike model make colour, and signature on them. No, you can't do it for him, even though he will use typex when he makes mistakes. Check he doesn't fuck up the letters/numbers, and that he remembers to stamp your passport (or you'll have to come back like we did). Next, go next door and get one of the sheets stamped and signed, let the arsehole customs guy check your plate no, and then pay $4.5 for them fucking around for 2-3hrs.
  5. After 3-4 hours dealing with rude, impatient, incompetent staff, it’s time to go! The road out of is not either of the two directly ahead of you. Take the gravel path down, do a U to the LEFT and follow the road that heads off down the river. Get directions through Chiqiriqui, and in other towns. The routes through are not obvious, and there are no signs.
  6. ENJOY THE RIDE. Once you are 50km down the road, take a deep breath and relax. The road is one of the most scenic and fun to ride of our whole trip. <1.5 hours from border to chiquiri grande (fuel station, distances on roadside markers), and 1.5-2hrs (105 km) from there to David. Watch for fog and rain on the tops, but enjoy as this is an amazing pass, climbing and descending steeply, lots of fun curves, stunning cloud forest…
  7. Hotels in David: Maybe easier if you still have light, but this worked for us: ride the PA to the KFC and take the left directly opposite. Take the left of the Y, take the left branch at the semaforos, and then take the first right (about 2km from PA). This is aveneda 3rd November, the main route into the centro. Good hotel on your right just after you turn, around $35/night, and has wifi, great parking, aircon, hot water and a restaurant. Careful they don't short change you for the room.

Overall rating for Christmas day? Border crossing 0/10 (worst yet), scenery 10/10, relief to find a good-value hotel and get out of wet riding gear 10/10.

For more about Dom and Tracey trip see thedomwayround.blogspot.com

A Merry Christmas from hell

26 December, 2010

We wake up, relax, down our bacon, eggs and coffee, and prepare for our not overly strenuous 450 km commute to our first CA capital city so we can run errands before our boat trip. Started off well… nice fast ride, then we met customs again. Quick stop, but we go through the process of overtaking the 10 slow cars that caught up to us. Half way (200 km in 2.25 hrs). At Santiago, it starts raining. Wet, slippery roads. Then the traffic gets heavy, and crazy. Then the winds start blowing so hard Chris nearly falls off her bike. We stop, wait for the winds to settle down, then carry on. The turn off to the CBD is closed. Detour takes us past twilight into pitch black, we have no idea where we are, and there are few cars on the road. Not good at all, esp. given the warnings about Panama slums. We circle around the city on the autopista, then see a signpost to central. Back we go. As Al points out, there are few window bars, and no armed guards at the servo, so it can't be that bad. We work out we are in the banking sector, but it takes us another 2hrs to navigate the 1 ways and find a hotel, and even then it is $65 a night. Finally, after 10hrs on the bike, we are getting out of our wet clothes, and able to sigh relief. 1/2 way down, at long last.

Next day, we watch traffic from the balcony, and take a taxi ride to the bike shop in search of an odometer cable. In hindsight, very pleased we arrived last night - night hides the dangers around you. No one uses indicators, and taxi drivers dart across lanes at will, with sudden jerky movements that have you clenching your jaw and holding the sides of your seat while praying they don't have an accident (this maybe somewhat irrational on Chris's part, but the last taxi she was in that drove like this did cause an accident). Dreading the ride out tomorrow…

Leaving the mainland

30 December, 2010

We woke to another rainy Panamanian day and made our way to town to catch Fritz the Cat. The dock was just below the old fort that was wiped out by one of the many slips with the heavy rains and there was heavy mud to ride through to get to the dock. By 10am, most of the tourists that were sailing had made it. Marcus, a really nice German guy with a BMW joined us on the off chance that he too could make the trip. With a couple of tourists not making it, he took their places.

The bike loading went very smoothly. With the mooring a bit loose and our tyres a bit muddy, we pushed our bikes up the 8 inch wide plank onto the catamaran. We had 5 helpers and 3 bikers all working together to push the bikes on board. Chris's was the easiest, coming in at a petite 100 kg. Marcus's was the hardest, a BMW1100, in the super heavyweight division. There were enough hands to make it fairly easily. Only one close call in the loading of Bill bike, an older KLR650, when the catamaran slid along the mooring and the plank nearly fell into the ocean. Lucky, only the front tyre was really on and the guys got the bike back to the dock safely.

We sailed under motor to a port 2 hours south for the night.

The San Blas islands

31 December, 2010

We had two days sailing (under motor) around the islands, setting anchor in sheltered bays. Good food and company while surrounded by non-developed tropical islands, perfect!