Sunday, July 31, 2011


Volcan, Panama is right next to the biggest Volcano in Panama. It was foggy the whole time we were there, so we never saw it, but I've heard it's great. What isn't great is riding in the rain, and we set off toward Panama City in a downpour. In classic Central American style the downpour let up after an hour or so, and we baked along in our rain gear until we couldn't stand it any longer and peeled it off.

There was a volcano in there somewhere...
 We had finally caught up with the crew we left when we flew home from Guatemala, and now it was just a matter of finding a meeting point. They were in Bocas del Toros, on the Caribbean coast, and would be somewhere near us sometime around 11am. Tom's bike broke down, their group split in two, and we didn't see anyone until Santa Clara, the next day.

Lodging was looking pretty bad in Santa Clara until we found the XS, a campground/lodge/bird sanctuary owned and operated by American ex-pats for the last 16 years. Sheila showed us around the place, and the restaurant could have been taken straight out of Chicago, her former home. We enjoyed some authentic, American style pulled pork which Sheila cooked up in her crock pot, and it was a nice taste of home.
English menus and barbeque pork: a traveler's guilty pleasures...
 There weren't very many other guests when we arrived, but there were some very beautiful residents:
This Scarlet Macaw looks pretty good for being 60 (human) years old!

This Toucan, like most of the birds there, was rescued from owners who didn't understand the responsibility of caring for tropical birds.
We got back in touch with the rest of the group, and decided this would be a good meeting place. The next morning we awoke to a knock on the door from Charlie and Andy, the Australian contingent of the crew. They were followed closely by Patrick, but by 1pm there was no sign of Tom and Alex...

Patrick had a line on a place to stay in Panama City, which was only an hour away, so we left a note with Sheila for Tom and Alex and moved on. We wandered around Panama City for an hour or so, and finally happened upon the "Panama Passage" hostel, which was set up specifically for overland travelers headed to and from South America. We met up with Shawn(sp?) the owner of the hostel, and found out that there were not enough rooms for all of us. Tom, Alex and Anna then rode up, and we decided to crowd in for one night, and try to find somewhere bigger the next day.

Parking at the Panama Passage
 The next day we found a budget hotel with enough rooms for everyone, and set out on our real mission in Panama City: finding replacement parts for our motorcycles. As you might recall, I had been riding with one foot for the last 400 miles, so I was pretty keen to find a footpeg mount. Everyone needed something, so we headed out to the dealers to see what we could get. Unbelievably, the Suzuki dealership had the bracket I needed in stock, which we figured was about a one in a million chance. I was back on two feet, but Tom and Alex struck out on replacing their chains and tires, so they would have to hang on until Columbia. Charlie finally found a quality shop with a helmet which suited his standards, as 99% of the "helmets" available in Central America are little more than plastic shells with straps. We were overjoyed, Charlie and I because of our purchases, and everyone else (to be quite honest) to be getting out of Central America the next day. Central America has it's charms, but after all of the borders and potholes, a few days on a boat followed by a new continent sounded pretty good.

A celebration was in order, and it looked something like this!
Charlie toasts the end of Central America, Andy looks on

Jill and Kim enjoying mojitos

Tom: "I'll have ten of those!"

Anna: "I just had ten of those!"

Alex the sly, Patrick the wise

Charlie: "Is this one of those pools you're just supposed to look at?"

(After pushing me in) I guess not!

Shirts, jeans, boots and all.

Ummm....I think we should go!

Safe, sound and soaked back in the hotel, with cash to spare....Cheers Central America!

 On the road to the dock at Carti, then on the boat for Columbia! 


A new friend for the most beautiful ride of the trip...

Jill and I with Dr. Sancho in San Vito, Costa Rica
 After our stay with Andres and Alexis, we realized that we needed to be in Panama City to catch the boat in five days. We hit the road and covered the 300 remaining kilometers of Costa Rica in an afternoon, and along the way were passed by a blazing fast, brand new BMW GS1200. It was gone as fast as it came up, and we didn't think much more about it, until it passed us again at the turn-off for the border of Panama. That was where we met Dr. Sancho, a retired microbiologist who lived near San Vito, a few miles from the Panama border. We had decided earlier to cross the border at Rio Sereno, a very small border station in the country, because of the rave reviews other motorcyclists had written. After the hassles and rip-offs we had faced at every previous crossing, we were willing to try anything. Dr. Sancho was headed out to check on the construction of his new house, so he invited us to ride with him to San Vito, and the 40 mile ride offered the most beautiful views of the trip so far.
The 40 mile trip was along the top of a ridge the whole way, and there were green hills all the way to the horizon in both directions. At exactly the same time Jill and I both said, "It looks like a Dr. Suess book!"
It was hard to get many photos, though, as the Doctor was no slouch on his BMW, and I frequently found myself falling behind while looking off into the distance. We stopped for coffee and stories in San Vito, and then headed out to check on the construction of his new home. It is a beautiful, open floor plan, and the only walls that aren't glass are around the master bedroom. Anywhere in the house you can see this:

Because of all of the windows, the structure of the house was mostly steel, which, as you can imagine, suited me just fine.
A welder's dream project!
Dr. Sancho watching his dream come together
 It was getting late in the day, so we had to start making our way toward Panama. We have met kind strangers at many points along the trip, but Costa Ricans proved to be the most open and welcoming people of any so far. Not only did Dr. Sancho extend an open invitation for us to visit his new home when it is completed, he also called ahead to the border, where he knew an official who could make our crossing even easier.

A few miles up a dirt road we came to the border, where Dr. Sancho's friend was waiting, exit stamp in hand. In less than a minute we were checked out of Costa Rica. It was so easy that I decided to drop the bike, just to liven things up a bit. Here's what I accomplished!

That's the left footpeg, cracked at the mount and hanging on by a shred of aluminum. Very bad.
 Of course this was an awful development, because it meant that I would be riding while holding one foot in the air for all 400 of the miles to Panama City. It also continued my embarrassing habit of dropping the bike while stationary. Obviously no one was injured (Jill wasn't even on the bike), so we made our way into the Panama immigration building.

The official there was polite and patient, and we were though immigration in five minutes. The real test of any border is customs, and the customs officials there were unlike any I've met so far. Young, jovial and courteous, they entertained my horrific Spanish with a little good-natured ribbing, a few inside jokes and some clumsy small-talk. When they started laughing around and calling each other crazy I didn't really know how to respond; and probably looked very uncomfortable. In the previous seven border crossings I had witnessed a total of one person who seemed to like their job or coworkers, so initially it felt like some sort of sick joke or trap. What can I say, Central American border crossings make you very cynical. After a five dollar rip off from the insurance office lady next door (who obviously felt left out) we were feeling pretty good about Panama, and made our way to Volcan, our stop for the night.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hidden Gem in Costa Rica

Ty and I in front of the cloud forest
After a pretty cold, wet ride through a cloud forest, Ty and I finally reached the restaurant that Alexis and Andres were going to meet us at.  We walked in, ordered some hot chocolates and pancakes and warmed up until they arrived.  Immediately we headed off on a rocky dirt road through even more beautiful landscape towards Providencia.  Unfortunately, it got dark about halfway through the ride so even though we could hear a roaring river next to us we weren’t able to see it.  After an hour or so of riding, we arrived at the house that Alexis and Andres have been building for the last three years with the help of some Providencia locals.  It is a very cool undertaking and they have put a lot of effort into it.  They used local materials, such as bamboo and mud, to build their home and it gives it great character.  Alexis made dinner and after some beers and good conversation, we went to bed.
The Costa Rican getaway that Alexis and Andres built.
The view was not too shabby!
Alexis warned us that they have a house wren that likes to come in and wake everyone up around 5:30.  It appeared right on time and we woke up to have breakfast.  She cooked for us again (I could really get used to that!) and we hung out most of the early morning chatting.  It was amazing how many mutual acquaintances she and I had and we had a lot to talk about.  She is an eighth grade teacher at a Kansas City school so I had lots of questions for her about her job since I am interested in becoming a teacher too.  Andres and Ty are both handymen, so they spent most of the morning talking about tools and fixing stuff. 

Andres proudly showing Ty his gas-powered drill

They wanted to take us on an off road trip to a National Park nearby, so we hopped in their Isuzu Trooper 4x4 and made our way down the crazy road that takes you to the trailhead.  There were some pretty dramatic drops, sharp curves and river crossings so it was an exhilarating drive.   

One of the river crossings

We started the walk up the trail with Andres and his machete leading the way and ended up at an abandoned house on a cliff overlooking a beautiful river.  The house used to be occupied by a German family for several years back in the 1970’s and it was kind of creepy seeing the house in its dilapidated state.  There was a new metal suspension bridge hanging across the river; it was built to replace the old one that had been washed away.  We explored for a bit, refueled with granola bars and water and headed back down the trailhead.   

Creepy abandoned house in the middle of nowhere...very cool!

New suspension bridge over the river

Right as we were going down the homestretch it started pouring down rain and we just barely made it to the car before getting completely soaked.  When we got back to the house, Alexis whipped up some delicious homemade mac and cheese with broccoli for dinner and we watched the clouds roll in through the forest.  We listened to music, drank a few more beers and talked late into the night. 

The next day we woke up early as we planned on crossing into Panama.  We loaded up the bike and started the ride back up the dirt and gravel road.  Alexis and Andres were meeting up with a land surveyor so we followed them part of the way.  They pulled over and pointed out something in an avocado tree that very few tourists get to see, especially this time of year: two quetzal birds sitting up in the tree.  We were ecstatic that we were able to see them because I thought it was a lost cause.   
Beautiful and rare quetzal eating avocados

We sadly said our goodbyes to Alexis and Andres and made plans to meet up in Kansas City when we return home.  We really can’t thank them enough for putting us up and for their amazing hospitality and are so happy to have made such great new friends!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sailboat Update!

I just wanted to give everyone a quick update on today...We are in Panama City (yes, I know we are behind in our blogs!) and are riding to Carti today where we will be boarding a sailboat called the Stahlratte bound for Cartagena, Colombia.  I'm sure we will have plenty of time to write blogs while floating around in the ocean for five days!  More updates to come soon (a whole new continent worth of stories too!)

Japan in San Jose

After leaving Granada, we decided to spend a night in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.  It's a nice little beach town on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, but unfortunately, it rained the entire time we were there.  Ty wasn't feeling so hot anyways, so we spent most of our time in the hotel room eating sushi from a restaurant I found down the block.

The beach at San Juan del Sur
It's Ty, and I'm jumping in to add a little insight into the actual border process, so people can better understand why it is so awful. I hope it is as awful to read as it is to live!

Early the next morning we headed out to cross the border into Costa Rica.  This is rumored to be one of the longer crossings, so we left San Juan with plenty of time to spare.  It was a good thing we did, because it ended up taking about four hours. First, check out of Nicaragua by going through passport control, finding a police officer to stamp our bike permit (she was in front of the abandoned bus station, 100yards from immigration), finding the customs office (a small, unmarked building under a clump of trees about 50 yards from the bus station), and going through the checkpoint and 500 yards to the Costa Rican side.

On the Costa Rican side, you wait in line at the customs office, where they tell you that you need to go to immigration first, then buy insurance, then make copies of your immigration stamp and insurance paperwork, then come back to their office, get the bike serial numbers checked, then go to another office to get the permit approved and printed out. Where's the insurance office? 250 yards back toward Nicaragua, of course. Where's the copy shop? Next to the insurance office, but there's no sign, and they won't say anything as they watch you walk all the way back to the Costa Rican border, where they will tell you to walk back to the copy shop, which is by the insurance office! Everyone knows that! Once you have completed the trek you can ask the surly man in the original office to please look at your paperwork and check the numbers on your bike, but he will only do so if he is allowed to act like it isn't his job and he hates you. As a personal favor he decides to have a look at your bike, realizes, regretfully, that your paperwork is in order, and lets you pass on to the next ring of the circus. At this final stage, a young, smiling man in an air conditioned office promptly types up the permit with a smile on his face, and you're the FINAL CHECKPOINT! At the final checkpoint everything is finally checked, and if your license plate number on the permit is one number off, as ours was, you can go back to the insurance office and start again.

These things take so long that when we're actually done, I have often forgotten that there was going to be an end at all, so it's an exciting surprise to be in a new country.We headed into Costa Rica, unsure of where we wanted to stay for the night, but relieved that it wouldn't be at the border. We were getting close to the capital, San Jose, and weren't too excited about looking for a place to sleep there with it being so late in the day. The fog was getting more and more dense, so by default we decided on San Ramon, an hour west of San Jose. We could only find one hotel, and despite being out of our budget, we weren't about to keep riding, and we weren't complaining about the king sized bed, big screen tv, hot water, a/c and wifi in the room.  It was definitely one of the nicer hotels we have stayed on the trip, so we went to the convenience store to grab some snacks, turned on a good movie and stayed in for the night.

The TV is too big to fit in the entertainment center!
Later that night we got in touch with Alexis and Andres, a couple from Kansas City who Ty met earlier this year.  Ty saw them riding a V-Strom just like ours in Kansas City and stopped to talk to them about their bike.  Andres is originally from Costa Rica and told Ty that they spend their summers there, and to get in touch with them when we were passing through.  They invited us to come and stay with them in the house they are currently building in Providencia, Costa Rica and we happily took them up on their offer.  We told them we would meet up at a restaurant on the Pan-American Highway ten miles from their town the next afternoon.

The first order of business, though, was to meet up with Leo, a friend of Ty's from the Japan days. Leo is a modern renaissance man, and when he's not tracking wire fraud at the Costa Rican Central Bank, he might be studying acting, or dancing - in Spanish, English, French or Japanese. On this particular Tuesday he was at work though, so we made plans to him there on his lunch break.  Traffic was a bit crazy in the city and we weren't sure where we were going, but we finally figured it out and found a secure parking lot near the bank.  Leo took us to a really great restaurant that serves local Costa Rican fare and helped us figure out what to order.  We enjoyed our food and reminisced about Japan, but Leo had to get back to work, and in the frenzy of the San Jose streets we forgot to take a picture time! Who knows where we'll be?

We said our goodbyes to Leo and headed off to meet up with Alexis and Andres in Providencia.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

R & R in Granada, Nicaragua, and Youtube!

 Hey, I've added a new feature to the blog! Jill has been taking some short videos as we ride along, so I started a Youtube page where you can see them-

We have many more, so I'll be uploading and linking them as time and internet connection speed allows.

We last left off in Granada, with Jill feeling a bit under the weather. After about 24 hours of bed rest, and a pretty thorough clearing out of her system, she is back on her feet and we are ready to head off to the beach at San Juan del Sur. It would be a stretch to say we really did anything in Granada, but we ate some great food and had a few nice walks around. Here are some pictures of the two days we spent here before Jill got sick...
Outside the hostel. Note the sidewalk; every sidewalk in town is tiled instead of paved...pretty cool.

The restored cathedral
The un-restored cathedral

Volcanic rock walkways looked as old as the city

Beware of dog!

Wings and beers, classed up a bit

The nice cathedral at night
Planning our next move!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What do you do after that?!

We headed out of San Pedro, back toward Antigua. After the volcano hike, I ate two of the previously pictured steak dinners, drank two liters of Gallo beer, and promptly passed out at 7PM. Graceful. That little excess cost us nearly all of our local currency, so we were on a strict, $8.00 budget for lunch. This is what we came up with, on the side of Panamerican Highway 1:
Just kidding, there's no meat on that thing!!

The food was ok, but the view was FAB! 
You caught me, I'm actually writing this on a hot, rainy day in Nicaragua, while drinking Flor de Cana, a great local rum here in Granada. But the food there was great.

P.S. Hot and rainy is god's cruelest trick on humanity. It's at least 90 degrees and 90% humidity right now.

ANYWAY, We had a crazy drag race with a number of tractor trailers through some of the most curvy, road-work laden territory in Central America, and arrived safely back in Antigua, despite the best efforts of every local woman, tractor-trailer and dog.
Exhibit A:
Queens of the road.

Exhibit B:
Thanks for the input, but I was already terrified when I saw the rocks in the middle of the road.
We got back to Antigua, I changed the oil on the bike, Jill bought a complete map of Central America, and we said goodbye to our friends there, including Thomas, the most well traveled Kiwi on the planet.
Our bike in the living room, where it lived while we were back home.  Thomas, who has lived everywhere you've ever thought about going.
We spent a quiet night in Antigua, and split for the El Salvador border at first light. Or 11AM. Somewhere around there. Here's where I will have to refer you to Youtube, as I found a "creative" route to the Panamerican Highway.

It was a crazy couple of hours, but we hit the highway and made tracks for El Salvador, the smallest and most populated country in Central America. The border was a mess, and I don't think Jill has had as much unwanted attention since she spent a night out at the Hawk in Lawrence. According to legend, 40% of El Salvador's GDP is generated by expats in the US, and judging by the seemingly relaxed lifestyle we saw in every town, I would believe it. We've not seen such a highly prostrate population since Belize, and it's still a bit creepy to see everyone lying around on the ground at 2PM on a Tuesday. Try to look like you're doing something, creepy dudes!

Once through the border we got as far as La Liberdad, and then anything started to look good. We made it most of the way through town, found a low-level place to stay, and the only food in the area was a roadside trucker haven. As I learned in Japan and Mexico, if you want to find the good food, find the place the big trucks stop. We had a wonderful dinner of chicken, rice and beans, and I would have taken a picture, but doing so makes you look like a real weirdo. We stopped at an auto hotel next door, and it looked something like this:
We are homeless in any practical sense.
Here's what we looked like in the Auto-Hotel:
Still crazy, after all these years. I love you Jill.  

At the crack of 10AM we were off,  bound for the border of Honduras. We got there, and it was the worst border-crossing scene of the trip. Scammers everywhere, crazy little shacks, stray dogs and a strange, foul odor. Jill ignored the "officials," distributed a few WWF class elbow drops, and we were in the clear...except for the final checkpoint dude with the big shotgun. He turned us straight around, back to scammerville to do things the right way. When Jill turns in a border "helper" to the Federal Police, this is what it looks like:
Do you want to cross the gringa in the aviators?! I don't!
 We got ripped off for about $60, and made our way through the 80 miles of Honduras with a deep, abiding hatred for every man, woman, child and dog in the country.  Strange how things work out; we had planned to spend two blissful months in Honduras, and ended up spending two frantic hours blasting through the southern territories. Why did we have to get out of Honduras the same day? Well, the customs officials were not to pleased with our attempt to drive through the border and skip their authority, so they granted us a 12 hour visa to Honduras. If we spent the night there, we would be facing a $150 fine for overstaying our visa when we left the next day. Insert incredibly explicit language here. Cut to high speed 80mph drive-through.

We busted through Honduras like it was on fire, and hit the Nicaraguan border in a sunset downpour. Silliness ensued, but we managed to get through by 8PM. If you're planning on crossing two international borders on a motorcycles in one day, it's important to remember that each border is two separate struggles: one to get out of the country you're in, and another to get into the next. Going into Honduras we were taken for around $60, and on the way out, money changers took us for another $35. This would not have been important, had we not needed another $2 to get into Nicaragua legally.

Jill watched the bike, and I sorted out all of the border nonsense. Everything was good, until we tried to get bike insurance for Nicaragua. It was $12, and we had $10.50. Why did we only have $10.50? That sounds stupid. Well, we got taken for $30 on the exchange rate on the Honduran side of the border, confirming our eternal hatred for Honduras. Anyway, a guy showed up and gave our pitiful souls the $1.50 we needed to get out, and we got out.

We got out into a torrential downpour, and rode 90 miles in it, in pitch darkness, to the first sign of civilization in Nicaragua. In that lovely jaunt we ran through a huge road washout, and got a colossal steel rod through our rear tire. Luckily we didn't notice the puncture until the next day, after a lovely night of drinks and dancing in the hotel restaurant.
Here's the stupid flat.
Stupid flat.
I then fixed it, because that's how I roll.

Fixed, oh, snap!
Ok, I fixed the flat and we headed out for Granada. It was an easy drive, and during a gas stop a guy gave me a big picture of Che Guevara, which now adorns our top box. When we arrived in Granada, it looked something like this:
Kind of obvious.
We've been here for the last three or four days; and as soon as Jill feels better we're off again. See ya!