From Costa Rica to Panama
After spending 1 week in Costa Rica, I said good-bye to my lovely host, Julio, whom I already regard as my brother. I continued south to the border by riding on Highway 2 – 243 – 34. I took the mountain road half way, and the coast road a little bit. It was cold and foggy in the mountains, and very warm when I had descended. Exiting Costa Rica was very easy. I need to pay US$8 exit fee and took only 30mins to settle everything. However, entering Panama was another story. I had to deal with the immigration, photocopy the stamp on my passport, then go to the customs, purchase mandatory insurance for US$15, back to the customs, wait forever for the officer to prepare the TVIP, then bike checking where the guy asked me to open all my box and panniers, then when I was rushing as it’s going to rain, another officer stopped me. He said GD needs fumigation first. Then back to the window, paperwork again bla, bla, bla, paid US $1, and he sprayed water on GD.
Only then I was done. Sometimes I was soo pissed off to see how they tried to make money any way they could. After spending 1.30hrs on the Panama side, then only I was through. Thank god roads in Panama were double laned and paved nicely. So for the first time after USA, I managed to speed at 110kmh. Panama was country #65 for me and #9 for GDR. I arrived at David City when the sun was setting. I contacted a biker, Giovanni who was a friend of Julio, and he came to meet me. The next day, he took me for a ride to Bouqette, a nice charming mountain about 30kms from David City. Later, I continued riding to Santiago via Sona. Even though this road was windy and 50kms more in distance, but the view was sooo green and beautiful and the road was very good compared to the straight Pan-Am Highway which was nearer but with 40kms dirt and gravel as the road was under construction. In Santiago I was entertained by another biker Jorge.
The next day, I rode 270km to Panama City via Centennial Bridge. I saw lots of police by the roadside, waiting to catch people speeding over the limit. When crossing the Centennial Bridge, I saw the Panama Canal for the first time in my life. It was awesome. I was met by Raul, also a friend of Julio, who hosted me for 3 nights. Raul took me to a Givi distributor shop in Panama City, where I met Rebecca and her husband. They were so nice to me and even donated some money for my ride. They asked my opinion about Givi products and I told them that except for the top box problem, all the other stuff was great and I am very satisfied.
During my stay, Raul took me for sightseeing around Panama City. Nothing much that I knew about this metropolis except for the famous Panama Canal and that it was once an important US military base during WW2. Raul took me to the old and new Panama, which was huge in contrast. Skyscrapers in the new and, as the name implied, old buildings in the old Panama. Unlike other Central American countries that I had been to, I can see lots of different ethnics here, being the original Panamanian, the Guna Yalas tribe, the blacks from scattered Caribbean islands and plenty of Chinese in this city. I also visited the starting of the Panama Canal, which took 10 years to complete and was opened in 1914. The 77km long canal linked the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea. After spending 3 nights in Panama City, I made my way to Carti Pier to board a sailboat to cross Darien Gap.
What and where is Darien Gap? Darien Gap is a break in the Pan-Am Highway consisting of a large mountainous rain forest within Panama’s province in Central America and swampland dominated by a river delta at the northern portion of Colombia in South America. It measured just over 160km long and about 50km wide. Road building through this area was expensive, and the environmental cost was high. Due to environmentalist protest and the concern that drug traffic will be easier between Central and South American countries, at the moment, there was no road connection through the Darien Gap. It was the missing link of the Pan-Am Highway. The Gap was also subjected to the presence and activities of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had committed assassinations, kidnappings, and human rights violations during its decades-long insurgency against the Colombian government. Many had tried to cross the Gap, be it on a 4WD, two wheelers or on foot. Some survived, but many not. Some had to abandon their vehicles and had to turn to boats to get out of the Gap.
The time when I did my research about crossing Darien Gap, there was a ferry by the name of Ferry Xpress which charged approx. US$430 for a motorbike and owner to cross from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Unfortunately, this ferry has stopped operating and will only resume next year. This left me with two options, both resulted in lots of money having to be spent (given that the distance was not that far, only about 350kms) – either to fly my bike, or to take a traditional sail boat instead. I chose the latter. The cost rocketed to US$1030 + US$23 (Guna Yalas toll) for a 4D3N journey, sailing along San Blas islands in the Caribbean. Its big money, but this was the only option that I had, and I am lucky to secure the last available place on the boat for their last departure for year 2105, or else I had to wait until 2016 to cross. I arrived at Carti Pier after riding on the steepest and scariest road of my life. At times, I doubted if my small cc motorbike could make it or not. It was a 1st or 2nd gear affair almost all the way. Thank God I made it safely. I met other bikers who will be my sailing mates for the next 4D3N.