South from Guatemala to Panama

Central America Caribbean
September 28th 2009
Published: September 28th 2009
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Just a reminder you can find my pictures at my Flickr site

Monterrico was not that far from the border with El Salvador, and I was at the border by about 8:30. The usual hoard of Tramitadores was waiting for me. Again I did most of the work, talking to people and let various people point me in the right direction, the crossing was mostly painless.

In El Salvidor I drove the CA-2 highway that follows the coast south. It is really a beautiful highway with large trees arching overhead in many places. It reminded me of some places along the Stanley Park Drive in Vancouver, except this went on for long distances. A series of tunnels allow the highway to follow the coast without lots of curves. I was startled by how dark the first tunnel was and was momentarily blinded while my eyes adjusted to the dark. It didn't help that I was wearing sunglasses.

Somewhere along the way I pulled out of a tunnel to see the ocean below me, and a series of restaurants hanging on the cliffs between the road and the water. I stopped for lunch and continued through the Libertad area. This is the coastal area closest to the city of El Salvador, and is full of hotels and restaurants. I continued south for a bit and then turned north to San Miguel.

About three years ago, my daughter Melinda visited San Miguel. The church where she was working in Edmonton helped to sponsor a church there (La Iglesia Luterana El Divino Redentor), and she went with a delegation from her church for a visit. When Melinda found out that I would be in El Salvador, she sent me some pictures and directions to find the church. I arrived in San Miguel, found a hotel, then drove over to find the church. I met Pastor Miguel, his wife Antonia, and children Saul and Diego. At the time Melinda visited, Antonia was pregnant with Diego, and delivered less than two weeks after Melinda and her group had gone.

Some Spanish-speaking people I can not understand at all, and others, perfectly. I haven't figured out yet what makes the difference. It doesn't seem to be based on regional dialects, as this has happened in every Spanish-speaking country I have been in. I know part of it has to do with the speed that they speak. Fortunately, Pastor Miguel was someone who I was able to understand, and we talked at length for an hour and a half. He told me about his church, and the work they were doing in the community. Part of the work they do is running a bakery. This serves numerous purposes, for example, they teach people how to bake and give them the skills to earn a living. He gave me an example of a girl who learned how to bake and is paying her way through university that way. She gets up very early every morning and bakes various things, then takes them to university to sell to the other students.

The church bakery (Miguel, Antonia, and the kids) make various breads and wholesale them to local neighbours to resell to help them earn a living. The church also acts as a storefront for rural people who grow things and need somewhere in the city to sell their goods. Of course, Sunday is a busy day as it is when most of the people come to the church, both for services and commerce. Miguel told me that the congregation only consists of about 20 families, but they get wider participation by helping the local community. I forgot to take my camera over, so Pastor Miguel invited me back in the morning to see the bakery in action and to take some pictures. I visited and watched Miguel and Antonia and the kids in action making donuts. Even the kids had little aprons to wear! Saul is about 5 and Diego just under 3. I left the church about 10 and rode the highway out of town heading for the Honduras border.

Honduras had been the only question mark on my trip so far. The brief history of the situation there is that earlier this year the military staged a coup, kicked the president out of the country, and installed a new president with elections to follow. This threw the country into some chaos, the supporters of the president staging rallies and protests, similarly, his opponents were protesting as well. Meanwhile, the deposed President was hanging out close to the border in Nicaragua, plotting his return and rallying his supporters. It turned out that, the day I traveled through Honduras, the deposed president found his way back into the country and set up camp in the Brazilian embassy. After the coup took place, I had read stories about airports and borders being closed which is why I was paying attention to the situation in case it happened again.

I made it through the country with no problems, in fact it was a short visit. I spent more time at the border doing the paperwork to enter the country than it took me to drive across to the Nicaraguan border (which was only about 2 hours away). It didn't help that I arrived in Honduras at lunch time. The immigration and customs offices kept working through lunch, but the office that processed the vehicle importations was closed. The Honduras border was the most disorganized one that I have seen on my travels. I was swarmed by tramitadores and did my usual song and dance in Spanish about not needing them. Once they figure out that I can speak some Spanish, the interest usually dies down. I go about my business and usually one or two follow me around giving me pointers in the hopes that I will tip them anyway; and if they do provide some value add for me, I will tip them something. At the Honduras border, the tramitadore managed to get the vehicle import guy, for a small ($2) bribe, to process my papers during his lunch break. Just as I had finished my border paperwork, another bike traveler pulled in. I said hello, and “welcome to my nightmare”, and we made introductions before I left. I didn't stick around to talk to Frank Butler, I wanted to get through Honduras and into Nicaragua as soon as possible.

I only actually drove not much more that 200 kms that day, but with two border crossings, it was a full day. I stayed that night in a small town just inside Nicaragua (Somotillo), and heard that night that the airports in Honduras had been closed. There was a rumor the next morning that the borders were closed as well, but it turned out to be false. There is an enormous amount of trade that takes place between countries in Latin America, as evidenced by the amount of transport truck traffic on the roads (and lined up to cross the borders). Closing the airports, I think, is more of a symbolic move and does little to affect commerce. Closing the highways would have a much more serious economic impact, not only on Honduras, but on neighbouring countries that rely on the Panamerican highway to get their goods to and from market.

After checking into my hotel, I caught a “triciclo” cab to a cyber cafe to catch up on my email. When I arrived back at the hotel, Frank's bike was parked behind mine. The owner of the hotel told me that Frank had been looking for me, and was in the bar across the street. I walked across and drained a few beers with this fellow traveler from, as I found, Papau New Guinea.

Frank Butler is an interesting guy to say the least. He has been traveling continuously with his motorcycle for over 7 years, and has not been home during this time. He was born in the UK, lived in Australia, and moved to Papau New Guinea to set up a diving business (apparently some of the best diving in the world around there). He holds citizenship in about 4 countries, I don't remember the other one. We traveled for the next few days together, shared a room in Granada, Nicaragua, for a couple of nights, then crossed the border into Costa Rica. We went as far as Liberia together, I checked into a hotel there, and Frank continued on to the Costa Rican coast to visit a cousin he had never met.

Costa Rica was a place I would have liked to spend more time, but I showed up in the middle of their rainy season. In fact, on our way to Liberia, Frank and I got dumped on. We pulled off the highway and sat in an outdoor (covered) bar for over an hour while it pissed rain. We got going again, only to find ourselves in another deluge on the outskirts of Liberia. We ducked under a covered gas station, filled up, and waited it out. I noticed a hotel across the street, where I later stayed for the night.

There are some active volcanoes in Costa Rica, and all sorts of geothermic activity like mud pots, steam vents, hot springs, and lava flows. There is a park close to Liberia where you can see much of this stuff, and I would have been interested, but the rainy season puts the access roads in no shape for a motorcycle. I pushed on.

I like to avoid big cities, and planned to take other roads to avoid San Jose, but the combination of rainy season and poor secondary roads kept me on the Panamericana, right into the heart of San Jose. As usual, I got lost and eventually found my way out. I pushed on to a town about 30 kms past San Jose called Cartago. It was just a dot on the map, of a size that told me they should have hotels there. It was also past San Jose, so I would not have to put up with morning traffic there. I checked into a hotel on the highway, unloaded the bike, then headed downtown to see what I could see.

Cartago has an interesting history, as evidenced by two buildings: the ruins of an ancient church, built in 1571. A huge structure, it was destroyed a couple of times by earthquakes and rebuilt, but not after the last major earthquake in 1910. All that remain now are the outside walls, but still very impressive. The other place of note must be the basilica, lovely building out and inside, you can see pictures on my Flickr site. The next morning, I made my run for Panama.

Unexpectedly to me, the highway south of Cartago started to climb, and kept right on going for about 6000 feet, until the highway was over 11,000 feet. I had to stop twice to put on more clothes. It was interesting climbing up into the clouds, and watching the clouds been blown up and over the high ridge the road was following. As quickly as the road climbed up, it dropped back down on the other side. There was a town at the bottom of the hill, then the population thinned out dramatically, the road all the way to the border with Panama was very sparsely populated.

At the border I again was accosted by tramitadores who told me of all the horrors I would encounter without their help. I was polite and talked with them about my trip, but told them I did not need their help, and was not prepared to pay them. They hovered for a bit to see how I did, and soon disappeared. I was annoyed by the obvious lies they told me, and was certainly not going to do business with them. The border crossing was probably the easiest since leaving the U.S.

Suddenly, I am in Panama! The road immediately expanded to 4-lane divided, and took me to the town of David where I spent the night. It was Saturday night, and the town was alive. I walked over to a cyber cafe a few blocks away and was glad I was on foot. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper with Saturday night cruisers. I would have taken longer if I rode Moto-san.

My bike has a name: “Moto-san”. “Moto” is the abbreviation in Spanish for “motocicleta”. I have been calling my bike “moto” off and on. As my mind wanders while traveling all day, I decided that a pure Spanish name for a Japanese bike wouldn't properly respect its heritage. Moto-san was born. Moto-san it is.

One of the cultural things I have noticed in Central America is that there is constant noise everywhere you go. Televisions are omni-present. Every restaurant and bar will have a TV or more going. Most vendors in the markets have a television blaring away in their stalls. Bars will often have sound systems cranking out loud music. Walking back to my hotel from the cyber-cafe, I heard very loud music in the distance ahead of me. I assumed it was one of the bars I passed on the way in, but it turned out not. The corner of the street two blocks from my hotel was a large empty lot, which was now filled with cars, trucks, and vans engaged in some kind of sound-system war. There were literally dozens of vehicles, all with their doors, windows, back-hatches open displaying huge speakers. Some had additional speakers stacked on the roof. Pickup trucks had walls of speakers in the back. They all had the volume cranked up to 11. They all played different music, trying I think, to outdo each other. Another form of machismo I imagine. The cumulative effect from a distance was sheer noise, and deafening loud. I arrived back at my room, closed the door and layed down in bed. The cement walls were vibrating. I was tired. I usually sleep with ear-plugs, so I didn't notice for long.

I'll wind up this blog with another bit of serendipity. I arrived in Panama city in a rainstorm. I did my usual thing and got lost. I parked under a gas station cover to wait out the rain. My plan was to find a hotel by the airport where Moto-san would be shipped to Columbia. I asked directions and eventually found my way to the airport, which is a fair way south of Panama. While driving around the airport, I saw a sign for a Hostel. I was actually looking for something a little more up-scale, but didn't find anything else. I pulled in to the hostel parking lot and saw another moto with UK plates on it. I walked into the hostel and confirmed they had a room, but there was no internet. As I will be here for a few days, I really wanted internet. The couple (Brian and Sandra) that were on the other bike were in the lobby and I started talking with them, and how they were shipping their bike to Columbia. It turns out that they had met the same group of 17 UK bikers that Bruce and I had met in Creel and Zacatecas. It seems this group has a whole plane chartered to transport their bikes, and Bruce and Sandra were able to secure transport on the same plane. I am going to follow this up to see if they can fit me too. I decided that with this opportunity, I would stick close to Brian and Sandra and stay at the hostel. The airport terminal is a short distance away, and has free wifi, so it will work.

My next blog entry will describe how I managed to get Moto-san and I to Columbia, and my initiation by moto to South America.


29th September 2009

Hi John, I have finally read your blogs, charted your journey and looked at your beautiful pictures. Omigosh, what an amazing trip you are having. I like what you write about...the biking details are interesting to fellow riders. The surprises that you've experienced, such as having some preconceptions challenged, are also interesting to me. We had a great trip over the Beartooth Pass in Wyoming this summer, but despite the buffalo rubs, snow and lightning, we'd probably still get a pussy rating given what you've experienced! I look forward to your next installment!
30th September 2009

Read it all, slideshows are amazing!
What a trip! The pictures are awesome and remind me of several movies I've seen filmed in various areas- or look-a-like areas! Wow! Not a trip for Goldwings I see! Pictures are gorgeous- although I would have enjoyed seeing pix of some of the fellow travellers you've encountered! Looking forward to your next installation! Keep safe!
18th October 2009

OK, So I am a little slow
Copper Canyon > WOW! I know, I know, delayed reaction... Copper Canyon > WOW!

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