Rather than hack our way through a 99-mile swath of malarial, guerilla-infested, roadless swampland separating South America from Central America—with a machete in one hand, throttle in the other—we took the cowardly route and boarded the Ferry Express instead. Actually, Jason towed Pearl and me up the ramp onto the vessel. After gaining 22 grand on the clock, I could hardly call her anything but admirable—having mosied me partly down and up an entire continent—albeit with a couple of hiccups along the way.
Pearl’s old engine was dispensing a watery Americano from a faulty water pump while her fork seals oozed a rich espresso. Her battery had seen better days as well. Admittedly, we had run out of road in the northern portion of Colombia’s Chocó Department connecting with Panama’s Darién Province—the Pan-American’s missing link—so sailing around the Darién Gap seemed sensible if not impressively unexciting.
That is, until gravitating towards those with the same idea as us, moto-overlanders, as one naturally does. A heady mixture of quick-witted Americans, a good time German couple, a laid back Brazilian and an affable Argentinean blended a dynamic that kept the group in stitches for the duration. And believe you me, there is muchas tiempo to kill before, during and after the crossing to Panama. I think we were on some sort of fabulous-people-meet streak, where the recent weeks had comprised a seamless succession of superbly salt-of-the-Earth folks. All motorcyclists but that could just be a happy coincidence of course…or not.
A faint slate-blue glow shone on the horizon. Around 19 hours later, we dropped anchor in a port aswarm with ships, night cloaked the water and the rusted hinges of the ferry let out a pair of screams. The heaving metal door shrieked open and out we spilled, tower and towee. Disembarkation drifted us along the ripples and eddies of the immigration and customs processes, which plunged us fathoms deep into boredom. Welcome to the first Central America border crossing…suck it up or sayonara! Still, a good book, some nourishing snacks and someone to talk to, or at, will munch up the monotony.
A mandatory appointment between a somewhat knackered Pearl and Panama City meant requisitioning a truck and its driver, transporting her from the port to Antonio’s place (a blue building on the same side, slightly up the hill from but close to Panama House Bed & Breakfast, Avenida Norte 1C, Panama City) and calling into BMW to pick up parts. A quiet unassuming chap, softly spoken Antonio was semi-retired but worked like a machine in the mornings. I was grateful to the moon and back for his astronomic efforts in the restoration of Pearl—bringing her back to her chipper road-worthy self. Antonio barely charged us a dime compared to the man-hours inputted; as he wouldn’t let us pay him more, then the very least I could give Antonio was the highest recommend to all. What a moto-mechanic and generous man to boot. He fixes all sorts of other vehicles too although bikes seem to dominate his focus these days.
While waiting for BMW’s stores to scoop up Pearl’s parts, we met Gustavo and two of his biking buddies. They were in the midst of an intense 20-day riding holiday astride their R1200GSA beasts. The conversation spiralled from one thing and corkscrewed into another, and before you know it, they’d whisked us up into a taxi and whirlwinded us across town. Not a ‘Plata o plomo?’ scenario (namely ‘Silver or lead?’ meaning money or a bullet) but more of a servicio plata—silver service at a rather plush restaurant. A slap up meal upon their magnanimous invitation wasn’t what I was expecting. Wow, the places that two wheels lead you to sometimes; my stomach hadn’t been this elated since our ceviche extravaganza with Ricardo and Julio in Peru.
Where the rolling hills of the Azuero Peninsula meet the rolling waves off Playa Venao beach, a surfer’s Mecca due south was our first reforested taste of Panama. I confess to not being overly enamoured with Panama City itself: a tad too sky rise, mall-centric and traffic heavy with scant room to swing even a dead cat. The usual suspects of some Latin American big cities.
Nope, we sooner settled for a white sandy shoreline mingling with calm grey-blue water instead, which lapped gently around our bare feet. Sea scoured pebbles, the odd piece of driftwood and crab holes punctuated an otherwise pristine beach. A crab scrambled to dig a hole before anything bigger than himself saw him. A sandy breeze softly sizzled against the kayaks, flowing fronds of beach palms barely stirred—thank King Neptune for this delicious ocean in which to dunk ourselves. The air, a trifle below 40 was akin to a sauna; everyone a glistening mess while enduring their own personal summer—sweat simply pouring out of pores like gentle rain. The heat stymied even the insects, which usually hovered in clouds of glittering membranous wings.
We opportunely caught up with Vera and Ernst from the ferry en route to Playa Venao; a ballsy, travel-hungry couple straddling big bikes. Helmets off to these two; among a myriad of adventures, they’d only gone and walked a sizeable section of the Darién Gap back in the early ‘90s. And they were still ‘out there’, now in their mid-sixties. When like-minded folks are that gutsy, whose age is a just a number, doesn’t ‘the more the merrier’ always kick in? It was also a treat to talk ‘woman’ with Vera, a language that would always remain obscure to Jason. The body boards were free of charge; each of us grabbing one, we made a beeline for the blue. I felt six years old again paddling with legs like bees’ wings, trying to catch the crest of the waves and pleading for them to take me where only mermaids go.
Playa Venao beach was also my first taste astride Jason’s wheels. Deferentially parking the F800GS on the hard sand for me, I jumped aboard and Jason implored: “Just remember Lise, about having three points of contact when you stop, not four. Okay?” “Yeah yeah”, I barely acknowledged about to burst with excitement, yadda yadda.
Loose-shouldered, I slowly opened a tall first gear and I was away—making tracks in the sand, curving around the shoreline and feeling the salty sea air curling around in my hair. Building a little speed over the sand, this machine needed no coaxing—she was a beast: responsive, beautifully balanced and purred like a puma. Oh my, so this is what riding a big bike’s all about! And heck knows why it took me so long to have a dabble on the 800. Happy Mondays.
What was heavy air by day, pressing down from above, allowed us to bask in the feel of a warm breeze at night. That and a sun-kissed glow. Despite slathering sunscreen factor paint all over myself, I was a walking dot-to-dot, speckled in freckles. Persistently popping up like nobody’s business—you never know, when they all merrily merge together, I might just have myself a novel off-white tan.
A three quarter moon blazed so brightly, it silvered the sea tainting the sand with a silver sheen to match. A dancing floor’s worth of decking situated a stone’s throw from the sea permitted us the perfect spot to make camp. Sleeping mats pumped beneath bodies that were pooped, I was able to marshal enough energy to stuff a pillowcase full of clothes before nose-diving into a deep slumber. Without persuasion, the soft rumble of the waves was all it took.
The waking sun sent shafts of light to pierce the drifting clouds hovering on the canvas of predawn. Quite an eye-opener to our Tuesday morning. Stretching like a cat and without bothering to tame hair wild with sleep—indulging in a bonus day of more surfing, snoozing and clinging onto a body temperature just below hyperthermia—seemed only apt. Alas, we decided to give Panama her cards, as drinkable as the tap water was and scenic as her two back pockets were. Sadly, she’d drawn the shortest straw, even though we’d barely arrived. Costa Rica and her best friend Nicaragua, the wildcard were calling.
En route to migrating to Costa Rica, Pearl’s battery died, predictably. Despite clinging onto hope, a wing and a prayer of jump-starting her into life every time—courtesy of J’s bike—handy beyond convenience when you can do that. And thus, wishing to keep charging her battery for as long as Pearl deemed possible. This worked a charm right up until reaching the border—upon which a Harley rider called Jim popped up who, incredibly, showed us where and how to illegally exit Panama in order to source a battery in Costa Rica. Namely, riding up the road, down a ditch onto the opposite carriageway and boom, we’d crossed the threshold into a new country..! Who said Central American borders were tedious beyond comprehension? Pah! That one was about as fast and feisty as they come.
Upon closer inspection of Pearl’s battery, only one of six cells contained a full column of acid. Oops, when did that lot evaporate? A refill for $4 later—having executed the world’s cheapest BMW fix known to man and moto—we snook out of Costa Rica and commenced our obligation to make an official exodus from Panama. I was loving Central America already and Pearl, have I ever told you you’re a peach? Thanks for costing me pennies and not mounds of pounds.
Confronted by an angry beggar on our Panama departure, my personal space and I were taken aback by a rather prunish face with almost no teeth left in his head. Grey hair had grown so sparse that it looked as wispy as a spider web spun about a round skull. Sadly made disgruntled that I, on this occasion, calmly refused him moolah. What a cold stone-hearted woman, I agree but the few coins of change with which my pockets jingled, would purchase our stack of mandatory photocopies at the border. Rattling a cup half full of silver at my chin, the vagabond’s withered lips worked over gums while his overgrown finger nails gesticulated his rightful demands on my dinero in a boisterously barbed manner.
I pulled up my drawbridge and retreated into sympathy albeit surrounded by an impenetrably stubborn moat. His clothes weren’t exactly hanging from his frame like the hide of a winter-starved buffalo either. Sorry chap with a medium build—you’re hollering at me and while I can’t help but hear your insistent requests, I’m no longer in the habit of taking crap. His face pinched into a thousand lines as he sniffed his nose in disgust at me. And while his belly may well have been hungry, his outright expectancy and aggression left a sour brew in mine. After a few last minute obscenities, foreign to my ears but lucid all the same, he stomped away surveying his next prey worthy of his advance. You win some, you lose some.
‘Tis well known that many scaremongering stories circulate around the frenetic chaos of Central American border crossings. No sooner had we kicked the side stands down and there he was, a fixer accosting Jason. A fixer is someone who offers to hand-hold you through the immigration and customs processes in exchange for as much as they can milk from you; their golden goose on a great day or cash cow on a good one. I’d been ruminating on these folks while harnessing thoughts of ‘strong confident woman’ in my mind all morning and didn’t relish indulging a single one.
“You better go and ask the boss, she’s right behind me”, Jason humoured the fixer with shrugged shoulders. Gliding over, a suave smile spread across his chops as he outwardly believed it was already in the bag. With excellent English to boot. I somehow doubted he fancied sharing a refreshing drink and making some polite chitchat. To burst his overinflated bubble with my power-of-intent pin, I respectfully apologised: “Sorry Sir” and declared “I think I have enough survival Spanish to exit Panama and enter Costa Rica without your help but thank you all the same.” “If we need you, we’ll definitely come and find you”, Jason added to soften the rupturing blow.
Lines of growing concern furrowed the fixer’s forehead as he asked rather incredulously, “You’re going to do your own paperwork, by yourself?” He announced it tautly, as though a dilemma with the same fear as if he had been forecasting an imminent volcano eruption, capable of burying our bikes in ash. I smiled and casually replied, “Si. Come oon, how hard can it be when you know the words inmigración and aduana [customs]?”
Old tactic abandoned for a new strategy: “Okay then, let me do it and pay me whatever you like as a tip as I will make the process really fast for you.” Nice try buster but I’ve got forms to fill in and stamps to acquire, adios amigo. Our passports as it happened were starting to make cracking souvenirs, particularly Jason’s with about 1.5 pages worryingly clear. Better not machine wash them this time, like I did in Australia seven years previous but that’s a story for another time.
One hour later and we were roaring triumphantly down the road, our exhausts expelling a rather smug plume of satisfaction. I hadn’t left my head in Playa Venao’s sand that all Central American borders would be such a civilised breeze but while we were in the middle of its two richest countries, it was time to seize the day.
My attention wandered like the flight of a bee through a field of wildflowers. Everything distracted me: the noisy trill of crickets; the deepening darkness of the forest’s dense evergreens whispering silently in the midday sun; the neck-craning ancient boughs feathering the bellies of the clouds; the raft of fruits and their flowers in unbridled bloom; the dazzling colours of exotic flora wowing me around every corner; and the noisy birdlife soaring on the warm currents—their wide wings spread in such freedom that it made my soul grin. Clean-as-a-whistle Costa Rica baby is the queen of an American beauty pageant. She’s the head of her sorority, a crowd-pleaser without suffering overcrowding and made flagship by a glamorous set of credentials. What a resumé! Certainly compared to the ugly duckling neighbouring her below; a smile warmed my sidetracked face.