Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Managua, Nicaragua to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama
In Tegucigalpa, we left our bikes under the watchful eye of this guard brandishing a WWII MI Carbine.
We departed the capital city of Tegucigalpa early in the morning to avoid rush hour and proceeded the short distance to the Nicaraguan border. We do not have a detailed GPS map of the city, but fortunately Helge speaks Spanish well enough and is a good enough judge of character to pick the appropriate set of conflicting directions.
Both of my cameras malfunctioned today – I’ve been wearing a single-lens reflex around my neck and have been taking the majority of pictures with it on the fly. I hold it to my chest with a bungee cord over my shoulder and around my back which allows me to release the throttle with my right hand, pull in the clutch with my left hand, and snap a picture with a minimum of disruption (not a perfect system). It has an 18mm wide-angle lens which allows me to basically use the camera as a point-and-shoot while riding and adjusts to a mild telephoto of 70mm for other uses. However, the battery was drained after only one day’s use, so I’ll have to look into replacing it.
I turned to my second camera, a small rugged, waterproof Olympus pocket camera which I keep in my front breast pocket, but it has a broken LED so it’s difficult to get the settings right. I am having a replacement Olympus pocket camera sent to me for our arrival in Panama City. The other guys do not take still photos while riding—whether this is because they are wise or just not trying hard enough, I don’t know.
Helge uses a small Hero camera (the size of a box of matches) attached in an elaborate Rube Goldberg get-up to his helmet. It takes video and still pictures but requires you to reach up blindly and press the buttons. In addition, you cannot see what you have taken; you have to assume that you’ve gotten the shot. A handlebar remote would be the perfect addition to this rig.
Helge is a true photography aficionado with an artistic temperament, a wonderful sense of composition, and to-die-for equipment. The Hero camera is the least complicated photographic device he has. The rest of us have helmet-mounted video cameras as well. Vince has a very fancy Sony high resolution camera that (for those of you who are photographically inclined) is 1920 x 1080 pixels and uses 1GB of memory every minute it is on. Roger and I both have a POV camera that is 720 x 480 pixels; it was 1/4 the cost of Vince’s but obviously takes lower quality pictures and is not quite as easy to operate. The videos that Roger and Vince have been taking will be incorporated into Helge’s final video. I have not been using my video camera enough.
We spent just over an hour at the border (the shortest time yet) and passed into Nicaragua shortly after noon with Helge negotiating our way through the issues of importing motorcycles. The bikes have to be imported, insured and then exported upon departure or a tax is levied. This rigmarole is in addition to the usual routine of passing through immigration and customs.
Roger takes the opportunity to have his boots spit-shined. By tomorrow, he will be covered head-to-toe in mud (looking more like a pig farmer), but for the moment at least he looks spiffy.
At the border, we met an enthusiastic and dedicated Bible teacher from Mentor, Ohio with a large group of students from all over the US. After listening to his short but enthusiastic talk about Jesus, the Bible, and being saved, I asked his Nicaraguan-born associate how his group could help in a country with such a strong tradition of Catholicism. He explained that in the Central American countries, Catholicism is cultural and traditional, but not behavior-changing. A lot of the attraction of Catholicism in this area, he stated, is for its accompanying festivals and special events, but there is not a focus on changing morality. He mentioned that sexual promiscuity is rampant and that unprotected sex is the norm—the birth rate confirms this). He did acknowledge that their group would have a difficult time influencing this behavior. It struck me that loose morals may suggest a market opportunity for other religions. But to help these people and deal with the out-of-wedlock birthrate, the focus should obviously be on education – not on preaching a particular brand of religion.
We stopped for lunch and met these two adorable boys – Vince showed them pictures of his motorcycle being ferried across a river in Laos on a large canoe and the boys noticed immediately that it was a different motorcycle (which it was) and specifically detailed the reasons why. They were bright, articulate and questioning – marvelous kids that could rise to any height in a strong, well-managed economy.
The boys directed our attention to a DC3 exhibit on the horizon. They were proud that the Sandinista guerillas had shot down the dictator Somoza’s plane in 1979 (without him in it) – it was considered a major coup.
I brought along some finger puppets to distribute to the children along the way – the requirement to receive a puppet is to make the sound of the animal. These two received the lion and tiger (easy sounds to make) – but what do you do about the rabbit?
As we proceeded into Nicaragua, the poverty was more evident.
We arrived at Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in time for rush hour.
Managua belies the poverty of the country – parts are quite modern with significant commercial areas. We located an Intercontinental Hotel after losing our way several times. We were told not to venture outside of the hotel unless doing so in an Intercontinental-approved cab and holding the cab at your destination until your return; apparently, it is common for cab drivers to hold up their tourist clients at gun point. Accordingly, we ate at the hotel and pondered over our next day’s itinerary – one thought was to visit Roger’s daughter, Erika, at Malpais, Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula, which is terrific surfing country. We could either stay in the hotel next door or sleep on the beach. The next morning, however, we determined that as the road onto the Osa Peninsula is unimproved it would be too time consuming to make the round trip. So we decided on the Arenal Volcano, one of 10 volcanoes in Costa Rica.
We headed out early on the morning of the 23rd while the city was still sleeping.
Even modern Managua had commercial horse carts.
Managua is too crowded and does not hold enough interest for Helge’s tour next year so he decided we should visit Granada, a colonial city not far from Managua. The sun blazes hotly even at this hour of the morning.
Granada is a beautiful city with narrow streets, colonial architecture, which has been spared of the KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s that plague Managua.
With horse carts:
And the signature town square of the small Central American towns:
Granada is located on Lake Nicaragua and has an attractive lakefront promenade.
A signature fountain:
Helge’s finds the perfect hotel for next year’s tour located on the square:
We spoke with some of the natives:
And Helge gave some riding lessons:
Some local ruins:
We passed by a windmill farm where a local contractor, with the help of some Australians, was installing eleven Indian wind turbines. At first they allowed us to stay and watch, but shortly thereafter asked us to leave and to not take pictures (not even from the road). The most interesting part of this was that the wind blowing off Lake Nicaragua was substantial – perhaps 20 mph. How they expected to control the hub with three huge blades radiating from it was beyond me - they had several cranes to do the work, but it still looked dicey.
While we were examining the windmills, Vincent went on ahead. When he noticed we weren’t behind him, he turned around and headed back past the turbines some 30 miles before he realized that we were not to be found.
We proceeded on to the Costa Rica border without Vincent and found an incredible mess. The crossing was completely crowded for two reasons: it was the weekend, and Costa Rica has been struggling with illegal workers from Nicaragua.
Waiting trucks and buses:
A hip couple:
Helge picked out what I thought to be a questionable “fixer” to lubricate and speed things along – a man with a gold chain and diamond stud. He reminded me too much of the guy in the Armani T-shirt who scammed us at the Guatemala border. But the guy turned out to be magic and swept us through the line in three hours. As we crossed the border, we saw a line of trucks extending for over 1.5 miles.
A shot of the end of the line:
All of these drivers had to channel through one person behind a desk (who took the usual lunch and siesta breaks).
As we drove into Costa Rica there was a definite uptick in the standard of living and road quality. We were stopped for our papers (probably to ensure we were not Nicaraguan migrants).
We traveled through some lush country…
And into rainforests…
To a long beautiful lake near the Arenal Volcano
During our search for a place to stay, I made a broad U-turn and dumped my motorcycle in a ditch, leaving me with a swollen and bruised nose.
We selected a nice looking eco-lodge, the Arenal Lodge. Throughout the night we were serenaded by wonderfully exotic noises (mostly birds and insects) – thankfully, no howler monkeys.
The next morning (the 24th) we awoke to a rather foggy view of the smoky volcano…
And some rather exotic animals wandering near the lodge.
Later that day, we did some recon of the hotels in the area for next year’s trip – most of them nestled in the rainforest.
We headed out through the rainforest with its long spindly trees that are bushy on the top—like Dr. Seuss drawings.
Our mission for the early afternoon was to climb the Poas Volcano and look inside its nearly mile-wide crater. What impressed us was the steepness of the gorges and the rugged terrain. It was red dirt with only a few rocks which made everything unstable. The loose soil made it easy for the river to carve out gorges that are hundreds of feet deep.
We headed up a craggy road, washed out in spots – very muddy and easy to slip.
We were met with challenging river crossings…
Which we mastered by the end of the day
When we reached the rim of the crater, it was covered in fog.
After our exciting volcano ride, we headed across Costa Rica, almost to the Caribbean coast, and arrived after dark to our hotel. The hotel turned out to be a very pleasant casino (purchased by an American).
The next morning (the 25th), we finished the ride to the Caribbean, crossing through very lush country and roads cut deeply into mountains with steep terraced walls of red dirt. It’s surprising that they don’t have more landslides during the rainy season – vegetation plays a large role in keeping the terraces from sliding. We drove along the beautiful Caribbean beaches south of Puerto Limon, and then headed back towards the Pacific coast.
We arrived at the Panama border and encountered a fair amount of red tape and negative attitudes towards tourists. The major problem was importing the motorcycles – it took several hours.
We crossed into Panama and shortly came upon a railroad bridge that had been converted into a one-lane automobile bridge – the tracks ran down the middle. We had two choices – ride in the middle of the tracks or the side of the tracks. Vince made the right decision – riding down the center of the tracks bumping along as he hit each tie. The rest of us took the side route which was more treacherous – the river on one side and a gap between the tracks on the other side.
That evening we stayed in the city of David near the Pacific coast in Panama.
The next morning (the 26th), we drove the entire distance to Panama City—approximately 300 miles.
As we climbed into the mountains, the fog closed in, and Vince, who was leading, decided to stay behind a mini-bus. We crawled along at 30 mph through steep inclines, missing the fantastic view that the stark, steep, lush topography offered. We passed over the Pacific side of the Isthmus on a high level bridge and saw the waiting ships below.
As Panama City came into view from a distance, I was flabbergasted by its size and its expanse of huge high rises.
Tomorrow, we will pack the bikes for their airplane ride to Colombia, where they will be serviced at a BMW shop in Bogota. We will fly over separately from the bikes on the 28th.
We will not be going through the Darien Gap—the last time Helge rode through the Gap, it took him twenty days to cross eighty miles. He and his friend hacked away at a footpath to widen it enough for the bikes to pass, and one night Helge picked 150 ticks off his friend. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to convince us to bypass that route.
We are now through the first third of the trip, and we are having a spectacular time.