The city David, Panama isn’t that far from the Costa Rican border; it took us about an hour. Riding through the Costa Rican mountains took much longer than we planned, though, so we accepted it as our stopping point for the night.
We stayed at a hostel that was recommended to us by a man who just opened a roadhouse up in Costa Rica, about two hours north of the border. The hostel’s called “Bambu Hostel” and is a truly acceptable hostel. They’ve got a few different bunk rooms, one of which is a stilt house with hammocks hanging under it to accommodate for when there aren’t enough beds during high season. In addition to that, they have a pool and basically all the things you would normally expect to find at a hostel, like wifi and a kitchen.
As just about always, we didn’t take advantage of much that was offered there. We just appreciated it for the beds and the safety provided to our motorcycles by the locked gate.
While walking around the hostel the next morning, we saw a flyer on the wall for a monkey sanctuary. We debated for about an hour as to whether we had time to visit it before heading to Panama City. We even called our mom to ask if she would be upset if the reason we didn’t make it home for Christmas was monkeys. In the end, she said we should go see the monkeys.
Before we could go, however, we needed to get some money. Instead of exchanging all of our Costa Rican money at the border, I figured the guys there were sharks and we’d get a better rate if we waited. Hostels, for instance, will often exchange money for you. Well, had we known the currency Panama uses is the US dollar and that you really can’t exchange Costa Rican money anywhere in Panama, we would have taken care of it at the border and not spent the rest of our trip walking around with approximately $40 in Costa Rican colones.
So, after being disappointed with our money exchanging attempt, we went to find the monkeys and got rather lost. We then found wifi at a gas station to check directions and realized that we’d gone the wrong way. We were upset, but we were heading straight for Panama City, so we figured it must be a sign that we were meant to make good time and not see monkeys.
Nonetheless, we vowed to stop at any monkey related place we passed on the way and, not long after that, we passed a sign for the exact place we wanted to go to from the beginning; The Alouatta Lodge. Turns out we were so bad at figuring out the directions that we’d unintentionally gone straight to our original destination.
We rode up the long, winding, rocky dirt road that led to the Lodge and eventually made it to some gates with Alouatta written on them. We rode up that path and were confused to find just about nothing. There were pathways and a clearing, but no people or buildings, from what we could see.
Aaron parked his bike and walked up the path and I waited with the bikes at the bottom of the hill. Two volunteers of the Alouatta Sanctuary came walking by soon after Aaron left and told me that I should come up the hill with them. When I did, I found Aaron covered with monkeys sitting at a table talking with some of the other workers there. I don’t think he had any intent on telling me to go up and join them.
The Alouatta Lodge is an amazing place. They take care of monkeys that have been abandoned and/or abused. Some of the monkeys had lives of grape soda, candy, cigarettes, and circus-like performances before they were rescued while some others were found injured in the wild and unable to function normally. Most of these monkeys are happy to crawl right up on your shoulders and pull your hair.
Aaron and I have wanted to play with monkeys like this since we were children, but it’s something we figured might never happen… you know… with how most places don’t let you touch their monkeys and most wild monkeys aren’t likely to want to play with you for long.
Aaron made friends with a special monkey named Isla. She’s an inbred howler monkey from a small island. While she had difficulties relating with her fellow monkeys, she seemed perfectly fit for Aaron and made funny little noises in his ear while she was sitting on his shoulders, twisting his moustache. When she started sticking her tongue out at him, we were told that this is how these monkeys express love, so Aaron reciprocated.
We would have liked to have stayed there for a couple days and volunteer for a while. There are several projects they had in progress that could have used the help and they have rooms and beds for guests to stay for a price. Actually, there were many places in the trip that we felt bad about leaving, but this place may have been the most difficult for us, probably because we had to pull adorable monkeys off our heads while they angrily protested.
We didn’t feel too badly about spending a significant amount of our daylight at the Alouatta Lodge, because it rained most of the time we were there. We left not long after the rain stopped with the hope of making as many miles towards Panama City as possible.
A couple hours after leaving, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a quick bite to eat. It was a simple little concrete structure next to a gas station which, unfortunately as we were low on gas, had just closed for the night. We had coffee, fried dough, and some fried chicken. While our chef was pulling some of the chicken out from under the heat lamp, one piece got away from him and flipped over onto the corner table. He slyly picked it up and put it back with the others, grabbing us a “clean” one. “That’s still good, of course, but I’ll get you a different one,” is what we think he said, followed by, “This will be our little secret.”
We went a little further and decided it’d be safest to stop for the night. We didn’t make it as far as we wanted, but we were close enough to Panama City to make it there around noon and still accomplish everything we needed to.
The place we stopped at was something like a diner with outdoor/indoor seating. We ordered more coffee and discussed where we should sleep for the night. The discussion ended when we decided that the area around the restaurant seemed secure enough and that it should be me to ask the cashier if we could camp there. So I did. The Asian woman behind the counter curiously asked why I would want to camp there in Spanish. Realizing just how limited my Spanish was, she told me to just speak English. In the end, she said it’d be no problem for us to camp there, if it’s what we really wanted.
As we waited for the restaurant to close, a group of young men watching baseball asked us to join them inside. One of them had just been drafted by a Canadian team and he was excited to practice his English with us and we had fun trying our best to communicate in Spanish. They refused to let us pay for anything and, as the restaurant closed and went about kicking us out, were appalled that we planned to camp there. One of them invited us back to his place where he had hammocks on his porch for us to sleep in.
We were appreciative, but hesitant. It was already later than we wanted to be up and we knew that they would want to hang out and talk even later into the night. After we made it clear that we were just going to sleep when we got there, we followed them to the house.
It was a great experience; meeting his family, talking about sports and music (they had a real obsession with Bryan Adams), and seeing how open and friendly these “strangers” were being to us. Despite this, it may have actually been a bad idea. They stayed up well into the morning and we woke up several times to loud music, laughing, and talking. At one point a large black car pulled up to the house, opened its doors and blasted some loud, bass heavy Panamanian music. It was definitely a memorable experience, though.
We got back on the bikes early in the morning and made our way towards Panama City. We rode for a long time before we started seeing cities again and by the time we did, we were hungry. Even though McDonald s is not exactly an economical choice when traveling through Central America, we still ended up there relatively frequently It’s mainly a matter of wifi connection and being able to update our friends and family. We also like McGriddles.
The McDonald s we went to that morning was by far the worst McDonald’s experience Aaron and I ever had. We walked up to the counter and asked if we could have breakfast. The larger, pregnant(?), woman wearing a Big Mac T-shirt behind the counter responded that we could not have breakfast, but that it was something like international Big Mac day, and that we should buy Big Macs. So we did.
We were upset, because we could see that just about everyone else at the McDonald’s was eating breakfast. “We must have just missed the cut off,” we figured. Aaron waited at the counter for our order and realized that breakfast appeared to still be available.
Then, two minutes later, we saw people walk up to the counter and order breakfast and they were promptly given their breakfast orders.
Even more upset, I went up and again asked for breakfast, pointing to everyone else’s food and the food that was sitting in the heating tray that was also breakfast, but the woman behind the counter was steadfast in her resolve and incredibly aggravating as well. She kept pointing to her Big Mac T-shirt, as if that solved my problem.
I went back to Aaron, who had angrily taken a seat after getting our unwanted order, and after stewing for another couple minutes, I went back up to give it one more try. We already had Big Mac’s, at this point, but it was the principle of the issue. Also, we really wanted McGriddles.
This time, while in line, I watched the woman in front of me order breakfast. I tried to order the same thing she did, and was told I could not. I irately began trying to express my disapproval when a woman behind me started talking to me in English. She was an American living in Panama. She told me that she frequented this particular McDonald’s and that it is the worst McDonald’s on earth. She told me I should not expect to resolve this issue and I took her advice.
I was feeling a bit sick, again, and needed a good amount of time in the restroom, but Aaron had a good conversation with the woman.
While leaving that cursed place, I still could not believe how we’d been treated and Aaron said that he’d never been closer to punching a woman, especially a pregnant(?) one, in his life. I felt that was a valid sentiment.
After breakfast, the next thing on the list was to get a new clamp for the sleeve connecting my carburetor to the engine. Having tried fixing it over and over again, I’d come to the conclusion that the clamp must have been damaged when it was being struck while off roading. It would slowly loosen over time and would eventually backfire and require me to reattach it.
Walking into the first hardware store with the clamp in hand, they could not find the same thing there. I rode up and down that main street stopping at multiple similar hardware stores and no one could give me what I asked for. When I returned empty handed to Aaron, who was back at the first hardware store, I figured we’d have to just use the same clamp to get to Panama City where they’d definitely have what I needed. The only problem was that the constant tightening of this clamp had stripped screw, making it nearly unusable. I thought we’d have to chisel deeper grooves into it, but Aaron was sure there had to be a clamp somewhere in that city. He left and returned about 15 minutes later with five or six clamps. Apparently, by showing the clamp I needed, they were only looking for the exact same clamp and didn’t think a similar clamp would be worth showing me. I even remember saying that it just had to be similar, not exactly the same, but they were sure they didn’t have it.
Aaron just went in without asking for anything and just searched through their inventory until he found things like looked about right. Lesson learned.
I used one that looked good enough and, sure enough, it worked… mostly.
We rode for about three more hours and were in Panama City. We understood this as the beginning of a whole new adventure. It was time to figure out how we were passing the Darien Gap.
The Darien Gap is an area between Panama and Colombia that, for several reasons, has not been developed and is a break in the Pan American highway. To get from one country to the other, you can either find a ship, fly across it, or wander through some of the deepest guerrilla infested jungle on earth.
We rode to a hostel called Mamallena, which we’d read had connections and even charts for the boats headed for Colombia. We’d been told earlier that we wouldn’t find anything for us with our bikes for less than $900 each, but we weren’t convinced. When Mamallena confirmed to us that this was the going price and that there wouldn’t be any room available on any boats for at least a week, we decided our answer would not be found there.
So we headed north to Portobelo. On the way, it got dark. Soon after that, Aaron’s electricity went out and we had to pull over. Flashing lights came about soon after and we got another opportunity to talk to police. They were very nice. They parked on the side of the road, giving us light with their headlights as well as keeping passersby from coming too close. They told us that we should be safe riding to Portobelo and confirmed that we should not stop in Colon. Colon is a shady place. We did miss a turn, though and rode through part of Colon anyways.
We made it to Portobelo as a light rain started picking up. I regretted riding at night, as the road hugged the coastline and I wanted to be able to see everything we were passing. Luckily, and somewhat annoyingly, Portobelo is tiny and we’d have to ride back up and down that road several more times for supplies before we could leave Panama.
We rode straight to Captain Jack’s Hostel in Portobelo. We parked our bikes in the muddy lawn behind the building and walked up the stairs to the restaurant on the second floor. After taking a grateful sigh of relief and ordering our food with the feeling of accomplishment that comes from actually making that day’s destination, we started asking about passage to Colombia.
We met a captain who told us that he wanted to get back into transporting motos to Colombia again and wished that his ship wasn’t already full. The reason he wasn’t transporting motos at that time was that the Colombian government asked him to stop. They did this to help the start-up of their own vehicle transportation, which never actually happened. He said something about it being an endeavor between the Greeks and the Colombians and that it was doomed to fail from the beginning.
You see, there’s some kind of a mythical concept of this giant, economical ferry for passengers and vehicles of all sort between Colombia and Panama. Online, you can find information claiming that it will be a reality in a couple months. But that’s the new date from the originally postponed date from a few months earlier… which was postponed from earlier… etc.
Point being, we left Captain Jack’s that night believing that we could find a boat to take us to Colombia sooner than what Panama City indicated, but we were starting to believe that the $900 per person with bike quoted by the hostel in Panama City was unavoidable. The captain we spoke to said we might be able to find some small sailboat willing to strap the bikes to the side, but that there’s no way we can be sure the bikes would actually make it.
He went on to tell us that he’d been in situations in huge storms where he was the one who had to cut the ropes on a bike and release it into the ocean. That, he claimed, was on a decent sized sailboat. “So,” he said, “imagine such a storm on a smaller vessel.” After talking to him, we were just about convinced that the only way to guarantee our bikes’ safe passage was to pay out.
We mounted our bikes and headed towards a place called The Pirates Cove. We had a choice to stay at Captain Jack’s, but the bunks seemed nearly full and a little musty. Aaron felt like he needed more space and fresher air, so when we heard about this hotel, we were interested.
Aaron headed off before I got the KLR running and, once it was started, I had some problems turning it around in the mud. It didn’t help that it was still drizzling from earlier, it was muddier than before, and the area was on an incline. As I got it turned the right way, I planted my foot. I was still wearing the sandals that I bought in Antigua, Guatemala (the ones with the anchors and the inexplicable blood spatter pattern), which had deteriorated significantly and were prone to falling apart with any small application of pressure. The sandal did as it liked to do and my foot went through the sandal and hit some slick mud. The bike then fell fully on me and trapped my leg against the ground in a way that made it feel as if it was about to break.
I couldn’t get any leverage on the bike. I tried wrenching several different ways, but was ultimately stuck. With Aaron a couple blocks away, I discarded my dignity and started shouting. “Help! Help! Please! Someone! Please, come here! Help!” I was relieved later to hear my cries described as “controlled,” by those who came to my rescue. In only about 50 seconds, but what felt like 5 minutes, two young men came running out from the hostel and helped pick my bike off me. Without any bags on the KLR, it’s about 400lbs. With my bags, I think it was close to 460lbs. Anyways, the young men commented on how heavy the bike was and I admitted that I was keenly aware of its weight at that moment.
One of my saviors introduced himself as Erek. He and his wife, Candice, had just started their multi-year world tour by bicycle. They started in Florida, flew to Costa Rica, and made it to Portobelo to find a boat to Colombia, like us.
I thanked him and he offered me some Advil. I thanked him again as he went inside to get some for me. Just as he entered the hostel, Aaron returned. He was angry I was taking so long. I explained what had happened and insisted that we stay a bit longer to say goodbye to Erek. That was only another minute.
We made it to The Pirates Cove and met some nice people. They gave us some new ideas as to how to get to Colombia. They showed us to our room, which was clean, had four beds, and was connected to our own private bathroom.
As we settled down I checked my leg and, while it hurt a lot, it seemed as though there was nothing seriously wrong.
We planned to wake up early the next day to talk with people at the docks nearby. We figured we were in the right place to find passage, but we needed to get the right connection.
The next morning we went to eat breakfast at a small restaurant in the middle of Portobelo. It didn’t take long before we were chatting with travelers and expats that had taken up residence there. We were being filled with all sorts of ideas for getting to Colombia.
The night before, a young French guy told us that there were big, fast, metal boats that would take us over to Colombia quickly and easily for as low as a couple hundred dollars each. Erek told us that some people crossed by following the shoreline and hiring boats for shorter distances. We were still being told about the sailboats that would take you out to the San Blas islands for a couple days and bring you over to Cartagena, as well. The upside to that, other than the all expense paid aspect, is that some captains would help with the legal aspects of getting the bike into Colombia.
Before we left the restaurant, one of the patrons told us of these two Brazilians that had some space left on their small sailboat. Almost as if being summoned by merely being mentioned, they came walking down the road. Portobelo is a small place.
We talked with them for a bit and they were excited by the prospect of taking motos. We talked prices and they became front runners. The original offer was $1200 for the two of us and our bikes.
We left feeling good with the progress we’d already made. We had an offer saving us $600 with guys that appeared to be fun and reliable and we’d only just finished breakfast. After that, we rode to the docks of the towns up the coast and tried to get a feel for what else was available.