Panama, Part 2: The Canal and Darien

May 7 – 9, 2010

Into Panama City to see the canal and onwards south to the end of the Pan-Am in Central America at Yaviza in the Darien.

After a nice two days in Chitré, I continued on south to Panama City.

Crossing the Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Américas) as it goes over the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

Riding alongside the Panama Canal Railway, which was built in 1855 in response to the Gold Rush in California and the numerous people traversing from the East Coast of the US to California, avoiding the wild interior. They took ships down to Panama, crossed the 50 mile isthmus and sailed onward to California. The railroad was also pivotal in Panama being chosen for the canal as it greatly helped during construction in hauling equipment in and debris out. Today, it helps transfer cargo from one side to the other in addition to ships traversing the canal.

The first of three locks in the Panama Canal, Miraflores.

sanDRina at the Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal with a Hapag-Llyod Panamax cargo ship traversing the lock.

Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal with a cargo ship in the far lock. The Panama Canal was constructed to reduce shipping times from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, saving around 13,000 kms (8,125 miles) of going around Cape Horn. It costs about $100,000 per transit of the canal for big cargo ships compared to around $1 million that would be spent in fuel and other costs to go around Cape Horn.

The Hapag-Lloyd Panamax cargo ship at the last lock before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Instead of cutting straight through the continental divide, which the French tried initially when they started building the canal in 1880, the American design uses locks and dams to raise ships to an altitude of 26 m (86 ft) before dropping them back to sea level.

Slowly being lowered as the water level drops in the lock. Panama was originally a state in Colombia and the US helped bring about independence to Panama in 1903 so that they could construct and operate the canal, which they did till 1999 when they turned over the operation to Panama.

Two more Panamax cargo ships coming through. Panamax is a designation for the maximum allowed dimensions of a ship that is allowed to pass through the locks of the Panama Canal. Ships are designed specifically to fit through the locks. Supertankers that are much wider and longer than the locks are referred to as Post Panamax.

The water is pumped from the top lock to the bottom lock (note the first ship is almost level with the ocean surface now).

Being released into the Pacific Ocean. Look at that thing, it’s 13 semi-trucks wide! Each time a lock is opened, 101,000 cubic meters (26.7 million gallons) of fresh water is released into the ocean. Seeing the wastefulness of this, the canal authority in cooperation with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has designed into their future expansion water-saving basins at each lock that will reuse 60% of the water in each transit.

The next ship being lowered as the water level equalizes.

Once the water level is equal, the gates in the lock open…

…and the ship is tugged through to the next lock. The electric tug trains cost $2 million each and about 6-8 of them are used on each ship to help stabilize it thru the lock. There’s only 2 ft of clearance on each side of Panamax ships.

Heading down to the last lock. It takes about 10 hours for a ship to transit the whole canal.

The containers securely tied down.

The Panamax CCNI Punta Arenas, heading to Chile. Biggest users of the canal are the US, China and Chile. Most impressive to see this engineering marvel in person, paying respect to the thousands of workers who lost their lives in its construction.

The Puente de las Américas, one of two permanent bridges connecting the north and south American land masses as it passes over the Panama Canal. I’m geo-technically on the southern American land mass 🙂

Heading down the Calzada de Amador (Causeway), which juts out into the ocean for about 3 kms. It was constructed by the debris from the canal.

It’s a pleasant drive with space for jogging and bicycling; popular with residents and tourists. Note the ship on the right side, it was the first one I saw through the canal.

Panama City skyline from the islands in Panama Bay.

Panama City skyline with boats. It’s probably the most modern looking Central American city I’ve come across, some say resembling Miami, with more English spoken here :p

Heading back into the city with a view of the Puente de las Américas.

Casco Viejo, the old town in Panama City. It’s a bit run down, but it’s being slowly restored. Before construction on the Panama Canal began, all of Panama City was in Casco Viejo. It was abandoned for the new city as economic expansion dictated more real estate.

Staying at Hospedaje Casco Viejo for $10. My first backpacker hostel of the trip. The area was considered dodgy a few years ago, but it’s quite safe nowadays.

Casco Viejo was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 and its restoration continues.

Iglesia de La Merced, an old church still active with service. It looks like new construction was built to support the old facade.

Parque Herrera at sunset. Lots of locals were milling about and the place was very active.

Coming across a restaurant, run by Chinese with good looking food in the display window and approval from exiting locals.

Rice and beans with chicken in a sauce and fried plantain and special sides of fried chicken gizzards and liver. Mmm, mmm, good. I’ve been craving me some gizzards. Cost $2.70.

Walking back to the hostel I came across this small plaza where the chic outdoor restaurant in the corner was piping beautiful jazz music and I just had to sit down and soak it in with the fresh evening breeze and clear night skies up above.

With one day left to catch my boat to Colombia, I decided to head out early to get to Yaviza, the town at the end of the Pan-American highway in Central America.

Catching a nice sunrise over the eastern part of Panama City. The southern corridor road cuts across the bay and is tolled.

Heading towards Tocumen with the sun breaking through.

After Chepo, the road gets smaller and there were numerous one-lane bridges with sheet metal coverings; slippery when wet.

This ride was quite a challenge a few years ago when it was unpaved, but now it’s a leisurely paved ride. But the scenery is still nice and there’s some twisties here and there.

Welcome to Darien, the famous remote province of Panama with less than three people per square kilometer.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for its primeval landscape, which hasn’t changed much in a million years due to lack of development. Surprisingly all these trees haven’t been felled by loggers and it feels good to ride under the shadow of such lush forests.

The scenery changes a bit (less trees around) as you get near Yaviza and the road gets twistier.

Welcome to Yaviza, the last town on the Pan-American highway until Colombia. The reason they haven’t connected the road to the Pan-Am in Colombia is mainly because of the tough jungle terrain with lots of rivers and swamps to cross. I’m sure they could if they really wanted to and might at some point in the future, but for now, there is no intention to connect the road as it would destroy a lot of virgin forest and might spill over the fighting from Colombia into Panama and could ease drug smuggling.

The Pan-Am just ends into this single lane concrete road as it circles around the township.

There are military guards all through the Darien and they take down your passport details in case something goes wrong. Once you enter Yaviza, you’re directed to go check in at the local police station and have to tell them what your intentions are (staying the night, just having lunch, etc).

This could be considered the symbolic end of the road as the Darien continues on the other side of this bridge. People have crossed the Darien Gap overland into Colombia, but it’s a serious expedition.

Locals pulling ashore with plantains to sell.

You can get a taste of what lies ahead in the jungle. Colombia is just about 150 kms away. I’m happy that there’s a gap here as it adds a bit of excitement in getting to Colombia.

Having lunch at a decent looking restaurant in Yaviza. There were lots of locals about, but not unsafe in anyway. Having left Panama City at 6 am, I got to Yaviza by 10:30.

Having sancocho, a typical food around the whole of Panama, basically a soup with some meat and cassava. This one was with goat meat. Cost $1.50.

The colorful public transportation of Central America. All through these countries, the buses, usually old American school buses are decorated and painted in wild colors. This isn’t the best example, but this was the last one I would be seeing so had to snag a pic of it. Made it back from Yaviza to the town of Chepo. Last night in Central America, boarding the boat tomorrow.

My ride back from Yaviza was exciting as I incurred another flat. I was slowly losing air in the rear tire after lunch and decided to just keep adding air and riding it to my destination for the night where I could work on it leisurely. This small nail was the culprit. I found it as it poked me; good thing for that tetanus shot.

Having a nice place to work on it at the back of Posado Caledron in Chepo. Room cost $12 plus $3 for the bike.

Using the Tyrepliers Beadbreaker successfully. It works well on one side and the other side usually requires a bit of wrangling with a tire iron to get the bead to break. (The bead on a tire is the contact area that secures the rubber tire to the metal rim).

Three huge 15″ tire irons, making an easy job of getting the tire on and off the rim. Not really easy, but much better than using standard smaller tire irons.

What a coincidence that this new puncture was just about an inch away from my first puncture. I thought at first that the patch on the first puncture had failed, but I found the angled gouge from the new nail.

I had to remove the first patch and tried a larger patch to cover both punctures but the patch wasn’t sticking since I didn’t have the right tools to overcome the curvature of the heavy duty tube, so I walked over to the local tire mechanic and had him patch the tube. He’s grinding the area here.

He applied hot vulcanizing rubber to cover both punctures and set it in this press to cure.

While waiting, another customer came by for an inner tube for a truck. He’s running it through the water tub to check for leaks.

$1 for a nice, thick, huge patch. He liked the heavy duty tube and complained of the cheap, thin Chinese tubes that are widely available here. I’m going to keep patching this tube 🙂

Two hours later, tire is back on and ready to ride to Carti tomorrow to load onto the boat. Enjoying a nice chowmein at the local Chinese restaurant for $2.50.

Next: Sailing on the Stahlratte, Part 1: Getting On Board

Previous: Panama, Part 1: Boquete & Chitre

Panama, Part 1: Boquete and Chitre

May 3 – 6, 2010

Panama, the last country in Central America before the big South. Known globally for the successful Panama Canal, it’s also well-known among travelers as the Pan-American highway ends in the jungle province of Darien and there is no road connecting to the South American continent. This presents most travelers with the issue of flying across the Darien Gap or sailing around it. I made some arrangements a few months back with Ludwig, the captain of the Stahlratte, a 40 meter ship plying the waters between the San Blas islands of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. My rush through Central America was to make sure I would make it on time for the boat. I got to Panama with enough time to spend a few days in some of the smaller cities and managed to head down to Yaviza, the last town on the Pan-American highway in the Darien.

There are two regular crossings on the southern side of the border between Costa Rica and Panama, but the one on the northern side here, at Sixaola/Guabito is the more interesting one as the border crossing is an old railroad track bridge.

It’s one way of course and I went early in the morning to make sure I could take my time in getting across and not be rushed by traffic.

Slowly working my way across the bridge. The officers on the Costa Rican side said to take the left lane as the planks were better. This was better as well as I could slide my left leg along the raised pipe and keep the right foot on the rear brake.

At one section there is no railing to protect you if you fall over, so don’t look down and just keep going.

Yup, semi-trucks cross here as well. This border crossing was quite relaxed but Panamanian immigration said I had to pay $30 for a tourist visa, after being told by the embassy in San Jose that I would need no visa. But it was no hassle, they just processed it there. $15 insurance for the bike was required.

My route map through Panama. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Local transportation in Gaubito, Panama.

Nice twisty roads heading south towards Chiriqui Grande.

Lunch of rice and beans with chicken in a sauce and potato salad for $2. Panama uses the US dollar as its currency.

Heading up from the Caribbean coast over the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast.

At the divide with the Pacific Ocean in view far away down there. Elevation was around 1,200 m (4,000 ft).

You think I’m loaded down? :p

A localized moving column of rain. I got rained on a bit here and there but managed to avoid the real heavy stuff. The intensity of the storms are just amazing. I reached Boquete by around 4 pm starting in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

At CouchSurfer Ellen Ring’s house in Potrerillos, near Boquete. Ellen moved down from Texas a few years ago and after working in finance in Panama City, she’s moved out to the milder mountain life and is now promoting tourism in Panama with her site Tourism in Panama is not as developed as Costa Rica or Mexico, but has a lot of potential.

I work up in the morning to a flat rear tire, the first one of the trip. I have a heavy duty rear tube, so it helps in supporting the form of the tire and not fully collapsing.

Wrestled to break the bead but finally got there with tube pulled out.

Something sharp poked through here…

…causing this corresponding hole. I thought the heavy duty rubber tube would withstand more abuse, but I guess if it’s sharp enough, what can you do besides patch it and ride on.

Scrubbing the area around the puncture to prepare it for the patch.

New patch applied and good to go.

Having a tasty lunch, after slogging away all morning on the tire, of rice with chicken in a garlicy sauce with bean soup and desserted plantains for $2.

While Ellen and I were having a few drinks and waiting out the afternoon rainstorm, this pickup pulled up selling fish out the back.

We bought a 3 lb Amber Jack for $4.50.

Having the fish cleaned and filleted.

And cooking it up for Ellen in a thin batter of egg with flour, chili powder and garlic, along with lentils and rice.

The next morning, going past Boquete, looking for a waterfalls but not coming across it. However, the road was fun and it climbed up to about 1,800 m (6,000 ft).

Having a typical Panamanian breakfast in Boquete of beef or chicken in a sauce with a flour-based deep fried tortilla, resembling an Indian poori. The sauce and the tortilla were really tasty. Cost $1.50.

The valley with Boquete down on the left side and the Continental Divide rising behind it.

Back on the Pan-Am heading south, I saw a DR in my mirrors and pulled over to talk with Dan here. He’s from California and is taking a few months off to buzz down to Tierra del Fuego. Small world, as he emailed me a year or two ago asking about my Happy Trails panniers before he purchased a set.

sanDRina was happy to mingle with some family. And without knowing it we pulled over in front of Policia Nacional, inviting a document check by the officer. All was in order and we got going.

Dan was shooting for Panama City that night and I wasn’t going as far, so he sped ahead.

In the small town of Chitré, on the Gulf of Panama, staying with CouchSurfer Arilys and her family. This is with her dad in front of a bakery. Crazy wall painting.

With CouchSurfer Arilys in her home. She’s a psychology professor at the local university and is a huge rock fan, recently going to Metallica and Guns N’ Roses concerts. They didn’t speak much English, so it was Spanish immersion time again. I can manage to convey my ideas across and can hold decent conversations. I’m slowly picking up more vocabulary with time.

Having a simple and tasty dinner of sauteed shrimp with rice and tomatoes with fresh pineapple juice. Arilys doesn’t eat much meat and really enjoys rice with tomatoes. She prepares the white rice quite nicely with oil and other spices and the fresh tomatoes go really well with it.

Doing laundry the next day. Eww, that’s a murky brown. Lots of sweat.

Feels good to wash everything. I tried washing in Costa Rica but the air was so humid on the Caribbean coast that the clothes didn’t dry overnight. Here, Arilys had a spinning machine that squeezed the water out (like in locker rooms at swimming pools) and then the clothes dried within an hour. I also washed my gloves, helmet liner and boot liners. My main riding jacket, pants and the bike have been washed with the heavy rains.

Heading out to the local beach, Playa El Rompió near Los Santos. Arilys’ boyfriend is a big surfer and there’s an active surf culture down here with much better beaches further south on the Peninsula de Azuero. The boats are waiting for high tide.

Playa El Rompió at sunset. The beach is very shallow and each wave was coming in quite far. Nice mirror effect with the retreating water.

Birds teasing the tide.

Getting down low to meet the incoming tide.

Being treated to a fish fry dinner at El Mirador, a lookout restaurant on a nearby hill. Arilys’ dad works for the Ministry of Health and travels by road all over Panama and I was trying to get some information about the road to Yaviza.

Fish fry of Corvina with patacones (squashed, fried plantains), washed down with cheladas – lager beer with lime and salt. Her dad and I added some hot sauce and made them micheladas.

Next: Panama, Part 2: The Canal & Darien

Previous: Costa Rica

Pictures from Costa Rica

April 27 – May 3, 2010

Costa Rica, the rich coast as Columbus thought it contained a lot of gold when he landed here, has actually been made rich by bananas and its well developed ecotourism industry. It’s also the most developed country in Central America and along with that comes higher prices for everything, similar to costs in the US. For this reason, most budget travelers buzz through Costa Rica, but I had to spend a few days in the capital of San Jose in order to get visas for the first few South America countries. Being the most developed country meant that it also had a good diplomatic representation from a lot of countries.

I know a couple trucks are expected at border crossings but the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, there’s only one crossing, had a line of trucks at least 6 kms (3.5 miles) in length. This was an indication of how complex this border crossing must be.

Using a helper at the border, to help me navigate all the various booths I had to go to and get stamps from.

At the Nicaraguan customs office. I’ve been able to navigate all the previous border crossings with no problem, but that was also because I went across smaller, less trafficked borders where the various buildings were close together. Here, with only one border between these countries, it was a massive operation with tonnes of people getting on and off buses, truckers trying to get their papers approved and individual travelers. The procedure was not well-signed for the unaided traveler. You get a small slip of paper as you enter the border compound and you have to get it stamped at various booths to show you’ve done all that is necessary and then you have to give this paper to an officer in order to exit the border compound.

At the Costa Rican customs office, which was a similar hassle to the Nicaraguan side. One thing I’ve noticed in these few border crossings so far is that the bureaucratic culture seems more similar across a particular border on both sides as opposed to being similar among a country’s various border posts. As in, the bureaucracy seemed similar between Honduras and Nicaragua and between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They’re probably just trying to match the other guy’s bureaucratic loopholes.

My route map through Costa Rica. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The skies opened up as the rainy season had officially started as I made my way to Playa del Coco, a beach town about an hour south of the border to stay with ADVer Chris.

The view from Chris’ apartment, looking across the bay.

The well-furnished compound.

Chris’ Land Rover Defender at his girlfriend Anna and her dad’s motorcycle and car repair shop. I got a good deal on a new chain that was a left over from a Honda Africa Twin repair job.

Chris and his KTM 990s being greeted by Anna’a various pit bulls. They were all super friendly. Chris used to race professionally in the AMA Motocross Championship and traveled around the US and South Africa with the KTM factory team along with Red Bull sponsorship. He’s currently taking it easy in Costa Rica and discovering all the good off-road riding that’s to be had.

Leading me out of town on my way to San Jose.

It was nice and sunny in the morning and then the rains kicked in after lunch.

A typical set meal called a consado of rice, beans and chicken with some veggies for 2200 Colones ($1 = CL500).

As I was riding the steep, hilly road in heavy rains getting into San Jose, I came around a corner and found a tree had freshly taken down a telephone wire pole. We were the first few people on site.

One of the drivers lifted up the wires enough for me to get under. These were the first few rains of the season and anything that was loosely held together is going to get washed away. The new rains also made the roads slick as it was washing away all the oils from the road surface. A few corners further down, I had to down-shift to first gear to really slow down for this sharp hair-pin turn and with the roads so slick, the rear tire broke loose and the bike went down. We slid for a few feet before stopping and no injury to me as I immediately stood up and picked up the bike with the help of a passing rider. Only damage on the bike was a broken highway peg. No pictures as it was too steep to park the bike and traffic was coming.

I made it safely to La Moto, a motorcycle accessory shop in San Jose, where ADV rider Mischa works.

Mischa’s adjusting my rear spring, raising it up a bit to reduce how much the bike sags with all the weight on the rear. The shop is run by John, who’s an ex-AMA superbike racer.

Their Nicaraguan mechanic, Elvis, fabricating a new highway peg. The original one worked well to protect the rest of the bike from damage like the shift lever and engine casing. It worked as a frame slider.

Outside Mischa’s house in San Jose. His family moved from Germany about 20 years ago due to his father’s health requiring warmer climes. Mishca used to work in the tourism industry before switching into the motorcycle accessory business. He’s riding KTMs. I was in San Jose mainly to procure visas from the South American embassies and addresses in San Jose are unique because they don’t use street names but rather give distances from landmarks. Mischa showed me where all the embassies were on Google Earth and using GPS coordinates, I had no problem navigating my way around the city. Thanks Mischa!

Riding up to Volcan Irazu, about an hour southeast of San Jose. In the morning, the tilled fertile farm land on the flanks of the volcano were exhaling moisture as the sun warmed it up. It looked like the volcano was breathing through its sides.

The main crater of Volcan Irazu at a height of 3,300 m (11,000 ft). The crater itself was 300 m (1,000 ft) deep and 1 km (3,300 ft) in diameter.

Another view of the crater as the clouds quickly rolled in. To get good views, you have to come up here early in the morning as by 9:30 am, the clouds were rolling in.

A group of local bikers from San Jose gathering around my bike and asking questions about the trip.

Riding above the clouds. The road up and down the volcano was a blast to ride with nice turns and good long distance views.

Heading back down to the valley, dropping 1,500 m (5,000 ft) in about 35 kms (22 miles).

Farmers using the roadway to move their cattle between grazing areas. They looked highly suspicious of me.

Viewpoint of lush valleys heading towards Turrialba.

Nice riding the whole day.

Foggy and twisty roads leading from the volcano down into the jungle.

The only country admitting bad roads ahead. Translation “road in bad shape”.

Down on the flat eastern plains heading to the Caribbean coast. This is still a banana republic, but tourism is the big earner for the country these days. The blue bags are to protect the bananas from insects.

Bananas – coming soon to a grocery store near you.

I caught up with this Harley-Davidson motorcycle group, the Steel Angels. They were out on a nice Saturday ride. Nice to see them using proper hand signals and displaying good group riding skills. When one rider stopped, the back marker stopped with him and the middle marker filtered to the back. I rode with them for a while, but they were cruising too slow even for me on the DR around 70 kmh (43 mph) and I wanted to be doing at least 85 kmh (53 mph), so I found a nice long straight and passed the whole group. There were about 30 riders.

Spending a day in the Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo.

The next morning, I woke up to very loud thunder and heavy rainfall. But it was all done in a few hours and the sun and blue sky came out again.

Walking into town to buy some groceries.

Sunsets on a beach with coconut trees can never grow old.

The place where I stayed, Crocodile Surf Camp. Every business in town is milking everything they can out of the rasta movement.

The cabins at Crocodile Surf Camp.

I had the room on the end for $10 a night. I thought about camping initially for $6, but with the heavy rains, was glad I got a room with a fan and WiFi.

Heading to the Panamanian border at Sixaola.

Next: Panama, Part 1: Boquete & Chitre

Previous: Honduras & Nicaragua

Pictures from Honduras and Nicaragua

April 23 – 27, 2010

South of Guatemala are the countries El Salvador and Honduras. Due to time constraints, I decided to skip El Salvador to avoid the El Amatillo border crossing between the southern end of El Salvador and Honduras. It’s notorious for its corruption and the officials making you run around in circles for hours, and likely paying hefty fines for something or the other. This usually leaves a sour feeling about Honduras and wanting to give it a proper chance to make an impression, I chose to go through the mountains of Honduras and visited a few colonial cities. After two days in Honduras, I crossed into Nicaragua and couldn’t escape their well-known police traps, but still managed to leave with a positive feeling about the country after visiting Granada. These countries have been torn by war and political strife in recent times, but things are calm these days and the friendly locals make for a safe passage.

My route map from Guatemala thru Honduras into Nicaragua. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Getting to the El Florido border crossing between Guatemala and Honduras.

Border towns are not places to hang out, but during the daytime, it’s all good.

Welcome to Honduras.

Checking in the bike at Honduran customs. Cost $35.

The El Florido crossing is close to the Mayan ruins of Copan, but I didn’t have time to stop and visit. I was heading further inland to the hill country town of Gracias.

Honduras’ currency – The Lempira, $1 = L18.50.

Sunset riding as I got into the former capital of Gracias in the mountains.

Manuel Zelaya, the now-ousted president, who caused a ruckus and put Honduras in the international spotlight last year for wanting to amend the constitution and possibly end presidential term limits, à la Hugo Chavez.

Walking around the old colonial town of Gracias, I followed the old adage in seeking food that if there’s a line of locals eating somewhere, it must be good. This guy was making simple chicken barbeque on skewers served with tortillas and a salad for L25 (~$1.50).

The streets of Gracias at night. This city was founded in 1526 and was for a brief time, the capital of all Spanish-conquered Central America in the 16th century. Some of these buildings are centuries old.

Telephone wire exchange.

Tienda means a small convenience store.

Riding out the next morning further south through the mountains.

Breakfast of fried chicken with scrambled eggs, refried beans, avocado and fresh cheese, served with tortillas for L40. This was more than I could handle in one sitting, so I packed the rest in my tupperware box and had it for lunch later on.

Heading towards La Esperanza.

The road turned gravel for about 20 kms.

There was very little traffic, this far away from the major towns, which made for an enjoyable ride.

Past La Esperanza, heading up to the main highway.

The main highway, Carretera del Norte, connecting the two big cities in Honduras, the capital Tegucigalpa and the industrial city of San Pedra Sula on the coast.

Enjoying a night out in the colonial town of Comayagua with my CouchSurfing host Rony and some of his Peace Corps friends from the States, Lucy and Heide. These girls were stationed in remote villages working on protecting natural environments and they were in town to celebrate Heide’s birthday.

At Rony’s house in Comayagua. His family runs a gym and he’s currently working at the golf course in town, hoping to head to France soon to volunteer at an orphanage for a few months and travel around Europe.

The cathedral in the center of Comayagua, which was the original capital of Honduras, established in 1537. It’s undergoing a renewal with help from Spain to preserve its heritage.

All throughout Central America, a lot of the public buses are old American school buses. To me, it seemed like once they weren’t good enough for the US, probably not passing emissions, ‘send them across the border, they need buses down there and no one cares about emissions’ – except us poor bikers inhaling all that black carbon monoxide.

Down here, when you see a sign warning of falling rocks, you better take it seriously.

Washed-out road. A good reason not to be riding at night.

South of Tegucigalpa heading to the Nicaraguan border at Los Manos.

You know you’re getting close to the border when you see a line of parked trucks. The paperwork must be a major headache for them.

Welcome to Nicaragua.

After paying a $3 road tax, this guy wanted to pose for a picture. Nice friendly first impression of the Nica police, but not for long. They snagged me a few miles down for passing on a solid line, which another $3 bribe sufficed.

Nicaragua’s currency – The Cordoba. $1 = C21.

Nice roads, but generally more flat. Heading to the capital city of Managua.

Staying at ADVer Salcar’s house in Managua. He was actually in Switzerland but told me I could still stay at his place.

Riding through some dense fog on my way to Granada. I went up and over some mountains, through the misty town of Jinotega, to avoid a known police shake-down spot on the main road from Managua to Granada at Masaya. This is known as one of the most scenic drives in the country as it climbs to 4,000 ft and comes back down to near sea level in Granada.

Dinner at my CouchSurfing’s host Avi’s place in Granada. He’s also in the Peace Corps, working on teaching entrepreneurial skills to high school kids. His neighbor prepared this meal for us as they ran out of cooking gas and Avi let them cook at his place. It’s a typical meal of rice fried with beans, some salad of cucumbers and fresh cheese.

After dinner, we did what most Nicaraguan’s do at night, hang out on their porch, since it’s hot inside and usually there’s a cool breeze outside. Avi’s been here over two years and he’s winding down his project.

Checking out the main plaza in Granada, the oldest city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524. Being on Lake Nicaragua with access to the Caribbean, it was an important trading post and was wealthy leading it to be ransacked multiple times by British and French pirates from the Caribbean. Recently, it kick-started Nicaragua’s tourism with its rich colonial heritage.

The cathedral in the Parque Central.

Statue in the central park with the inscription in English “devotion and love to all mothers”.

Having breakfast of ‘yuca con cerdo’ – cassava or manioc with grilled pork. I like the taste of cassava; it’s slightly sweet and the texture is interesting too. It’s a staple food in many developing parts of the world, especially Africa as it’s a hardy plant and is considered the third largest source of carbohydrates in human diets.

The yuca and pork at the food seller’s stand.

Heading south out of Granada, towards the Costa Rican border.

Windmills on the shore of the huge Lago de Nicaragua.

Next: Costa Rica

Previous: Guatemala, Part 2: Tikal

Guatemala, Part 2: Tikal

April 21 – 23, 2010

Finished with the mountainous section of Guatemala and now riding the hot tropical plains with high humidity heading north to Tikal.

A super long straight section, about 60 kms, running up the west side of the country.

The ferry at Sayaxche across Rio de la Passion.

Sharing the ride with a semi-truck (note the long line of trucks waiting to cross). Cost Q5.

The ferry was powered by this little outboard motor on a dingy. It worked and got us across.

Slash and burning the jungle away.

The roads were well marked with directions. Guatemala is referring to Guatemala City.

Setting sun across the picturesque Lago de Peten Itza.

Entering Tikal and taking note of the dual pricing structure where foreigners have to pay Q150 ($19) and local nationals pay Q25. A lot of other countries do it as well and I guess they’re milking the rich and giving the locals an affordable chance to take in some of their heritage.

Riding the 17 kms of park road heading to the visitors center.

Not your usual animal warning sign.

Meow. Jaguars ahead.

I camped in front of the Jaguar Inn, which is in the main visitors area as I wanted to enter the site early in the morning when it’s cooler and less crowded.

Camping for Q25 at the Jaguar Inn. It was safe to leave all my things here when I walked around the ruins.

Not realizing that Guatemala and the rest of Central America don’t follow daylight savings like Mexico, my clock was one hour ahead and I got to the site entrance at 5 am instead of 6 am when the site opens. I bribed the watchmen to let me in instead of wasting an hour.

Hiking through the jungle to get to the ruins at Tikal at 5:15 in the morning. I was the only person in the site for at least 2 hours.

Temple I covered in the morning jungle mist. Tikal was the capital of one of the largest Mayan kingdoms and prospered mainly from 200-900 AD. Some buildings on the site date as far back as 700 BC.

Temple V, where I waited out the fog. Tikal was abandoned by the end of the 10th century and was rediscovered in the 19th century. After abandonment, the site was quickly recaptured by the jungle with thick vegetation covering most of the temples. The tops of a few of them were visible above the canopy.

Stairway to heaven? Steep steps to get to the top of Temple V.

Soaking it in on the top of Temple V at 58 meters high. The downside of coming so early was all the fog and limited visibility but I enjoyed the solitude among the ruins.

Looking out across from the top of Temple V.

The fog slowly starting to clear with the rising sun. The structure of the residential area coming into view on the right.

Ceiba trees to the left.

Looking across the top of Temple V.

Temple I and the Gran Plaza coming into view as the fog slowly clears.

The main steps of the temple were eroded and not safe to climb.

The steep front side of the temple.

As clear as it was going to get. Temple I (right) and II (left) in full view from the top of Temple V. It was magical to see the ruins slowly appear through the fog above the canopy of the jungle.

Detail of the ruined wall.

View across the jungle canopy.

Taking it all in once the fog cleared.

Looking down the steep steps. It was safer to go down backwards using it as a ladder.

Temple V in all its glory. This was the most impressive looking temple as it was the most cleared of vegetation and the looked the grandest. Restoration began only in 1991.

The yet to be fully restored pyramid in the Lost World section of Tikal. There are four other older pyramids under this outer face as the Maya had a tendency to build new structures on top of old ones. The oldest pyramid dates back to 700 BC making it the oldest structure at Tikal.

A leaf-cutter ant hauling his prized leaf across the walkway in the site that many Mayans toiled over the centuries hauling rocks to build this magnificent city.

A stela detailing stories about the kings at Tikal.

Detail of the stela.

Another round stela, looking similar to the Mayan calendar…

The tops of Temple III, II and I from Temple IV.

Tourists soaking in the view from the top of Temple IV, which was still being excavated. Only the roofcomb was clear.

Temple III covered in heavy vegetation, yet to be excavated. You can see the roofcomb behind the tree trunk in the middle.

Temple I and the Gran Plaza from the top of Temple II.

The profile of Temple II.

Beautiful birds on the park grounds.

Info on the Ceiba tree.

The unique looking Ceiba tree, which is the national tree of Guatemala and is worshiped by the Mayans.

The trunks can get pretty large and the trees sport wide buttresses to support their heft.

Heading back south, passing the beautiful Lago de Peten Itza.

Tasty lunch of chicken in a gravy with rice and potatoes for Q10.

Heading south towards Rio Dulce on the eastern side of Guatemala.

Staying at Hacienda Tijax on the river.

There were a lot of waterways around and they used lots of suspension boardwalks to get above the water and reduce human impact on the protected area, where lots of bird-watching was happening.

Staying in a thatched jungle room for Q60.

Rio Dulce is popular among yachties as it’s the safest place to spend the hurricane season in the western Caribbean.

Last meal in Guatemala of a thick tortilla with beef, green onions, sauce and some mayo sauce. It was quite tasty for Q15. At this comedor (road-side shack), just as I was finishing up my meal, a group of guys walked in all brandishing pistols in their belts. They seemed friendly and struck up a conversation about the bike and my trip. One of them spoke good English, probably the boss. They pulled in on 3 Toyota pickup trucks and had guards from their pose surrounding the whole comedor as lookouts. I figured they must either be some gang or political group or just rich, powerful people. The funniest thing was when I told them I rode through Mexico, they asked, “Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” and they were all carrying guns, haha. I guess everyone is scared of what lies beyond their boundaries.

Taking the busy highway towards the Honduran border. This highway connects Guatemala City with the port on the Caribbean and was crowded with semi-truck traffic. Onwards to Honduras.

Next: Honduras & Nicaragua

Previous: Guatemala, Part 1: Highlands

Guatemala, Part 1: Highlands

April 19 – 21, 2010

I was looking forward to crossing into Guatemala as this would be my first country in Central America. After spending more time in Mexico, I now had about three weeks to get to Panama. I originally wanted to spend about a week in each of the CA countries, but now it was going to be just a few days. I made a loop around Guatemala, hitting most of the interesting sites from Lake Atitlan set among volcanoes, to riding in the remote highlands, seeing the magnificent ruins at Tikal, dipping down to the yachtie Rio Dulce before crossing over into Honduras.

At the Guatemala Consulate in Comitan, Mexico, making sure that I don’t need a visa to enter. The small blue and white flag denotes the consulate. The nice guys at the office there even made sure to call the consulates of all the other Central American countries to make sure I didn’t need a visa through Panama. Yeah!

Nomansland between the Mexican and Guatemalan border. The land was flat on the Mexican side and looming mountains were ahead in Guatemala.

Welcome to Guatemala. La Mesilla border crossing.

Getting the bike fumigated – sprayed with a disinfectant to not transport bugs across the border for Q12. $1 = 8 Quetzals (the Guatemalan currency). No cost for immigration stamp and Q40 for importing the bike.

Grand mountains ahead and lots of garbage on the road side.

Nice to see lots more bikes around and a good use of helmets.

Lunch at Huehuetenango of grilled chicken with rice, beans and tortillas for Q15. The tortillas were smaller and thicker.

Riding high into the mountains of the Cordillera de los Cuchumatanes.

Brand new four lane twisty mountainous freeway heading south to Guatemala City.

The road was cut right through steep parts of the mountain and you wonder why landslides happen…

The road climbed higher and higher, riding into the clouds.

In the clouds at 10,000 ft. Visibility was reduced to around 100 ft.

Dropping quickly in elevation as I descended to Lago de Atitlan, a beautiful lake surrounded by numerous volcanoes.

The tight switch-backs heading down to the lake. The village of San Marcos up ahead.

The gnarly road heading to the town of San Pedro. Good reason to have a dual-sport bike down here.

The beautiful expansive Lago de Atitlan, which fills the mouth of a huge volcanic caldera that erupted about 84,000 years ago. It’s the deepest lake in Central America at around 340 meters (1130 ft) deep.

The touristic town of San Pedro la Laguna. It’s a backpackers hub with lots of services catering to travelers.

Dock side lined with boats as they ply the waters to the various towns around the lake

View from the restaurant I had dinner at across the lake at sunset.

Sunrise views across the lake. I wish I could’ve stayed longer as I know the photo opportunities would’ve been better.

Hospedaje Xocomil where I spent the night for Q40 ($5).

Nice to park the bike right outside my room and away from the evening rains.

The Guatemalan Quetzal. $1 = Q8.

The infamous dodgy hot water element in the shower head. Not having the capacity for a water heater, this is the next best thing for hot water, where a heating element heats up the water right before it exits the shower head. You wont get a shock as long as you don’t touch the shower head when it’s running and you’re wet.

Clear view across the lake from the village of San Juan to the mountain the road climbs to get back on the main road.

The trusty Bajaj Autorickshaw from India, called tuk-tuks here, being used all over Central America as cheap taxis.

Clear day for riding back up to the top. The lake is at around 5,500 ft and the main road on top is at around 8,500 ft, climbing real steep up the mountain in about 25 kms.

The steep, narrow, beautiful road back up to the top of the ridge.

View of Volcan San Pedro and the town at the base of the volcano from the top.

Typical sight of firewood being collected from the forest for daily cooking and heating use.

Riding nice mountainous twisty roads past Chichicastenango, heading to Coban.

Taking a lunch break past Uspatan. Lots of rural schools were abound all across the country. Good to see education reaching far into the countryside.

Lunch of a corn meal soup that was flavored with a few beans, hot sauce, salt and lemon. Tasted pretty good and was very filling for Q2.

Riding remote twisties along the scenic Huehue to Coban road.

A collectivo assistant hanging on to the ladder while talking to someone inside. He climbed down from the roof as the van was swaying around the corners. And note the passengers on the roof, drinking beers.

The road turned to gravel about 25 kms shy of Coban.

The road was pretty smooth but I knew something was coming up…

A huge land slide took out the road recently, (peligro = danger, no hay paso = do not enter). I knew about this from another motorcycle rider who passed through here a few months before me.

Looks like the whole side of mountain came sliding down.

The original route is on top and the detour heads down and around the land slide.

The detour was quite gnarly and steep with lots of tight switch-backs.

Looks like more rocks fell across the detour.

I made it out and had some lunch past Coban of Chicharron, fried pork skin with some meat and a radish salad for Q16. It was the only thing offered at the place.

Riding some relaxing sweeping corners heading north to Lanquin.

The 20 kms of dirt road heading to the town of Lanquin and further to the scenic limestone pools of Semuc Champey.

I stayed the night at this jungle resort near the pools, where I met a traveler from the States who worked a whole year at the South Pole, Antarctica. She was a safety inspector and also worked in the oil/gas industry in Nigeria. She was winding down in Guatemala and said how amazing it was to see precipitation fall from the sky as the snow/ice blows horizontally almost constantly at the pole. She was the 1231st person to ever spend a winter at the south pole where it’s a constant -80F and 9 months of darkness.

I stayed in the dorm in the attic of this cabin.

Q25 for a dorm bed as Casa de Zipolite.

Heading to Semuc Champey with the early morning jungle mist in the valley.

Hiking over to the pools. It cost Q50 to enter and Q10 for parking.

The clear water at Semuc Champey.

A very idyllic place with water flowing around limestone features, collecting in various pools.

The turquoise water color was a sight to behold.

Some early morning swimmers taking a dip in cool pools in the jungle.

The greener lower pool at Semuc Champey. Interesting site, but not sure it was worth the entrance fee if you weren’t going to swim.

Heading back up across this bridge. Doggie taking a nap.

The road was quite steep in places and they’re put in concrete tracks in really steep sections for grip when it’s wet.

Climbing back up to the main road from Lanquin.

At the junction where the pavement ends. To head north to Tikal, there’s 40 kms more of dirt road heading to Fray or you can take pavement back to Coban and through Chisec. I went straight ahead to Fray.

Looking back at the valley where Lanquin and Semuc Champey are.

The gravel road heading north to Fray. It was in fair condition but mostly going 1st and 2nd gear averaging 20 km/h.

Passing a few small towns in the mountains, which were crowded and chaotic. Lots of old Nissan pickup trucks everywhere.

Enjoying some beautiful sections of the route.

Scenic valley with volcanic rock strewn about.

A gnarly downhill section of baseball size rocks. I kept reminding myself not to tense up and be lose with the handle bar and just let the front wheel find its way down and there were no pucker moments.

The road opened up about halfway through and construction crews were busy at work. Looks like it’s going to be paved soon.

Filling the tires back up once I reached the end of the dirt section.

Handy little air compressor doing its job.

Next: Guatemala, Part 2: Tikal

Previous: Mexico, Part 4: Mayan Village Stay