Saturday, January 16, 2016


I hadn't made any plans yet for crossing the Darien Gap - everything I'd heard basically said that you can't really do it until you get there, because you never know when things will change. I'd been kind of dreading it because it was such an unknown in my travels, but as it turns out, that wasn't the thing that would mess with my plans.

I left Boquete pretty late in the afternoon because I'd hung around in the morning saying goodbye to friends from the hostel. When I finally got moving and came down out of the mountains, I ended up right back in the heat and humidity I'd been facing before going up to the mountains, and on top of that had to go through a huge section of road that was under construction. Almost the entire length of highway had some issues with it, and I was rarely just cruising without having to pay attention - often it was potholes, or sections of gravel road, or places where all traffic for both directions was merged down to a tiny two lane area where I'd get stuck behind a truck.

So when the option came to split off and take a curvier, southern road that was a little more distance, I took it. The road cruised along a bay for a little bit, and then turned inland and gave me nice views and mountains with curves, but without all the traffic of the main road. It was a nice relaxing drive, and gave me lots of time to think about my time in Boquete. With the extra distance, I pulled into a hotel in Santiago just after dark - and right at the same time as another KLR pulled in. We said hi at the desk and agreed to meet at the hotel's restaurant in an hour to meet up and talk about our travels.

Didn't quite catch the best part of the gorgeous sunset, but it was a nice ride.
When I got to the hotel room, however, I noticed a post on a Facebook group for "Pan-American Riders" that I'm a part of - a group of guys doing a similar trip on their motorcycles down through the Americas - and they had info on a way to cross the Darien Gap for around $400. I'd been looking at sailboat trips that would cost $800-$1000, or I'd heard air-shipping it was a good last-ditch resort for $1600. So hearing $400, I jumped at it and sent an email to the contact.

She told me that the process is to do an inspection Monday or Tuesday in Panama City, and then take the bike to the port in Colon on Wednesday. Since it was Tuesday night already, I was really hoping I wouldn't have to wait a week and a half before I could ship it, so I asked if it would be possible to do it this week. She told me that if I could make it to Panama City by 8:00am the next day, I could get the inspection done in the morning and then drop the bike off either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning.

With that news in hand, I went and had dinner with the other rider, and gave him the contact as well - though when he sent her an email, she immediately replied that he'd have to wait until the next week, meaning I was the last one to make the deadline. Not wanting to delay things, I decided to go for Panama City and try to get there by 8am. Seeing as it was three and a half hours away, I set my alarm for 3:45 to give me some time to pack up and allow for any issues on the way. After a quick trip to the drugstore just before it closed for some copies of all my documents, I headed to sleep nice and early.

I got up on time, packed up my things on the bike, and hit the road. As much as I hate waking up early, I love the feeling of traveling early in the morning and making distance even before the sun comes up. The road was decent, but jumped back and forth between 80 and 100 km/hr. That ended up biting me, as I came over one hill right around 110km/hr without realizing we'd dropped to an 80 zone, and I saw flashing lights up ahead.

It turned out to be just one motorcycle cop up on a hill with a radar gun pulling people over, and he'd pinned me at 110. He proceeded to take my passport, and tell me that he was going to write me a ticket and use my passport number on it, but didn't write anything down and instead just gave me a significant look. I was a little slow on picking up what was going on, but after he told me the ticket would be $75, and then asked how much I could "help" him, I got it. I ended up giving him $30 that was in my wallet and continuing on without a ticket, though it delayed me a good 10 minutes.

I continued onward keeping a much closer eye on the speed limit signs, and made it into Panama City around 7:15 - though I did get lost a few times on the highway system. I eventually got to the inspection center at 7:45, where there were two other guys with their motorcycles waiting as well.

It turns out Julien (from France) and Mitchell (from Brooklyn) had both been in contact with Dorotea (who goes by Tea), the same person who I'd been talking to. Since we were all doing the same thing, we decided we might as well do it together. So I took a number and waited with them, and around 8:30 or so a guy came by and checked our title info against the numbers on the bike, and then told us to come back at 2:00 to get papers from the building across the street.

Well Julien didn't want to wait, so he used his French charm to convince this guy to expedite things for us. Of course, expediting still meant we were sitting around for three hours in an office, occasionally filling out a form or giving them a copy of our passports or something. But by 11:30 we were out of there and headed back to the hostel. After packing up all the things we wanted to put in the container with the bikes and Mitch finishing a few repairs (he'd been riding with his shock locked in place by an allen key), the three of us headed out for Colon to try to get to the port in time to do our paperwork.

Except... well, things don't always go as planned.

Halfway to Colon, we were coming up on a slow-moving small truck on a two lane road. It was a passing zone, but there were a few stores on the side of the road and there was no oncoming traffic. Julien pulled out to pass and I followed, when the truck suddenly made an unsignaled left turn into us and came over very quickly into the left lane. He barely missed Julien, who swerved almost to the left shoulder to narrowly avoid him.

I wasn't so lucky: I panicked and hit the brakes hard, locking up my back wheel, and skidded straight into the back of the truck. We were both in the left lane when we made contact, since he'd been drifting that way instead of just making the turn.

The bike jammed up under the back fender of the truck, but I had braked enough that I was able to stay on the bike and didn't go flying - I bounced a little bit off the back of the truck and ended up still on the bike. The truck continued slowly pulling off the road, dragging me behind him, coming to a stop on the gravel in front of the store he'd been turning into.

New motorcycle mod: add a truck to the front.

Poor Hidalgo. It was hard to leave him like this, but we had to until the police and insurance were done.
I came out without any injuries, which is is a combination of luck and being alert enough to slow down as much as I did. (Now if I was just a skilled enough rider to have handled my reactions better, the bike might be fine too.) The truck had only a bent license plate, and my bike took the brunt of the damage.

Luckily it was mostly cosmetic damage, and after tightening up the bolt on the brake line to stop a small leak, the bike was rideable. We spent a few hours waiting for the police (a motorcycle cop, luckily - we talked bikes a lot while waiting around) and insurance to show up, take pictures, ask questions, etc. Finally, we did a thorough check over of the bike and a quick test, and made our way to Colon, nice and slowly.

Colon was an interesting city. It looks like it might have been a really nice city around the 1950's, but then no one bothered to paint or repair a single thing since then. I later looked up information, and apparently there were riots in the 60's followed by a series of dictators who contributed to the decline of the city, so my assessment wasn't far off.

But at the same time, the streets were full of people out enjoying the slightly cooler night air in the evening. I saw more rollerblades in one night in Colon than I've probably seen in the last five years as the kids who weren't kicking a soccer ball skated around the park that goes down the middle of the main street.

We were all pretty exhausted after paperwork and then dealing with the accident, so we picked up a hotel, parked the bikes, and dropped our stuff in the room. Since my key had broken off inside the ignition, I had to disconnect my battery every time I wanted to turn off the bike for fear I wouldn't be able to turn the key back on afterwards. I also had been planning on staying in Panama City that night after we finished the paperwork on the bikes, so I hadn't brought any of my clothes with me except a pair of shorts to wear after taking off the motorcycle pants. Since I was hot and sweaty from a day of riding and sitting in the sun waiting for the police to arrive, I knew I wouldn't be comfortable sleeping in these clothes. So I made my way to a store nearby, where I was able to pick up a decently nice t-shirt and pair of underwear for $2 each, and after a shower and some food I finally began to feel a bit normal after the accident.

The next morning we woke up, I reconnected the battery, and we took the bikes over to the port to start our paperwork. First to this office to get something, then to another to drop it off, then to another to fill out some things... it was a lot of back and forth, and waiting, and very little air conditioning. Every time we needed to go to a different office, I had to connect the battery, ride, and then disconnect it when we parked again. But with an 8:00 arrival, we were ahead of a lot of the lines, and managed to get all of it done by the afternoon, and then dropped off the motorcycles behind a big line of cars (after a drug dog sniffed them down).

Finally we finished up everything, caught a cab back into town, and then took a bus back to Panama City. But my day wasn't quite over - I still had some more paperwork to do. I found my way over to the insurance building where I spent about an hour waiting around to have them set up a lawyer for the police hearing for my accident. Once that was done, I needed to go to a bank to pay Tea for the shipping container costs. So I found a bank near the hostel and caught a cab there, only to find out it was closed. Then I caught another cab back near the insurance building where the only open bank in town was, according to the cab driver, and then caught another cab back to the hostel.

Exhausted, but feeling a little better - having the Darien Gap crossing taken care of was a big load off of my mind, but dealing with the accident had added some back on - I relaxed at the hostel for the night and started planning my next few days.

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