Monday, 20 August 2012

Central America, mud, sweat, lightening strikes and brain eating bugs

After meeting Barton on the boat crossing from Colombia to Panama I decided to team up with him and his friend Patrick who was flying his bike down from Seattle to Panama City to join Barton on his ride back to the US. Patrick 's bike was delayed a few days so we had some extra time in Panama city. It's a modern city with a population of around half a million and a centre of international banking and trade and of coarse is also home of one of the greatest engineering projects, the Panama Canal.

Ships pay according to their weight, with the average fee around US$30,000 and highest being US$200,000. The Canal is not simply a channel cut from the pacific to the Atlantic at sea level but instead uses a massive man made lake created by the Gatun Dam that spans around half of the crossing. The lake is 20 meters above sea level and reduced the amount of work required to cut through the dividing range. A series of double locks on the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the lake raise and lower the ships between sea and lake level at an impressive rate. With each ship that passes through 52 million gallons of fresh water is released into the ocean. In 2014 a new series of locks 60% wider and 40% longer are due to be completed.
Tall high rises of Panama city viewed from the old city centre of Casco Viego

A large cargo ship at lake level is carefully positioned between the two gates at the Miraflores Locks where it is lowered 20 m down to sea level. The gate behind the ship is closed and the water released to the ocean lowering the ship in the process. The front gate is opened and the ship powers off at sea level!!

The boys about to leave Panama City, Me, Barton and Patrick

After studying the Panama map it was going to be difficult to link up back roads, there's lots of them but they all seem to head of perpendicular to the main road and have no exit. And after the delays in the city it was tempting to head up the highway and make up some time but we opted to head over to the Atlantic side of the canal which would be interesting in it's own right and then attempt to link up a possible small back road route north. Patrick and Barton had new knobbly tires and were keen to find some mud.

Four hours into the ride and we had found the mud. Too much mud to be precise. The dirt road had started out nice, rolling, flowing and fast but when we were directed down a clay track by some locals and arrived at the same time as a thunderstorm and also a herd of cattle coming from the opposite direction things got messy. Clay, water, and a hundred or so hooves made for one really cut up track. We slid our way down the trail a short distance and promptly sunk into the first bog hole on our fully laden bikes. On light unloaded enduro bikes the bogs would have been way more manageable but on our heavy bikes it was hard work.

We pushed on through a few more bogs and meet up with some locals on horses, it was clear that this was the only form of transportation using this track. I think they enjoyed watching us attempt this trail, they helped out extracting the bikes and continually offered us Vodka! I think the horses would have been having laugh too, they made light work of the mud. We asked the horseman about conditions up ahead, sounded like there may only be half a dozen or so more bogs, the trouble was we were now having difficulties negotiating the sections of trail between the bogs!! We took Barton's bike ( the lightest ) ahead up a climb and almost died in the near 40 degree heat and humidity. It seemed as if there was so much water in the air that there was no oxygen, it felt worse than being up at 5000m in the Andes! At this point we concluded that the sensible thing to do would be to head out and we still had a bit of work ahead of us just to get out!!

Early on in the mud, still relatively clean and smiling

Barton's face say's it all, and that's me dying from exhaustion in the background. After several hours and less than 1 km  at this point we decided to turn around

Escaping the mud

After several hours grovelling in the mud we accept an offer to stay at a nearby house.

Back on the Pavemento and heading for the Pacific coast of Panama

Pacific coast, Panama

Border crossings tend to be rather unpleasant and frustrating experiences, lots of people and lots of waiting for inefficient systems and inefficient workers. With the bikes we have to apply for temporary vehicle importation which can take a while. Central America's many borders are known to be bad which is another good reason to avoid the Pan American Highway with it's crowded border crossings and seek out some out of the way crossings. 

To avoid the only road crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua on the Pan America at Penas Blancas we head for the small town of Los Chiles where there is another crossing, only thing is it doesn't have a road! Instead backpackers take small boats down a river to largo Nicaragua at San Carlos. After some Internet research it was unclear if we could do this crossing with bikes or not, we decided we had nothing to loose and were keen to stay off the Pan Am. On arrival at Los Chiles we had no problem with immigration and getting our passports stamped as expected. If there is no Aduana (customs) however we would be in trouble as we wouldn't be able to process the bikes.

We find the Aduana, problem is there's no one home. Turns out the officer is in town and will likely turn up at some stage during the day! Meanwhile we talk to the boat operators and get a boat sorted which can take the bikes. The Aduana officer arrives and processes our temp vehicle papers without any questions or blank looks, it's all working out.
Loading bikes at the Los Chiles boarder crossing

The boys are happy, we have our bikes on board, paper work complete and about to cruise down river to Nicaragua

Unloading at the other end was a little more challenging. No problems with the paperwork though

I put my helmet on to shift the bike. A minute later it feels like something is in my ear, I put a finger in there, bad idea. What ever is in there is now in there deeper and begins chewing on my ear drum. It's becoming extremely painful and concerning. Patrick grabs his water bladder and we attempted flush this brain eating beast out before it's too late!

The brain eating bug

While riding the bike you are constantly on the lookout on the roadside for anything that might run out and hit you. Dogs are always coming at you, stray livestock and bad drivers on the wrong side of the road are all a common occurrence. You have to alert and expect the unexpected.

During a particularly heavy down pour Barton and myself were not ready for what was about to hit us in Nicaragua. One hell of a big bang and a flash off to the right and before we new it we had just been hit by lightening. Both of us experienced electrical current through our arms and across the handle bars. Luckily it was no more severe than an electric fence, another one of my nine lives used up there I reckon!

Patrick got off lightly and was missed. However a couple of days later a spooked bull shot out onto the road in front of him and he bounced off it, the deflection in his travel causing him to put his leg out to keep the bike upright and in the process straining his knee badly. Could have been a lot worse too.

Farmers on the way to a road block protest to increase crop payouts

Another protest, this time teachers in Honduras

On arrival at this river crossing the dirty water looks deep and we check out the foot bridge just up stream....

Turns out the foot bridge is as dodgy as hell with many rotten deck boards. It would be do able if we shift some timbers around!.....

....So we check out ford and it's not so bad at all and a little less risky than the bridge

We time our lunch break with another thunderstorm!

And more water crossings

We decide to ride this one

With all the thunderstorms, river crossings, combined with sweaty humid heat and never ending use our wet boots were becoming a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty smells. Than fans  found in most hotel rooms become useful for drying.

Honduras turned out to be my favourite Central America country. People in the rural areas are very friendly and interested in seeing us, which is just as well as alot people carry guns in these parts!

The Honduran Police are heavily armed. We passed many check points but had no problems.

....and don't even think about stealing gas in Honduras, you'll get your head blown off!!

Nice riding in Honduras

 We stop off at a very small mountain town in Honduras. This place was just beautiful.

Maintenance time in Belize City. Valve clearance checks, oil changes, new rear brake pads and I wire up a new GPS mount.

Checking the valve clearance on the DR, 41 000 km on the clock and running sweet

The tropical island paradise of Caye Caulker. It's off the coast of Belize and is part of the second largest barrier reef in the world after the great barrier in Australia

Snorkeling trip at Caye Caulker, Belize. We turn up at the first sight and are greeted by swarm of sharks and sting rays. It took a bit of persuading to go overboard into the middle of this lot! They turned out to be a friendly bunch and it was incredible to be up close to them.