Finally. Here we are in Panama. The border crossing was a breeze. Partly because it was 8 a.m. and partly because we were in the middle of nowhere. We chose the Sixaola, Panama border crossing for exactly this reason. We were on the opposite side of Costa Rica from the busy Pan-American highway. After numerous unorganized and timely borders further north in Central America, this was a breath of fresh air. We waltzed into the office on the Costa Rican side and our passports and import visas were stamped in no time. Not only did it make our crossing process quicker and easier but it left us only a short ride from Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the coast of northern Panama.
We were now officially ready to cross no-man's land. In this case an old, now defunct, railroad bridge. We'd read some reports of other motorcyclists' adventures across this bridge and were a bit apprehensive of what we would find. Some reports said that it required pushing the bikes across the bridge to avoid tire swallowing gaps in the boards laid haphazzardly over the railroad ties. Fortunately, it wasn't as bad as it had been made out to be.
And just like that, Costa Rica was behind us and all of Panama ahead of us. A quick stop to get the bikes fumigated, typical run through at Immigration to get the passports stamped, a jog down the road to buy some mandatory liability insurance and then the final processing of the bikes through Customs and we were on our way.
(Looking back into Costa Rica...)
We motored away... I'm not sure about the other guys but I was singing Van Halen's "Panama" at the top of my lungs in my helmet. I was giddy. I'd been waiting months to sing that song so appropriately. We raced along the sunny pavement. The roads were instantly good, with wide shoulders and few potholes. We raced through banana plantations in the building heat.
We stopped in Changuinola for some rum and other basic necessities. Back to paying with U.S. Dollars. And back to reasonable prices, not to mention some old favorites in the beer cooler...
Who can resist an ice-cold Hamm's at 60¢ a can?
There were three things to get done in Panama. A quick trip to the islands of Bocas del Toro, to get in a laid-back state of mind in the Carribean, five days of non-stop partying for Carnival, or Mardis Gras as we know it, and then off to Panama City to figure out how to get the bikes to Colombia.
I was pretty sure by now that I wasn't turning around and heading home. I'd set Panama as turnaround point when I began this journey. For any reason; financial, physical or mental, I could turn around here in Panama and ride north. It would have been an epic journey and I could feel good about making it this far. But like I said I'd pretty much decided that I was South America bound.
So first up was Bocas. I'd heard great things from friend and documentary filmaker Anayansi Prado, who grew up in these idyllic islands. I was really looking forward to getting a chance to see them with my own eyes. We got to Almirante and found out that the only auto ferry had left for the day. With great hesitation and apprehension, Dan, Sam and I decided that we would leave the bikes in a "secure" parking lot.
With the bikes locked to each other and our riding gear locked in the security guards sleeping quarters, we crossed our fingers and walked down the road to catch a water taxi to Isla Colon.
A new world. A world of water. And water transportation.
Our first stop was the busy main island of Isla Colon. We stopped in here for a minute, looked around until we found the most local looking food shack and started our Panamanian beer tour. Coming into a fresh new country, it is important to try all the new local beers immediately.
Atlas was light and refreshing: think Michelob Golden Draft... Balboa and Panama were a bit stronger, like Pabst or Miller High Life. Balboa took the prize with Panama coming in a close second. We managed to put a six pack down to cool our nerves from being so far away from our beloved motorcycles. Sam and I took in the street scene while taste testing. We let Dan do the dirty work and look around for a suitable hostel.
When Dan came back we had a quick pow-wow and decided that jumping on another boat for Isla Bastimentos was where we ought to be.
Two bucks and ten minutes later we were being dropped off at a random wooden dock seemingly a world away. Reggae music wafted through the air like a fine aroma. Little black kids splashed in the water. Laundry danced Caribbean rhythms on the line. Time slipped down into the vortex. We'd arrived.
Town was a cluster of houses known as Old Bank. The island wrapped around the bay in a crescent. Locals idled in doorways and on balconies greeting us with smiles. And colors filled our eyes. To say I was instantly relaxed would be an understatement. I felt oddly at home in this lovely lazy island paradise.
We settled into Hostal Bastimento overlooking the bay. Plenty of time for relaxing in hammocks soaking in the sounds of island life. No cars, no motorcycles, no car alarms, no honking, no traffic, just a doublewide sidewalk as a main street, some bicycles and an occasional outboard motor whisking goods and people into the bay.
In typical American fashion a large rather out of place sign proclaimed the help of USAID. I wasn't sure how to feel. Great that we are helping the people of Bastimentos restore their watershed and yet a bit embarrassed that it needed to be proclaimed so brazenly in their faces. Ahhh propaganda.
Upon recommendation from our Rastafarian bartender, we sauntered down to Rest. Alvin with beers in hand. Ducking through the entrance and walking down the old wooden dock to our waiting table on the deck over the water, we weren't sure what to expect. What we found was a portly black woman with an infectious smile shouting orders to her kids. They would run down the dock and get what she needed from the storehouse on shore. We dined on fresh fish and rice with fried plantains that had been smashed into discs and deep fried; patacones, a staple here in Latin America. We loved the food and atmosphere of this place so much we ended up eating here every night. Sitting on the dock dining area, watching boats come and go, listening to the waves ripple upon the shore was sublime.
Quite relaxed, but feeling odd so far from our motorcycles, Dan, Sam and I discussed how this was the first time we'd slept more than a couple feet from our bikes. With three incredibly chill days on Bastimentos, a quick snorkeling trip and lots of reggae in our souls, it was time to head back to Almirante.
We caught an early boat back to the mainland. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we found our bikes and belongings exactly as we'd left them. We loaded up, found some tasty breakfast and resumed the life of adventure motorcycling. Zipping off into the beautiful jungle, we ate up the perfect pavement winding through in big lazy arcs with only memories of the island life we'd just left behind.
Now it was time to party. We rode hard and fast joining the Pan-American highway for a while on our way to Las Tablas. Known for the biggest Carnival celebration in Panama, we readied ourselves for five days of madness...