San Juan Del Sur provided a refreshing taste of young travellers exploring one of Nicaragua’s best surfing beaches and a world-class late-night burrito stand that had us coming back for more. Ometepe was a wonderful place, and it was an adventure just to get there on the busy ferries. The bikes were squeezed in beside stubborn trucks and pushy 4x4s but were safely delivered to the island.
Ometepe Island is the tenth largest fresh water island in the world, and has a distinct shape created by the two volcanoes that form the land mass. One road circles the island in a figure eight and about half of it is paved. The fertile volcanic soil supports rich jungle forests and farmland, the latter crucial to the livelihood of the island’s residents. Like on the mainland, cattle roam the streets with little concern for the traffic. Chickens cluck and skit as they cross the road, though none told us why. Big pigs and little pigs prod around on their pointed hooves, ducking under fences and along ditches, equally prone to darting out onto the roadway. We found a peaceful hostel run by María and her family where we shared a cozy room and enjoyed several meals, large in size and flavour, each one highlighted by delicious fried plantains.
We wanted to see the Waterfall of San Ramón on Volcán Maderas, so after an energizing breakfast we headed off counter clockwise around the smaller volcano and opted to ride our bikes up the first two kilometres of the four kilometre path, not knowing what it held in store for us. In hindsight we should have expected the hugely steep, single track, rutted out path, but we didn’t even think about it. As we got closer to the dark clouds that dared us upwards with a light rain, we navigated banked corners paved with thin flat stones that were slippery with the light coat of water. Feathering the clutch up this path, it was a constant battle between maintaining speed in second gear, and avoiding obstacles in first. We parked under the cover of leafy apricot trees that protected us slightly from the rain but created its own hazard, namely falling apricots that Tym discovered with his head.
So we began our hike up to the waterfall and it didn’t take long before our lack of recent cardiovascular exertion became painfully troublesome and we started to question our decision to hike up Machu Picchu over five days in mid-October. Soon we were absorbed by the narrow jungle path, the sunlight splashing through the thick canopy on to the murky forest floor littered with various decomposing fruits and plants offering a peculiarly sweet smell. At the end of a particularly steep section that required us to climb up big muddy rocks we arrived at the waterfall met by the sun, which had timed our arrival perfectly. The waterfall had snuck up on us, offering only a whisper despite the 50m drop, and while it is light in volume it is full of splendour as the stream trickles and mists overtop of the cliff, cascading down the vertical green-dotted wall on which vines and ferns are washed in the fresh water fed by the lagoon sitting atop the volcano. The water was revitalising and after showering at the foot of the falls we descended the volcano; down the narrow jungle path and down the steep winding road that, now dry, was an easy ride coasting down in neutral.
We treated ourselves to a heavy snack at a wonderful lakeside restaurant that also serves as a hostel and an English-language school. Funded by the profits of the business ventures, the school continues to build new schoolrooms out of recycled plastic gathered on the island. Our next and final stop for the day was the natural spring water pools called Ojo De Agua. The day had grew gloomy and the pool was full of tourists from near and far as many local Nicaraguans had come to the island to celebrate the country’s Independence Day, but we still had a nice dip enriched by a handful of howler monkeys that showed up, swinging between the branches, yet keeping their howling to a minimum.
After a few days of standing still we were once again eager to continue the journey southwards and we left the hostel early Sunday morning. We said goodbye to María who had been a wonderful presence in the restaurant over the past several nights. As we left she showed her infectious smile once again, her teeth lined with slivers of gold and gave us each a kiss on the cheek. She must have said a prayer as she pointed to the heavens while uttering some Spanish before sending us on our way.
In an attempt to catch the 7:30 ferry we showed up to the port in decent time at about 7:15. However, after some confusion as to why the ticket office wasn’t open until 8, it became clear that we were at the wrong port and had to backtrack about 15 minutes. The race was on. It was us against the cattle and the pigs, the chickens and the dogs, the speed bumps and the beestings. We got to the town, turned down the first street and got to the bottom. Good news: ferry is still here. Bad news: it’s way over there! Back up the bumpy street and down the next one. The few workers onboard were in the final stages of organizing their ropes and checking their knots but the rope barrier at the ramp was down so on we rode. It wasn’t smooth, but it worked. We squirmed into place scraping our mirrors against an immovable truck on one side, brushing our luggage against mopeds on the other side. Two of us had our bikes tied into place but Tym, inaccessible to the crew, was asked to sit on his bike for the duration of the hour-long ride.
We sputtered back to the mainland and upon disembarking we were soon on our way south once again, and in less than an hour we were crossing into Costa Rica. After a passport stamp, exit documents for the bikes, and a small exit tax we were cleared to leave Nicaragua and began the process of entering Costa Rica: a long maze of photocopies, offices, waiting rooms and line ups. Despite the long wait times, all of our documents were in order and the process went smoothly. Leaving the border we were struck by the mass of temporary housing in raggy tents that were clustered just south of Nicaragua. Rumours and a brief Google search suggest a surge of African refugees attempting to reach the U.S. have bottlenecked at various borders in Central America. Whatever the reason, it was certainly gut wrenching to see, and even more so knowing there are currently far more extensive refugee crises across the globe.
That afternoon we planned on reaching Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast, and were making good time until we hit a line of traffic that put the border crossing to shame. We weaved in and out of the lurching vehicles and relished the rare and short-lived stretches of open road between log jams. Costa Rica was nice, and on the surface more put together than Nicaragua and the other Central American countries that we had travelled over the past ten days. Hay bales were evenly stacked and wrapped along the roads that were home to fewer stray dogs and loose livestock. The ranches seemed more prosperous as the buildings seemed less likely to fall over and the fences more likely to stay standing. Of course there were still a lot of poverty-stricken areas, where patched-together sheet metal wall encircled dark rooms as innocent children still laughed and played, living in the present, blissfully unaware of their difficult futures. As our first and only afternoon in Costa Rica came to a close we were treated to distant hills of green so pure and so alive that even under the dying light, black clouds, and thick mist they held on to their colour and allure.
Monday morning we were on the road by 6:15, the hard rubber of our tires whirring down the pavement towards Panama, and our final border crossing in North America. The thick Costa Rican forest was interrupted occasionally by encounters with the sea, the heavy ocean air carrying smells of fish, seaweed and salt right off the water and into our helmets. The smells were accompanied by stunning views of waves crashing onto the near shore, while distant hazy hills held up the growing clouds. We rode past short animated hills that were full of texture colour; leafy greens building up towards sharp ridges and slipping into steep valleys which held pockets of wispy white clouds only visible early in the morning through the day’s first streaks of sun that cast wavering shadows on the road ahead. In contrast to the previous day, the distant hills struggled to hold on to their colour under darkening clouds and thickening sea air. We passed small hillocks on top of which sat stilted homes for the Costa Rican rich, the clean structures staring towards the coast, boldly taunting the ever imminent storm… it is rainy season after all!
Approaching the Panamanian border we continued to ride in our t-shirts, not knowing whether we would bare the brunt of the looming weather. But fortune sometimes favours the brave, and in this case the rain was no more than a sprinkle. We rode through endless miles of palm tree plantations, watching lines of the tropical trees extending far into the hills on our left, and towards the coast on our right; each line a momentary convergence of the dark emptiness that occupies the space between the arrow-straight human-made rows of the thick trunks. The Costa Rican roads had also been notably absent of a military presence, as you might expect from a country without a military. Costa Rica abolished their military in 1948 following the end of the Civil War, and a year later passed legislation banning a full-time standing army, putting an end to the country’s previously held military character. Costa Rica does, however, maintain a national police force, border control personnel, Coast Guard and other para-military organizations in order to maintain internal peace.
Leaving Costa Rica was another blur of paperwork, another test of patience and another hours-long struggle to keep important papers and documents tucked away and zipped up. There was another presence of refugees, mostly sitting and waiting – what more could they do? Mothers held their wriggling infant children up in front of white sheets so that impersonal cameras behind thick glass could take photos for temporary identification documents. Seeing their faces that held onto looks of boredom and helplessness put our border battles into perspective and all things considered it was a breeze.
Canadian OH&S specialists would have had heart attacks witnessing some of the construction practices, though, as unharnessed workers leaned over gaps 20 feet in the air to weld steel rebar brackets on to a concrete wall, holding the welding mask in one hand while showering our bikes in sparks with the other. The spectacle was a nice break from the boring lines, and we shared a smile with the workers on more than one occasion.
Upon entering Panama we were pleased that the rumours of the two-lane divided highway were true and our pace and morale were boosted as we approached the long awaited and much anticipated sail boat. Continuing to tempt fate against the capricious weather we wore only t-shirts, our jackets strapped on to the top of our luggage to hold down a growing number of loose items. We faced some light rain which stings against bare skin at 110 kph, but the drops never materialized into anything substantial.
As luck would have it, Panamanian infrastructure officials had decided to time the year’s major roadwork projects to coincide with the Alaskentina Adventure and our two-lanes quickly became one and we were directed back and forth between alternating sides of the highway, shared with the oncoming traffic. The minor irritation wasn’t cause for concern and we clipped along the Pan-American watching the varying views with absolute satisfaction.
The Panamanian mountains run more or less East-West along the country, paralleling our travels. Near the Costa Rican border, the Cordillera de Talamaca range stands tall above the jungle. Void of any light, the spiny ridge lay dark against the bright overcast sky that held tightly on to the afternoon light. Loosely constituted clouds refused to leave the black slopes throughout the afternoon, but their light nature was easily pierced by the mighty rock summits. This wonderful distant view was at times enhanced by a bright green foreground in the form of pristine pastures dotted with hungry livestock.
We met a curious character at one of our stops along the way. An American man, 58 years old, with a sleeveless shirt, loosely worn necktie and a beard more frazzled than ours had parked his little bicycle with six-inch diameter wheels, a garden chair affixed to the top in which sat a small dirty curly-furred dog. He warned us of impending doom in Panama City. “Not to scare you guys, but they will kill you down there. All three of ya. And the canal? It’s contaminated with nuclear waste and the steam will burn your skin. Nobody will tell you about it, they don’t want you to know. Seriously. Don’t go down there.”
He repeated the dire warnings for a few minutes, trying to convince us to alter our travel plans northward back into Costa Rica. We politely tapered the conversation to a close and then continued on our way giving little weight to the man’s dubious claims. The reduced two-lanes carried us through the afternoon into the coastal town of Playa de Lajas where we opted to stay in what could most aptly be described as a yellow concrete bunker. The incredible sunset lit up the beach that continued to play host to crashing waves throughout the night.
In the morning the rush had subsided, and all that was left was a few hours into Panama City. We backtracked along the narrow road out of Playa de Lajas, under and beside the broad waxy leaves characteristic to the tropics of Central America. Back on the highway our journey took us up and down soft undulating foothills that continued to support the constant mass of trees that grew steadily into the distant mountains. We were treated to an equally picturesque view of Panama’s spine that had regained some colour since the blackness of the day before and browns now penetrated the sea of green.
We were stopped at one Police checkpoint, the first such instance since the beginning of the trip, and presented our passports and our bikes’ Panama Papers that were all in order. The officers could not have been friendlier and the stop lasted no more than a couple minutes. The final leg into Panama City took us across the mighty canal that was notably free of mist – toxic or otherwise.
The U.S. built canal was completed in 1914 and continues to serve as an invaluable transportation line between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, eliminating the need to take the dangerous voyage around the violent waters of Cape Horn. The construction efforts faced many obstacles including mountainous terrain, troubled equipment, and yellow fever and malaria killing many workers and scaring away many more. Each of the obstacles were overcome and the canal’s design evolved over time, engineers settling on a series of three locks, lifting vessels up to 85 feet above sea-level, and the man-made Gatún Lake reducing overall construction requirements on the north end of the project.
We found a perfect place to stay, the PanamaHouse B&B, which was recommended to us by none other than Captain Ludwig himself, the man who will steer us through the San Blas islands on the Stahlratte in the coming days. We will take the opportunity while in Panama City to catch up on laundry of mounting urgency, oil changes and other personal and motorcycle items in order to waste little time in Colombia upon arrival. Once on South American soil we will hustle towards Cusco, Peru where our five-night trek to Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca ruins, begins on October 17th.