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Thursday, 21 January 2016

PART 4: CENTRAL AMERICA - GUATEMALA, EL SALVADOR, HONDURAS, NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA & PANAMA

GUATEMALA (12 – 16 NOV 2015)


Since I am going to enter a new country today, and since I still had lots of Mexican Pesos left, I decided to change my money at the bank before heading to the border. I arrived the bank at 7.30am, waited for half hour, only to be informed that the bank didnt do any currency exchange. I was asked to go to another bank. Same story there, and again I was asked to go to the HQ bank which the officer said definitely can change Pesos to Quetzal (Guatemalan currency). I had to wait 45 minutes for the HQ bank to open and frustratingly, they can only change Pesos to USD, and for a much cheaper rate. As I had wasted lots of time, I changed my remaining Pesos to USD, get back to the hotel and head straight to the border. Surprisingly the road was reasonably good, unlike my experience yesterday. The view was beautiful too. However, 15kms to the border, there was construction going on and I had to ride on gravels. 

Exiting Mexico at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc border took a while. I went to the aduana (customs) to cancel my temporary permit. The officer demanded to see the VIN number, so I had to take down my GIVI waterproof bag. Then, I get my USD400 deposit back and later I get my passport exit stamp. The officer asked to see the receipt of my tourist card which I got upon entering Mexico via Tijuana border. Luckily I still keep the receipt or else I will have to pay USD23 again. Once done, I rode 50m ahead and entered Guatemala. Unlike in Mexico, it was chaotic in Guatemala border town, La Mesilla. However, no tout came to me as what I have read in the internet. There was quite a line at the immigration and I had to wait a while before the officer stamped my passport. Then I went to the customs at the next building and get my temporary vehicle permit done. Luckily the officer didnt ask to see the VIN number. I had to pay Q160 (RM80) to bring GD into Guatemala.



As I had a long way to go, I hurriedly left the border. The road in Guatemala was very narrow and winding along the mountain. There were certain parts which the road was really bad. Speed bumps here were worse than in Mexico, and a lot too. Military presence were everywhere. I never get the chance to speed at all. To maker matters worse, the locals driving attitude was terrible. It started to rain soon after. Theres one time that I almost collided with a van from the opposite direction which was trying to overtake another vehicle and couldnt care less that he had taken my lane fully. I had to slam the brake and missed the van just by few inches only. Damn!! The road was so bad that the glue which I put on my broken GPS holder broke again. Duhhh!!! However, the view was very nice and green.



It was very cold as I climbed higher to Lake Atitlan. I was getting worried as it was getting late and I havent reached Panajacel, my targeted destination for today. Fortunately the road improved after San Cristobal. I turned right to Panajacel and the road narrowed and started to climb up and down with very steep hair pin bends. I arrived just before the sun went out, feeling so exhausted. I took the opportunity to rest for few days here and viewed the famous volcanic lake.





After resting few days at Panajacel, I continued my journey to a small border town, Los Esclavos. However, it was not an easy ride today as not long after I left Panajacel, it started to rain. I stopped by the road side to put on my Givi rain coat which I hadn't use since in Canada. Thick fog surrounded me and the wind was so strong. I could only rode at 25kph as I couldnt see the road. It was only after I had descended the mountains that the fog cleared. Reaching Guatemala City, I accidentally took the wrong road 4 times and had to turn back. My GPS didnt have a junction view feature, so it was very confusing whenever I reached a flyover as I'm not sure whether to go up the flyover or to take the ground road. There were lots of cars here and the drivers drove like maniacs. It was a great relief after I managed to find the correct PanAm Highway again and successfully crossed this capital city of Guatemala. At 3pm, I finally reached Los Esclavos, a very small town 50kms fr the border which was surrounded by beautiful mountains. Perhaps I'm the first Malaysian ever spent a night here. 


EL SALVADOR (16 – 18 NOV 2015)

I started early on the morning of 16 Nov. The ride to the border was a mixture of good and bad road. It took me 30mins to cancel my permisso (local term for Temporary Vehicle Import Permit) at Guatemalan side and 1.30hrs to get a new one at the El Salvador side. A nice customs officer, Rafael, helped me or else I would had taken a longer time. No fees charged to take in my bike to El Salvador. 



Surprisingly, the road in El Salvador was much better than in Guatemala. Of course there were some broken parts, but still tolerable. I bypassed Santa Ana, San Salvador and took the coastal road, CA2 to El Cuco. It was 353kms paved + 3kms on dirt and gravels to reach Tortuga Verde, my hostel at El Cuco. 



This place was incredible. Very beautiful blue and huge waves of Pacific Ocean could be seen here. I stayed here for 2 nights just to laze and enjoyed the amazing sunset and fresh and cheap fried fish sold here. I also managed to see baby turtles being released into the ocean.






HONDURAS (18 NOV 2015)


I made an early start today. By 6.30am I already hit the road. It rained last night, making the 4kms off road ride to the main road wet and slippery. The last part of the offroad was the hardest, with big slippery rocks and some poodles that I had to ride on. My tires slid and off I went inside the poodles. Damn. Luckily there was a car trailing behind me and the driver helped me to put GD to stand.



It took me about 1.15hrs to reach El Salvador - Honduras border under the on and off rain. A long 5km cue of trucks lined the road but I made my way thru. It was easy to exit El Salvador, but not so to enter Honduras. I was advised by an overlander friend to get the local's service at this border, as theres a lot of paperworks to be done. I always did everything on my own but this time, I took the service offered. I had to pay USD3 for tourist card, USD40 to bring my bike in, and USD2 for tipping. Both borders were done in less than 1.30hrs and then, I entered Honduras. Drug wars between the drug cartels, mafias, smugglings, kidnappings, assaults, murders and robberies made this country as the most dangerous on planet Earth. The people too were said to be so fond of guns. Because of that, I had no intention to stay long in this country.



Along my way, I passed countless military check points, but not once was I stopped and searched. The militaries were more interested in big trucks and buses. Looking at the young military boys holding rifles, I wondered how high their egos could be, and how high they could hold their patience before pulling the trigger when the locals upset them. 

I took PanAm Highway CA1 all the way. The road condition to Choluteca was acceptable (not as bad as in Guatemala), and surprisingly getting even better after Choluteca to San Marcos de Colon which were on highlands. There were some wonderful twisties here. It was a pleasant ride as the road was not too narrow and with very few traffic. The road quality was even better than our Simpang Pulai – Cameron Highlands road, with beautiful greens to enjoy. The houses which I saw along the way were not bad too, even better than houses in Guatemala.





NICARAGUA (18 – 30 NOV 2015)


I exited Honduras without too much prblm (just a slight confusion as I didnt understand their instructions in espanyol). I had to pay USD3 upon exit and I made my way to Nicaragua. Again I had to pay fumigation fee for USD3 and USD12 for tourist card at the immigration. Mandatory insurance for Nicaragua was USD25. Everything was money, money, and money here. The customs officer was slow in filling up the forms but I had to keep my cool. Finally, after about 1 hour, I'm done and hit the road again. 



The road in Nicaragua was not bad. I made my way to Somoto and stayed for one night. The next day, I rode to Granada which was 250kms away on whats supposed to be the best road after US and Mexican highway. For the first time, my GPS hanged and I had to use the old skul navigation (asking locals for direction in broken espanyol). The view was beautiful along the winding mountain road. Very green and I was entertained with lots of interesting sights such as locals stretching out their hands while holding big lizards by the road side. I felt joy when passing the beautiful yellow and green paddy fields here. I felt like riding on secondary road in Kedah. It felt like home...




Nicaragua as I see was more developed than its neighbours. Clean, modern and big supermarkets, good road (on the national highways), well marked speed bumps and better driving attitudes among the locals. Upon arriving Granada, I rode straight to Vista Mombacho Apartments. I met my host, Bob, and the apartments owner, Glenn Koons. They let me stay here for free for 7 days. Bob was a biker himself and had rode well in US on his BMW bikes and both Bob and Glenn were expats who chose to retire here in Granada. That night, Bob cooked delicious rice, fish and salad for me and we talked about his plans to take me for sightseeing in and outside Granada within my stay here. How nice of him.



The next morning, Bob took me for an almost 4 hour stroll in Granada, the oldest colonial city which had the finest architecture pastel shaded colonial buildings in Nicaragua. This city had the biggest number of expats, especially from US and Canada. We walked along the nice charming streets, visited the big market, the park, viewed some churches and we went to the edge of Lake Nicaragua. It was indeed a fun walk.





Bob also owned a dinghy boat and he took me for a very nice 2.30hrs ride at Lake Nicaragua. The boat had an electric motor which was very quiet, hence we managed to see lots of eagles and other birds without disturbing them. We also saw locals who lived by the lake side doing their daily activities. It was fun.





After one whole week in Granada, its time to say good bye to Bob, Glenn, Louise and Martin (who helped me with my laptop), and continued with my ride. I rode to San Jorge pier to board a ferry to a volcanic island, Isla de Ometepe, which was a must see attraction in Nicaragua. The rough ferry ride was 1.30hrs. Luckily I didnt get seasick. This island was located in the middle of Lago Nicaragua, and it had two active volcanos; the Concepcion, on the north of the island (1610m, last erupted in 1986), and Maderas, on the south (1394m, last erupted 3000 years ago). One could trek up to the peak but its going to be a tough climb and ended up seeing nothing as the peak was always covered by clouds. I didnt do any trekking when I was here as I didnt have any suitable trekking gears with me. I only ride a little bit, watched the locals life and ended my day watching amazing sunset by the lake. 





After two nights on the island, I continue my ride to the west coast of Nicaragua, to a small nice beach town, San Juan Del Sur, to enjoy the blue Pacific Ocean again.





COSTA RICA (30 NOV – 7 DEC 2015)


After riding in 7 countries in Global Dream Ride, today I am entering my 8th country, Costa Rica. So far, my trusted Givi attire and accessories had been performing very well and I am very happy with what had been given to me. 

Anyway, its a looongg and hard day today. I left San Juan Del Sur and headed for the border. It was a very windy day. The wind turbines which I could see along the way proved my words.



To exit Nicaragua, I had to pay USD3. To enter Costa Rica, USD2 and mandatory insurance USD25. The procedure to enter Costa Rice was quite complicated. It took me almost 2.30hrs to clear both borders. Once done, I rolled GD's wheels on CR's road. The wind got stronger and stronger. My bike was swayed left and right helplessly. It was scary. Luckily theres not many traffic on the road. 



Since CR is a very pricey country (it was said that a burger cost USD10 here), and since I was overbudgeted due to the unexpected high border crossing fees, I planned to camp to save some money. I found a good place to pitch my tent near Lake Arenal. It was already sun down by the time I finished setting up my tent. When its time to cook, I tried to open my top box. Unfortunately, my box couldnt open. Something must have stucked in the lock housing inside the box. May be my wet towel was accidentally pulled inside the lock, I'm not sure. All my important stuff were in there including my laptop, money, rations, pot, stove and cooking wares. I tried to open the lid, sprayed WD40 in the key slot, pressed the lid hard and anything that I can think of, but nothing worked out. Theres no shop whatsoever here. The nearest town was 20kms away and its already dark. I will not ride at night especially when the road is winding, its not lighted and there were jungles at both sides of the road. I was so hungry as my last meal was breakfast this morning. I started to regret my idea of wild camping here. Since theres nothing much that I could do tonight, I tried to go to sleep but it was hard as I was very hungry. I send an email to Givi boss, Mr Joseph Perucca and informed him about my problem.


The next day, I got a reply from Mr Perucca asking me to go to a Givi dealer shop in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica which was about 200kms away. I was so worried about this matter but I told myself not to panic. I am very sure there will be a solution. I hv all my trust in Givi. I do feel frustrated when this problem happened because Givi products had never failed me before, and I truly loved the Givi Maxia top box as it was very easy to use and practical for my adventure. 

On my way to San Jose, I stopped by beautiful Lake Arenal for some pics. I spotted some coatis here too.






Once I arrived the suburb of San Jose, a biker friend, Julio Salazar met me by the road side. He then took me to Moto Repuestos Indianapolis, a Givi dealer in CR. Gustavo and his workers tried to break the box, but it was not easy. The difficulty to open the box showed how secure Givi boxes were. Finally, they managed to break the lock and installed a new lock for the box. I was soooo relieved. Gustavo also offered to do my bike maintenance - oil change, spark plug change, tightened and lubricate the chain, screws, and everything. He even offered to gv me a new set of tires and a new top box (if I want) & asked me to choose which one I like. ALL FOR FREE!!! I said thank you, but its enough that my top box issue was settled and my tires were still good. I accepted the bike maintenence offer though. Alhamdulillah, so good people everywhere.




During my stay in San Jose, Julio Salazar acted not only as my guardian angel, but also my 'manager' here. LOL...He arranged exciting programs for me such as visiting Yamaha HQ of Costa Rica, and an interview with Costa Rica TV station at University of Costa Rica. The interview can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sX-ZlYByLM





Julio also brought me to a charity ride 'Toy Run' event organized by ACRMC (with help from several clubs such as Soldiers for Jesus, Piratas Riders etc). In the morning, we waited at a meeting point for all the bikers around Costa Rica to arrive. Then we rode to the Olympic Village where the orphanage and poor kids had been waiting. The kids were entertained by Biker Santa and later given Christmas presents which the bikers brought along. It was a very nice event and I felt happy to see the excitement and all smiling faces of the kids.







PANAMA (7 – 13 DEC 2015)


After spending 1 week in Costa Rica, I said good bye to my lovely host, Julio, whom I already regard as my brother. I continued south to the border by riding on Highway 2 - 243 - 34. I took the mountain road half way, and the coast a little bit. It was cold and foggy in the mountain, and very warm when I had descended. Exiting Costa Rica was very easy. I need to pay USD8 exit fee and took only 30mins to settle everything. However, entering Panama was another story. I had to deal with the immigration, photostat the stamp on my passport, then go to the customs, purchased mandatory insurance for USD15, back to the customs, wait forever for the officer to prepare the TVIP, then bike checking where the guy asked me to open all my box and panniers, then when I was rushing as its going to rain, another officer stopped me. He said GD needs fumigation first. Then back to the window, paperwork again bla, bla, bla, paid USD1, and he sprayed water on GD. Then only I was done. Sometimes I was soo pissed off to see how they tried to make money at any way they could. After spending 1.30hrs on the Panama side, then only I was through. Thank god road in Panama was double lane and paved nicely. So for the first time after USA, I managed to speed at 110kmh. Panama was country #65 for me and #9 for GDR. 



I arrived David City when the sun was setting. I contacted a biker, Giovanni who was a friend of Julio, and he came to meet me. The next day, he took me for a ride to Bouqette, a nice charming mountain about 30kms from David City.




Later, I continued riding to Santiago via Sona. Even though this road winded and 50kms more in distance, but the view was sooo green and beautiful and the road was very good compared to the straight PanAm Highway which was nearer but with 40kms dirt and gravels as the road was under construction. In Santiago, I was entertained by another biker, Jorge. 







The next day, I rode 270km to Panama City via Centennial Bridge. I saw lots of police by the road side, waiting to catch people speeding over the limit. When crossing the Centennial Bridge, I saw Panama Canal for the first time in my life. It was awesome. I was met by Raul, also a friend of Julio who hosted me for 3 nights. Raul took me to a Givi distributor shop in Panama City, where I met Rebecca and her husband. They were so nice to me and even donated some money for my ride. They asked my opinion about Givi products and I told them that except for the top box problem, all other stuff was great and I am very satisfied.




During my stay, Raul brought me for a sightseeing around Panama City. Nothing much that I knew about this metropolitan except for the famous Panama Canal and that it was once an important US military base during WW2. Raul took me to the old and new Panama, which was huge in contrast. Skyscrapers in the new, and as the name implied, old buildings in the old Panama. Unlike other Central American countries that I had been to, I can see lots of different ethnics here, being the original Panamaian, the Guna Yalas tribe, the blacks from scattered Carribean islands and plenty of Chinese in this city. I also visited the starting of Panama Canal which took 10 years to complete and was opened in 1914. The 77km long canal linked the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean via Carribean Sea.




After spending 3 nights in Panama City, I made my way to Carti Pier to board a sail boat to cross Darien Gap. 


What and where is Darien Gap? Darien Gap is a break in the PanAm Highway consisting of a large mountainous rain forest within Panama's province in Central America and swampland dominated by river delta at the northern portion of Colombia's in the South America. It measured just over 160km long and about 50km wide. Road building through this area was expensive, and the environmental cost was high. Due to environmentalist protest and the concern of drug traffic will get easier between Central and South American countries, at the mmt, there was no road connection through the Darien Gap. It was the missing link of the PanAm Highway. The Gap was also subjected to the presence and activities of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had committed assassinations, kidnappings, and human rights violations during its decades-long insurgency against the Colombian government. Many had tried to cross the Gap, be on a 4WD, two wheelers or on foot. Some survived, but many not. Some had to abandon their vehicles and had to turn to boats to get out of the Gap.


The time when I did my research about crossing Darien Gap, there was a ferry by the name of Ferry Xpress which charged approx USD430 for a motorbike and owner to cross from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Unfortunately, this ferry had stopped operating and will only resume later in 2016. This left me with two options, both resulted in lots of money had to be spent (given that the distance was not that far, only about 350kms) - either to fly my bike, or to take a traditional sail boat instead. I chose the latter. The cost rocketed to USD1030 + USD23 (Guna Yalas toll) for a 4D3N journey, sailing along San Blas islands in the Carribean. Its big money, but this was the only option that I had, and I am lucky to secure the last available place on the boat for their last departure for year 2105, or else I had to wait until 2016 to cross.


I arrived Carti Pier after riding on the steepest and scariest road of my life. At times, I doubt if my small cc motorbike could make it or not. It was a first or 2nd gear affair almost all the way. Thank God I made it safely. I met other bikers who will be my sailing mates for the next 4D3N.







NASTIA

Band: NASTIA, Title: ANGGUR (taken from EP 'EKSPRESI')
HAK CIPTA ANITA YUSOF