To Panama and Back | Motorcycle Adventure
The Luxury of Time
I blame it on the spaghetti Bolognese, or maybe the three glasses of Spanish Rioja I savored while fidgeting with it on my plate. It is not that we didn’t enjoy our lives; we had great jobs, friends, and a multitude of fun things to do every weekend in sunny Southern California. But something was missing. I really could not put my finger on it, but I just felt that our existence was too easy. Too planned. Too, dare I say, normal.
As I finished my wine and gazed at my hardly-touched feast, my feet began to itch, my throttle hand began to twitch, and I heard a faint distant calling. It was coming through loud and clear now-a crisp and undeniable communiqué, and one that I recognized as The Call to Adventure. I looked up at my wife Malin, a Swede I met in Spain, and simply asked her, "Do you want to go for a ride?" "Sure," she said smiling, "absolutely."
Of course she asked me to explain, so I exhaled my hastily thrown together plan. We would take a sabbatical from our current existence, buy an adventure touring motorcycle, learn everything about it, prepare, train, and ready ourselves for the biggest two-wheeled international adventure of our lives; one that would test our physical, mental, and spiritual mettle; one that would save us from the terminal illness of normalcy.
We were less than 60 seconds in and we could not back out now. In that moment, overcome with the most intense feeling of vitality, hindsight clearly indicated that we had just surmounted the most difficult hurdle that lay before us. Dinnertime was over, and there was not a moment to waste. "Oh, and by the way, honey, the spaghetti Bolognese was fantastic!"
Our plan was simple: take our motorcycle and all of our gear from Ventura, Calif. to the Panama Canal, and back! Our route would take us through Baja California, hugging the Sea of Cortez to La Paz. From there, we take the ferry to Mazatlan, and continue down the Pacific coast to Panama. Our return route north would be along the Caribbean coast, through Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula, and return to the United States at El Paso. We had budgeted 11 weeks.
Incessant preparation began. We bought a new BMW R 1200 GS Adventure and immediately began to put dirt and tarmac beneath it-weekend rides through old mining roads in the Mojave Desert, all-night adventures in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and, of course, the daily grind of the commuting through Los Angeles traffic.
I learned and practiced routine bike maintenance, gauged service life from tires and brakes, and built a tool roll that would allow me to perform a myriad of road side repairs ranging from simple flat fixes and fluid changes, to tire mounting and valve adjustments.
Traveling from June through September meant that we would be riding through the heart of Central America’s rainy season. Our gear and clothing choices would have to be fully functional from the triple digit temperatures in Baja to endless rain and mud in the muggy jungles of the Banana Republics. All of our clothing, from undergarments to windbreakers, were synthetic fabrics that would compress easily and dry quickly.
Malin and I immersed ourselves in research and divided our responsibilities by country, making trip notes of must-see destinations and educating ourselves on some of the history and customs of the people and places we would experience along our journey. We made a checklist of items and tasks-vaccinations, insurance, banking and bill payments. Soon we were physically ready to go, but were we ready mentally to detach ourselves from our current existence and begin our adventure?
Three months later, we were idling in traffic on the San Diego Freeway in 102-degree Southern California heat. We were only a few miles from home but we could already feel ourselves leaving the gravitational pull of normal life. Crossing the border into Mexico brought an overwhelming sensation of freedom. No meetings. No conference calls. No business dinners. No voicemail. Only the two of us, and our two-wheeled steed. Adventure was calling!
Sometimes, many hours and hundreds of miles of dirt roads would pass before seeing a single soul, and then we would stumble upon the sound of a diesel generator and the smell of fish tacos. We knew we had found our paradise for the evening. Meals and lodging on the road can be fantastic cultural and culinary experiences, especially local fare in small villages. But, always ask to see your hotel room and the hotel parking area before paying. Often times, our BMW spent the night in the hotel lobby.
Deeper in Mexico we rented an apartment in San Cristobal de las Casas for a week and enrolled in a Spanish immersion class. Being able to speak the language quickly diminishes your stranger-status, and locals will enjoy hearing your stories. After weeks on the road we thought it would be a relaxing respite from the constant packing and unpacking of road life, but we quickly found that we underestimated our co-dependence on the bike and were yearning to saddle up again.
I think the big BMW felt the same way and after a week of sitting idle it responded to the neglect with a dead battery. No problem! The 12-year-old son of the apartment caretaker did not have jumper cables, but he cut the electrical cord from a desk lamp, exposed the wire, and used the battery from another guest’s car to get the boxer engine to roar back to life!
However, not all of our encounters with the local population were so engaging. The neighborhood police can be a little challenging at times. Speed limits are slow, and speed traps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua are common. Be sure to get at least two International Driver Permits from the Auto Club and carry any expired driver’s licenses you may have. The local police will often keep your license until you return with a receipt from the bank showing that you have paid the appropriate fine; an expendable license gives you the option of compliance.
We fastened Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic icon, to the front of the bike, making military checkpoints flow much more smoothly. If you keep your helmets flipped down, they will think you are an affluent local and much less likely to wave you into secondary inspection.
Still, we had a handful of run-ins with the law, and on one occasion it was literal-I swapped paint as I wedged the big BMW between a police car and a dump truck at the site of a road-blocking landslide. The pouring rain and the setting sun (never under any circumstances ride at night) told us that we could not wait for the crew to finish and for the police to open the road. The result was no real harm-a conversation piece on the right pannier, a slightly disgruntled official, and a somewhat shaken passenger.
Twisty mountain roads were extremely fun and challenging, but the heavy rain caused grit to be imbedded into the rear brake pads. This quickly wore down the pads, and the brake rotor itself. I installed a new set of pads that I carried with me, but the rotor required replacement. That evening I sent an e-mail to the BMW dealer in San Jose, Costa Rica, explaining our situation. He was more than happy to help, boxing up parts and setting them aside for us.
However, trying to find a single shop in the middle of a large Latin American metropolitan city is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Fortunately for us, we met a local on an R 1200 GS Adventure who was splitting lanes behind us. We chatted briefly, and he insisted that we follow him to the shop, still over two hours away! He showed us the aggressive lane splitting protocol in Latin America-riding the double yellow line on a two-lane highway, passing slower cars on our right while avoiding oncoming traffic on our left!
Soon we were at the BMW shop, where we were greeted with refreshments and a tour of their facility. I contemplated replacing tires while I was here, but my Metzler Tourance tires were wearing well. The tires exceeded expectations, with the rear not needing replacement until the final day of our trip.
Experiencing the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean, ferrying between idyllic islands for diving and snorkeling, eating wonderfully prepared local dishes and soaking up the culture came at a price-border crossings. Crossing the border was the most unpredictable and arduous part of our trip. It is an exercise in patience, negotiating skills, and only the persistent truly succeed. The process starts out fairly easily-immigration requires that your passports get stamped as you exit one country and enter another, paying associated fees. Interestingly, Malin’s Swedish passport meant she never had to pay any fees, but there is almost always a charge for an American or British passport.
The problems arise in Customs. Exporting and importing the motorcycle requires insurance, agricultural insecticide sprayings, and long lines behind trucks that have literally waited days to bring their cargo into the country. Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama were the best; Honduras and Nicaragua were nearly unbearable, forcing us to rely on institutional bribes and "border fixers." Getting across the Honduran border crossing on a lonely Sunday took nearly eight hours.
A refreshing revelation was the surprising number of motorcycle clubs and fellow enthusiasts we seemed to run into in every country. These were true grassroots organizations, with riders from every walk of life. It did not seem to matter if you had a Harley-Davidson cruiser, an old Honda-powered chopper, or a Chinese knock-off, you were welcome to ride with them every Sunday, and then sit down after the ride and bench race over a nice cold cerveza at the zocalo (town square). They were interested in our bike and gear, and I told them that there was never a moment when I wanted to be on any other bike, or wearing any other gear.
The bike was comfortable on all-day rides, from triple-digit speeds on a toll road to 5 mph through a herd of goats in the middle of a rainstorm. For two-up international adventure riding, the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure is the only option. Complementing the GS was BMW’s apparel-completely waterproof, but able to breath and vent. And after spending every riding day in my Rallye 2 Pro suit and Malin in her ComfortShell suit, when I arrived home and threw it all in the wash, everything came out looking brand new!
Each day challenged us with unpredictable weather and road conditions, but also rewarded us with beautiful scenery and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Setting aside such a large expanse of time would be difficult to repeat, but we realized that it is possible to travel for a week or two, store the bike at a local BMW dealership, and fly back home to resume work and normalcy. When the next opportunity presents itself, we could steal away, pick up the bike from the dealership, and continue the process.
Crossing back into the States 11 weeks later was an emotional experience. We were now different people from when we left-new-and-improved, in a way, with a widened perspective and an enhanced sense of self-reliance. We had overcome every imaginable challenge, learned from our experiences and the friendly people we encountered, and smiled our way through 12,000 miles of tarmac, dirt, mud, and rocks.
We had completed the most exhilarating adventure of a lifetime, one that began 11 weeks earlier with the girl of my dreams sitting comfortably behind me, our trusty adventure machine securely under us, the open road beckoning…and the luxury of time.