Jan 23

Day 48 – San Vito, Costa Rica to Santiago, Panama

by in Field Reports

Did some digging around regarding border crossings last night and found Rio Sereno, which was just a handful of kilometers away from San Vito where we stayed last night. Everyone who’s used it says that Rio Sereno is teeny but very fast and has none of the hassle of the Pan American crossing at Paso Canoas – in part, because the road leading to it isn’t paved. And also, there’s no customs on the Costa Rica side, although the Panama side has both immigration and customs. This means that you can cross out of Costa Rica but you can’t check your moto out, and you can’t cross into Costa Rica with a moto at this crossing.

After reading more about Paso Canoas and our prior experiences with the Pan Americana border crossings, we decided to say “eff it” to checking out the bikes from Costa Rica and just head into Panama at Rio Sereno. Hopefully that doesn’t bite us in the butt later somehow, but we decided to risk it.

Slight misadventure to start the day, though – I was reaching up from the bed to grab the cord to turn off the fan, and I reached up with my right arm while leaning back on my left arm and turning my head *just* so – and managed to pull something. I immediately had to lie back down and take a bunch of Ibuprofin to attempt to reduce some of the muscle pain, and had to take it very easy this morning. Was a bit apprehensive about doing dirt with a bad shoulder/neck. In the end, it hurt to move my arm a certain way, and it hurt to turn my head too far to the right, so riding presented some challenges. But neither of us wanted to stay in Costa Rica anymore because it’s just so expensive – it was time to move forward.

So we set out looking for Rio Sereno, which isn’t marked, but we found some decent instructions on Horizons Unlimited. Except they weren’t as good as we thought. We got as far as Sabalito, Costa Rica, where we were supposed to pick up the dirt, except the instructions were a bit ambiguous and we missed the turn we were supposed to take.

Kay stopped and asked a guy if we were going the right way to the Panama Fronteira, and he indicated that we go forward and then take a left. Followed those directions but still didn’t find the dirt we were supposed to be riding, so Kay asked again and got an affirmative that we were on the right road. Went a bit longer and still no dirt, so I suggested that instead of asking for the frontiera, Kay ask specifically for Rio Sereno – and the woman he asked first indicated the road we were on, but when Kay said “Rio Sereno,” the woman told us to turn around and take a right at the cafe. So we had missed the turn.

Went back to the road I thought might have been the right one originally, when we drove by it, and we stopped at the top of the road looking for someone to ask. A guy on an ATV pulled up next to us and confirmed that this was the dirt road we were looking for that led to the frontiera. Yay! Turned down it and had a nice little ride on the dirt.

The road itself was in good shape, although there were a lot of rocks in the road that made it quite bumpy. The dirt was hard-packed, and there were a few muddy tire tracks but you could pretty easily avoid them by riding between the tracks and it was dry and had good traction. The Horizons Unlimited directions were fairly good once we hit the dirt, and 5km of decent dirt later, we’d arrived at the frontier!

The directions did say that Costa Rica immigrations was on the left before you get to the Panama compound, but we missed the building anyway – it was a bit further back than we were expecting.

Look for this to find the Costa Rican Immigration Building

Kay did the border stuff, even though it was my turn, because my shoulder was bothering me – all of the bouncing around on the rocky dirt road really didn’t help it. Costa Rica immigrations took 5 minutes – they stamped us out in the passport and after confirming that we weren’t planning to return, kept our moto permit. Panama immigrations took another 5 minutes. Then off to customs for the bikes.

Kay went off to do the bike paperwork while I stood with the bikes. Based on how quickly they processed immigration for us, and how few people were using the crossing, I was thinking maybe we could get across in 30-45 minutes. So I stood next to the bikes, waiting for Kay.

A large truck moved its position and I had to move the bikes so people could get by – gave me a few moments of concern because of my shoulder and the slant of the rocky dirt road, but I got them moved without dropping either one. (I’d dropped my bike when we first parked here because the road was slanted too far to the right and the kickstand was too long – it wouldn’t lean far enough to the left because of the slant of the road and gravity took it to the right instead.)

But when I thought the bikes should be moved, I went looking for Kay to ask for help in case I dropped them, and couldn’t find him. He wasn’t in the customs building and I couldn’t see where he might have gone. So I went and did the bikes, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After Kay had been gone for about 45 minutes, I started to get worried. This is a teeny border crossing and there aren’t many places he could have been so I didn’t know what was delaying him. I thought maybe he had to go somewhere to get copies made and things were just taking a while, but by the time an hour had passed, my mind started making up more and more horrific scenarios. Maybe he had to walk 10 kilometers into the next town to get copies because the copy place was closed on Sunday. Or maybe he took a cab or tuk-tuk somewhere and couldn’t get back, and had to walk back. Or maybe someone saw him wandering around and decided to rob and beat up the gringo, and he was laying somewhere in pain.

I shouldn’t be left alone without explanation, clearly.

I kept walking back and forth between the bikes and where I could see down the road, looking for him. Eventually I sat down on a concrete wall where I could easily look for him, and started trying to read a book on my iPhone just to distract myself from my imaginings. (Normally I wouldn’t bring out any electronics at a border crossing but this was dire.) After like an hour and a half, I hear a “Hi Dachary!” and look up and Kay is waving to me. WTF?!

I walk over to find out where he’s been and it turns out that this entire time, he’s been sitting in the office with the insurance kid around the corner waiting for him to fill out our insurance forms. Twice, people from Costa Rica walked in to get insurance and he stopped filling out our forms to process them. That’s why it took so long, apparently. When Kay finally got the insurance forms and brought them back to customs, it took a grand total of roughly 20 minutes to make out the paperwork, inspect the bikes, fumigate them and send us on our way.

So the border crossing itself took 2 hours, but 1.5 hours of that was waiting for the insurance guy to fill out our two forms.

Still, this was by far the best, easiest border crossing we’ve encountered in all of Central America. No hassle, no helpers, no money changers – just a teeny border and friendly, helpful people. If you’re crossing from Costa Rica to Panama, I highly recommend this crossing. The only costs were $1 per bike for fumigation and $15 per bike for insurance.

Even better? The road after the crossing. The road on the Panama side of the crossing is fabulous. It’s winding, twisty, up-and-down on perfectly paved roads for well over an hour. Some of the reports we read about this border crossing described this road as reminding the riders of Switzerland, and while we’ve never imagined palm trees in Switzerland, it did have a sort of “Sound of Music” feel in parts. But either way, it was simply beautiful, and a joy to ride.

A nice sitting spot

Taking a drink

Kay and I agreed that yesterday in Costa Rica and this stretch of the road in Panama today have been some of the best riding of the trip. Would gladly do again. And we agree that 42 from Rio Sereno to Volcan is a must-ride road for anyone who’s riding across Central America. After Volcan, it turns into 41 and it’s not as nice… but the stretch from Volcan to Rio Sereno is simply spectacular.

After we met up with the Pan Americana, things got slightly less interesting. A guy in the hotel we stayed in at Granada recommended a hotel for us in David, but we didn’t see it from the Pan Americana and neither of us was impressed enough with David to want to get off the main road and go hunting for it. The whole area around there was kinda… meh. It made us feel like the ride across Panama would be just a grind.

A bit further along the Pan American, though, things got prettier again and we didn’t regret our decision to continue further, even though we were both tired and my shoulder was bothering me. There are mountains off to the left for much of the stretch from David to Santiago, and it’s really pretty in places. Not at all like we’d expected the Pan Americana would be.

Rode into Santiago just at sunset and tried a couple of hotels until we found a *relatively* cheap place. Honestly, things have been *very* expensive since we arrived in Costa Rica. I miss the hotels in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. (i.e. we’ve been paying as much or more for hotels here in Costa Rica/Panama as we did in the States.)

Our dinner choices without saddling back up on the bikes, which neither of us felt inclined to do, consisted of KFC or McDonalds. So sad. We chose KFC as the lesser of two evils, and I’ve gotta say – after all of the delicious chicken we’ve had here in Central America, KFC was just wrong. I don’t know what they do to the chicken to make it taste like that but give us back the food from Mexico. We agree that the Mexican food was the best, and we miss it. And Mexica tortillas – OMG. Seriously so good.

We made very good time today, so it looks like we’ll be hitting Panama City tomorrow. Then it’s time to figure out the logistics of getting the bikes to Girag and flying over the Darien to start our SA adventure! We won’t fly out of Panama City ourselves until we’re sure the bikes have gone, because we don’t want to get to Columbia only to find that they’re stuck here, so we’re not sure how long we’ll have to be in the city (i.e. when our bikes will go out.) But we’re *this* close to South America now, and this is where the adventure enters a whole new phase!

Hopefully the time in Panama City will be enough for my shoulder to heal, Kay’s back to fully heal (it’s still stiff and sore) and the new sunburn I’ve acquired today to fade a bit. Maybe we’ll even get to wash our stinky, nasty motorcycle gear! And there’s some work I should get done for a client before we wander off into “maybe not have internet for long time” land.

We’re here in Panama, and we’ve made it through Central America! Now South America awaits!

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