Day 49 – Santiago, Panama to Bogota, Columbia

The day started out innocently enough. We got up. Researched places to stay in Panama City. Ate breakfast at the McDonalds next to our hotel and loaded up the bikes. We set off a bit later than we’d planned – didn’t get on the road until 10:20AM. But we weren’t that far from Panama City, so we knew we could make the city today and we thought we might be able to get to Girag to confirm what we needed to do to ship the bikes and find out what day they’d go out.

The ride to Panama City wasn’t bad. It was friggin hot, though. It was in the 80s when we left Santiago at 10 am and my temperature gauge read over 100 at speed riding into Panama City. When we stopped in traffic, my gauge maxed out. Speeds on the road were decent – a lot of 60/80KPH, and even a few 100KPH stretches, which is around 60MPH. Funny thing about the riding we’ve been doing – the speeds have been so slow through Central America that we’ve gotten used to going slow. So when we get a 60MPH speed limit, it feels like we’re going FAST and it actually takes work to maintain that speed.

Stopped for a bathroom at McDonalds again around lunch time, and decided that while we were there we should eat food, since it was lunch time. While we were pondering what to order, a couple approached us and started asking about where we were from and about the bikes and our trip. It turns out they’re from Oregon but own a place on the beach near David. We had a nice little chat with them over lunch, and told them about some of the places we plan to see in South America, and I got excited about it all over again because we’re THIS CLOSE to South America! We’re in Panama!

Back on the road and into Panama City shortly after 2pm. Alas, we have no routable GPS maps of Panama City, and we only had a vague idea of where the airport was (northeast of the city) so it took a few false starts, but eventually we found a road leading toward a suburb that was in the direction of the airport. Once we were on that road, we started seeing signs for the airport. Yay!

It took us over 2 hours just to find the road to the airport, and by the time we did, the gas lights had come on in the bikes. We were trying to run the bikes quite low on gasoline so we wouldn’t have to drain them when we got to the airport, and I was all in favor of going on with the gas lights on, but Kay wanted to put a little bit of gas in so we wouldn’t run out en route. He got his way and we put slightly less than half a gallon in each bike ($3 total).

Once we started seeing signs for the airport, it was fairly easy to navigate there. Except the cargo stuff isn’t in the main terminal, but is someplace away from the main space. Kay had researched this last night and had a map of where we needed to go for Girag, so we followed the signs and slowly made our way around the airport – only to run into a detour. The road around the airport was blocked, so we had to detour into a residential neighborhood along with about a bazillion cars and buses and taxis, everyone going a different way to try to get around the blockage. It was insane.

We took a lot of turns and one U-turn and eventually found our way back out of the neighborhood and onto the road around the airport. And rode. And rode. The airport in Panama City is surprisingly big, and you have to drive around three quarters of it to get to the cargo area. But eventually we found that, too (sorta stumbled into it, in fact) and checked in with the police and then made our way to Girag. At this point it was around 4:45PM and we were both thinking they’d be closed, and neither of us felt like dealing with going back into the city to find one of the hostels we’d looked up this morning, so we were prepared to suck it up and pay the outrageous fees for a room near the airport just so we could try again early in the morning.

But surprise! Girag was open, and Madeline told us the bikes would go out tonight. TONIGHT! What? We were totally unprepared for that. We were expecting to spend several days hanging out in Panama City, waiting for the bikes to ship. We planned to do laundry, and maybe wash our motorcycle gear, and I needed to get some work done, and we were going to wander around a bit and meet up with some ADV folks who are in Panama City.

But if the bikes were going out tonight, could we go out tonight? Madeline nodded, and Kay borrowed the computer while the guy was filling out our airbills and confirmed that there were flights out of Panama City to Bogota tonight!

So we hastily threw some things from the panniers into Kay’s Wolfman Dry Duffle (laptops, my sleeping bag, toiletries, cords for charging stuff, clothes for tomorrow) and removed the mirrors from our bikes, per Madeline’s request. She also asked us to take off the windscreens, and Kay told her it was a PITA so she said don’t worry about it. Now I’m just hoping I don’t wind up with a broken windscreen.

We paid Madeline ($901.28 for each bike) and she made us out receipts, and then told us they’d do the airbills in the other office and left us. So we went out and waited by the bikes, thinking of things we should do or secure or grab before shipping them.

Whilst we were loitering and waiting for the airbills, a guy came over and asked us about the gasoline in the motos. We confirmed “solo un pequito” – just very little gasoline – in the motos. He looked skeptical. Kay confirmed and told him that the gas light was on. He wanted to see. Kay turned the key but explained that our motos have no gas gauge so we couldn’t show him. He mimed that the bikes could explode if there’s too much gas in them. In the end, he walked off, shaking his head, as though he didn’t believe us.

The airbills were taking forever and we still had to check the bikes out with customs, so Kay went to check on the airbills and I waited with the bikes. And waited. And waited some more. Eventually Kay came out with the airbills and saddled up on my bike to take the paperwork to customs, and two of the Girag guys came over and told us we also needed to disconnect the batteries on the bikes. Bummer.

The design on the F650 is a PITA to disconnect the batteries – you have to remove the seats, remove 6 screws, and remove a piece of the fairing just to access the battery (and you have to remove more screws and all the fairing to do anything complicated with the battery). So Kay took the paperwork to customs while I disconnected the battery on his bike. He returned just as I was buttoning his bike back up, so I let him finish while I disconnected the battery on mine.

Batteries disconnected, the guy from Girag came over and asked us to sign paperwork saying that they’d received the bikes, and put stickers on the bikes – I assume denoting the location, etc. He confirmed that this was all and we were done, and Kay asked him to call us a cab. It was then 6:45PM, and we thought we might be able to make the 8:20PM flight to Bogota, so we had the taxi take us to the airport.

Arrived at the passenger terminal at about 7:10PM and found the line for “All Flights”. It was surprisingly difficult to convey to the guy at the counter that we needed to *buy* tickets. “Do you have your reservation?” he asked. And when we said no reservation, he got a supervisor to try to look us up, and the supervisor apparently couldn’t find us in the system. “No, that’s because we need to buy tickets” we tried to explain. The supervisor got it and showed the guy how to sell us tickets. Apparently they don’t get a lot of people wandering up to the airport these days to buy tickets. He didn’t seem to know how to process the transaction.

50 minutes later, we had tickets, boarding passes, we had checked Kay’s dry duffle and my dry sack, and they’d boxed and shrink-wrapped our helmets ($9 US) to have us check those, too.

Insta-checkable helmets

It was 8:06PM, and we discovered we had tickets for the 9:10PM flight to Bogota, and it was boarding at 8:20. And apparently we got Business Class tickets. We hadn’t asked for them, and they hadn’t specified – we didn’t find it out until he gave us the tickets and at that point we didn’t want to deal with trying to get coach, so we just sucked it up.

Made our way quickly to the security check after only a perfunctory check at immigrations (and no stamp out from Panama!) and ran into some troubles at security. They kept telling us to take everything out of our pockets, etc. but we were wearing our motorcycle gear and we have knee armor (and I have foam at my hips, too) and they wanted us to take that out. Kay explained that we’d have to take the pants off to take the armor out, and the guy indicated we’d have to go off to the side, apparently, and show the security people. Which might entail taking our pants off.

We waited while a woman went through Kay’s tank bag. Twice. She took everything out, one by one, looked at it, and put it all back in. And then did it all again. No-one even so much as unzipped my tank bag, but they examined Kay’s in thorough detail. And his Camelbak. A security guy seemed particularly interested in our caribiners – he took them out and examined them one by one. But only Kay’s – they didn’t touch the three that were in my bag.

Then we both had to go off to the side and show people our knee armor. Kay had to stand in the open and bend his pants sorta inside out, and a woman took me behind a screen and had me pull the legs of my pants up until she could see and examine the knee armor. Which she did, in detail. She felt it quite thoroughly, but was apparently satisfied that it was slightly flexy and appeared to be what we said it was.

They told us we could go, and then the security guy started asking questions. How long were we in Panama? Did we like it? Panama was very beautiful – did we agree? We weren’t there long so we couldn’t tell him much, but we mentioned that we thought the area near Rio Sereno and Vulcan was very beautiful, and he agreed. Had a little chat (in Spanish) about our trip, and then he waved us on our way. I’m guessing they don’t get people in motorcycle gear through security very often.

Made it to the gate just as they were starting to board. We both had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t see any nearby, so we figured we’d just use the bathroom on the plane. Luckily, since we were in business class, we got to board first and we both used the bathroom well before we started to taxi. Kay has flown business once before, but it was my first time flying business, and can I just say “DAYUM!!!” There’s SO MUCH MORE ROOM in business class. Our plane was two seats on each side of the aisle in business, and three on each side of the aisle in coach. We had more leg room and space for our stuff in the overhead compartment. And while we were waiting for boarding, the stewardess brought us orange juice! Just for sitting on the runway!

Tired but happy.

Still not quite sure how I ended up here...

As the flight began, she started taking orders for snacks. Snacks? We got snacks on an hour-long flight? This would never happen in the States. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve never flown business class before. We hadn’t had a chance for dinner and neither of us ate particularly much at our McDonalds lunch so we were psyched for food. We both got turkey wraps, which came with salad and little pieces of chocolate cake, and were surprisingly tasty. Score for business class! We also discovered, after we boarded, why we had business class – the flight was FULL. There probably weren’t any coach seats left. While neither of us would have chosen to spend the extra money on business for this flight, it was a nice luxury.

Disembarked in Bogota and had a surprisingly quick trip through immigration, although they seemed perplexed how we could be arriving in Columbia at 11PM with no hotel and no contact information for friends. The immigration guy had to ask the girl next to him what to put, and I think she just put something generic. But he stamped our passports, and we were officially in South America!

Headed out through security again, and had to declare our nothing at customs (who was also perplexed how we could have no address in Columbia) and then I waited in line at the money changer. They’d take our US dollars and our Costa Rican Colones, but not our leftover Honduran Lempiras or Nicaraguan Quetzales. So we still have Lempiras and Quetzales, but we got enough money for tonight, at least.

While I was waiting in line at the money changer, I saw a guy standing on the outside of the terminal with a sign for a hotel. Kay and I had no plans for a hotel – we hadn’t planned to be in Bogota at all yet and had left the South America book in Kay’s panniers, so we had no real info. So we asked the guy about the hotel, and he told us $60 US for the hotel. He made some calls and then told Kay that the hotel was full due to a convention, but he’d found us another hotel that had a vacancy. And he had a guy who could drive us there.

So we waited around for the guy, which was a taxi but didn’t have a meter, and the guy drove us to an unmarked building in a residential neighborhood “cinco minutos” from the airport. (We’d told them that we were looking for a place nearby because we’d be returning tomorrow.) He then asked us for $10 for driving to the hotel, and then told us to stay in the cab while he went inside. He came out a few minutes later and asked for $60 us. We paid him in pesos (apparently Columbia uses pesos, too) and he then told us to wait again and went back inside. He came out a minute later, and I saw him giving the hotel guy one of the three bills we’d given him – so he clearly trippled the charge and kept the rest for himself, and the hotel guy got a fraction of what we paid.

Still, we arrived in Bogota at 11:30PM with no hotel and no idea where to go, so it could have been a lot worse.

After the money changed hands, the guy had us come inside and showed us the room. It really looks like a guy’s house that has a few rooms with bathrooms, and he’s calling it a “hotel.” There are no keys for the doors, although they have locks inside (push-button locks) but our room has a bed and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. And a slightly… unusual… decor.

Pimp room baby.

The cab driver asked if we needed anything else, and we asked if they had bottled water – the guy brought us a pitcher of water from the sink and a couple of glasses, which we’re afraid to drink because we don’t know if it’s filtered and our filter is in one of the panniers. The cabbie asked if we needed towels, etc. and after we’d gotten everything we needed, he asked for a tip. The nerve! He charged us for the cab ride (more than we should have been charged, I suspect) and got half the price he charged us for the room, and then he asked for a tip on top of that!

But still. We arrived in Bogota at 11:30PM with no place to stay and no clue where to go, and got a clean room with a shower and a toilet where we can lay our heads and do some research before returning to the hotel tomorrow. It could have been a lot worse. It’s comparable or less than we would have paid at an airport hotel in Panama City, and now we’re here and the bikes should be here and we can go pick them up in the morning.

In the end, after the cab driver had left us alone in the room and closed the door behind him, Kay and I just had to look at each other and laugh. Here we are, in South America, in some crazy pimp room, in some guy’s house, waiting for morning so we can pick up our bikes. When the door closed, our eyes met and we started laughing. We couldn’t help it. This is the stuff of adventure. And we seem to have a habit of landing on our feet, for which I’m quite grateful.

Dunno how far we’ll make it tomorrow, but neither of us is inclined to hang around in the city. Kay is currently researching destinations as I need someplace I can spend a couple of days and get some work done, but we’re here! We’ve made it! We’re in South America, in Columbia, and the second part of our trip is about to begin!

7 Comments

  1. Sure the room isnt normaly rented by the hour ? lol . Just found your site the other day really enjoying it keep up the great work and have a ball.

  2. @Tre – thanks for elaborating! That pretty much sums it up. I always forget that not everyone following is an adventure rider, and most people have never even heard of the Darien Gap. Which seems strange to me because it was this big obstacle in our trip! (That turned out to be not so big with the liberal application of more money than we wanted to spend, but yay for flying.)

    @Dai – not sure it wasn’t rented by the hour, actually. The guy came and knocked on our door about 10 minutes before we said we were going to check out in the AM, and Kay thinks it’s because the room is hourly and the guy was gonna kick us out. Plus, look at that decor – really? We should have turned on the TV to see what channels it got, but we were too tired to really parse it at that point.

    @Joe – I know, right? Seriously crazy. No-one really decorates a room like that, but there it was. The sheets matched.

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