Chetumal, Mexico to Panama City, Panama
In this episode, I make my way into Central America, entering Belize and ending in Panama City, crossing seven borders. I had both a nasty bout with Zika and a motorcycle accident in Guatemala. But, I managed to love every place along the way.
As I like to do, here’s both a video and a write-up of my adventure through Central America. Actually, in this episode, the blog and vlog go best together, kind of like peas and carrots.
I did not give myself enough time in Central America. I had three weeks almost to the day to visit seven countries. See, I had a date with the Stahlratte to cross the Darien Gap that I had booked many months before, so I carefully laid out a plan to get the most out of each country in the limited time I found myself with.
Crossing the border from Mexico was painless enough except that I was missing the receipt for my tourist visa. And it didn’t matter that I had a tourist visa either. So, off I went to the banjercito to pay (again?).
Anyway, once in Belize the first thing I noticed was much more expensive it was than Mexico, nearly twice as much! But, I settled into a hotel in Orange Walk and had a few Billikens.
After a terrible night’s sleep interrupted by nearby dogs barking and being right next to a busy street, I headed off to San Ignacio in the western part of the country. I learned that almost all of Belize’s income is derived from tourism and sugar cane, and since I was travelling away from the ocean, I witnessed a lot of poverty.
But, San Ignacio is a cool, touristy town situated on the edge of the Guatemalan jungle. All manner of folks seems to come through here on their way to other points. I spent two nights there relaxing and gathering myself for the border crossing with Guatemala.
The ride to the border was a short one and before I knew it (less than 10 minutes), the bike and I were stamped out of Belize. After getting the bike fumigated, I was in and out of Guatemalan immigration and customs in under an hour. My first stop in Guatemala was Tikal, the site of some ancient Mayan ruins. It was hot and humid that day, and the mosquitoes were terrible, but the 30-minute hike into the jungle was totally worth it.
One thing I noticed about Central America was the scale in terms of size. I easily drove across Belize in a day (east to west), and visited Tikal and made my way to Flores in Guatemala by 2PM in a day. These countries are simply much smaller than the U. S. and Mexico (duh!). You do travel slower, however, with the traffic, small towns, and people congestion on the roads. I think my overall average through Central America was at best 40mph (70kmh).
I stayed on Isla de Flores in northern Guatemala, only an hour or so from Tikal. It was all very modern and a welcome change from the Belize I visited. It’s also neat because the island is surrounded on all sides by Islote Santa Bárbara.
Next, I headed south through eastern Guatemala to Rio Dulce. During this ride, I noticed a sharp, persistent headache pain behind my eyes. I’d never had this kind of headache before. What the heck? But, the scenery was nice with rolling green hills, so I just started slurping water thinking I was dehydrated.
Rio Dulce is an up and coming touristy area along Lake Isabel. I stayed in a really nice hotel overlooking the lake. That night, I started to think I may be getting a cold with a bit of a fever and a slight cough.
The next day, I headed back west to Antigua, a very touristy town definitely on the gringo trail. I booked for a couple of nights to relax and take a day trip up to Lake Atitlan. That night, I walked right into some huge celebration where everyone was lighting paper balloons. It was quite the site!
That night, I was feeling much worse, with a noticeable fever, body aches, and now a rash! A rash? Oh no. What is going on???? I got on Google to see if I could find what was up. All indications pointed to something like Dengue. I knew I had been eaten alive at Tikal by mosquitoes, so decided to put Lake Atitlan on hold and go see a doctor the next day. He ordered some blood work, which thankfully all came back negative for Dengue and “thought” it was likely Zika, as they share symptoms (although Dengue, he said was much worse).
So, I extended my stay a couple of days to get rest and drink plenty of fluids. The local pharmacy gave me a bunch of packets to mix with water that they said would help. I only got out of bed to go to the bathroom. Remember I said I did not plan enough time in Central America? Well, that time was getting shorter every day with me bedridden. Ugh!
So, after four nights in Antigua, I decided I was feeling well enough to get back on the road and head for El Salvador. Big mistake. HUGE mistake. Within four blocks of my hotel, I rolled through a tight intersection and was t-boned by a lady in a SUV.
I just didn’t see the stop sign. Banged up the bike pretty bad, it threw me but I was OK (sore as hell the next day, but not so much as a scratch on me). The accident was totally my fault and I was not carrying insurance in Guatemala (not required). The lady called her nephew who spoke excellent English and we all waited for their insurance adjuster to arrive to assess the damage to her car. After 3 hours and paying $1000, I was on my way.
I knew afterward I should not have been riding yet. I was still sick. On any other day, I would have been ten times more careful on the cobblestoned, tight streets of Antigua. In other words, I made a bone-headed mistake and am thankful there was not a worse outcome.
So, with my El Salvador plans scrapped for the day, I punched in the nearest BMW dealer to get the bike checked out. There just so happened to be one in Guatemala City, which was just 45 minutes away.
They took me right in and got to work figuring out if the bike was OK. Meanwhile, I sat in the garage with a rubber mallet trying to fix both panniers into something usable. Turns out the bike was fine, but I did replace the mirror. I booked into a hotel in Guatemala City for two nights to rest some more, both from my pestilence and now the accident. More days gone and the Stahlratte is not altering their schedule for me… Damn!
It was at this point, after losing a full week, that I realized that I have no choice now but to draw essentially a straight line between Guatemala City and Panama City, and move pretty quickly. With border crossings potentially eating up entire days, I was quite pissed on having to miss some things I knew I wanted to visit along the way.
So, several cool places ended up being just a blur as I raced to get to Panama City: San Salvador and San Miguel in El Salvador, San Lorenzo in Honduras, Chinandega and Granada in Nicaragua, Liberia and Uvita in Costa Rica, David and Santiago in Panama.
I was able to build up and store only a few memories from this whirlwind tour:
-All of Central America is candy to the eyes – amazing scenery.
-While San Salvador is as modern a city as any I’ve seen, I know I heard gunshots and screaming in San Miguel at 2AM… and it was very close to where I was sleeping.
-Granada is an amazing town with lots to see and do
-southern Costa Rica has more signs in English than Spanish
In Panama, I booked into the Panama House Hostel. The place is recommended by Ludwig, the skipper of the Stahlratte. Not long after, several other folks taking the same trip showed and for several days thereafter we had a blast. But, that story is in the next episode. I plan to do one post just about the experience of the Stahlratte, starting in Panama City and ending in Cartagena, Colombia.
1/ Border crossing are a pain, plain and simple, and you go through seven of them. To ease the process, I suggest the following: Do a little research to see what is required at the crossing – number of copies you need and of what, costs for immigration, fumigation, customs, order of things in the process, insurance yes/no?, to name just a couple. I’d tell you, but I think it changes from time to time. Show up early, smile, and be patient. You can get help for a couple of dollars, but be very careful you don’t let them fleece you – know the costs to cross! Here is an excellent resource from Shannon and Mike for each of the borders that will get you started: http://www.smboilerworks.com/category/border-crossing/
2/ I never felt unsafe in the places I travelled. Actually, I should say, the most dangerous place is the road. Traffic is bad and unruly, and everything shares the road – people walking, people selling things, bicycles, animals, tuk tuks, cabs, cars, 18-wheelers, and 4.6 billion 125cc motorcycles. It really does keep you on your toes. I suggest paying attention to what’s ahead and try to ignore what’s behind you. Unfortunately, I think you do have be somewhat aggressive because everyone else is, otherwise it’s hard to get anywhere.