With the usual border paper-chase I arrived in Panama, country number nine on my trip, and the last in Central America.
Literally out of the gate and not two kilometers into the country it was swelteringly hot, with the first severe tropical downpour of the trip. I tried to ride it out for a while but visibility got so bad I took refuge in a petrol station and waited it out. Hopefully this wasn’t a portent of weather conditions for the rest of Panama.
Aside from that the first impression was the great four lane road, after the potholed section on the Costa Rican side. This would continue almost all the way to Panama City so it was easy to make time here. The other thing that struck me was there were almost no motorbikes on the road. In the first few hours in the country I saw no other motorbikes except for police motorbikes. This was a slight problem as I usually take my cue from other motorbikes as to what is acceptable or not traffic behavior in a new country, so in a sense I was running blind. Everywhere else in Central America there were more motorbikes than you could shake a stick at and I could quickly figure out if you could lane split, pass on the inside and in general take liberties you could never take in a car.
I was booked on a boat to Colombia on the 12th and I arrived in Panama on the 5th, so I could take my time getting to Portobelo from where the boat would leave. I decided to while away a couple of days in the Pacific coast beach town of Santa Catalina, and it was a leisurely day and a half cruising through northern Panama to get there.
The scenery was more or less the same as Costa Rica, but a couple of cultural oddities became apparent as I wound my way through the mostly rural northwestern part of the country. The first of these was that the general stores in villages in towns were almost exclusively run by Asians. I went into a small shop in a village to be greeted by a middle aged Asian lady speaking Spanish with a Chinese accent. After months in Central America it was a surprise to see immigrants running businesses. In one shop the lady told me that a Panamanian president invited the immigrants over in the seventies in order to develop rural businesses.
The other surprising thing is that almost each of these stores (and there were at least two in every village) were festooned with the colour scheme of Digicel, an Irish telecommunications company. Apparently they have a near monopoly down here and instead of setting up their own shops they would partner with these small general stores to sell phones and minutes.
I was sitting outside one of these stores up in the hills, idly reading my map and having my usual on-the-road lunch of biscuits, nuts and fruit juice when I had an up to now rare encounter with the village drunks. A couple of guys staggered over to me, sat down and started slurring:
Drunk #1: “Hola! We were in the cantina across the road and everyone there is worried about you so we came over to see if you are ok”
Me: “Err, I ‘m fine, thanks for your concern”
Drunk #2, grabs the map: “So where are you going?, we can show you on the map!”
Me: “I’m going to Santiago (this was a lie), but that’s ok, I know how to read a map. I’ve done it a few times before”
Drunk # 1: “Santiago?, you need to take this road”
Me: “The one marked in blue?”
Drunk # 2: “Yep, that’s the one!”
Me: “Actually that’s a river. The road I need is here, marked in red”
Drunk # 2: “ So you think you know the way better than us??”
Me: “Yes. Thanks for your help, I’ve got to go now”
Drunk # 1: “Give us some money to buy a beer”
Drunk # 2: “For helping you!”
I knew this was coming and it was so annoying. At this point I just kept repeating thanks for the help as I got on the bike and prepared to head off into an impending rain shower I would have much preferred to sit out. All the while they kept pestering me for beer money. At some point in the “conversation” a police car pulled up near us. The cops were well within earshot of the exchange but they just sat there watching and didn’t do a single thing. So, thanks a bunch, Police of the town of Ruiz, Panama. Great job keeping the midday streets clear of drunks bothering tourists.
I did get a little revenge for them shattering my peaceful lunch, though: I was parked on a section of dirt beside the road, so I nailed the accelerator hard as I pulled out and left the pair of jerks scattering and cursing in a cloud of dust and dirt. Hah! And the cops didn’t do anything about that either. Really, someone should report them to their superiors for failing to control drunks and surly bikers.
I got to Santa Catalina later that afternoon. It was about two hours off the main road. The first part of the road was brilliant, the best I’ve seen anywhere on this trip. It was perfectly surfaced, with no traffic and rolled over low hills among beautiful forest. The second part was being renovated and alternated between kilometer long perfect pavement followed by equally long gravel sections. Coming off the pavement on to the gravel at speed was dangerous and I dared not brake. I found the best strategy was to ease off the throttle , stand on the pegs, loosen my grip on the handlebars, and let the bike move beneath me as I went through the gravel. I was standing up and sitting back down on the bike like a Jack In The Box for about thirty kilometers as I went through these sections.
I would never have found Santa Catalina by myself; it was recommended to me by a German friend. I’m glad I made the effort to get there. Santa Catalina is a tiny but beautiful beach town. A bit off the beaten track for sure, but not so remote as to be undeveloped. It had a decent hotel and a couple of decent restaurants. The perfect place to hole up for a couple of nights. That first evening, as I was making my way to the restaurant I saw three overland bikes pull in down the street. I went to talk to them and realized I had met them briefly thousands of miles before and several weeks ago in San Cristobal De Las Casa, Mexico. Small world! Brad, David and Gui are also heading to Patagonia so it was good to talk shop with them over dinner and a few beers.
This was to be the last beach for me for a while. I spent a couple of days relaxing and exploring the area, before heading on to Panama City.