A Hard Day Into Panama
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The next morning we packed up and waited for Bas to arrive, rolling out about 9:30 for the border.
Since our sailing date had been postponed, I decided to take a different route from the crew and head north to cross into Panama at Rio Sereno, a supposedly quiet crossing, then take a high mountain road to Volcán to meet up with relatives of my friends Scott and Amy, motorcyclists from San Antonio, whom I'd met in Teotihuacan. They were returning from Guatemala on a bike trip with MotoHank and we'd met up for the day as they headed north. Their relatives, Randy and Paula, lived in Volcán, Panama and had invited me to come visit them. I messaged them that I hoped to be there mid-afternoon and would contact them when I arrived.
Of course the rains started immediately and we were all soaked for the ride. I think we’ve all just given up on rain gear and accept the fact we’re going to be soaked. There’s really no point, as the heat will soak you with sweat in your rain gear, there is rarely time to even suit up as you’ll round a corner and have maybe a minute before hitting a wall of rain, so it’s better to be in a room full of wet gear from rain than wet gear from sweat.
As we rode along the bay, I lifted my shield briefly for something and got smacked directly in my right eye by a big bug. It hurt very badly and I couldn’t see out of it for a while. It sucked. Shortly after, a big Coati ran across the road in front of me which was cool to see even with one eye.
We chugged along until Ciudad Neily where I split off north for the Rio Sereno crossing, a scant 30 miles away. The road north I was on was really tight and twisty, going high into the clouds and with some great views between them. It was about noon when I stopped for a coffee, leaving plenty of time for the quiet border crossing ahead.
As I passed through Sabalito, both my GPS and maps.me app were showing the same road ahead to Rio Serena. The road looked bad, lots of loose rock and rain ruts and plunged down a steep hill. I went a few hundred yards but knew this couldn’t be the main way. I stopped. Shortly after, a 4x4 pickup taxi came from the other way. I waved him down and asked “Rio Sereno?” He said no and indicated for me to follow him, so I reversed on the road and tagged along.
Approaching blacktop, I heard a loud backfire from the bike and proceeded back to town behind him. He pulled over and pointed to a blacktop road, saying “derecho, izquierda, izquierda”. I shook his hand and thanked him and as I pulled away noticed the bike felt a bit odd. It was beginning to rain and I pulled over about 50 yards down the road to check the bike and sure enough the rear was flat. The loud bang had been the puncture and not a backfire. There happened to be an abandoned building with a covered porch area and I got the bike down onto it. Removed the cases and heaved the bike onto the center stand where I found a pinkie finger sized puncture.
It was 2:45, raining heavily now and the hole really needed a patch more than plugs. The dilemma was whether to get a hotel, pull the tire and try to patch it, or find a shop to patch it which seemed better. Light was starting to fade and I really wanted to make Panama, which showed to be about 5 miles down the road. I grabbed my gummy plugs and was able to stuff 3 or 4 in the hole, then inflated it to about 50 lbs. After 20 minutes it still had 47 lbs so I figured I could live with the slow leak.
After loading the bike again and tossing on my rain jacket, I rolled out into the heavy rain and in a minute my pants were soaked. Earlier in the day they’d been soaked but had dried reasonably quickly. Oh well. Down the blacktop road I went, waiting for it to become dirt as several blogs had said, but it apparently had been paved since the articles were written. I was praying the plugs would hold and riding gingerly.
A few buildings appeared with no parking areas so I squeezed onto a dirt road next to an immigration building and got off in the mud and rain. Across the way several policemen sat on a porch watching. From the bike I went into the building and was waved to another office by a military woman.
The man in the tiny office asked for my passport when I said “Salida Costa Rica” then said “stampa” “policia” and pointed out the door. Walking back into the rain I headed for the building with the police officers on the porch, who then pointed me up the dirt road I’d parked on, where I saw a “policia inmigracion” sign and walked into the converted shipping container. I showed the officer my documents but he handed them back to me and pointed toward the town saying “tax” and “soda” but pointed to his watch. I wandered down to the town and saw a sign for copias so I went in and said “tax salida?” She pointed out the door and said “izquierda”. Back out in the rain, to the left was a hardware store and beyond it a fried chicken place. As I walked up to the chicken place I stopped and saw the copy girl watching me. She motioned towards the hardware store.
Back down the hill I asked the guy on the hardware store porch wearing rubber boots holding several rakes the same question. He waved for me to follow and into the store we went. He moved some things to uncover a computer then asked for my passport and began entering info as I looked at the bags of feed stacked around. Eventually he said “ocho” and printed a receipt, placing it in my passport. Eight bucks later I was out in the rain again and back to the copy place to get some extras of the passport just in case. One dollar later I was back in the rain trudging up the dirt road for the immigration police, who weren’t happy about my wet folder on their desk, but eventually stamped my passport and talked to me about something I had no comprehension of.
Out into the rain again, my head soaked and my helmet interior wet, I went back to the original immigration official who kept saying “seguro” and tapping his watch and pointing back towards town. It was at that moment I realized I was in the Panama immigration building trying to check out of Costa Rica. No wonder he was frustrated. In defense of myself, it was darkish and raining heavily when I arrived, and my mind was on my rear tire and the hour and half ride still ahead. Besides, there is never any real signage at the crossings.
Out into the rain again, I wandered back to the immigration police station and they pointed me to a building behind them, to which I wandered in the rain. The girl there wasn’t too helpful but processed my paperwork as a heavily armed guard came out snd stood directly behind me. I Google Translated the document and figured out what I needed, wondering for a while whether I should sign the portion saying I couldn’t bring the bike back into the country. I wondered because it was getting late and apparently there was some deadline I was about to miss. I was envisioning having to sit in the rain between borders all night since I couldn’t return to Sabalito if I couldn’t get into Panama. I signed it and committed myself.
Back to the Panama immigration officer once again, he pointed at his watch and said “seguro cinco”. I walked back out and saw another building which I assumed was the Aduana and approached the window. No English of course and he looked at the papers and said lots of words in Spanish, then looked at all my paperwork again, passing it back to me and saying “seguro cerrado” and pointing back into the town. He felt sorry for me and came out, pointing to a street where a car had come out of and said “rapido”, taking my helmet and setting it in his office. I ran out into the rain and down the street, looking frantically for any sign that said insurance. I saw a building that had "seguro" on it but it was closed and my heart sank. However, next to it was a tiny metal shack with "seguro" and an open door, so I burst in soaking wet and scared the lady who was playing games on her tablet. I was so happy I wanted to kiss her. Eventually she got most of the info entered in her computer but the power flickered and I prayed the system wouldn’t go down before she finished. Power goes out frequently in the region.
By this time I was beat as I went back in the rain and up the hill to the Aduana. I gave him everything and he looked it all over very slowly then handed it back and pointed back to the Panama Immigration building. Once again in the rain and into the office, the now disgusted immigration officer took his time but eventually handed me back more paperwork and pointed to the Aduana. Back through the rain to the building and I was excited because I knew the final portion was almost done. Except there was a problem with my paperwork, the title wasn’t enough or he wasn’t sure of the bike color or God knows what. I didn’t know what to do, but the only piece of paper I had left was my registration that was still safely tucked away in my pannier. On the bike. Up the hill. In the rain.
Back again, he was perturbed at something and sat for a while. It was almost dark, I was shaking from fatigue, no food and being wet in the cool temperatures, and was damn afraid of the twisty mountain road ahead in heavy fog, rain and darkness. With a rear tire that could blow again. He looked at me and I at him, then he opened the door to his secure office and told me to sit in the chair next to him. I was about to crap waiting to hear I couldn’t enter the country, when he showed me his computer and indicated for me to look at my papers and help him. It was clear he didn’t know how to use the data entry or computer very well, but I spent 45 minutes pointing out information on my paperwork, then where to click the field on the computer until he finally let me enter the info myself. He wanted to enter the "Nationality" part himself, and kept repeatedly going to Rwanda and many countries other than the US. I was terrified he was going to put in the Panamanian system that I was from Afghanistan or somewhere like that as he kept clicking on countries randomly. He couldn’t figure out how to scroll down the list and I desperately wanted to take the mouse out of his hand. I kept pointing with a pen to "go down" but he didn’t understand. I kept saying “Estados Unidos”, but it wasn’t on the list, and neither was USA or United States. As he wheeled the mouse I briefly saw “Americano” and yelled out. It took him a while but he finally clicked on it. I was toast from stress. He printed out some papers, gathered up pieces he’d spread all over and handed them to me. I spotted my title and insurance in a different pile and grabbed them. He kept repeating something in Spanish about Policia and pointing to the papers so I translated “Do I need to give these to the police before I leave?” but he never responded. Finally I just gave up and said “Todo?” He said si and shook my hand.
By now it was dark, my papers were wet, I was soaked and exhausted, I hadn’t been able to contact my friends in Volcán who were expecting me about 3pm and all I wanted to do was get going and away from the border. I kicked the rear tire and it still sounded like it had air so I piled on and got going. The rain was pouring, it was foggy, I couldn’t see out of my visor for the drops and steam and I said a prayer for the road. My friends had said the road was high, twisty and dangerous and that was all that was in my mind as I rode as quickly as I could afford to. My pants were so wet my boots had filled and the sweat from my rain jacket was now damn cold in the mountain air.
My mind never stopped wondering about the rear tire and my heavily loaded bike, once hearing a loud bang and stopping on the roadway as there are no shoulders, hoping my flashers were good enough in the heavy rain. It must have been a backfire as the tire responded well to my kick so I got going again. Several landslides had occurred from the water, one large enough to block 70% of the roadway and I wondered why the hell my day was going so badly.
After what seemed hours of concentration I began to see some lights ahead and soon I was in the town of Volcán. I parked in the rain and it finally slowed to the point I could get my phone out and send an email. Thank you T-Mobile for having such good coverage in Central America. I promise I'll never hate you again. In a few minutes my friends responded they were on the way to guide me to their house. While I waited, a pickup pulled in next to me with a family. They rolled the window down and pointed at the bike with big smiles and we attempted to talk. They were so nice and happy to welcome me to Panama. It lifted my spirits. Shortly after, Randy arrived and said I had to be crazy to have ridden that road in the dark. Eventually arriving at their home, I was treated to a hot meal, drinks and good conversation. It felt like home after such a long day.
The next morning my priority was getting my wet gear sorted but primarily to get my papers back in order after the crossing. Despite best efforts there are so many papers and receipts being pushed your way while holding gear, finding your real and fake wallets, etc, that by the time you're ready to get out they're in disarray.
I was dumbfounded to find that my original vehicle registration was not amongst the pile of paperwork I'd been given back and my heart sank. Damn. I went through everything multiple times but it wasn't there. That meant a trip back to the border, an hour and a half away and then hope to God they still had it. My friend Randy volunteered to drive me, but a bit trepidatious as he can't take his truck out of Panama and into Costa Rica for several months. I told him I'd walk the last bit if necessary. Yep, a casket on a semi. He was leading the funeral parade.
The drive up was outstanding and I was glad to get to see what I'd missed in the dark night before. He shared untold amounts of information on living in Panama and showed me the huge areas covered with coffee plants. It was a great trip.
We arrived in Rio Sereno and I hopped out for the Aduana. Luckily the same man was there but occupied and a lady came to the window. I showed her my translation of "I accidentally left my motorcycle registration paper here yesterday" but she didn't seem to care and began pointing to Randy and his car. I yelled to him and they wanted to see his identity papers, which I'm guessing that wanted to make sure I wasn't being transported illegally or something. After that things settled down and they looked around under stacks of papers but no luck. Finally the guy looked through the bound book of entry papers and there was my registration, hole punched and filed with my entry forms. They guy had kept it and used it in place of a copy. Luckily I had a copy with me and passed it through the window. Begrudgingly he unbound the book and pulled out my original. Man was I relieved. Not sure if he just didn't know or didn't care, but purposely kept it the night before. I breathed a deep sigh and walked back to the truck with Randy where we headed back for Volcán.
About 20 minutes into the return up and down the mountain roads, Randy suddenly noticed the fuel warning light which had been on for a long time and he'd forgotten it. Checking the estimated remaining driving distance showed zero. We both looked at each other. It was closer back to the border than to continue on, as there's nothing between Rio and Volcán, so we gingerly turned and headed back for Rio Sereno, hoping and coasting as much as possible.
It seemed an eternity but we finally arrived, amazed the diesel had lasted enough to get us back to Rio Sereno. A man pointed around the corner for "gasolina" and we took the street. The street continued on out of town with no station in site. We pulled over and asked again a couple more times to which the answer was always "poquito mas". Randy looked at me and I at him as the road got smaller and smaller and farther and farther, of course heading uphill all the way. We were now in Costa Rica, with no visas, no insurance, and an illegal vehicle. We were both amazed that the truck hadn't died, and one long, long uphill lay ahead. He stopped and looked at me and I at him, and he said "This is it. No turning back." I shrugged and told Randy he should never have ridden with me and for some reason this border was jinxed.
We both laughed and he floored it up the hill, finally reaching the top to find a bad dirt road. We were screwed but at least the engine hadn't died. We crept along and suddenly there appeared a big gas station in the middle of nowhere on a crap muddy road. The relief was amazing. I happily paid for a full tank, watching as a Costa Rican police vehicle pulled up to the pump next to us. I showed no emotion as a Costa Rican policemen came out of the station and eyed us. We both played it cool and miraculously the police didn't have any interest in two white guys in the middle of nowhere. Randy finally pulled out and we hauled butt for the back road into Panama again. Once safely across we both laughed out loud but I'd had enough of Rio Sereno! Poor Randy had had to do the very thing he couldn't afford to do, cross illegally into Costa Rica and risk forfeiting his new diesel pickup.