But once you go south through Mexico and Central America, you find that the land is shaped like a funnel. Populations and nature are squeezed together closer and closer, all until you get to Panama which is the ultimate culmination of the funnel: long and narrow and squished. Your options for exploration on a motorcycle are even more hindered by the fact that the northern side of Panama is fairly road-less, poverty-stricken, and neglected by the government for services and infrastructure. Besides Bocas Del Toro, most of what people go to see in Panama is along the Pacific, and its main thoroughfare is the Pan-American highway.
Las Lajas Beach
The Panama Canal
There is one major problem with Panama City for the foreign vehicle rider, and it’s the tolls. Because unless you have gotten the special Panapass from a government office before running into one of these tolls, then you are out of luck, as we found ourselves to be on several occasions. These toll booths are unmanned and even when we did find a police officer and tried to give them the right amount of money, they would laugh and say you can’t pay in cash. It’s impossible. So you just have to wait there and pray for the bar to go up as everyone waits behind you, and when it does raise from some malfunction, you rush through as fast as you can (because the bar comes back down like a guillotine), and hope that the government doesn’t figure out how to bill you the fine. We asked lawyers and officials what a foreigner is supposed to do about this, and they all told us to simply avoid the highways in Panama City. Great.
But besides that, Panama City was a nice and essential stop-off point, especially to organize ourselves for our next nerve-wracking, yet amazing leg of our adventure: crossing the Darien Gap.
Crossing the Darien Gap
Both options are similar in price, though the boat is the more romantic of the two. Also, I've always had a desire to do an extended boat trip for days on end over the open sea. So that’s what we went with: five days aboard a sailboat that can house about 20 people along with our motorcycle tied to the front. Unfortunately, I did get seasick a fair amount, and my romantic vision of pirating along the Caribbean with the wind in my hair turned into me laying in my bed in the cabin trying not to feel nauseous. Thank goodness for Dramamine. But it was an experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything.
Boarding the Boat with a Bike
With the help of some strong local sailors, and through sheer muscle power, we got the bike off the dock and into a small wooden boat called a lancha. With Tim on top of the bike to keep it steady, we then steadily made our way over to the main sailboat anchored off shore. Then by using the motorized hoist of the ship’s halyard line securely wrapped around the bike’s midsection, we were able to lift it on deck and then fasten it to the ship itself.
It was stressful! And then for the entire boat ride we knew we’d just have to repeat the process again at the end to get the bike off. Meanwhile, the waves and salt air were splashing the motorcycle every second of every day it was onboard. We could literally watch it rust in front of our eyes, but the captain said she’d seen people try to cover their bikes, even wrap them in plastic, but the salt still got in. Best thing was to just wash it thoroughly once on land, which we did. Twice.
Sailing the San Blas Islands
The islands are absolutely idyllic. But there was something that struck me as sad about them. Though most are uninhabited, the Kuna people of the inhabited islands have set up shop to supply the steady stream of drunken tourists with beer and rum. These indigenous people certainly make money from the tourists (I am one as well I realize), and charge the boats that come per person too, but their peaceful way of life has been completely overrun by the daily onslaught of party-goers, who for the most part, are using this as their one vacation in the year to get away from the daily grind. But the Kuna people must live with cleaning up our trash every single day. Most days, more than one boat will dock at their island, and many will stay the night anchored right off shore. It’s a bit like living in a 24/7 bar, as there is no escape from the pumping music and screams of people throughout the night. I can’t imagine what the Kuna people must think of the outside world, and I also don’t want to imagine how they must feel about how their island life has changed in just a single generation.
So if you come to the islands to experience the beauty and serenity of the ocean glittered in stars at night, as I had, then this is certainly not the place to do so as these islands are more like Ibiza at spring break than a peaceful getaway.
One Last Note about Sailing a Motorcycle Across the Darien Gap
So for any future motorcycle adventure riders out there looking to overland the Americas, check on this with the companies before assuming you will be able to do what we did. And please contact us if you have questions on flying versus boating. Also, be aware that shipping your bike in reverse from Colombia to Panama has been prohibited for quite some time.