7 Days Across Panama on a Motorcycle – Part 1

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I’m back from a bucket list trip to Panama. Short version – my friend and I wanted an adventure and adventure is what we got! I decided to document our experience riding from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro right here on the blog. First, it’s a good way to remember where we went and what we saw a couple of years down the road when we’re reminiscing about the good old times over a couple of beers. Second, I thought it might benefit those looking for a similar adventure. When I was researching a week-long motorcycle trip to Panama I didn’t find a lot of information. Sure, there were the usual Top 10 Places to Visit in Panama -type posts but it’d be nice to see something geared more towards riding bikes across Panama. With that in mind let me share some notes and pictures from a trip that both my friend and I have been referring to as “epic” ever since we came back. Not hardcore by any stretch of imagination, but pretty epic for a couple of 9-5-cubicle-dwelling-family-men nevertheless. And if you don’t ride a motorcycle or have no desire to ride one across Panama – no worries as you may still find this interesting… Who says you can’t have a similar adventure in a rented car, for example?

Packing

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All I’ll say is that we tried really hard to limit the stuff that we brought on this trip. Since we were renting motos in Panama City we wanted to bring our own gear, which is bulky. The picture here shows everything that I brought with me. I wore the jacket and the boots, strapped the helmet to the backpack and put my  vented gloves and vented pants in the backpack. It was so nice not to have to deal with checked luggage and it’s definitely the way to go! Of course, it’s not like you can bring one of those American Tourister suitcases since there’s not much room on a bike, even the one with side cases.

Tip: Bring vented mesh gear! I talked my friend into buying a pair of (expensive) mesh pants instead of his original plan to wear jeans. He did and said it was one of the smartest things he’s done on this trip. It’s hot in Central America! Wearing mesh pants over a pair of shorts or even swim trunks makes all the difference. We constantly found ourselves standing up on the footpegs to get the air where it was needed the most. I really like the unique design of these Alpinestars that lets you get them on and off in a couple of seconds without having to take the boots off.

Also, get travel size personal hygiene items. They confiscated my regular size deodorant even though I specifically packed one that was almost empty. Good thing it was on my return flight! A small bottle of sunscreen is good to have too so you don’t have to figure out where to get it right away. I brought a small can of mosquito repellent but I haven’t had to use it once, even in the lush forests. I have more mosquitoes in my backyard than I saw in Panama (actually, I saw zero so that’s not a good comparison). To be on a safe side I’d still bring it though, especially with the Zika virus apparently raging while we were there in January of 2016.

Itinerary

– 7 Riding Days. 9 Days Total (planned). 11 Days Total (actual).

– 1,000 miles total traveled

– Panama City – Panama Canal – Colon – Santiago – Las Lajas – Chiriqui province – Almirante – Bocas Del Toro – Panama City. Yellow stars on the map show the main places we visited during this trip.

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Tip: If we had a couple more days I would’ve loved to see the San Blas islands. After talking with the locals and looking at pictures it’s on my list to see the next time I’m in Panama. Boquette and David in the Chiriqui province were the other 2 places that we wanted to visit but just didn’t have enough time. This western area close to Costa Rica is beautiful and it’s easy to spend a few days just exploring the mountains and the volcanoes.

Rental Motorcycles

– 2009 BMW GS650

– 2015 BMW GS1200 Adventure

– Rented via www.mototourpanama.com

Navigation

I brought my LG Flex 2 (more on it here) and attached it to the rental bike with my favorite motorcycle mounting system. For maps, I downloaded free offline Google Maps and MAPS.ME as backup. I marked the places we wanted to visit ahead of time whenever we had wi-fi. It would be nice to have a charger but you need a BMW adapter for the built-in socket on our rental bikes, which we didn’t have. Still, my phone’s battery lasted the whole day with moderate GPS usage. Overall, this setup worked outstandingly considering that I didn’t spend a dollar since I already had all of it. The mount proved strong enough to withstand 7 days of abuse, including off-road. The big OLED screen on the phone was clearly visible under all conditions – not a small feat considering it was mounted on a motorcycle.

Tip: – Get a waterproof case and see if you can get your device powered from the bike. This would eliminate the only two worries I had with this setup. And if you’re travelling by yourself it’s probably not a bad idea to have a paper map. My buddy had his phone so we always had that as backup.

Photography

The majority of the pictures you see here were taken with my LG phone. A couple came from my friend’s old iPhone. I really wanted to bring my DSLR but it just wasn’t a good fit for this trip.

Cost

Two biggest expenses were plane tickets and bike rentals. My bike rental cost around $1,000 including insurance for 7 days while my friend’s GS1200 was around $1,300. My plane tickets were around $600. We stayed primarily in airbnb’s (free money here) so our lodging costs were pretty low, especially when split between the two of us (typically $20-30 per night each). Staying like a local and meeting locals through airbnb were some of the highlights of this trip. After airbnb-ing through Costa Rica I’m always trying to find a unique airbnb instead of a hotel when we travel.

All said and done I spent right around $2,200 total for what turned out to be an 11 day trip. Not bad!

Day 1 – Arriving in Panama City

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Tocumen airport is modern and relatively efficient. With only a backpack I quickly cleared customs and went to a meeting place to wait for my previously arranged shuttle. I read good things about www.hostelride.com and made a reservation. When I got to the meeting place no one was there. Tocumen airport has free (but bad) wi-fi and from a broken voice-over-ip phone call to Hostel Ride I figured out that my ride was cancelled, apparently due to a protest downtown that stopped all traffic including my van. So much for a quick 9-dollar 30-minute promised ride.

Plan B was a taxi that costs around $30. Then I remembered reading somewhere that you can get the same taxi from a bus stop for half the price since technically there is no airport surcharge if you just hail a cab. All you gotta do is exit the airport building and keep going right for about 7 minutes till you reach a bus stop. A constant stream of locals will guide you. If you’re the only gringo walking among the locals you’re on a right track. Despite sounding a little shady, this actually worked and 10 minutes after leaving the front door I was riding in a crappy Hyundai sweating my ass off in a 96-degree heat – a big change from the usual 20’s in January I left behind this morning.   

Although I found another reason why it was half the price to take that cab. For $15 the driver will take you on local streets avoiding having to pay a toll on the beautiful Corredor Sur highway that cuts the travel time in half, at least. It’s also a much better way to get introduced to Panama City than the local roads jammed with traffic crawling past shanties, bodegas and such. Although looking back, it was kinda cool to see the real Panama City right away instead of the glitzy high rises along the waterfront.

Tip: Get an Uber app before you get to Panama City and then use only Uber to get around the city. Our return ride to the airport cost $12 with a polite English-speaking driver who had a brand new car and took the Corredor Sur highway to get us to the airport in 20 minutes. Uber is huge in Panama City and the locals prefer it over taxis. If you never tried Uber before this link should get you a free ride. *Warning – you will get hooked on Uber.

I arrived at the airbnb place in downtown Panama City around 5PM where I met my friend who got there 4 hours earlier (we flew out of different cities). My friend used the extra time wisely – here is what I found in the room:

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We hung out by the pool until it got dark…

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And then went out to the Istmo Brew Pub (corner of via Israel and Calle 76 Este) to get some food, drinks and a hookah (not a hooker – those are legal too, if you’re into that). It’s a nice chill place although we did witness a weird “fight” right in front of our outside table where a very drunk guy was trying to start something with a bunch of equally drunk guys while his friends were doing their best to “hold him back”. After a few minutes he left so we thought it was over before it started, but then the drunk guy reappeared – although now he was only wearing his boxers (as in underwear) and nothing else. I’m not sure how they fight in Panama City but this was definitely entertaining to watch.

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By this time we were ready to get some sleep. Tomorrow at 9AM we were going to pick up the bikes! I could see the huge neon roundel of the BMW dealership from the bedroom window. We were finally just a few hours away from starting our adventure!

To be continued…

 

4 thoughts on “7 Days Across Panama on a Motorcycle – Part 1

  1. Fantastic – thanks for sharing this, I’ve wanted to visit Panama, and love the idea of doing it by bike, however I know the family wont let me so it would be a rental car, but still good to know! Looking forward to the next update!

    • Panama was a lot of fun and driving a car there would be great, especially if you can get out of Panama City quickly. The roads are mostly in decent condition and I thought they were much better than in Costa Rica. I still liked Costa Rica more so if you haven’t been there I’d explore that option first. But Panama is very similar and just as fun, it’s just that Costa Rica is really hard to beat. Pura Vida sounds like a marketing gimmick but I actually felt it was a real way of life and something unique to Costa Rica. Panama might be slightly cheaper overall though.

      • Thanks for the reply – I have been to Costa Rica before (and a lot of South America), but Panama and Nicaragua have both appealed so good to know there are decent roads – Ill have to look in more detail!

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