7 Days Across Panama on a Motorcycle – Part 2

This is a second installment in a series about a motorcycle trip that my friend and I took in January of 2016. Here is Part 1.

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Day 2

It’s amazing how easy you wake up when there’s something exciting to do in the morning. Or you simply don’t have to go to work. This morning we had both. Hanging out in Panama City is fun but that’s not why we’re here. As my friend said – if we were here to hang out, our wives would be with us. The only reason it’s just two of us on this fine 85-degree morning while our better halves are shivering back home is because we’re doing something “dangerous” and “risky” – riding adventure bikes in a foreign land full of “crazy drivers” and “bad roads”. We could die.

With these encouraging thoughts we grabbed the gear and made our way to the BMW dealership, just a 10-minute walk away. We got to the door at 8:59. They opened at 9:00. It was an impressive place full of exciting BMW stuff including bikes, gear and cars. Here is what it looked like inside:

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After putting a $2,500 hold on each credit card and signing a bunch of forms we were finally ready to ride. To get adrenaline pumping a little more we looked at the price tags in the showroom. My GS650 retailed for $11,000 while my buddy’s GS1200 Adventure had a $33,000 price tag. If I were him I’d have at least 3x more adrenaline pumping than me at this point. If you drop that thing the $2,500 deposit would cover a couple of plastic fairings and not much else.

Up until now the rental process was going smoothly. The rep lady took us to a garage where we did a walk-around to note any issues. The GS1200 was pretty much flawless – as you’d expect on a basically brand new bike. My GS650 – not so much. One of the side cases was busted. I swapped it for another one they had only to realize that it was covered in soot which required a trip to a bathroom to wash up. But then the second case wouldn’t close right and neither one of them could be locked. That was a bummer because for the rest of the trip I had to carry my gear every time we stopped.

I don’t mean to sounds negative but here are some improvements that Moto Tour Panama might want to consider:

  • Have someone knowledgeable about BMW motorcycles during the rental process. We are not familiar with beamers and our lady friend knew even less than us.
  • A red warning light on the dashboard is not cool. I don’t know what it means but generally anything lit up red on a motorcycle is bad news. Our lady friend couldn’t explain the problem and we just wanted to get on the road – so we did. The bike never had any mechanical issues but I’m still not sure what that red light was about.
  • If you advertise locking side cases please ensure that they do, in fact, lock. What a PITA!
  • Since BMW uses a proprietary plug why not throw one in so we can charge our phones?
  • How about adding a RAM mount while you’re at it? I brought my own but it requires a (quick) install/uninstall. I brought a pair of small pliers with me which made it through the TSA on the US side just fine only to be confiscated by Panamanian airport security on the way back. If this full RAM set is too much, why not at least add a RAM ball? This is all pretty standard with the adventure moto crowd.

Finally, we were ready to go back to the condo to pack our stuff. We thought we could just wing it without the GPS and quickly got lost. While we could walk there without issues, riding was a whole different story. Lots of one-way dead-end streets on unfamiliar bikes made a short trip… shall we say “exciting”? According to my friend I came within inches of sideswiping a couple of cars with my side cases… I totally forgot to make a mental adjustments and thought I still had a narrow bike!

After saying goodbye to our awesome airbnb host we programmed the first destination into my phone and made a dash for Panama Canal. Although calling it a dash is a bit of an exaggeration. More like a medium-pace crawl through the streets of Panama City while trying our best not to get killed within the first hour of our adventure.

Pretty soon the road opened up and we made it to the Miraflores Locks in one piece. Panama Canal is a must-see tourist attraction not to be missed if you ever find yourself in Panama. It’s an engineering marvel as they say… Yes, it was impressive but both of us felt like it was one of those touristy check-box items. We took some pictures and got back on the bikes.

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Our next destination was Fort San Lorenzo near the city of Colon on the Caribbean sea. One of the reasons we wanted to go there was because the road weaves through the countryside while you get to see Panama Canal from both the Atlantic (Miraflores Locks) and the Caribbean (Gatun Locks) side. You also get to go over the Madden Dam that plays a key role in operation of the locks while supplying Panama City’s fresh water. It looks like this:

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Soon after we approached the Gatun Locks.After waiting for a huge cargo ship to go through we actually got to cross the locks on our bikes, which is a pretty cool experience all in itself.

Just to give you an idea where we were, here is a satellite picture of the area. Gatun lake is at the bottom and we were headed to Fuerte de San Lorenzo on the left.

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Why do I mention it? Because my friend was running low on gas at this point and we haven’t seen a gas station for miles. After riding for a while in that green jungle you see to the left of the locks we realized that our chances of finding a gas station were slim to none. By that time we knew that there is not enough gas left in that tank to get us to Colon where they actually have gas stations.

There were no cars on the road, just us. When we got to the entrance to the park where Fort San Lorenzo is located we were stopped by a guy that explained that it will be $5 per person to continue on. No problem – but is there any gasolina? No. We shut off the bikes and tried to figure out if there is a way to get gas from the 650 into the 1200. No. The guy had a hose but it wasn’t flexible enough to work. He didn’t speak any English and we knew about 10 words in Spanish, but he knew that we were in a bit of a pickle. The F-bombs were starting to fly and that’s easy to understand in any language.

The guy disappeared for a few minutes. When he came back we saw something that gave us the same fuzzy feeling as a really cold beer on a really hot day – a gas can! I doubt it was 91 octane minimum recommended by BMW but whatever it was it worked just fine and we were ready to roll. We gave him $10 for the gas and another $10 to enter the park, but he promptly refunded one entry fee. Probably because the two gringos provided at least $5 worth of entertainment for the day.

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When we got to Fort San Lorenzo we purchased a couple of ice-cold waters from a local entrepreneur at $1 each. The fort is a UNESCO’s World Heritage site sitting high above the Chagres river and facing the Caribbean sea. The whole area is very secluded which felt especially nice after the crowds in Panama City.

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After about 30 minutes we got back on our bikes and took a dirt road to the beach. Oh man, did it feel great to take off all the gear and swim in the Caribbean for a while! We kept reminding ourselves that it’s January!

It definitely seemed like a local spot with just a couple of cars parked by the water. This was our first time experiencing how some locals relax – rolling the windows down, opening a trunk with a huge sub woofer and blasting Reggaeton while drinking Balboa’s in the water.

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It was still sunny but shadows were getting longer. We didn’t have a hotel booked since the “plan” was to just find a place off the main highway we were gonna take back on our way to the Panama City area. It was time to head out.

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Tip: Don’t count on finding a place last-minute while driving on a major highway in Panama. We figured there’d be at least a couple of those $45 per night places you see advertised on giant billboards along any highway in the US. Know where you’ll stay at night when you head out in the morning.

Here is another thing we didn’t know – some highways have no exits or U-turns for dozens of miles. At some point we wanted to go back to Colon to get a place there but the GPS showed us that we might as well continue towards Panama City since we’d be backtracking 30 miles.

In the beginning of the trip we both agreed that we didn’t want to travel on unfamiliar roads in the dark. Funny how many times we would end up breaking this agreement on the trip.

We found a Holiday Inn, out of all places, right next to the Miraflores Locks where we started in the morning. They only had a couple of rooms left because of a wedding and the price was $160… or we could go online and get a better rate. We booked a double room for $120 using hotel’s wi-fi. Does it make sense? A couple of minutes after booking, when we were checking in at the front desk, the clerk told us that they don’t have a room with two beds we just reserved a minute ago – just one king. We tried explaining the absurdity of this situation but it’s not like we were gonna get on the bikes to search for something else. We were done. One bed is fine.

Tomorrow we start making our way to Boca Del Toro.