7 Days Across Panama on a Motorcycle – Part 4

This is a fourth 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 4

One thing I liked about Costa Rica was that no matter how hot it got during the day it was always comfortable after sundown. Panama has a similar climate. Everywhere except the mountains it was in the mid-90s during the day and low to mid-70s at night. Our airbnb house in Las Lajas didn’t have air conditioning, yet we had zero issues sleeping at night. Each room had a fan and with the windows open it felt cool enough for a lightweight blanket. In the Mid-Atlantic where we live now the nights are usually not as comfortable in the heat of the summer. I still manage to do most of the cooling with box fans but the AC gets turned on more often than I like. If we lived in Costa Rica or Panama we wouldn’t even need air conditioning. Definitely something to consider for our early retirement!

On this fourth day in Panama I was up early again. I went outside and took some pictures around the property. When we got here yesterday I didn’t even realize the view out back!

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Our hosts Erica and Fabio were up drinking cappuccino and enjoying the view – just another day at the office. They showed me around and answered many questions I had. For me one of the best parts of travelling and staying in airbnb’s is a chance to see how people actually live. We paid $120 at the Holiday Inn and $35 here at La Pepita de Maranon but you can probably guess which one I’d choose all day long!

The story of Erica and Fabio really resonated with me. They came to Panama from Italy and bought a piece of land. They had a house built – 2 lofts separated by a wall. They started renting out one side while living in the other half.

After a little while they wanted to add another small house that they could also rent out. Apparently they had problems trying to find reliable local builders the first time around which resulted in delays, quality issues and other problems familiar to anyone that ever had a house built.

So what do you do? You go on YouTube and watch a few videos on how to build a tiny house with your own hands! Fabio did just that and the result is impressive considering he’s never done anything like this before.

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Talk about a unique place! The walls are made of cement, rocks, wood and liquor/wine bottles. Fabio said that most of the empty bottles were courtesy of Erica… Don’t know about that but I do know that the rocks in the walls came from the river down in the valley behind the house.

It was time for breakfast. Erica brought over this spread:

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Most of the stuff is homemade. They make their own bread. They make their own jams and juice from the fruit of the trees on property. No labels, no plastic, everything is fresh and local.

As we set there enjoying the morning and eating this healthy and delicious food we kept asking over and over – what the $%#@ are we doing with our lives back in the States?! What’s stopping us from doing something similar? Erica and Fabio are of similar age but their lives couldn’t be any more different.

I know it’s not fair. This is like comparing fresh mangos with genetically modified strawberries. One looks less than perfect but tastes amazing while the other comes saran wrapped in all its fit-for-magazine-cover glory yet tastes bland and ultimately unsatisfying.

We kept going back and forth talking about all the pros and cons of leaving it all behind and doing something similar to what our hosts did. Both of us had these conversations before. Though this was the first time my friend really thought about it. I’ve been discussing it with my wife ever since we came back from Costa Rica last year.

It’s a huge decision though. I can honestly say that if we didn’t have kids we’d be selling our stuff now and packing the bags to try out expat life. Now – with kids – it’s a whole different ball game. There is family, grandmas, schools and friends to think about. Our sense of adventure is taking back seat to the realities of bringing up another human being.

But travelling and meeting people like Erica and Fabio is a good (alternate) reality check. We know we are following the script. We know there is another way – even with children. We know that we can change the script if it no longer fits. Ten years ago we couldn’t say that. Now it’s a choice.

The point is that simply knowing that you are not living the life of Erica and Fabio by choice goes a long way in making the grind part of the daily life a lot less unpleasant. The moment you can say (and back up with numbers) “I can quit anytime” is the moment that the job you complained about stops being a mandatory sentence. You might even enjoy Mondays again… and if not – well, there is that choice again.

We were having a great conversation but it was time to hit the road if we wanted to make it to the town of Almirante today. We had a 4-hour ride ahead of us which we decided to break up by visiting a local swimming hole and hot springs.

Los Cangilones de Gualaca (Gualaca Mini Canyon) is located in the province of Chiriqui on the west of Panama. When I was researching places to visit while in Panama this natural swimming pool was highly recommended. When we got there it was full of locals although we did meet a couple of Canadians on vacation. The water was just the right temperature to cool off after baking in hot sun on the motorcycles.

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We stayed there for about an hour jumping off cliffs and swimming around in cool water. After feeling thoroughly refreshed we got back on the bikes and headed to another popular attraction in this area – Caldera Hot Springs. If you arrive by car you’ll have to park pretty far away and hike for a while to get there. We were able to get much closer while using these adventure bikes as intended. Still, we parked and walked the last quarter-mile because we didn’t want risking damage to our rental bikes. Here is what the road looks like at:

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Caldera Hot Springs is an interesting place. The location will take your breath away and there’s nothing commercialized in sight. There’re several buildings on premises with goats and chickens roaming the property. We were the only two visitors. A few minutes after getting there we were met by a cowboy-looking fella with a huge machete on his belt.

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I read before that he will offer several options but the cheapest one is probably all we want. We paid $2 each and were free to wander around. There are 5 or 6 hot springs on the property. Some are hotter than others but all very pleasant and relaxing even on a 90-degree day. Somebody built impressive stone walls around a couple of hot springs but other than that everything was left to its natural state.

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It’s harder than you think to find all 6 of the hot springs and I’m still not sure how many there are really. At some point my buddy decided to follow what looked like a goat trail to a hot spring he spotted from a distance. Bad idea! It turned out to be marsh and he started sinking. First his flip-flop got sucked under and soon enough my friend was waist-deep in mud. I would’ve helped him – only if I could stop laughing! Anyway, there were some trees that he used as leverage to get out so it all ended well. Naturally, there was a nice paved trail to the hot spring just a couple of yards away from where I almost lost my friend.

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There’s a river running next to Caldera Hot Springs that you can dip in, which I bet feels great. There is also another hot spring right next to the river so you can combine both the hot and the cold. I think maybe that was part of the upsell? We didn’t do it but we did end up hanging out on the other side of the bridge about 200 yards from this spot. You see, my friend decided to test the limits of his GS1200 and promptly got stuck in some gnarly boulders.   

After sweating to clear a path free of boulders, the GS carried its rider back to freedom.

At this point we felt that we had enough adventure for one day and it was time to head straight to the town of Almirante. What we didn’t realize was how long it would take us to cross the mountains to get there.

It started off like this:

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As we continued to climb the temperature dropped from the mid-90s to the mid-60’s with rain, fog, cross-winds and gigantic potholes making riding a motorcycle a challenging endeavor. At times visibility was near zero:

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I didn’t take any pictures, just focusing on the task at hand – getting to the hotel in one piece. We did stop several times to take in some of the best scenery we’ve ever seen.

We made a reservation at the Bocas Ridge Hotel just outside of Almirante. The ride from Caldera Hot Springs to Bocas Ridge took a lot longer than we expected so we ended up riding after nightfall yet again. My GS650 has regular halogen lights that proved to be inadequate for navigating the twisty roads in pitch black darkness. The GS1200 had Xenon lights that were vastly superior. I mean – there is no comparison! I was only able to go 20 mph while my buddy was comfortable cruising at 40. It was raining, foggy and dark and Xenon lights cut through it all with no issues. It got so bad that I asked my friend to ride next to me so I could use his light to speed up our travels.     

Tip: I only brought a tinted visor leaving a clear shield at home. This was a huge mistake. I brought a pair of clear safety goggles to wear at night, but it didn’t work out as well as I thought. Bugs and rain all got in my eyes and at times my vision was severely compromised. My eyes were bloodshot after the ride and I definitely added a lot of unnecessary risk to this adventure. Pack your clear visor! Also, if you plan on riding at night, especially alone, consider renting a bike with HID lighting. Well, we didn’t plan on riding at night but somehow we ended up doing it all the time anyway.

The ride was tough but in retrospect I’m so glad we got a chance to do it. Seeing the lights of Bocas Ridge Hotel was one of the best feelings in the world. Although I gotta say that the hotel was really weird. It’s like someone built this beautiful place on top of this great mountain overlooking the ocean… except no one showed up. We stayed in a building with several apartments but we were the only guests. We went to the restaurant but we were the only patrons. The whole place was eerie, almost like a movie set for The Shining.

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We kept joking about it over beers. When it was time to call it a night I went to my room which had two beds. I had a glass of water in one hand as I was getting ready to get into bed on the right. Somehow the glass slipped out of my hand, did a 360 in the air spilling water all over the bed and then landed upright between the bed and the nightstand. I couldn’t do it again even if I tried. I took that as a sign that someone didn’t want me to sleep there and got into the other bed. I don’t believe in ghosts but this place was as weird as they come.

Despite all that I slept like a baby.