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May 4th, 2012 | Central America

Coasting through Costa Rica, and Nipping into Nicaragua…

With my face swollen right down to my jaw line, I had a rather restless night…

By morning, my left eye was almost closed by the large “mouse” that had developed on my cheekbone… There have been more joyous moments in my life, that I can tell you without fear of contradiction…!!

I headed towards San Isidro, but would take the turnoff to Uvita at Palmar Sur, long before I reached the higher mountains...

Even though it had barely gone 6.00am, I strolled down the road, hoping to find a place that had some ice… I found a coffee shop that was just opening, and sat down to have a cup of “wake up”… The two women who were serving and cooking, tut-tutted when they saw my face and found out what had happened…

“Abeja”, Spanish for bee, became a new swear word in my Spanglish vocabulary…

At 7.00am, I saw the shutters of a little pharmacy going up, and I high-tailed it over there to ask for some antihistamines…

The young woman found a box after a prolonged search, and then asked if I had eaten yet… I indicated that I had not…!! She came around the counter, took me by the arm, and pointed me back in the direction of the coffee shop, telling me to go eat something before she would sell me the tablets…!!

Telling her that I had a cast-iron stomach and the constitution of an ox, (except when it came to mangos…!!) made little difference…!! She put her hands on her slim hips and gave me a look that said, “Go and eat something Buster, or I’m not going to help you…!!”

It did not help telling her “that I was the boss of me” either, and I realised that she meant business and was acting in my best interests…

These steel bridges cross the many streams and rivers that run down to the coast from the central highlands and the rain forests that cover them...

Smiling to myself, I hoofed it back to the coffee shop, wolfed down two fried eggs on toast, chased them down with a second cup of coffee, and went back to the pharmacy…

A large tri-coloured tablet the size of a walnut, and a glass of water were waiting on the counter…

“Just the one…??” I asked… “This is serious woman…!! Give me more…!!”

“Si…. Solo una…!!”, she replied, thin of lip, and steely glint of eye…!!

I swallowed the nugget and marched back to my hotel, deciding that there was no point in riding today… My peripheral vision on the left side was totally impaired by my rapidly closing eye…

At midday I went back to pharmacy to confront bossy-pants…

“Uno mas, por favor…!!” I asked with a smile, trying to charm another antihistamine out of her…

“N0…!!” she said, “Sólo puede haber uno por día…!!”

Avoiding the mountains and the rain that seemed to be waiting up there, I turned west and drew a bead on the Pacific...

“What…!! Are these things addictive…?? Give me more for heaven’s sake…!! Can’t you see I’m allergic…!! Who is going to take the blame if my head bursts open like a ripe tomato…??”

She opened the flap in the counter and almost dragged me through to a small room, and told me to sit on the bed… She returned a minute later with a tube of Alergel ointment and a cotton bud… She washed here hands with an alcohol solution and then went out again… I prayed she was not going to return with a hypodermic needle in hand…!!

There were no windows to leap out of, just the one door leading back into the counter area… The sweat running downing my back, doubled…

I figured I should count to ten and then make a run for it… I got as far as eight when she came bustling in again… Fortunately, empty-handed…!! Relief flooded through my nervous system…

“Cierre el ojo…!!” she ordered…

“You mean more than it already is…?? The bloody thing is almost swollen shut already…!!”

Using the cotton bud, she very gently swabbed my temple and cheek with the gel, then told me to come back tomorrow…

“Manana…?? Woman, I know your kind…!! Today it’s a cotton bud…, tomorrow a needle…!! If you want to see me tomorrow, you better be waiting in Panama…!! And you better have some friends to hold me down…!!”

I said “Panama” hoping to throw her off the scent, you see…!! I was in fact heading in the totally opposite direction; to Nicaragua…!! I am a master of dis-information when it comes to avoiding things I don’t like…!!

Large areas of the forest have been cleared to plant more American Oil Palms, a tree native to this region but now planted in huge plantations for commercial purposes...

By evening my face was still swollen, but I would rather have hit my thumb with a hammer than go back to the pharmacy…!! I was pretty sure the next visit would involve a needle…!!

I went back to the Chinese restaurant, not so much for the food, but rather to lay my hands on more ice…!!

I chatted to a few truck drivers who seemed to know I was the guy staying at El Gran Impala, and that I rode a “motocicleta grande”… They told me that a truck had jack-knifed in the mountains leading to San Jose, and that the road might be closed for some time, so I changed my plans and later set a new route along the coast for the following day…

It was about 500 km to the Nicaraguan border with Costa Rica, and from there, I would decide how far into Nicaragua I could go… It all depended on the border posts…!!

I left the hotel at 7.00am, and headed north towards the fork in the highway that gave the choice to go via the mountains into San Jose, the capital, or via the coast…

Just as it had in Panama, the rain forest and tropical jungles grew right down to the edge of the road, except in areas which had been planted with Oil Palms… I hoped that the Costa Ricans had a handle on this situation, because I had seen how much forest had been lost to Oil Palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia…

Small farms also bordered the road, and most of them seemed to be dairy farms; their fat, healthy looking cattle, similar to Jersey cattle, but a lighter colour, grazing happily in lush green pastures…

We crossed the Rio General, just south of Palmar and headed for the coast… The road was in excellent condition, and with the Big Fella humming sweetly under me, and little or no traffic, we made good time…

On a rocky shoreline north of Dominicial, we stopped to take a breather...

We passed through Uvita and from time to time, I could see the Pacific peeping out from behind swaying coconut palms… This area is dotted with popular beaches where small and exclusive resorts have been built… The beaches I could see, were either rocky or had the black sand associated with the nearby volcanic ridges…

We passed Jaco and stayed on the coast, boring north at a steady clip...

We crossed the Rio Baru and then stopped just north of Dominicial to refuel… I could not understand why the bike was only taking on less than 20 litres of fuel, when I knew it to be empty…!! This tend would continue for the next few days, turning my usual accurate “fuel vs distance” calculations into a bit of a guess…!!

Not good when you run things down to the bone…!!

Further north, I passed through Jaco, and saw a number of tourists either taking walks or cycling along the main road…

This must be a popular destination for holidaymakers, although at a guess, I would say the Caribbean coastline with its white sandy beaches, was where most people who visited Costa Rica, went…

It was too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, but I stopped in Mata de Limon for a cup of coffee and a few Snickers bars anyway...

We passed through Quepos, Parrita and Tarcoles, many of the towns named after the rivers whose banks they were built on… We skirted the Carara National Park, and then joined the road that came from San Jose, and ran down to Punta Arenas…

I managed to avoid paying the toll fee on this major route, by sneaking past the barrier…

Never give a biker a gap an inch wider than his bike is, people…!!

The road took us back to the coast, and a long narrow lagoon close to Mata de Limon, where I was amazed to see a massive car-carrying ship offloading vehicles in what did not seem to a harbour of any significant size…

All there seemed to be, was a long breakwater and a row of low buildings… I assume there was a deep water channel that led right up to the shore, and this is how so large a vessel could berth there…

A bus load of American students arrived and surrounded the bike while I sat watching from inside…

I only wished I had a dollar for every photo that was ever taken of the Big Fella…!! There’d be no concerns about paying for petrol…ever…!!

This Cosco car-carrier was seemingly berthed in the middle of nowhere...!!

I still had a way to go before getting to the Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas...

I still had another 200 km to ride before reaching the border, and I wanted to be there as early as possible, because I expected a delay of some sort… If you can negotiate both border posts in under two hours at any Central American crossing, then you are doing well…

Leafy green trees, but none of the thick undergrowth of Panama and southern Costa Rica.... This area receives far less rain that the rest of the country does...

I had Skyped with Roger Arnold in New Zealand the night before and his words still rang in my ears….

“Bro, you better take your tablets before you get to any of those border posts…!! You’re gonna need them…!!”

The “tablets he was referring to are “Patience Pills” I am always joking about…!!

I began encountering long lines of trucks and buses, all heading for the same border as I was, and determined to get there before them all, I let the Big Fella loose…!!

We carved our way up the Carretera Interamericana, passing through San Gerado, Arizona, and Canas, on the way to Liberia, the last big town before the border, but still 80 km short of it…

Running out of fuel long before I was supposed to...!!

This north-western part of Costa Rica looks vastly different to the southern areas…!! It is drier and reminded me of so many parts of South Africa that I had ridden in…

Just short of the border, I ran out of fuel, and had to use the last of my reserve fuel to get me to the service station at Penas Blancas… I was now more than just a little concerned about what the heck was happening with my fuel….!!

My reserve and range indicators were coming on a lot sooner than they should have…!! I was losing about 60 km of my normal range and wondered if I had a fuel leak somewhere…!!

At the service station I shook rattled and almost rolled the bike to get as much fuel into it as I could, and still managed to get just 18 litres into the tank, which had me totally confused…!!

I had ridden more than 20 km on the two litres I had put in when the bike had come to a complete stop without fuel… This meant that after the 20 km, I should have had only a litre in the tank, and it should have taken at least 21 litres to fill…!!!

Somehow, I had lost between 2 and 3 litres of the tanks capacity…!! This was huge if you consider that I have a VERY precise knowledge of how far I can get on a tank of fuel… Suddenly losing more than 10% of my normal range meant a lot to me…!! My long-range planning was in a shambles…!!

So you can appreciate that I was not in the best of moods when I reached the border…!! And I had forgotten to take my “Patience Pills”….!!

The Nicaraguan border post... Brace yourself.... Even the official's are confused....!!

The Costa Rican side was easy… They stamped my passport, and then took back my registration and waved me on…!! Fifteen minutes were all it took…

I had to find an ATM, because I had used the last of my money to fill the bike back in Penas Blancas…!! I was closely followed by a pack of young men, all waving wads of money in my face…!!

They must have all been born deaf, because I told them a dozen times I had no money to change…!!

Just inside Nicaragua, I passed close to the lake shore and saw the first of the two major volcanoes that stand on the opposite shore....

I found an ATM, then went to see Customs…. They sent me off to go get umpteen copies of my passport, drivers licence, registration papers, and the Costa Rican exit stamp in my passport…

This was the second one which is just a few kilometres further on...

Forget about arriving at the border with copies of everything…!!

There will ALWAYS be something that you can only get a copy of once you arrive there… I am sure the officials are in cahoots with the photo-copying agents…!!

I had to ride back through a narrow gap between a long line of trucks and a diamond-mesh fence to get to the front of the queue, and standing in the gap was the pack of jackals that had followed me to the ATM a few minutes before…

This time they were waving Immigration papers in my face… I indicated that I would count to five and then ride over whoever was still in front of me… At the count of five, I popped the clutch and tore into the gap… One of the guys rolled under a truck to get away and another climbed up the fence…!!

Tilting at windmills in Nicaragua...!! But where are the bandidos I was warned about...?? Working at the border posts, that's where...!!

The security guard nearly wet his pants with laughter, giving me a big thumbs up as I passed him…!! I paid a $3.00 entry fee, then another $1.00 to enter the Immigration building, then $10.00 for something or other, and another $2.00 for the cousin of something or other…

Asking what I was paying for got me a long explanation in gibberish, the language spoken at most border posts…!! Roughly translated, it usually means we are ripping you off because you are a gringo…!!

I debated whether or not to take Roger's advice and stay in San Juan del Sur, but I figured I was hardly likely to take advantage of the beach, and rather pushed on along the lake, hoping to reach Granada before sunset...

I then had to go to one police office after another, where I first got a stamp on a piece of paper, then went to show another policeman the stamp; who then signed the piece of paper and sent me back to the first policeman, who looked at it and then sent me to the Customs officer to have my bike documented on their computer…

This guy then sent me back to the second policeman who stamped the document and sent me back to the first policeman to sign it…!!

All this was taking place in heat that made me glad I did not have a tattoo… The damn thing would have slid right off my body…!!

Just as I was mounting up, another guy came running over to tell me that I had to pay another $5.00 for insurance… He was carrying the same little receipt book that every man and his dog seemed to have on his person, and I smelt a scam…

“I have paid enough to you and your little band of robbers, and am not shelling out another dollar…!! So take your little receipt book, roll it into a tube, and shove where the sun don’t shine…!!”

I kicked the bike into gear and rode towards the main gates… I was stopped, my passport checked and I was waved into Nicaragua…

For me, a sure sign of a poor country is when you see people collecting and selling firewood... Nicaragua is no different...!!

Roger had suggested I make for the Pacific coast and stay at a small village where surfers and backpackers hang out, but I still had an hour off daylight left and preferred to push on and cover the 90 km to Granada, a historical town on the shores of Lake Nicaragua…

Gone were the ten shades of green that I had been riding though in Costa Rica and Panama... In their place was a landscape that was a lot drier, despite the presence of the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world...!!

I passed horse-drawn carts and guys on bicycles, loaded down with firewood, and large areas where trees had been chopped down for their fuel…

This was the usual sign that poverty was a daily part of life, and judging by the shacks I saw from the roadside, Nicaragua was a lot poorer than its southern neighbor…

Cattle stop just outside Granada... Shades of Africa...!!

The entry into the town was just like so many other dirty, grubby little towns I had ridden through...

I took the turnoff to Granada, wondering if I should push on to Managua, the capital, just 65 km away, but was later glad that I did not…!!

It had been a long day and I had already covered over 600 km and probably lost a few pounds sweating my nether regions off…!!

The entry to the town was awash with litter, and I began to wonder if I’d made the right decision by coming here… But then I rode into an area closer to the lake and into the old part of the town, where all the houses were gaily painted in a kaleidoscope of un-matched colours…!!

I started grinning the deeper I got among the many narrow one-way streets, passing old churches and colonial buildings that dated back hundreds of years…

A few of them looked as though they were about to fall down, but others had been renovated and cleaned up, and now contained hotels and little boutiques that sold clothing and even electronic goods…

But for the most part, the town appealed to me in a way that I found hard to describe…!! It took me a long time to find the main square, or the Plaza de le Independence as it is known, and there I found more buildings that had me stopping to snap photos, even though the sun was setting and I had not yet found a place to stay…

Gaily painted homes of Granada...!! I wished the Bolivians and Peruvians could see this... Imagine how much more places like San Pedro de Atacama would appeal to tourists if they made an effort to paint their homes...!!

The first hotel I stopped at was old world from the outside and very “New World” from the inside…!! The minute I stepped off the street and into the lobby, I knew that it would be too pricey…!! At $100.00 a night, I was quite right…!!

I thought of Tomasso, an architect by profession, and knew that he would have loved Granada...!!

Just around the corner were five hostels standing shoulder to shoulder… The first one had no parking for the bike, the second one said I could park the bike at the local fire station just a hundred metres away, and I agreed to this arrangement…

The $10.00 a room also helped me make up my mind…!!

The only problem with the Hostal La Cassita, was that my room was right on the street and right next to the front door, and backpackers arrived at all hours of the night, and banged loudly on the door for the night duty guy to open up and let them in…!!

Nevertheless, I spent three nights and two full days in Granada and although most of it was spent writing, I did get out a bit to take in some of the sights…

Those photos will have to wait, as I have a 6.00am appointment with the road to San Salvador, where I am meeting Tiernan Mennen for breakfast at 8.00 am…!! He is a nephew of Patricia’s and is on a business trip in El Salvador… I last met him at Caitlin’s wedding in November and look forward to meeting him again…!!

©GBWT 2012

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