A journey on 2 wheels...

I sept 2007, Calixte Leblanc and Alain Denis set off on a motorcycle journey, rock climbing, mountaineering, surfing from Jasper Alberta to Costa Rica - central america. One year on a Suzuki Dr 350

January 18, 2009

How did we get to South America?

Along the journey south, many people asked us, " How will you get across the Darien Gap?" Can you ride your bike? - NO!!!
Crossing the Darien Gap would be a death wish, or the craziest adventure you could ask for.
A Gap between the North & South Panamerican Hwy - a 57-mile (92 km) stretch of some of rugged, mountainous jungle terrain, guerrillas, drug smugglers, poachers, and jaguars rule this vast no-mand's land.

But it's been done!!! ...

The first motorcycle crossing was by Robert L. Webb in March 1975. Another four wheel drive crossing was in 1978-1979 by Mark A Smith and his team. Smith and his team drove the 400 km (250 mile) stretch of the gap in 30 days using five stock Jeep CJ-7s. They travelled many miles up the Atrato River via barges. Mark Smith has released his book Driven by a Dream, which documents the crossing.
The first all-land auto crossing was in 1985-1987 by Loren Upton in a CJ-5 Jeep, 741 days to travel 125 miles (201 km) all on land. This crossing is documented in the 1992 Guinness Book of Records. In addition Upton returned in 1995 and became the first to drive a motorcycle, a two-wheel drive Rokon motorcycle, all on land through the Darien Gap, 49 days.

We spend 2 days researching our best options to cross into Colombia. Choice # 1 was to ride to Colon and find out if a boat was going threw the San Blas Islands and eventually to Turbo Colombia or Cartagena. After calling a the *www.hostelwunderbar.com*
to find out if we could get on any boats. They told us that NO boats where going at this time cause of rough ocean in Jan and Feb.
Most captains take these 2 months off holiday. The chances of getting stuck on some islands were high or loosing our bikes and ourselves at sea wasn't inviting.
It was by far the cheapest way to get into Colombia, but not the safest so we started to research and call the *Cargo Flight* option... A way out of the budget way to go, but much faster and safer.

It was disappointing to miss the chance to sail the Caribbean sea and visit with the Kuna Indians in the San Blas - ( one of the last unknown and unspoilt paradises of this world. It consists of hundreds of small tropical islands which are only inhabited by the Kuna people, the local indigenous group - crystal clear waters & untouched beaches)

We called Girag, a shipping company which many bikers use to send their bikes to Colombia by plane. Fast, efficient, safe but also came with a high price of $900 for each bikes! ( cash!)- Angela found tickets for us with Aires.aero for $250 a total of $1150.
It was either bite the bullet or risk our bikes, lives and what could be the end of the trip on some deserted island eating coconuts for the rest of our lives.
So we pulled out the good old visa card and booked our tickets. We now needed to run to a bank machine and get out $1800 for the bike payment. Sometimes the machines don't give you that much. We needed to make 4 transactions of $500 each. Paranoid that someone could be watching us withdraw all this money (in a bad neighborhood of the city) we started walking at full speed back to our Hostel so we could safely put our money away.
Now relieved that we no longer needed to ride to Colon or spend hours finding a way to get to Colombia. I made a killer sheperd's Pie, filled our stomach, watched a movie and called it a night.
Tomorrow will be a long day since we need to ride to the airport without getting lost! - get our bikes to Girag cargo terminal by 9am and catch our flight at 11:30am.

January 17, 2009

Panama City...

"What is Panama City like?" - That was one question I asked myself before even leaving Canada. The end of the road before going to South America. The major city of Cargo ships passing threw the Panama Canal.

As we were riding closer to Panama City, we were just anxious to see what it was all about. We knew that the closer we would get to it, the more traffic would become intense. Someone had told us to take "the new bridge" - *Puente Centenario*
So we did. As we rode over the bridge, we got our first view of the famous Panama Canal. Our first stop was to see the Miraflores locks. One of the most impressive locks of the 80 kms long canal and the most visited place in Panama!!

The lock gates at Miraflores are the tallest of the three (the others being Gatun and Pedro Miguel), which is due to the extreme tidal variation that takes place in the Pacific Ocean; the tidal variation on the Atlantic coast is by far less. Miraflores Locks are slightly over one mile long, from beginning to end. It is one of the largest and difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.

Tolls for the canal are decided by the Panama Canal Authority and are based on vessel type, size, and the type of cargo carried.
The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on May 16, 2008 to the 964-foot (295 m) Disney Magic cruise liner, which paid just over US$331,200!!! The average toll is around US$54,000.

The site wasn't as impressive as we expected, we saw a few big ships at the entrance and end of the canal. We didn't visit the tourist information viewpoint. Leaving our bikes without view was out of the question, also a line up at the door and a out of the budget cost. We watched a couple ships getting ready to cross the gates while we were also trying to make our mind if we would ride to Colon - 70 kms or to Panama city only 12kms away.

We had heard many stories about Colon, being a nasty, filthy slum city. A place where getting robbed or mugged was high risk! Especially on motorbikes! The reason to *MAYBE go there was to find out about our voyage to Colombia. Potentially by cargo boat to Cartagena, Colombia via the San Blas Island in the Caribbean sea.

After seeing enough of the Canal, we decided to head for the closer and safer option... ride to Panama city.

With a population of just over 1 million people. It sure was a test in our ability of driving in crazy traffic - especially for Angela... she's only been riding her bike for several days!! and got her license 2 months ago!!! ( But she did awesome!!! - a fast learning experience I must say!)
It didn't take us long before we got lost. With only a couple of names of different hostels we found on the internet. We asked around to try to find them, but we still managed to get lost.
The city as few traffic lights, one way streets, too many cars and insane bus drivers.

We finally found one hostel that was recommended to us. While I stayed with the bikes at the gas station, Angela walked to the hostel with a military officer to see if we could get a room. She was then told that ALL hostels that they new were FULL!!! - great! just what we needed to know.
So we decided to make our way to Colon after all, but it didn't take long as we tried to get out of the city....we got lost again. Finally got out of the city to Miraflores (we knew that spot well) asked around if there was any hotels not far (to avoid going back to the city) the few that we checked out at 150$ a night!! was way out of budget!

Exhausted from the traffic and frustration of getting lost several times. We went for some food so we come up with a better plan.
"Lets go back in there", I said. Now we know how to get to the same spot downtown, lets find a hotel in downtown.
It was getting late, so Colon was out of the question.
Back in the nightmare downtown. Now pouring rain!!! we were tired, desperate to find a place.
I pulled in one of the first hotels we drove by. Soaked & tired, I asked the lady at the front desk for a room. She looked at me thinking this poor guy... I even had the guts to ask " any good price cause of the rain???"
she laughed, "Si Senior" The normal price is $140, but for you... $77.
Deal!! -* You don't get if you don't ask!!! *
We unpacked the bikes. Enjoyed the luxury of a warm shower, clean room with AC, cable TV, internet, a couple free drinks on the house.
Our miserable experience in the city was only past. We sat in front of the TV and just happy to not on the road to Colon!

A "fishy" camp spot

We left Santiago around 7pm after taking care of some emails, buying a few groceries and researching for a good camping spot for the night. We normally avoid riding at night, but we had been on the roads in Costa Rica and Panama at night and it felt safer since there is less traffic with trucks.
On our map, we saw that the Panamericana had a section close to the Pacific coast only an hour drive south of Santiago. So instead of spending money for a place to stay in the city, we hit the road for a beach to camp.

One hundred or less KMS north of Panama city, we took a right turn down a dirt road to the beach. Passing threw massive hotels, we found a small access road leading us to the beach. " Perfect!" we found a spot - sorry to have disturbed some lovers making out on some fishing boat, they left us and we pitched our tent.

Angela told me when we arrived that the fishermans might come early to get their boats... I looked at the boats and said, " it doesn't look like those boats have moved in a long time!"

At around 3 AM, I hear Angela " wake up - Al ...wake up!!!" then I hear some guys outside our tent asking us to move our bikes.
All confused, I get out of the tent in my boxer shorts. " The fisherman want us to move the bikes" She was right, they did come to get their boats.
So there I am trying to move our bikes in my boxers in deep sand with 4 other guys. One of them screaming orders to the other fishermans, " Allez, Allez" Moving around at fast paste like if they were on a fishing race and there I am moving half asleep. Pushing their huge *Barco* to the ocean, finally they were off and we again had peace to sleep.

Our peaceful sleep wasn't long. At 5 am this time. The entire village was outside our tent waiting for the fisherman to come back and start selling their catch for the markets.
We got out of our tent. Needing to take our morning *PI* we didn't really have anywhere to go. Everyone watching us like they never seen a tent. Or 2 blond heads with motorbikes! We sat and watched the craziness of people screaming and running around with crates of fresh fish.
An hour later, everyone was gone. Angela could finally take her *pi* Packed our bags and hit the road to Panama City....

January 12, 2009

Keeping in touch with friends and family

Computers are a wonderful tool to have while being on the road. With the new technology, being able to call our friends and
family or sending away photos to magazines, writing stories. We couldn't be without them.

Many people ask me " how do you keep all this gear from getting thrashed?" - simple.... do your best. But it doesn't always work.
As a photographer, I carry one camera body, and 3 lens, one laptop and one external hard drive.

Sometimes, they are not always so nice to have... especially on a motorbike! My macbook pro is now dead, one thing - computers
don't like humidity. Traveling along the coast for a long period of time, salt and humidity accumulated on the motherboard and killed my working tool. But over time, you learn to pack them well.

During the last year on the road, I lost....
1 lens (fell off a 150 foot ice wall while shooting Ice Climbing)
2 external hard drives, ( don't drop them!!!)
1 Nikon D200 camera ( don't like swimming pools!! - don't ask!)
1 macbook pro ( don't like humidity)

We now have a box on the back of Angela's bike where we keep our laptop and lens. Totally waterproof, packed well for vibration and we can lock the box.
So far it's the best way to keep it alive... keep our fingers X.

All the rest of our gear is in dry bags. It's the best, light & completely waterproof.

January 11, 2009

Panama... here we come!

After several cups of coffee in Dominical, I wanted to catch a few waves, but the over crowed beach and high price of $25 for renting a surfboard wasn't in our budget. So we hit the road to Panama... 150 kms to the border.
It was a smooth quick crossing since we were rinding on Angela's bike with Panama plates. - ( long story short... back in November, we rode my bike to Panama to get my visa stamp and buy Angela's bike that we found on the internet, it was less paperwork to buy in Panama then Costa Rica, we had to leave my bike in Panama since my permit was expired and we also left most of our gear so we could travel both on her bike back to Costa Rica.)
We arrived in David in mid day, not too sure if we would push the next 180 kms stretch to Santiago - ( where we had left my bike) We decided to ride up to Boquete, a touristy village 39 kms east of David in the mountains. As we pulled into town, we looked at each other - black clouds were rolling over our heads - last thing we wanted was to ride in heavy rain... we had already seen in November what rain can be like in Panama, so we headed back down the hill to David and pushed on to Santiago where we could camp for free ( Thanks to Scott & Ariadne, Angela's previous bike owners.) I was also anxious to get back in the saddle of my DR and let Angela ride her bike with the freedom being alone in the saddle.
It felt good to sleep in our Yellow condo ( our tent) once again. The next morning, we headed back to the Pacific coast in search of more surf.
115 kms of country windy roads took us to a dead end in Santa Catalina. We found our base camp at *Surfer's Paradise*. A hostel with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. We set up our condo with a million dollar view, relaxed from the last 500 + kms push from San Jose. This was the perfect spot.
We met Brad & Kelly who were traveling in their VW van with their 2 guard dogs from Mexico. We exchanged some travel stories over a few beers and made plans to meet the next morning. Brad had an extra surfboard I could use, so I didn't pass the opportunity to catch a few last waves before making our way to the Big Panama City.
Thanks to Brad, I had a couple hours of awesome surfing.

Lost in San Jose...

We left San Jose thinking it would be easy to get on the Panamericana to Dominical ( a surf beach on the Pacific). It didn't take long before we got lost!
The road signs around San Jose are horrible and most roads have NO signs. After a few detours in traffic jams and frustration, we finally found our way out of the city on the Panamericana HWY 1.
San Jose isn't a very warm city since its elevation is over 1600 meters. It's a bit of a shock when your coming from the ocean, from shorts and flip flops to wearing jeans and long sleeve. We knew we had to wear warm clothes while riding but didn't know we would freeze our ass at * Cerro de la Muerte * - a 3400m mountain pass. Riding threw the misty high mountain hwy we needed to stop and put on our gore- tex. We were just happy that rain didn't come down since we were already frozen to the bones.
Finally the road took us down to lower elevation, we were once again boiling in the sun. 30 more kms of tropical winding roads we arrived in Dominical. - 6 hours later and only 250kms!
The celebration of the new year was still happening as the beach was completely packed. We sat and watched our last sunset in Costa Rica.
Tomorrow we would hit the road to Panama, our last destination before we try to figure out our way to South America.

January 1, 2009

A whole new Year coming up!

We just got back from spending a wonderful Christmas in Fort Lauderdale with my mom and Jean- Luc.
It was a very special for us to be back in Florida together since Angela and I met there in feb last year. Also I haven't spent
Christmas Holidays with my mom in over 15 years!!! Living in a tourist town like Whistler has always been hard for
me to go home to my family for the holidays. But this time, Costa Rica was only a 2 hour flight away.

Now back in San Jose, we are ready to hit the road into a New Year on the journey. We will be making our way to the
Caribbean Coast into Panama. Our next challenge will be finding the cheapest and safest way to Colombia via the
San Blast Islands.

We hope you all had a wonderful New Year as we did and wish you all a wonderful new year with lots of love, smiles and sunshine.