A bridge too far

January 9, 2011

After spending an extra day in San Jose trying to get over my abdominal issues, I packed up early and hit the road to the state of Limon with the intention of getting to Puerto Viejo for the football games. The riding was easy and the countryside was beautiful as I made my way to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. I had the unique privilege of stopping for a couple of hours at the world’s only sloth sanctuary. I never even really understood what a sloth was and I can’t say that I even had seen a picture of one before. The only sloth that came to mind was the one in the kids Ice Age movies :). Check out my blogroll for more info on this amazing creature.

I was making good time on the roads despite everyone saying how poor they were. That’s the beauty of the BMW… It eats roads, good and bad, for breakfast!!!! I end up blowing by Puerto Viejo and heading on to the border at Sixaola. I chose this border because it is far out of the way and the only crossing on the east coast of the country. It was a Sunday as well so I figured that traffic would be lighter. I had read up on the crossing and it seemed fairly straight forward with the exception being the bridge. The two border towns sit on either side of the Rio Sixaola, an impassable river. The bridge was constructed some 50 plus years ago as a way for trains to cross the border. It was never designed as a vehicle or pedestrian bridge and has been converted, Central American style, into a makeshift crossing. When I say makeshift this is what I mean:

Sixaola bridge

I got to the bridge around 2:30pm which was late in the day to be crossing the border but I just went with it. I stood in line at Costa Rican immigration for about 30 mins until I finally got stamped out of the country. Then a language barrier with the customs folks about the fact that I was permanently exporting my BMW cost another 15 mins but eventually I got what I needed and hopped on my bike. Now comes the fun part. As you can see from the picture above, you have to pick the left or the right side of the bridge to ride down because no way you can ride down the middle. Of course, there are pedestrians coming across the bridge and so you basically have to barge your way through… Which I did quite well. However, as I get to the center of the bridge, I come upon two cars… one headed to Panama and one headed to Costa Rica!!!!

It seems that Costa Rica and Panama defy all reason and logic when it comes to communicating. Maybe they are related to my ex :). Anyway, it turns out that they do not possess a simple two way radio that allows them to say “ok, coast is clear” when allowing traffic to cross a ONE WAY bridge!!!! Even more comical was the fact that the guy in the minivan refused to reverse back to Costa Rica because he didn’t believe the guy from Panama who was telling him that he couldn’t back up because there was a semi truck waiting at the beginning of the bridge on the Panama side. So the guy in the minivan gets out and runs to the Panama side to check that the other guy isn’t lying… Which he isn’t. So now the minivan guy is back and wants to back up to the Costa Rica side. Small problem… I’M BEHIND HIM!!!! No way I can reverse my bike over the dodgy planks and I tell the guy so. Eventually, I get the guy from Panama to get the guy from Costa Rica to maneuver his minivan to the side a bit so I can squeeze through. No sooner had I accomplished this then I look up and, instead of waiting for the mess in the middle to get sorted out, the dumb ass semi truck driver decides to come onto the bridge as well. So, I now have figure out how to get by not only the jeep of the Panamanian guy but now a giant tractor trailer!!!! I’m pissed now but I see a broken down railing and a small space where I may be able to get out of the way. Problem is it means crossing the rail tracks which look extremely unsafe. Screw it, I say and wrestle Juliette across the tracks and into the small break in the fencing on the side of the bridge. The jeep squeezes by and then I dart forward to another opening and prepare for the semi truck to get by. It makes it by mere inches and I had to get help from a guy just to back my bike onto the planks again. From there I wobbled my way past more pedestrians until I made it to Panama to begin the hour long process of getting myself and my bike into Panama. Check out my video of this whole debacle. Unfortunately, I cannot edit the video and I lost all the sound due a corrupted video file. This was all I could do to recover the event.

Video coming soon

Eventually, I succeeded at that and headed south toward David. Here is where it gets really pear shaped. I haven’t properly researched my route to David because I wasn’t actually planning on crossing the border until tomorrow. It is late in the day and I decide to rely on the GPS that has proven to be semi useful on the trip. Problem is that David is not listed in the GPS so I put in Panama City instead. Up comes 2:19 and I’m like cool… I will be there in two hours. AHHHHH…. WRONG!!!!!! Somehow, I had changed the GPS settings to give the arrival time at the destination not how long to the destination so what I thought was 2 hours and 19 mins was actually an arrival time of 2:19AM!!!!!!!!!!!! BY the time I figured this out it was already way off the rails.

So, ignorant me is cruising along the very desolate Caribbean coast road and admiring the beautiful ocean views and sunset. The hour is getting later and later and darkness approaches. After riding for a couple of hours, I realized that I had made a mistake with the GPS but I push on because now I truly am in the middle of nowhere. The road starts to climb into the mountains and a light rain begins to fall. As I climb higher and higher it gets darker and darker until I hit the dense fog that has enveloped the top of the mountain range. Now it is pitch black, completely deserted, raining and dense fog that cuts visibility to ten feet. I am tired, hungry and annoyed so I zoom out on my GPS to see where I am in grand view of things. Much to my dismay, the route the GPS is taking me suddenly dead-ends… as in the road just stops! Now, I know there is only one road on the eastern coast of Panama and I am pretty sure it takes me near David so how in God’s name can the road just end on the GPS?

I debate turning around but the thought of sleeping in the jungle does not appeal to me. I stop on the side of the road and pull out my Panama map for the first time. I scour the map and determine that yes, thee is only one road on the east coast and so, it stands to reason, that I am on it. I put the map away and take off again. Now I am really getting concerned because my gas is running low (I think but was not sure as the gauge seems to be acting up again) and I am really lost and can’t see five feet in front of me. I am praying to God and anyone else who will listen to get me safely off this mountain. I am literally going 5 miles an hour when a huge 18 wheeler comes up behind me and I pull to the shoulder to let him by. God had heard my prayers because this beast of a truck was lit up like a beacon in the night. Its huge headlights and massive floodlights under the trailer provided me with plenty of visibility and a wild animal battering ram! I quickly dropped in behind the truck and spent the next hour at 50 miles an hour getting guided out of the fog and off the mountain.

I finally made it to the Panamerican Highway about 10pm and then I made the mistake of going left instead of right and back towards David. I figured there must be a town not far away where I could bunk down for the night. WRONG AGAIN!!! I drove on and on for what seemed like forever until I almost ran out of gas. At a gas station I tried to get directions to the next town only to find that the guy I was talking to didn’t speak English or Spanish… he was Italian! I was so tired that I couldn’t even understand how much the woman who sold me a coke was asking for it. As I rode on further and further I found myself alone for long periods of time. I started to get more and more nervous of being attacked, run off the road or stopped by the Police. Then suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, a bright light called out to me from afar 🙂 It was probably the only lit sign I saw in all of Central America and it was for a “lakeside hotel”. I jammed the brakes on and hit a hard left before bouncing up and down on the gravel road that led to the hotel. The parking lot had a few cars parked in it and at 11pm I figured this was a good sign. I parked the bike and wondered into the lobby. I looked around but no one was there. I called out several times but no answer. I walked around the building but could find no-one. Just as I stepped back into the lobby, a long steel barrel emerges from the the shadows followed by the rest of the rifle and a rather shifty looking Panamanian guard. I immediately froze and quickly babbled that I needed a room. After looking me over in my space age riding suit, he decided I was harmless and was able to get me a much needed room. As I collapsed into bed, I thought how mad I was for riding in the dark for so long and for missing what was surely some beautiful countryside. I also thanked God that I was still alive.