A tale of 2 cultures – Panama & Costa Rica

During this trip we have pondered on how and why cultures develop differently and how they imprint themselves on their people, both consciously and sub-consciously. We first noticed this as we travelled the ‘Stans’ last year. In that case the breakup of the Soviet Union was only a couple of decades old, and while we had no prior knowledge of how each of the now independent countries has been during their participation on the Soviet Union, the very different driving styles we encountered were probably most likely developed in the last 20 years.

Here in Central America, we have a number of small contiguous countries that we shall travel through in the coming few weeks and will have a limited opportunity to see first hand how their cultures differ in our view, if at all, and the impact this has had on people’s behaviour. This will be a work in progress: as I write, we are only into our second country Costa Rica. It has been interesting as with only one day in Costa Rica, we have seen differences between here and Panama. I am jumping ahead here, lets go back a day or two.

As we mentioned in a previous blog, we have met some helpful people in Panama, but we have found that there is desire to make extra money, whether by proposing an inflated taxi fare because we are foreigners, while in Bogota the taxi drivers rounded down, or asking what we will do to avoid an official traffic infringement being raised. More on that later.

Our departure from Panama City took us out over the ‘Punte Centenario’ or Centennial Bridge which is situated just north of the two sets of locks on the Pacific Ocean side. We had our last glimpse of Panama Canal and a ship sailing towards the Atlantic. If felt that we were now really in the North American continent. I know there is debate about where to draw the actual boundary between the North and South American continents and people use country boundaries, geography, language and tectonic plates, but I like the idea of the canal, especially since it runs more North/South than East/West, which is something I had not really appreciated before we came here. As we have traversed Panama and now Costa Rica we tend to ride more West than North.

 

Crossing the Panama Canal

Crossing the Panama Canal

Crossing the Panama Canal

Crossing the Panama Canal

Until today on this journey we had two encounters with traffic police, both of which we were at fault, and paid the appropriate ‘Spot Fine’. We have been careful to observe the rules, well, as much as the locals do, while we ride.

Today we are pulled over on an open straight 4 lane highway and informed the speed limit is 80km per hour. We saw no signs, but could not guarantee we had not missed them while overtaking. We had been careful but these things happen. We are then told the infringement will be US$100 each, our policeman intimates a cash alternative is acceptable. We decide to pay the spot fine and then are asked for a pair of motorcycle gloves as well! Luckily mine are ratty and have big hole in the palm of my hand, he is not interested.

After departing we take a keener interest in the speed limits, and also the other drivers’ speed. It turns out that the 100km per hour only applied near Panama City and the rest of the four lane highway to the Costa Rica border is 80km per hour or less. Drivers are very careful, and stay below the limit, where they perceive or know of trapping, otherwise they go faster, but the heavy police presence trapping makes it a fraught game. We find the ‘Carretera Interamericana’ as the highway is called is being duplicated for over 160km and the speed limit en route, regardless of construction conditions, is either 30km or 40km per hour. Police trapping seems to occur after most of the infrequent speed limit signs. With the existing road surface being of poor quality, perhaps a 60 km per hour limit might be more appropriate. This starts to look more like a business not a road safety initiative.

Gorgeous tree outside Panama City

Gorgeous tree outside Panama City

Would love to know what this sign means, Panama

Would love to know what this sign means, Panama

Still 40kms/hour on our way to David, Panama

Still 40kms/hour on our way to David, Panama

We want to beat the rain but the bum is getting sore

We want to beat the rain but the bum is getting sore

Anthony's confidence is still high it will not rain on us

Anthony’s confidence is still high it will not rain on us

Just another customs check, 150kms from the border

Just another customs check, 150kms from the border

My confidence in avoiding rain as we progress into the afternoon is misplaced and a black torrential tropical downpour envelops us. Must remember to put on waterproof trousers before the skies open up. It is easier for Anne as her new riding trousers we bought in Kuala Lumpur are waterproof. This downpour makes for interesting progress but we eventually arrive at our destination some 20km short of the border. We do not have an exact location of our bed and breakfast place and a kindly local drives ahead to show us the way. I can now dry out all the money in my jeans pockets. We also both have wet boots, our new pair of TCX Track Evo boots are still not waterproof…

We are not looking forward to the Panama / Costa Rica border crossing, we have read stories of long delays, ‘fixers’ being needed to help your progress, generally unpleasant. Our friend Kristjian had a torrid time here as well, it took him 3 days… We are lucky in that Kristjian has been sending regular reports of his crossing experiences which give us an up to date view. We also have multiple crossings to make in the next couple of weeks as the countries are small. In many of the Asian countries, we travelled thousands of kilometres before we crossed the next border so we only undertook the border crossing process occasionally rather than every couple of days as we will here.

– Anthony

Panama – Costa Rica border – 15 May 2015

As Anthony said, we were not looking forward to this border crossing following Kristjan’s experience.  We had also heard the border crossing was very slow with many large trucks and coaches who make the journey overnight to arrive by 6am and a couple staying at our B&B were going to cross at around 10am ‘when it should be quieter’. We stick with our original plan to be at the border by 7am.

Nice to see blue skies as we head to Paso Canoas border at 7am

Nice to see blue skies as we head to Paso Canoas border

What we didn’t know is that only 3 tight lanes of vehicles can drive past the immigration/customs building, under a large tin roof – in our case a line with 2 coaches, and 2 lines of trucks. We are directed by an army official to park our bikes behind the lines – we park side by side behind the back of a Tica transport company coach.

At Paso Canoas border post

At Paso Canoas border post

As soon as we get off our bikes and walk towards the buildings, a man approaches and waves to follow him. He is a “fixer” and we decide to accept his help.

First he takes us to the furthest building (there are only 2), marked Aduanas, asks us for our (vehicle temporary import) document, leans down into the little window opening and calls the 3 women sitting and chatting at the back of their office. One gets up – not sure she wants to assist, but she stamps one of the forms on the back. He has to ask her to stamp the 2nd one too which she does reluctantly. Now this when a fixer comes in very handy: he then took the forms and found the man who would sign the stamps!! He was busy with a truck and he too seemed reluctant to assist but he signed both. Job done.

Next immigration, which is in the first building on the left when we arrived. Not the long line of travelers who have come off one of the coaches, but the window to the far left left marked ‘solo transportitas’. Our fixer tells us to hand the vehicle document and our passports. Small delay as the 2 women behind the window decide to read one of the coach brochures on their shelf. We just wait. Brochure read, replaced, then whole pack removed… Iris photo taken, passport stamped, all documents returned.

The fixer then takes us back to the Aduana window where our temporary vehicle stamp in our passport is stamped too and cancelled.

Job done. The entire process took 15′. Would we pay US$5 each for his help, our fixer asks. Very fair price, no problem!! Time to leave, but how? There is no room to squeeze past the busses and trucks. Anthony goes off, while I secure our position behind the busses, to see if we can go through the entry side instead. Our fixer is not interested, not his area, fair enough. The army official who had told us where to park before the process began indicates it is not his call but we must ask a superior officer by tapping his shoulder on his (lack of) officers tabs. I notice there is movement with the buses and now the one in front of us is trying to reverse. On the bikes we hop, move back to find out the front truck and both buses have maneuvered to make space for us to squeeze past!!! Brilliant!!! Absolutely amazing. We are through in exactly 27′ total!!

On we drive a short distance to the Costa Rica border, past all the ‘no stopping’ parking bays (?!) until I give up and stop just next to a drinks seller. That will do – we are not in a no parking spot, just on the road!!

No fixer approaches us here so we walk towards a row of windows but they are unattended and we are advised by a helpful person sitting on a bench to go window 4 behind. That is one of the 2 entry into Costa Rica immigration windows. 2 people in the queue and we are next in no time, passport stamped with 90 days. We go to the Aduanas next but are told to buy our road insurance next door first, get copies across the road and return. A security guard is sitting by the insurance window. He offers his seat so that I can rest my helmet on it. What a gentleman!! He jokes that it is only for me, not Anthony. We chat about where are are going etc. and he tells us he is happy to meet us. Full details of the border process will be uploaded in our Borders and Visas section soon.

Once our entire process is completed, we say goodbye to Dagoberto who keeps telling us he is “happy, happy” to meet us.

Happy happy Dagoberto at Paso Canoas border post

Happy happy Dagoberto at Paso Canoas border post

Back at our bikes and we buy drinks from both sellers we are parked next to. What suddenly parks just in front us, the Tica coach from Costa Rica which moved over for us at the Panama border. We meet Alberto like long lost friends. While we get ready, we enjoy the banter between him and one of the drinks sellers – “she doesn’t want to have my baby!!”. We eventually say goodbye to Alberto and Dagoberto and head off into Costa Rica. One and half hours after arriving at the Panama border and we are through both borders. We are so lucky!!! Plus we have gained an hour being in Costa Rica, it is only 07.30am. We can have a leisurely ride to Jaco, 280kms away.

Alberto, the friendly Tica  bus driver

Alberto, the friendly Tica bus driver

We are instantly loving Costa Rica. We had so many wonderful Costa Ricans helping us and not once was there any question of money. It is so tropical here. No pretense of highway close to the border as we’ve found in so many countries, just a lovely country road. Bougainvilleas, poincianas, white poinsettias, jacarandas, banana trees, palms, it all looks and feels and smells like home. Lovely gardens, well tendered homes, clean road gutters. Palms and more palms – then palm oil factories. Single lane each way, gentle curves, a few trucks and buses and everyone is so courteous. It is a gorgeous ride. Lucky we had an early start as the rain decided to come early today and we get our first tropical downpour of the day by 9am. We slow right down. Eventually, a large coach approaches and hoots as he overtakes us. It’s Alberto!! We hoot back, and hoots some more. Later, he’s had to stop in a village for passengers so we overtake. There is a cacophony of horns going on for about ages as we approach then pass him. Byebye Alberto!!  This country has a great feel already…

We are in Costa Rica!!

We are in Costa Rica!!

The Panamwrican highway in Costa Rica, past Rio Claro

The Panamwrican highway in Costa Rica – simply gorgeous

It is a wet ride today from Rio Claro, Costa Rica

It is a wet ride today from Rio Claro, Costa Rica

Once again, we discuss how interesting it is that countries and societies can be so different in feel, habits, and wonder how and why they evolve so differently. We know we shouldn’t generalise and we haven’t spent much time in either country, but our personal experiences in each are so strikingly different.

We stop for lunch, so that our jackets etc can dry a little before we check into our B&B. By the time we are ready to leave, there are little puddles all around our table!! But not before Anthony has a game of pool with one of the restaurant staff.

Lunch stop just outside Jacó, Costa Rica

Lunch stop just outside Jacó, Costa Rica

Great spot to dry out and have lunch

Great spot to dry out and have lunch

Anthony has a game of pool with one of the restaurant staff

Anthony has a game of pool with one of the restaurant staff

We arrive at the bed and breakfast I selected based on its location, quiet street away from downtown Jaco and great reviews. I hadn’t realised the owner of La Villa Creole was Belgian from Brussels. It is great to speak French!! I also hadn’t realised how touristy Jaco was! From my point of view, it was a convenient location near the coast and close enough to San Jose where the bikes are being repaired under warranty Monday morning. There is apparently a great sushi restaurant, run by Japanese, so is authentic. After a lovely swim in the pool and shower, we head there for dinner, a 15′ walk down the road. What strikes us are the number of high security fences and serious fencing around homes. So there must be a serious theft issue here. That’s why the B&B were so concerned about our bikes and were uncomfortable about us deciding to leave all our luggage on the bikes. We covered the bikes – each pannier is locked anyway.

Common house security in Jacó, Costa Rica

Common house security in Jacó, Costa Rica

Jaco is so touristy!!! It reminds us of Chiang Mai where we spent a week last year! Maybe because that was the last place we visited that was so touristy. But also because both have a high number of ‘expats’ who have made their new life in a foreign country, Over dinner, we once again wonder how societies develop so differently. While in Chiang Mai, we met many people who integrated into their adopted country, and you could see many mixed groups. We hear a lot of Americans here, but don’t see any mixed groups or couples. We wonder how integrated all the expats, or foreigners I should say, are here. And is there a real or perceived threat of theft here?

Saturday, we first visit the Tico Pod Art House & Gifts store which specialised in locally produced art and admire some stunning Boruca masks. The Boruca are a tribe of Indigenous people of Costa Rica who managed to scare off the Spanish Conquistadors and secure their independence to this day thanks to their scary masks. The masks are absolutely stunning. Would have loved to visit them but we are running out of time to get my DME replaced before end of warranty in June.

We then take a local taxi for a short ride to Playa Hermosa which we rode past after lunch yesterday. It looked stunning – and it was. While Jaco seemed packed with American tourists, Playa Hermosa is low key, with a few backpackers, hippies selling handcrafted jewelry or sandals and lovely healthy small restaurants and lots and lots of surfers. Apparently, Kelly Slater, the world famous surfer, has a home there, and for good reason!! The sea is rough, so much so that they have a huge sign which we should have on the Gold Coast beaches in Queensland, warning people of rips (strong currents that sweep you out to sea) and how to handle them. We enjoy watching the surfers while eating our fresh tuna salad.

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

La Villa Creole, Jacó

La Villa Creole, Jacó

Sunday is an easy ride up to San Jose.

Perfect day for our ride to San Jose

Perfect day for our ride to San Jose

On our way to San Jose, Costa Rica

On our way to San Jose, Costa Rica

Coming up to San Jose, Costa Rica

Coming up to San Jose, Costa Rica

The only reason for us going to San Jose is for Streak and Storm to get new tyres and new steering head bearings on Monday. Our Heidenau Scout K60 tyres have performed marvelously: the front tyres lasted 33,000kms and back 22,000kms. The back ones could have lasted a little longer but there was no life left in the front ones and it was time to swap to asphalt & wet road conditions so 2 new sets of Metzeller Tourance tyres, a few too many $$$ later but great service from BMW San Jose and we are ready to continue our way through Central America. – Anne

– A&A