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A Girl and Her Bike

Not so Easy Riding through Central America

Story and photos by Beth Whitman

Trouble was brewing when I arrived at the Nicaraguan border on my motorcycle, heading to Managua.  In my limited Spanish, I listened attentively to the young men who milled about, waiting to help wayward tourists through the border process of a stamp here, a stamp there, pay this man for your visa, pay that man for your vehicle.  The men assured me that the impending transportation strike led by campesinos (peasants) across the country would cause me no problems.  Famous last words.

As I considered the possible dangers, I reflected on how I got here.  Months earlier, I somehow managed to entice BMW into loaning me the beautiful F650 Funduro for the 7,000 mile journey from Seattle through the heart of machismo in Mexico and Central America to Panama, where I would fly back to the U.S. 

I called the bike Esperanza, "hope” in Spanish, and wondered if test driving this bike on Central America’s highways was to be more a trial for me or the motorcycle.  Regardless, Esperanza would act as my guardian angel to ensure my safe passage.

To prepare for that passage, I participated in the beginner’s off-road riding course sponsored by the Washington State Ready to Ride program -- three hours of controlled recklessness in pure mud.  Practicing on an 80cc bike wasn’t quite the same as my F650, but I soon had the basics down:  eyes up, elbows out, look lean and roll into the turns.

My first stop was Medford, Oregon to take a crash (no pun) course in motorcycle maintenance skills -- nearly non-existent before the course.  An ace mechanic at Hansen’s BMW/Triumph showed me how to fix a flat and owner Craig Hansen personally explained the basics: the oil, fuel lines, and fuses.  "If you’re prepared for a problem, it won’t occur,” was the Craig Hansen theory of life.   "And,” he added, "it wouldn’t be an adventure if you didn’t have difficulties.”   With precision German engineering turning my wheels, I doubted I would need to know such intricacies but I listened and held on tightly to my motorcycle maintenance manuals written in Spanish.

Disaster struck early in a remote area of New Mexico when I had an unfortunate encounter with a four-inch nail.  Remarkably, the bike and I did not hit the pavement, even though the metal was driven directly through the back tire, shredding the tube.  Alas, I was unprepared with spare tubes and, just as Craig predicted, a difficulty arose.

Far from help and with all shops closed on this late Saturday afternoon, I was rescued by Ron, a boat mechanic.  Seemingly accustomed to biker chicks in distress, he simply ordered a new tube from Albuquerque, 90 miles away, sent his brother for the pick up and provided me with an overnight loaner car, all for just $100.

While waiting for the repair to be made, this unsaved soul found spiritual consolation by visiting the local churches where the presiding holy men spoke to the congregation in Spanish and English.  These visits, I decided, would provide me with good fortune crossing into Mexico and the rest of Central America, which no less than terrified me.

Rapidly clearing Mexican customs, I followed the main highway through Chihuahua state and cut west as Esperanza hummed through thick, green, pine forests.  Our progress was slowed only by the curves of this mountainous route.  By late afternoon, I arrived in Creel, a tiny village on the edge of the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madres.  This is the home to the Tarahumara Indians, the most traditional of all Mexico’s indigenous peoples due to their remote location.  Wearing thonged shoes made of old tires, the men visited with each other as the women and children, in giggling clusters, hawked their handcrafted wares.

At each of Mexico’s state lines, I was stopped at police posts.  "Sola?”  "Yes, solo,” I routinely answered.  With rifles at their sides, one group searched my saddlebags and asked for my Walkman.   "No,” I firmly gestured and made light of the situation by adding, "but you CAN have my peanut butter.”  With a twinkle in his eye, one burly federale wanted "regalos”.  With legs shaking, I left them behind, later to find in my dictionary that "regalos” meant gift.  Of what nature, thankfully, I never found out.

My Spanish was only barely improving but what I quickly became acquainted with was a phrase I heard repeatedly throughout Central America.  "Guerita...guerita.”  "Little blondie” was an affectionate term used by the more (and less) macho to get my attention as I strolled the cobblestone streets.  I bit my tongue at what I considered to be their ignorance and knew that my lack of Spanish evoked an equal amount of ignorance as I was unable to fully, well barely, understand their language.

Practicing my Spanish in my helmet, I continued south through the state of Chiapas and, with the exception of choking and sputtering buses, found the roads ideal for motorcycle touring.  Following switchbacks and passing breathtaking mountains and villages, I arrived in the small village of San Cristobal de las Cassas just as Easter weekend festivities were in full swing.  In Central America, Easter is as celebrated as a North American Christmas, and I found myself caught in parades of children and adults celebrating the resurrection.  Sweets were thrown from colorful parade floats as freely as Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans.  I pondered the irony that this is the most volatile region of Mexico.

I tentatively continued through Chiapas, a region known for its violent history.  With the country’s largest population of indigenous peoples, 1994 saw the slaughter of 150 locals in an uprising against the government due to its suppression of the native Indians.  Fear continues to permeate throughout the region and I was acutely aware of just how vulnerable I was on a motorcycle.  Riding through a region in turmoil brings out fear at every turn.  It didn’t help that I was about to enter Guatemala.

The people of this rainbow-painted country are a veritable feast for the eyes.  Wearing brightly colored weavings, the villager’s dark skin glowed beneath woven pinstripes and embroidered flowers.  Paradoxically, Guatemalans only recently declared peace in a 30-year civil war that left over 100,000 dead.  The now unemployed and armed ex-guerillas take up thievery as a career choice.  Though not all foreigners are affected, many expatriates and tourists, particularly Americans, relayed sagas of pickpockets, robberies, rapes, kidnappings and murders.  I was neither comfortable on public transportation, which attracted these hoodlums, nor with the vulnerability of Esperanza.  I nervously continued east on the Pan American highway and rode in relative peace, successfully riding to the challenge of another Central American border.

Riding through El Salvador proved to be much more hazardous than any encounter in Guatemala.  Physical, not human conditions, caused me great discomfort:  dilapidated bridges and endless detours, road construction and gravel-laden highways, unlit tunnels as black as a moonless night, and interminable paperwork at the border crossings.  These obstacles tested my patience and riding abilities while I concentrated on the smell of the fresh salty Pacific and tried to enjoy the ride.

Regardless of these minor obstacles, I thought of my prayer time in the New Mexican churches and how my good fortune had held up, until now.

Having cleared the Nicaraguan border and having learned of the impending civil strife, I now found myself in Granada on the northern edge of Lake Nicaragua. .  The 10th largest saltwater lake in the world, it stretches across 80 miles with Granada to the west and Costa Rica to the southeast.  With 2 weeks left of my journey before my flight departed Panama City, I had hoped to be in CR in a few days.  This now looked questionable.

I settled into the Hotel Cabrera and enjoyed the company of new-found friends, the other hotel guests who were as varied as a Baskin & Robbins menu.  Regardless of our differences, we discussed local politics and quickly bonded while Managua braced itself for protests, government shutdowns, roadblocks and possible violence.

Within days, roads were cordoned off with burning tires, logs and hundreds of campesinos brandishing sticks.  No one knew how long the strike would last or whether I could circumvent the blockades as I now had to reach Panama in just over a week with Costa Rica and hundreds of angry peasants hindering my goal.

Unable to hold out for the strike’s uncertain end, I tentatively packed my saddlebags, bungeed my camera gear down and said farewell to the gang.  Through my helmet, I listened to the encouragement of my fellow travelers.  They knew what I perhaps didn’t see in myself.  "You go, girl.”  "You can make it!”  I wasn’t so sure.

The peacefulness of the town’s deserted streets was misleading.  Before I was able to shift into third gear on the main road out of Granada, I encountered the protestors.  I was met with resistance as I approached this large group, their arms folded tightly across their chests, distrust in their eyes.  As luck would have it, an emergency vehicle arrived.  While the campesinos busily created an opening by peeling back the logs and branches, I rode through, tight on the tail of the ambulance.  They tugged at Esperanza but I continued through quickly.  I felt encouraged.

Five miles, ten miles.  Could that have been all?  Fifteen miles, twenty miles.  I’ll make it to Costa Rica after all?  Twenty one miles, twenty four miles.  Hold on, not so easy.  The crowd loomed large as I approached the next major intersection.  I dismounted the bike as this aggressive looking bunch approached me wielding sticks.  In my best act of confidence I assured them that I had just come from Granada and that I was graciously led through "many” other blockades.  I tried tears and dollars with no success.  Even the police were interested only in keeping peace and not in accommodating a bribe-offering gringa.

The heaviness of the heat and situation upon my shoulders, I turned back to retreat to the Hotel Cabrera.  On the highway, the words came back to me.  You go, girl.  You can do it!  Quickly, I veered off into a private dirt drive and found myself cruising through cornfields to avoid the campesinos and burning tires.  Tragically for me, this private land had been fenced in with no break in the barbed wire.

I watched as the campesinos began coming after me on bicycles.  I was certain I was done for, though wielding only sticks (I hoped), what could they really do?  I accelerated back to the main road.  Knowing that I had given it my very best effort was some consolation to the day’s events.  I could go back to Granada without feeling humiliated.

I turned these events over in my head when I noticed an approaching motorbike with two local young men riding.  They slowed down to talk and I explained that the roadblocks were not even allowing motorbikes through.  They inquired as to my destination and then motioned me to follow them.

It seemed like an eternity but was probably just fifteen minutes of the hardest riding I had done thus far, ever.  We rode through six inches of sand, through cornfields and farmland, behind country homes, coming within inches of barbed wire fencing and back doors.  Sweat streamed down my face in the 85-degree heat and my muscles tensed as I struggled to keep the bike upright.  Even unpaved roads were blocked as campesinos dug deep trenches in the dirt to keep vehicles from traversing.  I followed my two compadres as they kept an eye on my progress until we finally found our way back to the highway.  

Relieved and a bit shaky, I realized that test riding the F650 had less to do with the bike than with my skills and strength, both emotionally and physically.

Hours later I safely arrived in Costa Rica.  The sleepy border police were astounded that I had made it through Nicaragua.  I was the sole person crossing that day as all traffic had been stopped for four days in either direction.  "I went, girl.”

Costa Rica, the tourist destination for most travelers to Central America, was lost on me.  I spent only two days exploring the country.  A combination of incessant gravel roads and bad weather encouraged me to keep moving in Panama’s direction.  I felt sad that I should continue through so briskly but found solace in the company of strangers.  Waiting out a torrential downpour at a covered bus stop 30 miles from Panama’s border, I entertained my bus waiting companions with "Singing in the Rain”.  "Rain, rain,” they repeated.  We all understood.

In Boquete, a quaint village in Panama’s western mountains, I was surrounded by verdant hillsides and Panama’s only active volcano.  This latte lover’s paradise is home to rich soil, high elevation and warm weather, perfect ingredients for its endless coffee plantations and prolific gardens.

Panama’s charm was not limited to its landscape.  The Panamanian motorcycle police were so curious about Esperanza, they pulled me over more often than the Mexican federales.  They loved the look so much, they wanted to get a better view of the F650.  When I dismounted and pulled off my helmet, they literally jumped back in laughter and screamed, "Mujer, mujer.”  "Woman, woman.”  After the third incident, it was no longer charming but I preferred it to "guerita.”

After a brief visit to the Canal Zone, I reluctantly delivered Esperanza to the freighting company that would see her safe passage back home.  She was crated and flown back, taking an incredible two months before arriving in Seattle, nearly the time it took me to ride the entire distance!


Beth Whitman is a photographer and motorcyclist living in Seattle.  Sound RIDER! welcomes stories from local riders about their travels.  Send them to the editor.


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