Tiffani’s Yamaha FZ-07 Tour: At Long Last, Darién Gap!

Chapter 3, Part 18

Tiffani's Yamaha FZ-07 Tour Map
The outline of Panama looks a bit like a winding snake, one that marks the divide between North America and South America.Motorcyclist

This is it! I can barely believe we finally made it! Panama! As we left Talamanca, we finished off the last couple of miles to the border, and prepared for the usual song and dance. Unlike the southern Costa Rica-Panama border, Sixaola had all of the customs, insurance, and immigration buildings close together, so it wasn’t the exhausting headache that I started expecting at each crossing. While it had been a pleasant enough country, I was looking forward to escaping the high prices of Costa Rica and getting back into something much more reasonably priced (though I already missed the free candy they hand out whenever you fill up at a gas station in Costa Rica!).

Tiffani crossing into Panama
Officially crossing into Panama! A river separates Costa Rica and Panama, but the footbridge seemed to get our motorbikes through just fine.David "Hollywood" Hayward

This time, we crossed through without any issues or complaints or mocking chuckles from the border guards, and finally we were set free into Panama. Well, free-ish. There were still checkpoints every 10 feet to double-, triple-, and quadruple-check our paperwork. All of the trucks, cars, and vans were waved right through, but for some reason, we were stopped at every single one.

Tiffani Yamaha FZ-07 Tour Riding through clouds
Riding through the clouds has become a fairly regular part of navigating Central American mountains, occasionally with fog so thick I can’t even see Hollywood a few feet in front of me. Or a snake or bird crossing the road until it’s too late—sorry, guys!David "Hollywood" Hayward

The landscape was every bit as beautiful as Costa Rica, but with a slightly different range of greens made that much more exquisite by the simple feeling of accomplishment we achieved to see it. We stopped in Zegla for the night at one of the only hotels in town. It wasn’t the nicest spot, but basically everything without visible roaches exceeds my Central America standards nowadays. Hollywood stopped into a local barber for a haircut in tribute to the late and still great Nicky Hayden. However, the barber was drinking beer and did most of his cutting with a loose razor blade. (Which is why I don’t get haircuts. How have we not died yet?) And we headed out the next day with little to do.

There was only one road from the top of Panama down to the Pan-American Highway, and lucky for us, it was twisty, scenic, and offered pleasantly cool mountain air. The road itself ranged from wonderful to “When did I trade the FZ in for a jackhammer?” But all in all, I can’t really complain. That snake that I accidentally ran over when we got up into the fog can complain, but I can’t. (Sorry!)

Hollywood with new haircut
The barber may have been a little on the sketchy side, but it was worth it to rep the Kentucky Kid on this journey. Race in paradise, Nicky Hayden!Tiffani Burkett

After a solid four or five hours, we made it down to Las Lajas, where we stopped in at a bed-and-breakfast owned by a European couple. I always appreciate getting to speak English with people, doubly so when both of the people are scuba divers and have a ton of stories to tell of exotic and somewhat terrifying-sounding adventures. It was certainly a nice change of pace. We parted ways the next morning, figuring we’d come back on our return route; there really aren’t many alternative options to get around in Panama anyway. Then we hopped along another 400 kilometers toward the end of the road.

Tiffani's Yamaha FZ-07 tour Darien Gap
Welcome to Darién, indeed! There was something a little exciting about seeing the Darién Gap in person. Maybe one day I’ll find a way to cross it the old-fashioned way!Tiffani Burkett

After getting drenched and sidelined by a particularly unholy deluge for an hour or so, we stopped at a “medical retreat” at the side of the road, as it was the only hotel to be found. As if I was trying to justify the medical half of the name, I took a good hard tumble while walking down the slick rain- and humidity-drenched tile stairs. Some days, people find my clumsiness somehow endearing. But today I fought back tears, knowing I was just a couple hundred miles from the end of the road, and my knee was giving me a lot of pain. I wasn’t amused.

One of the groundskeepers carried me princess style to a chair, and one of the nurses gave me some anti-inflammatory painkillers and insisted on taking me to a doctor, but I left, figuring I had endured enough knee injuries to believe this one would recover all right on its own.

After another hour of riding, we finally reached Panama City. It was easy to spot by the endless barrage of American-style shopping malls that lined the road. We skirted around the heart of the city, took a moment to admire the feat of construction that is the Panama Canal, then finally crossed on to the final highway in North America.

Panama Rain
How heavy is the rain in Panama, you ask? Well, let me direct your attention to this bus on a flat and otherwise puddle-less road…. And I thought riding by that Georgia tornado was bad.David "Hollywood" Hayward

The roads started out surprisingly smooth, and traffic was fairly minimal. I guess not a lot of people go this far south. It was kind of a strange feeling. Miles and miles and miles of nothing, and it had a strange air about it that felt both a little desolate and a little dangerous. We made it maybe another 150 kilometers and called it a day at one of the only hostels we could find in one of the only spots of civilization along the way, and prepared for our final leg. There’s no Wi-Fi when you get this far south (the owner of the hostel didn’t even seem to know what Wi-Fi was), but being completely disconnected added to the sense of isolation. We gassed up just in case fuel was as sparse as the internet connections at the end of the road, then pressed on the next day. We crossed under a big sign welcoming us to Darién, the final province of Panama. We were immediately stopped at a large military blockade where they verified our passports and paperwork yet again. This time, they wrote the date in our passports, I guess to monitor how much time we spent there. Then we were back on our way. It was only maybe 100 kilometers to the end of the road at this point, but a large majority of this road was construction and dirt, so it was fairly slow going.

Military in Panama
Military personnel seemed to make up a majority of the population south of Panama City. It was kind of funny because every time they stopped us (which was every time), we’d catch at least one or two soldiers snapping photos of our bikes with their cell phones. I guess even with all this Latin American mud, the FZ is still a looker!David "Hollywood" Hayward

We got stopped at two more military checkpoints on the way down, weaved our way through some muddy construction sites, and then…

We made it.

Bienvenidos a Yaviza, Panama! A place I had never even heard of until I was looking at the map to the end of the road, haha. A huge sign stating the distance from Alaska to this monumental but also completely undeveloped and inconsequential little town, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment. We glanced at the Darién Gap from the hanging bridge where locals hauled giant yucca roots to and fro for shipping, and got a spot at what appeared to be the only hotel in town.

From Alaska to Panama
I think this picture speaks for itself. From Alaska to Panama with a million zigzagged side trips in between came out to a lot more than 12,580 kilometers, but it’s the thought that counts.David "Hollywood" Hayward

There's not really anything to do in Yaviza, as seen by the fact that two-thirds of the population is children. Or in hindsight, I guess you could say the locals found plenty to do! But we made it from Alaska to the very, very bottom of North America—and just about everywhere in between!

…I guess now I just have to get all the way back!