Sunday, October 30, 2011

TA troubles in Costa Rica

The dirt road towards Ostional took us through some very small towns along the Monkey Trail, and required a few unmarked turns (as well as associated U-turns).  Mike was excited to take the ride, having never crossed any rivers on a bike before.  He must´ve done something right, because each time the rubber side stayed down.  (It also helped that the rivers were knee deep and weren´t flowing too fast.)

(Mike looking at the his first river crossing on the way to Ostional)

(driving through river #1)

(most of the drive was well packed surface through lots of trees, hills, turns)

(this stream was just a puddle, but I swear it looked deeper than that!)

(River #2 was deeper than that)

Stopping on a beach for a break outside of Tamarindo, an Argentine guy named Diego on a 1990 Yamaha Ténéré dropped by to say hi and complement the TA. Those beautiful old school dual sport machines were admired for a minute, but then the conversation about his travels and ours prevented us from getting a picture.  Maybe next time we run into him...

Heading down the road, the TA started to cough a bit, especially when engine braking down hills. Eventually, she dropped to just one cylinder. Mike figured it was a faulty CDI but wanted to limp to a house, town, or place before digging into it. Instead, we coasted to a stop when both cylinders failed in front of a wonderful old couple´s house who lived right outside of Lagarto (S of Tamarindo, near Junquillal).

(view of the house we stopped in front of)

Lagarto is on our map, but maybe needn't be.  It is a collection of about 60 people along the one dirt road, has one bar (that could strangely fit all 60 people into it at once), no food options, and the sight to see is one extremely large anchor that they pulled out of the ocean.

So no motorcycle help there. And Mike was out of options.  Fuel was arriving, air filter was dry.  After trying the spare CDI in both cylinders, neither showed a spark with a plug pulled.  Thanks to that thieving in San Juan del Sur, we were without even a 12 V probe light, so electrical testing options were none.

(tent set up in the yard of the house we broke down in front of)

But the couple let us camp in their yard, and spent about 30 minutes that night calling everyone they could think of with a truck to get us back out to Santa Cruz, where they knew of a good mechanic.  They found a guy who was really nice, came right when he said he would the next morning at 7am and got us there.  It cost us US$50, which is not cheap, but not outrageous either. 

(loading the bike onto the truck)

(our hosts at right, helping out yet again)

The mechanic in Santa Cruz found the fault - turns out it was that new aftermarket CDI ignition module that I swapped out for the still good original.  It not only went bad, but managed to screw up the entire circuit it is connected to.  The mechanic patched a hot wire to give power to the good CDI modules, and she fired right up! 

(working on the bike at the shop in Santa Cruz)

So we made it to San Jose on the TA, which was much more fun than in a truck.  Well, kind of....we got stopped by police for a US$30 shake down. They had a trap set up on the other side of this bridge:

Granted, I was passing along a solid yellow line, which is illegal, and could have cost us over US$800, so not too bad at $30. Fines in Costa Rica have recently been increased. Passing on solid yellow is over US$800. Speeding is over US$600. Not having documents is over US$200. And these aren´t gringo charges. Our host in San Jose had to pay a recent speeding ticket for US$600. And for you travelers, you aren´t supposed to be able to cancel your import permit to leave the country without paying the fine. ¡Cuidado!

We then joined the Panamerican which was 2 lanes under construction, full of slow moving trucks, and dumping cold rain through the mountains... it was a much longer day than we expected!

Our destination in San José was our couchsuring host´s home, conveniently located about 2km from the moto shop I wanted to get to, la Moto AG.  We pulled straight to the shop where Jorg (spelling? it was German, and sounded like "Jorg") greeted us with a smile. While the TA was in the shop, I wanted to get new rear rubber on, the oil changed, check the front end alignment from our Guatemalan dog strike (bars are slightly bent), and fix that CDI circuit issue correctly.  Jorg told us that our problems were small compared to what some travelers bring in.  That was actually relieving.  He ended up taking care of a new rear tire and brake cleaning, but then refered me to another mechanic for the electrical troubleshooting and other work. I would go back to la Moto AG and work with Jorg and their shop anytime. I would not, however, work with the BMW mechanic Luis again. (Details in upcoming posts, resolution to follow in El Rincòn, Panamà.)

After dropping the bike off that evening, we cabbed it over to the apartment complex, where Ivàn, our host, came running outside to meet us.  We had spoken with him on the phone a couple times, but his first question in person was, "Do you eat meat?".  He was cooking us up a spaghetti dinner which we absolutely devoured after not eating anything since breakfast.  He is super nice, has backpacked all around Europe and traveled some around CA.  His next plan is to buy a sailboat in the states, sail it back to San José, then across the Pacific to Asia.

How to turn a beach into Disneyland-for-adults

The Panamerican got us to the Peñas Blancas border crossing to Costa Rica very quickly, where we were very quickly assaulted by a swarm of border helpers vying for a few bucks.  We kept riding slowly past them, hoping to see someone in uniform to ask where to find customs and migration offices.  Just then, we ran into another couple of BMW´s going through the crossing at the same time, which helped us keep one person watching the bikes at all times.  Due to lucky timing of the arrival of an RV pulling a dune buggy, the helpers left us alone pretty quick.

Checking out of Nicaragua was easy once we figured out the process.  Important steps include:
  1. having an aduana official inspect the VIN and import paper, and then sign the import paper.  All of the aduana officials wear the same polo shirt with logo.  We had this done twice - once where all the helpers were entering the border zone and once in the parking lot for customs and migration - but unless you`re into overkill, or have started to appreciate the Latin American fact that more signatures and more stamps = better, then just one inspection will do.  
  2. After that signature, you have to find a police(wo)man to stamp the import permit.  We found them at the tables under the awning beside the migración building.  There is also a bank there (unsure if ATM) and plenty of money changers.  
  3. Finally you walk to the Aduana office to have them cancel the import permit.  You have to hand over the canceled permit at the gate leaving Nicaragua, so we made a copy for our records (and in case it was necessary in CR).
  4. Drive through the gate.  Done
Checking into Costa Rica could have been much faster had we stopped at the insurance shack between the fumigation and the aduana and migración buildings for Costa Rica.

(fumigation at the border)

For anyone crossing here, after going through fumigation, keep your eyes to the left hand side of the road.  About half way between the fumigation and the CR official buildings (probably a couple hundred meters past fumigation), there is an obscure, single story white building, with no signage.  That´s where you need to buy insurance. (I know a picture would really help for this one, but didn´t have the camera on me when I went back to it.  If you´re looking for it, you´ll see it.)  Do it on the way past.  Insurance is relatively cheap at US$14 for 3 months and you will definitely need it before you can import the bike.  You will also need copies.  They will do that next door.  But they won´t let you in.  They will grab your papers, shut the door, lock it, then return to hand them to you later.

Once to the bigger buildings, head in to the AIR CONDITIONED migración office, glass doors next to the cafe.  (You will want to stay in there longer for the A/C than it takes them to process your passport.)  Then walk across the small parking lot to the aduana booth.  With the insurance in hand, they will start your import permit relatively quickly.

While Mike was standing at the booth handling the paperwork, Jill and the guy traveling on the BMW were getting yelled at by a hoarde of angry bus passengers.  Apparently that group of passengers was very used to setting their luggage on the bench that Jill was sitting on, and couldn´t have it any other way.  After the crowd got so excited, the bus driver, and then even the security guard came over.  They also yelled at Jill and the other guy, telling them that they must move.  Who knew that Costa Ricans would be so particular?

Finally, you have to get that initial form processed at the aduana office which is in the far back corner of one of the warehouse buildings.  You can get there by turning right into where all the semis are parked, and working left to the far back corner (it will feel like you shouldn´t be going that way).  Alternatively, you can stay straight on the highway, but stop by the covered pedestrian bridge on the right.  Walk across it directly into the office.  They will print off the final import document, and give a slip of paper smaller than a business card that you are supposed to hand to the guard at the gate down the road.  I managed to lose my slip of paper between the office and the gate.  Thankfully we didn´t have to repeat any of the process...  All in all it took about 2.5 hours.

Just before going to the final aduana office, the fellow with the RV and dune buggy had pulled up with his border helper.  Mike tried to help them by translating a few details that they were struggling through between the South Carolinean, the border helper, and the customs official.  The best part about the exchange was that the guy from S Carolina affectionately called his towed dune buggy "la Cucaracha", no matter who he was talking to.  Everytime he said it, the officials and his helper cracked up and snickered.  Without fail.  It killed.  The worst part about the exchange is that they were not letting him import 2 vehicles simultaneously into Costa Rica.  He said that others had done it and written about it online.  The only way the officials said it was possible was if you claimed one of the vehicles wasn´t running.  Sadly, he had already told the official that la Cucuracha runs great.  We even considered having Jill drive it across, but then the import papers would have to be in her name and that wouldn´t have helped anybody.  Hopefully he eventually made it past the border with both his hotel and his local transportation. 

We continued down the Interamericana (what many Central American countries call the Panamerican) to Liberia amid a torrential rain storm.  Water was standing on the highway, visibility was fairly low, and oncoming traffic would splash water all over us.  Mike decided that not putting on the waterproof liners was a good idea.  It turns out Mike´s idea was not a good one.  And he had learned this before.  Those splashes of water do a wonderful job of filling our left boots up with water.  Thankfully at the edge of Liberia there was a nice looking Mexican restaurant where we could eat on the patio.  We stripped our boots and socks off and left some standing water on the patio (we apologized, and tried to keep it to the garden area, but didn´t quite succeed, so we apologized again).  Lunch was fantastic, though, and the proprietor told us about Playa de Coco, the closest good beach, about 45 minutes away.

We headed towards the coast on the edge of the storm, even though it felt a bit like a monsoon at times.  But all the lightning stayed in the hills beside us, and we broke free from the rains just off the coast.  Pulling into Playa de Coco, we noticed a lot of nice cars, a big and nice supermarket, and then a strip of bars, restaurants and clubs that looked like Jimmy Buffet had just opened up his version of Disneyland.  The beach didn´t even look that sweet right there.

So we backtracked a bit and headed towards Playa Hermosa.  On the way in, we passed nothing but expensive land for sale, a couple of high rise luxury condo complexes and a supermarket that was more expensive than any we´ve come across yet. 

(Playa Hermosa)

But we found a great little hostel for US$6 per person just off the beach.  The owners were extremely nice and helpful.  The 2 dorm rooms with 4 beds each were small but clean, the main area of the house included living area and kitchen were open air and very comfortable.  The proximity to the beach was a plus, but the howler monkeys that travel through the property were our favorite.

(Howler monkey in the tree at Congo´s)

Within our first few hours of being in Costa Rica, we knew it was expensive.  It´s more expensive than many places in the US.  We tried to keep costs down by only cooking at the hostel.  But one day we splurged and got a bite to eat on the beach.  You can tell the vendor was happy about our decision.

(Pissed of lady that sold us a meat stick at the beach in Playa Hermosa)

After talking with the owners of Congo´s about our travel through Costa Rica, we decided to go turtle watching at Ostional.  We would be there on a perfect week to see the leatherbacks coming to shore to lay their eggs.  And the old coastal road they described to get down past Tamarindo sounded like fun.  It was fun, it was an adventure, but we never saw any turtles...

Party time in a surf town

Pulling into San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua on a holiday weekend ruled out many of the hostels and hospedajes. We finally found one on the main street just 1/2 block from the water that seemed fine, and cost US$20 a night (no A/C, just fan, but private bathroom). Bike parking was going to be a hassle, though, with cars parked directly in front of the entrance. So we left the bike out front and went wandering for dinner and a few beers. The town was packed with partyers, but some of the smaller restaurants and bars were reasonable (at around US$1.50 per beer).

 All the festivities got to us, which had at least 2 detrimental effects. First of all, the next day was a little slow going (but we were at the beach, so that was fitting). Secondly, we were in no condition to pull the bike into the hostel that night, and we did not remove the engine guard bags, so some revelers were kind enough to empty the contents of one of them for us. Thankfully, we only lost a spare tube, our patch kit, a couple sets of nylon webbing and straps, and a small pair of pliers. And we really could have prevented that, so we can only blame ourselves.

Even with that happening, San Juan del Sur still ranked high on our list of places. We would return in a heartbeat! The town relaxed a little bit after that first night, so wasn't an obnoxious party the whole time we were there. There is a lot of good food options at a range of prices. The beach at San Juan del Sur is incredibly perfect for swimming- it gets used but wasn't overly crowded, the sand is nice, water is warm, and no crazy currents.

From Blog photos

The following day we rode the bike over to Playa Maderas, a low key surfing beach. Mike took an hour surfing lesson and managed alright (standing up and controlling the long board the majority of the time, but only when provided with a shove from the instructor...not once was he able to paddle and catch the wave on his own...he's lazy), but we didn't bring the camera so no evidence. That area was nice, though not very good for swimming (between the rocks and the surfers, it could be a painful experience). Playa Maderas felt rather safe. I still wouldn't bring any extra valuables, but neither would I worry about it that much. Everything we've heard about the beaches south of San Juan del Sur is that they have a bit of a problem with ratones ("rats" = thieves).

Mike also managed to explode his flip flops while walking in town. A surftown is not too bad of a place to have that happen. There were a couple of surfshops with "nice" flip flops (Reefs again, what just broke, at US$40-60 didn't sound that enticing), and plenty of options for under US$20. Some new squishy sandals are now Mike's go-to shoes.

After our 3rd night in San Juan del Sur, we were ready to head on to a Costa Rican beach for an international comparison.

Friday, October 28, 2011

We Have Arrived in South America!

Although our blog shows us as being somewhere near the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border, we have actually just stepped foot on land in Cartagena, Colombia after an awesome 5 day sailboat ride from Panama.  We hope to update soon with lots of good pictures of our trip and to also let you know how our time in Costa Rica and Panama was.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

That river isn't a road!

On our way out of Managua towards Masaya, we passed the Harley Davidson shop. It was closed for Independence Day (Sept 15), so it made for a real fast stop.

We planned on grabbing lunch in Masaya, which turned out to be a pollo asado with some rather inebriated customers. One of them continued to offer us a ride in his taxi that was parked out front. This guy should not have attempted to stand up, let alone to drive a vehicle. Thankfully we had our own mode of transportation and headed on towards the beach.

We arrived in La Boquita, where there was a military checkpoint. They let us know that we were not going to be able to make it down the coastal road to San Juan del Sur, but were joking and laughing the whole time. Losing some in the translation (were they joking about the road conditions, or just out of delirium from standing in the hot sun in black uniforms?), we took off that direction. Although the towns of La Boquita and Casares are tiny, we still managed to not find the road out of those towns until we asked at least 3 people in each. 

Finally, following an SUV towards Veracruz and Las Delicias, we were making progress! Until the SUV decided to turn around randomly. Once they cleared the way, we figured out why. The little road dropped down to the sand of the beach, and was supposed to continue along the coast (well, at least according to our map). All we could see was a river running pretty quick, with no tracks exiting the other side. Rainy season.  We turned back too.

(we are standing on the road to take this picture. We have one looking straight across the water at the non-existent road on the other side, but it didn´t upload correctly. This image at least gives you some idea)

We returned to a sweet little camping spot just outside of Huehuete that cost 50 colones for the night. Luckily, our neighbors at the campground brought along the kitchen sink.  They were a group of 15 people who had set up a little village complete with tents, awnings, hammocks, coolers, grills, some ant killing pesticide, beers, food.  Generally, Jill and I would have been most happy with them offering us beer and/or food.  Turns out we were ecstatic when they lent us their ant killing pesticide because those suckers were fierce!

The beach was beautiful, and super mellow (probably because it´s at the end of a road at this time of year)

We hoped to spend the afternoon crusing around the volcano island in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua, but opted out once we realized how expensive it was. The ferry would have cost us over US$20 to get us and the bike over and back, pretty expensive for just a couple of hours of wandering around. Hotels in the area were US$25 and up. I'm sure it's sweet and all, but for the amount of time we wanted to dedicate to it, it just wasn't worth it.

(Ometepe is the dual volcano island that can be accessed from Rivas/San Jose. This view, taken from the PanAmerican outside of Rivas, is about the only salient feature of riding along the highway)

About as we were ready to take off, we ran into a fella riding solo on his KLR from Kentucky. In classic KLR style, he had duffel bags and backpacks precariously lashed and bungeed all around him. Sadly, we missed the chance to meet up with him over on Ometepe. We dropped in the gas station to add some more battery acid, drink some caffeine (fittingly, an energy drink called Battery), and then smooth sailing down the main road to San Juan del Sur.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Potters for Peace

One of our primary purposes for staying in Managua was to visit with Robert Pillers of Potters for Peace and to tour their filter factory located in San Marcos.  Mike's master's thesis was related to ceramic pot filters (if you are bored enough to follow that link, make sure you click on the link at right underneath "Available without purchase" that shows "Full Text - PDF") . He studied the effects of water quality on the nano-silver coating applied to ceramic water filters. During his studies, Mike had the opportunity work with Robert Pillers while compiling a Best Practices document for manufacturing ceramic pot filters. It was an honor to meet Robert in person and tour the Filtron production facilities.

Clean Drinking Water & Ceramic Pot Filters
Nearly 1 BILLION people on earth are estimated to lack access to clean drinking water, and that number is often considered to be a low estimate (particularly because numbers reported by development agencies are often inflated to show that they are accomplishing what they set out to do, and to keep their channels of funding open).  Water borne diseases are directly responsible for over 3 million deaths per year, with children under 5 years old accounting for the largest majority of those deaths.  In fact, nearly 1 in 5 child deaths worldwide is due to diarrhea.  An illness that is little more than an inconvenience for most of us reading this blog is life threatening for those lacking the knowledge and resources to combat it.  While health effects are a strong justification for improving water (as well as sanitation and hygiene) conditions where needed, there are also substantial economic gains when those interventions are successful and sustained (that's the hard part).  Further than that, there can be a huge improvement in the overall well-being of the individuals within that community.  That change is worth a lot, but not easily measured.

There are effective and inexpensive technologies to improve access to clean drinking water, including interventions at the household level (see this report for more details).  These technologies include boiling, chlorination (using readily available bleach), solar disinfection, biosand filtration, and porous ceramic filtration, among others. 

One popular type of filter is the ceramic pot filter.  There are currently over 30 factories in 18 countries producing ceramic water filters, all targeting a cost to the end user of US$ 10-20.  Potters for Peace has been promoting the production of ceramic pot filters since 1998 after responding to a dire need in Nicaragua for effective and inexpensive water treatment products in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. 

The operation of the filter is simple:  remove the lid, pour water into the ceramic filter element, then allow water to trickle through the filter element down into the receptacle (in this case the clean bucket) and out through the spigot.

(picture of actual ceramic pot filter resting on receptacle with spigot as well as schematic of recently filled filter, with water beginning to pass through the filter element shown in brown)

To produce these filters, dry clay is mixed with an organic material like sawdust at a controlled ratio...

(Robert and Jill in front of the raw materials storage)

...then mixed with water to make the clay workable, so that it may be pressed into shape...

(Mike pulling the jack under the molds to press the filter)

(kicking the jack out after pressing)

(Mike's first pressed filter)

...after being pressed, the wrinkles from the plastic bags are smoothed and the wet filter is inspected for obvious defects before it is allowed to dry.



Once dried, the filters are loaded into a kiln to be fired into the final ceramic product. The temperature during the firing process is carefully controlled up to its peak temperature of around 850 degrees C (1560 degrees F) to drive off the remaining water and to burn off the organic material (sawdust), leaving behind little tiny pores that will filter the water.

(6 kilns capable of firing 50 filters each)

(some of the insulation on the door was blasted off during the firing process, so some kiln design changes are underway)

(it takes about 1.5 carts this size of wood per firing)

(kiln during firing)

Final quality testing is performed on the filters before a colloidal solution of nanoparticle silver is applied to the entire surface of each filter.

(flow rate testing to make sure each filter qualifies)

(discard pile of rejected filters)

There is a lot of good information regarding ceramic water filters on the interwebs, including the Potters for Peace filter page (see links at right), RDI-C, IDE, Thirst-Aid, and other general appropriate technology websites.  For more general water and sanitation facts, check out the website.

We joined Robert for a marvelous dulce de leche milkshake at a biker friendly cafe to round out the afternoon.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Salcar is amazing. Absolutely amazing. Through the ADVrider forum connection, Salvador was kind enough to share his house with us while he was traveling for work. Part of what he does in Managua is run a motorcycle rental operation and tour service, NI.CA.MOTO ADVENTURE. If you or anyone you know is interested, I would highly recommend going through Salvador. See his website for more info:

The accomodations at salcar's place are top notch, and his directions steered us directly to his house, after a beautiful drive over from León.

(entryway to our space at Salvador's house)

The drive was made even more interesting by a parade happening just outside of Ciudad Sandino, shutting the Panamerican down at a small town. A short cut attempt ensued.

(what the PanAmerican highway looked like for us on the way into Managua)

(luckily we followed a couple of vehicles for most of it, and then asked a farmer how to get out of that back road. He didn't give hints out to everyone, because most people turned around. But he told us about this little path through his field to meet back up to the highway. We were also quite happy that he never unslung his rifle.)

It was nice to have a place that felt like home for our couple of days in Managua. Thanks again, Salvador!

(Mike and Sergio with the TA in Managua)

Habanas in Nicaragua

Our very loose plan to see Jeff and Jess in Estelí worked out famously - we saw them walking on the street as we pulled into town. Ironically, we unexpectedly ran into Paul again, who stayed at the same hostel as Jeff and Jess.

(Paul, Jessica, Jeff, and Jill enjoying the cafe next to their hostel)

Estelí is known for its cigar production, so that afternoon we took a tour of a cigar factory. They produce all sorts of labels using tobaco from the states, Cuba, Nicaragua and other regions, keeping it all sorted by region, color, texture, aroma, and taste.

(laying it out to dry)

(sorting the goods)

(puffin on the goods)

(Jill enjoying a Habana, wrapped up in Nicaragua)

(cigarbox stamping equipment, definitely not OSHA approved)

(all labels made it this one factory)

We returned to the cafe at the hostel to discuss the finer points of cigar production, Nicaraguan rum, and the importance of those two.

Some drum beating street dancers performed just outside the bar, a 2-stroke motorcycle started cold just outside the door and filled the bar with smoke, and the electricity went out about 1am. It was time to go home after a pretty standard evening out in Nicaragua.

The next day we planned to drive on to León. When we rolled the bike out of the hotel's garage, the front tire was flat. Flat flat. Not kinda flat. Rim on the ground flat. We put air into it just to get 3 blocks to a llantera. It seemed to hold alright for a few minutes, and made it that far, but had already lost air. Front tube fixing time.

The first place we stopped was well-shaded and on a pot-holed, rocky dirt road parallel to the highway. There was not a good spot for the centerstand, and while looking for a good way to get the bike up, a truck wanted to park in the shade that we had. We told him we had some work to do there and he finally left us alone. Just thereafter Mike managed to push the TA right on over when checking to see if the ground was level enough...turns out it wasn't. So we picked it up and decided to cross the street. Shade was available at the gas station, and they have air. At least generally, gas stations have shade and air. Not this one.

As usual across Central America, a lot of people offer help. Super nice. The best help that we got, though, was from the ice cream vendor. He lent us a huge umbrella. That shade made life bearable.

We got the tube swapped, hoping to patch the old one when we had more time in the day without a lot of driving left to do. When it was time to air the tube up, we found out that the air compressor was broken. This made it the second time that day that Mike filled a motorcycle tire using an emergency bike pump. Unfun. Even worse was thinking about filling the tire for the 3rd time when the bouncy test ride showed that the bead was not seated properly. Thankfully a stop at a llantera took care of that in less than 3 minutes. Free. Well, I tipped the 2 guys a $1 a piece for their help. I will spend $2 to keep from having to pump the tire up with a bike pump anyday.

Finally, we hit the road to León. It's known for being a beautiful colonial city, popular with tourists.

We found a cool hostel for US$6 per person for a private room, shared bath. They didn't have parking for the TA, but told us that the gas station down the street had guards 24 hours a day that would watch it for us. So we unloaded everything and talked to the guard, who was happy to keep an eye on it for the night for just a couple of bucks. And he had a shotgun. That's the best security system we've had yet.

We had a great dinner in a small outdoor parrilla area, but then took it easy that evening. Walking around the next morning gave us a chance to see a lot more of the city, find some more ear plugs, and grab a cheap burger off the street from one of the rolling chain restaurants.

León was a fine city, but it didn't have such a draw that we really wanted to stay for extra days. And we had a sweet set-up waiting for us in Managua, thanks to Salcar from advrider!