Doug Ruth's 1996/97 Trip Reports
Date: Thu, 28 Nov 1996 07:43:47 -0800
To: BMW -GS motorcycles mailing list
Subject: Trip Report - 961130.rpt
Sunday November 24
I was headed for Monteverde Cloud Forest, and the quickest route there
would be to go back around Lake Arenal the way I came. However, being
someone who doesn't like to retrace his tracks, and since the map showed
the roads to the east and south of La Fortuna being very squiggly as they
passed through a mountainous region, I decided to take the long,
roundabout route. It was a beautiful sunny morning and the road initially
crossed flat, lush, green agricultural land along tree-lined, and canopied
country roads. A motorcycle club on their Sunday ride passed me going the
other direction. There were 20-30 bikes of all types, many of them large
touring bikes, Gold Wings and Ventures, but also some sport bikes
including a Ducati. The thing which distinguished this particular
encounter was that not one of them returned my wave. Now my experience
shows that while motorcyclists in Central America are not engrained with
waving at another passing motorcyclist, if I initiate a wave at one of the
numerous small cycles one passes on the road, the majority of the time
they will return the wave. Not this group. Judging from the newness and
types of bikes in this group, and their failure to wave, I would have to
guess that they were upperclass Costa Ricans and a bit snobbish.
Just as the road began to climb into the mountains it also turned into a
beautifully, newly repaved, ribbon of asphalt. It snaked and twisted
upwards and through the mountains. The mountainsides were devoted largely
to grazing and agriculture, and numerous homes and ranches could be seen.
This was definitely my favorite road in Central America so far, and the
only thing which dampened (literally and figuratively) an otherwise
stellar ride was the heavy fog which enveloped the highest portion of the
As I continued south, dropping down out of the mountains, I passed through
the town of Zarcero with it's famous church. The large lawn in front of
the church is decorated with fantastically manicured shrubs in the shapes
of animals, fairy-tale characters, baskets, a helicopter and airplane, and
other designs. The walkway leading up to the entrance to the church goes
through an arbor of shrubs, forming a canopy overhead.
Back at the Pan-American Highway, I turned right, heading north about 30
miles to where I would turn off north to Monteverde. The road was under
construction for much of this stretch, alternating between potholed
pavement, and gravel. Entering a gravel section, I encountered another
police checkppoint, and they waved me over. They simply checked my papers
and waved me on.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, a private preserve located near the
neighboring towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde, lies at an elevation of
between 1500 and 1800 meters. A 24 mile dirt/gravel road heads north from
the Pan American Highway to Santa Elena. The road had a few rocky uphill
stretches, but was not particularly difficult, certainly much less so than
the road around Lake Atitlan. Which probably explains me getting a bit
lax and experiencing my first drop of the trip while riding. I picked the
wrong line on an uphill rocky stretch and the bike ended up in the small
ditch at the side of the road. I actually got the bike stopped, upright,
with me still on it, but was just off-balance enough that I couldn't quite
keep it upright and it slowly leaned over onto it's right side. Between
the cylinder head and the Jessie bag, and the side of the ditch, it really
wasn't leaning over too far, and I quickly had it back upright and easily
rode it out of the ditch and was on my way again. Those kind of drops
really annoy me because they should never have happened in the first
As the road climbed, I enjoyed sunny, blue skies, and great views south
over the Nicoya Penninsula to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It was only near
the end of the climb that a few wispy clouds moved in over the higher
I got a room at Pension Manakin for C1100 (US$5). An older couple from
Palo Alto was staying there. He had worked at SRI briefly over 20 years
ago. Small world.
Monday, November 25
I got up early so I could be at the preserve when it opened at 8am. It
was a short mile ride to the entrance and on the way I stopped at Stella's
Bakery for breakfast. Monteverde has a lot of Quakers who settled here in
the 1950s, and consequently a lot of English is spoken in the area. The
lady running the bakery (she wasn't Stella) was Quaker and in the course
of our conversation I mentioned my Mennonite background. She was only
familar with the conservative horse-and-buggy Mennonites so I gave her a
quick synopsis of the various "sects". There is a big cheese factory in
Monteverde, run by the Quakers.
While I was eating a young guy came in and asked if I was from Mountain
View; he had seen the Cal BMW plate frame on my bike out front. His name
was Justin and he knew both Eli and Kari at the shop as he had an old
R60/5 back in California.
It was a beautiful sunny morning and I took a 3.5 hour hike along several
trails which ran through the preserve. I took several of the steeper
trails over the mountain, and consequently saw hardly any other people.
Didn't see much animal life either, but that was not unexpected. Heard
lots of birds and saw a lot of smaller birds, including several types of
hummingbirds. The cloud forest vegetation, including huge ferns, bamboo,
strangler figs, oak trees, and others which I forget, was simply stunning.
Everything was lush, green, and moist. Unfortunately, the route I took,
got me to the Mirador (lookout) with views of both the Pacific and
Atlantic, just after the clouds moved in, obscurring the view. While
disapointing, it was more typical of the weather in the Preserve.
After lunch at Stella's, I rode back to the PanAmerican Highway by the
same route I came, and headed south to San Jose, the Capital of Costa
Rica. After hearing about Jeff Coult's (mis)adventure in San Jose I had
planned to skip San Jose, but several factors caused me to change my mind.
The weather had caused me to skip the Nicoya Penninsula, until my return
north, giving me more time now. I had talked to several other travellers
in the mean time and also really wanted to see the Jade and Gold Museums.
And I also wanted to check into what options there were from San Jose for
getting to Colombia, if in fact the ferry from Colon was no longer in
I arrived in San Jose at rush hour at 4pm, and headed to the Hotel
Astoria. I check my guide books for cheap hotels or pensions which
mention courtyards or backyards, or parking. The Astoria was the only
cheap hotel in San Jose which mentioned anything like that, referring to a
small backyard. The entrance was up two steps off the sidewalk through a
single door and back a long 30 foot hallway to the lobby. I hoped there
was another rear access to the backyard. There wasn't and I also could
see there was no way the bike would make it through the back hallway from
the lobby to the backyard, although the girl working at the reception desk
insisted otherwise, without having seen my bike! I knew she was thinking
in terms of the smaller bikes one typically finds here in Central America.
I thought I could probably get the bike up the front steps and through
the front hallway to the lobby, though even the front door would be tight.
I figured once I got it to the lobby, and they saw it wouldn't fit
through the back hallway, we'd just leave it in the lobby. So back to the
bike out front. Of course it was rush hour, it was a one way street and
it was full of traffic.
Between the street and the sidewalk was a deep gutter, then the sidewalk,
then two stone steps up to the main doorway. A quick measurement showed
that with the mirrors folded in, the handlebars would just fit through the
doorway, with the handguards scraping, since they were slightly wider than
the bars. If the handlebars fit, so would the rest of the bike. So
during a short break in the traffic, I headed across the street from where
I was parked, and rode up onto the sidewalk. There, things stalled. The
sidewalk was just wide enough that when the front wheel was up against the
first step, the rear wheel was in the deep gutter between the sidewalk and
street. Everything conspired to keep the bike from going forward; the
rear wheel just spun, but couldn't get the bike up the steps. We were
going to need some ramps. Robert, the friendly manager who spoke good
English, ran back to find some old boards, while I sat there blocking the
sidewalk and part of the narrow lane in the street. Because of the deep
ditch I couldn't back the bike up myself, and Robert had to pull from
behind to back the bike up so we could put the boards over the gulley
between the street and the sidewalk. That was enough to let the bike
climb the steps. It took a bit of work to get the bike all the way up the
steps and through the doorway as the bashplate on the bottom hung up on
the lip of the stairs, but unloading the suspension a bit got it over. I
noticed later, after coming and going several times, I had taken a few
chips out of the stone steps, but noone seemed to notice. In the lobby
they quickly saw that there was no way the bike was going to make it
through the back hallway, so they simply moved one of the couches along
one wall and I parked the bike there. The room was C1600 (US$7.5) with a
While unloading the bike, I met Mike whose doorway I partially blocked
with my bike. He was a surfer from Florida and had been in Costa Rica for
several weeks with several of his boards. Tomorrow he was returning to
the States. He was a waiter which gave him a lot of flexibility to travel
and he split his time between working, surfing, and skiing in Colorado.
We went out for dinner and then had a few drinks at the bar at the nearby
gringo-populated hotel which had the Monday Night Football game on. The
hotel and bar was very upscale and the clientele appeared to be
predominately foreigners and beautiful, high-priced (I presume) callgirls
who would disappear with their clients before returning in a half hour or
so. That's what you call quickies I guess.
Tuesday November 26
I found the local AmEx office at the Banco de San Jose and cashes a $1000
personal check and got a combination of dollars, travellers checks, and
The Jade Museum was only a block and a half from my hotel and had
spectacular displays of jade carvings, pottery, sculpture, and other
displays of the ancient cultures of the area. The "fertility room" was
devoted to artifacts to ancient fertility gods and included four-foot
phalluses and statues of copulating couples.
The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) occupied several below ground-level floors
under the Plaza de la Cultura. The primary displays of gold artifacts
were contained in vaulted rooms 3 levels down, and included intricate
castings and jewelry, and ornamental garments of gold such a breastplates,
head-dresses, and headbands. Spectacular and awe-inspiring. Definitely a
must see, along with the Museo de Jade, for anyone visiting San Jose.
Feeling a need for a small dose of Americana, I caught a 4pm movie, the
new Bruce Willis flick about a 1930s-era gangster in a Texas border town.
I already forget the name, something like The Last Man I think, which I
guess says something about the movie; I didn't think it was that good.
Movie prices are cheap, about US$2 for admission, and the coke and popcorn
prices were similarly cheap.
Almost all new-release American flicks are in English with Spanish
subtitles. However, American flicks which appear on television generally
have been dubbed in Spanish.
Wednesday November 27
In the morning I visited a couple airline offices downtown to look into
flying the bike and myself from San Jose to Colombia. A French-Canadian
artist, also staying at the Astoria, had confirmed last night that the
Crucero Express Ferry had ceased operation in October, evidently sold to a
company which planned to operate it between Florida and Cancun, Mexico. I
also called several airlines and their cargo offices, though I don't like
speaking on the phone because it is even more difficult to understand than
when the speaker is standing in front of you. The going rate for a
motorcycle from San Jose to Colombia seemed to be about US$500, plus
$US250-275 for my airfare. I decided to wait till I got to Panama and look
into my options there.
In the afternoon I went to the Panamanian embassy to get a visa.
Officially, as a US citizen, I wasn't supposed to need one, but since I
was planning to cross the border into Panama at an obscure post along the
Carribean coast, the guidebook recommended getting one. Plus there was no
charge to US citizens and supposedly you could get one the same day. I
took a taxi, rather than try to find the address in the guidebook myself.
My first mistake was not to call first to confirm the address, for when we
got there, in the suburbs south of downtown, we found that it was no
longer located there and no one knew it's new address. We stopped at a
police station on the way back downtown to get the new address - across
town in the suburbs north of downtown. When I finally got there, it was
in fact an easy process, requiring a copy of my passport (which the
neighboring Hertz RentaCar made for free), and in a half hour I had my
visa. It was less than 30 blocks back to downtown so I walked back to my
In the evening I walked over to Hotel Tika Linda, where Ishay said he was
staying. He hadn't returned yet from travelling with his girlfriend
sans-motorcycle, but one of the other Israelies he was riding with, Eyal,
was there and I talked with him awhile and gave him my room # at the Hotel
Astoria and told him to have Ishay contact me there and that I'd leave a
note on the board when I checked out. He gave me the names of some cheap,
recommended, hotels in some cities in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador.
Thursday November 28
In the morning I walked the 5 blocks or so to Radiografica, a
telecommunications business that provided long distance calling, fax, and
Internet services. As usual, it was a case of speaking with the right
person. The woman at the front desk, when I said I wanted to hook my
computer up to the phoneline said that wasn't possible, that they didn't
allow it. I persisted in asking why it wasn't allowed and she finally
called someone out from the office who said it was possible and took me to
another room with about 8 booths, each with a normal-looking office-type
phone, connected to the wall outlet via a modular jack. They told me the
prefix I needed to dial, asked if I needed any help, to which I said no,
and let me have at it.
It took several attempts to get the right combination of pauses in the
dialing string. But then, after getting through to bayarea.net and getting
the CONNECT message, the connection would be dropped with a bunch of
garbage scrolling by on the screen. This happened several times and then
I remembered these symptoms were similar to those I experienced at Janets
when her answering machine interfered with the modem. I tried
disconnecting the phone completely, but then couldn't even get the call to
go through. Then I reconnected the phone, dialed the number, and as soon
as the call went through, disconnected the line to the phone. Voila! It
worked, the connection was made, and my email, 30 messages or so,
I walked over to my favorite cheap restaurant, La Soda Central, to read my
email over breakfast. That was my first mistake. The second was to take
a table in the center of the room, rather than one near the wall -
difficult to watch your back. My third mistake probably was to be reading
my computer in a public place - it is unusual enough that it attracts
attention. My fourth mistake was to set my fanny/shoulder pack down on
the bench beside me to the left, and my fifth mistake was to be too lax
about my surroundings and what was going on around me. When I sat down
there were 2 men at the table behind me to the left, talking with another
man at the table across the aisle.
I ordered breakfast and got engrossed in reading and composing the replies
to my email. I received a message from Bob Higdon previewing an upcoming
column of his to appear in a future issue of the BMW Riders Association
International magazine On The Level. The column talked about the
situation Noemi and I faced (and still face) when I left on this trip, and
the choices which must be made. I was completely engrossed in it and
parts of it brought tears to my eyes.
While reading this message someone tapped me on the right shoulder, and
looking around a man was standing in the aisle behind me to the right and
he pointed to the floor and asked if I had dropped my money. On the floor
was about C150 and US$2. Looking back it seems so transparent, but at the
time you're just pleased that you understood what was being said to you,
and analyzing the situation (e.g., Is it my money?; Was I carrying money
in a manner that it would fall out? - no; Why is this guy telling me
rather than just pocketing it himself?) is not the first thing that comes
to your mind.
At any rate, I lean over, pick up the money, thank the guy, and return to
reading my email. I remember pausing briefly, wondering why he hadn't
just taken the money, and how I had dropped it, but didn't waste much time
on such thoughts since I was engrossed in my email. The next message was
from my Sweetie, Noemi, and that held my attention further. I don't even
remember how much time passed (my best guess is 10-20 minutes) but at some
time I glanced down at the bench beside me and my pack was gone.
I can't begin to describe the thoughts that flew through my mind at that
moment. My heart seemed to plummet to the pit of my stomach. I jumped up
and looked all around me. Then my thoughts are whether I in fact had had
my pack with me. Maybe I hadn't been carrying it that day. No,
backtracking in my memory, with a sickening feeling, I knew that I had
been carrying it and had set it down on the bench and now it wasn't there.
Then I remembered the money on the floor, and the 2 men sitting at the
table behind me who were no longer there, and my heart sunk further into
the pit of my stomach with a feeling that I can't describe. Happy
By now I was standing up, I don't really remember doing what, I guess
looking around in hopes the men or pack were still around which of course
they were not, and still trying to comprehend the magnitude of what had
just happened. At some point in the mental process, thoughts of
self-chastisement began as well; How could I have been so stupid to have
fallen for something like that? What an idiot I am. What in the hell is
the first step in recovering from a disaster like this? I remember asking
several people sitting nearby if they had seen anything, the 2 men, or my
bag. Of course noone had. By now the waitress and several waiters clued
in that something had happened and I explained what had happened. While I
know I was infinitely more upset than they were they seemed genuinely
upset that this had happened in their establishment. They first checked
in the restrooms, located behind me, on the slim chance the remnants had
been dumped there. No such luck.
The waiter then told me I needed to go to the OIJ, the police department
investigative branch, about 10 blocs away, and gave me directions there.
At the police office I gave a statement to an officer, describing what had
happened and where, and wringing my memory to remember everything that had
been the pack.
The main things of importance were my "real" wallet with my drivers
license, American Express, Visa, and ATM cards, the pouch with all the
originals of my documents including my passport, motorcycle title and
Costa Rican documents for the bike, my checkbook, and US$530 of AmEx
travellers checks. Normally I carry my large Olympus IS-3 TeleZoom camera
in the pack, but because I had finished it's roll of film and didn't have
another roll, I had left it in my room and brought my small Yashica camera
instead. Since I had just come from receiving my email, the pack had my
small bag with all my gear for connecting my palmtop to the phone lines.
This included the AC power adapter for the palmtop, and the cable to
connect the modem to the phone line, as well as various plugs and adaptors
for the phone connectors, and serial cables and gender-benders for the
palmtop. fortunately I had been reading my email on the palmtop, so the
palmtop was not taken. On the other hand, if I had not been reading my
email in the first place, my pack probably would not have been stolen. I
had also been wearing my glasses while reading my email so only lost their
case. There was also about US$80 in cash in Colones.
Unfortunately I couldn't provide any description of either the men at the
table behind me or the man in the aisle. The officer entered the
information into the computer, gave me a printout and told me to return to
the robbery office on the 2nd floor between 2:30 and 5pm, and gave me a
name to ask for.
With the police report in hand I returned to the AmEx office where I had
been 2 days earlier. I had just bought most of the travellers checks 2
days ago, and stupidly hadn't gotten around to seperating the checks from
the record of their numbers. Fortunately I had bought them here and they
still had the records of the purchase, and I received a full refund of
US$530 in just over an hour. I also was able to report both my VISA and
AmEx cards as being stolen, though for various practical reasons the new
cards could not be easily sent directly to me here in San Jose, but
instead to my mailing address in Pennsylvania, and my Mom would then have
to arrange sending them to me somewhere in Central America.
Then it was back to the police station where a detective began to
interview me until it became clear that the language barrier wss going to
prevent any real exchange of information, so he called in a colleague who
spoke some English. They asked if I could identify the men from photos
and showed me some photos in a large book. I couldn't say one way or the
other. They said the money-on-the-floor technique was a favorite of some
Colombians that were known to the police. They were almost apologetic
over the whole thing, as if they expected me to hold it against them, or
think that all Costa Ricans were thieves, when in reality I was blaming
myself for my stupidity and gullibility. They said there was little they
could do without a positive ID and that they'd contact me at the hotel if
there were any developments.
I called the US Embassy regarding a new passport, but it was closed for
Thanksgiving and the man said to come by tomorrow morning after 8am. That
was about all I could do for the day, except start to think about how I
was going to replace my documents, get my new credit cards, recover my
ability to send/receive email, and a bunch of other little things.
I also had more time for self-flaggelation. I was really annoyed at
myself; I'd gone and created a lot of work and hassle for myself. I would
almost rather it had been taken at gunpoint. At least then, I couldn't
have done anything about it. As it was, I could think of a half a dozen
things which if I had done differently, probably would have prevented the
Friday November 29
In the morning I took a taxi out to the embassy, a huge complex in the
western suburb of Pavas. I took a number and awaited my turn. A half hour
later the lady at the window, after I gave her my name and explained the
situation, said that a man had called the embassy earlier that morning
saying he had found some of my documents. He didn't say which ones, or if
it included my passport. He left his name, Dennis Chacon, his place of
employment, Aromas y Sabores, and the phone number there. Since there was
a possibility that the documents included my passport, the embassy staffer
wouldn't let me fill out an application for a new passport.
You'd think as a service to it's citizens the embassy would as least have
a couple of payphones available. No. There was a single payphone outside
in the courtyard but it was not working. I walked across the street to
some payphones, only one of which was working, and had a line of 6 people
waiting, most of which I had seen over at the embassy. Another block up
the street I found another payphone and called the number and asked for
Dennis Chacon. I had difficulty communicating with the lady, but was able
to confirm that he worked there but was not there now. I tried to get the
address of the store, but was unable to understand it. Addresses are
typically given relative to some landmark or large building which you are
presumed to know the location of. E.g., 500m east and 150 north of
Radiographica. 1 block equals 100m. The lady finally said to wait and in
a couple of minutes a man came on the line who spoke a bit of English. He
said Dennis was a driver and was out on a run, but that if I gave him the
phone number at my hotel, he would have Dennis call me there at 2pm that
I took a taxi back to the hotel and waited and at 1pm Dennis called. He
said he could bring my documents by the hotel in about 15 minutes. He
arrived with a plastic bag containing a jumble of my documents, many of
them a bit dirty and rumpled. A quick search through them confirmed that
my passport was not among them, nor were my credit cards, not
surprisingly. He said he was driving by an area near the bus station,
about 20 blocks from where the theft occured, when he noticed the
documents scattered in the gutter. He gathered up the ones he saw and
then called the embassy. He said there was a lot of trash in the gutters
in the vicinity and that there might be some documents he missed. He drew
me a map showing the corner where he found them. I tried to offer him a
reward for finding them or for his trouble in bringing them by the hotel
but he refused it.
After he left I did a further inventory of the recovered documents,
comparing them with the copies I carried in my Aerostich. Amazingly,
almost every other document appeared to be there, including the remainder
of the contents of my wallet, including my ATM card and business and
membership cards, and all the documents in my document pouch. My
motorcycle title had been ripped in half and only half of it was there,
but it was the half with the frame and engine numbers on it. My checkbook
was there with all the checks except for the first one. I had no way of
knowing if it had been removed on purpose for illicit reasons or had
simply been ripped off in the process of going through the documents. I
suspected the former and made a note to put a stop payment on it. My
travellers checks had been stashed in the folder containing my health
insurance documents. The documents were there but the thief had found the
checks. Two of the four photos I carried were among the items recovered,
but my favorite of Noemi on my R100GS-PD was missing. Fortunately the
Costa Rican documents I received at the border for the bike wer among the
The US Embassy, only processes requests for lost/new passports between 8
and 10:30am, confirming my suspicions that my tax dollars do not go toward
providing service for US citizens at foreign embassies. Basically I'd
have to wait until Monday to initiate the process for a new passport.
Additionally, since this was Thanksgiving weekend, the Credit Union was
closed till Monday, so I couldn't do anything about the missing personal
check either. But having recovered the documents I did, greatly reduced
the hassles I faced.
I also called home to Mom to ask her help in calling the credit union on
Monday regarding the missing check, and to confirm that my VISA card had
been reported stolen and that a new one was being sent. Also to arrange
how we'd get the new credit cards to me here in Central America since they
were being sent to my address in Pennsylvania.
That evening I went to see the Claude Van Damm flick, Maximum Risk, in an
attempt to temporarily forget the hassles I still faced. It certainly
wasn't an Acadamy Award winner but it accomplished it's purpose for me for
Saturday November 30
I wasn't in the mood or right frame-of-mind to do much today.
To say that the last 2 days were the low point of the trip would be an
understatement and the prospect of at least 4 more days here in San Jose,
waiting for my new passport, wasn't exactly thrilling.
I did my laundry and shopped for some of the items lost in the theft:
another wallet, glasses case, batteries and fuses.
In the evening Ishay stopped by the hotel and we decided to ride up to
Volcan Poas tomorrow. I needed to get back on the bike and temporarily
forget my current headaches.