The Call of the Open Road: Crossing Central America by Motorcycle

The sun warmed our bodies as our motorcycles rumbled over the narrow international bridge separating Panama and Costa Rica. Most of our 3,382-mile trek to the States lay before us.

A slight delay at the border crossing into Costa Rica meant my husband of 43 years, Ken, and I spent some time with the locals. Broad smiles and sign language breached any language gaps. Once we got on the road again, we barreled up the two-lane roads, cutting through banana plantations and past roadside stands selling aceite de coco (coconut oil). Everywhere we looked, it was green, lush, and bucolic.

A couple of years ago, Ken and I had happily planted ourselves in Panama, outside Boquete in the foothills of Volcán Barú. Ken at age 63, and I at 61 aren’t yet true retirees. I work as a copywriter for clients all over the world, writing from my laptop on our comfortable porch overlooking banana, orange, and lemon trees in this colorful green valley dotted with homes.

Over a year ago, we had been missing the open road adventure that riding motorcycles gives us. Our answer then was to fly to the States, get our bikes out of storage at our son’s house in New Mexico, and ride them down to Panama.

Taking our motorcycles to Panama hadn’t been an outlandish idea. We’d taken mega rides before, most recently from Arizona to Connecticut and back, some 5,000 miles. Unfortunately, a few unforeseen events like a painful shoulder injury had kept our trip to Panama from being the fun we’d envisioned. But, a year later, multiple factors converged, and we decided to return to the States for a season…on our bikes.

Planning our route, we had three criteria: We preferred to ride on the easterly side, away from major border crossings and population centers. Second, I wanted to visit Tikal in Guatemala, one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya world. Lastly, my husband had just completed his coursework for teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. He only had a two-week practicum to complete. We wanted to find a school where he could do his practicum and be certified.

Searching online, I found Cofradía Bilingual Center outside San Pedro Sula in Honduras, which was happy to take us on for a short time as volunteers. We rumbled into the town of Cofradía on a Sunday evening. Turns out Ken having TEFL knowledge didn’t matter. I hold no special certifications and I taught as much as he did.

The preschoolers and the seventh graders I primarily worked with, and Ken’s first and fifth graders, all studied the same basic curriculum. We covered things like parts of the body, clothing items, rooms and furniture in a house, and basic emotions. Nothing brought more smiles than Ken pulling out his guitar to sing English songs whenever we all needed a break.

School ended at 2:30 p.m., and the bus came to take the volunteers home at 3 p.m. Anyone who has volunteered at a school like this knows how hard it can be to leave. One moment you reprimand a child and the next moment he or she hugs you instead of running off to play with friends.

Nonetheless, I was eager to reach Guatemala. Of all the countries in Latin America, Guatemala remains my favorite. Its people are warm and outgoing, as well as proud of their gorgeous country and cultural heritage. Shortly after crossing into Guatemala, we stumbled into the Rio Dulce region. Had I known how beautiful this area was, I would have extended our stay. We spent three days in a charming, third-floor walk-up hostel on Isla de Flores, a quaint cosmopolitan fishing village. International visitors came years ago and never left, and it was easy to see why. If Guatemala capture my heart, Isla de Flores threw away the key.

We were there primarily as a jumping off point to visit the massive site at Tikal, famous for thousands of ruins. Tikal boasts the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar. For me, visiting Tikal and sitting atop this temple (a.k.a. Temple Four) was a bucket list item. George Lucas used it as Yavin 4 in the final scenes in the original Star Wars movie.

After Tikal, we headed to Veracruz, Mexico, for a couple of days to relax. The sunshine was gorgeous yet not overbearing. Naturally, we enjoyed more of the street food Mexico is renowned for, but we did take the locals up on their suggestion to enjoy some seafood at a popular restaurant overlooking the water before making our way back to the U.S.

All told, we were on the road for about five weeks. But it isn’t the span that makes a trip. That comes from the serendipitous moments that happen when you connect with the people and culture around you—and motorcycles just make that easier. On the back of a motorbike, you’re not passing through a place, you’re experiencing it. We’re back in the U.S. now for a while, but who knows how long this stay will last? After all, the open road calls…

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