Having ridden in Central America for several weeks, I had become accustomed to the crazy, chaotic world that exists on the roads in this part of the world. More than hostels, the road had become a home away from home. And so I present the following introduction to riding in Central America.
I've only pumped my own fuel on a few occasions, when I've been too impatient to wait for the attendant. Otherwise, I just pull up to the bowser with the high quality fuel (normally indicated by other bikes or an attendant pointing), open the gas tank and let him fill 'er up. The attendant takes the cash and makes change. If I need a break, I'll wheel Izzy off to the side, but mostly I'll just set off. It's really efficient - usually only takes a matter of a minute in total. Prices vary wildly country to country, but are pretty identical between stations (sometimes as mandated by regulation - Costa Rica doesn't have price signs - the gas price is identical and dictated by government). It gets confusing as some countries use imperial and metric measurements at the same time - a gas station will be 2kms away, sell oil by the litre, but petrol by the gallon!
Firstly, It has to be said that the police and military in Latin America are some of the nicest I've ever met. Most who pull me over want to talk about my trip (the further south I get, the further their jaws drop when I say I've come from Canada) - It feels less like an interrogation, and more like friendly curiosity. Military checkpoints are designed to catch criminals or guerrillas - in other words, locals. Most encounters go something like this: The officer in the middle of the road motions for me to pull over onto the shoulder, or into a carpark (It should be mentioned that I simply pass through about 90% of the time, as they can't stop everyone). I then kill the engine, and take off my helmet. I am covered from head to tail, so this is usually the first indicator that I'm an extranjeno, or foreigner. First question - "Where are you going?" followed "Where did you come from?". That's where Canada slips into the conversation, and stops the officer in their tracks. Then it's time to tell my story, quite often to a growing group of people. Antarctica is also a drawcard, and generally warrants smiles and shaking of the heads from my audience. After we talk about the country we're in, and exhaust my Spanish (it's not often that any of them speak English), I ask a question or two - generally about the safety of the upcoming road, or where I should stop for lunch/dinner. I then collect my passport/licence/import permit, put on my helmet and head off into the distance, waving officers in the background.
That being said, some officers only see dollar signs when they see the colour of my skin. I've had a few encounters now with those type of people, and am happy to be able to say that each time I left them empty handed. I'm not breaking the law (any more than anyone else), and in many countries (such as Mexico), tourists aren't supposed to be fined for traffic infringements (supposedly removing the potential for these kinds of encounters). It's pretty easy to get out of these situations - If they don't speak English and you pretend that Spanish is foreign to you, you'll quickly reach an impasse where the officer will be forced to let you go. If you can communicate, he may try to offer you a choice: ticket, or a smaller on the spot 'fine'. If you opt for the fine, he'll give up. Finally, if they ask outright for a bribe - calmly and consistently refuse. There is a caveat however - judge the situation according to it's merits, and don't get aggressive. If they actually have you by the balls, you may be stuck. In several countries, police can impound your vehicle for a number of reasons, so it never pays to be aggressive or annoy them. Be polite, smile and spend that money on a beer, far sweeter for being bought with money saved.
Motorcycles & Cars
Since crossing the Rio Grande, engine size has shrunk and the passenger load has increased. A 250cc engine seems almost excessive here, and a 1000cc+ engine is laughably over the top. I often find myself on the worst 'road', passing a 125cc Chinese built postie bike with two people and cargo. I am then reminded of a quote from an online forum for adventure riders - "It only takes 12HP to cross the world - the rest is just wheelspin". The popularity of motorcycles is also directly related to the safety of riding such a vehicle - countries with high rates of motorcycle use tend to be more aware of others on the road, and less likely to spread you along the bitumen. I honestly felt safer riding in Managua, Nicaragua than in Chicago, where cars move first & check their blind spot later, generally after you've had to take evasive action.
The lumbering, traffic-jam-inducing giants of the Central American road system, and the bane of existence for cars in the mountains. I don't mind them, as I can easily pass several vehicles in one shot while going uphill. In some of the more dangerous areas (the danger being due to the type of people who frequent the road - be they guerrillas or criminals), trucks are a reassurance and shield of sorts. There is safety in numbers, and following an unofficial convoy is certainly safer than sticking it out alone. Sometimes, it has been necessary to ride despite a quadruple threat - past sunset, raining, in the mountains, in an area known for guerrillas. I don't like it, but continuing on to the next city is safer than camping out. In those times, trucks are high-beamed angels. I slot myself into a convoy and bask in the bright beams that dwarf the pathetic torchlight Izzy is capable of. With brake lights in front guiding me (and partially sheltering me from the rain), I can sit back and cruise leisurely at 20mph. I may not get there early, but I'll get there.
While there are a limited number of people employed to tame roadside vegetation (sometimes with just machetes!), often this task is left to animals. Horses and cattle are often tied up on the side of the road and left to consume the vegetation that grows like bamboo possessed. While normally quite safe, the animals sometimes break free from their bonds, and wander as is their want. These beasts are not scared of traffic, and certainly won't move or change course for a motorcycle. A stationary horse is an easy obstacle to avoid, but a moving bull is tricky. I confess to wanting to kick a few when passing, but I don't know if they'll react, and send me flying (a pretty embarrassing way to end the trip!). Dogs react to motorcycles, sometimes chasing them, sometimes running away, sometimes not seeming to be able to decide what to do. I rode past my hostel in David, Panama several times as the owner's dogs would almost run under my wheels each time I approached, distracting me. I have forcefully shooed a few away with my steel caps, which might seem mean, but is lot better than turning them into vulture food. On that sombre note, the quantity of roadkill is incredible. If it wasn't for the vultures, there would be piles of rotting carcasses lining the street. Another tip: if you see black birds circling in the distance, be prepared to hold your breath - tropical heat does overpowering things to the dead here.
Roads in Central America are not built to conquer the landscape, but rather follow it. Hence, roads skirt along hills and rise and fall with the terrain, with no tunnels in sight, and only the bare minimum of bridges. This means one thing - curves. lots and lots of "Curvas Peligrosas", one hairpin after another. As someone who had only ridden in countries with large, open areas, this was quite new to me. Quite often, the road is conquered by the landscape - landslides, serious potholes and sunken sections of bitumen are quite common, generally preceded by an orange cone or tree branch on the road before the bend. Riding back in Oz is going to seem boring by comparison.
Fluidity of traffic
Despite the apparent chaos that is endemic to the traffic in the larger cities, there remains a certain structure - a natural order if you will. Someone along the way had hit the nail on the head when they mentioned the traffic here as much more 'fluid'. With less adherence to laws, traffic resembles a mass of marbles rolling down a hill, rather than a series of queues in formal order. Every vehicle still occupies an individual space, but that space is not rigidly stuck in their current lane (if they're even marked - several multi-lane roads remain devoid of markings of any sort). This is exemplified at red light stops, where cars give at least a metre or two between the car in front of them. This allows the hundreds of motorcyclists to filter through and across lanes to the front of the line. Being on two wheels is a real time saver here. It can be unnerving though, especially as an approaching truck barrels towards you in your lane, in order to pass someone else. When you expect it though, it becomes less confronting. The fact that slow moving traffic always move over to the shoulder to let you pass is a nice touch too.
This fluidity has several impacts. The most obvious of which is the alertness of everyone on the road. I have yet to see anyone being dangerously cutoff, as EVERYONE checks their blind spots before moving. Compounding this alertness is the ready use of horns, not as a tool of aggression but for their designed purpose - to warn of danger. Originally, I winced and braced for impact every time I heard a horn go off nearby, but eventually worked it out - it was their way of saying "I'm in your blind spot and coming past, so don't do something unpredictable". Now when I hear a horn I calmly check my blind spot, and let them pass.
While people use their horns appropriately (if a little too frequently), indicator use is another story. There is almost no rhyme or reason to their use. Buses use either the left or right indicator to signal their intention to pull over to the right, and cars travel with indicators on for miles, completely oblivious. The only rule I can identify is that hazard lights mean "caution, I'm travelling slower than other traffic", or similarly "I intend on staying in this slow moving line behind a truck, so pass me". In short, I don't trust a blinking indicator, and instead look at the driver (if possible) or make a judgement based on other factors (speed, proximity to side streets,etc)