Chapter 25 – South to South America

“What do you mean you want the receipt for my tourist visa!!!???…How could I have entered without paying for it!?”

The ‘migracion’ officer was adamant I pay again and gave me a form to take to the bank opposite. I was adamant I wasn’t going to pay again and so began our Mexican stand-off. To let him know I was prepared for a long wait I removed my crash helmet, donned my sun hat and shades but refused to move away from the window.

I’m not sure exactly what changed but after several minutes a different voice asked me for my passport and I handed it to a different officer who stamped me out without question.

Belize

With my bank recently implementing overseas withdrawal fees I’d left Mexico without a peso to my name and an empty gas tank. Oh how I cursed my bank when I filled up in Belize to the tune of U$5/gal. It wasn’t just the gas…everything in Belize was expensive and limited my stay which was a shame as the people were lovely and the food great.

I’m not sure if it was the black faces, the Creole English or the tropical vegetation but riding through the countryside I felt like I was riding through the set of 80’s TV program ‘Roots’.

I walked into an empty roadside eatery where the chalk board menu read ‘Stewed Chicken/Curried Deer meat/Rice n Beans’. The owner returned from the local shop and I told her she’d caused me a dilemma as it all sounded good. “Den how ‘bout I fix you a little of everyting” she said and served me a huge plateful of delicious food before sitting down to join me for lunch.

I spent a few of days camping under a palapa at the sustainable living experiment ‘Monkey Bay Sanctuary’ and spent a morning at the Belize Zoo who’s original inhabitants had been abandoned after the filming of a nature documentary.

Guatemala

At the Belize border I parked behind a Texas registered Suzuki Wee-Strom and went inside to complete the exit formalities. When I returned a smiling face said “Nice haircut” and so it was that I met Texan Jeremy Kidd (complete with Adam/Danny replica haircut!).

Guatemalan entry passed by swiftly and without any hassle from border ‘fixers’. After a drink and a chat we rode south to the Mayan ruins of Tikal  where we camped at the Jaguar Inn right next to the entrance. It’s impossible to camp at an Inn without supping a few beers and so we wiled the evening away doing just that.

Buried in the jungle like Mexicos Calakmul (100km away), it’s easy to lose a day walking amongst the pyramids which is exactly what we did.

Tikal

Further south in Rio Dulce we rode around for ages looking for the campsite only for a guy on a bicycle to lead us to ‘Brunos’, a hotel restaurant on the marina where we could camp in the garden between the hotel and the yachts. Just beware of falling coconuts!

Jeremy and I always seemed to have plenty to talk about and so despite getting up early the following morning it was mid-morning before we finally went our separate ways. It was ‘Hasta Luego’ rather than ‘Adios’ as Jeremy had his bike loaded with diving gear and was heading to the Honduran island of Utila to take his Dive Master course. His invitation to visit was something I couldn’t refuse.

As Jeremy headed for Honduras so I rode west along the north side of Lago Izabela and through El Estor before turning north into the unfortunately hazy mountains. It was well after sunset when I reached Lanquin and dark by the time I found hostel El Retiro.

Dirt road from Lago Izabela to Lanquin

Along the road to Lanquin

Unable to park Rosie next to campsite I carried all of my gear down to the riverside where I pitched my tent under a posada, which was great until I realized the proximity of the hostels restaurant – that played LOUD music until gone 0100. The food almost made up for it though. It was BBQ night and Q40 bought me a huge plate of food that included various delicious homemade salads and coleslaws. Breakfast was just as good with a huge, fat pancake stuffed with fruit and Guatemalan coffee.

A 9km dirt road climbed and then descended to Semuc Champey where the Rio Cahabón has eroded the limestone rock into a series of pools in the bottom of the valley before it tumbles over several waterfalls and continues its journey to Lago Izabel.

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

From Semuc Champey I rode back to Lanquin and turned west. There the countryside was even better than to the east but again the dust on the dirt road limited my picture taking although I did manage a snap of one of the trucks generating all the dust.

Local transport

In Coban I found a hotel with safe parking, downloaded my cameras memory cards, had a shower etc. By the time I was ready to go out to eat the town was deserted. I walked around for ½hr and saw virtually nobody, let alone anywhere to eat; not even a street vendor. Eventually, on the other side of my hotel I found what must have been the only place in town and ate an excellent ‘Paradilla’ – BBQ’d pork, beef, chicken and chorizo with potatoes and salad. All for Q35.

NB: A week later in Antigua I met Nina from Yeovil, Somerset. We talked about the walk up Volcon Pacaya and she suggested I read the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) Travel Advisory regarding travel to the region so I did. It said to avoid all travel to the region because of volcanic activity last May ! Isn’t that like saying “Don’t drive on the M25, there was a crash there last week”. I read the whole advisory for Guatemala and came across this which might explain why Coban was deserted…

‘On 19 December, the President of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, declared a “state of siege” in Coban, the capital of Alta Verapaz Department (north of Guatemala City).  The decision was implemented due to significant levels of violence, and currently there is a strong police and military presence in Coban and around the region.  The state of siege has been extended until 20 February 2011′.

 

To Todos Santos

The first part of highway 7W was dirt and took me to what was the biggest landslide I’ve ever seen. The road stopped and a diversion switch-backed down the mountainside to where a new route had been bulldozed through the slide before it switch-backed up the mountain again to re-join the original road. I spoke to a couple of surveyors and learnt that the slide had occurred two years previously. Talking to other travelers I subsequently learned that it had completely buried a town in the valley below. Only aerial photos would really emphasize the scale of the slide.

Landslide on 7W

The truck gives a sense of scale

Not far west of the slide I rejoined the tarmac and continued my ride towards the town of Todos Santos. It was a fabulous ride through the mountains with valley after valley of cultivated fields, often etched out of seemingly impossible gradients. The climb to the entrance to the valley containing Todos Santos took me to 3300m where it was rather chilly in the wind despite the bright blue sky.

At 3300m prior to descending into Todos Santos

The road turned to dirt as I descended into the next valley through swirling cloud and mist. My visor quickly became impossible to see through and even with it open visibility was restricted to 20m. It was a shame as I knew the surroundings were beautiful, if only I could see them.

I found a place to stay along the main street where I was the only guest but there was safe parking for Rosie. Although the dorm was dingy a door led onto a small balcony overlooking the street – great for people watching.

 

Todos Santos accomodation

The owners son...

...and daughter

The towns inhabitants are predominantly indigenous and despite Spanish being their second language (Their first is ‘Mam’ spoken by just 100k people), everyone I smiled at as I walked around town greeted me with “Buenos Tardes”. As per most Maya towns/villages, the majority of women wore traditional clothing. What makes Todos Santos special is that the majority of men do to.

Traditional dress is the norm in Todos Santos

The following morning I made breakfast in my room and hung around on the balcony in the vague hope the cloud might lift and afford me a view of the valley. It didn’t, and after a few hours I loaded up and set off south. As I exited the valley, instead of being met by the bright blue sky I left behind the previous day, I was met by pouring rain. An hour later I was in Huehuetenango sitting in McDonalds, warming up over a cup of coffee and staring out of the window at a Porsche Turbo whilst contemplating the 1hr/50yr time gap between where I was and where I’d come from. With that, a group of indigenous Indians walked in looking as out of place as I did in their village.

Lago Atilan

I rode on along a fabulous twisty dual carriageway that was reduced to one lane in places due to a multitude of landslides. Reaching  Panajachel I pitched my tent in the lone campsite owned by American ex-pat Mike. Some might say he’s eccentric, others would consider him mad but either way I had some conversations with him that were just whacko. “Do you feel like you belong here or that you are just visiting?” referring to me being on the planet. “Can you feel the change?” referring to the build-up towards the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21st 2012. These were just the two that I can put into words. Others would require far too much thought. My final quote from Mike on the subject is that “It’s all just about the 0’s and 1’s”.

LagoAtilan by day...

...and at sunset

Another American ex-pat in Panajachel was Mike Roberts who owns a great little coffee shop Crossroads Café  with his wife Adele. Mike buys all his coffee from the local coffee plantations around Lago Atilan before roasting it himself to sell not only in his café, but all over the world via their website.

The coffee was only half the story though as Adele bakes exceedingly good cakes. I was a regular!

Antigua

My last stop in Guatemala was the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua. The majority of the old missions were destroyed by earthquakes in 1717 and 1773 but some have been restored along with many of the single story buildings whilst others have been left as open air museums to a time before the earthquakes.

Antigua. Overshodowed by Volcon Agua

It was a great place to hang out and I never got bored of wandering the streets, taking photo’s and watching the locals go about their business. The local bike dealer was even friendly enough to let me change Rosie’s oil in their workshop.

Guatemalan 'Chicken Bus'. Antigua

El Salvador

I didn’t know what to expect as I crossed the border into El Salvador. Ravaged by a vicious 12 year civil war, backed by the outside world (The USA supported the government whilst various other Communist backed the FLCN) very few outsiders visited El Salvador throughout the eighties.

I spent my first two nights camping in Parque Nacional El Impossible with German couple Fred & Rebecca who were travelling from Canada to Panama in their impeccably prepared Landrover.

We had to take a guide to walk in the NP but split three ways it was only a few dollars each. Unfortunately the days hike up to Cerro El Leon didn’t turn up the wildlife we’d envisaged, just three sweaty bodies.

Fred & Rebecca from Germany

I followed the Ruta de las Flores to Ahuachapán and continued on to Lago de Coatepeque and then later in the afternoon Lago de Ilopango. These were both rather exclusive destinations and I found no cheap accommodation so headed into the hills and the little mountain town of Alegria.

Unfortunately (for me) there was a fiesta in town and the hostel was full of reveling locals. The owners brother however, owned a place in Berlin, the next town and called ahead to make a reservation for me. It was more than I wanted to pay but as nightfall fell I had no choice.

Hostel Casa Mia  turned out to be a great place. Not just a hostel, but a home and museum.

Hostel Casa Mia. Berlin, El Salvador

Hostel Casa Mia. Berlin, El Salvador

Chatting with the owner Ramon I learnt about the history of the house, Berlin and his efforts to preserve and renovate the towns old wooden houses, all built with Dutch timber.

However, the most fascinating of all was an old black and white photograph of a FLCN group taken during the civil war. The sympathetic news reporter in the photograph was a young Mauricio Funes who was elected president of El Salvador in 2009.

Berlin saw a lot of action during the Civil War

El Mozote

I couldn’t visit El Salvador without paying a visit to the villages of Perequin and El Mozote. In December 1980, government forces backed by the USA slaughtered approximately 900, many of them children in what became known as the El Mozote Massacre.

The FLCN’s clandestine radio station began broadcasting news of the massacre, eventually bringing it to the attention of the world’s press.

The radio station is now part of a small museum in Perequin whilst a new church and adjacent memorial list the names of the victims. Take a close look at the ages next to the names on the church wall.

The Memorial at El Mozote

The new church at El Mozote bears the names of the victims...

...take a look at the children's ages

Border bound

The Pan American Highway (great name, shite road) was full of idiots as I backtracked NW towards San Salvador before turning north to my final destination in El Salvador.

Suchitoto on the edge of Lago Suchitlán is said to be what El Salvador was before being ravaged by natural disaster and civil war.  I likened it to Antigua, pre-facelift and ex-pats but the heat and humidity of my pokey little room drove me on towards the focal point of Central American corruption – Honduras.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

The name of his optomistic(!?) funeral parlour made me laugh

Honduras

All of my research suggested that Honduras would be the most corrupt, troublesome country in Central America, although when I dug a little deeper it appeared that the majority of the trouble overlanders  have with police is along the Pan American Highway (told you it was shite). However, the last thing Salvadorian customs said to me was “Be careful at customs. “Corrupt…very corrupt”.

You won't find a sign like this in Honduras!

“Momento” said the female customs officer as I presented myself at the counter, and promptly picked up her handbag and sat down on the sofa behind her desk to start chatting with her colleagues. After about 10 mins they all got up and left. As she passed by she said they were off to lunch and would return in an hour.

I sat in the shade, fired up my camp stove and brewed coffee to wash down my peanut butter and jam sandwiches the truck drivers looking on in bemusement.

At 1300 I returned to the window and 15 minutes later a male officer appeared and took my paperwork. To cut a long story short he didn’t seem to have a clue what he was doing and kept holding his hand up and saying “Permiso” (Excuse me) before disappearing – at one stage for 40 minutes! Each time he left the woman at the next desk would raise her eyebrows and shake her head.

Once he’d finally worked out what he needed to do he sent me to the photocopying shop 500m away, back near immigration and to the bank to pay the U$35 in various fees. When I finally got to the front of the queue in the bank I was told they didn’t accept U$ and I had to go outside to find a money changer back at the border.

Finally I had all that I needed and returned to the customs office where once again the officer didn’t seem to know what to do with all the photocopies he’d asked me to get.

Once he’d worked it out he came outside to check my chassis number and finally the process was complete. 3h40mins after arriving at the border.

Honduras had some great riding but I’m sad to say didn’t care much for the people. In fact it wasn’t until my final day in the country that I met anyone who lacked austerity. I wasn’t there long enough to fully get to grips with why but corruption, a lack of faith in the police and a burgeoning list of social problems are surely at the root of it. Most of the ex-pats I met told stories that left me open mouthed in disbelief.

I visited the Mayan ruins of Copan and spent a night at the American owned D&D micro brewery near Lago de Yojoa before heading to the coast at La Ceiba.

Copan, Honduras

I’d hoped to find a boat that would take me to the island of Utila to visit Jeremy Kidd but after a promising discussion with the crew the captain arrived and said he’d already received permission to sail from the harbourmaster and couldn’t (wouldn’t) change his cargo.

A thorough soaking on the way back to town to find a hostel topped off my afternoon.

I stored Rosie at the hostel for a few days and took the passenger ferry to Utila.

Famous for its world class diving schools on the world’s second largest barrier reef, life on the island is a much more laid back affair than on the mainland but the most peculiar thing about the place is that everyone speaks English!

Utila sunset

After a few days of good food, snorkeling and listening to ‘dive talk’ I returned to La Ceiba, collected Rosie and headed south. I took the road through Ceba, La Union and El Tigre to Talanaga where I met two ex-pats in a comedor who told me “The bus used to go that way but it got robbed so often they had to change the route”!

The 180km dirt road via La Union was beautiful

After a night in Talanga I skirted around Tegucigalpa and rode on to the border at Los Manos  where a surprisingly easy crossing had me in Nicaragua in less than two hours.

Nicaragua

I had hoped to spend the night on an old coffee plantation on the road to Jinotega but when they wanted U$40 for a dorm bed I returned to Matagalpa.

There's still a strong Sandanista presence in parts of Nicaragua

Heading towards Leon on a long straight road the next day, I was stopped by two policemen standing in the middle of the road. One of them shook my hand and asked me how I was and where I was from before commencing his patter. He pointed to their motorcycle parked at the roadside and said they needed money for gasoline. I knew instantly this was a scam as my tank is transparent and he could easily have asked me to give them some. What he wanted was for me to return to the previous town and buy them some but I said I didn’t have a container. He said I could buy one at the gas station but I pretended not to understand and continued with my “But I don’t have a container” approach. He was very patient and we went through the same conversation again and again. After what seemed like ½hr, but was probably more like 10mins, a car came into view in the distance coming from the previous town. The policeman immediately lost interest in me and waved me on. An easier target I thought as I mounted my bike but as I rode away I saw in my mirrors the driver handing over a container full of gasoline through his window. I never did work out exactly what the scam was as even selling the gasoline and container would only yield a small amount of money. Unless of course they’d been there all morning and had a nice stash piled up behind the fence? Or perhaps they had genuinely run out of gas!

The road to Leon shortly after my encounter with the police

I found what appeared to be a nice hostel in Leon. I unloaded, parked Rosie in the living room(!) and went for a walk with my camera. Almost instantly I was approached by a young guy who asked where I was from etc before shaking my hand and welcoming me to Nicaragua. That was the friendly face of Leon. I soon discovered it wasn’t always like that by the scene depicted in a mural a few blocks away.

Catedral Leon

Murals in Leon recall atrocities of the Civil War

Thanks to the tin roof that had heated my room like an oven during the day I got very little sleep. Even moving to the hammock in the slightly cooler common room during the early hours didn’t pay dividends and so in the morning I moved hostels.

By comparison, Lazybones Hostel was a revelation. Inside undercover parking, a cool dormitory with decent sized lockers and a swimming pool. Yep, that’s right, a hostel with a swimming pool! What better way to escape the 35°C heat of the day!?

My next stop was Granada but the attention of the police was becoming a bore. I’d been on the road less than 2hrs when a policeman attempted to stop me for the third time. He was stood chatting at the roadside with two others when he happened to look round and spot me in a line of traffic. He spun round and pointed for me to stop but he wasn’t quick enough to step out in front of me and so I kept looking ahead and ignored him. By the way he’d happened to notice me and pick me out of a line of traffic it was obvious he sniffed payday but there were no vehicles to chase me with and I was yet to see a cop with a radio.

Granada

The old colonial town of Granada was my next stop and whilst there were some beautiful old colonial building to see, what struck me most were the immaculate streets of cafés, bars, restaurants juxtaposed against the filthy, potholed streets of crumbling buildings that ran adjacent.  I don’t recall having seen such a distinct ‘line’ anywhere before.

Granada, Nicaragua

Happy at work in Granada, Nicaragua

The Darien Gap PtI

Separating Central America from South America, Panama from Colombia is a 160km long swath of swampland called the Darien Gap.

You can cross the Darien either by boat or plane but with the only airline (Girag) now charging U$900 for a bike and the cheapest passenger ticket costing U$320, that’s the expensive option. The cheapest option (if all goes well) is to use a series of lanchas (small boats) and cargo ships that ply the Pacific coast. Very few have done this as it requires a good grasp of Spanish and about 2 weeks. The potential for getting off loaded onto an island and left at the mercy of the locals/next cargo ship (to charge what they like) for onward travel abounds and so this route is more suitable for adventurous backpackers.

The third, and most popular option, is to take a private boat sailing all the way to Colombia (there are no ferries). Even this method throws up horror stories of drunk, stoned, cocaine snorting captains, lack of food & drinking water, changes to costs and destination once at sea, damaged bikes and bikes that are now anchors.

So even this method isn’t ‘plain sailing’ and a little research is required to find a trustworthy captain. Two names in particular seemed to stand out; The German ‘Stahlratte’ and the Austrian ‘Fritz the Cat’.

Having never sailed on a catamaran before I chose the ‘Fritz’ and so back in December I emailed the captain asking about dates for March. He replied saying it was too early to have any plans and asked me to email again approx 4 weeks before I wanted to travel.

So I did, only to learn the ‘Fritz’ was in dry dock and wouldn’t be sailing…Bugger. The Stahlratte was due to sail several weeks before I wanted to but was the only other boat I trusted and so I emailed Captain Ludwig. It turned out that it was fully booked berth wise, but he was prepared to take my bike for U$415. Given his experience, Ludwig (or Lulu as I later came to know him) was the only captain I trusted to take my bike without me being present (it was also less than half the price of airfreight) and so I agreed. I also got myself top of the reserve list should anyone cancel.

The downside of all this was that it gave me a week to get to Portobelo, Panama and the boat.

Why the rush? My best mate Jez had announced his plans to get married eleven days after my niece’s first birthday and so I’d booked a plane ticket departing Bogota, Colombia on March 29th. The next sailing of the Stahlratte wasn’t due to dock in Colombia until March 30th.

Initially I was pretty pissed off about having to race through Costa Rica but I constantly seemed to be riding in mist/cloud/rain and so couldn’t see much of the countryside anyway. It didn’t take long for me to nickname the place ‘Costa Fortune’ either.

Panama was a different story though and I would like to have spent more time there exploring the indigenous villages towards the Darien.

Panama

At 5½hrs the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama at Canoas set a new record for me (previously held by Turkey/Syria). After queuing for ½hr at what I thought was Costa Rica Immigration to get stamped out of the country, two more motorcyclists, Olli and Alex from Germany arrived and as we chatted so it became apparent I was in the queue for Panama Immigration. Costa Rican Immigration was 300m back down the road and had been hidden behind a line of trucks queuing for the border when I’d ridden past.

Alex tries to stay lighthearted at the Costa Rica/Panama border

Central American border crossings are a demonstration of inefficiency and Costa Rican Immigration was no exception. Even filling out the departure form meant tracking down the (un-uniformed) person handing them out. Not that there were any signs saying to do so, just that everybody noticed everybody else filling out a form and asked what it was for and where it could be obtained. Fortunately cancelling Rosie’s Temporary Import Permit (TIP) was a little quicker and it was in this queue that I met Californian Danny, also riding a DR650.

Back in the Panama Immigration queue I met a pair of American riders I’d first met back at the Nicaragua/Costa Rica Border. I hadn’t thought insurance was needed for Panama but they informed me that not only was it compulsory but Customs wouldn’t issue a TIP without it. They gave me some directions to an insurance office, told me the rest of the process and left (they’d been there all morning). I never did find the insurance office they’d described but whilst I looked I was approached by a rather eccentric American. Sporting the haircut of a Samurai Warrior and gripping a large walking cane with fingers adorned with commemorative gold sovereign rings celebrating a life in wrestling. He had been working the border for 18yrs. He pointed me towards a different insurance office and soon followed me there, offering his services to smooth my border crossing – for a mere U$40! When I politely declined he returned to the immigration queue in search of a richer client.

Back in the Immigration queue Danny, Olli, Alex and I suddenly found ourselves all together  – behind several coach loads of people heading for Panama. Our eccentric American friend re-appeared and was obviously having a slack day. He’d decided that all the native English speakers should stick together and started checking that we all had what we needed. As it turned out, none of us had had our insurance ‘authenticated’. That entailed going to the police office upstairs and handing over the insurance certificate for them to stamp!

Finally we got stamped into Panama but all that meant was that we could get all the photocopying done before we could begin queuing for Customs. As usual there was no photocopier available in the building and so it was back to the insurance office to get copies of – Passport photo page, Panama entry stamp, Driving License, Bike Registration doc and Insurance Certificate.

Armed with the ever increasing pile of paperwork we joined the Customs queue where no matter how many truck drivers appeared after us we seemed to remain at the effective back of the queue; despite being at the literal front of it with our paperwork on the counter! Finally they processed our TIP’s and we turned away from the Customs counter to find what had been a manic hive of activity all but deserted. We still hadn’t completed the formalities though as we then had to take our TIP’s to another office to get them stamped with a checklist the customs inspector could check off. Outside I found a Customs inspector who verified my paperwork and checked VIN and Engine numbers before sending me to have Rosie fumigated. First though, I had to find the right sliding window in which to pay for the fumigation (no signs) when I did find the right window I was issued a certificate to take (along with Rosie) to the ‘fumigation station’ where the wheels and engine were sprayed with a solution (much like vehicles were during the 2001 F&M outbreak in the UK) and the certificate signed.

That certificate got me the final tick in the box I needed to complete the process and 5½ hrs after arriving at the border I jubilantly rode away into Panama.

Luckily I didn’t have to ride far, neither did I have to find a place to stay. On the day I left Xpu-Ha beach in Mexico, so Englishman Graham Styles arrived. We only managed a brief chat but he put me in touch with English Ex-pat Norman who in turn invited me to stay. We had a great evening telling stories and drinking beer but with a boat to catch I couldn’t hang around.

Norman & Amelia

Global Village

In Coihaique on Chile’s Carretera Austral back in 2009 I met Englishman Richard Harwood (See Chapter 18 LINK) riding a BMW R100. At the time he was awaiting the renovation of his apartment in Panama City to be completed and by the time I arrived in February 2011 he’d been moved in a mere 3 months. Nevertheless he invited me to stay and we spent two nights drinking beer, telling stories and eating excellent fish bought from the fish market and expertly cooked by Richard.

The day in between was taken up with visiting said fish market, the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal and a wander around the old city. Just a few blocks away an invisible line marks where you do and don’t  go. On my way to Richards I was stopped at the roadside checking my map when a woman walking her dog approached me. I thought she was going to ask where I was going biut she didn’t. She said “Don’t stop here, you’ll get robbed!”.

Old meets new in Panama City

A buscar in the Old Town, Panama City

The first attempt to build the canal was commenced by the French in 1880 but aborted after a staggering 22,000 deaths, mostly from malaria and yellow fever.  In 1904 the Americans took over and final achieved the seemingly impossible 10 years later after a mere 5,600 deaths. Approximately 15k vessels use the canal annually, paying an average of U$90k for the privilege,  although this can rise to U$400k for the largest container ships.

The Stahlratte

I packed up said “See you in two days” to Richard and headed off to Hostel Wunderbar in Portobelo. That was where all those sailing aboard the Stahlratte were meeting for final instructions regarding loading and I arrived to find a courtyard packed with bikes. The two Japanese ‘Sabor’ and Akira (BMW1200GS & Yamaha TDM900) that I’d met in Nicaragua, Olli & Alex (KTM990  & BMW 1200 Adventure), Daniel – a Brazilian riding home on his Suzuki V-Strom and finally Danny who was to ship just his bike like me.

Over breakfast the following morning the Hostel owner mentioned that someone was missing and hadn’t confirmed their berth. I immediately jumped on my bike and rode the 50 mins back to the last bank to withdraw the cash to pay for my crossing should a berth arise. When I got back everyone was at the beach ready to commence loading. The group had been joined by another two motorcyclists Murray & Loren from Australia (BMW F800 & F650Twin).

Captain Ludwig arrived along with the hired help and a lancha to get the bikes from the shore to Stahlratte and whilst the first of the bikes were being loaded, Danny and I repacked our kit as we were to return to Panama City by Taxi and fly to Cartagena, Colombia.

Two at a time bikes were man handled into the lancha and ferried to the Stahlratte, moored in deeper water. A pulley system attached to the boom was then used to hoist them aboard.

First up the bikes are loaded into a lancha...

...then hoisted aboard the Stahlratte

...before returning for the luggage

On deck a disappointed Danny got his marching orders from one of the crew but nobody had mentioned me. When the Captain appeared I asked him what the score was and addressing both of us said “As long as you don’t moan about not having a bed, we’ll take you”. Neither of us relished the thought of 4 nights/5 days at sea without a bed, but it was a good group on board and we both wanted to see the San Blas Islands. We agreed.

Setting Sail

We set sail at dusk on a swell that had the bows rising and falling a good 6-7m (20ft) but it was only 4hrs to the small island airport of Porvenir where we dropped anchor in anticipation of the arrival of the non-motorcycling passengers. I found a place to sleep outside but under cover behind the regular crew’s quarters and was lulled to sleep by the melodic tones of the ships 280rpm diesel engine.

The Stahlratte

Early the following morning the final guests arrived, a huge breakfast spread was laid on, introductions made and the ships rules laid out; after which we sailed to the idyllic San Blas Islands. We dropped anchor at Coco Bandera , an island small enough to walk around in 5mins and that halved in size with the tidal flow. It was everyone’s idea of tropical paradise an soon everyone was either diving in or launching themselves from the boom mounted rope swing.

Oklahoma John plays Tarzan in the San Blas Islands

Early evening came and wood, food and beer were ferried to the island for beach BBQ. Life and soul of the party was undoubtedly ‘Oklahoma’ John (ADV’s Throttlemeister). I’m sure he has gills as he was either talking or drinking and never seemed to draw breath. More of John later.

Beach BBQ on Coco Bandera

The following morning five of us took up the offer of a ride to one of the local indigenous villages, home to the Kuna. The crew were buying lobster/crayfish from the local fishermen and so we went along for the ride.

Arriving at the Kuna village, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna Village, San Blas Islands, Panama

Left - Right: Jos, Saburo, Me, Local, John

Food onboard was always very good but that night it was extraordinary. The garlic cream sauce in which the crayfish/lobster was served being exceptional.

The food aboard the Stahlratte never failed to impress

Long before sunrise the following day the diesel engine slowly awoke and we chugged away from paradise. Ahead of us lay 28hrs of open ocean sailing, a thought none but the hardiest sailors relished.

I claimed my spot on one of the sun loungers on the top deck and there I stayed, horizontal, for 24hrs – rising only to visit the toilet. I neither ate nor drank anything.

A tropical island all to myself!

I slept fairly well through the night thanks to Olli making me an impromptu windbreak with a mattress and only the occasional dowsing from the spray off the bows caused me to wake.

I later asked the captain how the roughness of the sea rated on a scale of1-10 and he smiled a big grin before saying 4. FOUR!!! Feck’…I’ll never make a sailor!!!

Colombia

I was still asleep when the sails were lowered but awake and vertical by the time we passed the colonial ramparts that protected Cartagena from the enemy. Although it didn’t stop Sir Francis Drake taking the city in 1586.

Last Supper…well lunch actually

There was a delay in the Immigration office (surprise) and so despite dropping anchor late morning we wouldn’t get our passports and be allowed on shore until mid-afternoon. The bikes were a different story. Customs refused to process them on the day and as the following day was Sunday it was to be Monday before the bikes were processed…or so we thought. That meant enough time to cook the huge sail fish that had been caught on a fishing rod attached to the stern of the ship. I also gave me the opportunity to climb the crows nest and take this…

The bikes look tiny from up here!

The majority of us found accommodation in opposing hostels along Calle Media Luna and so had a very sociable weekend eating, drinking and exploring the old town. It was almost 17 months since I shipped Lady P out of Peru and flew to the USA to buy Rosie and it felt great to finally be back in South America.

Customs debacle

None of us were sure of how the bikes were to be unloaded from the Stahlratte and any thoughts of the ships zodiac being used were soon pooh poohed. How wrong we were! We arrived at the agreed shore side location just in time to see the zodiac heading towards us with a bike aboard. Once in shallow water the motor was lifted and the crew jumped out to drag it backwards onto the slipway before manhandling the bike over the side and onto dry ground. With ten bikes to bring ashore along with everyone’s kit it was a slow process.

Loading the Zodiac in Cartagena

Loading the Zodiac in Cartagena

Unloading the Zodiac in Cartagena

With the exception of Murray & Loren (who did their own thing) the rest of us waited for all to be ready before following incorrect directions to the customs building. We arrived to find all seven bikes from another boat ‘Wild Card Jack’ in the car park and ahead of us in the queue. That didn’t matter until we were told customs were only prepared to process eight bikes per day! What! Are they taking the piss? Eight bikes per day would mean someone having to wait until Wednesday! All of us who’ sailed aboard the Stahlratte were being represented by the son of the usual agent and he quickly acquired the tag ‘Useless’. It soon became apparent that no bikes were being processed due to a computer system fault yet nobody (in Customs) seemed to acknowledge that meant either everybody leaving their bikes in the car park overnight or illegally riding them into town. As ‘Useless’ didn’t seem to want to ask questions we spent the afternoon hanging around awaiting a decision. Eventually ‘the boss’ concluded that all the bikes could be left in the car park – but not where they were. And so a new place was found, bikes secured, luggage removed and crammed into taxi’s for the ride back to the hostels.

The Old City of Cartagena

The Old City of Cartagena

‘Useless’ returned to the Customs building the following morning and we called him at 0900 for the latest news; “No Electricidad”. We called again later only to be told there was no change. Early afternoon Sharna, an Australian girl who’d sailed on the Wild Card came to the hostel to say she’d just heard from their agent that the power was back on and that we should return to Customs.

We arrived to find that the computer fault still hadn’t been rectified but someone had come up with the brilliant idea of filling the forms in by hand!!! Obviously pissed off with a car park full of bikes they also decided they would process all the bikes at the same time.

When the customs inspector appeared the waiting room fell silent, save for the sound of jaws shattering on the floor. Everyone looked at the inspector then at each other in a mixture of disbelief and wonderment and back to the inspector. How could you possibly wear that to work!? She was stunning and in a reversal of roles from Moto GP, hot chic tottered outside shadowed by a motorcyclist holding her umbrella, followed by more drooling motorcyclist, tripping over their tongues and one another in a bid to take her photo. It was hilarious. Was she sent knowing nobody would/could be angry with her, or were all the men of the office looking down from their windows, laughing at the drooling gringo dogs following her around?

'THE' Customs Inspector!

We finally rode out of Customs 80hrs after dropping anchor but the customs inspector had made the wait worthwhile. Viva Colombia!!!

On the road again

We all went our separate ways over the course of the next two days but it didn’t last long…

Are all Danny's 5'4"!?

Riding through the Caribbean coastal town of Santa Marta on the day I left Cartagena I bumped into Sharna who was loading her bike. Unhappy with the hostel in which she’d spent the previous night she was heading to the nearby fishing village of Taganga. I had no fixed agenda so joined her for the short ride and it wasn’t long before we’d found a place to stay, showered and were sitting on the seawall with a couple of beers watching the sun go down.

Taganga sunset

Two more motorcyclists arrived the next day in the form of Josh (USA) who I’d met in customs and had sailed on the Wild Card Jack with Sharna, and Patrick (Denmark) who was Josh’s riding partner but had air freighted his bike to Bogota to spend a week with his little brother before re-joining Josh.

As we all had the same basic idea in mind – to ride to Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point of South America – we decided to ride together. We made for an diverse mix of machinery and experience: Sharna was riding a Yamaha YBR125 (Same as Nick Jones – Chapter 24) but rode track days at home aboard her Ducati Monster, Josh was riding a woefully overloaded DR650 and had only passed his test just prior to setting out on their trip and Patrick was riding a Suzuki 650 V-Strom but had spent many years riding trials bikes at home.

Getting directions

We spent our first night in a hospedaje in Uribia and it was whilst loading our bikes the next morning that I managed to drop my camera. Despite being in its case, the polarizing filter smashed and I struggled to pick out the debris and unscrew it without scratching the lens. Since then the autofocus has been sluggish and it won’t autofocus at all maximum zoom. I can’t begin to tell you how pissed off I am about it.

Uribia was also where the tarmac ended and the dirt started. It was also where I realized I was going to do a lot of waiting. The track followed the railway line that links one of the world’s largest open cast coal mines, Cerrejón to the coastal terminal at Punto Bolivar and so was straight, virtually flat and made no difference to my cruising speed. The others though were feeling their feet and took a while catch up. A huge sign (that we all initially managed to miss!) pointed the way to our next stop, Cabo de la Vela.

Cabo de La Vela turn-off

Here the track narrowed and in places became rutted and threw up the first of the sand. Everyone managed well though and each relayed their own story of a ‘moment’ they’d had as we stopped to top-up with fuel sold from containers at the roadside. Up here on the peninsula of Guajira cut price fuel (smuggled across the border from Venezuela) was available everywhere.

It was early afternoon when we arrived in a virtually deserted Cabo de la Vela and after choosing a place to stay we tucked into the obligatory fish lunch on the beach.

Accomodation in Cabo de La Vela

Afternoon became evening, beers were bought and we watched another Caribbean sunset. Breakfast the next day was a strange affair; with no drinking water to be found anywhere we made porridge with peach flavoured fruit juice. It was an acquired taste that we’d all yet to acquire.

Back on the bikes we returned to the main track and turned north so start our search for the turn-off that would take us to Punta Gallinas. We asked for directions from the few locals living along the track and a gang of railway workers and gradually narrowed our search to a sprawl of dwellings we came to learn marked the start of the track. One such dwelling was a little shop selling the usual mix of cold drinks, snacks and a few essentials. The owners’ son was sat on a large speaker that was booming 70’s disco music. We were drinking coke and eating sweet bread when Queen’s ‘Mr Fahrenheit’ got played and everyone started singing and dancing. The owner found this so entertaining she played it again. It was a surreal moment in the middle of nowhere.

Young Mr Farenheit

We rode on, crossing dried mud flats and salt pans linked together by sandy/stony/rocky tracks. The track continuously split in multiple directions and with no signs all we had to navigate by was the shape of the trace we were making on the GPS relative to the coastline (it showed no tracks) but with two large bays to by-pass there was neither a straight nor obvious route. When we did come across a house where we could ask directions we were assured we were going the right way only for the track to disappear into in impassable, overgrown sandy hollow less than a kilometre later. We picked another track and met a truck full of people heading the opposite way and were relieved to hear we were heading the right way and that we were just 30 mins from Taroa.

Sharing a laugh with a truck load of locals

It was a tight squeeze in the cab!

From Taroa the final track led to Punta Gallinas (according to the map!). 30mins came and went as did sunset and in the dark I came to a rope across the track and a local cyclist who said we were going the wrong way. The others were even further behind than usual and I backtracked to find that Patrick had failed to see a muddy patch and fallen. Luckily no harm was done and as we readied ourselves to continue so a Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 ambulance came by and I flagged it down to ask directions. “Follow me” he said, and so I did through the rope where the cyclist had said I was going the wrong way! The ambulance was driving surprisingly fast given the terrain, never mind the fact it was by then pitch black, and so it came as no real surprise when it came to an abrupt halt and the brake lights came on – we’d overshot a junction.

The gang head north

Several km’s further on the ambulance pulled over and the driver pointed to the track leading away to the left. “Just keep turning left” the driver said so we did and soon we were climbing a rocky trail I didn’t think the others would manage without incident. To their credit they did although by the top they were all physically and mentally ready to stop. None of us had sufficient food, my camp stove wasn’t working and Sharna didn’t have any camping gear at all so we carried on. A little further on we happened across a basketball court that loomed out of the darkness and we assumed marked the edge of Taroa. I followed what appeared to be the most well used track only for it to lead into someone’s house where three guys were sitting around drinking beer. That ‘someone’ was Luther who decided trying to give me directions was far too difficult and instead fetched his motorbike and led the way to where all the tracks converged into one bound for Punta Gallinas.

Luther

Not only that but he phoned ahead to one of only two Hospedaje’s there to tell them we were on our way. Twenty minutes later we came upon a guy stood at a junction in the track waving a torch. He asked if we’d come from Luther and pointed us in the right direction. Five minutes later we arrived at Hospedaje Luz Mia. It was nine hours since we’d left Cabo de la Vela, the last three of which had been ridden in complete darkness. Any food would have been great but imagine our surprise ten minutes later when we were served rice and lobster!

Josh, Sharna, myself and Patrick finally arrive at Punta Gallinas

We spent two nights in the Hospedaje; me in my tent, Josh and Patrick in hammocks and Sharna in a room. We visited the electronic lighthouse that marked the most northerly point of South America and took a walk across the sand dunes near Taroa to the Caribbean Sea. Along the way I found the track south that we should have come on the previous evening and made a note of where it turned off.

Sand dunes of Taroa

There's not much to mark the most northerly point in South America

...just a bit of graffiti

Our return to Uribia was simplified by a local couple we met at the hospedaje. They had taken a jeep tour of the peninsula and recorded various waypoints along the way in their GPS which they were happy to pass on. After a quick photo at the ‘light house’ we took the correct track where we were amazed by how quickly we progressed. If only we’d gone that way heading north!

We came across one of the small tienda’s we’d stopped at two days previously and stopped for drinks just as the local school turned out.

The local school kids

Uribia was our last chance for cheap gas so we filled up and hit the tarmac back to Santa Marta.

Smuggled gasoline is cheap near the Venezuelan border

South at last

A couple of days passed by in Sant Marta before I waved goodbye to Sharna, Josh and and headed south to the city of Bucaramanga. Along the way I encountered semi and totally destroyed houses and others with high water marks level with the windows; debris filled rivers, collapsed bridges and roads reduced to one lane. They’d had it tough…

Back in November Colombia had been lashed by the tropical weather system ‘La Nińa’ and the unusually heavy rains had caused flooding in 28 of 32 provinces, swept away thousands of homes and killed more than 300 people.

Rubber

My tyres had been bald since Nicaragua and I’d failed to find what I wanted in the towns along the north coast. With the mountains upon me and with them the prospect of rain and dirt roads I set about finding some new rubber. My search didn’t last long though as the ever helpful Colombians sprang into action. At the first bike shop I saw with a tyre rack outside I stopped to see what they had but couldn’t find what I was looking for. The owner Javier, asked what I wanted, made a phone call and asked me to wait. Ten minutes later a lad arrived on a bike sporting a huge plastic basket as a rack and containing a pair of tyres. The front wasn’t what I was after and so as I fitted the rear so two more calls were made and again the lad reappeared with exactly what I wanted.

Fitting new rubber in Bucaramanga

Javier (far left) and the gang at Codimotos, Bucaramanga

Adios!

Into the hills

I climbed away from the city past more evidence of cleared landslides and a construction team that appeared to be securing the hillside properly alongside a new section of road. Lush green valleys abound, the view slightly tinted by the ever present haze.

Descending towards Pamplona I once again found myself close enough to the Venezuelan border to benefit from the smuggled cheap Venezuelan gasoline and filled up before heading into town for a quick snack.

More lovely cheap gasoline...

...in Pamplona, Colombia

Riding south from Pamplona a combination of road construction and landslides had blocked the road and it was a while before a path was cleared to allow the passage of waiting traffic.

Waiting for the road to open south of Pamplona, Colombia

My map showed the route as a fairly major one and so I was surprised to find it deteriorate into a gravel track as it climbed its way towards the pass. Alone on the road as the mist rolled in, I felt a real sense of remoteness. It was the first time I’d been alone since Costa Rica a month previously and my senses were heightened; the limited visibility adding to the mystery of my surroundings.

It was almost dark as I rolled into Malaga and quickly found a nice hotel in the centre of town, where the owner rearranged the hallway furniture so I could park Rosie in the common room. Prices away from the cities fell dramatically and here a private en-suite (cold shower) room with a TV cost less than a dorm bed in some hostels.

In the morning I left the hotel to find coffee and as usual it wasn’t long before I found a guy wandering the streets with six flasks of hot, sweet ‘tinto’ (black coffee) and a stack of plastic cups. Another passed by on a tricycle with a selection of fried empanadas filled with either beef, chicken or egg and breakfast was complete.

Yesterday’s veil of mist had receded and the ridges of the valley were clear to see under the brilliant blue sky. Back on my bike and back on tarmac I continued south in awe of my surroundings.

Finally the clouds began to lift...

...along the Malaga to Capitanelo road

At first I missed the small turning in the village of Capitanelo but eventually I found my way onto the dirt road that led through a narrow canyon towards El Espino where I rejoined the tarmac for the final climb to the well kept colonial mountain town of El Cocuy.

Into the canyon SE of Capitanelo

A chat with a local guy I met in the plaza confirmed my suspicions regarding the weather. Clear mornings followed by rain at around 14-1600.

Unsure of whether to stay in El Cocuy or ride further into the mountains I visited the office of the El Cocuy National Park for a chat with the ranger. The park contains lakes, glaciers and peaks rising to 5330m and so the office is a serious operation.

My weather advisor in El Cocuy, Colombia

I was the only visitor and the ranger took his time to photocopy some maps, describe some hiking trails and show me a dirt road that runs through the park to Guican that didn’t appear on either of my maps.

With the information in hand it was easy to make a decision regarding what I wanted to do, where and when and I was soon climbing away from town through magnificent scenery, bound for hacienda ‘La Esperanza’. My plan was to camp at the hacienda, rise before dawn, and hike the 8hr round trip to Laguna Grande de la Sierra.

Hacienda ‘La Esperanza’

I was warmly welcomed by fourth generation owner Marco Valderrama but thanks to the sodden ground and threat of more rain he barely needed to convince me to take a bed in the empty dorm – and was I ever glad I did!

Into the courtyard at 'La Esperanza'

After a dinner of fresh trout expertly prepared by Marco I struggled into bed under the mass of thick blankets and set my alarm for 0545.

As I walked towards the kitchen just before 0600 I looked through the windows and could barely see across the courtyard. Marco had already made coffee but suggested I return to bed and try again at 0700 as it wouldn’t be possible to follow the trail in the cloud. I returned to bed with a coffee and arose again at 0700 only to repeat the same scenario and return to bed until 0800.

0800 was the latest time I could set out but alas the weather was still against me. Instead I spent the morning blog writing and sorting photos until I flattened my laptop battery but as the weather had knocked out the electricity that was it for the day.

Lunch arrives at La Esperanza

Marco had kindly provided me with a woolen poncho and a hot water bottle (there was no heating in the hacienda) and over lunch I learned more about the history of La Esperanza. His great grandfather had built the original house 200 years ago with materials carried in by mule. Back then it was a two day ride from El Capitanelo, via the narrow gorge I’d entered through. That was the only access until 50 years ago when the dirt road between El Cocuy and Guican was built. Another 20 years passed before electricity reached them – when the sun shone!

Marco Valderrama

At no point during the day did the weather show any sign of improving and by 1900 I was tucked up in bed reading by candlelight.

La Esperanza after the storm

Daylight brought blue skies and a clear view of the fresh dusting of snow surrounding us. Again, but for a different reason, Marco said it would not be possible to follow the trail and so after breakfast I packed up and left, vowing to return in January when the weather is more predictable.

The track to Guican continued through magnificent scenery and whilst stopping to take photos I met a local lady amazed at my presence.

A surprised local. Sierra Nevada El Cocuy

I rode on with a clear view of the snowcapped ridgeline but the contrast with the dark rock below made it difficult to photograph.

This finca in particular stuck in my mind for its impressive location…

Wouldn't you...

...like to...

...live here?

Over the next few days I continued my ride SW through the mountain until I turned north at Duitama. The dirt road was much rougher than it looked and as I climbed into the cloud so it became a rather miserable ride. The lack of visibility continued until the track descended again but the rough ride continued.

It didn't look bad but the road north from Duitama was a boneshaker!

In the middle of nowhere I rounded a corner to find a line of flagpoles stretching along the roadside and out of sight around the next bend. Strange wooden houses shaped like espresso pots in varying stages of construction were scattered amongst the trees. To my left, partially hidden behind the trees I saw the corrugated steel roof of a huge building; to my right a huge billboard painted with the image of an old, bearded man. The flag poles continued into the distance and I stopped to take a few photos. As I did, so I was approached by a guy and his girlfriend. After the usual introductory chat he explained that they were a ‘community’ made up of many nationalities that all followed the teachings of ‘old bearded dude ‘ (I didn’t catch his name). They were concerned about their security (probably because many of them were in the country illegally) and asked me to delete the photos I’d taken. I was alone and there were several hundred of them and so I obliged and went on my way. It was a curious encounter.

St.Patricks Day 2011 – 5 years on the road

I arrived in Medellin to find Oklahoma John (ADV – Throttlemeister) who I’d met on the Stahlratte had also just arrived in town and together we rode a three day loop through the countryside, returning in time for St.Patricks Day.

Along the way we’d visited El Penol where we met Medellin resident Santiago and his Brazilian girlfriend Mariana and John had a collision with a truck on a blind bend in the hills above San Luis. Although after his hair raising adventures in Cuba it didn’t even count as a flesh wound, but it did leave him hobbling around for a few days!

El Penol

The view from the top

John checks the damage

Santiago had told us that Colombia has just three micro breweries and that only one of them – 3 Cordilleras – ran a tour. That tour runs every Thursday and by chance that coincided with St.Patricks Day.

15,000cop (5 quid) bought us entry and 5 beer tokens. Enough to try each tipple and return to your favourite!

3 Cordilleras - REAL beer!

St.Patrick's Day specials

Santiago, Mariana, John and me

The bar closed fairly early but Santiago had a bit of local knowledge up his sleeve. We walked to the local mall and found the ‘Beer Store’ on the first floor. They cut off our wrist bands and gave us another free beer!

Now St.Patrick’s Day wouldn’t be St.Patrick’s  Day without Guinness and so we headed back to The Shamrock for a drop of the black stuff. And a drop it was too at those prices! The sign’s tagline should read ‘Everywhere else is cheaper’!

St.Patrick's Day 2011, The Shamrock, Medellin, Colombia

It was a great evening and a fitting way to celebrate my fifth year on the road.

The Stahlratte connection

Driven by the prospect of an all-girl rodeo weekend we arose (relatively) early, shook off our foggy heads and rode south to Pereira where a well surfaced dual carriageway wound its way down the mountainside and into town. It was a dream motorcycling road that sucked you in and made you ride faster and faster. As the road straightened out for the final stretch into the city I heard sirens behind me and was convinced I was about to get a ticket.  A police van pulled up alongside and the passenger wound down the window shouting “A dondé vive?’ (Where are you from?), and so began a barrage of questions interspersed with big smiles and a ‘thumbs –up’ before they drove away!

Jos (from Luxembourg) who had also been aboard the Stahlratte , had a Colombian girlfriend and they’d invited us to spend the weekend in Pereira and visit the rodeo. It wasn’t until we arrived that we discovered there’d been some confusion over what rodeo was where and it turned out that the all-girl rodeo was near Bogota and that the rodeo local to Pereira was just that – a local rodeo. Nevertheless we went along and enjoyed an Argentine style BBQ before watching the local cowboys and cowgirls in action.

Argentinian style BBQ at the rodeo

Colombian Cowboys

After the weekend I took a short ride to Manizales. Josh’s father owns a house there and before parting company back in Santa Marta Josh had invited me to visit him and Patrick there. I arrived to find the two of them and another American motorcyclist Ryan, whom I’d also met during the customs debacle back in Cartagena.

It was a great opportunity to do some maintenance and I earned my keep by showing the others how to do various jobs on their bikes  – in particular checking valve clearances.

Josh & Patrick...a lovely couple :)

The house was a world apart from ‘the outside world’ and proudly kept by housekeeper Lady who was greatly offended the moment anyone attempted to do anything domestically oriented.

Josh’s dad’s Colombian wife had her 29th birthday whilst we were there (Yes, I know, lucky bastard!) and we had a great party to celebrate. A house full of dental students with a penchant for doing shots made for a messy night and a late morning.

Our hangovers were the only evidence of anything having taken place the following evening as thanks to Lady, the bombsite we’d left behind had already been cleared away. The good company and Josh’s excellent culinary skills made it hard to leave but eventually I dragged myself away. I had an appointment in Medellin…

ADV Party

Whilst I was in Manizales John returned to Medellin to meet Vincent (ADV – Crashmaster). Vincent had spent the previous two years riding through the Americas on his KTM990 and had some very useful information to share regarding the Guianas.

Thanks to Vincent (ADV - Crashmaster) for his Guyana's info

After picking Vincent’s brains the three of us headed out for some ‘fukingoodribs’

I wasn't joking...

Vincent had eaten there before and so we were well looked after by English owner Simon, who’s teenage years in Brighton had obviously left an impression on him judging by the Ska music that played all evening.

The 'Meister' and the 'Master's' tuck in to fukingoodribs!

Downtime

It was with a tinge of sadness that I rode away from Medellin. I’d fallen in love with Colombia and its delightful people over the previous six weeks and it was only the thought of seeing my niece that kept the throttle twisted towards Bogota.

Thanks to all the Sunday road closures to allow cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers and walkers the run of the city I had a nightmare finding the home of Carlos who had kindly offered to store Rosie for me whilst I was away.

I spent the Monday sorting out what I needed to take and what could stay, then finding a suitable (cheap) bag to carry it all in. Dinner with Carlos and his family on the Monday evening was a very sociable affair and we were joined by his son who had recently spent a month riding his BMW F800 around Colombia and had produced a coffee table book of his photos.

On Tuesday 29th March I boarded the Continental flight to Heathrow via Newark only to discover the increasingly tightfisted airline had replaced the regular in flight entertainment with ‘Direct TV’; yours for a swipe of your credit card and a mere U$6!

And so began my ‘holiday’?

Touchdown

On Wednesday April 27th I touched down back in Bogota and managed to fit in a visit to the splendid Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) before collecting Rosie.

I’d had a great time in Jersey attending my niece’s first birthday and spent more time with my sister and family during the drive up to the English Lake District for my best mate Jez’s wedding.

The weather obliged and a great time was had by all in beautiful surroundings. It was great to catch up with everyone but now it was time to hit the road again.

Only there was a slight problem. Whilst I’d been away ‘La Nina’ had returned to give Colombia second helpings even worse than the first. My plans to visit various National Parks got scrapped and Carlos kindly printed me some maps to get me to Cali avoiding the many closed roads.

A BIG Thank You to Carlos for looking after Rosie

Casa Blanca Hostel

Owned by Danish motorcycling enthusiast Mike and his Colombian wife Diana, Casa Blanca Hostel in Cali is a mecca for motorcycle travelers. It’s Mike’s enthusiasm that makes it, along with the undercover secure parking and excellent kitchen. Need something modified/repaired/replaced/shipped/stored? Mike knows where to get everything done.

Having taken me to a place to have one of my panniers repaired Mike told me about a fabricator/welder that had repaired the crashbars on one of his bikes so well you couldn’t see the repair. What made the guy particularly special said Mike is that “He just gets it”.

I’d had a modification to my rack in mind for a long time but whilst finding a welder was easy, finding a good one and someone that understands what you are trying to achieve rather than just what you are trying to describe to them is nigh on impossible.

Mike convinced me he had the right man and so I followed him across town to the workshop. Sure enough the guy at the fab shop understood exactly what I was trying to achieve and so I left Rosie with him overnight. I returned at the specified time the next day to find he had indeed “Just got it”. He had not only achieved what I wanted to, but in exactly the way I had wanted it.

I spent much longer than planned in Cali, partly due to the opportunity to get a few things repaired/modified and partly to get this blog up to date before heading into Ecuador. I was further delayed by a very sociable couple from Bristol riding a pair of Yamaha XT600’s. Having spent two years riding from England to Australia ten years ago Mark and Claire had finally realized their next dream of riding the Americas and set off from Calgary, Canada eight months ago.

Mark obviously knew his stuff regarding motorcycle mechanics and we had several conversations he obviously hadn’t been able to have for several months and Claire grinned with pride in his passion and knowledge.

I’ll look forward to sharing a few beers with them again.

Mark & Claire from Bristol, UK at Casa Blanca Hostel, Cali

I brought a few spares back with me from the UK and so Rosie got new chain & sprockets, fresh brake fluid, a larger (homemade Scottoiler reservoir) and a few other new Scottoiler  parts thanks to the continued support from the guys in Milngavie.

NB. For those that like to follow Rosie’s progress there is also an update on the Suzuki page.

Mike at Casa Blanca Hoste lwas a great help

The South

I finally escaped Cali and headed south on the Pan Americana. I didn’t get far before the police stopped all the traffic and I asked around to see if there had been a landslide. The answer was no. The road had been closed for a cycle race, and not even a professional one. This was a multi-day stage race for ‘Young Riders’. They sure do take their cycling seriously in Colombia.

Young Riders’ multi-day stage race

I spent the night in Popayan, a whitewashed colonial town dating back to 1536 before crossing the mountains to San Augustin. Not long after the dirt road ascent began so I came to a waterfall right on the roadside but no sooner had I pulled my camera out so it started raining – and continued to do so across the 3000m plateau – which made for a muddy ride (and no photos). The rain stopped just as the tarmac began on the descent to ??? and continued onto the small town of San Augustin.

My reason for visiting was the Parque Arqueológico where very little is known about literally hundreds of stone statues, some dating back to 3300 BC.

Stone Statue of San August

Waterfall Road

It was a 3km walk each way to the park and a few more inside it so I returned to my hospedaje for an early night. Before retiring to bed I told the landlady of my intentions to leave at 0600 the following morning as I wanted to make it to Ipiales. She raised her eyebrows before telling me the route through Mocoa was the quickest. Mike had always been told this route was unsafe whenever he’d enquired so I was glad to hear ‘no problema’ (although the Policia’a answer when I enquired the following day was ‘Más o Menos’!)

By 0900 I’d ridden to Mocoa, eaten breakfast and was heading west into the mountains and once again it started raining as soon as the tarmac ended. The rain had little effect on the road surface being, as it was, hewn out of the rock but it did spoil what would’ve been spectacular views into the valleys. Never before have I ridden a road along which I lost count of the number of waterfalls!

'Waterfall Road' Mocoa - Pasto

The road was all but invisible as it climbed slowly towards the pass but out of the mist appeared a sidecar outfit. Now that’s got to be a gringo I thought and so it was that I met Aussie Dean, and wrapped up in the sidecar, his Colombian(?) girlfriend. Dean arrived in Argentina feeling tired after cycling across Africa so when he met an English couple who were selling the Ural outfit they’d just ridden from Alaska, he bought it.

Dean and his Ural outfit

It finally stopped raining as I dropped out of the clouds and headed towards Laguna La Cocha and onto Pasto where I rejoined the Pan Americana for the great ride south to Ipiales.

Before riding into town to find a hotel, I had one last thing I wanted to see – the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas, 7km east of town. Unhappy with the parking arrangements I continued past the Sanctuary to the next town where I found a dirt track that led down the opposite side of the valley to give me the following view.

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas

Hasta Luego Colombia!

I spent my last night in Colombia (for now) in the border town of Ipiales and awoke to the sound of rain, pouring rain. I was tempted to just pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep but I managed to drag my arse out of bed and after brewing coffee in my room,  donned my wet weather gear and headed out to the border with Ecuador…

Now I don’t want you all to finish reading this thinking about rain, instead I’m going to leave you with my final (recurring) thought of Colombia…

No caption required!

More photos in the Central America and Colombia galleries – click the Smugmug logo


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27 Responses to Chapter 25 – South to South America

  1. Mark Hill says:

    Hi Adam,
    thanks for another enthralling episode of “Adam around the globe”, I love it.
    Sorry I didn’t get to see you when you where home for a few days, family commitments etc then on the Tuesday I set of to ride down to Nurnberg to see an old mate for his 50th. I thought myself the big adventurer untill I read this latest Blog, put’s it all into perspective, ha ha.
    Ride safe my friend and I will pull my finger out to see you next time you come to our shores.

    MH

  2. Maarten & Ilse Belanda says:

    Hi Adam,

    you’ve stunned me again friend. Good pictures, but even better writing!
    Keep up the good work.

    Big kiss & hug from Holland
    Ilse Maarten Lilou & Kaya

  3. DSFOX says:

    Now this kind of Trip would be an AWESOME way to spend my retirement…(Just have to find someone who shares that sense of adventure)….God Bless your Journeys….DSFOX, San Diego Adventure Riders, CORE

    • adamlewis says:

      Don’t not go because you have nobody to leave home with…maybe you never will. You’ll find plenty of others on the road once you start riding, especially in the Americas. If you don’t like it – go home. It’s a damn site better than sitting at home wondering “What if…?”

  4. kinger says:

    Hello Bro, great blog as always – liking the people shots. Especially the last one !!

  5. Darren Poole says:

    Damn. I have a love/hate relationship with you and your blog…. I love to read about your adventures, then I hate my life! :)

    This section is really hitting me, as I spent a year driving a van (LA to Panama) and then backpacking from there on down to Chile 12 years ago… I miss this type of travel adventure!

    Currently owner of a 97 DR650… maybe there is hope for me yet!

    Travel safe and thanks for the updates!

    Envious Darren in Atlanta

  6. Darren Poole says:

    P.S. Yeah, they sure do know how to “build” them in Columbia… my eyeballs almost became permanently displaced in Medellin!

  7. Tony says:

    Adam how do u do it mate? I have been trying to leave for about a decade. I suppose not having a wife and mortgage helps. Is it sponsorship from ur website that keeps u going? How can u afford all those eat out meals? Can u give a dollar value when u quote a price pls. Anyway mate I’m still getting around OZ on the R1100 GS. Can’t leave until my dog, Emma, passes on, shes my best pal,a real sweetheart,11yrs old Bearnese Mountian Dog, born in my dining room and she teaches me every day how to live, ie full on.atb tony

    • adamlewis says:

      Sponsorship from my website! You’re having a laugh! Sure I get freebies from Scottoiler and a riding suit from BMW Park Lane but that’s it…certainly no cash. A few kind folk have made donations but that sum is yet to top 100 quid. Eat out meals? Only where it’s cheap mate, you never saw me eating out in the US, Canada or Australia!
      Glad to hear Emma and the GS is still treating you well. Glad you’re still dialing in for a read. Cheers Adam

  8. Hugues says:

    Hey,

    Keep the dream alive. Thanks

    On a related question, what camera do you use?

    Thanks

    • adamlewis says:

      England – Malaysia (2006-2007) Konica Minolta A200. New Zealand – USA (2007-2010) Nikon D80 + Nikkor 18-200, Mexico – currrent (2010 – ) Nikon D300s + Nikkor 18-200

  9. Hugues says:

    Great picture.

    Have you done any video?

    Editing on the road is probably not easy.

    Take care and keep me dreaming

  10. Sharon Cohen says:

    You are rock Adam!
    Very intresting (and long) post you gave us here.
    Thanks,
    Sharon

    Casa Blanca Hostel Taganga

  11. Great posting! Thank you for the pics and especially, the much more pleasant ending to it :-)

  12. Darren johnson says:

    Hi Adam, another great read and awesome photos, Colombia is a spectacular country and the people are friendly and beautiful. Just missed you in popayan, arrived on the 19th may leaving today 5th June going back to oz, Alexandra got her visa and the baby will be born in oz in aug can’t wait. Have a safe trip stay upright hope to catch up one day.

  13. dave gumn says:

    Another amazing episode Adam. Keep them comming.
    Dave Gumn, sunny Wales

  14. Henriette says:

    Awesome reading. Thanks to your website I decided to buy a DR650 for our Pan-American trip (ongoing) and I love it. Except for the seat of course which is no less than horrible.
    I bought the lower gel seat, but it was so extremely uncomfortable that I took it to http://www.powersportseats.com in Calgary. Andrea there opened the seat and it was obvious why it was so uncomfortable. Poor foam and gel and the gel was fitted very badly. Check out our blog about it: http://www.n69s54a.com/2011/outposts
    Where are you now? We are in Idaho on our way to Yellowstone. Expect to cross the border to Mexico in about 4 weeks.
    Henriette

  15. Henriette says:

    We are loving it. We do a lot of gravel roads and try to stay out of the cities as much as possible. And there are so many beautiful and free campgrounds in the national forests.

  16. adamlewis says:

    Glad to hear it. When you said 4 weeks from Idaho to Mexico I thought you were blasting through! I had a fabulous time bush camping across the US. Too many stunning places to mention. TAT CO & NV were exceptional though…enjoy

  17. Rhino Von Hawk says:

    Adam where is Chapter 26?

    have u stopped traveling & found a great place to relax?

    Rhino

    • adamlewis says:

      Hi Rhino,

      I am relaxing, here in La Paz, Bolivia. I’ve started writing Chapter 26 and hope to post it this week. In the meantime you might like to take a look here –

      Cheers

      Adam

  18. adamlewis says:

    There should have been a link in my last message –

    http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=669987

  19. adamlewis says:

    I can’t see a problem in IE…what have you found???

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