…”we got fun ‘n’ games”. The bugs ate me alive, I broke my speedometer, tent, laptop, sleeping pad and got stuck in Brazilian customs. Oh…and then there were the snakes…Fun ‘n’ games? Oh yeah…
I wasn’t really ready to leave the mountains (truth be told I never would be) but the rainy season was approaching and I was already pushing my luck heading into the jungle as late as I was. I wanted to visit the ‘Guiana’s’ on the NE coast of SA and to do so meant getting to Macapá on the north side of the Amazon river at the Atlantic end.
From La Paz there are essentially two routes to Brazil: North via Rurrenabaque to enter Brazil at Guajará Mirim or east across Bolivia via Santa Cruz to enter Brazil at Corumbá. I chose to head north as it would afford me the opportunity to ride either the Transamazonica (See below) or the infamous BR-319 from Humaita to Manaus. I really wanted to tackle BR-319 and even bought a machete and a 10l fuel can in preparation. Unfortunately though getting from Manaus to Macapá involves two boats and approx 4-5 nights sailing down the Amazon. Once I’d researched the cost of boats though I soon realized I needed to spend as little time aboard as possible. That meant taking one boat from either Santarem or Belém and with Santarem being the most direct and therefore cost effective option it became my next destination.
It was a beautiful day to leave; blue sky and sunshine all the way to the pass at 4600m. As usual the descent into the valley brought some cloud but nothing nasty. I set off down the ‘old’ road right from the summit and soon realised it wasn’t such a great idea. It was badly affected by landslides and in places the shale was ready to give way underneath me. Backtracking, I returned to the tarmac for a while and picked up the ‘old’ road again where the ‘classic’ section begins beyond the gas station.
At Coroico I rode straight to the gas station in the valley where I knew I could buy gas. Last time I was here there was a big queue and I wanted to avoid that during my early start come departure day. After a cold coke on the plaza I rode out of town and up the hill to hostel Sol y Luna where I’d stayed with the others a week ago. This time though I pitched my tent for Bs30 and had a sink, toilet and shower all within 10m. Nice.
Two days later I was up early for the long ride to Rurrenabaque. Oscar had told me to ask at the hostel about road closures along the road to Caranavai and so I did, only to be told “Yes there are closures but they won’t affect you on a bike”. Wrong. After getting up at 0600 and riding away at 0745 I was stopped at 0830 and went nowhere until 1130. Grrrr…
Riding to Caranavi it was hard to believe I’d ridden that road in the dark (see previous chapter). It was every bit as dangerous as the infamous ‘Road of Death’ but after a while I realised that at least at night most drivers turned their lights on whereas in the dust of the day very few bothered. In the dust I could see nothing, and I mean nothing, yet I couldn’t stop for fear of being struck from behind.
I learned from Oscar and Sergio that the reason for driving on the opposite side of the road here wasn’t so that drivers could better judge their proximity to the edge but to prevent the heavily loaded trucks coming from the Amazon from collapsing the edge of the road away and falling into the abyss.
After a quick lunch in Caranavi I continued on towards Rurre (as the locals refer to it). The road was ok as far as Yucomo but after that it sucked. It was a fairly fast dirt road but none of the bridges had been completed and there were seemingly endless detours where braking and accelerating vehicles created corrugations and dust…lots of dust.
It was my first real day in the jungle and the heat and humidity hit me – 35°C/75%. I rode as fast as I dare and made it to Rurre just as the sun was setting.
I had planned on continuing the following day but the heat and humidity had really taken it out of me. Instead I did very little that involved burning energy. I continued uploading my previous RAW files to Lightroom and did some emailing, all the time drinking as much water as I could stomach. Mid-afternoon a storm struck town. Wind blew from all directions carrying rain horizontally through the mesh windows of my room and blowing the water under the door. The electricity for the whole of Rurre went out and so no more wi-fi or battery charging.
That evening I went to eat garlic catfish at Restaurant La Perla on the recommendation of Sergio. The fish was spectacular. The best dish I’d eaten since Gorditas on Divisadero railway station back in Copper Canyon, Mexico.
The previous afternoon’s storm meant that I hadn’t washed my air filter and after all the dust en-route to Rurre I really wanted to do that before I moved on so I got up at 0645 and had it washed before breakfast. There was still no electricity on when I left, neither was there any gas in the gas station and not for the first time I was pleased to have my huge tank. Along the road to Reyes there were several trees that had been blown down and I wondered about the road conditions ahead. 30km up the road in Reyes I found gas and continued on through Santa Ana. The few people I’d spoken to who’d actually ridden it said it was shite so its great condition came as a pleasant surprise and I found myself cruising along at 85-90km/h all day.
The further north I rode the more like riding in Western Australia it became. The red sand/ripio track and the grassland with shrubs and the occasional forested area all reminded me of WA.I passed through one short stretch of forest where I saw half a dozen iguana’s on the road in different spots. Good sized ones too with beautiful black and grey striped tails.
Late afternoon I found a great bushcamp just 20m from the track, totally out of site and on hard ground with a little shade. I couldn’t ask for more. It was still bloody hot and there’s no way I could have sat for long in direct sunlight.
That was the end of my good luck for the day though. My speedometer had packed up during the afternoon when the cable slipped and chaffed on the disc and then later, as I was pitching my tent, so I noticed a hole the size of my thumb in the floor and several holes in the mesh panel at one end. Great, just when I needed a bug proof environment to sleep in.
Disappointed that my tent that had been so good had finally begun to fail I laid down in bed and booted up my laptop only to find that after 5 years of rattling around on the back of my bike, I’d finally managed to break the screen. Just a little pissed off I went to sleep only to awake in the middle of the night when a puncture deflated my sleeping pad. Grrrr…..
At Riberalta I joined a big road undergoing improvement and followed that to Guayamerin where I asked a taxi bike rider the way to Cachuela Esperanza, a place both Oscar Ebert and Adam Mulvanny had recommended. A Bs10 ride across a river on a small boat and I was on my way to CE. It was an unusual riverside town of old wooden shops and houses very different to anything else I’d seen in Bolivia. It had an air about it that suggested it was once more important than it is now. I sat on a bench by the river to make coffee and a local woman came to chat and was soon followed by some young kids.
Stuck in Customs
It was early afternoon (Saturday) and I had a decision to make. Whether or not to cross the border to Brazil? I decided I should make the most of the good weather and push north to Porto Velho as fast as I could. Rain on the BR-319 from there to Manaus could make it impassable but I currently had blue sky and sunshine. Back in Guayamerin the Aduana had closed at 1230 but I wasn’t going to hang around for 2 days just to give them my TIP.
I decided to leave but couldn’t find a ferry. What looked like a ferry was out of commission (or just used for fuel tankers I couldn’t tell), either way I hadn’t seen a Brazilian registered vehicle in Bolivia. Outside the Migracíon office I met two lads who said they’d take me across the river for Bs150. A crazy amount of money and besides, I only had Bs70. After haggling for a while I got them down Bs70 before walking into the Migracíon office to find the officer out of uniform and breastfeeding her daughter. It was the first time I’d had my passport stamped by a breastfeeding woman!
Getting Rosie over the 60cm high sides of the boat proved interesting. When the lads realised they couldn’t lift her in they moved the boat to where I could wheel her along a plank and ‘drop’ her in to the boat, still leaving me puzzled as to how we’d unload her.
On the Brazilian side I went to make sure it was ok to unload her only to be told that their customs too was closed. I dealt with two very friendly, helpful guys one of whom tried calling the main office to see if anyone was working overtime – they weren’t. At first they wanted to send me back to Bolivia which may have been the right thing to do but I would have had to pay to cross the river twice more. Come Monday I probably wouldn’t arrive until lunchtime which would cost me another 1/2 day.
The first guy said I could park my bike in the customs compound (at my own risk) but it did have a security guard and Rosie would be out of sight. I accepted, and with directions to a cheap(!?) hotel I walked, sweating profusely, for three blocks to where I found Hotel Mini Estrellita and got a room for R35 (GBP13/U$21). The most expensive room I can remember but I had no choice.
I then set about finding the office of the Federal Police so I could get my passport stamped. The directions I’d been given were completely wrong and it took me ages to find, wandering the backstreet sweating like a bastard.
Eventually I found it, got stamped in for 30 days and returned to the Aduana compound to collect the rest of my bags. Another sweaty walk later carrying both panniers and my rucksack with camera, stove coffee etc and I was finally in my room. The shower was way better than it looked and I stood under it for ages. My Under Armour top looked beyond recovery, the dirt so ingrained thanks to the (still) broken zip on my riding jacket but I gave it a good scrub in the shower and it came up surprisingly well. Good enough to wear again anyway.
I went out to look for food but there appeared to be no restaurants. A few bars were preparing to open and were a reminder of how much later everything happens in Brazil compared to Bolivia.
Eventually I found a permanent street stall next to a long row of bars all showing Cage Fighting and ate a spicy chicken and spinach dish with rice. It was delicious but was also an indicator of much higher prices in Brazil.
I had a few Reals left over from my last visit to Brazil but not enough to pay for my hotel bill and so after dinner I went to the ATM only to have my transaction declined…by the first bank, then the second and the third. Somewhat miffed I returned to my hotel.
To cut a long story short I contacted my bank the following morning to find that due to the very high level of Debit/Credit card fraud in Brazil my card was blocked from ALL Brazilian ATM’s. Once we’d agreed a maximum time/withdrawal limit they unblocked my card and I was reunited with my cash flow.
That hasn’t happened to me anywhere else in the world so I presume Brazil is a real problem.
Steering Head bearing search Part II
Next stop was Porto Velho where I decided to make a second attempt to find steering head bearings. and so first went in search of a hotel. After finding a place to stay and Googling bearing shops I set out in search but people just looked and shook their heads when I showed them the numbers. A place called Rolauto were particularly helpful and so I said I’d return in the morning when I had the dimensions to go with the numbers.
I returned at 0800 the following morning but they didn’t have anything to match the dimensions I’d given them. I went to the other bearing shop and things were looked up when they produced a NTN catalogue. However, despite the OEM bearings being NTN, they weren’t listed and so they couldn’t help me!
I went to the street lined with bike shops and visited all of them. In the last, MotoBras, I met owner (Herculando) who couldn’t have been more helpful. We communicated via Google Translate on his desktop computer (I don’t speak Portuguese) and he made several phonecalls. A guy arrived whos brother was the manager of a Suzuki dealership in Sao Paulo so he was sent an email. I was to return in an hour to check for a reply. In the meantime I went to the local Suzuki dealer where I was quoted R525 (U$293/£183). Back at Motobras the price came back as R640 but seeing my shock Herculando said he’d do them for cost R500. Still a price so ludicrously high I wasn’t prepared to pay it.
Having rejoined tarmac when I entered Brazil at Guajara Mirim it was a boring featureless ride to Porto Velho and on to Humaita 180km further on. The only ‘excitement’ was running onto reserve and wondering whether or not I’d make it to the next gas station. I did but it couldn’t have been by much as I fitted 35.53l in the tank!
The sky eastward sky was black and I opted to wait out the ensuing storm where I knew there was shelter and so after buying a couple of roadside snacks I found a closed outdoor bar opposite a gas station and brewed fresh coffee. It hammered down with rain for three hours and once again my thoughts turned to the road ahead and not for the first time I wondered if I’d left it too late to head into the jungle (It was 8th December).
When the weather did break I rode 3km to the ferry arriving at 1445 only to learn that it ran west-east on even hours and east-west on odd hours. I had to wait until 4pm to cross the Rio Madeira.
It was a slippery climb up a muddy bank off the ferry and I could foresee me getting stuck behind someone struggling and so I made sure I was the first one off. After wheel spinning my way up the bank I was pleasantly surprised to find how quickly and effectively the road had drained. As a result I could sit on 95km/h most of the time. I’d read in Jay Kannaiyan’s blog that there was a truckstop at km180 but as I didn’t disembark the ferry until 1615 and sunset was at 1830 there was only a very slim chance I’d make it.
It was looking good for getting to the truckstop when I happened upon another place that I thought might have been it. When I asked if I could camp I was offered a spot literally next to the restaurant door, under the roof – perfect. I made a brew and set about taping up the holes in my tent.
Inaugurated in 1972 and officially designated BR-230, the Transamazonica runs 5300km from Saboeiro in the east to Lábrea (or Rio Branco; depending the source) in the west. Whilst the east is largely tarmac the west is virtually all dirt. My route took me 1426km from Humaita (Rio Madeira) to Rurópolis (also spelled Furópolis) where a junction with BR-163 leads north another 213km to Santarém. Apart from the final 140km to Santarém and approximately 100km through Itaituba it was all dirt.
‘Dirt’ is a rather ambiguous description for a road surface hence the South America term ‘Ripio’ for gravel roads. I had no idea what kind of road surface to expect along the Transamazonica and therefore no idea of what transformation it would undergo during heavy rain. At best, well built ‘ripio’ will drain quickly and not cause any problems. At worst, a dirt road can quickly become impassable.
With this in mind as I set off along it in December I decided getting off it as soon as I could would be in my best interest.
Rising before daylight each day to make the most of the daylight hours I rode 525km on my first full day and 755km on the second arriving in Santarem (well Alter do Chão actually) after just two and a bit days of riding.
My first day took me from the restaurant 147km east of the Rio Madeira to the small town of Jacareacanga 525km east and 8km off the main ‘road’. I pulled into the gas station and after filing up asked where I could camp. The attendant went off to find the manager who promptly told me I should camp in their undercover BBQ area as it was about to rain. I looked behind me to see another black sky and quickly made camp undercover. It was soon pouring with rain and not for the first time that day. Several thunderstorms had passed over me but luckily they’d all been moving in a NNE – SSW direction whilst the road headed roughly WWS – EEN. Fortunately that meant they passed across the road quickly thereby inflicting little damage. Early in the day I’d come upon a stretch of road that was compacted dirt complete with potholes and ruts. Those potholes and ruts prevented the road from draining and as a result is was slick. Actually ‘slick’ doesn’t begin to describe it; it was like ice. Merely touching any of the controls spun Rosie around 80° to the direction of travel, as did the slightest of weight transfer to steer around the ruts and potholes. I daren’t stop for fear of not getting started again and pushed on heart in mouth expecting to be dumped on my arse at any moment. The experience merely spurred me on to get off the Trans-am as quickly as possible.
Another early start saw me out of bed at 0530 and riding by 0700 on day two. Undulating roads of compacted wet sand and ruts made for great riding early on and I saw the only real wildlife of the ride – a few monkeys. I was glad of the damp conditions but didn’t appreciate just how much until the 100km run in to Itaituba where the road dried out and the traffic suddenly increased along with the dust.
Itaituba sits on the banks of the Rio Tapajós (a subsidiary of the Amazon) and I rode straight to the ferry landing so as to not waste any time. I parked on the ramp and after grabbing a snack settled down in the shade to await the ferry. I soon noticed other drivers wandering off and returning clutching pieces of paper which I took to be tickets. I’d crossed several rivers between Porto Vehlo and Itaituba, none of which required a ticket but all of which had to be paid for once aboard. After asking around I eventually mad my way through the market stalls to a small concrete hut where tickets were sold through a hole in the wall.
Once across the river the Trans-Am was worse. In fact it sucked, really sucked. Wider, drier, dustier and busier I was glad I hadn’t ridden it during the dry season.
In Furópolis I left the Trans-Am behind me and headed north on BR-163. What made me think it was going to be better than the Trans-Am I don’t know (it was after all going to a major river port!) In fact it was worse. Rough, pot-holed, rutted and dusty was just the beginning. Construction work to improve the road was ongoing for the next 70km and so once again I encountered even more than the usual amount of dust and corrugations as traffic slowed and accelerated around the countless diversions.
I had it in my head that sunset was 1830 but it was in fact 1740 which made it all but dark when I turned off the main road south of Santarém to head for the of Alter do Chão. I followed my GPS along some tiny, overgrown trails that were so small I was surprised to find them on my map but the alternative was a long detour through Santarém itself. It was pitch dark by the time I emerged from the woods into a village who’s name I can’t recall. It was as though I’d been teleported to the USA as I rode along a wide straight road lined with single storey wooden houses all decorated for Christmas. Just to add to the US feel the ‘Disney’ circus was in town!
Once past the circus I rode back into the woods for my final run into Alter do Chão. Despite my haggling ability being vastly reduced by having arrived so late I eventually managed to find a place to stay and haggled the price down from 60 Reals to 40; still more than I wanted to pay, but ok for one night.
The next morning I found a cheaper place to stay before riding into Santarem to inquire about riverboats to Macapa. It was a wasted journey though as all the ticket booths were closed (Sunday).
Monday morning dawned and I packed up early in the hope of finding a boat the same day. With all the ticket offices open it was easy to find a boat and book a ticket. Happy with the quote of R120 (U$65)for me plus R120 for Rosie I rode into town to buy a hammock.
There are two choices of ‘accommodation’ onboard Amazon River boats; Cabins and hammocks. A cabin was way too expensive and so a hammock it was.
Back at the ticket booth a guy appeared from the boat and said that my bike wasn’t the 150cc the ticket agent had said it was. He called the boat and I was re-quoted R250 (U$135) just for Rosie! After some haggling and a few calls to the boat I got them down to R320 all up (U$173).
Despite the boat not being due to depart until 1800 but knowing how crowded the boats get I boarded as soon as I was allowed at around 1400. The boats moor up against two floating steel pontoons with narrow ramps from deck to pontoon. With one of the safety rails removed it was easy to walk Rosie onboard where it wasn’t long before she was buried amongst the multitude of cargo being ferried aboard by porters. Everything from fruit & veg to widescreen TV’s and new motorcycles were carried aboard over the course of the afternoon. Above the cargo deck the passenger deck filled up to the point that the rows of hammocks were inches apart.
Much to my surprise, we sailed on time. The sun was setting behind us as we chugged away from port and soon people began appearing with bowls of soup. It took a few meal times before I worked out how the system worked and managed to avoid queueing the length of the boat! Food was served three times daily from a small galley at the stern of the boat but with elbow to elbow seating for 24 at a time many opted for ‘take-aways’. With 200 or so passengers aboard you can imagine how long the dining process took.
The biggest mistake I made on that boat was leaving my earplugs on my bike. There was a big black woman near me who couldn’t speak without shouting. I swear that when she was talking I could no longer hear the boats’ engines!
After a broken nights sleep where we docked a few times to squeeze even more people and cargo into the few remaining gaps, breakfast was called before 0600. It made for a long day of reading, snoozing and strolling along the deck to keep my circulation going. The river is so wide that the banks are barely visible for much of the journey and so meal times brought welcome relief to the monotony.
At 0200 on the second night we pulled into Porto Santana (Macapa) but with nowhere to go stayed aboard in my hammock until 0600. Not that I could have gone anywhere anyway as I had to wait for Rosie to re-appear from the cargo beneath which she was buried.
I pushed her off the boat as easily as I’d pushed her aboard, paid the R10 harbour tax and bought a few roadside snacks for breakfast. Once out of town I found some wasteland with shade and brewed fresh coffee to wash down my breakfast. I only had 25km or so to ride into Macapa that day and wouldn’t be able to check into a hotel until mid-morning at the earliest.
Capital of the region of Amapa, Macapa sits on the northern side of the Amazon where it is isolated from the rest of Brazil by the rivers Amazon to the south and Oiapoque to the north, the Atlantic ocean to the east and the Amazon Jungle to the west. I rode straight the the Hotel America Nova Mondo where I found a cheap room thanks to Vinnie (aka Crashmaster – Chapter 25).
With my chores done I headed north on a boring, flat road bordered by deforestation. It was 600km too the Oiapoque River and the border with French Guiana so I was glad when the dirt started and the and the vegetation picked up allowing me to find a place to camp. I was just about to settle down and watch a film when something large moved through the jungle close to my tent. I quickly covered all my lights and grabbed my machete before waiting in silence. I never did discover what it was; wild boar, tapir, jaguar and it made for light sleeping.
The dirt road drained well after the overnight rain which was fortunate for me as I’d seen plenty of pictures of what happens during the rainy season.
Once in Oiapoque I got my passport stamped quickly enough but spent 2 hours queuing in Customs to get Rosie stamped out.
With the paperwork out of the way I could set about finding a way across the river to French Guiana. The bridge that had been under construction for several years had been completed several months earlier but remained frustratingly closed. Two different stories abound as to the reason for this: a) That the French and Brazilian Presidents couldn’t agree a mutually acceptable date for the opening. b) The French want to inspect the bridge to ensure it has been built to EU standards but the Brazilian have told them to go @#*$ themselves!
There is a ferry but it charges cars €200 and €50 for bikes but only if there is a fare paying car.
My best option was to find someone with a boat and to do that was just a case of riding around where the small boats moored and waiting for someone to approach me. It didn’t take long before I was quoted R50 which was exactly what Vinnie had paid a year previously so I agreed and rode off down the road to where I’d been told to meet the boat.
A steep, narrow concrete slipway led down to the water where the aluminum canoe soon arrived along with the hired help for loading and unloading Rosie. R10 each took care of them and they soon manhandled Rosie over the side and into the front of the canoe where I sat astride her for the 20 min ride downstream.
Arriving at St Georges in FG was made particularly easy thanks to Vinnie (aka Crashmaster – See Chapter 25) who had ridden the same route in 2010 and shared his info with me when we met in Medellin.
Customs was closed but thanks to Vinnie I knew I didn’t need to go there. I went to the Border Police Station where I handed over my passport. Without even opening it the officer said “Mmmm…very nice” and handed it back. “Don’t you want to stamp it ?” I asked. “I can do” he said, “as a souvenir”. I must have looked baffled as he went on to explain that I had arrived in the EU and had presented an EU passport that therefore didn’t need stamping.
Knowing that French Guiana was going to be expensive my plan was always to get in, do what I needed/wanted to and get out. What I needed to do was to visit the capital Cayenne to apply for a visa for Suriname. What I wanted to do was visit the Isles du Salut, location of Henry Charriéres’ book ‘Papillon’, immortalized in the 1973 film of the same name and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Not knowing how long my visa would take to process I planned on getting to the Embassy first thing Monday morning. That meant entering the country on the previous Friday as I couldn’t ascertain whether or not I could cross the border at weekends.
And so it was that on Friday afternoon I rode NW on a well surfaced road through the jungle. Burnt out cars were dotted about the place; previously used by illegal Brazilian immigrants and hunters they are destroyed by the FG Police.
Late afternoon I came to the very fancifully named ‘Auberge Des Orpaille’, offering a restaurant and accommodation varying from hammock space to private rooms. €7 got me hammock space where I pitched my tent. Having not passed a shop on my way there I had no choice but to head to the bar for supper. €20 bought an evening meal, €12 a ‘plate’ and €3 a sandwich. The waitress looked down her nose at me when she delivered my sandwich, adding to the ‘French’ experience.
Despite the snobbery it was a beautiful location that would’ve been the perfect place to await Monday morning. After the previous afternoons thunderstorm I awoke to brilliant sunshine and soon had all my riding gear spread out to dry along with a few maps. I made coffee and settled down in front of my laptop to catch-up with some diary writing when the lady of the establishment approached me to ask what time I was leaving. When I said I liked it there so much I’d decided to stay she told me she was full! I was the only one there but I got the message.
Riding into Cayenne was like being teleported to mainland France. The main road in passes Renault and Peugeot car dealerships and Casino and Carrefour supermarkets where I took the opportunity to stock up with the staples for camping plus a few things I’d not seen anywhere else on the continent. Blue cheese and a freshly baked baguette along with a bottle of red to wash it down with.
A wasted attempt at visiting the village of Kaw (where I’d have had to leave Rosie and all my kit in an unattended carpark and taken a boat) meant a 140km round trip for nothing. I wasn’t bothered about the distance, it was a pleasant enough ride, but the loss of daylight hours I could ill afford. With nowhere to camp near Cayenne I continued north towards Kourou in search of a campsite I’d read about.
I left Cayenne and rode SE towards Kaw on a small road through the jungle. I had planned on staying at a place called Camp Caymen but arrived to find nobody there. The place was open though so I looked around and came across their Tariff which listed hammock space at €15. Having paid €7 the previous night I thought it extortionate and left. I rode on to what I thought was going to be Kaw village only to arrive at an unattended riverside carpark from where a passenger only boat sailed downriver to the village proper. Unprepared to leave my fully loaded bike unattended I rode back towards Cayenne.
Stupidly I’d forgotten to fill up with water and so couldn’t stop at what turned out to be the only potential spot for bush camping along the road. I was virtually on the outskirts of Cayenne when I finally found water and so continued north in the hope of finding the ‘Tourist Camp’ I’d read about 17km south of Kourou.
I arrived in Kourou well after dark having passed nothing that resembled a tourist camp. On the edge of town I found a gas station that had recently closed down and quickly found a spot behind it that was out of sight from the road. I was going to spend the night in my hammock so I could make a quick getaway if I had to but the mosquitoes were horrendous. I re-read the info I had for the Tourist Camp and realized I had been looking on the wrong road. Yes it was 17km from Kourou but along the minor road to Saramaka.
Once on the right road it still took some finding in the dark as there was no way of knowing where the 17km had been measured from. Eventually though I found Camp Maripas and pulled into the driveway only to find a wedding reception in full swing. Noooooo. The event pavilion(?) doubled as the hammock area and so they had no space. It had been dark for several hours by then and there must have been an air of desperation in my voice when I asked if there was anywhere else and said I had a tent. The owner then struck up a conversation with a member of his staff before turning back to me and exclaiming in a strong French accent “A font…why not!?” and led me to a nice, grassy are behind where all the cars were parked. I could have kissed him.
With my tent pitched I went to open my bottle of wine only to realize I didn’t have a corkscrew. I wasn’t planing on leaving any in the bottle anyway so I smashed the cork in and decanted it into my saucepan.
When I awoke it was daylight and the place was deserted :)
Despite being somewhat isolated it was good value at €8 night and included the best hot shower I could remember.
I used it as a base for the next week, dodging thunderstorms to visit Cayenne on the Monday to apply for my Suriname visa and again on the Wednesday to collect it. I visited the disappointing museum at the Kourou Space Centre (launch site for Europe’s Arianne rockets amongst others).
My last trip was to the Isles du Salut (Salvation Islands), accessed via a one hour boat ride across shark infested waters from Kourou.
Originally occupied by 18th century settlers who enjoyed the respite from ferocious mainland mosquitoes, the trio of islands gained notoriety as French penal colony. Some 80,000 prisoners perished on the islands during its 100 year existence. Finally, under pressure from the international community to close the prison and abandon its brutal treatment of prisoners, the prison officially closed somewhere between 1938 and 1945 depending on what you read.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable day exploring the island and eating a picnic lunch by the sea with English girl Anna and her mum Helen who I’d met at the Suriname Embassy.
Unfortunately I missed the only guided tour of the day by mistakenly thinking it departed from the museum at lunchtime only to find it had left from the hotel reception in the morning.
Thanks to a network of fellow travelers I was well looked after in the Guianas. As well as Vinnie passing on all of his personally collected information I owe a big thank you to Dutch couple Coen and Karin (www.landcruising.nl) who had passed my details on to French Policeman Phillipe and Suriname biker Dennis Lo (more of Dennis later).
I arrived at Phillipe and Chuuny’s house in the border town of St Laurent du Maroni mid-afternoon on December 23rd with the intent of overnighting and moving on to the capital of Suriname, Paramarbo for Christmas with Dennis.
However, Phillipe and Chunny were clearly expecting me to spend Christmas with them and had filled the kitchen accordingly. It put me in a very awkward situation that was diffused by Dennis being chilled out about my predicament and suggesting I spent Christmas with Phillipe & Chunny and New Year with him.
As the site of disembarkation for French prisoners, St Laurent du Maroni has it’s fair share of historic building associated with the penal system. Phillipe wasted no time in giving me a guided tour. As we drove around so I learned more about how the French regard French Guiana and the comment by the Border Policeman in St Georges that I was in the EU. As well as the French license plates on all the cars, La Poste post offices and French telephone dialing codes Phillipe explained that France see FG as a department of France and not an overseas department, to the extent that anyone flying from France isn’t entitled to duty free goods!
Like many mainland European’s, Phillipe & Chunny served their Christmas dinner on the evening of Christmas Eve. Now Chunny is a fabulous cook and served up roast Turkey and roast Goose but the her Pièce de résistance was her homemade Tiramisu which was sensational!
I spent Christmas and Boxing days with Phillipe and Chunny, visiting the beach and riding into the jungle with Phillipe aboard his KTM950SE. Suriname was beckoning though and it was soon time t ride down to the ferry.
Phillipe accompanied me to the ferry terminal where he worked as a Border Policeman and onto the ferry so he could show me to the insurance office in Albina. I’d tried to buy insurance for Suriname in Cayenne after collecting my passport, but the insurance office closed at lunchtime on Wednesdays and at €1.59/ltr for gas returning would have doubled the price of the insurance.
Suriname was the first country in the world that had asked for my International Driving Permit/Licence as part of their entry requirements. Anybody who’s ever used an IDP will know that for some unknown and totally impractical reason they’re only valid for one year from the date of issue (despite my driving license being valid for 10 years). For those who have never seen one, an IDP is purely a copy of you details, numbered and referenced to translations in several languages.
Luckily I was aware of this requirement prior to my arrival and was able to get creative with a razor blade.
I said goodbye to Phillipe as he boarded his return ferry and headed west to Paramaribo and a rendezvous with Dennis.
Dennis is the elder statesman of the local bike club BB Boyz, an eclectic mix of characters that rage from a pill popping post-burnout businessman to a pink R1 riding pole-dancer! Apart from their passion for motorcycles they are united in their obsession for Blackberry’s! They wouldn’t admit it but I joked that that was what ‘BB Boyz’ really stood for.
As you can tell there was plenty of banter and I spent 10 days or so hanging out with them. It was an endless round of parties with quantities of food like I’d never seen before. In the middle of all these parties was the big one – New Years Eve.
New Years Eve
Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is a very young country having only gained independence form The Netherlands in 1975. The official language remains Dutch but there is a massive Chinese community and it is from this that the crazy NYE celebrations derive.
Believing that the noise of firecrackers ward off evil spirits, the Surinamese have taken the idea to extremes. Firecrackers so long they they have to be un-rolled from the backs of trucks are laid in the streets (which remain open!) and once lit give the city the appearance of a war zone. Some onlookers wear ear defenders, face masks and safety glasses to protect themselves as they get covered in debris.
It’s a carnival atmosphere with bars, and food stalls lining the streets from mid-morning but the public festivities end surprisingly early as most people choose to see in the New Year at home with family. That doesn’t mean the end of the festivities though, far from it. Private firework parties light up the sky across the city, the smoke preventing traffic from moving between midnight and 0200!
Away from the parties I enjoyed wandering the historic streets of Paramaribo with their impressive wooden buildings including the Caribbean’s largest mosque sitting harmoniously alongside the Duthch Israeli Synagogue . Dennis managed to track down new steering head bearings that I’d been searching for since La Paz and so Rosie was restored to her normal self and his sister (who teaches Chinese cooking) fattened me up with our lunchtime visits.
Another border, another ferry. This time across the Corentyne River to the south of Nieuw Nickerie. With only one ferry a day running I couldn’t take a chance at missing it and so arose early to dodge the more unusual roadkill en-route to the ferry.
As it happened the 1100 ferry finally sailed at 1310 and along the three Brazilians driving a jungle loop in their Mitsubishi 4×4, we arrived in Guyana to be charged U$1 to buy our customs forms!
Pretty much flat and straight the road to the capital Georgetown was nothing to shout about. It was however lined with plenty of unique buildings.
Once in the capital I rode to the hotel Vinny had stayed at. He mentioned that cheap accommodation was hard to find but I still had a shock when I was quoted U$58! Needless to say I set off in search of a cheaper alternative. After much searching around I came across Eena’s Guesthouse. There was a locked gate next to the door leading to an overgrown alleyway where I decided that with a bit of juggling and a plank to cross the open drainage ditch I could wedge Rosie in there safely.
I dealt with Eena through the bars on her living room (GUY$4500/U$22.50) and she passed me the keys to the side gate.
By night, Georgetown had an edge to it. And whilst I never felt I was about to get a knife slipped in me it was one of those places where my awareness of my surroundings was heightened and I found myself walking in the road, away from dark doorways. Looking for cheap eats in the evening inevitably leads one to the less desirable parts of town and Georgetown was no exception.
After a lousy night of sweating under a noisy fan I set about exploring the town. Daylight had replaced the edginess of darkness with friendly faces and Georgetown took on a different personality. Formerly British Guiana the city has plenty of beautiful colonial architecture amongst which is St Georges Cathedral, said to be the worlds tallest wooden building. My favorite though was the ‘Danube Gothic’ town hall.
Wandering the back streets I came upon Kitchener who was sitting outside two lock-ups stacked ceiling high with junk. Sitting on a stool he was attempting to produce perpetual energy using a bicycle wheel and sliding magnets! He lived in Oregon for years and spoke good English so we chatted for a while. When I asked if I could take his photo he said “You don’t work for National Geographic do you?” “Yeah, right. I wish!” I replied.
Georgetown – Lethem Road
Having ridden very little over the previous month I was really looking forward to the ride to Brazil. The first 90km to Linden was tarmac but the next 470km were all dirt. It was a wide and fast ride to the Police checkpoint at Mabura Hill where despite there being no barrier, all foreigners are supposed to check in. The Policeman who took my passport wore a stern face until I started answering his questions about where I’d been when he broke out into a huge, toothy grin and offered me his fist to touch knuckles.
South of Mabura hill the road narrowed as the jungle attempted to reclaim it. Pot holes grew into unavoidable puddles as I splashed my way towards the Essequibo River.
Bikes cross the river free but it only runs when larger vehicles are present. I parked up in the shade and settled down to wait and was pleasantly surprised when it only took 30 mins.
On the southern banks of the river lies the Iwokrama Centre where I’d hoped to camp. “No camping until further notice” I was told. “But I think we have one cabin”. Like everything else in the Guiana’s however, they wanted silly money. U$69…yeah right…see ya.
The jungle comes to an abrupt end not far south of Iwokrama where the trees all but vanish to be replaced by African like savannah. Half an hour further on lies ‘The Oasis’ where I found camping in an open pavilion a restaurant/bar and cold beer.
Black clouds chased me the across final 120km of savannah to the Brazilian border and finally caught me as I entered the border town of Lethem. I sat out the deluge under the cover of a snack van before crossing the Rio Takutu and re-entering Brazil.
The Guyana’s – retrospective
The ‘Guyana’s’ as they’re often collectively referred to felt more Caribbean than Latin. Guyana particularly so.
With influences from Java, China and India (amongst others) meeting Creole, the food was the spiciest (read tastiest) in South America.
I didn’t get to see the best of what the Guyana’s have to offer. The heart of all three countries are their jungle interiors but with no roads access is by boat which generally involves guides and jungle lodges – both way out of my budget.
The other ‘speciality’ of the region is the turtle’s coming ashore to lay their eggs but unfortunately I was there too early in the year for that. I’m sure witnessing a 400kg+ Leatherback Turtle making its way up the beach would be a magical experience.
Brazil for a day
The rain gave me another soaking en-route to Boa Vista where I dried out eating roadside kebabs. Finding a cambio to exchange my remaining Guyanese dollars proved to be an exercise in patience, as did dealing with the extremely fussy owner who would only accept immaculate bills of GUY$500 & GUY$100. Grrrr
Just north of the city I found a great bush camp on the Rio Cauamé where hid myself amongst the bushes right on the river bank.
After waiting for Brazilian Customs to re-open after their 2hr lunch I arrived at the Venezuelan border to find that thanks to the 1/2hr time difference the border was still closed for lunch.
After queuing to have my passport stamped I queued again for customs only to be told I needed insurance before my TIP could be issued. Unlike the Argentinian border on Paso Sico that had turned me away, these guys gave me directions to the insurance office in Santa Elena, 14km inside Venezuela. First though I had to find a cambia to change my U$ on the black market. I found the Mapfree office easily enough and bought insurance quickly and easily from the very friendly staff. At first I was shocked to learn that I would have to buy a 12 month policy but when I learned that was U$30 (black market rate) I relaxed!
Venezuelan Black Market for Currency: An explanation – Venezuelan citizens are allowed a maximum of the equivalent of U$3000 in foreign currency per annum. Even that requires several visits to the bank with piles of paperwork and results in the currency being tied to a ‘pre-loaded’ credit card. With so many rich Venezuelans wanting to visit friends & family abroad and to purchase foreign goods, this has led to an illegal black market in currency trading. The official rate of exchange is approx U$1 = 4.2 Bolivars. The black market rate varies from U$1 = 7.5-8.5 Bolivars. DOUBLE the official rate. Immaculate bills are required, as are denominations of U$20 and bigger. Smaller notes fetch a lower exchange rate at best but are often refused. I guess its easier to smuggle U$10,000 out of the country in U$100 bills than it is in U$5’s.
Back at the border it took another 1.5hrs to process my TIP and collect a full page stamp in my passport to Rosie. One of the delays was that they didn’t understand ‘British’ and yet until 40 years ago they shared a border with ‘British Guyana’!
Gas and the black market
The black market is one peculiarity of Venezuela, the price of gas is another. In French Guiana I’d encountered the highest price of gas on my journey – €1.59/ltr (U$8/gal). In Venezuela I encountered the cheapest; so cheap it was all but free!
Selling gas for less than it costs to produce is obviously unsustainable. Obvious to the outside world that is. Venezuelans take cheap gas as their birthright. The last time the Venezuelan government tried to raise gas prices was in 1989 when riots left several hundred dead.
And so it was with my for ¢25 (24ltrs) I headed out into the countryside. Bordered by Brazil to the south and Guyana to the east, La Gran Sabana sits snugly in the far SE corner of the country it is home to Parque Nacional Canaima.
The regions most striking features are its tepuis. Table topped mountains that rise up 1000-2800m above the surrounding plains which in turn lye 1000m above the lowlands that make up most of the rest of the country.
From the top of one of these flows the worlds highest waterfall – Angel Falls. Named after American Jimmie Angel who landed his plane atop the falls in 1937. The plane sunk into the mud upon landing and he was unable to take off again, forcing Jimmie and his three passengers to trek with limited supplies for 11 days to reach the nearest village.
The escapade granted Jimmie near legendary status in Venezuela. His plane remained in situ until 1970 when it was dismantled and removed by Venezuelan military helicopters.
Given President Hugo Chávez’s ‘dislike’ of the US, it must be a great thorn in his side knowing the country’s most famous landmark is named after an American!
Various tours of the region are available, including a 6-day trek to the plateau of Mt Roraima, at 2800m the highest tepuis of all and inspiration for Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel ‘The Lost World’.
That was out of my budget but I did make the most of my own transport to explore the region. In my hostel I’d met local tour guide Germanico Endara when he showed an interest in Rosie. Not only did he explain the existence of the black market, he also showed me several places not marked on my map that were worth visiting.
After checking in at the military outpost where a very bored soldier spent 15mins reading every stamp in my passport, I set off along the deserted road to Icabarú. I parked Rosie at the sign for the Salto Catedral and walked 20mins to the secluded waterfall fed pool.
The road became quite rough in places and with a blown fork seal and deteriorating rear shock I rode steadily. Further on I passed several more falls where the water crossed the road before plunging over the edge.
I reached Icabarú mid-afternoon and immediately turned around to find a place to camp. I found a spot out of site above the road and watched a distant storm erupt on the horizon from the comfort of my tent.
The next day I returned to the main road, headed north to San Francisco de Yuruani and turned east on a dirt road to get as close to Mt Roraima with Rosie as possible. Unfortunately the Lost World remained lost in the cloud as it so often is.
It was a shame not to see the ‘peak’ but the day wasn’t all bad. Further north on Rte 10 I visited the falls of Pacheco Salto and Quebrada Pacheco
My day of waterfalls was completed when I pitched camp at the Posada/restaurant complex at Kama Merú Falls. I arrived too late to walk to the bottom of the 55m high falls but still managed a reasonable view.
When I left the following morning the clouds were so low I could almost touch them. South of Luepa I turned west on another dirt road to visit yet more waterfalls. At the turn-off to Salto Toron a sign said ‘Closed for Rejuvenation’. Further on I turned SE on a sandy track towards Salto Aponguao. Approaching the village the sand got surprisingly deep and I was relieved to arrive without falling off in front of the villagers.
I was expecting to ride all the way to the falls but arrived to find the road ended in the village and a boat ride was required to access the walking trail. It all sounded ok until the boatman wanted U$30 for the 20 min ride! Yeah right, see ya!
Back at the main track I continued west to the village of Kavanayen with the intention of visiting the falls at Rio Karuay. Again the track ended in the village, only this time the continuation was a days walk to the falls. Had the weather been favorable I might have considered it but the horizon was black and I pussied out.
Back on the main Rte 10 there was one more waterfall I wanted to see – Danto Falls. As I plunged a vertical kilometre off the plateau I struggled to find the falls. Turning around in the road I encountered a broken down Toyota Landcruiser full of local daytripper’s. They’d run out of gas so I gave them 5ltr’s for which they were very grateful. I refused payment stating that gas was ‘free’ in Venezuela, patted my gas tank and said “Vivo Chavez!”
I eventually found a narrow muddy path that lead to the falls. It lead from a bend in the road where the armco had been flattened. The reason why became obvious as the falls came into view at the same time as the remains of the car that had caused the damage. Bits of glass and bumper were strewn from the road to the river some 40m below, destroying the path to the falls. Nobody would have walked away from that one.
Despite the rain there was no way I was spending another night in the dive of a hotel I’d spent the previous night. U$19 had bought me no hot water, no bathroom light and a broken window, perfect for letting the mozzies in. Just what I wanted having arrived after dark and piss wet through.
At Upata I turned west and headed towards what I later learned is the worlds third largest Hydroelectric Dam. Formerly known as Central Hidroeléctrica Raúl Leoni but now Central Hidroeléctrica Simón Bolívar it accounts for a staggering 70% of Venezuela’s power requirements.
I approached what I thought was another military checkpoint (they appear regularly throughout the Gran Sabana) expecting to show my documents and ride on but that wasn’t the case. It turned out to be security for the dam and was told I was too late. But too late for what? After several radio conversations a permit was written for me to pass by the dam following an escort. It was to take a while for the escort to arrive and so I was sent on without it with instructions to follow it once I encountered it. Sure enough, not far along the road I came upon a pick-up truck with flashing lights parked in the middle of the road. As I approached so he drove away slowly and crept by the 162m high walls. It was a shame not to be able to stop for photos.
At the next checkpoint I was directed to the carpark. At first I didn’t understand why but then it dawned on me that the reference to “being too late” was for the days final tour of the Hydroelectric complex. Had I taken the tour I’d have exited in the dark and had to find somewhere to camp so I left it for another day and rode on.
Thanks to Maarten Munnik I had a waypoint to the beautiful German owned Posada Don Carlos where I found garage parking for Rosie and great value (for Venezuela) accommodation in the form of an open-air dormitory built on a mezzanine overlooking the secondary courtyard.
It was Sunday evening and I walked out into the streets to find them deserted. It was only 8pm and aside from a few families sitting outside their terraced houses the city was closed. Eventually I found what was the only place open for food opposite the posada and tucked into a tasty toasted chicken sandwich.
I explored the town in daylight the following morning. The Posada was two blocks from the Cathedral in a pleasant part of town on a hill overlooking the river. The terraced houses painted in pastel colours were reminiscent of many colonial cities in Latin America but reminded me especially of Antigua in Guatemala.
I spent a few days in town and escaped the heat of mid-day by staying in the posada and continuing my Adobe Lightroom learning curve. After a couple of days I realized that instead of LR speeding up my photo workflow, it had actually slowed it down – drastically. The reason was my 5 year old laptop that just didn’t have the processing power required by LR and much of my time was spent just waiting for things to happen. As a result I put my change over to LR on hold until I was able to replace my laptop.
Cueva del Guácharo
In the mountains above the Caribbean, 12km from the town of Caripe is the cave system of Cueva del Guácharo. Only 1.2km of the 10km+ cave system is open to the public, the first 500m of which is inhabited by the Guácharo birds from which it takes its name. The unique birds with their 1m wing spans are blind and fly with a radar system similar to that of bats. They screeching is so haunting that Alfred Hitchcock used a recording of them in his 1963 thriller ‘The Birds’.
The best of the cave was the final 400m. After squeezing through a small passageway and then a hole barely big enough for one person at at time, the cave opened up slightly to reveal some splendid stalactites and stalactites lit solely by the guides Tilley lamp.
In my tent that night I watched the final two stages of the Dakar. I can’t believe Marc Coma struck gearbox trouble (thereby dropping him out of contention) just as he retook the lead.
It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when I thought of the Caribbean but pouring rain and another good soaking was what I got as I rode through Carúpano en-route to Rio Caribe. It was the weekend and I’d decided to hang out in Rio Caribe and leave the beaches to the hordes of daytrippers until Monday. Hignlight of my weekend was undoubtedly the thick seafood soup only made on Sundays and sold from a ‘cauldron’ outside the home of Carlos.
Come Monday morning my attempt at an early departure was foiled my the hotels ‘security’. I was up at 0630 but when I tried to go out to eat I found the door locked. Despite hammering on the internal door leading to the staff quarters I failed to get anybody’s attention. There were no windows to break and despite beating on the door with a length of wood I failed to gain anybodies attention. It was 0845 before the receptionist arrived from outside and unlocked the door to find steam billowing from my ears. Good job it wasn’t smoke.
I visited the pleasant beach of Playa Medina but after being told I couldn’t camp there I moved on via a steep, narrow and overgrown dirt track to Playa Puipui. One of the stall holders on the beach had told me to be careful and not to camp alone. I’ve become accustomed to one nationality making generalizations regarding safety about their neighbors but in Venezuela it was different. From the moment I’d entered the country, everyone I’d met had told me to “Be careful. This is a dangerous country.” Never before had anybody referred to their own country in such a way and so I took onboard the very specific concerns regarding where and when not to go somewhere.
One such guy was Henry who came for a chat as I took in the view from one end of Playa Puipui. He told me not to camp at the secluded end of the beach but to pitch camp at the opposite end near the few houses.
Come late afternoon as I was looking for a place to pitch my tent I met a young local woman with her young son. She told me not to camp on the beach at all but to follow her and pitch my tent in her garden where a Brazilian and an Uruguayan cyclists were already staying! Her house was alongside the dirt road that led to the beach just 300m away and it made little sense that there was safe but the beach wasn’t. As strange as it was I got the impression that thieves/muggers only made trouble for visitors and didn’t trouble the locals.
The heavy dew took a long time to dry out before I could set off through the various tiny hamlets nestled in the jungle en-route to the Museo del Cacao, part of a working Cacao Hacienda.
Being mid-week I was the only one on the tour which was great for me as the tour was in Spanish so I could ask (repeatedly) for sentences to be repeated slooooowly.
Back on the coast in the small fishing village of San Juan de Las Caldonas I found the delightful Posada Las Tres Carabelas, perfectly located on the cliff overlooking the beach.
Once unpacked I grabbed my camera and was about to go for a walk when Spanish owner Javier asked where I was going and went on to tell me that whilst the village was safe, not to take my camera, money or anything valuable onto the beach – a mere 50m away.
That evening I had dinner with Martine, a French woman traveling alone. She had come from Caracas and asked of my experiences dealing with the local people as she’d found them to be very sour faced. Henry had been the first local I’d met not sporting a face like a smacked arse and an attitude to match since tour guide Germanico all the way back in Santa Elena. When I thought about it, everyone I had found to be friendly and helpful had in fact been an immigrant.
We quizzed Javier about this in the morning and he said that we’d chosen an awkward time to visit. The Venezuelan equivalent of the US Primaries were underway to elect the opposition leaders who would face Hugo Chavez in 2012’s Presidential elections. General consensus seemed to be that Chavez could only win again if the voting was rigged and so the majority of the population were desperately hoping for someone who could bring reform to Venezuela.
I didn’t visit Caracus where perhaps feelings are different, but in the rest of the country, despite seeing thousands campaign posters, I saw none for Chavez. Time for change? We’ll see in October.
I first met Cristian in a hostel in lima, Peru back in 2009. I was trying to arrange shipping Lady P back to Europe and he was cycling from Ushuaia to Cancun. We became friends and once back home in Seattle he contacted me about learning to ride, buy and prepare a motorcycle. Over the next two years I answered his questions and offered advice which culminated in him buying a Kawasaki KLR650 (he didn’t listen to everything I said :)) and riding it to South America.
We’d been following each other’s progress with a view to meeting up somewhere in either Colombia or Venezuela and that time eventually came in the fishing village of Mochima in the Parque Nacional Mochima.
All of our enquires concluded that there was no longer a ferry service across the Rio Orinoco to Moitaco and so we returned to Posada Don Carlos in Ciudad Bolívar on the south side of the river. From there we could follow the river SW to Puerto Páez where we could re-cross it to ride north to San Fernando de Apure and west into the region know as Los Llanos before turning NW towards Barinas and the Andes.
It took us five days to ride to Barinas and what a five days it was. I hadn’t had such a laugh in ages and amongst the beers and bullshitting my diary got a little neglected.
So, without many of the details I’ll take you on a ride through Los Llanos with some captioned photos…
Cristian and I went our separate ways in Barinas with him returning east to visit the Gran Sabana en-route to Brazil where he would meet his girlfriend whilst was heading back into my beloved Andes Mountains.
After the heat and humidity of the lowlands the cool air of the mountains came as a relief. Whilst I’d enjoyed the lowlands returning to the mountains was like a homecoming. I climbed 3860m in 115km on my first day and spent the night in a time posada in the village of Piñango at 2400m. I’d been chased in their by the clouds and so I was delighted to awake to a clear blue sky.
Despite being Sunday I had the road through Parque Nacional Sierra la Culata all to myself. At the summit of the tarmac road a dirt road led steeply into the mountains above, passing a small lake en-route to hidden back bowl at 4292m.
Back on the ‘TransAndean Highway’ I stopped in San Rafael de Mucuchíes to visit the beautiful little church built of pieces of stone in a ‘dry wall stylee’.
Despite the black market currency rates and ‘free’ gas Venezuela had been more expensive than I’d expected. Back in Bolivia where I could obtain U$ from the ATM I had stocked up on cash to change on the black market. Once that had gone I used up my ‘secret/emergency’ stash hidden away on Rosie and once that was gone I had two choices. Use the ATM and pay double what I had been for everything, or leave. I left.
It was a pleasant morning to ride out of the city. Dual carriageway soon gave way to single carriageway and when I turned of the main road to ride via Tovar the traffic all but disappeared.
I’d been tipped off about problems buying gas west of Merida and so filled up in town. As I got further west and tried to top off my tank so I encountered what I’d been warned about. Without a National ID number to enter into the pump I couldn’t buy gas so I told the motorcyclist behind me in the queue that I’d pay for both of us if we could use his number. He agreed and filled his tank first but when I tried to fill Rosie the pump cut off after just 6ltrs. It turned out delivery was limited to 10l! Grrr…
Without Vinny’s info the border crossing between San Cristobal and Cúcuta would have been a real pain in the arse; nothing was where one would expect it to be.
Immigration isn’t located at the border but in the middle of the town of San Antonio del Táchira. I never did find Venezuelan Customs heading west. The directions given by the soldiers on duty led me to Colombian Immigration. It wasn’t the first time I’d left a country without canceling my TIP but that’s another story.
Colombian Dian (Customs) is 20km from the border in Cúcuta. They had a strange system in place with a guy sitting amongst the food vendors in an adjacent street that I had too see before entering the main building. He sent me to get photocopies of my documents and then used a sticky strip to take an imprint of my frame number. Once inside it didn’t take too long to get a new TIP issued but it was still too late to visit the ATM and buy insurance.
After a night in town I bought insurance (90 pesos/3 mths) and headed south. It was a pretty ride alongside the river towards Pamplona where I picked up a route I’d ridden back in 2010. Then the road turned to dirt I took a turning that I though was going to be a shortcut for lighter vehicles. It wasn’t and so I ended up in a valley I hadn’t visited before.
Navigating in these mountains is much like navigating in Boliva. Both my paper maps said different things, my GPS map a third whilst on the ground it was often different again and offered a multitude of uncharted tracks.
Late afternoon I took a wrong turn into a valley an whilst I was heading in the right direction I was doing so on the wrong side of the valley.
The track became increasingly narrow, tyre tracks disappeared, two tracks became a single trail and eventually I came to an impassable landslide. Backtracking was easier said than done with a bald rear tyre and loose stones but eventually I made it and was rewarded with a cracking sunset down the valley.
It was just dark as I rode into Carcasi where I stopped to ask the police where I could stay. They showed me across the square to a shop that had unadvertised accommodation and I paid 8k Pesos (bit different to 50k in Cucuta!) for a decent room and a hot shower.
Old Friends PtI
As well as a second chance to visit a few places I’d missed due to bad weather in 2010, Colombia was also a chance to catch up with a few old friends.
First up was that crazy man from Oklahoma John Martin (aka ADV Riders Throttlemeister) John was down in Cali doing bike maintenance and with Rosie needing her fair share of TLC too I headed down there to join him.
We met up at Casa Blanca Hostel before heading off to stay with Frenchman Alain who we’d both met in local bike shop Asturias who provide fantastic service for motorcycle travelers.
Over the course of a couple of days John finished up his maintenance whilst Rosie got new fork seals, an oil change and a pair of tyres. Alain, wife Paola and sons Mathias and Lucas were fabulous hosts and great fun. Don’t be fooled by the aging face, Alain was a demon through the Cali traffic on his 1150GS!
We left Cali later than planned and so only made it as far as Manizales that day but we had a hoot hanging it out up the hill into town as daylight faded. I was laughing my head off watching John muscle his ‘Mexican Whore’ (his words not mine!) of an overloaded F650 through the concrete lined bends. I defy anybody to ride her faster!
A proper days ADV’ing
Sometimes you have no idea what the day has in store for you. Having both ridden the the more obvious routes between Manizales and Medellin a few times we decided to try something different and rode east towards Honda before turning north into the mountains of Caldas state.
We stopped in the plaza at Pensilvania where we were soon surrounded by curious onlookers. Replying to questions regarding our destination we were met with raised eyebrows and told travel times that didn’t make sense. Eventually a guy made his way to the front of the crowd and led us to a cheap restaurant from where we could watch the bikes as we talked. He told us about some termales that we didn’t know about and drew us a map on a scrap of paper.
The tarmac had ended in town and it was a rough stony track that led into the hills above. Stopping for a few photos we were passed by a bus so we knew it was never going to be that bad…right?
We turned off the main track to commence a descent but never did catch up with that bus. Mmmm…
A bench under a window in a wall signaled a tienda and so we stopped for a cold coke. The owner told us the track was very narrow ahead and that maybe we wouldn’t be able to get through. We both heard the same story on many occasions and so it didn’t bother us.
A little further on it became obvious that very little traffic had gone that way and as we rounded a right hand bend so the reason became clear. The whole valley had been washed away in a huge rockslide, totally burying the track in rocks and diverting the river. Three guys were about to return to their Landcruiser having transferred their load onto mules to cross the debris.
We both walked the route before riding but it was hard to pick lines as the three guys were always stood in the way, offering advice and insisting it couldn’t be ridden. We both knew that all but the drop into the river 3/4 of the way across could be ridden and so returned to the bikes. I went first and gave my camera to John…
Once across I took my camera back to record Johns crossing. Unlike Rosie his ‘Mexican Whore’ needed unloading to attempt the crossing. Even unloaded she’s a big girl (I know, I still own one) making Johns job harder than mine (although he’s a good 25cm/10″ taller & 25kg/50lb heavier than me).
During all of this the three guys carried all of Johns gear across. We wanted to buy them all a beer but there was no tienda . We tried to give them some money to buy some on the way home but they leapt back as though they’d been shot. Flatly refusing any reward for their efforts they said (in Spanish) “In your country there would be a bridge. Here there isn’t one so we help each other.” As we began reloading the bikes we were told we weren’t finished yet. It turned out that not only had the slide destroyed the valley but it had redirected much of the river along the parallel road, transforming it into a 1.5m/5′ deep v-shaped trench. The route around was through a field, across the now dry original riverbed, exiting through an awkward tight 90º turn through the fence to rejoin the main track.
Spare a thought for the families who live in the two houses that the slide missed by just a few metre’s as it tore down the unlit valley in the middle of the night.
By the time we’d finished re-loading the bikes, back slapping and taking photo’s it was all but dark. We had about 7km to ride to the next village but even that wasn’t plain sailing. A narrow muddy track had been formed over yet another landslide but being dark we couldn’t see the consequences of getting it wrong. Eventually we made it to the next village where we stopped in the first tienda we came to to buy beers for us and the two lads that had led the way from the big slide.
It wasn’t long before a crowd gathered outside the tienda. At first we thought it was because of the bikes but we soon learnt that we were the first foreigners to have ever visited the village.
We had another 20min ride along a muddy track before we finally made it to our destination for the night Termales Espirito. The friendly staff rustled us up some dinner whilst we unload some gear and after eating we retired to the hot pools with a few cold beers. A fitting end to a cracking day.
The following morning was a short ride on the dirt before rejoining the tarmac for the rest of the ride to Medellin. Having left Cali later than planned and ‘losing’ the previous night we only had sufficient time for one night in the city. Time for a bed at The Turtle’s Head and a plate full of ribs at http://www.fukingoodribs.com (both Chapter 25) and we were on the road again.
In Cimitarra we met an Argentinian couple touring the America’s on a pair of Yamaha YBR125’s. One had semi-seized and the couple were stuck in town whilst the cylinder was sent away for re-boring. In the plaza we once again found ourselves to be the centre of attention.
Old Friends PtII
After lunch in Barbosa John and I parted company. He had a plane to catch in Caracus and I had an appointment in Villa de Lleva. Just like last time riding together had been a lot of fun and I look forward to the next time.
Considered to be one of Colombia’s finest colonial town’s, Villa de Lleva was declared a National Monument in 1954. I pitched my tent in the grounds of Hostel Renacer and explored the town whilst I waited for Nick Jones (www.talesfromthesaddle.com – Chapter 25) to arrive.
Nick was further away than he realised and it took him an extra day to reach me. We went to bed with the intention of leaving early the next morning but a combination of drying or dew covered tents and talking, talking, talking meant that we left much later than planned. we hadn’t seen each other since parting company at Mexico’s Copper Canyon a year previously and so we had a lot of catching up to do.
Hacienda La Esperanza – revisited
Back in March 2010 I’d visited the Sierra Nevada El Cocuy (Chapter 25) and stayed at Hacienda La Esperanza with the intention of hiking to Lago Grande but the weather had other ideas. I told owner Marco Valderrama that I would return for another attempt in 2012 and so thats what we did.
The weather wasn’t great this time either with cloud at high elevation but at least the hike was possible. After a filling breakfast of coffee, potato & coriander soup, scrambled eggs & bread and hot chocolate, we were on the trail by 0700.
Its 11km each way to Lago Grande with an elevation gain of 1100m (3600ft). It doesn’t sound like much but La Esperanza sits at 3500m and so it requires a relatively slow/steady pace to avoid the effects of altitude. Let’s go for a walk…
The retreat of the glacier is alarming. Another 20 years and it will be gone, along with much of the fresh water supply.
Nick was feeling pretty rough when we returned and headed straight to bed without any dinner. I dunno what’s the matter with these young blokes – no stamina :)
Luckily a good nights sleep and a few headache pills did the job and Nick was back to his usual self the next morning.
Marco told us about a more ‘direct’ route to Güicán that involved a narrow bridge un-passable by jeep. What he didn’t tell was that there were no signs and the route wasn’t obvious!
It was a steep climb away from the narrow bridge and Nick really struggled with his Honda XR125. Altitude robbed it of what little power it had and not for the first time he was reduced to pushing over the crest of the steeper hills! When we’d stopped for lunch in Güicán en-route to La Esperanza, the locals had had to push him up one of the hills out of town!
My return to Bogota marked the end of my time in South America, something I was rather sad about.
We arrived in the city on Sunday afternoon and on Monday I visited the Lyn Cargo offices before delivering Rosie to the Air Cargo Centre. It was an all day process mostly due to the wait for the police inspection. Sufficient paperwork had been completed by 1030 to allow us (myself and the agent from Lyn Cargo) to book the police inspection. We were given an appointment at 1430 but the policeman didn’t arrive until gone 1600 but by 1700 everything was finalised and I returned to the hostel by bus.
I had a few days to kill before my flight and so Nick and I visited a few of the less touristy areas of the city and had dinner with Juan Pablo Gavira who’s father Carlos had stored Rosie for me during my visit to the UK a year previously. Unfortunately Carlos was out of town but JP showed me through the series of eBooks he’d made of his 20 day motorcycle trip around Colombia – ColombiaIn20Days
A few photos from my final days in Bogota…
Next stop Miami….or not…
Some will be familiar with Spirit Air, some won’t. Some will wish they weren’t. I’m firmly in the latter group…
Here follows the sorry story of Spirit Air flight 400…
From the moment I arrived at check-in 2½hrs prior to departure there was clearly something amiss. For 2 hours I stood in a queue that didn’t move only to be told that the flight was delayed indefinitely. I was handed a McDonalds voucher valued at COP12,000 which was insufficient even for a basic ‘meal’.
We eventually boarded the flight some 7 hours late and after yet more delay we eventually pushed back from the gate only to sit still for another hour.
The coward of a Captain(?) said nothing and hid in the cockpit leaving the cabin crew to the increasingly angry passengers. After near mutiny he eventually made an announcement stating that the flight crew were out of hours and had been grounded by the Colombian authorities. He went on to say that we would be towed back to the gate and that after a night’s rest we would be able to leave at 0700 the following morning.
We eventually returned to the gate where we boarded buses and were ferried back to the terminal building where a bewildered airport staff knew nothing of our arrival and as such were unprepared. Both the police and Immigration had to be called to restore order and stamp everybody back into Colombia.
Once back in the check-in hall the real farce began as Spirit Air staff attempted to re-book tickets. Why the need to re-book tickets if the crew were out of hours? Surely the same plane was returning to Miami? Or was the coward of a Captain a liar as well as a coward?
At 0200 I was offered a flight with Avianca at 0900 which I accepted. However, come 0600 I was given a ticket to fly with LAN at 1445. All the Avianca tickets had been sold whilst the Spirit Air staff attempted to buy tickets for 150 passengers with ONE computer terminal! One US family in front of me in the queue used their own laptop to re-book their flights using the Spirit Air credit card. Such was the indecision that the price increased by U$500 as they argued!
Eventually, at 0630, I was taken to a hotel. No food, no drink, not even a glass of water in 15hrs. There were old people and young children present and your treatment of them was despicable.
During that time NO information was offered and NO representative was present.
When I arrived back at check-in after 4hrs sleep I was glad I’d taken the Avianca option. I sailed through check-in whilst once again the queue for the Spirit Air flight was a bun fight.
As I looked down upon Bogota and its mountain backdrop I reflected a little on my time in South America. I’d ridden 79,000km through all 13 countries during the 20 months I’d spent there. I’d been blown away by what I’d seen, who I’d met and where I’d ridden. I hoped it wasn’t my last view of the continent.
My destination in the US was the home of my friends Ian & Jo-Ann Barr (near Boston) where I’d prepared Rosie two years previously. It was a purely social ride, visiting friends along the way.
Thanks to Spirit Air though it didn’t start as I’d intended. The 24hr delay meant I arrived after US customs had closed not just for the day but the weekend. I had two choices. Pay for a hotel in Miami until customs opened on Monday morning or fly to Tampa to spend the weekend fishing with Jon Bovis who I hadn’t seen for 15 years.
The Friday night Continental flight had been cancelled and the American Airlines flight only had 1st class available so I bought a ticket fort the first flight Saturday morning and got my head down on the floor in the airport lounge.
I had a great weekend with Jon and his wife Linda the highlight of which was a days fishing in the Gulf on Jon’s boat. He won the most fish contest, we drew on the most species contest but I caught the only ‘keeper’ which trumped everything and made for a tasty supper :)
Back in Miami on Monday morning I took a cab to the warehouse where I collected my paperwork and walked the few blocks to customs.
Its no wonder travelers embarking on rides through the Americas ship their bikes to Canada and NOT the US.
Despite Rosie being purchased and registered in the US I was told I would have to import her because she wasn’t ‘made’ in the US – WTF!(1)
I was then told that because the value (that customs assigned with their online ‘blue’ book) was greater than U$2000 I couldn’t do it myself and would have to employ the services of a broker – WTF!(2)
When I explained that I’d ridden her out of the US and that if I’d have arrived back at the Mexican land border I’d have ridden back in I got the answer “But you didn’t. You shipped it and that’s different” WTF!(3)
The officer I was dealing with called upon his colleagues for advice butt I could only understand part of their conversation as the spoke in Spanish. WTF!(4) – wasn’t I in the USA!!!???
Suddenly I remembered being told I needed to clear Rosie through ‘Personal Effects’. When I mentioned this to the officers they all just glared at one another before shrugging there shoulders and sending me down the hall to room 101.
Five minutes later Rosie was cleared, I returned to the warehouse, paid the U$940 bill, loaded and left.
12 days to Boston
My first stop was Daytona Beach to visit my old friend and sponsor Jim Brannon. Although Jim lives near Atlanta he hasn’t missed a Daytona Speed Week since 1959.
From Daytona I rode to Fletcher, North Carolina to Cogent Dynamics and the home of Rick & Joyce Tannenbaum. Rick had built Rosie’s shock back in 2010 and 75,000km had passed by since I’d last had it serviced prior to leaving the US. As usual Rick did a great job of inspecting and replacing parts as well as testing it on his shock dyno prior to me re-fitting it. Whilst Rick worked on the shock I inspected, cleaned and greased the suspension linkage’s but just like the previous time everything was sufficiently lubed and there was no sign of wear.I had a chilly but pleasant ride along the Blueridge Parkway as I headed for my next stop in Washington DC.
I’d met Al and Yvonne Cartwright on a snowboarding holiday in Les Arc, France back in 2002 and visited the at home in Bristol on a few occasions before Al’s work for the MOD took him to DC.
Not only were they great host but great tour guides and thanks to the unseasonably warm temperatures we had a great day of sightseeing in DC followed by a visit to Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park.
New York was next and a chance to spend some time with Dave and Francine. I’d met the two NYC doctors in Anchorage, Alaska in 2009 just as they arrived to collect their bikes from storage.
Limited to two weeks holiday in May and another two weeks in September they set out on an unusual journey – The Mobius Trip
In May 2008 they left NYC and rode for two weeks before storing their bikes. In the September they returned to their bikes and continued for another two weeks. Mobius 9 is underway as I type this.
I spent five nights in their AdventureLoft™on Broadway where I was treated fabulously well. During my time there I took my camera for service at Nikon USA. I had hoped to have my lends repaired there too but when they saw it didn’t have US markings on it they told me it was a ‘Grey Import’ and handled it like a dog turd, flatly refusing to have anything to do with it.
So, be aware Nikon wielding tourists in the US. Nikon USA WILL NOT service/repair your equipment. I wonder if their attitude extends to the world’s press?
I left Dave & Francine one Saturday morning and returned to Milford, MA and the home of my friends Ian and Jo-Ann Barr. My original plan had been to surprise Ian on his 50th birthday at the end of May but my circumstances changed and I had to bring my plans forward.
Nevertheless, Jo-Ann kept my arrival secret and got a few friends together for the evening without Ian knowing. He was blown away by my arrival and even more surprised that the secret had remained intact for so long.
That evening Jo-Ann gave me her ‘magic wine glass’ (its never empty) and oh boy did I feel shit the following morning/day/evening!
It had always been my intention to ship Rosie back to Europe and import her into the UK. I look into this whilst in South America, chose a shipping agent and got a quote. Rosie was going to ship from NYC to Bremerhaven, Germany.
When I got to the US I inquired into the ‘local fees’ applicable to all ports around the world and learned that German Customs had begun imposing a 30% security bond/deposit for non-EU vehicles entering Germany (at Bremerhaven at least). I couldn’t find out if that was happening just in Bremerhaven or throughout Germany and so I changed shipping destinations to Rotterdam. A little more research and I found a story about a guy paying U$792 in local fees. A price that included U$492 for unloading his bike from the container, seemingly because it was uncrated. The shipping agent told me there was more to the story than had been printed as the local fees shouldn’t cost more than U$500.
On the Thursday before Easter I talked to the shipping agent in NYC and arranged to deliver Rosie to the warehouse the following day.
It was my niece’s 2nd birthday and so after an early morning Skype call I set off on the 6hr ride to NYC in temperatures barely above 0˚C.
The previous evening I’d completed the online booking form and so stopped en-route to check my email as there was bound to be a reference number for the guys in the warehouse. When I opened the confirmation I found the agent had got both the departure and destination ports wrong. When I called her to correct it she asked where I was and I said about 20mins from the warehouse. It was 1430 and she replied “OK, great”.
But it wasn’t. I arrived at the warehouse to find it locked and deserted so I returned to McDonalds and called her again. When I finally got hold of her she said “The warehouse closed at 1400 today for the holidays, didn’t you know?”
“How the f@*# would I know if YOU didn’t tell me? We only arranged this yesterday”. “Where have you come from?” she asked, adding further to her lack of knowledge/interest in her customers. “Boston” I replied. “Ah…hold on, let me see what I can do” and with that the phone went dead.
I never spoke to her again. I didn’t have a mobile phone and so I left my Skype name with the receptionist. The agent also had my email address. I sat outside McD’s for another 30 mins but nothing. When I called the office ‘she wasn’t available’.
Now some things in life just aren’t meant to happen and I began to wonder if this was one of them.
The incident made me re-evaluate what I was trying to achieve, why and the costs involved. Over dinner that evening with Dave and Francine that evening I took the decision to sell Rosie.
The decision didn’t sit well with me. She’d been a fabulous bike that had transformed my journey but financially it was the right decision to make.
And so it was on Sunday 29th April that I waved goodbye to Rosie as she disappeared down the road on the back of Gregg’s van…