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Published: November 26th 2010
A huge thank you for all the Birthday wishes, I really appreciate you taking the time. If you didn't, shame on you!
So yes, since the last entry I am a whole year older & therefore wiser & so feel I should impart some new found wisdom to those of you who are considering taking a motorcycle around the Americas.
If I were you, I'd a bring a map.
That particular pearl of wisdom only occurred to me since turning 34 whilst trying to navigate my way around Central America without one. I did manage to pack two spare batteries for a portable alarm clock I never use, but maps I thought I'd be able to buy over here. I'll admit trying to 'ride the Americas' without one is quite a large oversight on my part.
My sat nav is of no use either as it doesn't cover Central America. My fault again as I didn't download any maps, mainly because I don't know how to. I do miss it, especially the sub category to the food establishments menu where it was subdivided to such an extent it could bring me to a doughnut. I kid you
not. It may not be able to find Washington State but a cake shop it could do & so naturally I miss it.
I still had the map of Mexico Rich gave me which included some roads in Guatemala & so I did have some idea where I was going. Although I didn't make it easy on myself as the first place I wanted to go in Guatemala is called Quetzaltenango pronounced, wait for it... 'Shay-la'. Which explains some of the looks I got when asking for directions.
When I wrote the last entry I was crossing the Mexico/Guatemala border the following day. Since then I've also crossed the Guatemala/El Salvador border, the El Salvador/Honduras border, the Honduras/Nicaragua border, the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border & the Costa Rica/ Panama border. In short, I've been putting in the miles.
It's not going to be easy but I want to try & give you an idea of what the above paragraph really involves as crossing a border in Central America on a motorbike is as complicated, confusing & frustrating a process as has ever been invented by man.
We'll start with my first Central American crossing, Mexico to Guatemala,
They only knew me two days.
Choice of cake purely a coincidence.
widely regarded as the easiest. When I got to the border region where even the petrol station attendants had machine guns, I decided against trying to cross straight away as it was a Sunday & I'd been told weekends were a nightmare due to the sheer weight of people crossing & the keeness of immigration officials to extort bribes whilst the bosses had the weekend off. I'm not saying there's less corruption when the bosses are there, I'm saying there's more people to divide the spoils between.
Finding a hotel wasn't easy as they were all set up to charge by the hour & each room came with a car port so you could discreetly park your car & get up to whatever people get up to when they hire a room by the hour. One hotel even had a huge neon charicature of a condom on the roof. Very classy. I eventally found a place that didn't have a vibrating bed or a mirrored ceiling nor an enormous condom on the roof & so got a good nights sleep as there were no odd noises during the night nor were the sheets sticky. The next morning I decided
to try the border on my own.
I changed money in town as I didn't want to be standing at the border with a handful of cash not knowing if 100 Quetzales was enough to buy a cake or a car & despite being hindered by a number of would be 'helpers' I got stamped out of Mexico easily enough. I then asked where I'd find the office to cancel the import documents for the bike and the chap who stamped my passport pointed towards Guatemala. Nice & simple, I'm better at this border crossing lark then I thought.
However, after approximately 10 metres & 11 seconds in Guatemala I thought, this can't be right, I can't import the bike into one country without exporting it from the other? & so turned around amongst the hoards of people & rode back the way I came.
I was eventually told the office I needed was a mere 15km's back into Mexico, ofcourse it was, why wouldn't it be. So despite already being stamped out of Mexico I needed to get to the appropriately titled town of Viva Mexico to get the bike documents sorted. I knew it would
be a little risky as I was technically illegal but I had no choice & as it was only 15km's away it was highly unlikely anything would go wrong.
I got stopped by the Police. I was actually smiling as I took off my crash helmet as I had to admit yet again, fate had timed it perfectly. I'd used the last of my currency on fuel & biscuits so I had nothing to give them & they certainly weren't getting the biscuits so after 10 minutes & a little to & fro I was on my way.
And so the tone was set for the border crossings that followed. Confusion, misdirection & a huge amount of bureaucracy. I never had to give up any biscuits though so every cloud...
Without going into too much detail, crossing borders in Central America on a motorbike requires, time, patience, a mass of photocopies, a hand gun & preferrably a man selling ice lollies. I usually had everything apart from the hand gun but after an ice lolly or two I'd be calm enough to no longer see the need.
The procedure is simple, me stamped out of one
country, bike stamped out of same country, me stamped into the next country, bike stamped into the next country. How complicated can it be?
It differs slightly from country to country but the basics are the same. I know you all think I spend my time in hammocks, bars or on beaches but the reality is very different. If there was a way I could get the computer to play a violin whilst you read this paragraph I'd do it. I'm looking for some sympathy! The following is a glimpse of what I've been up to of late.
Arrive at border where they require three copies of title for the bike, drivers licence & passport including three further copies of the most recent stamp in passport added only minutes prior.
Export documents from previous country are also required & need to be stamped. The colleague of the person you are dealing with who is usually half asleep & sitting less then ten feet away, requires copies of the copies that now have the new stamp so it's back to the copy shop (that naturally charges a fortune) then back to the same office with more copies of
copies. I hope you're following this.
They take said copies & issue a new form that requires... you've guessed it... copies, so it's back to the copy shop. Another new stamp is eventually applied & you are pointed in the general direction of a ramshackle building where someone inevitably needs to see the copies & the stamps before they can apply their stamp & send you back to the copy shop. All this takes place in 33 degree heat & heavy humidity whilst wearing biker gear. (Starting to hear violins yet?)
Some countries require you then to go to a bank to pay a fee and the bank naturally requires 3 copies of each document too. The bank then stamps, stamps... .... stamps, stamps, stamps before you can return to the window you started at & they then request copies of the bank documents before stamping any document they can lay their hands on.
No, no. We're not done yet.
You then fill out a few more forms which, you guessed it, require copies & stamps before finally being told you need to purchase compulsory insurance, get the bike fumigated, pay a road tax, get a
signature from the Head of Police, get a signature from the Head of Customs, show the man at the gate a receipt for a form you were given three hours prior which inevitably you won't be able to find & then FINALLY, you are free to hit the open road. Simple eh?
So passport, documents & cash are all safely locked away & you can then ride off into the distance full of excitement for what adventures the new country has in store.
That lasts about a mile before a police check point wanting cash & to see all your documents. I adopted the 'SPEAK VERY LOUDLY IN ENGLISH' approach which involves giving the incorrect answer to every question asked which when you take into account my grasp of Spanish is not a problem. When documents are requested I agree that yes it is very hot, when asked where we have come from I tell them thank you very much but I am not hungry etc.etc. After four or five loud & incorrect answers in English we are on our way.
So I hope you're now feeling ever so slightly embarassed & guilty. Thinking I'm swinging in
a hammock drink in hand indeed!
After dealing with my first proper Central American border on my own I was finally able to head into Guatemala doing my best not to think of the Aussie I mentioned in the last entry. The roads were decent & the jungle scenery kept me amused climbing up into the mountains & clouds past all number of coffee plantations worked by children. More then once I stopped to check I was going in the right direction & I got talking to the children who inevitably had to be provided with biscuits. Child labour isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days when you could just sit & watch them work, nowadays it appears they get biscuit breaks.
So my first impression of Guatemala was despite ranking 120th in the UN league table for developed nations, it's more developed then I expected. The people aren't the indigenous Indian types I was expecting either, much more Spanish looking. I have noticed as I progressed south from Mexico City people are getting shorter. I don't have a degree in anthropology so that's the best description I can muster. In general Guatemalans are shorter,
Plush hotel, $20 a night.
El Salvador. Patrick, Larry & I.
but not by much, then Mexicans. If that comes up at your next pub quiz you'll know who to thank.
My birthday was spent in Xela and I celebrated by going to a lecture in Spanish about the history of Guatemala. Lets just say Civil War, military atrocities, mass killings, abductions & repression are not words I want to hear when I turn 35. I've also since read lynchings in Guatemala are a near daily occurence. I've said it before, I know how to holiday.
On the upside the cakes are quite good, even though bakeries aren't as plentiful as I'd like. So the mass killings & lynchings are off set by relatively decent cakes.
I'd met an Irish lad called Patrick in Canada months ago & I knew he was in Guatemala too, somewhere. The prospect of riding through Central America without any maps & crossing borders on my own wasn't very appealing & so I thought it best to find him.
I arrived in a town called Antigua and after the usual time spent sat watching the world go by in the town square I found Patrick in the second hotel I tried.
It was a Saturday & we agreed to get on the road south the following day so thought a few quiet drinks were in order. I hadn't properly celebrated my birthday save for a couple at a Pirate Party & a Salsa class where I so impressed the instructor with my skill & poise she got a stitch from trying to keep up. To some it may have appeared she got the stitch from laughing so hard but experts like me, know different.
So Patrick & I headed out for a couple of quiets & ended up meeting a load of locals, fellow tourists & even got invited to a wedding. The following morning despite consuming one or two more then the couple we had intended we were on the road by 9am. True adventure motorcyclists. Whilst I think of it, guess what Partick doesn't have? Yep, no maps. Imagine trying to motorcycle the Americas without one. Amatuer!
Luckily I'd found a book shop owned by an American & bought one covering all of South America. Unluckily, its to a scale of roughly 1 to 1 & therefore is ENORMOUS but atleast (when there's no wind & I
could actually open it) we knew which direction to head in.
Whilst crossing the deserted Guatemala/El Salvador border we met another two bikers & agreed to share the miles. Larry a farmer from Canada & Andy a retired computer programmer from the US. Andy I had met back in September on a rainy day in Oregon. He had since returned home for a couple of months until Larry asked if he fancied riding down to South America.
We rode into El Salvador as a four, had a superb meal by the Pacific & found a beautiful hotel for $20 each. Despite a reputation for armed violence we found the people to be friendly, happy & kind. The armed guard at the stunning hotel we stayed at may have had an Uzi submachine gun but I didn't feel like he'd need to use it.
Central America has recently been hit by record flooding meaning bridges & roads have been washed away so our route south involved long detours & a couple of river crossings. I feel the need to point out that Andy is a participant in the Baja 1000 & therefore a very tasty off road rider,
Larry used to be sponsored by Suzuki & Patrick rides Enduro courses around Ireland. Then there's me, who once rode through an enormous puddle in London.
The first river crossing we encountered looked deep & treacherous & came in two parts. I cleared the first part (get in there you off road hero!) & then had a go at the second which despite having no clue what to do other then 'gun it' I cleared too. Pratically an expert on my first attempt!
I was so amazed I stopped on the bank to revel in the glory. However, my moment of glory was exactly that, a moment. Turns out stopping a very heavy motorbike on a steep,wet muddy river bank isn't wise, something I only realised as the bike slid backwards & I fell off. Oh so cool.
On arrival at the Honduras border we were surrounded by touts all screaming & shouting showing 'official' identity cards & I was so, so, so glad I wasn't on my own. El Salvador was easy enough as they don't bother to stamp you in or out of their country, however Honduras was a pig. As we arrived two other
The necessary evil of motorcycling the Americas.
bikers had just completed the process & rode over to tell us the $25 'road tax' they ask for is bullshit so don't pay but they did have to pay $5 each to the women in the importation office to get off her fat arse. In yet another biking coincidence the lad who told me all of this I'd met in Alaska in August.
The Honduras border was the worst of all the crossings which considering the competition is an impressive achievement. Everyone there seemed to be out for something & as I was walking with Larry to change yet more cash into local currency we were saying how shifty & unsafe the place felt. Touts had tried to intimidate then trick us & the money changer we used tried to short change Larry by $10 dollars & when this was pointed out corrected his mistake without a word. As my hands were full I put the money I was given into my pocket, took it out, counted it & realised I was $20 short. Again the money changer corrected his mistake without saying a word & I couldn't help but call him a fat prick. Sorry, but he
was & I felt all the better for it saying it. Strolling back to the lads at the bikes I put my hand in my pocket and found $20 of local currency. Whoops.
We all agreed Honduras wasn't a place we wanted to hang around & instead chose to ride through it as quickly as possible, less then 24 hours later we were at the border with Nicaragua. Leaving Honduras I was accused of having a fake license plate on the bike but after we discussed if he actually knew what an English plate looked like his quest for dollars came to an end & we headed for the Nicaraguan office which was calm & easy going. No hussle or hassle although the immigration office didn't give Larry or I any change from our entry fee, but in Central America that's to be expected. Customs was free & took about 15 minutes a bike. I was liking Nicaragua already.
As you can tell from me falling off whilst going backwards at 2mph, I am not yet an off road pro. Riding through Nicaragua Andy was keen on some real off roading & as I was in good company
A long way from New York.
Nicaragua. Full of dodgy cops although I didn't meet any.
(i.e. People who could help me pick the bike up) I gave it a go too. It was brilliant!!! Big holes, mud, dirt & dust & real off the beaten track biking. Even the experts thought it was tough going.
There was another river to be crossed so I thought it was a good time 'to excercise a few demons'. Yes I dropped the bike, but I am getting better. This time was again on the bank & not in the water & I had the choice of either dropping the bike or hit a kid standing directly in my path. Obviously, I tried to hit the kid as they are softer but instead dropped the bike just a few metres short. As I wasn't going backwards I count it as an improvement.
The path we were meant to take was blocked by a fast flowing deep river meaning we had to double back & cross the same river again & this time I was determined not to drop the bike. I resorted to my favoured 'gun it' approach & made it across without falling off, a definite improvement. However, I hit the water with a little too
much momentum & the bow wave I created meant I got soaked. I may have been better off dropping it mid river. I didn't care, I'd crossed it without falling off. Off road Pro!!!
We continued to race south up until Andy & Patrick got poisoned. From the health section of the Lonely Planet we diagnosed their illness as cholera, despite no medical qualifications between us. Andy was in his sleeping bag freezing in 30 plus degree heat whilst Patrick was burning up. It may have also been food poisoning, but the book definitely pointed towards cholera.
Due to the departure date of the boat to Colombia we raced through Central America & as the lads were sick we stuck to the main roads & concentrated on covering the miles.
As we approached the Costa Rica border with Panama Patrick & I opted to stay just a little longer so we said goodbye to Larry & Andy who pushed on. We then rode back to where we'd started at 7am that morning & spent the evening visiting every pub in town. Luckily as there was only two, it made life easy.
On route to the border
the following day I got caught speeding by a motorcycle poilceman hiding behind a tree. 65kph Over the speed limit meant a ticket but I didn't mind as I had no intention of paying it. The policeman was clearly waiting for me to offer to pay in cash at the roadside but I thought the ticket would be a nice momento from Costa Rica so I didn't mind him writing me up. Eventually when he realised I wasn't going to hand over any dollars he said I could go. He was even gracious enough to pose for a picture.
So I'm in Panama City at the moment which despite two Police Officers literally putting their hands into Patrick's pockets & stealing $100 is actually a nice place. Did the touristy stuff & had a nose around the canal & come tomorrow I load the bike onto a boat sailing to Colombia. Two days are spent exploring the San Blas Islands & then two sailing to Cartagena. Yes it sounds rather blissful but that's before you factor in me getting sea sick for 4 days straight. As ever, I'll let you know how I get on.
The bottom of
the Americas can't be far away now.
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