This story really begins about six years ago, which is when this crazy idea popped into my head, and kept poking at my thoughts so I couldn't ignore it. I was in Belize, so not too far from my home in Colorado, when I saw a car with Colorado plates. A simple as it sounds, this sight triggered my dreams about the world's road networks and how great it would be to have the freedom of a vehicle to explore wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and not be limited by public transport. After that, I became somewhat obsessed by the thought of a long overland trip and many many days were spent dreaming about driving the whole world in a 4WD, but after some initial pre-planning which clearly indicated that my budget would have to be virtually unlimited this quickly proved unfeasible. Not giving up on the idea, I arrived at a boiled-down version of the initial plan. I would concentrate my efforts on Central and South America, and do it on a motorbike! I chose the motorbike as a cheap, fun means of transport, and I would do the trip for the sake of travelling and exploring.
There was nothing unusual about my pre-trip preparations. I learned to ride a motorbike, absorbed as much information as possible, researched the route, got all the necessary jabs, blah blah blah. You get the picture. This topic has been covered extensively by others and so there's no need for explicit details. The days shortly before departure were quite typical for most trips. Nervous excitement took over my body for basically all of September. Walking out of my job on the last day as a wageslave was a cinch, and my head was a bit fuzzy for some time because my thoughtful, caring friends in Boulder sent me off in style. Perhaps they were concerned about all the good liver-abusing fun I would have on my trip, and apparently wanted my liver to build up resistance, I don't know. Nor do I remember much. Good intentions nonetheless and they made it hard to leave Boulder. Again, quite typical. You've heard it before.
So the actual first day of the trip happened to be cold, and I had to ride south through a miserable drizzle in which the occasional snowflake would make itself visible. That didn't matter though! What a feeling! I was riding down all-too-familiar roads but this time I wasn't going down to the corner store, but down to Patagonia! The nervous excitement and anticipation peaked and didn't let up until it dropped sharply after I crossed the border at Presidio, Texas, after meeting up with James in Texas. James is a kiwi also riding a Kawi KLR650 with similar plans whom I met through HU, so we teamed up for the time being.
I rode quickly through the southern states of New Mexico and Texas, and this time was quite unremarkable. I did, however, stop for a service in Las Cruces, New Mexico. While the mechanic was working on my bike, a group of leather-clad Harley riders showed up for an oil change each, saw my overloaded Kawasaki, and so wanted to know what I was up to. After I told them they were in shocked disbelief. Then came the warnings about Mexico, then one guy finally said "You got cojones, man, you got cojones". All the others nodded in agreement "Mmm hmmm. Cojones. You know what cojones are?" I had no idea.
In fact, I had been warned so many times about the horrible things that would happen to me once I crossed the border that I actually did approach it cautiously, even though I thought I knew better about the true nature of the county, as most HU readers do. So James and I obeyed very carefully all of the posted speed limits and stop signs (to the annoyance of other Mexican drivers) so the supposedly corrupt federales would not have an excuse to brutally beat money out of us and let us rot in a Mexican prison. According to many the roads would be atrocious and infested with banditos and certainly just about everybody would be prepared to bonk me on the head for my bike. What we found, and what almost everybody who has actually travelled to Mexico has found, is a friendly, safe fun place that is basically a traveller's paradise. Cops ignored us and the only roadblocks were by the army searching our luggage for drugs. No big deal.
James and I rode pretty much straight to Creel through Chihuahua. Creel is the jumping off point for exploring the Copper Canyon. We took a small side trip to the falls at Basaseachic, on roads that were quite obviously designed and built specifically with the motorcyclist's pleasure in mind. It was a scenic, twisty road with little traffic that finally deposited us on the rim of the Canyon. Quite a scene! It is really comparable to the Grand Canyon and the scenery looks much like Colorado or Utah. We took the side trip to Batopilas way down in the gorge, had a great time in this slow-pace place. Got a full day hike in to the Cerro Colorado. But we hadn't come far yet. I wanted to keep moving and I had the Pacific coast beaches on my mind.
In the Copper Canyon
In the Copper Canyon
It was a pretty quick connect-the-dots ride through the cities of Parral, Durango, Zacatecas (great city!), Guadalajara (plus a side trip to Tequila) and down to the coast at Colima. At Colima we took a left turn and headed east along the Pacific coast and drove through beautiful Michoacan state to Zihautanejo. It was pretty much mountains with lush tropical growth on the left, and Pacific Ocean on the right. The road was in great condition, contrary to what we had heard from others and read in books, and was great fun with nice twisty sections, and seafood stands, banana plantations and palm trees along the whole stretch. Great fun. These days the routine included stopping for the day, taking off the helmet, then the riding pants under which there was a pair of shorts, tearing off the jacket under which there is generally nothing, taking off the boots and replacing them with flip-flops, slipping on the sunnies and it was off to the beach. Not bad, eh? Pretty nice beach in Zihuatanejo, and although Ixtapa is a Cancun-like resort not too far away, Zihuatenejo seems to have maintained a small town feel to it.
Despite the great ride along the coast, I did have a bit of a rough day. First, near Playa Azul we stopped to top off the tanks. This involved riding across a fueling platform, marble-smooth and white. Right before I rode over it some diligent Pemex employee had "washed" the fueling platform- with water. This of course brought all the residual diesel, gas, and oil on an otherwise already smooth surface on top of the water. Well I went down in less than a split second, slid to a stop, got up and took a deep bow to the great amusement of the gas station attendants. It was like trying to ride a bike on an ice skating rink. Even walking on this surface was difficult, and there was no way for me to see that it was wet.
Then, about an hour down the road, a wasp somehow found its way into my riding jacket. It was trying to get out, panicked, and started stinging. It got me first in the armpit area, then I felt it crawling down my front side. Yeow! It stung me again further down on the side of the torso. It was time to pull over. But the Mexican roads have very steep shoulders and its not just a matter of pulling to the side. And I couldn't simply stop in the middle of the road or I'd get hit by the traffic barrelling around the corner. Nothing I could do but ride on hoping for a place to pull off. By this time the little bastard had crawled down into my pants, and I felt him on my innner thigh. Son of a......! He stung me on the inner thigh! Pretty tender there. And then I felt him crawling around the most sensitive spots imaginable between the legs. It was really time to stop. I stood up on the foot pegs so I wouldnt tempt him to sting by compressing him. Anything but a sting there! Thank God, there was a pulloff coming up. Had to get off. Still standing. Oh crap thats not a real pulloff its loose gravel. But I noticed too late. And I was going way too fast for how loose this stuff was. The front wheel slid out and I was down again, sliding for about ten feet in gravel. Without the riding gear I would have had a pretty good road rash. But I got up and nothing was broken except my ego. I was embarrassed that this episode ended like this, again with the bike on its side. Had I been standing about a hundred feet behind me on the other side of the road observing me, I would have had a pretty good laugh! So my two low-speed spills of the trip both happened in the same day.
It was hard to leave Puerto Escondido. We spent all day boogie boarding this world class surf- great fun. The town has got a real slow pace, and is full of mostly surfers and some travellers, as well as similar-minded locals and lots of fishermen, and lacks the cruise ship mass tourism of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa so its got a great feel to it. I could spend a year there alone, taking up surfing and taking it real easy. Not bad, not bad at all. But we have got places to be so that means gotta keep on moving.
So we climbed from the Oaxaca coast with all its palm trees into the Chiapas highlands. Fantastic ride as the sweltering humid head gave way to moist, cool air with rainforest-type vegetation. At one point I broke my clutch cable, and spent the next half hour leisurely installing it. Friendly people stopped to ask if they could help, the air was humid but not hot, scented with mild hints of flowers, birds were singing their brightly colored little heads off, there was a clear, gurgling brook right where we stopped and I realized that if it hadn't been for a broken clutch cable I would never have stopped at such an "ordinary" place, which was in fact a huge treat. The place is remarkably beautiful. I enjoyed having a breakdown there immensely. Ah, the joys of motorcycle travel.
Changing the clutch cable in the Chiapas Highlands. My T-shirt reads "If it were easy it would be called snowboarding". So true.
In the Chiapas Highlands
San Cristobal de Las Casas is an interesting highland town, with a strong local indian presence. And a strong presence of armed soldiers carrying M-16s guarding every single street corner. This is undoubtedly the gringo trail already, the place is full of travellers. It's interesting meeting other people in the evening, seeing where everybody's from and just swapping stories over beers. Good fun.
We did a long loop up to visit the Maya ruins at Palenque, then down along the Guatemala border to Bonampak, another Maya site. Super interesting, that one. And we had the site to ourselves cause we weren't in a tour group, and were the only independent travellers. It was the site of numerous ritual sacrifices, which are well preserved in a series of wall paintings in closed vaults which we could walk into and check out. I put on my Indiana Jones hat for that one. It really does make you feel godlike, standing on one of the huge pyramids, stones carvings of gnarly looking heads and symbols all around, imagining a bunch of followers below worshipping you. Anyway, we wanted to cross into Guatemala there (Fronteriza Corozal), which would have involved loading our bikes on a boat and floating downriver for an hour, then getting off on a muddy track on the other side. But we didnīt make it- there was no customs to stamp our bikes out and they have my credit card number so I decided not to risk getting a huge customs duty charge on my credit card in the future. And the road is supposedly real bad they tell me. I know that from Africa tropics, too- in the rainy season dirt roads turn to oatmeal. Always the cautious one, I am. The road up to Comitan was one endless line of military checkpoints, at which we had to have everything searched.
As other travellers have reported, the border at La Mesilla was a breeze. It took less than an hour and a half to clear both sides. After all the formalities were done, the well-armed guard ceremoniuosly lifted the gate to Guatemala and shortly thereafter we rolled into country number three of the trip.
We decided to ride quickly to Antigua for some intense Spanish lessons, so from La Mesilla we spent the rest of the day running the gauntlet of idiotic suicidal passes from the opposite direction. More than once I had to slam on the brakes cause a car was passing in a blind curve coming the other way. It made for some extremely cautious, tense driving. This combined with the hideously nasty stench coming out the backside of the slow busses made for less than ideal driving conditions.
Well in Antigua it was all business. I got a new chain on the way for my bike, changed the oil, and other minor services and repairs, and promptly signed up for a week of intensive Spanish instruction for six hours a day. Antigua is an interesting place. The city was destroyed by an earthquake back in 1773, and the numerous churches still lie in splendid ruin. The ruins appear untouched since that time, there is one church next to which a chunk of intricately carved church-wall still lies in the cobblestone street. Plants grow from the crumbling walls, the statuettes that used to adorn the sides are missing heads and arms, but the ruins are just open, more or less ignored, and continue to slowly metamorphose back into earth. It really gives an impression of past glory long gone. Quite an interesting atmosphere. Other than that, Antigua is nice, but not really my brand of adventure travel. Sure, I can't complain that I just had coffee and cake which could have been from any fine bakery back in Germany, but it still was a bit cushy. It really makes you forget that you're in Central America. Adventure motorbiker travellers aren't supposed to be able to get sushi and Thai food on the road! But they're not supposed to shower either. Good point. Anyway, it was good being here in Antigua, but I am really eager to go and explore the western highlands. And so that will be the start of the next chapter.
Spanish study in Antigua, over coffee and cake. My shirt STILL reads "If it were easy it'd be called snowboarding".
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