July 29, 2008 GMT
Alaska july 08

Following Blog is for friends, fellow travellers, people in the UK / Europe looking for inspiration and anyone else bored with life.

Alaska - not sure why, but I like it.

Where to start - Anchorage? Flew out from Glasgow with FlyGlobespan - good value at 312GBP for one way ticket to Vancouver. Alaska Airlines up to Anchorage. Got my US Visa stamped for 6months on leaving Vancouver. Slightly confusing, as part of Vancouver airport is US territory (even though Vancouver is in Canada).

Picked up the new bike Tuesday 15th July. Nice and shiny 2008 model Kawasaki KLR 650, Alaska registered. I think this will prove a good choice as time goes on, rather than the BMW 1200GS which many seem to favour. Many thanks to Keith at 'The Motorcycle Shop' in Anchorage for making it possible. It was remarkably easy for those looking to do something similar, with all equipment and luggage fitted and ready to go.

For bike techies, equipment is SW Motech and came from twistedthrottle.com. Boxes are Zarges, from newworldcase.com. All purchased in the states, but available in the UK (All of German origin). I would fully recommend and I think gives a good setup.

Anchorage is a nice town - fairly typically American low rise and spread out. Not great for walking - definately a car (or rather truck) city. But loads of facilities (Wallmart!!) so a good place to start. Being slightly underprepared, this was good in terms of getting camping gear etc together. Being July, lots of daylight also, which is nice. Stayed in the Alaska Adventure Hostel - very friendly, with private rooms at $45 per night.

Initially headed down to Seward, just to get into the bike. About 125miles south of Anchorage. Would have been a nice run had it been dry and warm. Unfortunately wet and cold was to be the norm for the next 10 days - basically all of Alaska. Good news is that my new Held waterproofs (also German I think) are excellent and a great last minute purchase the afternoon before I left home. Have also adopted some guidance from my brother to put plastic carrier bags over my boots - I find Wallmart ones work especially good. I reuse so dont feel bad about wasting the environment.

Seems like everyone here is taking about the weather - they reckon worst summer in 30 years. Oh well!! Lowest temp has been 40deg F - about 5deg C I think. Lots of coffee stops have been in order.

Have also settled nicely into camping. Hotels / B and B's are kind of pricy here - typically from $90 upwards. Fine for a 2-week break, but not for 6 months. Options for camping are 1)side of the road, 2)state park, 3)private park. The side of the road is cheap, but options / facilities limited. Also feel exposed to the wildlife. State parks are good and plentiful, costing $8-12. But no showers. Private is best having everything including lots of people, so at least you feel safe (or safer) and not so exposed. At $20 per night, good value and worth it just to get a shower. Did find a good B and B in Fairbanks, the Front Street B and B (tel 907 452 6523). This offers an "eclectic collection of bizarre art and alaskana", including nanook the polar bear on the roof, all for $45. Well worth a look.

Bike has now covered 2000miles zig zagging around Alaska. Considered the run to Prudhue but stopped short at the Arctic Circle. Have done the Arctic Circle in Scandanavia previously, so seemed to make sense. Word locally suggested that the Dalton highway is great in the dry, but nasty in the wet - something to do with the binder they use to seal the gravel (I think its called mud!!). Based on the weather at the time, another 300miles of nothing, slip sliding along at 20mph wasnt appealing. The forecast of snow at Prudhue also helped nail the coffin shut. Heading south (California?) seemed like a better proposition.

People here are great. Everyone wants to stop and talk - locals and tourista alike. Most inspirational are the cyclist (push bikes, not motorbikes). Stopped with Henri and Elena from Holland / Argentina respectively. They are on a two and a half year mission to cycle from Deadhorse (Prudhue) to Argentina - makes my trip seem really easy by comparison. Also the Swiss couple who have motorcycled from Argentina on their BMW's - good source of info for me.

Some interesting facts:
i. In Alaska, gas (thats petrol) comes from the black pump. Diesel comes from the green. Confusing, but I need to remember that.
ii. Just about every road junction has a STOP sign - why?
iii. If you can afford an RV the size of a bus - do you not think that you could afford to sleep in a hotel? Apparently 10mpg is good perfamance and it costs $350 to fill the tank. God that must hurt!!

Now the 25th July (not sure which day - seem to have lost track). Sitting at Tok Junction, waiting to head for Dawson City and Yukon Territory - Canada.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 09:19 PM GMT
August 09, 2008 GMT
Canada - Yukon and BC

Onwards to Canada - Yukon Territory and British Columbia. Entered Canada via the Top of the World Highway. 40 miles are gravel on the Alaska side, but a great road none the less. Its narrow and twisting, with only a few RV's and bikes for company. The Canadian border / customs post is kind of strange - right up in the mountains all by itself. On the Canada side the road runs along a ridge with great views down over the hilltops on either side. The lanscape here is more rounded - not quite as rugged like Alaska. It may have been coincidental, but the sun was shining on the Canada side - nice to see. A short ferry crossing takes you onto Dawson City - an original gold mining town, although slightly recreated for the tourists, but still has a nice feel. The campsite was right in town here, which is handy for an evening stroll, but resembled little more than a gravel car park with a small area for tents.

Onwards to Whitehorse. Again a nice town on the banks of the Yukon river. Everything in these parts stems from the gold rush so its fairly heavy tourist country. July is probably peak tourist season, but not overly busy. Can recommend the campsite in Whitehorse - close to town, riverside setting and tents only - all for $12. So good I stayed two nights.

Skagway was recommended in the tourist blurb, so a 200mile detour was in order. Its back in Alaska (way down in the southern part) so back through immigration / customs. Although the day way bright, getting there involves a high mountain pass. For me this was above the cloud base - god it was cold. Seems like fog is a good reason to use your hazard lights in the US. Couldn't find the switch on the KLR!! Skagway was heaving with tourists - a disapointment to someone like me with a mild dislike for tourists. Seems like Skagway is Cruise central in Alaska - there were 4 large cruise liners docked in the port. Strange people tourists.

Route 37 south - the alternative to the much hyped Alaska highway. Definetly the better bike road. Although the scenery's great, not a whole lot to do but ride - 300miles a day is typical right now and easy to do. On the way down the 37 I noticed a strange thing - darkness. Actually it was at Dease Lake campground at 3.00 in the morning. I had grown accustomed to 24 hour daylight - what a great concept. The other great thing about the 37 was my first sighting of a bear. I had become more relaxed about bears / camping, but this one was pretty big and shaggy - definately not cuddly or cute. It was just wandering about in a layby at the side of the road. Considered going back for a photo, but sense prevailed and kept going. Saw a second one later the same day - this one was small and black and probably was cute.

At the bottom of the 37 things change - civilisation!! More habitation, more farming and more traffic. Nobody here drives to the speedlimit - so the KLR at 60mph (which is the speedlimit) feels slow. Watching the mirrors and letting the big 16wheelers pass is all part of the fun.

From here its onwards to Vancouver. Have to recommend highway 99 - pretty much all ofthe way from the 97 to Whistler. This is the only road so far worthy of a sports bike - even on the KLR it was good riding. Stunning scenery also (Marble Canyon) - but hard to ride fast and gawke at the same time. It was also the hottest day so far - blue skies and sunshine. Whistler got a brief whistle stop tour (ha ha!!). Looks really nice - they are hosting the 2010 winter olympics here. T-shirts available now. Even in summer this place was buzzing - can only imagine what it would be like in winter. Major roadworks (sorry - I mean construction) from here to Vancouver.

First stop in Vancouver - Burnaby Kawasaki for two new tyres (or tires even). Front was OK, but rear well squared off after 4500 highway (99% straight) miles. Some obscure Taiwanese brand - Kenda. However they were cheap ($70 / 80 each) and the guys in the shop recommended them. Dunlops were $150 each. They did a great job of fitting them right there and then, even though their shop was fully booked. Great service and really friendly bunch. I have to say that after 500 miles, they are performing well.

Had a quick cruise round downtown Vancouver - it was kind of hot so looked like everyone was on the beach. Think it was Friday, so I guess a great way to spend the afternoon.

Vancouver Island gets a brief visit - about a 2 hour ferry ride ($40 for me and bike). At 280miles long its reasonably large. Effectively one paved (that means tarred) highway from top to bottom with all other minor roads being forestry track - more gravel. After 60 miles of rough gravel - time to wash the bike yet again. A soap and rinse can be done on the KLR for $2 at the local jetwash. Good value and nice to be riding a shiny machine again. For me it was a case of a quick brush down. Finished off here in Victoria. Its certainly worth a visit and the centre is very reminicant of the UK. Had a change of accomodation here, securing a room at the University of Victoria. $32 gets a private room. Good value and something I need to try again in the future (UCLA?).

Slightly different ferry route back to mainland - only $39 this time.

Interesting facts about Canada:

i. Distances and speeds are in Km / Km/h which is a pain, but temperatutres are in deg C which is nice (32deg C in Vancouver - bit hot on the bike).
ii. A loonie is a $1 coin, a tooie is a $2 coin. Campsite showers need a loonie for 5 minutes hot water.
iii. The Yukon river rises 15miles from the Pacific Ocean, but empties into the Bering sea, 2300miles away.

Hence, onwards and downwards to the lower 48. To enter Canada took all of 30 seconds. To enter the USA from Canada took me 30 seconds also, but only after a 1 hour wait along with everyone else in the queue. Oh well!!

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Posted by Graham Shee at 06:27 PM GMT
August 16, 2008 GMT
The Lower 48

The Lower 48 - that what people in Alaska call the rest of the USA. For me thats Washington, Oregon and California.

The geatest thing so far is seeing things change as I head south. Obviously the weather or rather the temperature, but also the landscape, the people (yes the people), the prices (gas and food is noticably cheaper here) and vehicle licence plates. Its much warmer now - 104F (apparently) in the valley coming down from Mount Hood - thats 40 deg C. Not sure which is preferable - riding in the cold or riding in the heat. At least in the cold you just add more layers.

The Alaska plate on the bike is starting to give people interest now - makes me appreciate the distance that I have covered already - 6,500miles at Crescent City, just into California. Each state here has a different licence plate - makes it easy for me to remember where I am. Also interesting, for me, is that once you cross a state line, all of the plates pretty much change to that state. This may sound obvious, but I find it surprising that there is no in between area with plates from states either side of the line. Its almost like folk dont travel out of state - or maybe its the 'purchase tax / buy within the state' law. Dont know?

Highlights of Washington have to be Seattle and Mount Rainier. Had hoped to stay a night in Seattle, but instead settled for a days cruising the sights on the bike. Having the bike makes this real easy (more so than a car and definately more so than public transport). I loved the residential area of Seattle - the big hill above the bay (sorry if I cant be more precise and give it a name). I can only assume that this is the 'historic' upmarket area, as I cant believe everyone here lives in such a nice neighbourhood. Downtown Seattle, I guess, is like most big cities - office blocks and shops so nothing new here.

Onwards to Mount Rainier - a defunct (at least it was while I was there) volcano standing at 14,500ft high. As you approach it, it stands out impressively on the horizon, everything else round about being low rise. Took the road to Paradise - thats what the centre is called half way up. Was hoping for a big sign proclaiming "Welcome to Paradise", but it wasnt there - shame. However the view made up for it. You can climb Mt Rainier - its a two day trek to the top. 90 people have died trying so gave that a miss.

And then Mount St Helens, another volcano. This one is active, last blowing its top in 1980, killing 57 people (had to look that up). It was hard to get close to get a decent picture, most small roads being closed nearby, reputedly due to flooding / washout. Maybe they are just nervous of letting people get too close.

It seemed like I was on the volcano trail - into Oregon and Mount Hood. Again this is visually stunning and very accessible via some great twisty mountain roads. At 11,200ft high, it offers all year round skiing. How good is that (well it is if you are into skiing!!). It was really strange standing in the carpark at Timberline watching all these skiers and snowboarding dudes heading off for the slopes. You could see them on the mountain - tiny little dots. Timberline deserves a special mention. Its a mountain lodge built during the great depression as a federal project. This place (essentially a hotel) oozes character and atmosphere and is totally original. Much of the work was done by artists as well as craftsmen. Well worth a visit and would make a great overnight stop.

At this stage, with 104deg F, I decided the beach was the place to be - head for the coast. Unfortunately the Oregon coast suffers from coastal inversion. Dont know how it works, but when its hot in the valley its cold at the beach. 55deg F and thick wet fog. Mmmm!! Its like riding in rain - you get wet, but strangely the road remains dry. However the stop in Newport did give me a chance to meet Blane and Rikki at the campsite - great people to bump into and chat with over a beer. Gravel roads have also been a feature of Oregon - you dont have to go looking for them - if you use the black roads on the map, chances are that it will change to gravel at some point. These were great roads - small single track roads crossing the Cascade mountains. You feel really isolated on these - my only contact was meeting a fire truck on one downhill section (heard him coming thankfully) and loads of deer - I counted eight within a hour. But no bears!!

Of general note, the KLR is performing exemplary (that means really well). Gave it an oil and filter change at 6,000miles. Another wash (thats four or five). Lots of people ask about it - my panniers (they call them boxes) in particular. My Kenda tyres are spot on also - will try and use again. Camping is really easy, although some of the sites are more RV orientated than tent. Tents seem to get stuck into the less desirable places. Typically $16 - $20 with showers which is OK. Launderette are common also, some at campsites. At $1.50 per wash and $1 for hot dry really good value. Keeps you smelling fresh. What has been impressive is the level of information available for tourists. Nearly every town (and village) has an information centre with loads of info, maps, brochures etc. freely available. Interpretive centres are also provided at all major attractions. This has been the case all the way since Anchorage and makes things really easy. I think the UK could learn from this.

And then into California. I was expecting great things of California - especially sunshine. However seems like the northern california coast suffers from fog also. Its kind of strange - when inland you head for the coast to escape the heat and when on the coast you head inland to get warmed up. That was certainly the case for me.

I have been to San Francisco before, but was keen to be there 'on the bike'. My last nights camping before the luxury of a motel, was north of SF at Petaluma. At $44 I thought it was steep but they justified it by stating they were only 40miles from SF. Yeah right!! However still better than $150 for SF - this was after some serious haggling. Still good value and a nice place close to the centre. I like SF - a good walking city where you can just wander about and relax - provided you skip the tourist hot spots. My only concession to the tourist trail was taking the bike down Lombard street - billed as the crookedest street in the world. However having joined the queue, crawling down in the KLR 6inches off the bumper of an SUV was not ideal. Crawling up some of the SF hills was not ideal either, but the KLR coped admirably.

And then on to LA - Los Angeles. At Santa Barbara things brightened up - continuous sunshine at last - hooray!!. Santa Monica was another motel stop - my 4th night in a bed in 6 weeks. Used the bike to cover the usual haunts - Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, Hollywood etc. (not that I'm into name dropping). Cruising Beverly Hills looking for Britney Spear's house was pretty cool. Didnt see her, but thats probably because I didnt have 'the map' and I hadnt a clue where her house was. However I did manage to find the Hollywood sign. Was every bit as hard to fond this time ans it was 20 years ago. Next time - I will buy the map.

And onwards ever south. I'm now an expert of US camping. State parks are the place to be - $25 versus $50 for private RV type parks. The ones on the beach are the best and exceptionally busy - even full sometimes. However dont believe the 'campground full' sign - they usually have space for a small tent. Staying on the beach gives an opportunity to go swimming - dont believe all the stories about California's golden sands and azure seas. It was kind of murcky with bits of seaweed floating around. However after the initial cold shock it does feel pleasantly warm.

Now in San Diego, but only briefly. Next stop - Mexico.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 06:57 PM GMT
September 02, 2008 GMT
Mexico Baja California

Mexico - this is how it happens. You are cruising down highway one south of San Diego which is a three lane freeway. In front is a Chevy pick up truck with a California licence plate. The overhead sign reads - Border Crossing Ahead. The truck slows down as do you, almost to a standstill. You cross a speed hump in the road and a set of metal protrusions with accompanying sign - Do Not Reverse. And then you are in downtown Tijuana. Yes really!! That cant be right - but for me it was very much reality. What happened to the big traffic queues, the immigration officials, customs inspections, dogs, guns etc. Nothing!! At least I had done enought research to realise that I needed an entry visa and an import permit for the bike. After some navigating, good judgement or maybe good luck I found an official looking building to do the necessary. The relevant documents are issued by a bank (Mexican Military Bank) - it was kind of strange having the bank girl come out to the carpark and do a visual check on the bike. Inside the bank she only spoke spanish and relied on other customers to translate, but outside spoke good english and was interested in my trip. They´had picked up a small typo on my bike registration/VIN and hence the inspection. OK here, but hopefully wont come back and bite me in the future. Having got the Mexican paperwork sorted, I was then faced with the reality that I had not checked out of the US. The immigration departure card clearly states that it has to be surrendered to a US official on departure. Only one thing for it - join the queue of mexicans waiting to cross the border and go back and do it again. Eventually found a US official to "check out" with, but they dont make it easy. Turns out that the border is effectively open for americans travelling into Baja California (north only). The border into Baja south is the "real" border.

Goodbye America. Hello Mexico.

Tijuana came as a culture shock which I was unprepared for. The contrast with San Diego which is only 10minutes away is noticeable. I think if I was a mexican living here I would be joining the queue to climb the fence (yes there is a fence). Its a reasonable size of a city, but totally uninspiring.

Mexico requires a new insurance policy for the bike (but at least I can cash in the balance of my US policy). Unfortunately mexican bike insurance is liability only (third party without the F and T), which makes me nervous and slightly uncomfortable. Maybe a larger chain and lock are called for. Every one is in the same situation, so - ever onwards.

I decide to head down the coast and Baja California (pronounced Baha - its a spanish thing). This should be an easier introduction to Mexico than the mainland. Baja is big - just over 1000miles long. The first 80 miles is very commercial - with luxury condo´s and resorts springing up. You get the impression that planning control is not high on the agenda. After Ensenada (80 miles down) it all changes and becomes true wilderness (in a good sense). The roads are quiet with very little traffic. The landscape is rugged - almost desert like in places but with mountains on the horizon. The countryside is dotted with cacti - real ones, just like you see in the movies. It is easy to feel remote here. Did manage two nights of camping - the second was excellent, with trees for shade, green grass to camp on and three swimming pools - all for 60 pesos (3GBP). However, I think hotels are the future - good value at 3 - 400pesos (15 - 20GBP).

Its not until I reach Sants Rosalia that I actually get inspired. What a sweet little town. It has proper streets, pavements and neat little houses. Makes a change from the dirt and shacks that have prevailed up to this point. And so it continues. The Baja just gets better the further south I travel. Some of the landscape is absolutely stunning. The roads are good and very well maintained - full marks to the mexican government. Only the occasional washway (culvert) requires me to slow down - tropical storm Julio came through the week before and in places took the road with it. But its all well signed. I think Julio may also be responsible for the greenery that prevails in the south - totally unexpected.

Next is the town of La Paz - I could live here, its that nice. It sits on a bay and has a perfect malecon. A malecon is a seafront promenade and the La Paz version is the place to be seen. Its pretty clear that La Paz has money - or rather the people here. Its also a popular holiday destination, but all the tourists are mexican (or maybe spanish), so doesnt feel touristy (if that makes sense).

I have passed five military inspection points. They are signified by a cardboard cutout of a soldier waving a flag (but obviously he doesnt wave). Only once did I have to stop, all other times being waved through. They act to break up the journey and provide additional interest for me. No drama, similarly with the immigration checkpoint at the north / south border.

Some interesting facts on my initial excursion into mexico:

i. the traffic lights go from green, to flashing green, then amber then red. Gives you the chance to drop a gear and get through in time, unlike the US where they go straight from green to red (no amber).
ii. the mexicana highway patrol use US spec dodge chargers. They must have so much fun chasing the banditos. By the way they are 2008 models, dark blue with a big white stripe and have a full compliment of windows.
iii. mexicans have a love of loud music (of indishtingable origins).

From here its only a short ferry hop to the mainland - Topolobampo (what a great name). Baja ferries are doing the honourable - Im sure i will be adequately impressed.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 08:38 PM GMT
September 14, 2008 GMT
Mexico

The ferry to Topolobampo was extremely unextrordinary. Just like every other ferry that Ive ever been on. It had a bar for the truck drivers, a television lounge for those wanting to sleep and a restaurant for those in need of a taco. Its now very hot. Leaving Los Mochis the next morning at 7am its 26degC, at 11am its 35degC. By the middle of the afternoon its starting to get uncomfortable. Not unbearable, but certainly uncomfortable. I fear it will be like this for the forseeable future. The only respite that I can find is to ride the bike. However as soon as I have to stop the heat just builds up. Not nice, but all part of the challange.

On the run down to Mazatlan I encountered the local BMW riders group out for a run - also heading to Mazatlan for the weekend. A quick chat and then were all on our way. Mazatalan is a holiday hotspot - 350pesos (about 17GBP) gets me luxury accomodation right on the beach front. I figure that because its so hot the beach is the best place to be - but being honest it was too hot even for the beach. I have to say that the water temp was perfect - much better than California. I can also recommend it for those looking to join me in getting a touch of sunburn - after about 40minutes!!

That night there was the mother of all storms. I am sure that they are used to it here, but for me it was awesome. It was 10pm and I joined everyone else at the front of the hotel to watch across the bay. The road was flooded level with the kerb. The lightening was everywhere. But it was the thunder that was most intense - even though I was inside the hotel I can admit to being slightly scared and jumped more than once. God it was loud.

This part of mexico has a monsoon like climate. Thundery showers prevail nearly every day. All the way down this side of the country is really green - lots of farming. I believe you could grown anything here. In fact at times I have to keep reminding myself where I am - parts are so like back home.

After Mazatlan, its Guadalajara, Queretaro and then Mexico City. Queretaro deserves a special mention, being a well preserved historic city with a really nice feel. And then there is Mexico City. Travelling into Mexico City was a daunting prospect - its massive. However after a few false starts I found an excellent hotel in a good location, including a garage for the bike. All for the bargain price of 280pesos per night (about 14quid). Although they could only speak spanish (unlike me) everyone was extemely helpful and friendly. I even entrusted them with my laundry. Shame they charged me 600pesos for the privelage.

Mexico City is well worth a visit and is the equal of any large european city. Think Madrid or Barcelona - the spanish influence is obvious. It caters for both historic and modern. September 15th is the anniversary (198 years) of mexican independance - signs of the festivities were everywhere. I stayed three full days taking the opportunity to have some fettling done to the bike - maintenance needs come around really fast.

New tyres were due - off to VeraCruz to intercept a delivery. Unfortunately my Wednesday tyres turned into Friday tyres. Never mind, VeraCruz is a nice place to hang out. It was also the case that my symptoms of unwellness that I had been carrying since Mexico City turned into full unwellness so having the luxury of bed if I needed it was reassuring. VeraCruz also gave me the excuse to cross over to the Gulf of Mexico. This involves crossing the mountains - mile after mile of narrow twisty road. Because of the altitude its pretty much up in the clouds with the associated moisture and poor visability. 20mph is pretty much the best average that can be hoped for - progress is slow. But the road is quiet and a worthy experience. Similarly on the way back via Oaxaca - a two day journey in full waterproofs. At least its nice and cool in the mountains.

Its only a short haul now along the coast to Tapachula and the border with Guatamala.

After a shaky start, Im really into Mexico. I dont believe I could find anything bad to say about the country or the people - I feel comfortable here. The people - everyone has been very friendly and extremely helpful. Not speaking spanish has proved to be no hinderance whatsover - in fact I enjoy the challange. Why did I never think of coming here on holiday? There are numerous food opportunities and its all good. Petrol is 36pence a litre. Thats for the cheap stuff - your Subaru STI will probably require the dear stuff at 46pence.

In terms of progress, the Arctic Circle is 66.5deg N. Ushuaia is 55deg S. Halfway, 5.5deg N, is somewhere in Central Columbia. Mexico City is 19.5deg N. Basically, this means that there is still a long way to go. However, over 6 months, I need to cover around 20deg per month. After 2 months (Mexico City, 15th Sept) I should be around 26deg N. I think OK, but obviously not very scientific. Im also three hours closer to the UK than when I started which also means Im heading east.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 11:00 PM GMT
September 27, 2008 GMT
Guatemala, ElSalvador, Honduras and Nicaragua

Guatemala, ElSalvador, Honduras and Nicaragua - four countries in four days. Well almost. Neither is particularly big and it probably takes me longer to clear the border than to drive across each country. Honduras can be done in two hours. However I decide to spend at least one night in each.

Guatemala - makes me nervous. The info on the FCO (thats the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) website suggests that it requires care and gives various recommendations - none of which apply or particularly relate to bike travel. There is a really nice route across the top of Lake Atitlan. This would take in all the major tourist spots, but would also take in the FCO hotspots. My plan - get on the CA2 and head straight for ElSalvador, therefore removing any doubt. Having said all of that, when Im actually there it feels great and certainly not threatening. Cant understand what all of the fuss is about - I think the FCO are overly cautious. The CA2 is not the best road in the world - parts require concentration to avoid the potholes. But it is relatively quiet and parts are really scenic - including a whole bunch of volcanoes. I break the journey with an overnight in Mazatenango - the hotel is first rate.

ElSalvador - superb. Its a real joy to ride through ElSalvador. The roads are great - no potholes here. They're also quiet - lots of people walking, bicycles, horses and more motorcycles than I've seen up until now. They also put a lot of effort into keeping the verges, trees etc cut and tidy. This includes grazing your horse, cow, goat whatever to maximise land use - great idea. Everyone in ElSalvador seems to give me a big smile and seem really pleased to see me - strange!!

Honduras is short lived - its only 100miles across. But I book into a hotel to say I've stayed there - even though its only 2o´clock in the afternoon (yes I do stay the night).

Nicaragua - OK, but a degree of poverty is noticable here. The roads are very quiet, there are loads of people walking / cycling and a far greater number of horse and carts than before. People on horses add a new dimension to in-town traffic jams. As well as bikes there are horses filtering through the stationary traffic - I thought it was pretty neat. And of course kids begging (at least I think they're begging - they keep using the word dollare) at every stop - its hard to get privacy here. The staring was also more intense in Nicaragua (I'd thought I'd got used to it). People just cant hide their surprise / bewilderment. The KLR generates a lot of interest here, either on its own or with me on it. I'm also very aware that I stick out like a sore thumb.

Border crossings deserve a special mention. My exit from Mexico was none too slick. I had to backtrack about 20miles to find the correct brach of Banjercito to terminate my bike permit. Turned out to be little more than a shed at the side of the road. Failing to terminate the bike permit means they can withdraw the import tax from your credit card - so worth the hassle of doing properly. Entry into Guatemala was none to slick either. I was determined to ignore all of the fixers who swarm around and do things myself. But in reality it was a fixer (a young mexican kid and his mate) who steered me through the process. But I learnt from this - next time I will use a fixer, sit back and let him do the work, therby relieving myself of the grief - hopefully. And so it was at ElSalvador - my fixer sweated for the best part of three hours while I sat and waited. Not true - I sweated also, ending up with a t-shirt two shades darker. Same story for Honduras and Nicaragua. I dont find the border crossings particularly pleasing - but all part of the experience. Certainly one per day is plenty.

I must also confess to struggling slightly with money - or rather the relative value of money. I gave my ElSalvador fixer $10US - it was my smallest bill I had but seemed reasonable. However, later that afternoon I got my hair cut for 75cents (yes - about 40pence). Either the haircut was really cheap or my fixer must have thought that all of his Christmas´s had come at once. Actually I didnt grudge the $10 - the guy was honest and didnt rip me off. Three Brazilian guys had been charged $20 each for express clearance - they were still there when I left. I settled on $5 for my fixers after that - most grumbled disapproval but accepted it none the less. Also on the subject of money - each border crossing involves changing cash with a shady money changer. There is nothing official or alternative available. Its OK, but handing over cash and trying to haggle in the middle of the street with loads of 'hanger ons' gawking is not ideal.

Security - noticable in Guatemala, but more so in ElSalvador. A noticable police presence (they only stopped me once) and security guards everywhere - even Domino´s Pizza employ a doorman with a gun. Banks have several. Pump action shotguns seem to be the weapon of choice. My first ElSalvador hotel in Sonsonate was slightly disappointing - the security guy only has a machette - or maybe he doubled as the gardener. The next night I got it right - full security with a shotgun. I cant decide if all of this "in your face" security means things are safe or unsafe - I think its maybe carried over from a previous more unsettled time. Certainly the feeling for me is safe. Honduras and Nicaragua seem less security concious - maybe they just cant afford it.

And so it happened - Central America in a blur. Not on purpose, its just the way it works out. My next destination is Costa Rica - I have high expectations.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 01:07 AM GMT
October 07, 2008 GMT
Costa Rica and Panama

I had a good feeling about Costa Rica. I had heard good things from several people. However I guess first impressions count for a lot - the fact that I was holed up in the customs office at the entry point waiting for the afternoon thunderstorm to abate didnt bode well. Eventually, after about an hour, it was a case of getting the waterproofs on and getting after it. Rain would prevail in Costa Rica - it is the rainy season and I guess you dont get tropical rain forest without some rain. And there is a lot of rain forest in Costa Rica.

It would have been easy to take a straight path through Rica, but I decide to take in a couple of loops. The first, around the back of Lake Arenal was obviously a tourist trail. Rica has a very good tourist infrastructure, far more than I´d seen in Central America up until now. This route was very good - very neat and tidy with loads of restuarants and fancy hotels. The views of Volcano Arenal were spectacular - its a real working volcano with a top which glows red in the dark (apparently). I also take in Volcano Poas - it is also active, but they allow people to go to the top and have a look in!! This route takes me to San Jose - the capital. As a city its slightly dissapointing, having no outstanding features. However my hotel was a big hit, having been converted from an old house with a nice colonial feel. The Argentinian couple who ran it were very friendly.

My second loop was along the coast. The biggest feature of this route was the 30miles of gravel road. Not the smooth gravel of previous, but the roughest mother of all full of potholes. There was also a couple of rickety old bridges thrown in for good measure. Progress was slow and I have to say the tarmac looked good afterwards. That night I stayed in a rather nice upmarket (for me) rainforest lodge. At $50 with breakfast, good value.

My third loop was a mistake - I may as well have stayed in bed that day. I knew that going into the mountains risked some rain and it pretty much rained all day. I got myself into a town but couldn´t find a decent road out - it was all muddy trails. After some back tracking I took another route. I then found myself in a small town with loads of roads out but no signposts. My first attempt took me 20miles to a deadend. My second was back the way I´d come initially - it took me about 8 miles to realise. Eventually I got to where I was going, but in the rain, all a bit frustrating and slightly pointless.

My plan was to head for Panama the next morning. However while digging on the net, I realised that Panama had introduced a yellow fever vaccination requirement - two days earlier. Rather than risk the border crossing without it, I tracked down a farmacia (pharmacy) with the necessary jab and know how to stick it in me. Problem solved.

On the whole I would suggest Rica is a nice country, although I have to say noticably more expensive than the rest of CA. Costs are almost on a par with the US. However I would also suggest that ElSalvador is ever bit as nice.

And then on to Panama. My entry into Panama was the best yet. My fixer, who looked about 12years old did a great job - very calm and business like and took the $5 payment graciously. My yellow fever certificate which the farmacia had laboriously typed was not requested. The only flaw was the speeding wrap that I picked up 20 minutes later. Apparently I was in a residential area. It wasn´t obvious - only some shacks up on the hillside. That was inmaterial really - I hadnt a clue what the speed limits were anyway. He was a proper cop with a real speedgun. After the usual talking to, a crisp $20 note seemed to suffice and I was on my way again.

The drive through Panama is pretty unspectacular - effectively there only is one road (the CA1) and its dual carrigeway for most of the way (with loads of police speed traps - even on a Sunday morning). After 2 days I arrive at Panama City. Sometimes you have pre-conceived ideas about a place - I has in mind that Panama City would be really nice. Lots of nice architecture and historic buildings. Unfortunately thats not really the case. Its got its good parts - lots of high rise developments, but most of it has a shabby and rundown feel. The approach from the west across the Panama Canal starts well, but then you traverse a rough neighbourhood to get to the town centre. The only historic part probably fares worst, being slightly rundown with a well used kind of feel. After three days in the city while waiting for my flight to Colombia I start to feel comfortable. Maybe my thoughts were tainted by arriving Sunday afternoon when everything was closed and the city was quiet - first impressions and all that. My hotel is nice - the Hotel California. Always wanted to stay at the "Hotel California". Good location, friendly service and a good price at $38 per night.

And onto Colombia. Before each new challenge I like to get everything sorted. The local chinese laundry got a weeks worth of washing to do. The hotel gave me a bucket to wash the bike - couldn´t find a car wash type place anywhere. The bike has been checked - yet one more notch goes by on the chain adjusters. Several dollars has been spent in the internet cafes (there are loads here) and my Colombia research completed. Because of the Darien Gap (ie - no road for 200miles) the bike is booked on a flight with Copa Airlines. At $629 reasonably priced. Straight forward to organise at the Copa office - hopefully it will arrive OK. For future travellers, some tips that might help:

i.There is a customs office right at the enterance to the cargo terminal. It was a five minute job to close out bike permit and get relevant stamp in passport.
ii. Allow at least two hours at Copa to get the bike checked in and complete the paperwork - I only allowed an hour and created anxiety for myself (my flight to Bogota was imminent).
iii.They asked about petrol but didnt actually check. No need to disconnect the battery. You can leave all of your luggage on the bike. I took my mirrors off, but probably no need.
iv. You should take some photo prints of the bike with you. They do a detailed visual inspection and use the photos to make notes. I guess they then use these to check at other end also and cover themselves against any complaints.
v. Although I didnt see my bike loaded, there were three other bikes ready to go to Medellin. They were loaded on an aluminium airline pallet (more like a tray) and strapped down. Looked good. No crate required.
vi. They have a proper cashier - credit cards accepted.
vii. Copa can organise a taxi to get back to the airport - about 20minutes to the departure terminal (there are no taxis within the cargo terminal area).

My flight to Bogota is with Copa also, but not the same one as the bike obviously - the bike goes in a freighter. $320 for me, booked three days in advance. Because the bike can only fly on a Friday, it was a toss up as to whether to wait in Panama or Bogota. Bogota won. Hopefully this was the right decision.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 09:45 PM GMT
October 14, 2008 GMT
Colombia

South America, Colombia, Bogota. Saturday 11th October - I've been here two days now and am at the airport collecting my bike. Its here - exactly as I left it in Panama. Copa Airlines use a handling agent so I have to part with some cash to cover their input (about 70,000pesos - less than 20GBP). They direct me to the customs office for some form filling - but no charge for my Temporary Import Licence. Whats even better, I do the whole process myself - no fixer required. The only way out of the warehouse is via the loading dock - no problem. The cargo guys borrow a DHL truck with a rear lift platform and soon I'm sorted and ready to go. The whole process was amazingly straightforward. There were so many places where it could all have fallen down - but it was nigh on perfect. My only mishap was the taxi taking me to the flight departure terminal rather than the cargo terminal. I thought my instructions were perfect, albiet in english. Maybe some spanish would have helped!!

Driving into Bogota on the bike feels great. I've been here before, but only very briefly on business. I like Bogota - it has a nice feel. Much better than Panama City. Its also refreshingly cool - mid teens deg C through the day, but probably below 10deg in the evening. Much more to my liking. The most obvious feature of Bogota is the use of red bricks - although its a large city it feels very European. Much like a UK town - particularly the older buildings which are in an "olde worlde" style. Very strange. Although I'm cautious, after 3 days of exploring, I feel safe here. Its clean, neat, tidy and I even grasp the bus based public transport system.

I head west from Bogota to Manizales to connect with the major highway heading south. This proves hard work. The road is a major route, but after an easy start leaving Bogota, moves up into the mountains. The road is single carriageway, narrow, winding its way up and down. Progress is slow - the road is busy. Trucks are common. The trucks struggle - 10mph is pretty normal for both up and down hill. The best part of the day is taken up seeking every possible overtaking opportunity. Unfortunately everyone else is seeking the same opportunity - including small bikes, cars, buses and the more powerful (empty?) trucks. Coming round a corner and coming face to face with someone overtaking seemed normal. However the KLR proves itself again - even with 50bhp I make progress and avoid too much frustration. But it becomes tiresome and hard to grasp the scenery which is pretty spectacular.

Manizales is strange. If you imagine a town, built on top of a mountain, with the main street running along the ridgetop and the side streets running down either side of the mountain, then that is Manizales. This place makes San Francisco look tame. Some of these streets looked so steep that I would be nervous about going up or down. The views were pretty spectacular though, including snow capped peaks in the distance. Waking in the morning and being above the clouds was nice.

From Manizales its down to Cali - a much easier run. Its flatter and much of it is dual carrigeway. The roads incidently are very good with only a few potholes and rough gravelly bits. Signposting is pretty good also, although I struggled slightly navigating my way out of Honda (yes - there is a town called Honda in Colombia). The fields are full of sugar cane (I think), where previously it had been coffee plantations up on the hills.

From Cali it should have been an easy run down to Pasto and on to the Equador border following the main road south. However about 50miles south of Cali I come across a stationary queue of traffic - trucks to start with and then cars queued alongside. Being on a bike I do the only thing I can - go straight to the front. The road is closed. Im thinking accident or landslide - I'v seen a few of those. I ask if I can go on and the answer is no. I ask regarding the problem - the people around me make gun gestures - I think they're winding me up. A senior military type arrives - I ask him if I can go on - he says no. I point at my watch - he points at his and makes several rotations with his finger - I guess that means several hours. Not good. I decide to park up. Within 5 minutes there is a commotion, a cheer goes up and everyone rushes to their vehicles - the road is open. Good timing on my part. We proceed in convoy behind a police pick up. The local bike boys are all at the front - I hold back amongst the cars. I feel safer there. As we head off it soon becomes apparent that the gun gestures were correct. It looks like the road has seen some heavy activity. For some considerable distance the road is littered with debris - trees, large rocks and piles of earth. This was more than two navvies and a wheelbarrow. We have to stop several times and wait for the road to be cleared - the local biker boys help.The road is scorched where fires have been lit. Almost certainly barricades blocking the road. At each one broken glass litters the road. Construction equipment has been overturned. We pass a large military armoured vehicle - the front end is badly burned. Further on we pass another three. There is a lot of military and police activity - police in full riot gear, shields and all. Soldiers dressed in black - not the green that I've seen up until now. These guys look professional. A helicopter circles overhead. Locals all stand outside their houses - they look bewildered as the convoy passes. And so it goes for several miles. Maybe this is the real side of Colombia. Whatever happened was very recent. It's now 11am. I feel OK - I am in a two mile long convoy surrounded by military and police. After the police pick up peels off the race is on - the frustration of everyone is apparent. Colombian overtaking rules apply.

By afternoon I have the road to myself. I am back in the mountains, but the road flows with sweeping bends, so make good progress. The mountains here are rugged and bare - not green like previously. Pasto arrives with a certain amount of relief on my part.

But whatever, I like Colombia. It is a well developed country with amazing landscape. The people have been extremely freindly and really interested in me and the bike - everytime I stop I hear the words "moto" and "kawasaki". I think Colombia has a lot to offer tourists - but I've seen few.

From Pasto its about 50miles to the border. At the border, the rather attractive customs officer speaks good english. She is keen to chat and asks about my trip. She asks what has been my favourite country - I have to say Colombia.

Some of my interesting facts about Colombia:

i. Motorcyclists all wear flourescent tabards with the bike licence plate emblazoned across the back. They also have it stencilled on the back of their crash helmet. May sound strange, but initially I thought that Bogota had a lot of bike couriers. After I'd worked it out, I found myself continually checking that the helmet, tabard and bike all matched!!
ii. Taxis in Colombia are mostly small city cars - Hyundia Atos, Toyota Yaris, Daewoo Matis - that type of thing. Makes perfect sense and ideal for nipping about in. They're also pretty good value.
iii. Many roads in Colombia are toll roads with toll booths for payment. However motorcycles are exempt and have their own express lane, even though its only about 2-1/2 feet wide. I can just squeeze through. Tolls have been a pain up until now, from the Golden Gate Bridge through Mexico and Panama. Not because of the money, just the aggravation of fumbling for change with a full set of bike gear on.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 10:56 PM GMT
October 17, 2008 GMT
Ecuador

I'm not sure what to make of Equador - but straight away I get the impression that it will be good value for money. There is no entry charge at the border - one of the few countries that I have entered for free. While waiting for customs clearance I grab lunch in a restaurant. Soup, main course, fruit juice and a banana all for $2USD. My first night hotel is $10 - its a nice clean modern property with ensuite, cable TV and secure parking for the bike. Petrol - $1.48 per gallon. I fill the bike with 204miles on the clock for a total of $5. Thats over 60mpg. Considering the twisting mountain roads I'm impressed. Diesel is even cheaper - $1.03 / gallon.

I'm now into the Andes - the mountains that is. That explains a lot!! (someone once told me a joke about the Andes but I cant remember it). It also means it's much cooler - nice. I head for Quito - the capital city. The highlight on the way - crossing the equator. I had a rough idea where it was, but without the luxury of GPS, I need a sign (just like Britney Spears). Sure enough there it is proclaiming me to be at the Middle of the World. The Equadorian guide at the sundial monument did explain why it was the middle of the world, but unfortunately his limited command of english meant it was all lost on me. Again my fault for not speaking spanish. However he did seem to be a bit of an expert regarding all things sun, stars and the wonders of the world going round.

And then onto Quito, the capitol city. The map (my colourful free tourist map) suggests it is pretty big - it is. While trying to get to the centre I manage to circumnavigate the city on the bypass. I therfore approach from the south. However my city skills prevail again and in no time at all I am booked into my cosy $12/night hotel - honestly. A nice clean comfortable room, ideal location, secure garage parking for the bike and a friendly bloke in charge. Oh and the important cable TV with 97 spanish channels and 3 english ones. Spot on. I like Quito - the old town is particularly good. I decide to stay 2 days and explore further.

I would suggest Ecuador marks the boundary between north and south. In Colombia the people had a western (or European) appearance. In Ecuador many people look like your archetypical South American - well tanned with round faces wearing bright colourfull clothing and felt hats. All very smart. Quito has many, all selling their local produce and wares. I think they are proud people who strongly support their traditions. I respect that.

After Quito I have a choice - continue south along the Andes, or head west to the coastal plains and find a beach. The beach wins. This means crossing higher mountains. All starts well on decent road, but as I climb and the obigitory rain starts, the road deteriorates into unsurfaced roughness awash with water. Its washboard rough - the ruts run across the road. The temperature drops - man its cold. I am only 200miles south of the equator, but am wearing the same clothing layers as for Alaska. My hands are numb. While stopped to take a photo a 4x4 (I think a Shogun) pulls up. The woman passenger sounds German and enquires after my wellbeing - just great I say. She offers me coffee. I'm still great I say. She pushes - it's HOT coffee. She obviously realises its cold outside the luxury of her 4x4. However the scenery makes up for it, particularly above the clouds. The hillsides are dotted with small farms. Archetypical South American`s are in the majority here. It looks like a hard life and a fairly tough existance. Its certainly not somewhere I'd want to live.

The next morning I realise that one of the KLR pannier racks has come adrift. I pop into town and find the local chinese hardware shop. The guy behind the counter speaks perfect chinese - but neither spanish nor english. Made me laugh!! However he does get me fixed up with the relevant bits to do the repair. I do a quick spanner check on the rest of the bike. The rough roads are beginning to take their toll.

I also realise that the bike is pinking - I think knocking may be the more technical term. Its the price one pays for cheap petrol. For my next fill I move up a grade, from "extra" to "super". Sorted.

On my way to the beach at Salinas I have to pass through Guayaquil - its a large coastal city. I have no town map and despite clear signs to start with, I find myself dumped in the centre of town amidst heavy traffic. After two hours touring the suburbs I am no closer to finding the correct road. I give up and spend the next hour trying to find a hotel - even that proves hard. By now its 5 o´clock - it gets dark around 6. However turns out Guayaquil is quite an impressive city - very modern with an affluent feel. I like it - actually I like most cities. The next morning, with a map and suitable directions, I head to Salinas and the beach. Expecting it to be warm, its surprisingly cool - about 20deg C (compared with Mexico that's cool). Both the beach and Salinas are deserted. I think in summer it would be a great place - but in October, its basically dead. I head back to Guayaquil for more city life. My timing is perfect - the Ecuador motor show starts today in the Guayaquil Conference Centre. I find it easy enough (yeah right!!) and park up. I am the only one there. Enquiries suggest that the doors dont open until 5pm - its 10am. Maybe my timings not that great after all. I head off to resume my travels south and the PanAmericana highway.

My next stop is Cuenca, a very appealing historic city. However to get there involves more mountain roads - deja vue or what!! The next morning I head for a bike shop to enquire about a service. However disaster - the bike cuts out and stops dead, right in the middle of the main street. I park up and investigate. The main fuse has blown. The spare fares no better and blows straight away confirming a fault. Working on the bike at the side of a busy main street is not ideal - very public. Lots of people show interest, including the parking officer (traffic warden). I think I am in a restricted zone. In the circumstances I consider the best solution is to push the bike to the bike shop - its only about 1/2mile away!! Lots of people push things in South America so I dont feel to much of a fool. I return the next morning to find the bike is fixed, but with no real diagnosis being given. I attribute it to one too many high pressure jet washes - the bike was cleaned only ten minutes before it broke down. However it could also be something faulty after enduring the rough roads. My confidence takes a dip. Up until this point I had complete faith in both the bike and my ability to fix it. From here on only time will tell.

From Cuenca its south to Loja. Despite being the main road and the only road south through Ecuador, its surprisingly quiet - maybe a car every 10minutes. Also very few trucks, but plenty of buses. The lack of traffic may be explained by the condition of the road. Short stretches of tarmac punctuated by large potholes and rough gravel sections. Progress is very stop / start, with speeds varying from 60mph to 10mph. Also long stretches of construction where they are laying a new concrete surface - at least they appreciate the road is bad and are doing something about it. Loja must live in isolation from the rest of Ecuador.

From Loja its onto Peru. I come away liking Ecuador. It ranks up there alongside Colombia as one of the better countries visited. I think it has everything a prospective traveller could desire. Nice cities, nice countryside and nice people. My original thought regards good value for money was spot on also.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 11:08 PM GMT
October 30, 2008 GMT
Peru

Peru - I cross the border into Peru late Saturday afternoon. I was going to hold off until Sunday, but had a feeling that the customs office could be closed with a subsequent delay. Crossing into Peru was the easiest border yet. Really logical and straight forward. At 4pm I'm in Peru. Unfortunately the usual horde of money changers and market stalls were absent - so no money and no map either. The lack of map wasn't a problem - essentially there's only one road - to Piura. I got some money en-route, so thankfully could fill up with petrol (a slight worry). As I head to Piura its getting dark. I'm aware that my dipped headlight bulb is blown so decide to run on full beam (its a motorcycle). However as its getting darker, I realise that in fact I have no lights (i.e. nothing working). Not a major problem in South America, lots of people run without lights. I push on. However the oncoming overtaking cars are a concern. I get passed by a van - he's on a mission, so I tuck in behind. By the time I get to Piura its well dark. I grab the first accomodation I can find - a hostel. Wasn't sure what a hostel was, but this one has a cafe for breakfast, a swimming pool and motel style rooms. Also secure parking and free internet access. Every bit as good as any hotel.

The next day a replacement fuse and new headlight bulb gets everything working again.

My initial thoughts on (northern) Peru are not good. Its pretty clear that it is an under developed country in comparison with Ecuador next door. The landscape is uninspiring, the main road south running down the coastal plain. It is pretty flat and relatively desolate. There is an abundance of litter everywhere and it is clear that there are sanitary and sanitation issues. Most villages are visually unattractive. However the first couple of major towns I stay in, Piura, Chiclayo and Chimbot are all reasonably good with excellent hotels at a reasonable price. Driving standards are poor - there is no disipline, not helped by a lack of road markings, stops signs and give ways. There are traffic lights - but you have to look hard to find them. There may only be one light and not necessarily close to the road. Pedestrians fair particularly badly. Pedestrian crossings are abundant but their significance seems meaningless - cars take the right of way at all times.

After Trujillo the landscape changes, becoming very rugged and barren. There are mountains in the distance and a proliferation of sand and sand dunes. It's fairly exposed and windswept here being relatively close to the coast. And so it continues down to Casma. At least the landscape starts to inspire.

Following a lead from the blog of Darren and Emma Homer, I head for Huaraz. They found it challenging, but I was confident that their hardship was down to the weather conditions in May. For me, the weather on the coastal plain has been excellent. Huaraz is only about 60miles from Casma on the map following what looks like a relatively straight road. I fill the tank with petrol (Darren ran out) and pack some food. I set out early. The initial 30miles is a good fast tarmac road. It climbs up into the mountains taking in some pretty stunning scenery - everything is barren with little greenery. After a small village the road suddenly changes - its now a narrow gravel track. However its reasonably smooth so progress is OK. It winds its way up and up into the mountains through several fords and over some fairly suspect bridges. Despite the glorious sunshine, there is obviously water coming from somewhere. I pass through numerous villages with inquiring looks from the villagers. Need to take care due to livestock on the road - pigs in particular, but also chickens and cows. I'm on this road for several hours making good progress, although my average speed must be below 20mph. Certainly, I believe, conditions are good compared to Darren and Emma. The road just keeps climbing. Eventually it reaches the clouds with the inevitable rain. Thats when it starts to get slippy with a coating of clay like mud on a hard base. Judging by the road it rains here most of the time. On several occasions the back of the bike squirms. On the approach to an uphill hairpin it goes down - totally unexpected, catching me unawares. How did that happen - more concentration required. The bike has spun through 180deg and is now pointing back down the hill. I hear laughing - two villagers (women) are on the hillside above. I'm sure theyv'e seen it all before. Its only after I pick the bike up and try and turn it around that I realise how slippery the road is. However there is no damage (not a mark) so I push on with confidence intact. Eventually I'm over the top and thankfully find good tarmac. Not far now. However within sight of Huaraz I find the road closed due to construction work. Judging by the queue of traffic its been closed most of the day. I wait for 3 hours by which time it's dark - well at least I know my lights are working. We proceed in convoy once the road is open. Its horrendous. The first part through a village has mud 10inches deep - no more tarmac. I have to paddle with my feet to keep the bike upright, while trying to keep it in the ruts and moving forward. Once we clear the construction site its downhill all the way. The road is narrow, wet and extremely muddy (for muddy read slippery). At times I can barely see through the diesel fumes from the trucks. The fumes are choking but I'm used to that by now. I have to stop twice and try and create a gap in front. On one part the bike nearly gets away but I somehow catch it and keep it upright. However its now sitting jammed at right angles to the track with the rear wheel deep in a rut. I think the sumpguard is bellied out. Again I find it hard to hold the bike steady with my feet slipping from under me. My boots are carrying a thick layer of mud. Getting it out and pointing downhill is awkward to say the least, but fully realises the benifits of the lightweight KLR. By now there is a queue behind me - but they can wait. Eventually I get to Huaraz. In reality its 95miles on the bike. Sitting in the hotel afterwards, reflecting on the days activities I am in a buoyant mood. Its probably one of the best days I've had so far, providing a reasonable level of challenge. It certainly beats driving directly south on the main road.

I get up the next morning and wash the bike. The weather's good. The run back to the coast should be straight forward on what I believe is good tarmac. Leaving Huaraz, the road seems to climb higher. Its getting cold and the distant mountains have snow on top. I can see rain in the distance. The rain starts but quickly turns to hailstones - I certainly wasn't expecting that. The road is white. I run in the tracks of a bus. On a corner the tracks run right to the edge - the bus had hit the armco barrier and clearly fish tailed its way up the following hill. The bike is squirming and for the second day in a row I realise that the road is slippery. I decide to park up and let it pass. That afternoon at the hotel I wash the bike again. Tarmac here doesn't necessarily mean a clean road.

The approach to Lima is pretty spectacular. The road hugs the coast, but runs high up on the edge of a steep hillside - except its not a hillside, its the largest sand dune imaginable. The sign at the last junction reads "No Motos" - not sure why but I igore it. Do I have a choice?

Lima itself it a Unesco World Heritage site. Despite some attractive buildings, the overall feel is not particularly inviting. I stay two nights downtown (the old part) and then move for one night in Milaflores - a more upmarket neighbourhood where all the tourists hang out. It has an affluent feel which doesn't much match the rest of Peru.

From Lima its onto Nazca and across the lines. The Nazca Lines are the ancient Inca markings scribed into the desert floor. They consist of images of various animals including birds, a monkey and a lizard. Also the figure of a man who looks like a spaceman. Large trapazoidal markings are said to be landing strips for spaceships, suggesting that the spaceman is actually an alien!!. When I said crossed the lines I literally meant it - the Peruvian's built the Panamericana straight across the desert and through the middle of the lizard. Nazca town is very nice - its also the beginning of the tourist trail. Cusco is tourist central - my next destination.

The run to Cusco is broken at Abancay. Nazca to Abancay is 300miles with nothing in between. Cusco is a further 100miles. Both sections are through the mountains, with winding roads climbing ever upwards. However the majority of the road is motorway smooth tarmac which is great. The other remarkable thing is the absence of traffic - only the occasional truck to share the expanse with. On the run to Abancay the weather breaks. The sky blackens and there is lightening in the distance. I'm on a high plateau with nothing for miles around - I feel really exposed. There is a lone figure standing on the roadside - its miles from anywhere!! Once the rain starts it quickly turns to hailstones. Its cold. I reach a village - everything is white, but the road is still OK. I could stop but theres really nothing here - its a hill village built from mud bricks and corregated iron. Certainly no four star hotels. I decide to push on. Thankfully the road starts to drop back down - this is the summit. Soon I feel warmth returning. The last 100miles to Abancay is along a valley floor. Its still raining, but its reasonably flat so progress is good. Abancay to Cusco is similar territory, but the sun is shining and its pleasantly warm. Its a beautiful run, but 100miles takes nigh on five hours - not two as expected. At one point I'm almost level with snow capped peaks. The hillsides are dotted with small farms. This is subsistence living which looks primitive. Ploughing is done with cattle. However the people look happy - some even wave.

And then Cusco - the base for Machu Picchu. The train turns out to be the best option for visiting Machu Picchu - the road only runs part way and I can't be bothered with the 4 day hike along the Inka trial. Its obviously busy - I have to wait 2 days for an available train seat. At least Cusco makes a nice place to hang out and explore. Being tourist based its full of bars, coffee shops and upmarket restaurants which is nice. Oh and souvenir shops abound.

The train to Machu Picchu takes 4 hours for the 110Km journey - about 70miles or 17.5mph. It takes about 40minutes just to get out of Cusco - the hillside is so steep that the train has to make a series of back and forth zigzags along alternating tracks just to climb. It does give a nice view of the city however. Its then on out into the sacred valley following the Urubamba River. All very nice. The last 8km is done by a convey of buses - not the most auspicious arrival at such a renowned landmark site. I wont go into the details of Machu Picchu, but its certainly impressive and worth a look, if only to tick it off a ''things to do before I'm'' list. Arriving early will avoid the throng of day trippers like me who turn up by the train load - obviously. As an aside, I also visited a small Inka site at Tipon on the bike, way up on a hillside along a rough track. Although inconsequential compared with Machu Picchu, it was quiet and peaceful and easy to grasp the isolation and splendour. It was purely a terraced hillside, but continuous running water gives it that tranquil feeling - a nice place to relax.

The run south takes in Lake Titicaca. At times it stretches to the horizon - its big. Its also high - 3812m above sea level (Machu Picchu is a poor comparison at 2400m). Heading back to the coast I take in a mountain pass - the sign reads 4800m (15,748ft). Ben Nevis has a summit of 1344m - Mmm!! Does the KLR suffer at altitude - I don't think so. At one time it does struggle to maintain 50mph. However its blowing a hoolie, I think its a steep hill (sometimes hard to tell) and the last fill was 84octane petrol (all that was available). It's hardly surprising that it was sluggish!! However the next morning, back on the coast and sea level, it felt like a flying machine again. Maybe a week at altitude had numbed both me and the bike.

Do I like Peru? I'm not sure. Any tourist following the tourist trail would come away mightly impressed. The northern region unfortunately gives a poor first impression. My last night is spent in a small town called Tacna. It could be anything, but is suprisingly nice and helps save Peru in my mind. It has great scenery, whether sand dunes, desert or mountain. Also great roads with good quality tarmac. However I think I will reserve judgement until I see how Chile compares.

Some interesting facts about Peru:
i. The staple diet of Peruvians is chicken. In small town Peru 9/10 restaurants are chicken restaurants. They have a menu - you can have 1/4, 1/2 or whole chicken. The tenth restaurant is chinese - they also serve chicken.
ii. A peruvian taxi driver with no fare is dangerous. They doddle on the road searching for potential passengers giving no thought to other drivers. A taxi driver with a fare is dangerous. They drive like there is no tommorow in the expectation that their passenger will give them a bigger tip for getting there 2 minutes earlier. Basically peruvian taxi drivers are just dangerous.
iii. There is a drink called pisco sour. Its alcoholic and tastes really nice.


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Posted by Graham Shee at 03:09 AM GMT
November 24, 2008 GMT
Chile

Chile. It fascinates me that two countries next to one another can be so different. With no prior knowledge of Chile I expected it to be like Peru - but its not. Things are proper in Chile, just like back home. Chile has proper houses - made from proper bricks. Chile has proper taxis - not pedellos, motorised tricycles or Daewoo Tico's. And most of all - in Chile people drive properly, with courtesy and indicators. Chile feels relaxed and laid back. Its really peaceful compared with more northern countries (dare I say Peru). I attribute this to two things - drivers only toot their horns if they have good reason (which is pretty rare) and buses have proper exhausts (rather than just a length of pipe). Driving here is relatively stress free. I must confess to a transition period when I first crossed the border, carrying my Peru bad habits with me - my finger was never of the horn.

Chile also means jet lag - its two hours ahead of Peru. This actually works really well, with daylight lasting until 8-30pm rather than 6-30.

Heading south into Chile I cross the Atacama Desert - there really is no alternative. The Atacama stretches from the border right down to La Serena - four days riding and 1200miles of next to nothing. Although its a desert its not all sand - there are big rocks. Most of it though is gravel - just like you find in a quarry. Greenery is non existent. Its also not particularly flat - in places its fairly mountainous with the road taking in swooping bends and occasional hairpins. However on the whole its fairly dull. I sit with the bike at 70mph - 400miles comes easy in one day. Traffic is minimal, other than the occasional truck - quarrying and mineral extraction is big business here. Its also nigh on devoid of habitation - running out of gas (petrol) would be a real possibility. I have to make a 30mile detour at one point just to fill up.

However rising out of the Atacama are the towns (cities?) of Iquique and Antofagasto. The approach to Iquique is special - you arrive at the top of a massive sand dune with the town stretching out on a coastal plain below. The road then makes a 1mile diagonal cut down the face of the dune to get to the coast - impressive. Iquique scores well as a popular beach resort. For the first time I am finding hotels fully booked with surf dudes - a reminder that its heading towards summer here. Iquique also allows me to purchase bike insurance (3rd party) - its a good feeling being legal again (oops!!).

After La Serena I make a detour inland from the main highway in search of greenery. Its there in the shape of vineyards. Wine is the only thing that I know comes from Chile. Fruit growing is popular also. They sell cart loads of strawberries in the street - the biggest berries I have ever seen. Inland also brings a rise in temperature from cool to pleasantly warm.

Just before Santiago I stop on the coast at Vina del Mar. I dont expect much, but it turns out to be extremely up market and affluent - very nice. And then Santiago - the capitol. Santiago provides the last opportunity to fettle the bike before the last push to Buenos Aires. I get new tyres and a new chain fitted - 9,000miles on my last set of Kenda's which was pretty good. The new chain will provide me with reassurance (hopefully) while in the wilds of Patagonia. Chile is well represented with main stream bikes - large bikes are relatively common here. In Santiago there is a whole street dedicated to bike shops - it makes things easy. I stop in Santiago for 4 nights to explore. Its a really nice modern city, although not particularly photogenic. Its flanked by the snow capped Andes - unfortunately obscured by mist for most of my stay. However the climate in Santiago makes up for it - blue skies and high temperatures requiring the wearing of shorts. Getting around is easy - the modern metro system costs 380 pesos (38pence) for travel anywhere. I like Santiago and add it to my list of nice places to stay.

After Santiago the landscape changes. It gets very green, starting with vineyards and then forestry and then farming. The countryside is rolling hills - it has a strong European feel. Possibly even Scandanavian in places. By Puento Montt, its the start of the lakes - the coast here feels just like the West Coast of Scotland. I have to keep reminding myself of where I am.

My plan is to stay in Chile as long as possible before crossing into Argentina. I have had reports of volcanic activity closing the town of Chaiten - it's at the start of the Carretera Austral and on my choosen route. Bypassing Chaiten will mean a two day ride through Argentina. However, thankfully, once I check with the ferry company (Naviera Austral) they advise that I can take the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten and continue south okay. The ferry is very reasonable - 36,000pesos (about 36GBP) for both me and the bike on a reasonably long 10 hour crossing. Unfortunately the boat is delayed due to bad weather - we eventually sail two days later. The ferry is more landing craft than luxury yacht and the 10 hour journey is actually 12 hours. However the highlight had to be the 'in flight' entertainment - the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Honestly.

Chaiten has been hit by volcanic activity. The town is now abandoned and eerily ghostly - at least at 6-30 in the morning. There is a covering of thick gray ash everywhere while the volcano merrily hisses steam in the background. I head off south, in the knowledge that I have 260miles to cover on gravel roads before the next town. This is the Carretera Austral. Unfortunately after only 90miles the road is closed due to construction (road works). Its 3pm before I can get through and 10pm before I get to Coihaique. Thankfully daylight stretches to 9-30pm here.

Day 2 of the Austral is a further 240miles. Two long days on variable gravel - some parts are reasonably good, others pretty rough. 25mph is the best average I can manage. However the scenery here is pretty spectacular. The lakes are the bluest I've ever seen. The weather is perfect - if a little too hot. I'm wearing my waterproofs to combat the dust so sweating ever so slightly.

The Austral finishes and I head for Chile Chico, a delighful town on a lake just before the Argentinian border. My last night is in a hospedaje - I'd call it a bed and breakfast. I've seen lots on my travels but this has been the only one that looked habitable. It was really nice and excellent value, even if I did get locked out until close to midnight!!

From here its on into Argentina. Chile has been pretty good - very normal and just like home. Easy to like. I'd recommend it.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 10:59 PM GMT
December 07, 2008 GMT
Argentina

Argentina - gravel roads, strong winds and Ushuaia.

There are two options for getting to Ushuaia - either the coast road or the inland Route 40. I seek guidance from the girl at the tourist information office in Perito Moreno. She uses the word 'mystical' when describing Route 40. Okay!! I already know that Route 40 is well documented and synonomous with adventure bikers so Route 40 it is. It crosses the Great Antiplano Central, a massive swath of nothing covering most of Patagonia. Its predomiently flat and featureless. Its also notoriously windy - although it's green, trees don't grow here. Only pampas grass.

The road is predominently unpaved - that means gravel. Out of 666miles, I reckon on 480miles of gravel. Nice!! This adds up to 3 days of continuous gravel riding on top of the two I've just done in Chile. Gravel roads come in lots of varieties, but riding mostly involves finding the best clean line and staying out of the loose / soft stuff. They are often steeply cambered which seems to have an effect of pulling the bike towards the ditch!! The roughest parts are normally on uphill sections - downhill sections have the most loose gravel as well as the corners. Often its a case of driving totally on the wrong side of the road.

I dont mind the gravel roads, I've done enough miles now to have confidence on them, but they become tiresome. They are physically tiring - you notice it at the end of the day. They are also mentally tiring - the gravel demands high concentration and focus on the road. Unfortunately the scenery has to take second place, which is a shame as the snow capped Andes are never out of sight. Always on the right. It also feels like it takes forever to get anywhere. 25mph is a reasonable average speed even though I can manage 40 or even 50mph at times. My mechanical sympathy and desire to protect the bike keeps the speed down on the rough sections. Although on the whole the road is in good condition - certainly better than the Carretera Austral. The wildlife is also interesting - lots of llama's and emu's. Emu's are funny birds - they always seem to be in pairs, but run in completly opposite directions when they hear the bike.

The first night stop is in Baja Caracoles. I share a hostal with an Italian cyclist and Arnou, a German biker. Its good company and there's an obvious commoraderie between us. Arnou has good stories of a previous round the world trip. Planning fuel stops is important here. A stranded camper van onroute to Gdor Gregores highlights this - Arnou gives them 5 liters to get going. For us our planned fuel stop in Gdor Gregores is a disappointment - there is none. This is Tuesday and there has been no fuel since Sunday. However maybe tommorow!! We find a hostal and stay the night - we have no option. The next morning we find a Belgian biker couple with spare fuel and buy enough to get us to Tres Lagos - the next stop. The Belgians are glad to see us - they are stuck in Gdor Gregores until the girl recovers from an accident. They had it really bad on the road, getting caught on the '40' with near hurricane force winds - hence the accident. For me the weather is perfect - blue skies and no wind. I feel really fortunate.

With only 30 miles to go until Tres Lagos I have a puncture. Its the front and being on the gravel road it takes a minute to realise. Getting the bike stopped was interesting to say the least - the tyre went down really quickly. The repair is straight forward. I know that Arnou is on the road behind me - he arrives within 10 minutes to lend a hand. Its much appreciated. Soon after a South African and two Brazilian bikers also arrive. More encouragement and support. Its strange, but despite the fact we are in the middle of nowhere with all the help it doesn't feel isolated. Other than the bikes traffic is minimal - its not even obvious to me why this road even exists.

That night is spent at El Chalten in the shadow of Mount Fitzroy. El Chalten is a nice little town and full of trekking type tourists. At least the road is paved (thats tarmac) now and the gravel is behind me - or so I think. I cross to the east coast for the run down to Ushuaia. Leaving Rio Gallegos the wind has risen and is reasonably strong. On tarmac is not a problem, but creates discomfort while riding. The only road south frustratingly cuts back through Chile. Frustrating because it means another two border crossings heading south and another two on the run back north. Even more frustrating, the first border crossing is closed. There is some form of official cermony taking place - I wait 4 hours until 3pm. I share the delay with Irish biker Oisin Hughes who I had previously met briefly in Costa Rica - bizzare. The only consolation is that while waiting I chat to a senior military type who speaks perfect english. He obviously takes pity on me and has someone escort me into the immigration office to do the border paperwork - I'm the only one there. Once the border opens I'm first across.

Once into Chile there is a ferry crossing across the Magallanes Straits which join the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans. Because of the wind I'm expecting it to be rough. It is - very rough. I ask the boat guy if they tie the bike down - he says no, it'll be okay. Easy for him - its not his bike. However he did give me an apple as some form of consolation. I spend the whole crossing hanging on to the bike - its not easy. Looking at the side of the ferry, the horizon changes from big sea to big sky to big sea as the boat rolls - you get the picture. People are struggling to walk properly or even stand straight. Thankfully its only a short crossing. Oisin tells me afterwards that his bike fell over. Crossing the Magallanes Straits means I'm now in Tierra Del Fuego.

The big surprise after the ferry is gravel - 100miles of it. Obviously Chile can't see any reason to pave it - the only purpose the road serves is to get to the bottom bit of Argentina.

Approaching Ushaia is also a surprise. Apart from the blue skies and balmy temperatures which are totally unexpected, the flatness turns into a range of snow capped mountains. These form the backdrop for Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world apparently (thats what the sign says). I expect nothing of Ushuaia but find a really nice town (city!!) with lots of Antartica expectant tourists asking `were you on the boat'. Apparently there had been some drama at sea with cruise passengers having to be rescued. Makes me feel safe on a bike. The sunshine gives me that feel good factor and I decide to stay in Ushuaia an extra day. However my extra day turns to disappointment with gale force winds, heavy rain and wintery temperatures. Just like home. Do I feel fullfilled - I dont think so, not just yet. I'm saving that feeling for Buenos Aires - that's still 2,000miles away.

I head off the next morning in more wintery weather - the mountains, the rain and the cold wind remind me of Alaska - that feels so long ago. I dont remember Alaska being particularly windy though. I'm also heading north for the first time in 5 months.

The run to Buenos Aires is uneventfull. There's really not much of anything on the east coast run - the truck drivers all flash their lights and wave. I guess they find this road dull also. The long straight flat roads give me time to think. I refect on the gravel roads and feel pleased that I got through unscathed. I try and pick out the good and bad points of the trip - bad points? I couldn't really think of any. Would I do anything different if there was a next time? I dont think so. The KLR - best choice for me.

Eventually the landscape changes from pampas to farmland - at least there are cows and things to look at. Approaching Buenos Aires things pick up and there is real life.

Buenos Aires is a city I've always wanted to visit and I'm not disappointed. The guide books liken it to Paris. I would agree. It's big. And not sprawling low rise but elegant high rise. The bike is great for getting around although the traffic here has a strange habit of driving on the white lines, not between them. Maybe they are all closet bike riders.

So thats it. 5 months (to the day), 24,735miles and 14 countries. As a parting shot here are my own observations about Argentina:

i. The car of choice here is the Ford Falcon, a car of unknown parentage and possibly unique to Argentina (I dont know?). I would suggest circa late 70's, early 80's and fitted with a large engine (3.6ltr seems standard). It looks like nothing else I have ever seen. They also love Fiat's - 147's and especially 128's. Also Hillman Avengers - series 1 and 2, Renault 12's and Peugeot 504's. How quaint.

ii. After cars, they also love horses. In Las Flores there was a 3 day horse festival - Caballeros of all ages, all in traditional dress parading down the main street on their trusty steeds. Actually quite impressive and worth seeing.

iii. They party late - the restaurants are still packed well after midnight. I guess this explains why nothing opens until after 10am, close for two hours at lunchtime and close up around 5pm. Nice life if you can get it.


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Posted by Graham Shee at 03:19 PM GMT
 


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