Author: mrohloff

The Skinny on Chile

It was shortly after 10:00 pm when the hotel room at the Hotel Antafogasta, and by extension, a good portion of Chile’s northern coast started shaking. I’ve experienced the sensation once before during my life while living in San Diego, but it took several seconds before my brain registered it as an earthquake and by that point the motion was subsiding. BBC World news was on the television (typically the only English-speaking channel I’ve been able to get), so I watched the crawl across the bottom of the screen for any breaking news about an earthquake in Chile. Surely an earthquake would rate as newsworthy, right? Apparently, not.


After a few minutes, I fired up the laptop and Googled news for “Chile Earthquake” and learned that the main event had been a 6.8 quake the night before. This was a mere aftershock. The main quake, however, had prompted tsunami warnings along the coast. Though the tsunami warnings had since been lifted, this presented an unsettling new concern that I hadn’t even considered. It seemed like a nice hotel, though. It seemed like the type of hotel that would be decent enough to sound some type of alarm if it was in any danger of being washed out to sea, so I flipped off the television and went to sleep.


The night before, while the main earthquake happened and the tsunami warnings were being issued, I was sleeping under a huge pile of alpaca fur blankets in a freezing cold outpost on the Chilean side of the Bolivian border called Ollagüe. It didn’t have much to offer, except for exactly what I needed after crossing Bolivia, and that was a comfortable place to sleep. The bike started fine in the morning, but refused to run at idle which meant I had to constantly apply a bit of throttle to keep it going. I could ascribe this to the freezing temperatures and the fact that this “town” is 5,868 m (19,252 ft) above sea level, which may have been playing havoc with the Triumph’s electronic fuel injection system. I think the more likely cause is that bad JuJu from the “Bolivian Motorcycle Curse” was still leeching across the border. At any rate, after 200 km through the desert on roads ranging from excellent to horrible, I stopped for gas in the city of Calama and the situation remedied itself.

From Calama, the road led through the gusting winds of a high desert and past huge mining operations to the tremulous town of Antofogasta. The following day held similar scenery on the road to the charming beach town (in a “rough around the edges” way) of Chañaral, were I was treated to yet another aftershock. From Chañaral the road followed a coast remarkably similar to that of Southern California before turning inland again and across the Atacama Desert.

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The Atacama is the driest desert on earth and riding across it is a completely otherworldly experience. It stretches for hundreds of kilometers and sky is so blazingly blue and the soil so uniformly red, it really does feel like riding across the surface of another planet. There was the occasional bird in the sky, but hours of riding through such a landscape, without so much as a tuft of grass, was downright eerie and weird and beautiful all at the same time.


After crossing the desolation of the Atacama, I arrived in Santiago where I was promptly run into from behind by a woman in a white Hyundai. It was a slow speed incident in the middle of the city in stop and go traffic and there was no damage, but the bike did go over. Luckily, four cops appeared as if they had simply materialized. One seemed to be lecturing the woman on the importance of not running over motorcyclists, while one asked if I was damaged in any way, and the other two righted the bike and sent me off again into the rush hour traffic of Santiago.

The motorcycle needed a little scheduled maintenance and, since Santiago has a first rate Triumph dealer, the bike went in for a couple of days, leaving me free to explore the city.

My friend, Dan, was also in town. After sinking into the mud of the Bolivian salt flats, the mechanics further north in Calama were unable to fix his bike. This required him to hire a truck to ship the bike to the BMW dealer in Santiago while he slept through the Atacama Desert in a bus. He’s going to try to get the machine fixed and revisit some of the places he missed, but at this point, the motorcycle had become a large, expensive, and inconvenient piece of luggage rather than a form of transport. I hope he gets everything squared away in Santiago.


While the bikes were getting looked after, we were able to catch a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Chile and Colombia, and attend a Creedence Clearwater Revisited concert which consists of the members of the original band that aren’t currently suing each other.


After picking the bike up from Triumph and thanking the team there for the quick turnaround and warm reception, I felt a renewed confidence in the machine. This is a good thing, as there are still a couple of thousand miles of Patagonia to go before I get to the edge of the world.

Riding Into Bolivian

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Bolivia is to motorcycles what the Bermuda Triangle is to ships. It tried to strand me in the desert and it tried to drown my friend. Outside of La Paz, the infrastructure is practically nonexistent and many of the “roads” are little more than treacherous overland tracks across some of the most harsh and desolate terrain imaginable. The 3,700 m (12,000 ft) elevation makes every task twice as difficult as it should be, the sun is relentless and blinding during the day while the temperatures are freezing at night, and it is a totally wild and incredibly cool place.

The road leading from the Peruvian border into La Paz wasn’t actually all that bad. It was bad enough, however, that I picked up a flat rear tire somewhere along the way. The problem became noticeable only a few blocks from my hotel. Unfortunately, La Paz defies all laws of physics in that every point in the city is uphill somehow. I tried to limp the few blocks up an impossibly steep hill to the hotel, but with the stop and go traffic, heavy load of gear and rider, and flat tire, the clutch decided to give out. Five days later, I was fixed up and ready to get on the road again.

The road from La Paz to Uyuni is a work in progress. Where it is paved, it is great. Where they are still working on it, the detours are desert tracks through sand and gravel and are nearly impassible by anything but a four-wheel-drive vehicle. When my one-wheel drive vehicle hit a patch of desert sugar sand, I was unable to throttle through it and both tires ended up buried to the brake rotors. After unloading the luggage and doing some digging, I was able to power through and continue on.

Shortly after, I hit a patch of sand that was so deep and so light that, despite my best efforts, sent me forward and sprawling into the desert, leaving the bravely struggling Triumph on her side in the sand, rear wheel spinning and sending a geyser of white desert sand into the blazing blue sky.

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Luckily, the only witnesses to this inglorious dump were a herd of alpacas, which saved some embarrassment. Also, the landing was soft, which saved broken bones. These facts, however, presented a new set of problems. It was unlikely that the alpacas would be of any help in getting the bike upright and dug out of the sand.

I didn’t have to wait long for a group of helpful locals to pass nearby in a pickup truck. We soon had the bike upright and with some digging and pushing and a healthy application of throttle, the Triumph was on her way again.

I arrived in Uyuni to find a friend waiting outside a hotel next to a red Land Rover. I met Dan at the Costa Rica/Panama border crossing. Dan, a tattoo artist from Long Beach, California, is following roughly the same route as me on a BMW 650GS. We’ve kept in touch via email and have crossed paths a few times.

“I had a hell of a day,” he said.

“Couldn’t have been worse than mine,” I thought.

Then I discovered it had been. While riding on the Uyuni salt flats, he had broken through the salt crust and that’s when the mud underneath had tried to swallow the bike whole. With the help of a local ex-pat Brit motorcycle mechanic named Robin (and owner of the red Land Rover), they had managed to get the bike back to town, but it was going to need some repairs.

The Uyuni salt Flats are the largest in the world and so large (roughly the size of Lebanon) and so flat that satellites use the surface to calibrate their instruments. The salt flat is not just a layer of salt over earth, but rather a sheet of crust over a briny solution, that is thought to contain 60% of the world’s lithium supply, and floats like ice over an enormous lake full of corrosive metals. It is a mind-bending place. I decided to visit with a guide.

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After the repairs on the BMW were completed, Dan and I decided to buddy up for the ride through the rest of Bolivia, as it seemed this country was actively trying to kill both of us.

We made it about an hour and a half out of Uyuni before his 650GS decided to quit again on the side of a desolate gravel stretch through the desert. I said I’d ride ahead and see if I could send a truck his way, while he would try to flag down a ride to the next town. Unfortunately, there was no next town except for the lonely border outpost several hours away. I drove off with Dan and the white BMW growing smaller in my mirrors on the side of the road in the Bolivian desert.

I eventually arrived at the Chilean border, after riding across washboard roads that felt like riding a jackhammer, volcanic ash/sand the consistency of talcum powder, disorienting dust clouds, whipping winds, freezing temperatures and enormous pits full of desert sand and gravel that made it nearly impossible to keep the bike upright.
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While I was filling in my paperwork at the Chilean customs office, I looked out the window at the parking lot to see a Toyota Hilux pickup with a white BMW 650GS strapped down in the bed and Dan walking toward the door with a crazy grin on his face.

Another hell of a day, I guess.

The Inca Affair

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Cusco, Peru is a beautiful city in its own right, but it is probably mostly known for the fact that it is generally the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. At least, that is why I put it on my itinerary. The day after I arrived, I visited the travel office adjacent to my hotel to inquire about getting train tickets to this archeological wonder. The young lady behind the desk was a pretty, petite girl with a caramel-colored complexion and a mischievous smile. For the purposes of this narrative (and because I’m a fan of irony), we’ll call her “Serena.”

Serena informed me that there was a transit strike and tickets were increasingly hard to come by. Also, the fact that I wanted to go the following day would present another problem, but she said she would try her best to arrange something. I received a message from her later that night stating that she had waited in line at the train station and was able to arrange transportation to the site, but, she apologized, it would be a rather convoluted route.

I was picked up outside my hotel at 3:30 am by a taxi that took me to a bus, which took me to a train station where I boarded a train to the town of Aguas Calientes, near to the base of Machu Picchu. There, after waiting in a line that would put Space Mountain to shame, I boarded one final bus that followed a series of steep switchbacks the final few miles to the ruins.

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The ruins are as spectacular as one might imagine. Possibly built as an estate for the Inca Emporer Pachacuti in the 15th century, it was later abandoned. Now the site draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year who want to experience the incredible terraces, structures and stunning vistas high above the Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River. Despite the drizzle when I visited, it was amazing. After wandering the ruins for several hours, I found that the line for the buses down was just as long as for the buses up, so walked down the mountain back to Aguas Calientes. There I repeated the transport process in reverse, finally arriving at my hotel at 2:00 am. Everything went without a hitch, however, with the appropriate people waiting at each step with signs bearing my name.

Late the following morning I went next door to the tour office to thank Serena for her major role in my experience of the majesty of Machu Picchu. We chatted in the office for a while, which led to a two-hour lunch on the Plaza de Armas. She spoke Spanish, English and German with ease and we talked about our shared tastes in music, food and wine, and a shared love of travel. I met her again for dinner after work. We spent as much time as possible together over the next few days, wandering the city, sitting in the park watching fireworks illuminate the façade of the Cusco Cathedral, drinking Peruvian Viña Malbec on café terraces overlooking the cobblestone streets of the city, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

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This budding romance was not destined to last, however. The problem wasn’t the geographical distances that separate us. It was more of an incompatibility issue. I don’t mean that in the, “I’m a Sagittarius, she’s a Virgo” kind of a way. It was more of the, “I’m a Sagittarius and she’s a potentially dangerous lunatic” sort of a way.

This is not the proper forum for an account of the events and circumstances leading up to an unprecedented and histrionic meltdown, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Those are details best left for the book. I will say, however, that my departure from Cusco felt more like a hastily planned and executed escape. I can also say that the grizzly bear that came rushing across the tundra towards me in the Arctic is no longer the most unpredictable creature I’ve met during the journey.


At any rate, I need to get back to focusing on the task at hand, which is completing the final stretch of the journey. At this point, I’m about cathedralled out and am looking forward to spending some time in the regions I’ve been dreaming about since the inception of this ride; the Uyuni Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Patagonia…

Dr. Pepe and the Corona Perdida

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Dr. Pepe’s dentist office was more or less like any other. There was a framed print on the wall and a flat screen TV hung in one corner of the waiting room. What stood out, however, was that the framed print in question was a Norman Rockwell-esque painting of a white-clad dentist holding a dental tool of some kind, standing over a patient in a dentist’s chair. The other white-clad figure in the painting was Jesus, standing just to the left of the dentist while resting one holy hand on the dentist’s shoulder with the other gesturing toward the dental tool, as if providing divine guidance during the procedure. Also, the flat screen was playing a Latin Dance-Off competition and it was not a place I expected to find myself at 7:30 on a Wednesday evening in Ayachuco, Peru.

The day had started in a beach resort area just south of Pisco, popular with backpackers and tourists. When I arrived, the weather was clear, so I strolled the waterfront, tried some local ceviche and watched the beachgoers. Pisco is also near the famous Nazca Lines, huge designs in the sand made of stone and created by the ancient Nazca culture between 1500 to 2000 years ago. According to the folks at the Roswell UFO Museum, where I visited earlier on the trip, they were designed to send messages to their pyramid-building alien masters. Most archeologists, while still unsure of the exact significance of these lines, are pretty sure aliens had nothing to do with them.


Despite the previous day’s pleasant weather, when I awoke, the town was shrouded in a damp and chilly mass of air that couldn’t decide whether to be fog or drizzle. I scrapped the visit to the Nazca lines and decided to begin the several day ride into the mountains toward Cusco and Machu Picchu.


As the altitude increased, the coastal fog petered out and soon I was riding up a seemingly endless series of rises. As I’d crest one and round a bend, another would appear even higher on the horizon. The ride was breathtaking, quite literally. At the top of the last crest before the downward descent, only three and a half hours since leaving sea level, I checked the altitude reading on my GPS and it read 15,553 feet. I spotted some strange looking creatures galloping across the treeless plain and realized that they were the first llamas I’d seen in Peru that weren’t on scarves, postcards or tee shirts.

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The ride was unreal, but required complete concentration. I was reminded of this after rounding a blind right hand curve only to see a mass of fuzzy white bodies cascading down a gulley at a run toward the road and on a direct collision course with the bike. I braked hard enough to test the anti-lock brakes (they work), and waited for the flock of sheep to pass.


After eight hours of riding through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever encountered, I stopped in the town of Ayacucho, checked into a suitable (secure parking and functioning plumbing) hotel near the town square. After a shower and change of clothes, I headed out to find a bite to eat. I found a lovely restaurant on the square and settled down for a meal on their balcony. From where I sat, I counted eight churches as I dined on a steak, rice and fried plantains and sipped on a Pisco sour. The waiter delivered the check along with two after dinner toffees. The first presented no problem, but the second resulted in an unsettling crunch feeling in my jaw. As I spit the toffee into my hand, I noticed the crown from my upper left molar embedded firmly in the brown sticky goo. I paid the check and immediately headed to the bathroom, rinsed off the tooth and popped it back in place, where it fit satisfyingly snugly.

Snug as it felt, I knew the fix wouldn’t last. I wandered the streets around the square and found that none of the pharmacies carried temporary dental cement. Resigning myself to spending an extra day in Ayacucho in search of a dentist, I started back toward the hotel. Dr. Pepe’s sign hung in the alley directly next to the hotel front door. Even more auspiciously, his door was open and the lights were on.

I am always reticent about visiting dentists in foreign spots ever since a similar thing happened a few years ago in Vietnam (it was a filling and a Mentos in that case). That repair was done hurriedly by a dentist in Lao Cai. My dentist in Florida later reacted to the repair job with the same level of dismay that the Curator of the Louvre might display upon discovering that some deranged but well-meaning patron had attempted to restore “Virgin of the Rocks” using Brillo pads and nail polish remover.

Despite past experiences, I decided to give Dr. Pepe a shot, and I had few other options.

So, I found myself in a dentist’s chair in Ayacucho with Dr. Pepe carefully drilling off the old cement from both the crown and my tooth, preparing a mixture of dental cement and securing the wayward crown back in place.

“Listo!” he declared, “Ready!” and putting his hands up, announced his price of one hundred Soles, or about $30. As an added bonus, I had a short walk back to the hotel and woke in the morning with all my teeth firmly in place, and continued on toward Cusco.


The Sands of Peru

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Crossing the border into Peru wasn’t entirely what I expected. Not that I expected to arrive in the midst of a crowd of people wearing knit alpaca sweaters, playing flutes and riding llamas, it’s just that I didn’t expect so much sand. There was also a lot more wind than I expected which, when coupled with the humungous, endless seas of sand, creates a set of problems all its own.

Crossing the border was easy enough and soon I was on my way through coastal northern Peru and I noticed it was a lot more arid than I’d expected. The first stop was for gas, where the bike labored to start to no avail. This border town was almost unfathomably dusty and run-down. It was honestly difficult to tell whether every building in the city was under construction or in the process of being torn down. Maybe they were falling down while under construction?

I wasn’t sure what the problem with the motorcycle was. I knew for sure, however, that sitting in the dust-blown parking lot of a gas station wasn’t going to solve the problem, so I wheeled the bike about 100 yards down the street to what looked like a mechanic working outside of a garage. He was a short, compact guy in jeans and a blue work shirt with thick, grease-stained hands. He looked to be about 60 years old, but could have been much younger. It was tough to tell the age of his face underneath the grease smudges and streaky dirt. An old battered tuk-tuk lay on its side in the yard with one wheel off and tools strewn around in the dirt while the mechanic wrenched away at a chain and sprocket assembly.

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A tuk-tuk is a popular three wheeled conveyance used as a taxi. It’s similar to a rickshaw, with the front end and engine of a moped providing power by a chain drive to the rear wheels. They run the gamut from custom painted, chrome-plated works of art, to lurching rattletraps with wobbly wheels that look as though they’re held together with rust and bailing wire. This was one of the latter.

The mechanic looked over, set down his crescent wrench, smiled a surprisingly white-toothed smile and walked over. I pantomimed trying to start the engine and made a noise approximating the chugging sound that the starter was now making, rather than its usual quick whirr and purr. We went through some troubleshooting, pulling the fuse and relay for the starter and cleaning the contacts with sandpaper. Each time we tried to start it again the chugging sounds got weaker and farther apart. He pulled the battery from under the seat and held up his finger in a “wait a second” gesture, then pointed to me, then his eyeballs, and then my luggage. The message was clear. I was to wait there and watch my luggage. He bolted the missing wheel back onto the tuk-tuk, rolled it over and disappeared into a wooden shed. Moments later, he was back, holding a dented motorcycle gas tank which he connected with a bolt to the frame of the tuk-tuk, plugged in a fuel line, hopped aboard and kick-started the thing. He held up my battery. “Carga!” he said. “Charge.” And then he disappeared off down the road through traffic.

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I sat there on the side of the road in an ancient wooden chair, wondering when he would return and answering the occasional questions about the motorcycle from passers by. “De donde vienes? Que pais?” I’ve gotten pretty good at those. An hour and a half later, I saw the tuk-tuk racing up the street, the driver/mechanic giving a smile and enthusiastic thumbs-up. He replaced the battery and the Triumph fired right up. “Comprar una nueva.” He said, pointing at the battery and drawing his finger across his throat. “Buy a new one.” He asked for ten dollars for the assistance, but since I had no change, I gave him a twenty-dollar bill and was happy to do it.

I set off for Lima, a place I imagined as an Emerald City full of new batteries, tires, brake pads and oil filters, while hoping the current battery would hold out for another two long days of riding through desert.

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The northern desert was flat, baked clay that looked exactly like the setting for a post-apocalyptic road movie. This huge monochromatic expanse of red clay and settlements of crumbling red brick structures was interrupted only by a Peruvian Air Force base surrounded by a 10-meter tall clay wall topped razor wire and cement guard towers. After passing a natural gas plant spewing a plume of flame, my imagination was getting the better of me, especially knowing that I was riding with a fluky battery. With my mind filled with visions of marauding gasoline pirates and sand-mutants wearing aviator goggles and football pads, I cracked open the throttle even further and the desert landscape began to change: to a different type of desert.


This new desert was made of giant sand dunes. The wind increased until I was in a full blown sandstorm and the only thing to do was to draw my scarf over my nose and mouth, close the helmet visor and vents tight, and keep riding past the tendrils of sand dunes encroaching over the road. It was remarkably beautiful in a desolate sort of way and far more fun that one might think. All of the people I met during gas and meal stops also seemed remarkably friendly and happy, considering they must live every day of their lives with sand in everything from gritty Rice Crispies in the morning to sandy pajamas at night.

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After two days of this, I arrived in Lima and found a room in a pleasant hotel in a lovely and lively district called Miraflores amongst a mixture of colonial architecture, cathedrals and modern high rises. I left the bike in the capable hands of the Triumph dealer and spent the next several days resting, eating, drinking and sightseeing. By the time the bike was finished on Monday afternoon, I’d gotten the previous days’ sand out of my nose and ears and was ready to head south again in the morning towards Machu Pichu, where I imagine there will be flutes, llamas and alpaca sweaters. I’ll miss the desert, though.

The Road To Middle Earth

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I’ve been on this journey for a while now and I’ve noticed a couple of things. The first is that, after so many countries and time zones and hotels, it takes a few moments when I wake up every morning to figure out where I am. It’s the same sort of mental exercise that one goes through after losing their keys. It generally goes, “Okay, what country am I in. Where was I yesterday and where did I want to go today?”

I can usually figure it out without having to look out the window (assuming my room has one), but I can easily see how the old joke about the touring rock musician yelling, “We love you, Cleveland!” when he’s actually in Detroit is based in truth.

The other quirk is that everything seems to be getting easier in general. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that I’ve been able to shake some of the cobwebs off my basic Spanish by this point. I think, however, that it has more to do with the fact that after so many miles and places, the bar has been set pretty high when it comes to personal misery and discomfort.

I find myself saying, for example, “Well, this traffic is pretty terrible, but it’s no Mexico City,” or “It’s ungodly hot here, but it’s no Laredo Desert,” or “I could really do without this rain, but it’s no Panama City.”

The other side of this coin is that I live every day worried that something will happen that causes me to recalibrate my barometer of suck. Luckily, Ecuador was a joy to ride through and has set a standard in the opposite direction, as an example of a pretty stellar place.

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I crossed the border from Colombia where a helpful customs agent typed out my paperwork, said, “bienvenido,” and sent me on my way. Despite getting lost on the outskirts of Quito (but not as lost as in Dallas), I found the Equator. I should actually say that I found a stone monument that marks the Equator, which was built on a spot erroneously marked by a French expedition in 1736 and is actually over 1000’ away from the real equator. It was still worth a photograph.

I skirted Quito (the highest capitol city in the world at 9, 350 feet), and headed up further into the clouds to a groovy little town, situated in a misty rainforest, called Mindo. This place, draped with orchids and tropical vegetation, is a Mecca for birdwatchers. I suppose that I’ve never considered that birdwatchers might travel the globe in search of bird-watching hotspots, much in the same way that skiers or golfers or surfers might, but I suppose it makes sense that they do. I saw several “Steiner Binocular” stickers stuck to hotel windows and signposts throughout Mindo, much in the same way a “Billabong” sticker might be plastered to a stop sign at Bondi Beach.

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After morning coffee with the dozens of hummingbirds on my hotel veranda, I headed towards the coast to Montañita, a surfing party town full of backpackers, surfers and all of the usual denizens one might expect in a town that has a road called, “Calle de Cockteles.” After a day to recover, both from the previous days of riding and a late night on the aforementioned calle, I made my way to just north of the Peruvian border to a town called Machala.

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Riding on a Sunday morning was the best. There were few cars on the road, as the residents of Montañita were nursing hangovers and the more pious were at church. When I reached Machala several hours later, the storefronts and businesses were locked up tight on the Sunday afternoon, but the market was in full swing. I strolled through the beautiful, colorful confusion of the marketplace for a few hours and headed back to my room to prepare for an early start to the Peruvian border, only a few kilometers away.

Riding the Right Direction

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It felt good to get the front wheel pointed south again and get back to three long days of uninterrupted riding, even after getting off to a slow start in Cartagena. I spent two hours walking from building to building in an attempt to get my Colombian motorcycle insurance sorted out. At each place, the ladies behind the counter took my stack of papers, looked them over, and spoke rapid Spanish amongst themselves, making me feel the way I imagine a toddler would when the adults are talking and using words he doesn’t understand. They’d then shake their heads, put the papers back in my hands, point, and say the name of another building or address where this process was soon repeated. Persistence paid off, however, and soon the Caribbean Sea was in my side view mirrors and I was off, heading south through the Colombian countryside with no particular plan in mind but to head toward Ecuador.

I quickly learned that a specific itinerary would be more or less pointless anyway, as looking at the map gives almost no indication of the actual time between points. In some cases, the road tracks arrow-straight through sugarcane fields and it’s easy to streak along at over 120 kph through the hazy, sweet and low hanging smoke from the cane factories. Far more often, however, the roads switchback through the mountains from town to town, past farms and coffee plantations. After seeing the coffee bushes clinging to the steep cliff sides, it’s a wonder Juan Valdez and his donkey haven’t toppled to their deaths by now. These Andean towns are also unlike any North American mountain towns I’ve ever encountered. Rather than being built in valleys, these towns cap the very peaks of the mountains, with the obligatory church dome sticking up from the very tippy-top like the cherry on a sundae.

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Another interesting aspect of these towns is that, unlike the American or Canadian model where each small town may have one florist, one tire shop, one car wash, etc., these towns seem to all have their niche. For example, one town I passed had dozens of wooden sheds lining the road selling gasoline from huge plastic cubes sitting five feet off the ground on wooden legs, dispensed by gravity feed through hoses. Another town, along the Cauca River, was blessed with natural springs that every house had plumbed through a series of conduits into their front yards to create an entire road of spring-fed truck washes. When not actively in use, hoses are propped against rocks so that they shoot straight up in the air (and often directly into power lines, which struck me as unsafe) as both a kinetic advertisement and indication of their water pressure.

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It was while driving through a town such as this that I saw two sets of motorcycle headlights in my mirrors, coming up rapidly from behind. This is unusual because my 800cc Triumph Tiger, while still considered mid-range in size by American standards, has about seven times the displacement of just about every motorcycle I’ve seen so far in Colombia. It is usually my headlights rushing up in somebody else’s mirrors and not the other way around. I moved to the right to let them by and they zipped past, a pair of black, large displacement adventure bikes similar in design to the Tiger. Each bike held two Colombian soldiers in camouflage fatigues, the driver with an M-16 variant rifle slung crosswise over his chest with the muzzle pointing down toward the road and a passenger, similarly armed, holding the rifle muzzle up toward the trees. They roared away around a corner ahead of me and were gone.

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About five minutes later, I passed their rally point. A line of a dozen or so black Suzuki V-Stroms stood in a line in a restaurant parking lot on the side of a mountain, with their riders and passengers standing in discussion behind the bikes. I slowed slightly to observe this pow-wow, and upon hearing the sound of the Triumph, the group turned to watch me pass. I got nods and thumbs-up from about half the group and raised two fingers to my helmet visor in greeting. This passing reinforced a theme that been recurrent on this journey. Whether it be bearded, leather-clad bikers on their way to Sturgis, retirees crossing the country on a Honda Goldwing, Commandos fighting Marxist narco-traffickers in the mountains of Colombia, or one guy on a Quixotic solo ride from the Arctic to South America, there is a camaraderie and a shared interest between motorcyclists that transcends race, class, age, and language barriers. And it’s a big part of the fun.

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Colombia: Cruising, Cops, and Cartagena


The police escort through Cartagena to my hotel was an unexpected touch after two long, beautiful, and exhausting days of riding through the Colombian countryside. At this point, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.

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I had left Bogota the previous day. After spending about a week in urban noise and crushing traffic in Panama City and Bogota, getting back to the road was an imperative. I wanted to reach Cartagena, which lay 750 miles away to the north on the Caribbean Sea, by Friday night. It was a great distance to cover in two days, especially through mountainous roads, but I just wanted to ride. I made great time, despite the huge number of trucks on the twisting mountain passes. I rolled through the cool green forests of the high altitudes, eventually stopping for lunch at a restaurant in a beautiful setting adjacent to a ranch for a lunch of churrasco and fried plantains. The only delay there was a surly goose in the parking lot who was determined to keep me from getting to my motorcycle; first honking angrily, then lowering his head and rushing at me, then raising his neck and opening wide to show the jagged edges of his bill. The proprietor thought this was highly amusing.


After evading the goose, I was on the road again. I passed the stripped airframe of a DC-3 cargo plane, impossibly situated in the middle of the mountains behind a tiny farmhouse, a reminder that maize is not the only crop grown in the region. It began to get dark, so I kept my eyes open for a hotel.

Hotels were few and far between in the rural Colombian mountains, so it was well past dark by the time I found a gas station that advertised rooms. I pulled over and was led to a windowless cinderblock room with a padlocked corrugated metal door, but for 20,000 pesos (about $7), I wasn’t expecting much more than a place to sleep. I only watched a few minutes of Scooby Doo en Español on the black and white TV hanging in the corner before I was fast asleep.

I rose to a rooster crowing at 5:00 in the morning. I slid the bolt back on the creaky metal door and peered outside, only to discover that this rooster was sunrise-challenged, as it was still well before dawn. I decided to get on the road anyways, since I was already awake.


After descending from the mountains, I found myself on flat, straight roads between ranches, farms and palm plantations. The posted road signs and solid no-passing lines are treated more like largely ignored safety tips rather than enforced traffic laws. Motorcycles are apparently given carte blanche when it comes to following these “rules,” using shoulders and centerlines to circumvent traffic whenever possible.


I was reminded of the potential dangers of this free-form style of driving by a colossal wreck. As I passed a line of cars and trucks along the shoulder, I came upon a semi-truck, its mangled cab nearly unrecognizable and trailer on its side in the ditch, with its full cargo of what appeared to be rice spilling into a field. Groups of locals surrounded the trailer, scooping the spillage into sacks and metal dairy cans. By the looks of the trailer, the driver was in no shape to protest, except possibly from the great beyond. The rice, or whatever it was, covered the highway for about a hundred yards until it reached another grisly site. A car-carrying semi truck lay on its side, its payload of used cars still on the trailer with the front end of a pickup truck sticking out from underneath. I made a mental note to increase my vigilance on the road.

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At 3:00 pm, ten hours after my dysfunctional rooster alarm clock roused me in the morning, I arrived at the old walled city of Cartagena. I had planned to arrange a hotel the previous evening, but my cinderblock accommodations had neither a window nor a door handle, wi-fi or a business center was right out of the question. I opted to ride around the old city until I came across something suitable.

During this search in stop-and-go city traffic, a young woman ran out between cars, forcing me to hit the brakes suddenly, stalling the engine. I tried to get it started, but to no avail. The starter labored, acting like the engine was flooded. I’m not mechanically minded enough to know why this happened or if this is even a correct assessment, but it has happened before and I know enough to know that the only way to fix it is to wait 15 minutes or so and it starts right up. This time, however, the problem occurred on a narrow, one lane, one-way road directly in front of a brothel. I spent the next fifteen minutes standing on the sidewalk, nervously checking my watch, surrounded by prostitutes and listening to cars honk as they tried to pass the temporarily disabled bike. It fired up again, as expected, fifteen minutes later and the search for a hotel was on once again.

The search continued, that is, until I was flagged down by a duo of motorcycle cops on the side of the road. They asked to see my paperwork, which I was sure was in perfect order. After all, the air cargo company in Bogota had arranged everything. I turns out that this was not exactly the case. Pedro, the young-faced smiling cop who spoke very good English, informed me that I did not have proper Colombian liability insurance. In previous countries, I needed this insurance before customs would issue my import permits, so I naively assumed this task had been handled in Bogota.

“No, problem,” Pedro said. “Leave the moto with my partner, I’ll go with you for insurance. You can buy it at the bank.” We walked through the old city of Cartagena while Pedro gave me a brief history lesson of the city. Unfortunately, every bank was either closed or didn’t provide the type of insurance I needed. After we stopped to help an elderly woman figure out how to use the ATM, Pedro radioed ahead to his partner who was waiting with both of our motorcycles.

“Okay, I will find a safe place for your moto. You can walk to the insurance when they are open,” he said. “I know a good hotel. It is nice and not expensive.”

They climbed two-up aboard their yellow Yamaha police bike and directed me to follow through the thick traffic, with their cop lights flashing and the occasional squawk of the siren to get cars to let us pass. We arrived at a private parking structure where I left the Triumph and loaded my luggage into a cab. I rode with the partner in the back of the cab while Pedro rode ahead on the police bike, providing a continued escort. His partner wrote down the addresses of insurance offices while we drove and soon arrived at a pleasant and clean hotel. They helped me out of the cab with my bags.

“There is still a problem for the violation,” Pedro said. “And we have been very helpful.”

I knew where he was going with this and said that I appreciated them taking the time to help and that I’d like to give them something for their trouble. I offered them about $50, which they seemed more than satisfied with.

“Let us know if there is anything else you need while you are here,” Pedro said as we shook hands.

I climbed up the stairs to my bed, too tired to even watch Spanish Scooby Doo episodes.

Crossing The Gap

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In this part of the world, the “Darien Gap” does not refer to a retail-clothing store in a Connecticut mall. This particular Darien Gap is a swampy 100-mile stretch of land between the border of Panama and Colombia and the only gap in the Pan-American Highway. Neither country seems too keen on building a road through the region for a number of reasons. Part of that is due to the geography. Building a road through 100 miles of swamp would be prohibitively expensive and could have devastating effects on the ecosystem by restricting the free movement of water. The indigenous Embera-Wounaan and Kuna people are not amenable to the idea of trespassers on their lands, and there are malaria-carrying mosquitoes to contend with. The climate is awful and, as if that weren’t enough, much of the area is home to the Marxist FARC rebels who have been known to kill or kidnap perceived interlopers. As one might imagine, this presents a challenge to those of us who wish to cross North and South America by land.

That’s not to say that it is completely impassible. People have tried with varying degrees of success. A loony but determined pair, one former British SAS member and an Australian engineer, crossed in a Land Rover in 1970. It took them 136 days at and average of just over 200 yards of progress per hour. Since then, people have crossed by motorcycle, bicycle and foot, with one evangelist even walking across the region carrying a wooden cross.

Not everyone makes it, however. Several visitors to the area have been kidnapped by FARC rebels and later released. A number of missionaries have simply disappeared, and earlier this year the skeletal remains of a Swedish backpacker who disappeared in 2013 were discovered. The evidence suggests that he met with a violent end and the incident is under investigation. For these reasons, I spent most of my time in Panama trying to find an alternative route around the Darien Gap.

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The two only real options are by sea or by air. I spent a number of days running from freight offices to the airport to hostel bulleting boards searching for cargo companies, container ships or other vessels to move the motorcycle from Panama to Colombia. None of the vessels I found were leaving soon enough and even then, some of the process sounded sketchy. Some charter sailboats apparently bring motorcycles across, contrary to the laws of Colombian customs. That was not a risk I was willing to take, so I decided to bite the bullet and take the more expensive, but much more legitimate route of arranging for air shipment to Bogota. I left the motorcycle with the shipping company at the cargo terminal of Tocumen Airport in Panama City and booked myself on a commercial flight to Bogota.

As we flew over the Darien Gap later that night, there was a spectacular lightning storm far off below the starboard wing. As I admired the beauty of nature’s light show, I was also glad to be sitting in an Avianca Airbus, dry and eating a mediocre ham and cheese bun, while leaving the rain, lightning, malarial swamplands, angry natives, and Marxist rebels of the Darien Gap 30,000 feet below. This also means, however, that I landed several hundred miles south of the point from which I took off. In the spirit of the journey, I know that I wouldn’t forgive myself unless I backtrack for a couple of days on the Colombia side of the border to at least the latitude of Panama City, as this is not something I can return to and easily rectify later. So now, with this logistical mambo behind me, I plan on riding north towards Cartagena tomorrow.

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Potholes and Pura Vida

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In future days, the old men will sit around the campfires (or plasma pits or whatever future people sit around) and tell frightening tales of the man-eating potholes of Honduras.

“And then the pothole swallowed up the motorcycle and the rider… and they were never heard from AGAIN!” they’ll say, and all the children will cover their ears and shut their eyes tight from the sheer dreadfulness of it all.

Okay, maybe not. But the potholes of Honduras are dreadful. I was specifically warned about them while still in El Salvador. I was told that the distance from El Salvador across Honduras and into Nicaragua was only about 130 highway kilometers, but that I should expect it to take at least two and a half hours to cover because of the condition of the road. It took me just over three.

The road across the country more resembles the lunar surface than anything a sane person would attempt to negotiate, but since I had no other option and my sanity is questionable at this point, I gave it shot. It is not only that the potholes are nearly bottomless vertical pits and that there are so many of them, it is also that all of the other drivers on the road in opposing lanes of traffic are constantly swerving wildly to avoid them. This means that semi trucks, cars, mopeds, coach buses, and “chicken buses” loaded down with people, their roofs piled teeteringly high with cargo, are all zigging and zagging into each other’s lanes while trying to avoid both each other and having their axles ripped off.

There is an added level of difficulty to this manic choreography. That is the kids who set up traffic cones every few miles and arrive with shovels and buckets full of sand to fill the holes in a ten-yard stretch of highway, whch is about as effective as putting a band-aid on a shotgun wound. They then run out in front of traffic while sucking in their cheeks and rubbing their stomachs in an attempt to gain sympathy and coins from passing motorists. This is obviously very dangerous not only for the children, but for the motorcyclist who is now trying to avoid a “chicken bus,” a pothole, a traffic cone and a vehicular homicide charge all at once. I felt bad for the children, who all seemed to be about elementary school age, and I have a hard time believing that this is the Honduran version of a lemonade stand. I have to imagine that these kids are put to this task by their parents in an effort bring in a little extra income.


I stopped at the first hotel I came across on the Nicaraguan side of the border to get some rest after this bizarre obstacle course and woke in the morning to head to the historical town of Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Since it was a Saturday night, I spent the evening partying in the streets among the street performers and weekend revelers. I even ran into some familiar faces from my last visit five years previous. The next morning I extricated my motorcycle from behind the pool table, where the hotel had let me park it the night before, and headed for the Costa Rican border.

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I’ve gotten these border crossings down to the point where I now need very little hand holding throughout the process and so it wasn’t long before I reached Playas del Cocos, a fun beach town on the Pacific, popular with beach bums and backpackers and wayward motorcyclists. I found a mechanic to help me locate some replacement screws for my front brake fluid reservoir, the previous ones having been destroyed by an overenthusiastic mechanic in El Salvador whose only tools were a pair of vise-grips, a hammer, and a misapplied sense of determination.

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At the sports bar down the street from my hotel, I met James and Heather. They’re a truly sweet newlywed couple from San Jose, California who share a true love of travel. Their month-long honeymoon itinerary reflects this. Costa Rica was their first stop, which was to be followed by Peru, a jog over to Brazil for a time with a visit to Iguazu Falls in there somewhere, then back up to Belize with a final stop in Las Vegas for a weekend on the way back to California to catch a Jimmy Buffet concert at the MGM Grand. These are not the type of folks that never leave the resort and we hit it off immediately.

Sitting there, speaking English with a plate of Buffalo wings on the bar and the Colts playing the Jets on Monday Night Football in the background, it felt a little bit like home and I suppose that after these months of being a nomad, in a way it was… until the next stop.