Years of day dreaming and here I was totally excited, wondering what adventures lay ahead as I ‘Rock and Rolled’ from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro.
Traveling has always been the biggest motivator in my life, from reading adventure stories from the great Ranulph Fiennes, to the more serene, inspiring motorcycle journey of Ted Simon and Jupiters Travels. It only ever seems to increase my desire to experience new places first-hand and enjoy the freedom of setting out on a personal adventure, nurturing a care free attitude to re-awaken the senses. You see, l think we are all pretty guilty of spending too much time at work, trapped in the pressures of everyday life that we actually forget to know when to start living. I find it crazy that we inhabit such a beautiful planet and most of us only see snippets of it when we retire, and that’s if the knee, hip and pension plan give us the green light. l knew right there and then that it was time to plan another dream trip, head-out on another adventure ride.
Over the past 17 years l dreamed of travelling through the Americas, and after getting caught-up in the hamster-wheel of work, sleep, work, avoiding vacuous celebrity TV shows, recycled tabloid news, speculative journalism, double-dip recessions and trouble in the middle east, l knew it was time to fly again, do something positive and live the dream. I wanted to let go of fears instilled into society about the potential dangers of countries such as Mexico, El Salvador and Colombia – from drug cartels to kidnapping. Having independently travelled across many parts of the world including Australia, Asia, the USA and parts of Central America all of my experiences had been 100% safe to-date (…leans over and knocks on wood). Though l do often laugh to myself and wonder if my previous trips were like a Scooby-Doo cartoon and the monster’s hand just misses grabbing my collar every time l leave for the next town.
l know we live in a good world, a positive world that’s not as dangerous and crazy as we are led to believe by TV-hype and l needed to see it again with my own eyes. It’s funny, but the myth that we are safe at home and all these other far-flung foreign places are crazy and dangerous was shattered on this very trip. l sat watching the London riots from a friend’s house in Sao Paulo during my American ADV ride (supposedly one of the most dangerous cities in the world) with images of youths setting fire to cars, smashing shop windows and looting. At this point l knew the danger wasn’t in South America, it was on my door-step in Ealing Broadway, West London and thank the ‘Lordy-Lord’, l was watching from the other-side of the world.
The long road to Rio promised adventure and scenic beauty.
So my adventure began to unfold like all previous trips – short on planning and light on packing, I simply purchase a ticket, pick up the rucksack and head out somewhere new for a couple of months of feisty adventure travel. It was back in 2004 when l realized after returning from a solo trip that l took from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to England via Bangkok, Beijing, Moscow and Berlin on the Trans-Mongolian Railway that it was high-time l got a motorcycle license and restore my passion for bikes. At this point l realized other dream trips around the world could be planned on two wheels instead of relying on trains, planes and automobiles. During this time l was working indirectly for Triumph Motorcycles in the UK managing their Marketing activity, so it was a good time to secure a motorcycle license and get back on two wheels and make the dream a reality.
Between 2007 and 2010 l made numerous trips around the UK, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Europe to understand the mileage l would feel comfortable riding each day in order to complete a solo motorcycle trip. So, eventually my two favorite cities were penciled onto a notepad and my trip started to come to life – ‘Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro’, gotta nice ring to it, eh?
The motorbike journey was the exciting part that would get me from A-to-B, but having the ability to visit the Galapagos Islands and Machu-Picchu really made the concept of the journey totally exciting. Prior to my proposed start date, I didn’t do any major planning to understand distances, the complexities of border crossing, or availability of petrol stations en-route – the trip was open and free for the day to decide the outcome. I just penned my concentration on the fact that if the motorbike and visas were in good order and l crossed the first border at Tijuana, Mexico, then everything else would be fine. I also kept my thought process rather caveman simple – ‘keep the Pacific Ocean on your right hand-side and head south.’
The only research completed was looking for the right bike that was fit for the job and l knew l would need something cheap and reliable for such an extensive journey. The trip was on a shoe-string and five months out of work was going to hurt the bank account. Currently l ride a BMW R1200GS Adventure, which is a perfect machine, very Germanic, but totally purpose built for this kind of trip. However, after initial investigations, l soon realized it would certainly be too costly to ship to the USA and return from South America, plus BMW representation in the Americas seemed limited and expensive. I spoke with the Infamous motorcycle traveler Austin Vince who went around the world with a group of friends in the mid/late 1990’s riding Suzuki DR350s. His advice on which bike to purchase was simply quipped, ‘think about it this way, when you are stuck in mud, sand or you drop your bike on its side in the middle of nowhere with all your heavy gear – l promise, you will never wish you had a heavier bike.’ His words rang true and l feel were perfect advice when making my final decision for a short solo adventure.
Hanging-out with Jim in Encinitas before we pack the bags, start the bikes and head towards the Mexican border.
Therefore, during November 2010 after considering a Suzuki DR or Kawasaki KLR, l finally purchased a 2005 air-cooled Honda XR650L on eBay for £1700 (with helmet, jacket and extras), from the warmth of my West London apartment from a guy named Jim in Southern California. The Honda was a perfect choice and l was stoked l would be riding it through its home of Baja California where it was renowned for winning the Baja races. The bike was put into storage until l arrived into LA December 2010, to work on a project with our sister office based at Venice Beach. The bike started immediately, and l rode it like l stole it along-the-coast of Southern LA (l was like the kid from Terminator 2 – whizzing down the streets).
The deal was done, the registration signed-over and the trip set. I worked the end of my contract in London, saved the last pennies, rented out my apartment and packed a simple bag of warm and cold clothes. I kept everything to an absolute minimum, as l knew this would all be strapped-on the bike behind me and squeezed into small canvas side panniers. Everything felt good, it was all finally coming together!
I flew from Heathrow out to LA and spent the first few weeks sorting through my equipment, catching-up with friends, servicing the bike, new tires, spare tubes, oil, filters so l could ensure regular maintenance. Everything checked – it was Friday, April 15t,h and l was ready, so that afternoon l rode from Venice Beach down to Encinitas and stayed with Jim, his wife and their little dog Binky. We drank beers, ate Mexican food and shared good conversation before we rode the first day of the trip together.
Jim and l made a promise that if l purchased the bike, we would share the first days ride together through Baja and he could offer his help with the bike and also get me across the first border crossing. He’s a cool guy and it was good start and pretty symbolic to have him join me for the first days ride.
We rode out of LA, towards the border, following the Pacific Coast Highway through San Diego for a first fuel stop, this beast was maybe good for 150 miles (with its over-sized 3.9 Gallon tank) and anything beyond would be left to the Gods to decide, as we headed for the border of Tijuana.
A super hot day, an exhilarating ride, but feeling relaxed to cross the border unscathed and stoked that Jim had got me to Ensenada.
This was the first moment l had a deep pang of reality and wondered if l actually had all the correct documentation (and despite the hot weather), l felt the perspiration double up as l headed towards the border guards. After an hour or so, it all came good, everything went smoothly, everything signed and stamped and I felt pretty ecstatic as we rode out and pushed through Tijuana. We rode up through the hills into the outskirts of town, before finally coming along-side the beautiful Pacific Ocean. It felt fantastic, top-of-the-world. This was the second moment when l truly had to pinch myself, a moment l realized the years of dreaming were now right in front of me on the open road, an untold journey where every day would be completely unknown, free and enlightening.
The bike was running superb, the Honda rocked with its thumping 4-stroke engine. The day was hot, dry, arid and Jim gave me a thumbs-up as we headed down along the Baja coast and onto Ensenada. After a few hours riding, we pulled into town that early afternoon near the local fishing port where we shared conversation about the next days and weeks for my journey. Jim confirmed that he wasn’t going to stay the night, he had decided he wanted to return to Encinitas and spend time with his wife as he’d been working-away from home a lot recently. It’s funny how you know someone very little, but yet in a small space of time we had created a strong bond. l suppose it’s just a commonality between bikers, an understanding – so when he said he wanted to turn on his heels and head home and spend time with his wife l completely understood. We shook hands and l watched him ride-away into the distance.
l rode into town, grabbed a cheap £10 room, unloaded the bike after a short 125-mile ride. It was good to have a hot shower and prepare myself mentally for the weeks ahead. At that point, I felt a first strike of loneliness, but knew this was how every day would unfold, so probably a good time to be strong and put any anxieties to rest. That night l headed into Ensenada as the sun set, and then I watched the town come alive. The bars filled up with a mix of locals and holiday makers. The Mexican music made the streets feel vibrant and l sat back with a cold Pacifico beer, watching the world go by as l contemplated the days, weeks and months ahead.
Enjoying the empty highway through Baja, with loud ‘Whoops of Joy’ I felt alive with the freedom my journey presented.
What?! Dublin to Cape Town, Buenos Aires to Alaska, Japan to Dublin on bicycles – now who’s the crazy one?
The next day l set-off early, pushing my way across the Baja desert, meeting happy, friendly Mexicans that made me feel welcome in every cantina, street market or petrol station. l met good, honest people and never felt an ounce of danger. Throughout the next few weeks, l passed through many police and military check-points only to be well received by officials happy to hear about the journey south to Rio.
It was cool to be riding through the desert and l met all kinds of people, especially when l bumped into an Irish guy and his British girlfriend that were taking four years on bicycles around the world, across all continents. It made my journey feel totally tame. As l rode-on through Baja, l began to realize petrol stations were limited and pulled into a small town called El Rosario and headed across to a guy selling tools and junk at the side of the road. l asked if he had any petrol cans for sale. He asked where l was heading and l told him LA to Rio, he just laughed which made me laugh nervously with him. He had a fuel can for sale, but it didn’t have a lid (…not so good).
So that transaction dashed, l turned the bike around and took off to find the beach, while fending-off being chased by five crazy dogs. One had the sharpest, nastiest teeth and was close to having my ankle before l hit the break and then powered it back-up. I must have looked nuts from a distance, but getting used to stray dogs chasing me was something l needed to get used to. By the time l made Rio, my dog-dodging skills were perfected.
I turned the bike around and headed onto the main road and back towards the guy selling the tools and junk. l slowed down, pressed the horn, he looked-up, waved and shouted to me, ‘good luck, crazy!’ Just the confidence boost l needed at that point. Crazy, eh? We’ll see.
I pressed on across the desert, through small towns, alongside beautiful cactus-filled landscapes and pulled into the only motel l could find for miles around in a place called Catavina. Shortly after my arrival, a group of Mexicans came riding into the motel parking lot on 450cc endures. As the evening progressed they insisted on getting this British guy ‘fixed’ with whiskey, beer, juicy steaks and a little bit of smoke.
Hanging out with a bunch of cool guys in Catavina, too bad their wives wouldn’t let them take this trip.
l was glued to the same spot for the next five hours, and through to the early hours of the morning, with lead feet. They all confessed to wanting to ride this dream trip, but in Spanish they told me to tell the English people they couldn’t take such a journey because of their wives. They were good fun, a great start to the journey and only my second night.
I continued crossing the desert through small coastal towns and villages, out along the Sea of Cortez. The route followed alongside pods of dolphins in the ocean, and beautiful beaches through Santa Rosalia, Mulege and Loreto. I finally pulled into La Paz at the southern tip of Baja with over a thousand miles under my belt and weird growths forming on my inside legs, specifically where the sun don’t shine.
I was exhausted from the mileage, coupled with the scorchio temperature from the sun’s desert heat. So it felt good to have a day relaxing and catch the overnight ferry to Mazatlan on the mainland. I must admit, there was a point when l felt completely exhausted. It could have been easy to turn back to LA and give-up and get on with my life. That evening l was so tired on the ferry l drank cold tins of Tecate beer and watched the Simpsons in Spanish, with bloodshot eyes, a burnt face and dark brown hands which looked strange against my Daz white arms. l drifted to sleep in an upright chair.
Taking a breather on an old wrecker, wondering what color and state I would be in by the time I reached Copacabana.
The next morning, l pushed my way south along the beautiful, huge stretches of Pacific coastline from sunrise to sunset and it just felt perfect. What a feeling of freedom. Over the last few weeks, I had stayed in really random hostels since Ensenada. One night l was pushing across Mexico and on the outskirts of Puerta Vallarta, it was late and dark and l made a vow that l would never ride after dark. My rule was simply, ‘get a room before sunset before the locals bury you alive – for a fist-full of dollars.’ It was late as l pulled into a motel and asked for a room. The short, tubby gold-toothed Mexican guy said in his cliché accent, “gringo, every room is $40 for four hours.”
“Are you serious – four hours?,” I replied. I thought to myself, ‘listen-up buddy, l have been on the road all day and l need a good eight hours of sleep, four hours is just crazy’. After arguing with the guy for 10 minutes trying to get him to see sense, l looked around the corner and understood. l had my wires crossed, this place was a special motel and ‘boy-oh-boy’ – did l laugh as l rode away. It is not the type of motel we have in the UK, but l love the philosophy of having the ability to pay for four hours of uninhibited fun with your girlfriend or wife (or both) in a room where you literally drive your truck into the building and drop the garage doors (drop the garage doors, did that sound right?).
I continued riding along the coastline. The roads were great, but l was burning up with the heat as l reached Acapulco. I decided to stay for one night, much to my reluctance as it was obviously very touristy and not what l was looking for on this journey. Luckily, or unluckily for me, l left early the next morning after two earthquakes rocked a 5.4 on the Richter-scale, which almost knocked me out of bed. l got the hell out of town, but was soon pulled over by the tourist police for supposedly speeding.
I opted against a beach hammock at the blue hotel, the locals convinced me the sea had changed shape after the Japanese Tsunami.
Now, honestly, l wasn’t speeding. l was taking in the coastal views and it was more like Driving Miss Daisy, but l knew the police were renowned for corruption and cash bribes. So after haggling on price starting at a sticky £1,000 ($1600) for the ticket, some 45 minutes of sweat and bargaining power later, l got-off with a £20 fine ($32). I continued along the winding coast road, past a truck laid on its side with cattle alive and dead spewed across the road (….l soon realized the 5000 flies seemed pretty happy!).
That evening l was looking forward to my first night in a hammock and it wasn’t until the 77-year-old Mexican owner told me he used to sleep at the side of the sea in these particular hammocks, he was offering me, but wouldn’t sleep there anymore as the waves are heavier these days. “Heavier,” l said. “Yes,” he replied, “heavier since the Tsunami in Japan, this ocean has never been the same since.”
I rolled my eyes, wondering why on earth he was offering me these hammocks, l decided that a room with a view for £10 would be perfect, thanks! Next day l pushed on further south, dropping into Puerto Escondido late in the evening a little unsettled after hitting the back-end of a small dog that bounced from under the wheels of a large truck in front. I was going to head back in the dark and do the honorable thing and clean-up the puppy brains, but three cars full of young Mexicans came burning through behind me and l knew if l went back, l would just be staring at another fresh canine carpet.
The temperature in Mexico almost killed me and the thought of heading home was nearly decided by the toss of a coin, but Rio was still somewhere down the road…
I spent time hanging-out with travelers in this surfing Mecca drinking beers and taking a well-deserved moment to cool off in the sea, before the final run to Tapachula and crossing over the border into Guatemala.
I totally underestimated the length of Mexico, l had a real desire to get to South America and this first country seemed irrelevant. Yet the first few weeks l think that l actually went stir-crazy with the heat and thought l would never reach the other side of this huge, huge country. I crossed the border having clocked just over 3,000 miles riding through blistering temperatures that hit 113 degrees. The days heat literally cooked my brain, and my backside was sore from the days and weeks of riding. My saddle sores were still nicely forming and taking shape. I began to hate the Honda seat and was thankful for antiseptic cream, though always a little painful to apply.