Gold-toothed Champerico, Guatemala. My Red and Yellow hotel in the background secured for a night after haggling with Mexican currency for a room and food.
I crossed the border into Guatemala, the administration was crazy, it took three hours (my lack of Spanish didn’t help). It was just form filling and photocopying passports and motorcycle documents, but l must admit, there was never any problems – it was just part of the journey and l realized at that point relax, the interruptions will make the journey. Within an hour of crossing the border, l was making my way up through the mountains of Guatemala and felt the first raindrops since I left the UK and it was just a perfect sensation on my baked skin.
I opened my jacket and let the heavy rain soak my clothes and T-shirt. I could almost feel my face sizzling from the cool raindrops. The sun was setting and so I fueled up and headed south along a 30-mile bone-shaking road towards a coastal town called Champerico. I realized I hadn’t changed my currency and didn’t have local currency. There were no ATMs, so I ended-up bargaining with a hotel owner and her daughter for a room, food and bike storage. I overpaid them with Mexican currency. They looked suspicious, but smiled and realized that they got a good deal.
Time for a re-fuel at the Esso gas station high in the colonial village of Antigua. The local massage, coffee and chocolate cake helped me to rebuild my stamina.
There was a local election on that evening, so the streets were full of partying and I bumped into a guy in his mid 30s, with a bulging belly, slick back hair and a big gold tooth. He told me how he used to work in New York as an electrician and then later happily introduced me to his wife and daughter. The guy later showed me his house and the cantina he built from savings earned in the States where he could earn $20 per hour instead of $10 per day in Guatemala. I was introduced to his friends and we sat and drank beers in the cantina. I wasn’t sure if this was the night I would get shot and buried alive, but it all panned-out okay. Everyone was super friendly and they all made a real fuss, making me completely welcome in their home town. There were no horror stories, just good fun and laughter with super, great hospitable folk.
I spent the next day chasing the Pan-American Highway for 130 miles before riding into the mountains. I pulled into the quaint colonial town of Antigua, surrounded by three large volcanoes that dominated the horizon. After all the random nights in hostels and motels I treated myself to a nice room at £7per night, dragged the bike into the hostel and headed down the street for a coffee, chocolate cake and full body massage.
The last 3500 miles had taken their toll. I felt a little uptight, anxious due to the daily mileage, which at this point ranged anywhere between 180 to 350 miles per day, along with soaring temperatures (at this point). I could never in my mind imagine actually getting close to Rio. Here in Antigua I realized it was a good time to relax the brain, refresh the system and give the bike a well-deserved oil and filter change.
I pushed through Guatemala quite quickly, down to the border of El Salvador. I anticipated the next border crossing could be problematic, however, there was nothing to fear, just helpful people that were full of smiles. It made me wonder, where is all the trouble was that we read about? I mean, I wasn’t looking for it, but all the time you are ready for someone sprinting off with your passport and wallet, but thankfully nothing. The border was steeped in administration, form filling that seemed to last anything up to and beyond three hours to cross from one country to another.
Crossing the border into El Salvador; after riding all day in the intense heat and sweating my heart out, I began to smell like fresh cheese.
I stayed in San Salvador with a fantastic lady in her late 70s (a superb friend of the family), who entertained me and made my welcome to San Salvador perfect. The additional luxury after weeks on the road was that we had a cook and a personal driver, but I would hate to think looking back I took advantage of the situation, though I left San Salvador with a full belly of food and a new friendship perfectly intact.
I rode out across this beautiful countryside and the roads were fantastic. I realized the motorcycle was the best way to taste this kind of journey, from breathing in the fresh air, the rich invigorating smells, to noticing the acute differences that define each country and what lies between its borders. So, here I was, three countries into my journey, feeling alive, connected to the road and the bike (yes, the sores were still ripe), topped off with a burnt face and dark hands and a huge grin from ear-to-ear. The journey was leaving me tired, but exhilarated to the point where I literally let out uncontrollable ‘whoops’ of joy, be it an ocean view, the hospitality of people, a winding road between volcanoes, children playing in the fields or beautiful sunsets that left a motorcycle shadow and its content rider burnt into the tarmac of the Pan-American Highway.
At the border crossing for Honduras I had my first run-in with the local Salvadorians wanting additional fees to help me cross the border. A group of more than ten people chased me down in a truck to the border patrol, where a loud argument broke out when the guys jumped from the vehicle and crowded around myself and the bike. It was obvious, they just wanted to earn money helping me translate the border documents. But they were all on something, you could tell by the glazed eyes and sweaty complexion. So I just told them all to “feck-off” and that’s when I bumped into a Canadian couple travelling North and South America on motorcycles over the course of two years. They were riding a BMW GS F800 and 650. Brian is a Canadian guy and Deya Mexican/Canadian who proceeded to tell the guys l didn’t need their help, she would help me with the forms (Pheewww). The local guy then warned-us we had better watch ourselves when we cross into Honduras, ‘he has friends.’
Our first day in Honduras after the previous night’s Salvadorian border showdown. Thank the Lordy-Lord Deya delivered us from the hands of evil with her Spanish.
The border guards made us wait and follow their vehicle to the next town some 25 miles away. It was 11 p.m. and we took their advice, as we knew it wasn’t worth the risk. Deya and Brian felt safer as they had been at the border for some 10 hours due to the same hassle with the truck full of locals chasing them earlier in the day. We followed the guards through the dark night before being dropped at a hotel, we grabbed a room, beers and food and l said to the guys before lights-out, “I have known you both for like three hours and here we are sharing a room, surrounded by motorbike gear, oil, tires etc – does life get any better?”
We decided to ride together and had so much fun over the next four days sharing the journey. I felt inspired by their trip as a couple, their strong relationship, the funny stories shared over cold beers, the distances we rode together and above all, the laughter – which was much needed after so many days riding solo from LA. They were a super couple and in a short space of time we connected on a really great level and have been in touch ever since. They made for perfect travel companions, and lets face it, if it hadn’t have been for Deya’s perfect Spanish, I might still be at the border of El Salvador and Honduras.
After we crossed the border into Nicaragua we were stopped maybe 10 miles south by the Police who wanted-us to pay for Insurance to transit the country. We confirmed that we had paid at the border, but the police insisted we pay again. Deya got angry and started to shout at the Policeman in Spanish while wagging her finger at the man, then at the camera on Brian’s helmet and then into space. There was a pause, and the Policeman looked puzzled and confused before motioning that we proceed on our way. As I rode past slowly, I pushed my chest-out slightly and pointed at Deya and Brian riding in front, then pointed into space with a smugness that would probably have got me shot if I was riding alone. Deya later told-us, she’d informed the Policeman that she and Brian were sent by the Canadian authorities to understand the nature of border crossings, the ease-of-access and limited Police corruption and that via the receiver on Brian’s helmet, the Canadian government were able to track and watch our every move. I just thought - get that girl a beer!
Our last morning before Coast-Rica. Brian & Deya are a super cool couple, they ride across the USA mid-2012 back to Canada - please look after them on their last leg.
Our journey together included one more night and then a short morning ride crossing into Costa Rica. This border stopover was made easier by Deya’s linguistic abilities, speaking the perfect lingo to minimize the clunky administration. We knew it was just a matter of time, waiting, stamping documents, re-stamping and then we would be riding into a new country. We rode on together and finally departed that morning in Costa Rica after breakfast. I found it pretty hard to ride on after such good times with great people, but I realized they were friends for life. And that’s a good feeling to take a journey of a lifetime and meet such super people that you create a really strong bond and connection.
That day was the first and only time that l took a wrong turn on my trip. I headed towards San Jose instead of south along the Pacific Ocean. It was a great ride alongside the rainforest canopies and up through the winding mountain roads. When I finally stopped and asked a guy for directions, realizing my wrong-turn had added another three hours to my journey, I continued to push south through the mountains. The roads were perfect and I was hitting like 60 mph, chasing the sunset on a beautiful stretch of open road when a Policeman stepped from behind a tree. He flagged me down and pulled me over for speeding. He showed me it was 35 mph and looking at the speeding gun, he’d got me. I rarely hit the gas on this trip, as I didn’t need to be anywhere fast, averaging 55 mph, enjoying the views and overall consideration for fuel-efficiency, so I was pretty gutted.
The policeman was really angry (so no bribery this time) and with pride, showed me all of the tickets he had managed to collect that day. They all seemed to be American tourists and the ticket was worth £300, my energy drained. Then the police car door opened, another officer stepped out, looked at me and said (in an accent similar to Manuel from Fawlty Towers) – “Engrr-rand…are you from Engrr-rand?” I confirmed that I was and apologized profusely for my speeding. The Policeman then said, “William and Kate – they just got married,” then exaggerated the word ‘Beautiful.” I paused for a second, squinting slightly (thinking ‘are you serious?’), he just kept saying ‘beautiful’, to which I replied, “Yes and they love Costa-Rica.”
The policeman seemed rather taken with the wedding that I hadn’t even watched and proceeded to remove $20 dollars from my open wallet and told me to proceed with care. The other policeman was not impressed and I could hear them arguing as I rode off into the distance. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, and that night I made a toast to the future `King and Queen`. I hope one day they would get to know that their wedding got me off the hook for a £300 speeding ticket.
I had a few days on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, enjoying walks in the national park and rainforest and taking a swim in the ocean before getting on the bike. My final leg of Central American went into Panama, via the mountain town of Boquete – infamous for a caffeine fix and a place to view the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans across this slither of a country. Then it was onwards to Panama City.
Overlooking Panama City, it felt like quite the achievement to arrive in one piece after weeks on the road and I looked forward to a few days out of the saddle.
What a great ride – beautiful open highway, thick rainforest on either-side. This was a clean country. The people really seemed to have their act together, no rubbish at the side of the road, houses painted, no dead dogs squashed across the road and believe me, sometimes you could count 20 squashed dogs per day in all shapes and sizes splattered from carpet-flat, swollen or sliced in-half, it was interesting to say the least dodging the canine debris. I stayed in Panama City for a number of days, considering whether to fly the bike and myself to Quito or sail with the bike to Colombia and ride cross-country to Ecuador. After a few days of thought and cash counting, I realized that I wanted to see Colombia, then called a French-Canadian Captain Olivier who owned a 42-foot yacht called Esmeralda. He confirmed we could sail to Cartagena in six days via the San Blas Islands and he was happy to have me onboard.
I walked through Panama City, exploring the old town with a retired American guy who l had met, so we hung-out and l listened to his many, many funny stories. There was one l particularly liked when he was in his mid-20s, he flew a ‘twin-engine beachcraft’ with a friend out across the Pacific and got caught smuggling a plane full of ‘Afghan-hash’ when he landed back onto US soil. In court, the judge asked him why he did it, why he risked his whole future behind bars at 24 years old and Paul simply replied “wouldn’t you if you thought that one chance, one deal could be pulled off and you would never have to work again?” He laughed and then said he spent one year behind bars in Santa Barbara and asked that family tell his mother that he was staying with friends on the West Coast. He was a cool guy, a legend, and we hung-out and shared some cool stories including the time he bought a new BMW motorcycle in Germany in the 1970s and spent a couple of years exploring Europe and the south coast of France, including a Moroccan ‘hash’ trip - but that’s another story…
Taking time to snorkel and bake on the beaches of the San Blas Islands, though always with one eye on the yacht and bike to make sure they were still afloat.
It was also great to find time to visit the amazing 20th Century achievement of the Panama Canal, before it was time to change coastlines and ride to the Caribbean. I picked up a new rear tire (Bridgestone 130 rear for width instead of the previous 110, it just sat better on the road), and strapped it to the back of the bike. I headed to the Caribbean, met up with Olivier and a huge local guy that lifted my bike onto the front of a wooden speedboat (…like a toy) and then winched it onto the yacht without a blink. We set sail for Colombia the next morning.
It was a super journey – sun-soaked days, drowned with cold beers, fishing, sunbathing, reading and journal writing, shared with three humorous British gap year students. It was all good fun, great to relax after the ride so far from LA. It was super to swim in the tropical Caribbean, relaxing on sandy beaches, after days being sat on the motorbike and get some salt water on the saddle sores and prepare myself for the next leg of the journey. We finally arrived in Cartagena, Olivier was a fantastic, knowledgeable captain and host, but there was a few times as passengers we each recalled the film ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, though we never made him walk the plank. .