Monday, 28 November 2011

Day 28: to Ipiales and Ibarra (481 kms)

Southern Colombia proved to be just as fascinating and beautiful as the north. It was (just) another day of spectacular riding through mountains and valleys. With this kind of constant elevation change, there follow changes in temp and pressure too. After yesterday's ride through the rain, I felt a cold coming on.

We made good time even though I had to stop a couple times to adjust little mechanical problems with the bike, from yesterday's bumps.

I wasn't expecting Colombia to be so diverse. We passed through towns that could have been somewhere in Africa given the people, the climate and vegetation, and then back up to quite obviously Andean communities.

After a late lunch in Ipiales, we headed for the border with Ecuador. Needing gas we bypassed several stations in town with longish queues. But everything has an explanation and it soon became clear that none of the stations out on the carreterra had fuel. This was probably due to the road closure in La Linea and the domestic orientation of supply chains. These stations are literally at the end of the line. In the event, however, it was a good thing we didn't fill up since gas prices in Ecuador were the cheapest we saw: about $0.50 a liter.

The border itself was straightforward, until the very last step (confirming my rule that it always one step in the process that slows you down). When we went to secure the temporary importation for the bikes from the aduana, there was nobody manning the post. I started asking around and finally found the main aduana office. A man in an Ecuadorean military uniform and a woman in a national aduana uniform pointed me back to the empty post. Then a man in a windbreaker and a ball cap emerged and gestured for me to follow him. En route he asked for my papers. I declined, perhaps with a little feeling, thinking he was a particularly well entrenched tout. (Avid readers will know my deeply held misgivings of touts.) He responded with great drama and clearly took great offence. When we reached the post and the delinquent, plain clothes customs officer went around behind his desk I thought we were finally in business. Unfortunately not. This man took it upon himself to teach us a lesson in respect for authority. He ploddingly assisted all those petitioners who had formed in a queue behind us and then, 45 mins later when his desk was clear, finally said "let's go look at the motos." Life on the road.

We pushed on for another 75kms or so to the first big town in Ecuador, Ibarra. The highlight of the evening was finding a sports bar that was full of rowdy soccer fans cheering on La Liga to a 2-0 home victory in the first match of the Copa Sud America semi-final. The place went nuts for the second goal (it's a home and away format) and for the victory.

Day 30: Highs and lows in Ecuador (519 kms)

We left Cuendina at just after 7am. We were headed to Ambato for a breakfast rendezvous with Julio. Nathan met Julio somewhere in BC while riding south from Whitehorse in August. The town had one restaurant and they were two motorcyclists, so they found each other. Julio was on a KTM 525, a barely street legal dirt bike that he rode around South America (including a six day boat trip up the Amazon) and to the end of the road in northern North America. During that trip he carried only one small drybag of gear. He met us on the outskirts of town and escorted us to his family home where breakfast was waiting.

Julio convinced us to take a small detour around Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador. This ride was one of the highlights of the trip so far. Chimborazo's peak also happens to be the furthest point from the earth's centre. Seemingly all Ecuadoreans know this fact, and I heard about it multiple times.

The ride around Chimborazo was amazing: we had seen some snow capped peaks on the ride to Ambato, but at 4400 meters there were patches of snow on the ground next to the road.

We descended back to the Panamericana and then all the way down to the coast at Machala. Along the way, we stopped to watch the conclusion of a soccer game in penalties. The keeper made a miraculous save to end the game. My cold was flaring up, but I was glad to be back at sea level.

Day 29: Don't miss the Equator (197 kms)

In Africa, Peter and I missed seeing nearly everything of "importance": the pyramids at Giza (we got lost), Mt Kilimanjaro (shrouded in clouds), the Equator (distracted). On this trip, I resolved to be more organized, prepared or both. On the day we were set to cross the Equator, I studiously watched my GPS and eventually found the precise point on the road where the display went all to zeroes (photo). We then made a slight detour to Ecuador's monument to its namesake: La Mitad del Mundo. Every country needs a small way to show itself in the centre of things. (Brings to mind the map, by an Australian, that shows that shows the southern hemisphere above the north and New Zealand cruelly split in two on the extreme peripheries.) The monument to la Mitad apparently not in the exact right spot, and my GPS confirmed this. We took a photo anyway.

Arriving at la Mitad we met two Aussies on big GS bikes with Florida plates. These guys were on a "circle to circle" trip and intended actually to ship their bikes to Antarctica. Me: "Will you be able to ride over there?" Leader guy: "Doesn't matter. The bikes just have to cross both the circle lines with us." Maybe C2thecabo needs a better gimmick.

These fellows asked about weather we encountered. I stammered out, with some guilt, that we'd had only a couple of rainy days. They were aghast; they made it sound as though they'd had rain nearly every day up to that point. In retrospect, we entered Central America at just the right time: mid-November is when the hurricane season has pretty much blown itself out and the rainy season is drying up. The problem is that most trans-America riders want to leave from Alaska and it's too cold by October. We solved that problem by leaving earlier and taking a break (Nathan and Peter), leaving late from further south (me), and going fast (all). When we told them our schedule, the Aussies said, "that's about the fastest we've heard of so far." It wasn't necessarily praise.

Sure enough, that afternoon we got some serious rain just outside Quito. We took shelter in an Internet cafe and did some TCB.

That evening we paid an unannounced visit on Nathan's host family from when he lived in Ecuador a decade ago. They were seriously excited to see him, and welcomed me warmly too. They insisted that we stay the night, which we did. Some of the kids who were just babies during his stay were now in school and studying English using the dictionary he left behind.

Ecuador is another country with ambitious development plans afoot. Road and infrastructure construction is everywhere. I took from Nathan that the village had changed a lot in ten years too. The political slogan is "La revolucion ciudada esta en marcha", and this was branded throughout the countryside on huge billboards. Most people seemed proud of this ambition and excited by its tangible evidence, but irritated by the high level of taxes.

Day 27: San Agustin and Popoyan (371 kms)

We left Neiva after breakfast; if we'd known the state of the road ahead we might have been in more of a hurry.

The road to San Agustin continued along the same river valley. San Agustin itself is high above the valley, and the road follows the ridgeline itself so, for at each hairpin switchback, you can peer down on one valley and then the other.

After a very typical lunch that came with a sweet oat beverage, we visited the spectacular statues at San Agustin. These dozens of carvings were set around the funerary sites of a culture that thrived in the area until around 1100AD, and then disappeared. The statues are extremely varied in their style and design, but familiar; perhaps through copies in countless Hollywood movies?

We got back on the road at 2pm with 150kms to Popoyan. A man told us the road would take 3 hours. That seemed absurd, and we still hoped to push a little passed Popoyan towards Pasto. At first the road was terrific (Colombian main highways, when not washed out, typically were excellent), but after climbing above 2500 meters the road turned to rough dirt track, little wider than a single truck. The track continue for 100 kilometers and climbed to over 3700 meters.

And it became even more difficult. Back when Peter and I rode across Africa, our most difficult day of riding was the first in Ethiopia. The road was being paved for the first time and so it was intermittently either the original dirt/stone track or the new sand/dirt foundation for the asphalt road. This second surface, after an intense rain, had turned to mud that was six inches deep. Along with some Italian motorcyclists, we ended up pitching our tents IN the roadway!

So when Nathan and I came across the first road construction site, I thought of Ethiopia and worried. The Colombians are building a concrete road to last for all time (see photo for thickness of the slab). Then it started to rain hard, and I really worried. But despite some slippery and technical riding, it turned out fine. We covered the ground steadily and without incident. It just took time, we didn't reach Popoyan until 8pm. The scenery was also spectacular until darkness fell. At one point as we descended into Popoyan, the road passed inches from the base of a 30 meter waterfall. We felt its presence before seeing it; realizing what it was, I turned my bike around and caught a glimpse with my high beams.

Day 26: Back in the road (329 kms)

After a full morning of waiting at the aduana (customs) and then for Girag, we finally got the machines just before noon. After a little routine maintenance and work to fix some minor but irritating damage from the transit, we were back on the road. Bogota traffic is intense and it took us more than ninety minutes to fight our way across the city and join the autopista sur.

Even once we found the road, progress was slow: Colombia is not a flat country. But the scenery is spectacular. Because of a rain induced landslide on the main road connecting Cali to the south (these happen almost daily at this time of year and are intensely covered by Colombian TV) we went through Neiva, a town of 300,000 in south-central Colombia. The route largely followed the Magdelena River, which flows alternately in narrow canyons and broad valleys.

Days 23-25: A break in Bogotà (0 kms)

Three and a half days doesn't sound like a long time to wait, but Girag did everything in their power to stretch things out and disinform us about the real status of the bikes. The wait seemed much longer. (I won't go into detail here but I would not recommend this company to other overlanders; I'll put a more detailed report on ADV Rider.)

Notwithstanding the Girag downer we had a great and productive time in Bogota. It is a truly cosmopolitan city, if a little glum due to the weather which seems to consist of a constant threat of heavy rain.

Estelle and Camillo showed us tremendous hospitality with frequent tasty meals, a great bike ride along the Sunday Cyclovia through town, and some museums. Most of all they opened their home to us and it was a truly relaxing place to stay. Nathan was able to replace his luggage boxes with a significant upgrade at an excellent motorcycle shop.

A highlight was a house party on the Saturday night at a friend of Estelle's called Patricia. Her beautiful home had some unique architectural elements.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Days 21 & 22: Shipping the bikes & flying to Bogotà

We headed out to the airport first thing on Thursday morning, intending to take care of shipping the machines to Colombia. Our schedule through Central America had been carefully crafted so that we would arrive in Panama with several week days to make arrangements and so minimize the chances of a delay due to the aduana or some other office being closed. The air freight company that most overland motorcyclists use is called Girag. We called on their offices first. It seemed as though everything was coming up roses because there was a flight leaving Friday morning for Bogota. The catch was that we had to leave our bikes as soon as possible. While this was a little inconvenient and cut short the time we intended to stay in PC, we decided to go for it: we would gain three whole days in South America and could stop rushing!!

In the aduana to exit Panama there was evidence of many previous overlanders, some of whom had left stickers on the fusebox. After taking care of all the details, including booking a flight for ourselves on Friday, we left the bikes to be packed up in Girag's loading dock.

I went out for dinner with an international group of overlanders (Brit, Kiwi, French, Thai) while Nathan took some more R&R. In chatting with these folks I contemplated the inherent challenges of this kind of trip: First, every day brings a myriad of decision points, both small and large; Second, communicating between motorcycles is inherently difficult (which is why Peter and I have developed an extremely complex and sophisticated set of hand signals); Third, as in any situation, the number of parties involved increases the challenge of coordination exponentially. The trick is to balance the rewards of spontaneity, with the certainty of unforeseen circumstances and the reality of a hard time cap. A detailed day-by-day schedule has helped us avoid existential discussions about the macro without hampering our flexibility to go a bit further on a given day, see something that we couldn't have known about before the trip or take a road that just had to be driven.

We caught our 11am flight the next morning after an embarrassing episode checking out of the hostel. Since Nathan lost his wallet, I'm bankrolling the trip (it's more like a bridge loan). This included $1800 cash for the freight. So on Thursday, I withdrew my daily limit, leaving not quite enough for cab fares, food and the hotel. I planned to take out some more cash on Friday morning before checking out. But when I went to the ATM it told me to contact my financial institution. That's code for "why the heck are you in Panama and draining your account anyway?" There wasn't time to return to the hostel, call the bank, return to the ATM, check-out and make it to the airport in time. We had to beg forgiveness at the hostel (which didn't take visa) and eventually they let us go, charging us for one night (instead of two) and for a calling card the Nathan had used. We tried to pay more, but they wouldn't accept the partial payment. They did insist on paying for that calling card.

Upon arrival in Bogota, the bikes weren't there. Drag. They would most likely arrive Saturday. I had a great time negotiating with Girag for compensation. Eventually they gave us $300 to cover our accommodation and transport. We had to sit around for a few hours until they were sure that we weren't going to leave without some persuasion.

My old friend and motorcycle enthusiast Estelle, along with her partner Camilo, took us into their home as guests. It was so nice to be somewhere that truly felt like home after three weeks on the road!

Day 20: to Cuidad de Panama (384 kms)

There was a speeding crackdown in Panama on the day we passed through. It seemed as though there was a cop every 5kms standing in the shade next to his motorbike, holding a radar gun in one hand and talking to his girlfriend on a cell phone in the other. Nathan got busted for doing 84 in a 40 zone. It was bogus, but we played it cool. The cop desperately wanted a bribe and grudgingly issued a ticket when it became obvious none was forthcoming (since losing his wallet Nathan doesn't have any cash). The best part of the interaction was when the the cop took a cellphone photo of the radar gun showing "84" with N's bike's license plate in the background. This photo was then sent by text message to HQ. Apparently the person at the other end dropped the ball since the subject never came up when we exported the bikes!

Day 19: Las Lajas, Panama

We hit the border around 8:30am heading for the beach at Las Lajas, Panama.

Peter wrote extensively about the border crossings earlier in this space, which helped us greatly. That said, the crossing are alway unpredictable. Take entering Panama, for instance. There were the two typical steps (immigration, customs), plus the relatively common third (mandatory insurance). Usually the third step is rapid: a private company with a conveniently located office issues insurance for a week or a month at a nominal fee. The customs/aduana requires proof of this before issuing the temporary import permit. When crossing into Nicaragua, the insurance agent walked beside me through the immigration process filling out information on her clipboard in parallel. In Panama, for some reason the insurance took about an hour for the two of us.

Another feature of borders are trucks. Usually there are long queues of them. I suspect the trucks waiting to enter El Salvador might have been waiting for several days. In most places the truckers go to a dedicated kiosk, but in Panama they were like second class citizens; the photo show that the immigration agent would see one trucker only after having served three travellers.

Las Lajas is apparently the longest beach in Central America. According to the guidebook, it is busy at the weekends with Panamanians, but deserted during the week. That's about right. It was like we had the whole 14kms of paradise to ourselves. The only complaint was that the large waves seemed wholly unsuitable for body surfing. Perhaps it was the surfers.

Our cabana was simple, so we walked up the beach to a higher end resort for dinner. This was preceded by an epic game of bocci in which I came back from a 9-2 deficit to win with 9 unanswered points.

Day 18: Costa Rica (549 kms)

We hit the road early. Over night, a plan emerged to try and get ahead of schedule by a day or so and spend a rest day on the beach in Panama. This meant passing through CR largely in one day, and perhaps crossing just into Panama if possible. This is a shameful way to see one of the world's must beautiful and interesting countries, but that is the kind of trip we're on... Fortunately we'd visited CR before, in 1997.

We made good progress through the morning and pushed through San Jose just after 1pm, stopping for lunch on the eastern outskirts just as the climb into the mountains started. The roads were busier and had more frequent changes of elevation than elsewhere in central America. It was slow going, but enjoyable riding. After lunch we continued on CA-2 and climbed to over 3000 meters. There aren't any photos, but I took a lot of video which I'll post once I have a better Internet connection.

Around 4pm we got caught in a wicked rain storm. The road became less hospitable too, with frequent washouts. It was even slower going. But we pushed on, our day off on the beach was calling.

We rolled into the highway town of Rio Claro around 8pm, about 25kms north of the border. I was done; Nathan seemed ready to ride right to Panama City. We checked into a motel that was intricately lighted up and decorated for Christmas; it is still only 15 Nov. We both agreed the aesthetics were pleasing but some of the energy might have been better directed at maintaining toilet hygiene. (Side note: I must be a sucker for road side advertising. This particular motel had road signs every 5km or so for the 30kms before Rio Claro. It reminded me of Wall Drug in South Dakota.)

Day 17: Nicaragua, and into Costa Rica (357 kms)

After contemplating retracing our steps of last night to find Nathan's luggage, we decided to push on. Nathan spoke to a local motorcycle riding group convening for their weekly ride and they quickly convinced him that there was no chance of recovering the lost items.

We spent the morning in town so Nathan could cancel his credit and bank cards and then headed for Managua and southern Nicaragua. As it was Sunday, the roads were quiet. We lost the Panamericana at some point an ended up driving through central Managua. Once we rejoined the highway, I particularly enjoyed riding up into the mountains and then right along the ridge line; it was as if we were driving down the country's spine.

Throughout the day we saw people going about their typical Sunday activities: church, baseball, family gatherings. Although we spent only a day in the country we both had a very favourable impression.

We crossed into Costa Rica late in the day and pushed on for another 75 kms in growing darkness. After yesterday's misadventure, I felt some unease but we reached Liberia without incident and check in to a very nice hotel (for once).

Day 16: Through Honduras to Leon, Nicaragua (478 kms)

We had our first real trouble of the trip today, even though the day started well. Breaking with the norm, we had a full breakfast of enormous pancakes, mine full of blueberries, in Playa El Tunco before departing. The barista commented that we must "get lots of women", travelling the way we did. She was smiling.

We decided to pass through Honduras in one day instead of spending the night. That meant two border crossings, so even though the day was low kilometers it was an ambitious day. The border crossing in Honduras turned out to be the most draining yet. About a kilometer from the frontier we came across three guys in the highway. They flagged for me to stop; I slowed and halted just long enough for Nathan to catch up and then accelerated away. The three touts then ran to a waiting truck and peeled away after us. At the check point, these fellas joined a small village of underemployed men seeking aggressively to assist us. We told them "no thanks". But one guy kept getting in my face. I decided to shove him away to make an example and concretely express our desire to be left alone. He was really shocked and thrown off balance. And then his masculine pride was severely damaged. He uttered all sorts of threats about what he was going to do to me in Honduras while slinking away.

We passed through the Salvadorean checkpoint behind a hearse and the officer looked in to confirm the absence of life. The Honduran side was a shambles; I've never been through border facilities that so completely failed to communicate any welcome to the country. The service was friendly, but slow particularly in the customs. At first the one officer was on lunch and then he spent 45 mins for each of us filling out the paper work. I think we were the only assets he processed all day.

The ride across Honduras was uneventful. We stopped at an Esso station with free wifi. I even made a surprisingly clear skype call to Yuri who was pleased with our loyalty to the brand.

Crossing into Nicaragua was another exercise in patience. The touts on the Honduran side tried to scare us into their arms by explaining that it was "another country over there". Really?!

We left the border headed for Leon in full darkness. A fellow at the station had explained that the road was quite bad for a while and then improved greatly. He wasn't exaggerating. It was impossible to avoid ALL the potholes and we each hit a few, hard. We rolled into Leon at around 8:30pm and spent another 30 mins finding a hostel and finally began unpacking. It wasn't until Nathan's bike was completely unpacked that he noticed the absence of his luggage boxes. Were they stolen or did they fall off, and if so when? It was too late to go back and since Nathan wanted to consider his options and assess the loss, we decided to make a plan in the morning.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Day 15: to Playa El Tunco, El Salvador (287 kms)

A relatively short day of very pleasant riding, punctuated by a painful border crossing from Guatemala into El Salvador. We joined up with the Panamericano highway for the first time just south of the bustling town of Esquintla. Descending towards the coast the heat rose steadily. At the border, there was chaos on the Guatemalan side and then glacial, but incorruptible service on the Salvadorean side. Overall, nearly three hours passed before we were untangled. The only consolation was that we flew by compared to four Aussie blokes who'd had some essential papers stolen and were on an even slower piste. (We had a beer together that evening.)

Once in El Salvador, we left the Panamericano again and headed for one of the best motorcycling roads I've ever been on: El Salvador's CA-2. This road clings to the cliffs and follows beaches of the Pacific coast north of La Liberdad. The route passes through little fishing villages that seem also to cater equally to Salvadorean tourists and surfers. Our final stop was the beach at El Tunco, a serious surfer enclave. We arrived just in time for sundowners.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Days 13 & 14: Crossing Guatemala (527 kms) and a day off in Antigua

We left Flores at first light after rising at 5am. While loading up and checking the bikes, a pack of rampaging teenagers heading home after an all night bender was efficiently waking up the rest of the town's residents.

We'd heard that the drive to Guatemala City took 9 hours and our designation was further down the road in Antigua. Ideally we wanted to arrive in daylight and certainly wanted to cross Guate City in light.

It was our most challenging day of riding: plenty of elevation changes, twisties, and towns plus heavy traffic and few passing lanes. We did a very efficient ride with only three stops: breakfast, gas and lunch. As it happened we rolled into Antigua just after 3pm. Guate is beautiful and the drivers were more respectful of bikes than I'd heard.

The day and a half long stay in Antigua was brilliant. We took full advantage of the day off (my first since leaving Ottawa). We lazed around, did some errands, did a little bike maintenance, met some interesting people and soaked in the atmosphere of the old colonial capital. Our home base was a hostel called the Terrace run by a friendly American couple. They were worried about the bikes' security and so we rolled them right into the lobby for the night. This left hardly any room for the other guests to enter, but no one seemed to mind!

With its cobblestone, the town is best navigated by bike and there are dedicated parking areas for moos and scooters: the old BMW GS with 64k miles was pretty. Ruins of colonial buildings from 18th century earthquakes and several prominent volcanoes are the town most notable icons.

Day 12: Tikal and Isla Flores, Guatemala (187 kms)

We left San Ignacio at dawn and rode the 15 kms to the border crossing with Guatemala. The border was fairly uneventful and took about an hour. For Belize we needed to pay several fees, for Guatemala some fees and some copies of our vehicle, driving and travel documents. Crossing borders in the morning is definitely the way to go.

The road into Guatemala was beautiful and mostly in relatively good shape, with some rare unpaved sections of several kilometers. We were headed for the famous ruins at Tikal and stopped for breakfast at the edge of the park. I carelessly left my keys in the ignition after flipping the "kill" switch and after a delicious breakfast the battery was dead. Nathan was already having trouble with his machine's electrics and so now we had two hobbled bikes. After soliciting help from a man near the park gate and a policeman, we soon had about five guys rummaging around and trying to solve the problem. I managed to convey that I merely needed a jump start. One guy fetched his truck and a length of electrical wire, the kind you'd use to string up a lamp. This even had a two prong plug at one end. After stripping the plug and some plastic coating they held it to my battery terminals and to those of the truck while aggressively revving the truck's engine. But the cable didn't have sufficient transmission capability to power the starter; instead we left it for 15 mins and trickle charged it enough for a start. After all that I nearly stalled the bike taking it off the center stand.

After this, and sincere thank yous, we entered the park and visited the ruins. The site is impressive and I particularly liked the tall proportions of the pyramids here, as well as the view from Templo IV above the jungle canopy with several other peaks poking above the trees.

We left the park around 2:30 and headed to the Isla Flores. Thi charming town on a lake with numerous hotels and restaurants. Our room faced west and after a swim in the lake we watched the sun set on another full and interesting day.

Day 11: Becan and Belize (392 kms)

We breakfasted with our "host family" and then went off to see the ruins near town. In some ways, this was my favourite Mayan site as we had the entire grounds to ourselves with one other couple. After exploring the site and climbing two of the temples, we headed out into Quinan Roo state. Crossing into Belize was simple, but hot.

We had a nice ride across this tiny country. In scale, the place reminded me of Tonga. The people, a diverse bunch, are just as friendly too. We had intended to bypass the capital city, Belize City, but took a wrong turn and ended up passing through. It took only 10 mins or so to see traverse this town of 70,000 residents.

We spent the night at the Midas Resort in San Ignacio near the Guatemala border. We were camping but made full use of the pool. So much so that by the time we were ready to eat something all the restos were closed for the day.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Day 10: visiting the ruins at Palenque and to Campeche (387kms)

Next morning we were awakened by howler monkeys. This followed a dubious night cacophony from the neighbouring campers. (Those same campers then told Nathan that the monkey symphony couldn't possibly be real and must be taped sounds of lions and tigers!)

My first experience at Mayan ruins was impressive. The Palenque site is well worth a visit. The cluster of a palace, temples, games field, aqueduct, and funerary pyramid was situated on the side of a steep jungle hill. We spent some time slowly wandering around early in the morning before the crowds got too heavy.

We had a swim in the pool and a light lunch and then hit the road for Campeche. We didn't have a specific destination intended, but thought there might be something interesting around the ruins at Xpujil. One of Nathan's headlights burnt out and so once darkness fell we stopped in the town of Becan. There was a roadhouse in town, but also a place to camp. We chose the latter and it worked out perfectly as it was more like a family homestay than an impersonal campsite. Our hosts prepared a quick meal of sandwiches and coffee and we ate with them and some friends al fresco. Nathan then fixed his light in the carport and I went to bed early.

Day 9: through Tabasco to Palenque, Chiapas (514 kms)

Next day, Sat 5 Nov, we got a slightly later start, around 8:30. Nathan was feeling under the weather. The road from Roca Partida to Catemaco was the best so far: lots of twisties, a challenging combination of narrow tar and gravel/dirt, plenty of elevation changes and either through a jungle canopy or along the Gulf. Once we rejoined the main highway, we made good time through the remainder of Veracruz and then Tabasco state. At one point, we were passed by a BMW RT with Guate plates and then later saw two groups of 4+ bikes heading north.

Mexico is a country in a hurry to develop. There are Pemex gas stations being built and roads under construction everywhere. Somehow this was most notable driving from through Veracruz.

Just before dusk we reached the turn off for Palenque in Chiapas. Tomorrow we'll visit the Mayan ruins near town.

Day 8: along the Costa Esmeralda to the Costa de Oro (487 kms)

Encouraged by our ride out to Tamiahua, we took another detour at the end of a long day of riding through Veracruz state: out along a tertiary road to a town called Roca Partida. We spoke to a few locals and determined it would be fine to camp on the beach. Neither of us was particularly hungry, but a cerveza was nice. As night was falling, it looked as though it would rain, but it was only the sea moisture piling up against San Martin volcano. We stayed dry all night.

Day 7: via Tampica to Tamiahua (612 kms)

We left Montemorelos at dawn and came across the scrub land and down to the coast at Tampico. The wind gust were the main feature of the ride. We were heading for south of Casitas, trying to make up some time from yesterday.

Once we came to Tampico, we followed the highway through town instead of taking the bypass. It took a long time, and we got lost. It started to rain once we were clear of the city and we stop to adjust our gear. Stephane from Montreal was having a cerveza in the roadhouse. He was riding a KLR solo south, with no rigid schedule. He was not enjoying rainy season. We pushed on, but soon it was threatening to get dark. So we took a tertiary road out to the coast planning to camp on the beach. It took a little longer to reach the coast because of the quality if the road, and so once we were reached Tamiahua it was fully dark and still raining. We found a hotel run by a man called Rene. We both really enjoyed getting off the main route, the bikes are made for that kind of riding.

Day 6: Laredo to Montemorales (450 kms)

Nathan and I learned some good lessons today: what to do when you get separated (the guy behind should stop and wait for the lead to return); how much to trust the maps in my GPS in Mexico (not a lot). In the former situation, we involved the police. In the latter, we ended up on an animal track. It was still a good day of riding but more dramatic than necessary. By comparison crossing the border was forgettable. We did get cool stickers to put on our windows.

After losing Nathan, I found an off duty police officer called Carlos (actually he found me) and he then helped me find Nathan. Carlos had lived in the US until a year before and was one of the "new generation" of police. He was genuinely worried for me and worried that I would misinterpret his assistance. When we were reunited, we invited him to dinner. He was hesitant to accept; he didn't help us for his own benefit. Anyway we all went for a big dinner of fajitas. Carlos told us his plans to take steroids and get bulky, to acquire a pitbull, to post a new profile photo to Facebook with his new "cowboy" police uniform, and of his love for his gun.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Day 5: Texas (~900 kms)

I arrived in Laredo around 6:30 pm, set up camp and did a little shopping. Nathan still hasn't arrived so I came to a McDonald's to squat on their Internet and see if he'd sent me any messages.

The day of riding was enjoyable but relatively uneventful. It felt like the first day of the trip in some ways since the weather was warm and the landscape was different than anywhere I'd riden before: west Texas scrub.

I did a range test on my bike. I recently changed the gearing after running out of gas twice on the ride with Chris to Labrador this summer. I now have 415kms on a tank at an avg speed of 108 per hour plus an extra 1.5 liters of fuel in a can, so nearly 450 effective range. That's about a 25% improvement.

Highlight of the day was stopping for BBQ for lunch. I ate outside in the back. The only other people were an older white couple and a black man having a heated conversation. I didn't catch everything but the gist was that the couple wanted to borrow some money from the man. It was a kind of bridge loan and it seemed to be required because the couple had been the subject of a scam or needed to sell their home quickly or both. In any case they seemed resentful and bitter. The man was trying to assess how likely he was to get his money back, but it came off like he was unsympathetic to their situation. I spoke to him afterwards and he was the owner of the BBQ place as well as two others nearby. He had finished college, been drafted into the army, done 18 months in Vietnam, survived and come home to start the business. He told me: "Nothing's free in life." Maybe he was worried that I thought he was preying on the old couple. It was excellent BBQ.

Day 4: Florida Gulf Coast to Lafayette, LA (919 kms)

Great day today. Good weather, scenery, a long ride and lots of time to explore. Also passed through Alabama; this is the 49th state I've visited (only AK left - maybe next summer?) and 47th I've motorcycled through (only AK, UT and HA).

The morning started along the Gulf Coast on US 90. At first the towns were small, remote and a little rough. Once I came to Panama City it was busier, and fancier. There's an air base near the town and as I was driving through two war planes took off with after burners on; without a visual and with ear plugs they sounded as though my bike was falling apart beneath me. I must have looked half crazed to the other motorists as I was looking around frantically for the source of the noise.

Along the way I observed a number of signs, which is a kind if pastime on moto trips:
- a sign with an image of a mother bear and her cub crossing (didn't know there were bears in Florida);
- "Primitive Baptist Church";
- "CEO shrimp for social security prices";
- property for sale signs, a lot of them;
- "Live Tiger Exhibit";
- "Many accidents involve trees" (this one was a complete non-sequitur and featured an image of an auto wrecked into the trunk of a tree); and,
- "Live Wrinkle Free...BOTOX".

I pulled into New Orleans around 4pm. The streets were relatively quiet and it seemed like a lull in the action particularly since it is Halloween. I remember watching an episode of Treme that profiles Halloween in NO and how it is second only to Mardi Gras in the extent of the party. I hung around for a while and it didn't disappoint.

The other thing I do to pass the time is by trying to think of song about the places I'm passing through. Glenn Nuotio's song about Biloxi occurred to me when riding through that Mississippi town. I heard a jazz band play When the Saints Come Marching In (they must be sick of that one) which I'd hummed earlier in the day. Steve Earle's song about the roughneck who lives in Lafayette was ringing in my helmet when I rolled up to my motel there for the night.