from Ohio (USA) to Venezuela
April 12 to June 19, 2007
9,249 miles - 14,885 km, solo
Everybody tackling a long trip across the Americas is looking for practical tips like condition of the roads, border crossings, potential dangers and the like... This is the purpose of this article, I left out the details such as where to stay, what road to take, etc., as interests and tastes are so different among people. Let me just say that I personally like to keep off the main roads, using secondary, tertiary, dirt roads, etc. Aren’t there dangers going into the backcountry? I really didn’t see any, never felt threatened, nor in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, or any of the other countries traveled. Never. I must say that I have more than 15 years living in Venezuela, where one hears so many horror stories and in the end, it is generally the result of a general paranoia, so my threshold level to perceived threat is pretty high. Crimes generally occur in slums around the big cities, where you have nothing to do anyway. To conclude I would say that this trip is easy and can be performed by anybody who is motivated, and has some time obviously, and a little budget. Furthermore, you will not be cut from the world, internet is available in almost every little village and if you have a GSM phone with international roaming, you will have service in almost every city.
Weather wise, and it wasn’t planned that way, but timing was perfect, just before the rainy season in Central America, which was a bit late this year. Maybe it would be wise to start a bit earlier next time; although around Creel in Mexico, there is so much dust on the dirt roads in the dry season!
I had a stock 2003 BMW Dakar, and did the trip without any costly accessory, except for a Cyco-Active map case, as I don’t have a tank bag. I had already, from a previous bike, the standard BMW expandable cases. These are not ideal for that kind of trip, but they demonstrated to be sturdy: I had one retaining pin broke off the bike in Mexico which sent the case flying across the highway... It took a beating, cosmetically speaking, but didn’t even open. For the next few days, until I received a new pin, I continued the trip with the case tied to the bike with a rope. Then for the remaining of the trip, and until now, when I use them, I always keep both cases attached to the bike with a rope... just for safety.
I changed the 16 teeth front CS for a 15 teeth, to have better torque off road. Drawback is that it also seriously hampers the top speed on highways, but as the highways are unpredictable with potholes, animals and cars in the wrong line, no point in speeding anyway.
Tires were the Dakar’s stock Metzeler Sahara, I made a change in Mexico and then in Venezuela. I carried a spare chain and sprockets, both hand levers (brake and clutch) used one of them, the brake lever, which I bent in a fall in the jungle in Guatemala. Back home I had it straightened again. clutch and accelerator cables, no need for them, spare brake pads, not used, just changed them once I arrived in Venezuela. I did break both front turn signals (in fact not the signals themselves, but the gray plastic support plate, that you can fix with epoxy, until the next fall or the next loading and unloading the bike on a boat for a river crossing. As for the battery, it is important to check the water level regularly, what I didn’t do, but there is lots of mileage, and in the tropics, I know it’s a pain to remove all those screws, so mine dried up twice. The good news is that with water and a charge I was able to salvage it, and still running fine today.
I was to forget, the fuel... there are plenty of gasoline stations all along the way, so really no need for big and extra gas tanks.
I started from Centerville, Ohio in the US, and intended to follow the Trans-Am trail from Tennessee to Colorado and then South on the Continental Divide into Mexico, but the weather was not cooperating, freezing cold, rain, and being alone to follow that trail, rally type, was not my kind of vacations, so after a few days I went South through Alabama (btw with more resemblance to a Third World country than the real Third World sometimes, but that is another story) and Florida, Louisiana (still visible the consequences of Katrina (here a message to my fellow Venezuelan neighbors still complaining about the slow recovery of the 1999 landslide in Venezuela. Katrina is now 2 or 3 years old, and a disaster of much smaller scope, right in the hearth of the Empire, and voila...), and Texas, then I crossed into Mexico at Alpine, TX, to Ojinaga, Chihuahua. An obligatory stop at the Copper Canyon, a motorcycle mecca with Americans (that picture courtesy of Los 3 amigos, receptive agency in Creel).
Then South across he highlands, a little stop on the Pacific beaches, back to the colonial highlands, then the Pacific again and Oaxaca and Chiapas.
I crossed into Guatemala at Frontera Corozal (Mexico) - La técnica (Guatemala). Don’t trust the maps, there are no roads and no bridges here, so you must muscle the bike on a boat, which leaves you on a beach on the other side. Great way to enter Guatemala if you don’t go to Yucatan, but the drawback is that you cannot hand out the motorcycle entry permit to the authorities. No problem if you have a multiple entry permit and will come back into Mexico. They will stamp your passport in Bethel (Guatemala), but not the motorcycle, so you will have to regularize the vehicle entry into Guatemala later. I did it 5 days later, to Melchor de Mencos, at the border with Belize. I didn’t enter Belize though.
I didn’t go to El Salvador either, I had spent already more than a month in Mexico and Guatemala alone and didn’t know what to expect next, so I entered directly into Honduras through Copan. Sadly, I had not enough time to explore the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua or Costa Rica, areas which appear interesting. Trivia: first and only flat tire on the trip: in Costa Rica, half an hour before entering Panama. Entering Panama is anachronous, with its 4 lane highways... more interesting in Panama is the Eastern part, Kuna Yala and Darien...
Kuna Yala is an autonomous province, inhabited and administered by the Kuna Indians. It is composed of more than 400 paradisiacal, tropical islands, of which about only about 50 are inhabited, and in fact overpopulated. The Kunas live exclusively on the islands, and use the coast only to farm their products, bananas, manioc, roots. No roads on the coast. In Kuna Yala don’t be afraid by the swastika, no white supremacists here; you will see it on the jewelry that the Kuna Indians wear, as well as tattoos and on walls. This symbol was used by the Indians since the time they fought the Spanish invaders, a few hundred years before the second world war, but it always makes a little shock when you see it the first time.
See later for the crossing of the Darien gap. I intended originally to follow the main arteries in Colombia, with all these stories about the guerillas road blocks etc... But once I was stopped at a police checkpoint, they wanted only to see the bike, they told me there are no more guerilla activities in that part of Colombia and I should instead going directly to Valledupar and Maicao using the secondary roads instead of making the big detour to Cartagena and Baranquilla, as I was going to Venezuela (and also because I already went twice to Cartagena, the most spectacular city in Latin America). What I did and I can confirm, the military presence, with innumerable posts along the roads, inspire confidence but for safety, limit your riding for daylight. One tip don’t plan to cross the border into Venezuela on a weekend because the customs offices are closed (!) and you will have to stay in Maicao, what I had to do and if you can avoid it better, you really have nothing to do in Maicao. Once in Venezuela, there is an excellent highway system.
Just to break a myth, all border crossings are easy and straightforward to cross. Procedure is the same at every border, first go to the Immigration office to have your entry stamped in your passport, you then have to go to the Customs' office (Aduanas), to get a permit for your vehicle. It is normally very straightforward. You will save lots of time if you bring with you extra copies of your documents, passport, driver's license, motorcycle's title. Only entering Costa Rica do they actually ask a copy of your passport WITH the entrance stamp... but they have a copier next door. The opposite when you get out of the country.
No money was paid unless for the regular visas and fees. You actually don’t need any of the “gestores” who come at you when they see your gringo face and big bike, asking to help you. I did use the services of one of them to exit Nicaragua, the vehicle exit form had to be signed by 2 or 3 police officials who were somewhere in the huge parking; as the kid knew them, we just walked to them and got it signed by everybody rapidly. I gave the kid $2.00 and he was happy.
I must say that I am Canadian traveling with a Canadian passport, but I didn’t feel that it made any difference.
A few interesting points:
Mayan cities in the jungle
If you were like me as a kid, dreaming of discovering a Mayan city lost in the jungle, you should consider this little circuit in the northernmost part of Peten in Guatemala. I started in Tikal, a huge, restored, well documented archeological site. Then you ask for a permit to enter the park and ride up to Uaxactún, another Mayan classical period (250-900 d.C.) city, but this one is only partially excavated and restored, and you will see no other tourists.
From Uaxactún there is a dirt track going to El Zotz (zotz meaning bat in Maya). This is another archeological site, the area has been cleared of all the bushes but has not been excavated or restored yet, the stelas are laying on the ground and all the mounds/temples have a tunnel digged by the treasure hunters. It is called El Zotz because of the proximity to a cave where you can see hundreds of thousands of bats coming out at dusk... impressive. You can camp at the ranger’s station close to the site. Interestingly when my visit coincided with the works of a US (Brown University) - Guatemala team of archeologists. They were surveying and mapping a new site called Las Palmitas, still deep in the forest. I followed them in the jungle and that was impressive...
From El Zotz you continue on the dirt road to Las Aguadas on the San Andrés-Carmelita road. Then South to Flores or North to Carmelita if you want to go to El Mirador, but then it will be a few days backpacking in the jungle from Carmelita.
About the road: Tikal-Uaxactún is a very good graded dirt road, 23 km, 1:30 hour. Uaxactún-El Zotz is only about 35 km but it is a trail, generally ok but careful with low branches, vines and fallen trees. I was told after that the last jeep passed there 4 months before... that is why that giant tree which fell across the track had not been cleared, and that was about at 75% of my way to El Zotz... no way I was turning back. So I slowly rode the footpath made around the tree by a local with a machete... that is where I fell 3 times, all at the exact same spot... and one of the few times I would have appreciated the help of a partner to lift that 200 kg bike !! but the 4th time was the good one. A wider bike, boxer-type, wouldn’t have passed.
Then the track from El Zotz to Las Aguadas is used by jeeps and small motorcycles to supply the ranger’s station, so it is open, wide but it is a maze of ruts. Too bad I have no pictures of that, but I just couldn't stop... By chance it was dry when I was there, but some passages needed almost technical skills to pass. I wouldn’t recommend riding that road alone during the rainy season.
Crossing the Darien Gap
The main concern, or challenge, to everybody doing this trip. The Darien gap is this area, the border between Panama and Colombia, where there is no roads. The Pan-American highway stops in Yaviza (Panama) and starts again in Turbo (Colombia), a mere 50 kilometers away. This is a jungle-covered, mountainous area, one of the wettest on the planet, filled with leftist guerillas on vacation, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers smugglers of all types, and also Kuna and Embera indigenous people, You need a special permit to enter the area if you come from Panama. Work on that missing part of the Pan-American highway started a number of years ago but was stopped for ecological reasons but especially because of the opposition of the US government who wanted to prevent the introduction of the cattle Foot-and-Mouth disease into the Northern hemisphere. Argument not valid anymore because in actuality there is no FAMD in the contiguous departments of Colombia. Also communications would allow a better control of all the illegal activities in the area, from illegal lumbering to smuggling of all sorts.
There are 3 ways to cross the Darien, from North to South, possibly a fourth one from South to North.
The first one and from what I heard, the most common, is to fly the bike from Panama City to Bogotá (Colombia) or Quito (Ecuador). About $375 for the bike plus your own airfare.
The second is to put the bike on one of the numerous sailboats doing a 5 days tour from Portobello (Panama) to Cartagena (Colombia). You will spend 3 days doing snorkeling in the San Blas archipelago and then ending the cruise in Cartagena. Price is $275 p.p. including food. For the bike they ask the same price, so add another $275.
The third way is to board a Kuna cargo ship in Colón ( I boarded on the island of Carti, but that was because I didn’t know, the ship actually leaves from the wharf in Colón). Going to Carti can be complicated during the wet season because you have to followi a clay dirt road in order to get to the shore in front of the isalnd. They have spread all kind of gravel and rocks to give more traction but this is regularly washed away by the rains. Arriving to the coast you then have to cross a river, which can be high if it's raining, the bridge has been washed away a few years ago and not been replaced yet. Then you have to load the bike on a small boat to bring it ti Carti... I am happy I did it but I think I would go to Colon if I had to do it a second time!!
UPDATE: the road to Carti is now paved
Once on the cargo ship, you will then spend 5 to 7 days sailing along the coast, stopping at various of the inhabited islands of Kuna Yala. You disembark in Puerto Obaldia, still in Panama. This trip costs about $50 p.p. for the the whole trip, including 3 delicious meals per day. Bring your hammock for the night. Add $30 for the bike. In Puerto Obaldia, you have to do the immigration paperwork and then put the bike in a small boat to Capurgana (Colombia). The whole boat should cost between $50-70, that is for the whole boat, so if there are more passengers, you divide the cost. Still no roads in Capurgana, you have to cross the Gulf of Uraba to Turbo. Colombian Coast Guard doesn’t allow passengers on the cargo ships, so you have to ship the bike separately, about $80-100, and you cross in a fast passenger boat, about $18. This alternative is much longer, but cheaper, and you have the opportunity to see a lot more. Also more possibilities of putting dings and dents on the bike for the way they manipulate the motorcycle on and off the boats...
The same ways are available from Colombia to Panama, but there maybe a fourth way, because a trail actually exists, which goes from Acandi (Colombia) to Yavitza (Panama), the end of the Pan-American highway. This is a tough 4-days walk through mountains, jungle and rivers. No idea, for now, if it is possible to ride it on a motorcycle. I will investigate one of these days, so keep in touch. Problem here is the danger, real this time. As already mentioned this border area is where all the arms are smuggled in Colombia and as such is coveted by both the guerillas and the paramilitaries, fighting each others to control the area. Moreover, supposedly, various tourists who have disappeared in the area would have been victims of the same guides they have hired from Acandi to rob them, and then these blame the guerillas. So you are warned!! You cannot do that trip from Yaviza to Acandi because you will be stopped by the military in Panama. This area is closed to the public, for the dangerous situation.
The actual route from Colombia to Yaviza is the following: You have to go upriver the Atrato until you reach the Cacarica River, an affluent of the Atrato. You go upriver until a point called Cristales where you disembark. There is nothing there, the last village you passed was Bijao, an afro-american settlement, lower on the Cacarica. The following day you hike in the jungle first to Palo de Letras, which is actually the border with Panama. Nobody there either, but a concrete milestone, and you continue hiking until Paya. This is a Kuna Indian village. Next day you continue your hike to Pucuro which is another Kuna village. From there you board a boat again and go to Boca de Cupe, anothet Indian village and from there to Yaviza. This is a tough and expensive 4 to 5 days journey. Probability to meet guerillas is pretty high also.
That’s it for the Darien Gap. One last detail if you go to Turbo, I will recommend profusely the Residencias Florida, it is really a basic hotel in terms of amenities, but it is right in front of the port and the owner, Jhon Botero, is such a nice and helpful person, he'll do miles to help you. Phone is 827 35 31 and cel 311 327 25 69.
UPDATE DIC 2010
They have completely restored the area in front of Residencias Florida, what was old run down warehouses and sheds has been transformed into a park, with restaurants, etc... you now have families coming at night, Turbo has definitely improved its image.
Following numerous questions, I have expanded the details for that part of the trip on AdvRider site with more pictures, starting post No.52.
Dirt roads in Colombia
For those who may go to this area soon, the road going North from Turbo is still dirt, and under construction. After a night of rain, you have exactly 100 km of mud to ride, with some ruts half a meter deep where they have machinery working. I didn’t think of lowering the tire pressure because everybody were telling me it was about to finish... adding to that the thread of the tires near the end of their useful life... so it has been a grueling 100 km of stressful riding. All other roads in Colombia are great, per Latin-American standards.
***** UPDATE DEC 2010 *******
I had been told the road between Turbo and Arboletes was now completely paved... well, not quite. They did pave the road between Turbo and Necocli, but for whatever reason there are 5km missing in the middle!! From Necocli, you have another 35 km of unpaved road. Apart from the fact that the bridge over the river Mulatas just collapsed last week (mid Dec 2010).
One detail, motorcycles don’t pay tolls on the highways in Colombia, but you have to pass through a special lane on the right. Be careful and think about the width of your luggage because sometimes some of these passages are pretty narrow.
45 000 km in Colombia ...
if you come to Colombia, get off the Panamerican highway, exlore Santander, Norte de Santander, Boyaca, fantastic roads without the heavy truck circulation.
some pictures here
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