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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2012


The Honduran/Nicaraguan border turned out to be fairly simplistic, as the instructions I had printed off (a fellow group of travelers have a blog at Life Remotely that I have been following) were pretty much perfect, and there wasn't a perfect storm of problems that I faced at El Amatillo. The fact that I had my game face well and truly on probably helped too. One tout approached me before I had even stopped, but I shot him a look that would've scared Medusa herself. I don't know if he told the others, or if they saw, but they all kept their distance after that. (Mental note: must learn how to say "shove it up your arse" in Spanish).

About 10kms past the border, I came upon a police checkpoint. The cop checked out Isabella, then asked for 10 dollars for 'gas money'. This time I worked it out pretty quickly, but decided to toy with him a bit. I kept repeating "no thanks, I've got plenty of gas" and "does your partner over there need gas? I can lend him some". Eventually he made it too obvious what he wanted, so I had to just repeatedly say no. He checked over Isabella again (no doubt looking for a potential infringement to hang over my head), but then sighed, gave me back my ID and off I went. It's almost getting fun, acting out a small Monty Python-esque scene on the road.

León is another colonial town, with one particular point of difference: nearby Cerro Negro (Black Hill). A cinder cone volcano, it is the youngest volcano in Central America at only 170 years old. It grows with each successive eruption (usually 7 years apart, although the last eruption was in 1999) by ejecting lava that rapidly cools and forms rocks of various sizes. In case you missed that, Cerro Negro is a highly active, and overdue volcano.  Wind patterns means that the smaller rocks accumulate on a particular face of the hill. The upshot of this: a 600m high hill of pebble/sand consistency. Which must be rode down, of course. I checked into a hostel that runs daily trips up the slope, and put Isabella inside for safety (after Antigua, I'm taking no chances).

The next morning, I headed out to see the sights and sounds of León. There are quite a few old churches, for those of you into that sort of thing, but I am starting to get over them. It's not that they aren't pretty or reasonably interesting, it's more that they get repetitive after the fifth or so city. So I sought out something different: a museum housed in a former jail for guerillas during the civil war. This isn't just any museum though - it was a myths and legends musem, using mannequins as models. It was pretty quirky and interesting, that's for sure.

In the afternoon it was time to hit the slope. Rollcall included 4 staff, about 14 boarders, and a Yahoo! news crew. That's right, I may be on the news. Online. In Nicaragua. Anyway, we took a quick truck trip the base of the slope, had a look at an Iguana tank, and began our hike up to the top. Once on the top and photos opportunities exhausted, we suited up and paired up, letting gravity do its thing 2 at a time. One of the first down may have unintentionally slowed down everybody else - about 3/4 of the way down, the board dug in, and she proceeded to cartwheel and backflip almost the rest of the way down. It was one of the most spectacular crashes I've ever seen outside of a television or computer screen. The collective "OOOOHHHH!!!" and then silence from the rest of us at the top was almost comedic. But she got up, finished, and we continued.

The basic idea: sitting on the edge of your toboggan, you lean right back (holding on to a rope attached to the board) and use your heels to steer and brake. Some people just wanted to make it down, others wanted to go fast. I've traveled far too fast and far on a motorbike to go slow now, so I had the 90km/h record firmly in my sights. I lined up the board (a Japanese tourist went ahead on another track next to mine), started off, got lined up early, and then prayed. The boards get a new layer of plastic every run, so they pick up speed quickly. To get good speed, you almost need to be lying down (very similar to luge), and at the distance, the rocks look dangerously large, and going past at incredible speed. I couldn't see too much in front of me, but when I did look ahead, I didn't like it much: a dip had formed. At the speed I was going, it meant one thing: I was going airbourne. That was somewhat scary- to be flying inches above rocks on an active volcano with only a tenuous grasp of a plank of wood I had previously been sitting on. I landed ok, and kept gaining speed all the way down to the bottom, where I crashed after slowing down on the flats and passing a staff member with a radar gun. My speed: 84km/h. While not the all time record, it was damn close and enough to top the monthly leaderboard, with several mojitos as a reward. I was a happy camper.

The leader announced on the way back that he had booked a table at a bar with traditional music. To be honest, he had me at bar, but the music was a good bonus. I tried to get some new threads to replace those taken in Antigua, but nowhere was open so shorts and flip flops it was. The rum was flowing, probably a bit too freely. I don't remember much of the night, but what I do I enjoyed, and somewhere during the night I lost my flip flops. That's right, Mike's going clubbing barefoot. Not my smartest moment, but I woke up with no injuries other than a throbbing head. I don't think I made many friends in the dorm that night though, especially the guy who had taken to sleeping in my bed (he didn't get much sleep that night, as I slept underneath him in the bunk).

The next morning, I waited till I had sobered up and pointed Isabella towards Granada. It took most of the day to make the 150km - riding hungover is not a pleasant experience. I checked into my new accomodation (a cross between a homestay and hostel) and collapsed on the bed. I had pupusas for dinner (I've become a bit of a fan of the Salvadorian meal), and went back to sleep.

The next day was pretty quiet, and I barely left the room. I did go and check out a local market, and had a cheap meal at a local comida. I'm beginning to not only get used to the local cuisine, but actually prefer it to more familiar fare. I am seriously craving decent asian food though - what they pass off as quality food wouldn't even be passable for a late night BYO joint back home.

The next stop was a treehouse. Seriously, the next hostel I stayed at was in the jungle, up in the trees. I turned up, and the owner and a staff member were stuck into a bottle of Nicuarguan rum (Flor de Cana is everywhere), and painting a clown onto the bar. I settled in, and joined them for a drink or two. At the end of the night, we (along with 5 other guests) had polished off about 2.5L of quality rum, and taken advantage of the firemans pole and rope bridge. A party in a treehouse is an awesome thing and it got me thinking why we don't have something similar down in the southwest, like Pemberton. If I ever buy property in that area (as soon as I win lotto), I'm building off the ground. I came for 1 night, and ended up staying for 3.

The next day my laptop charger broke. The Nica jungle is about as far from an electronics store as you can get, so the next two days was spent travelling into towns to find a replacement and stock up on other items before coming to Costa Rica, where everything costs more. Granada couldn't help me (I did get some much needed clothes), so on the second day I headed into the capital ciy Managua.

The hostel staff said my best bet would be at the Galerias de Santo Domingo, a sprawling mega mall that wouldn't be out of place in any US metropolis. It had a Sony Center, HP store, Apple store and 2 Radioshacks all spread amongst high end fashion boutiques such as Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic. I parked in the Moto section, happy that the dedicated and heavily armed guard meant that Isabella would be safe. After wandering around aimlessly for an hour (it was sunday, so the shops didn't open until noon), I went into the main Radioshack & found what I needed, at a reasonable cost. I didn't have the money on me, so I headed off to the ATMs. I was walking towards the escalators when I heard the screams coming from around the corner. In this part of the world people yell outside all the time, but inside a mall like this, screaming is not a good sign. Then I heard a clip-clop-clop-clop noise, getting louder. I was a couple of metres from a small cell phone kiosk when the cause of all the noise turned the corner up about 10 metres ahead.

Galerias Santo Domingo - pretty upscale, not where you'd expect....

A freaking cow and bull, obviously disoriented and panicking came running towards me. The girl manning the kiosk was hiding inside her stall- which neatly divided the walkway in two, before it funneled into a tight space under repair, coincedently exactly where I was at that point. I don't think I screamed, but I definitely said "Holy Sh*t" in a manner that now seems funny - the sort of reaction that would feature prominently in an adult Wile. E. Coyote video. I bolted up to the kiosk, ready to make a choice - left, right or jump right into the bloody kiosk. Thankfully, they both took the right passage, which made the most important decision of my life the easiest. I sprinted up the left passage, and didn't look back. In a moment of dangerous confusion, I remembered that bovines can't climb stairs (they can, it's going down that they struggle with) and so flew up the escalator. I was about 4 steps up when I heard an almighty smash, as the animals smashed through the glass doors of the department store that had been behind me. As someone who walks quickly, I can sympathize - I often almost hit those slow automatic sliding doors, and have sometimes wanted to kick them in. Anyway, I came back down to inspect the damage. As it turns out, you can run cattle through a Harvey Norman style building and only damage the entrance doors, despite the pecariously placed TV screens. For more proof, check out the Mythbusters episode about the bull in a china shop.

I joined in with the rapidly forming crowd to exchange looks of disbelief and wonder what the crowd of 20-strong security guards chasing after the animals were going to be able to do, besides putting the animals down. Thankfully for the animals, I didn't hear any shots (I guess they caught the parking guards by surprise too, and made good their getaway). Interesting fact of the day: you don't have to speak any Spanish to be able to communicate "Can you believe that cattle just ran through the mall? Are you ok? How the hell does that even happen?". After the commotion was over, I went up to the ATMs next to the food court where people were eating, completely oblivious to the chaos that had just unfolded. I stared at them like they were from anther planet - how can you miss several tonnes of beef hurtling past? Heading back down to the Radioshack, I had to convince the shivering employee to unlock the doors again. She had opened the store by herself, and probably would've closed for the day right then and there if her fellow employees hadn't turned up for their shifts as I was buying the charger. They must have seen what had happened from the carpark, as they were grinning from ear to ear and laughed when the poor girl tried to explain what happened. In good news, she gave me a massive discount on the charger.

I think now would be a good time to explain dangers in Central America. If government websites are to be believed, I should have already been kidnapped, raped and killed several times over. The fact is, Central America is not as bad as people think - yes, crime is present (I've been a victim, and a witness) but you'd have to be extremely unluckly or foolhardy to suffer any pysical harm. Murders do happen (100+ every week in Guatemala alone) but unless you deal in drugs, or are trying to stop them, you have little to fear. I was in possibly the safest area in Nicaragua, and was in the most dangerous situation of my trip so far - it just goes to prove that these sorts of things can happen anywhere.

So I had lunch, headed back to the hostel and had a well deserved drink. The next day I headed off to Isla de Ometepe, an island in the middle of Lago Nicaragua that was formed by two volcanoes. It's an impressive site. I bought the tickets for the ferry ride over (all up $6 for me and the bike, for an hour long trip - take that rottnest ferry!) and headed down to the pier towards a fairly large car ferry. But that wasn't going to be my ride (it wasn't leaving for a few hours). The boat I was going on was significantly smaller and less seaworthy. I don't often know where the lifejackets are on ferries I catch, but I found them on this boat before I even stepped aboard. We took on 4 motorbikes, a large amount of supplies and about 50 people too many. I wondered about everyone's swimming ability - I could make it to a shoreline no matter where we were, but what about everyone else? As I was pondering this, we set off. I found a group of gringos, and was quickly reassured - apparently these ships don't sink as often as you'd think. One of the guys worked at the hostel I was headed too, and we got talking about motorbikes and travelling/living on the isthmus.

Once on the island, I headed out to the hostel and got settled in, had dinner and went to sleep. I didn't particularly like the hostel, so the next day headed out to another location in a coffee plantation near the base of the smaller volcano, Maderas. Most of the road was paved with bricks, but areas were under repair, and covered in gravel. I came across one of these areas, when I noticed a sharp, deep ditch where a small stream was obviously flowing. Not wanting to break the suspension, I hit the brakes (not locking up, but slowing hard). While watching and preparing the ditch, I missed a small rock, which lifted and bumped my back tire to the left. It landed on a smooth surface with a thin layer of fine sand, which may as well have been oil on glass. Rear wheel going left, front wheel going forward, I was going down. It's not the first time I've put Isabella down, but it is the first time at a bit of speed (I'd say 40km/h). I couldn't have taken the fall better - palms pushed out and then rolled. My head didn't hit the ground, and all my safety gear did it's job (Jack & Annette!!). I even hit the kill engine switch pretty much immediately. The damage? a scratch on the bark busters, and grazed palms. A bit of roadside first aid, and bike and rider were all good.

However, I no longer really wanted to be on a remote island (let alone climbing a volcano) should infection or serious mechanical problems happen later. So I turned around and left the island, bound for Costa Rica (hopefully leaving my bad luck at the border). As I write this, all seems fine for both of us, but it was after returning from visiting Costa Rica that Christopher Columbus found Queen Isabella on her deathbed, no longer able to support his voyage through the Americas, so my poetic coincidence meter is going off the chart at the moment.

Photos available Here

Friday, 20 July 2012


My experience in Honduras did not start well. El Amatilo is the dodgy late night bar of border towns - no one really wants to go there, but everyone finds themselves passing through (usually in a daze), and regretting it the next day. I got out of El Salvador no problems, and was in high spirits about getting into Honduras. I had instructions, and thought I was prepared. I wasn't nearly prepared for the clusterf**k that is El Amatillo. Let me paint a scene: Imagine a decrepit town, rustbucket vehicles kicking up dust and pouring fumes out over the open sewers and piles of rotting garbage. Somewhere around the corner is an unlabelled building that represents customs. Note this is probably the only border on this planet that customs comes first. Somewhere else, equally hidden, is Immigration. No one except for the touts speak any english, or could understand my attempts at spanish. Add in a heavy dash of border official corruption, a pinch of banks (who are supposed to take entrance fees) closing for the day at noon, and finally put this whole recipe through a power outage, and there you have it: El Amatillo. I ended up having to use a tout, probably getting ripped right off. I couldn't wait to put the town in my mirrors. The stab marks made with a pen in my diary on this day probably explains it all.

 Anyway, I headed up to Tegucigalpa on the way to Lago de Yojoa. Thankfully I had left early enough that I didn't have to stay in Tegucigalpa, as it is apparently a larger version of El Amatillo. The circle road certainly painted the same picture as all the previous travellers - a city of favelas and distinctly lacking any tourist attractions. I was starting to wonder how long I was going to spend in Honduras. About 5 minutes past Tegucigalpa, a miracle happened: It turns out that the US had agreed to build a road for Honduras, at a cost of half a billion dollars. It is, without a doubt, the best road I've been on since Mexico and possibly the best of the trip. I was wooping with joy, and nearly cried - it was beautiful. Thankyou, Uncle Sam: this biker is most appreciative. That was definitely the turning point for Honduras - I can point to the exact point where the road turned from dust to asphalt, and my frown turned upside down. The next 2 and a bit hours was a never ending series of tight corners (black marks on my saddle bags reminded me later how tight) on the smoothest, cleanest, most reliable tarmac this side of the Rio Grande. All through the most spectacular pine forest I'd seen in a while. It was almost like I'd started my trip in Canada all over again, but in summer. I passed trucks and bikes alike, and waved to all the locals (selling honey of all things!) as I passed from mountain pass to mountain pass. The Isle of Man can suck it - Rossi, Stoner and co. should be battling it out on these roads. For those of you who care, it's the CA-5.

Honduran roads can vary in quality somewhat....

 The end point of this magnificent specimen of bitumen - Lago de Yojoa, Honduras' largest freshwater lake. Lonely planet (and several other travellers) had told me of a brewery run by an Oregonian, built in paradise near the lake and eco park/ coffee plantation. To be honest, they had me at Oregonian brewery but I was also keen to check out the local sights. When I pulled up I knew the border trials had been worth it - this place was built in a patch of jungle, with a pool and restaurant/bar. A quick flashback of El Amatillo, and I plonked myself at the bar and told them I was staying at least 2 nights. They'd be lucky to pry me out of that bar at the end of the night - Oregonians are probably the best brewmasters in the US, and this place didn't disappoint - who knew apricot or rasberry beer could taste so good? When I get home, I'm definitely trying to replicate the apricot brew - that was bliss.

 The next day, I shook off my hangover and visited the coffee plantation/eco park. As it was Sunday, the local village had split in two - to watch the local junior soccer teams. I passed one on the way into the park, and made a mental note to stop by on the way back. The eco reserve was very interesting - coffee plants, mixed with tropical rainforest and magnificent scenery at every turn. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to take decent photos of butterflies, who just won't stay d**n still. A local bird watcher told me that there were a few toucans in the area, but I couldn't see any of them. Lunch in town, cheering on the local soccer team, a quick afternoon swim, and a few more beers capped off a great day.

 The next day, recharged and refreshed, I made the bold (and somewhat foolhardy) decision to bolt for the other border. Destination: León, Nicaragua. An 8:30am start put me in good stead, and I hit the border on time, battle hardened and ready for anything.

Photos Available Here

El Salvador

Getting into El Salvador wasn't very hard, and the signs explaining that no fees were to be paid were both comforting and a great idea - If no fees are to be paid, then there's no scope for corruption. Or so I thought. After my papers had been checked down the road (a standard procedure in Central America), an official tried to tell me that it'd be 5 dollars to pass. It's probably a good indicator of how much I've changed when it comes to borders that I smiled, shook my head, told him it was free, and rode off (almost knocking him over). Riding through San Salvador has to rate as one of the craziest riding experiences I've ever had. Think Bangkok or New Dehli, but smaller and faster. A few times I decided the gutter or footpath were better options, and off we went. Seriously, I would probably be arrested for riding like I have, but here it's not only normal but necessary. (Note to self: write a post on riding in Central America).

Anyway, It was starting to get dark so I decided that I would pull over in San Vincente, a nice little colonial town built in the hills. As I was getting close, I heard a car backfiring. I whipped my head around to make sure it wasn't Isabella when I saw the lights and heard the sirens. It wasn't a car backfiring, it was a shootout. I don't think I've ever opened a throttle like that before, and Isabella probably hopes I won't again. As I disappeared into the distance, I set my sights on San Miguel, significantly further away, but the best launching point for my trip into the Northern hills the next day. It went dark, but wasn't that bad on the Pan American Highway - there were plenty of cars to follow and be protected by. Then it rained, the kind of rain that feels like a bucket has been dropped on your head. It was unbelievable, as was the speed in which it stopped. 10 mins later, I was riding on dry asphalt and had almost dried by the time I reached San Miguel.

 The entrance road to San Miguel is littered with 'nightclubs' (In CA a nightclub is a strip club, you go to dance at a discotech - a distinction that has no doubt resulted in a few awkward moments for tourists!), So I headed into town and asked some locals for suggestions. I ended up in a very nice hotel with a pool, gym and free brekky for a reasonable price.

 It should be mentioned here that despite the reputation for violence (not helped by what I saw on the highway), Salvadorians are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet. Whenever you put in some effort and venture off the tourist trail, the locals are appreciative. I had several people welcome me to their country, and were only too happy to help wherever they could. Combined with the distinct lack of touts and pressure, only serves to reiterate the golden rule of tourism: The most significant contributors to a crappy tourist experience are other tourists. This trip is starting to make me something of an adventure traveller, and I may well spend my next few holidays going to the danger hotspots of the world, after the danger has subsided - watch this space for a post on Iraq in a few years!! With Isabella, I'm not tied to a bus route or schedule, and can stop wherever I want. When I get to a hard-to-reach or previosly dangerous destination, not only are the locals more friendly, but the tourists are of a better quality. Think more hippy/adventure traveler, less brash and culturally-unaware resort traveller. Or if you'd prefer, think backpackers, not sheraton hotelers (I don't think that's a word, but I'm going with it).

 The next day I headed up to the mountain village of Perquin, former stronghold of the FMLN. The struggle for independance and the ideological tug of war in Central America (particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua) is something that I simply can't do justice here, but I recommend everyone has a quick read about it - it's somewhat of an eyeopener. Go ahead, I'll wait. So after the war, the government set up a museum and simulated campground to demonstrate the conditions suffered by geurillas and exhibit war paraphenalia and memorabilia. It was very interesting, and I was lucky enough to be able to get a tour of the campground by a former guerilla. My spanish wasn't good enough to ask all the questions I wanted to ask, but it was very interesting nonetheless.

 I was very impressed with both the resiliance and compassion of the people - most locals assume that I'm from the US, whose government was intimately involved in the war. I'm not sure I'd be so welcoming if the situation was reversed. FMLN has now become a major political party, and by most accounts has become a model for how a former guerilla group can become reintegrated with society.

 After Perquin, I headed back to San Miguel, crashed for the night, and mentally prepared for the next day (where I would cross the worst border this side of the Middle East).

Photos Available Here

Friday, 13 July 2012


Crossing the Guatemalean border proved to be somewhat difficult, as to import a vehicle into the country requires the title for the vehicle. As Vermont doesn't issue titles for Motorcycles less than 300cc, this is a bit of a sticking point. Eventually, a local looked at the transferable registration paper and explained that it was a certificate of both title and registration. This white lie quickly greased the wheels, and I was on my way. In the future, I'll remember to say this first and avoid the drama. The other option is to photoshop myself a certificate of title, which would make things easier.

 The roads in northern Guatemala are some of the most dangerous in the Americas for hijacking and robbery, as well as being a major drug trafficking route. However, it also contains the spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal, and picturesque vistas of Lake Petén and Flores. It is definitely not a place where you want to be on the road at night though. So while the initial plan was to stop off at Tikal and spend the night at Flores, I ended up heading straight to Flores and heading back (only about 20km or so) to Tikal the next day. The road itself was in pretty good shape, besides a few patches under construction. I'd been warned the road was horrendous, but I didn't find it so bad. Flores is a pretty little village on a island in the middle of Lake Petén. Connected to the mainland by a small causeway, Flores has managed to capture the essence of a mediterranean island, with the cobblestone streets and general decor. Tuk tuks are the only form of public transport here - cars struggle to fit on the small streets, let alone a bus. Not that they're really needed - the whole island is about 700m around the edge. The hostel I had looked at was full, but the manager recommended and booked my a cheap hostel, so I headed there and after a nice cheap dinner, I was out like a light.

 The next morning I headed off to Tikal in the arvo, after a slow start. Tikal is incredible: jungle surrounds the 4000 buildings spread over 16 sqkm, the ancient city is certainly more impressive and serene than Chichen Itza or other competitors for the tourist dollar. The best part - you can actually climb several of the temples, including temple 4 - as the tallest temple, it offers unparalleled views of the other buildings poking out of the jungle. The stairs are pretty steep (a few fatal accidents have caused several temples to be closed for climbing), and quickly proved how much my fitness has suffered over this holiday!

 The next day was a big one. The plan was to make it all the way to Antigua, and to climb Volcan Pacaya the following morning. Google maps and my GPS were in agreement that the journey would be about 480kms, and google said it would take 6hrs 30mins. I left Flores in my rear view mirrors at 10am, to give myself plenty of time before sunset at 630pm. The first few kms out of town were compacted limestone, but not too bad. It turned to bitumen with a few potholes, so it was looking good - it was sunny out, and I was ahead of schedule. I caught a quick barge ferry across a river (cost about 50cents!) and headed into the mountainside. This is where things got interesting, as the road became less straight. To be honest, a bowl of Ramen noodles has more straight lines than this road. Consecutive rising and falling hairpin bends connected by centimetres of straight road made for exciting, yet scary riding. Overtaking is heart in mouth stuff. If it was any steeper or twistier, it would have been a series of roundabouts stacked on top of one another. The upside? the road was a beautifully smooth and young bitumen. If there's ever a Central American TT, all they need is a few cones and checquered flag. Of course, Casey Stoner and co. may not be so happy about the landslides and collapsed sections of road. I was loving it, and still ahead of schedule. Then things took a turn for the slower and more adventurous.

 Firstly, the road condition deterioated - it became a single lane old rural road on a slope so steep, the road seemed to lean out into the abyss. I had used the brakes so hard, that they started to weaken, and had to slow down further to avoid an accidental Evel Kinevel impersonation. Then the bitumen dissapeared, and I was on a limestone and rock track leading from farmhouse to farmhouse. Eventually, the road disappeared altogether.

No, I wasn't lost and the road hadn't petered out. I had come up to what was supposed to be a bridge, except all I could see was the supports. Thinking that the bridge had suffered from the developing world curse of long building periods, I cursed the GPS and Google. Then I looked downstream and saw the bridge, not on another set of supports but in the river. Several tons of metal, a perfect truss bridge, lying on its side and rusting away in the water. Some locals were shooting the breeze nearby, and I must have turned to them with a expressions along the lines of "what the hell?", because they were quick to explain that the bridge had been washed away in a flood 2 YEARS AGO. I knew things moved slowly in CA, but this was ridiculous. As I was contemplating how much I didn't want to turn around and backtrack, one of the men explained that I might be able to take the boat. This got my hopes up, until I saw what he meant - a small raft on a rowpe pulled by a couple of men (the river was only waist deep). The raft was about the size of a study desk, but the 'boatmen' seemed confident, and I was up for a bit of an adventure. After a bit of offroading up the river bank to the raft, we rested Isabella on her side for the journey across. They then put me in an inflatible dinghy, and I followed. It wasn't the most dignified crossing, but we both made it across, safe and sound (and relatively dry).

 While this was all happening, the sun was retreating. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with night rapidly approaching. This was not good, but I had to persevere - camping out in this country is not an option. I headed through a few towns asking if there was a hotel/hostel/etc, and in San Raymundo I struck gold. The local Tacqueira owner knew someone who knew someone who would let me stay at their house. I was a bit nervous, but happy to be off the road. As it turns out, it was actually a hotel (my Spanish is not great yet), but no Holiday Inn that's for sure. It must have been for locals visiting families or something, as it had no real sign, and was off the only real road. Anyway, the guy took me in, showed me my room, and after I thanked everyone and had a delicious meal of tacos (I had missed lunch in the rush to Antigua), I collapsed.

 The next morning I headed for Antigua, and after a short ride I hit the famous Panamerican highway. This road runs from Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina (with a small break at the Darién Gap) and will feature prominently in my trip from now on (I may have already ridden parts in North America, but it's loosely defined and so difficult to be sure). After a few days of twisting dirt tracks, the CA-1 was as smooth as glass, and as straight as a ruler. Bliss - 60mph+ all the way. After arriving in Antigua, I got booked into a hostel and a seat on the afternoon shuttle up Volcan Pacaya.

The volcano hasn't been recently active (unlike a neighbouring volcano, which erupted in May), so I didn't see any molten lava but did see the effects of both a 2006 andd 2010 eruptuion. It proved to be an exhausting, yet interesting trek. The next morning, I headed out to Isabella to find out that we had been robbed. I keep all my valuables on me at all times, so nothing of extreme importance was stolen - some clothes and camping gear was all. Still, it was annoying. So instead of getting an early start to El Salvador, I spent an hour or so at the tourist police office, filling out a report for insurance purposes. Guatemala has an unbelievably low conviction rate, so I knew there was no hope of getting my stuff back. After filling out the forms, I headed to the border.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


After passing through immigration and customs, I headed to the Insurance Company of Belize building for some compulsory liability insurance, at a cost of 20 bucks for 2 weeks (you can't extend the insurance later, so I had to get a long enough period to cover any breakdowns, etc). After getting insured, I headed for Belize city.

Belize, like most countries in Latin America, has laboured under the tug of war of power between colonial superpowers. Originally part of Honduras, Belize became a safe haven for British pirates due to a lack of effective governance, and the protective reef off the coast (second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef). When these pirates were stopped, they settled in what would eventually become British Honduras, and then (following independence) Belize. As a result, the primary language is English, and Belize remains part of the Commonwealth.

A relic of British Honduras is the road system, in that it doesn't look like much has been done since the 1950's. There are 4 highways - the Northern, Western, Southern Highways which lead to their respective borders, & the Hummingbird highway, which connects the Western and Southern. Its a pretty easy system to get the hang of. What I haven't seen yet are the foreign built roads - in SE Asia, the poorer countries such as Laos would often have roads that were paid for by foreign governments, such as France or Germany. This sort of foreign aid is often the mot effective - help people to help themselves by providing jobs in construction, and eventually a more efficient route on which to trade and do business.

They are improving though - new bridge under construction

Anyway, I got into Belize city (the biggest city - pop.70,000) and found some accommodation. There's not a whole lot I can say about Belize city that's positive, although the crime rate has apparently dropped. Most of the historically and architecturally interesting buildings have been destroyed by hurricanes over the years, and their replacements aren't worth a photo. The only interesting thing is the swing bridge. Built in the 1920's in Liverpool, it is one of the oldest swing bridges in the world, and the only one still manually opened - twice a day, 4 men have to turn a wheel to swing the bridge open, and allow boats to pass, bringing the city to a halt.

Typical scene in Belize City

The swing bridge - notice the pivot point in the middle of the river

The next day I headed to Belmopan, the capital. To explain Belmopan, it helps to draw parallels to Canberra - after Belize city was levelled by a hurricane, Belmopan was built away from the coast, intending to become the new capital and main city. The embassies and public servants moved, but everybody else stayed put. Consequently, there's not much to do there if you don't have government business. I had intended to get my visa for Brazil there, but after meeting the Consul (in the gorgeous little house that served as the embassy) and having a quick chat, he told me it'd be cheaper and much quicker in Venezuela. I had a good talk with the Consul about Brazil, where I should go, and the conditions of roads down there. I thanked him, and continued on my way (after he recommended a restaurant in Belmopan), past the fortresses masquerading as US and Mexican embassies.

Embassy of Brazil

After a beautiful lunch of stewed chicken and rice (post coming soon, I swear), I headed off to Hopkins, on the Caribbean. On the way, I passed the Blue Hole national park (not to be confused with the much more famous offshore national monument), had a swim and went for a jungle hike. After settling into Hopkins, I went for a stroll. There isn't much to see in town, and the beach isn't exactly stunning (Ive found that many beaches here aren't all they're cracked up to be compared to Perth's), but the locals are the most friendly I've seen in a while. Everybody waves, says hello and asks how I am in a thick Caribbean accent.

Blue Hole National Park

The next day I headed to the closest big town, Dangriga to buy a tarp for camping, and a few supplies. While at the checkout, I was approached by an Australian couple who asked about Isabella and my trip. I walked outside with them and couldn't believe it - they too were travelling around by motorcycle, and not just any motorcycle, but a KLR250! this is the first time since the US that I've seen any long distance motorcycle riders, and the first time that the bike has been a KLR250. We had a great chat about travelling on the bike, and about our respective plans. Jack and Annette have been staying in Guatemala for several weeks, found their bike in Antigua, and were taking it slowly throughout Latin America. It's good to know that there is someone else out there who doesn't think I'm crazy. They too have a blog, so when I get the URL I'll post it up for everyone to have a look at.

Isabella & her new friend

Cockscomb wildlife sanctuary is the world's first Jaguar reserve, and its approx. 130,000 hectares is home to 60-80 of America's largest cat. I headed up the access track (worst 'road' so far), set up camp, and went on a walk to a waterfall through the jungle. It seems showering in waterfalls has become my life! I saw or heard a startling array of wildlife, from Wild Pigs to Howler Monkeys to Hummingbirds. While I didn't come face to face with a Jaguar (thank god!), the map pointed me to a tree that the cats had used as a scratching post. It was somewhat disconcerting to see how deep the grooves went - they would have no trouble killing a human. They are notoriously shy animals though, and they're nocturnal nature and ability to climb trees mean they are rarely seen, outside of automated cameras set up throughout the reserve. I slept ok in my hammock, but kept my knife close by.

The next morning I headed out of Cockscomb, past an old plane wreck, and continued on to the border with Guatemala.


Monday, 9 July 2012

Mexico Part 2

While still in Campeche, I dropped off a load of washing to the local laundromat, and relaxed until 4pm, when I could pick up my clothes. I'm packing prettylight, so everything I have fits in one machine. I also had my motorcycle gear washed, which was comparitively expensive. Was so worth it when I got the clothes back - having been on the road for several weeks, an in hot weather the whole time, I STUNK, but not anymore. But I couldn't stop and smell the rose scented tshirts for long - I had to make the 100km or so to Merida. A pretty easy and uneventful ride, except for the rain. Rain in the tropics tends to be dramatic - one moment it is hot and humid, the next the temperature plummets, and the torrential downpour begins. Just as quickly, it ends. It seems as thought the word 'drizzle' doesn't exist.

I pulled into Merida, and quickly fell in love with the place. I'm a sucker for a place with a picturesque town square, and Merida definitely has this. My first preference for a place to stay was right on the plaza, but it was pretty obvious that there would be no room for isabella, so I headed to my second choice. It should have been my first - pool, parking, wifi, breakfast and a cool vibe all for less than 10 bucks. I got settled in, and headed out to the plaza to see a live dance performance, and dinner.

FYI, that meal I had in Tampico is called a Torta al Pastor - it's esentially roast pork with pineapple and other spices. I will definitely be cooking this when I get home. Which gives me an idea - whoever finds themselves wanting something from my gastronomic adventures, let me know when I get back, and I'll cook it for you. Perth lacks many true American (excepting the US) restaurants, and there is so much more than the taco. (in fact I've yet to have what we would normally call tacos - the Old El Paso shell with ground beef - they're not really popular).

I left Merida early the next day for one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, Chichen Itza. If you've ever seen a photo of a large Mayan temple, chances are it's Chichen Itza. It's a must see in Mexico. Unfortunately, his means everyone in Mexico comes to see it. There were thousands of people there, all jostling for the perfect photo and all trying to avoid the similarly nuerous vendors trying to sell every possible type of cool-but-useless souvenir available. The ruins are located somewhat close to Cancun, and quite a few people dressed as though they were still on a beach. I had applied the usual "no visible shoulders or knees" policy normally in force at places of signifcant historical or religious significance, and to see people in bikinis and boardshorts at such an important site annoyed me. Go work on your tanlines somewhere else, not at a country's most significant historical landmark. Overall - something I had to do, so I could say I've done it.

After checking out the ruins, I pointed Isabella in the direction of Tulum. I have decided to give Cancun the flick - It is only really famous for spring break - and that's well past. Tulum is alot quieter, with arguably better beaches and a much more relaxed backpacker vibe. That, and the local Mayan ruins are located right on a white sand and palm tree beach. I checked into one of the many hostels, and relaxed.

Turns out, I relaxed a bit too hard. The thing I love about hostels over hotels is the communal atmosphere. In a hotel, you check into your private room, have breakfast the next day without saying a word, and checkout by handing over your key to a polite yet disinterested concierge. At a hostel, it's a different story. After checking into my dorm bed, I met James, an Englishman on his way to Cancun. Having dinner at the communal table, I met a pair of Irish teachers, a pair of Germans and a Frenchman. Somewhat inevitebly, the drinking games started (a deck of cards is a hostel necessity). Next thing I know I'd missed the early bus. The only thing to do would be to catch the lunchtime bus to the beach (therefore mising the early bus back), and spend the whole day on the sand. Such is the life of a traveler.

After some time on the white sand, drinking from a coconut under the palm trees (jealous yet?), the Irish teachers and myself decided to check out the ruins. We tried to sneak around via the beach (I really just wanted a beach-and-ruins photo), but cliffs and rocks stopped that. So we paid our entrance fee and had a look around the ruins. We had another quick swim and photo before heading back or the bus. That night, they had salsa lessons in the hostel. I didn't particpate this time, but you guys as my witnesses, I will learn to salsa before I come home. I had a reasonably quiet night to prepare myself for the road the next day - when I crossed into the first country of Central America, Belize.

I got up early and headed out to a cenote for a morning swim. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes filled with freshwater, and often caves and aquatic life. Grand Cenote consists of several sinkholes connected by underwater caves (some only accesible by caves), and filled with fish, turtles, birds and bats. It was a relaxing and enjoyable experience to  snorkel through the caves and experience the wildlife.

After Grand Cenote, it was time to check out and head south for Belize. The Mexico exit fee must be paid at a bank before entering the frontier zone, and so I checked with some soldiers at a military checkpoint - the last city (Chetumal) was not in the frontier zone, like Nuevo Laredo - I could pay the fee there. I was still nervous, as I really didn't want to have to turn around and backtrack 200km or so to Tulum to pay a simple fee. Why didn't I simply pay earlier? I have a citibank account which allows free withdrawls from certain banks, one of which was in Cetumal, and not in Tulum. Anyway, none of the banks in Cetumal could help me - they all said I needed another form from the Immigration office. So I continued to the border and explained my situation to the guard. He explained I could pay there, and pointed to an official looking document with the right amount on it. I paid there and then. I'm pretty sure it went into his pocket, but short of heading back to Tulum, there was little I could do. I got out of Mexico, and went through Belizean immigration and customs. It's much easier when you speak the native tongue, and I had no real problem getting into Belize.


Gastronomic Adventures, Part 4 - Cajun Cooking

This one is a long time coming, but in Shreveport,LA I managed to find a bar that served a range of Cajun-style food. Whether or not it counts as truly authentic is up for debate, but the important thing is that it was unique to the area, and I loved it.

I ordered the sample platter to get a range of different foods, and wasn't disappointed. The gumbo came out first, and tasted like a spicy soup mixed with chilli.

The main part of the platter was the blackened catfish. Cajun cuisine often involves cooking different seafood in a variety of cajun spices. It doesn't look particularly appealing, but tastes delicious.

Jambalaya is a well known local dish made with rice and a combination of spices, and this dish didn't disappoint. I was a big fan of Jambalaya, and remain so.

The Nackadish (spelling?) meat pie is probably the closest thing I've ever had to an Aussie meat pie while overseas. It was a bit confusing, as it resembled a Samosa, but it tasted the same - down to the spices and everything.

The only thing I didn't care for was the fried corn on the cob. After you get through the batter, it tastes the same as steamed corn, so what was the point of frying it? It seemed to me to be unecessary grease.

Another tip - the Abita IPA (a locally brewed beer) was excellent. The rasberry Hefeweizen was unusual, but tasty and the Restoration Pale Ale was also nice.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Mexico, Part 1

The extra day spent in Nuevo Laredo was well spent - there isn't much of anything to see in town - it's really just an outpost for Mexico/US trade. So I pretty much spent the whole day in the motel, or walking through a local shopping centre. The general rule of thumb with prices in developing countries are pretty logical - if it is labour intensive or locally made, it'll be cheaper than in Australia, but if it's capital intensive or shipped internationally, it'll be nearly the same price. This can lead to some interesting comparisons - a bottle of locally produced tequila will be far cheaper than any imported wine, and approaches some of the more expensive beers.

I did a little mechanical maintenance (adjusted the valve clearance, for the grease monkeys out there), and then got ready to leave. The next day, I headed off to Monterrey, about 220kms south of Nuevo Laredo. I didn't get far before I discovered why Mexican customs & immigration were so lax before. Nuevo Laredo is classed as some kind of no mans land - you don't need a passport or anything to visit and return to the US (although I'm sure the US immigration service would beg to differ. They do check the papers of people travelling outside of Nuevo Laredo though. So I had to backtrack a bit, get my papers sorted near the border, then head south again. All in all, it wasn't a bad border experience, so if that's the standard (I doubt it though), then this trip will be smooth sailing.

The main road from Nuevo Laredo is a toll road, which I didn't expect. However, considering the road passes near the Chihuauan desert, I was grateful for the infrastructure and implied safety net of traffic and police patrols. Especially when I felt oil splatter onto my leg about 50kms from Monterrey. Fearing the worst, I pulled over, topped up the oil and limped into the city worried that the trip may be over before it had really started. When I inspected it properly the next day, I was relieved - the bumpy journey had unscrewed one of the engine mounts, and the head had leaked a bit of oil throught the now loose rubber gasket. In short, a few bolts came loose - repairs cost me about 2 bucks at the local hardware store. What was more expensive was replacing the rear tire that was Donald Trump-like uncomfortably close to bald for most of the US. But it had to be done, and was completed quickly and effectively, with a little bit of communication difficulty.

Monterrey seems like it could be a nice city, but suffers due to it's location - surrounded by mountains, there's no real escape for the pollution caused by over a million old cars - breathing is a little like taking up smoking. Desperate for some cooler & fresher air, I headed southeast for the Tampico and the Gulf of Mexico.

Now is probably a good time to explain the Mexican law enforcement system, excluding the omnipresent military. At the top you have the federal police. These guys are generally charged with tackling Mexico's notorious problem with drug gangs. Whenever they meet, there's generally casualities, and so they treat their job with suitable seriousness. Basically - these guys don't f**k around - most of them dress like the TRG watched a Rambo marathon - automatic rifles always at the ready, faces covered and not a smile to be seen. They are everywhere, and share responsibility with the military for running the many security checkpoints along any major road. While this may seem intimidating, I wasn't particularly worried - flare ups are pretty localized, and (most importantly) the federal police have little interest in someone like me. I have only been stopped at a checkpoint once, and then only for the briefest time. I'm not running a drug cartel from my bike, so they generally keep their distance. The same could be said for the state police. The municpial police apparently have a reputation for corruption on my level (ie could see me as a potential target from which to extract bribes), but I've yet to see it. The corruption of the local transit police however, I have experienced. Twice. In Tampico. Both times, the officers motioned for me to pull over, asked for my  licence and then told me I had commited a bogus offence (running a yellow light, and too much luggage on my bike). While explaining that a ticket would cost 100 US dollars, they explain I could pay in cash. It must be mentioned that in the case of "yellow light" officer, he wasn't as brash as that, but mentioned the ticket and was hinting that there may be 'another solution'. This kind of corruption kills developing economies, and robs decent people of the money tourists would otherwise spend in their shops, restaurants or hotels. In short, I detest it. So, if I had actually committed a crime, I would take the ticket and court date over handing a corrupt cop the cash. Both times I ended up leaving without paying a dime or getting a ticket, partly because the charges were trumped up, and because I ended up frustrating the officers with my lack of spanish to the point that they just gave up. It's fun playing dumb with these guys - even when I understood them (I have learnt a bit of spanish, and they both spoke some level of broken english) I'd pretend their accent was indecipherable, and shrug my shoulders in confusion. This ploy worked so well, I may continue to use it, even when my vocabulary and pronunciation has improved.

Anyway, I got into Tampico and was quickly disappointed - the beach was a dirty port, and the dirty part should be emphasized. But I found a cheap (120 pesos, or around 9 bucks) hotel, put Isabella in the lobby for safekeeping, and grabbed a few beers and a couple of buns filled with a bbq-style pork, pineapple and coriander. Delicious.

The next morning I headed out for Veracruz, where I had the second transit cop encounter. After that, I was fuming a bit, but luckily, the road ahead saved me. Beautiful mountain passes, twists and turns, dotted with glimpses of the blue Carribean lightened my mood considerably. However, the constant toll bridges put a little bit of a dampener on things. I changed the oil in Isabella in Veracruz, and kept heading on. At this point, I had resolved to keep pushing on until I reached a city I liked, then buk down for a few days. So I slept in auto hotels - basically motels, but with the vehicle parked in a curtained garage next to your room (as opposed to a carpark outside a block of rooms). On the 29th, I stayed in a town called Villa Sanchez Magallenes - don't try too hard to find it on the map, it's pretty small. I found a nice lady serving empanadas there, and had some for dinner, and the breakfast after.

Leaving Villa Sanchez Magallenes, I continued east along the southernmost part of the Gulf of Mexico, along what my GPS assured me was a road. The first 5kms or so was beautiful - palm trees, white sand, etc. However, the road soon gave way. Literally - the road had washed away in some kind of storm. From there on it was a mix of remaining road, sand and coconut husks that the locals had laid down to improve traction (it works, considerably). For those who hadn't ridden a motorbike offroad before - deep, soft sand is not fun. It's slow, tough and unpredicatble. If I had brought a heavier bike, I may still be there, grunting and swearing. But 250ccs meant I had enough grunt to get through, and yet could steady the bike with a well placed foot when things got wobbly. It wasn't what I had expected, or wanted. To top it all off, some of the locals had erected barricades, and required 5 pesos to pass. 5 pesos isn't much, but there were alot of gates, and I didn't have enough coins to pay everyone (I doubt I'd get change back from notes, either). I went around most, and paid one guy who had pretty much walled off the whole area, so I had no choice. When I saw a t-junction with a road that the GPS said led back to the main highway, I cracked it pretty soon and turned down what the GPS thought was a track. GPS-wrong again. After that, it was pretty much smooth sailing to Campeche, including a beautiful twisty road in the last 50kms or so.

I found a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended, and was the cheapest so far (95 pesos for a dorm bed). Campeche is a beautiful city, well deserving of its UNESCO world heritage listing. Cobbled streets connect colonial buildings from the 15th century (my hostel was a mansion of that time), all being surrounded by the remnants of forts and a high wall, built to protect the town after a partiularly nasty pirate attack in the 17th century. I decided quickly to stay for a couple of nights, and take in the sights. I had arrived on a saturday, so at night the main plaza was full of people, vendors and entertainment including a water fountain light show rigged up with sound, which I particularly liked. during the high season, Campeche is full of tourists, and even now there were a few gringos about - a welcome change from myself being the only pale skinned person in sight. The next day I walked to the fort of San Miguel, which overlooked the city and Gulf from a nearby hill. What was interesting was how the fort resembled a fortress from the outside, but a house from the inside, complete with pretty courtyard. It now houses an interesting museum with a range of Mayan artifacts.

All the photos can be found HERE