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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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Saturday, 29 September 2012


Leaving Venezuela, I headed to the land of the legendary Amazon. Brazil stands as an oasis of relative development in a continent dominated by poverty. This much was obvious as soon as I crossed the border into Pacaraima, as the condition and age of vehicles improved markedly. The cost of fuel would also take a turn for the familiar, but for the moment I could enjoy the last almost free fuel and explore one of the most remote parts of the world. But first I needed a vehicle permit.

Having crossed the border on a Sunday, I had to wait in Pacaraima until Monday morning when the customs office would be open. This turned out to be one of the easiest crossings I've done so far, despite the warnings that it could be difficult. Having got through immigration when locals weren't travelling, it was peaceful. Come Monday morning, I was there bright and early & waiting for the office to open up. As the hotel was about 100m from the border post, I left most of my gear in my room, which meant I wasn't sweating it out in riding pants and jacket. It was all very civilised, and I aim to try and replicate this on subsequent crossings.

For now though, I had 1000km or so to cross before reaching Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state which lies on the river of the same name. I headed out from Pacaraima, and set my sights on Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima and nearest town of any size. The trip was largely uneventful but beautiful - entertaining enough that I rode all the way to Boa Vista (round 250km) without pausing, using up most of my Venezuelan fuel.

There wasn't much to see in Boa Vista, so I headed off early the next day in the direction of Manaus. Having a quick look at the map, it appeared that I would be covering approximately 300km without a soul in sight, let alone a fuel station. I quickly bought a few spare fuel containers, and headed down the rapidly deteriorating road. As it turns out, I didn't need any spare fuel - there were towns (most too small for traffic lights) all along the road, and fuel every 150kms or so.

For those of you who know about the route I had originally planned to take through Brazil, from the East coast following the Amazon River along a dirt track: I stopped at the intersection with that road and had a look. It was a disaster zone - potholes that could swallow a human, let alone a tyre. This was a place where axles come to die, and take their human riders with them. And this end was apparently the good part - it gets worse further on in the jungle. I swallowed hard, and was thankful that my previous research had suggested that the road was pretty much impenetrable.

I was making good time and reached Rorainopolis in the afternoon. It looked like it was going to rain again soon, so when I saw a reasonable motel that proudly displayed that it had internet, I pulled up. It wasn't far until I would reach the Indigenous area of the Waimiri Atroari, an autonomous area run by the tribe. As it is absolutely forbidden to stop on the 125km stretch of road that passes through the area (which closes at night), I thought it prudent to reach such an area in the morning. There wasn't much to do in town (it's not in any map of a usable scale, and wasn't on my GPS), but I went to the grocery store. The radio was playing pop music, all in English. I found it fascinating that in a town where I was the only Anglophone, the music was all in English. I guess it goes to prove that pop music is similar to porn - the dialogue doesn't matter.

The next day I headed out to complete the 480km to Manaus, crossing the equator in the morning. From now on, the days would start to get longer and drier! I took some photos, and had a quick celebratory drink. There wasn't much there - if I wasn't paying attention thanks to the GPS, I may have missed it.

Next was the indigenous area. There were fuel stops on both ends, but as I had filled up already, they weren't needed. The signs at the entrance gate were pretty obvious - no stopping, no photos, no feeding animals, no leaving the road. The people who live within apparently live as they have for centuries, and are somewhat a law unto themselves within this area. I spent the whole time both in awe of the intense jungle that seemed to attack the road, and praying that Izzy wouldn't break down. Everything went smoothly, and a couple hours later I arrived in Manaus, checking into my hostel and walking out to explore the city.

Manaus is an unusual city - a metropolis of over 1.7 million people and a hub of manufacturing for Brazil, all while surrounded by 1000km of thick jungle on all sides! The Amazon theatre stands out as a perfect example of the European influence in Brazil - the theatre was built in the late 1800's when Brazil was officially the seat of the kingdom of Portugal (as opposed to a regular colony), on the back of the rubber boom. It is a truly beautiful building, and a feat of construction when you consider that each brick had to be shipped 1500km upstream.

The next day I began my search for a new exhaust camshaft for Izzy - she had been running pretty rough since Venezuela, and I was keen to get some parts. Considering Manaus produces Kawasakis, I thought it would be simple to buy a part. Not so. It appears that Manaus only produces whole bikes, then ships them all to Sáo Paulo, where they are then distributed throughout the country, including back to Manaus. Frustrating doesn't even begin to cover my feelings at that point. In Perth (which is more isolated distance-wise than Manaus), I could visit either of the motorbike stores within 500m of my house and order any part for almost any motorcycle. If they didn't have it in stock, they'd have it in a week at most. I know this is a different part of the world, but still....

After looking online, I found a company in the US that will send parts anywhere in the world, within three weeks. Then I found out that to import anything into Brazil, you need a tax number and have to pay the entirely unreasonable tax of 60%! I opened up Izzy (I'm getting pretty good at this), and found that the damage had not worsened since Valle de la Pascua in Venezuela (about 2000km back). After this, I decided that I would risk it and get to Bolivia - even if I can't get parts locally, Bolivia seems to be more reasonable on importing parts. I reasoned that if Izzy broke down, I could explore Bolivia by bus, while waiting for parts to clear customs.

The next thing to organise was a boat down to Porto Velho. I had hoped to be able to ride the BR319, an infamous road that runs through the middle of the Amazon. At 885km long, mainly through uninhabited areas, it is somewhat of an adventure. The recommended place to sleep? Inside the locked gates of the cell phone towers (why they have towers without people, I'll never know). This isn't to protect you from other humans, but rather the vast array of deadly wildlife that are at the top of the food chain out there. One rider reported seeing 3 Jaguars on a single trip, which sounds exciting but also terrifying. I was both disappointed and relieved to learn that the road is impossible to traverse without a long range fuel tank - it's at least 400km between opportunities to fill up, which was well beyond Izzy's capabilities. I'll mark that one down for a later trip, with a bigger bike and a partner.

The boats to Porto Velho are supposed to leave every Tuesday and Friday, and take 4 days, but supposed is a strong word down here. Come Friday night after I had given up on repairs in Manaus, I booked a jungle trip for 3 days, planning to be back in time for the Tuesday boat down to Porto Velho, which is about 500km from the Bolivian border.

We left from the hostel early the next morning by car, bus and then lancha (a small, thin boat used by fisherman and locals to move goods/people) for a few hours to reach the jungle lodge on the Rio Urubu. The lodge was stunning, with several thatched huts for houses, dining areas, a dorm and a several story watchtower. We got settled in, had lunch and then headed out to catch dinner - Piranhas.

Paddling out by canoe, I couldn't help but think of the horror stories that have featured the carnivorous fish. As it turns out, there isn't really much to fear from them: Humans aren't normally part of their diet, and they generally would only attack at the height of the dry season when falling water levels reduce normal prey and trap schools in puddles or lakes. They do like chicken and beef though - when we started fishing (in the second spot we tried), it wasn't long before we were hauling in fish after fish. I almost caught one, but it got free about a metre from the boat. The second fish wasn't so lucky - it was dinner no matter what. About the size of my hand, it didn't look particularly threatening, until I tried to remove the hook and saw the full extent of its teeth. Small but razor sharp, it's easy to see why they're so feared.

After catching enough for dinner, we continued on (mercifully using an engine) to find the non-human predators of the piranha - the Amazon River Dolphin. It was nearly sunset before we spotted a group playing nearby. While I've seen plenty of dolphins back home, some of which travel upstream past the city, I've never seen dolphins so far upstream, and certainly none that are pink in colour. They are unusual to say the least.

After returning for dinner, we headed out again to look for another animal - the Caiman. A small member of the Crocodilian family, the Caiman is notoriously shy and is really only visible at night, when the light from a torch beam is reflected off their eyes. We motored through the flooded forest, and it wasn't long before our guide had jumped off the boat and run through the marsh, returning with a Caiman measuring about 60cm long. At that size, they're not intimidating but I couldn't help but think of its much larger relatives back home in Oz. We took some photos, and headed back to the lodge for a comfortable sleep in a hammock.

We woke around dawn, and headed out into the forest for a nature walk. Being dry season, animals are not easy to spot but I am indifferent to monkeys at this point. The range of medicinal plants here are incredible - of particular interest is the plant that has been scientifically proven as a cure for malaria (concentrated forms are used by local hospitals). Native forms of cloves and eucalyptus were also interesting. One animal we did get up close and personal with was a tarantula. By close I mean I stayed back a good 2 metres, but the guide coaxed it out of its hole, and took photos from about 5cm away. Another interesting fact - they extract their poison from their prey, so while pet specimens are largely harmless, you shouldn't mess with wild tarantulas.

We headed back to the lodge for lunch, and then packed for a longer hike, after which we would camp out in the jungle. The night was clear, so we were able to set up our hammocks under the stars. Cooking dinner over a campfire and making our utensils out of wood felt pretty cool, but had to get out of my Australian mindset and stop worrying about the fire spreading.

After a nice sleep (the jungle here in the dry season is much quieter than in Borneo's wet season), we had brekky. Tip for the day: if you're making coffee using grounds and don't have a strainer, you can quickly mix the coffee with a hot piece of charcoal before serving. The charcoal causes the coffee grounds to sink to the bottom, don't ask me how. Or just use instant coffee, either way.

After camping out, We headed out on another walk through the jungle, this time making blowguns and bracelets from various plants. It's safe to say that the only animals I would be able to kill with a blowgun would have to be tame. I have the lungs of a pack a day smoker compared to the hunters who use these things. After embarrassing ourselves, we headed back to the lodge to pack and return to Manaus. I can safely say that while I had a great time in the jungle, I've pretty much had enough of it for one trip. I now dream of beaches, of cool salty water and wide open plains.

The Tuesday boat was cancelled, due to low water levels. More time in Manaus, of which I had seen plenty. The receptionist said there would be a boat the next day, so I didn't worry too much, and instead said goodbye to some friends from the tour, and headed out with Paolo, an Italian who I had also befriended on the tour. When we got the same news on Wednesday, it was time to seriously consider the possibility of other destinations, or of riding the 319. I bought some supplies (including a machete and mosquito net), and resolved that if the boat on Friday was cancelled, that I would look at other boats, or try to organise a fuel drop along the 319. That night, several of us from the hostel went out to a roadside stall for dinner, which was beautiful.

It was more of the same for Thursday and Friday, although the boat was confirmed so we (Lea and Nicole, two Germans from the hostel and myself) checked out on Friday and waited for the agent to pick us up. I got worried as the scheduled pickup time came and went, but eventually he made it. The girls piled into a van with some of my stuff, and I followed on Izzy. Although we were assured there would be plenty of room, we arrived to an almost full boat. We strung up our hammocks, I got Izzy on board and we waited. The crew weren't too happy about Izzy - they had only asked about the size of the motor, not how big she was, or about saddlebags. But we were on, had paid for tickets, and nothing short of an atomic bomb was getting me off. We were supposed (there's that word again!) to leave at around 1800 - we left around 2230 (apparently - I was fast asleep by then). And so began our journey through the Amazon on a boat.

It didn't take long to get into the routine on board - the days tended to revolve around meals. At dawn, we'd wake to have breakfast, which consisted of the sickeningly sweet coffee that is ubiquitous here and some crackers and bread. Lunch and dinner were more complete meals consisting of rice, noodles, meat and sometimes vegetables. There was always enough food to go around, but after several days it got monotonous.

The rest of the day was spent generally shooting the breeze. I took to upping the intensity of my Spanish (I have stubbornly refused to learn Portguese, to avoid confusing the two once back in Spanish territory), and reading some ebooks. I did enjoy  my hammock (It's better for my back than some of the rock hard beds I've stayed in), and learnt to slow down a bit. Local boats sifting silt for gold, river dolphins and the bar provided useful distractions for such a long journey.

However, considering how many people use this form of travel, I'm surprised more comfortable/touristy options haven't appeared. I would have happily paid more for a more interesting experience - similar to the San Blas cruise, but with an Amazon flavour. A 6 day riverboat cruise/Amazon adventure/Party sounds better than 6 days on a boat, slowly heading upstream with little distractions. But maybe I'm the only one.

Eventually we arrived at Porto Velho, our destination. At 4am. None of us foreigners were particularly keen to get moving then, so we slept on board until a more reasonable time, then headed out for breakfast. I got coffee with milk & without sugar - sublime. After doing some shopping (in which a local drove us to the electronics store I needed), I said goodbye and headed back for Izzy.

After 6 days rest, she really didn't want to go. Eventually (after much cajoling and swearing), we headed for the border. It felt great to be back in the saddle, and everything was going smoothly until some of the gear started to come loose behind me. I pulled over to tighten everything back up - big mistake. No matter how hard I tried, she wouldn't go again. The motor was turning over fine, but as soon as I disengaged the clutch, she would die. I was stuck. Thankfully, I had stopped next to a small town (Araras), so we walked back and found the local dormitrio - a basic hostel for people stuck like me.

I got settled in, and went to the adjoining bar for a well needed drink. Again, it seems when I'm feeling down or need help, the locals come to the rescue. We had a good chat, helped by the fact that some of the locals were actually Bolivian, and spoke Spanish.

The next morning, I headed over to the tyre repair place, hoping he dabbled in motorcycle repair. There wasn't much he could do, but he got the attention of a local taxi driver who agreed to take Izzy and I to the border. It was expensive, but it was what I needed, so I agreed. We put Izzy in a trailer, and sped down the last 100km or so to the border. The driver was nice enough (I was probably going to be his only fare that day) to take me to the different border posts to get clearance to leave Brazil and enter Bolivia. Around lunchtime, I put the non functioning Izzy onto a small boat, and we crossed over to the Bolivian town of Guayaramerin, with a slight dread, yet full of hope.

Would this be the end of the trip? No way. Would it be the end of Izzy? Only time (and a Bolivian mechanic) would tell.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Venezuela is something of an enigma in Latin America, and has a (somewhat undeserved) reputation for being tourist unfriendly. It is for this reason that it isn't high on the must see lists for most tourists, making it a perfect destination to get away from other tourists, and really explore a country.

Entering Venezuela by land from Colombia requires a healthy scepticism of your home country's foreign affairs department - DFAT lists a 80km deep strip of land along the border as a no-go area for Australians. On a motorbike avoiding an area like that isn't feasible, but I tried to heed the warnings as much as practical and be alert.

DFAT should have mentioned the San Antonio border crossing separately - not because it's especially dangerous, but because it is a real contender for the worst border in Latin America. Had I known the difficulties that were about to befall me, I probably would've ridden the 100's of kms up to the coast and crossed there. Would have been a timesaver, that's for sure.

I checked out of my hotel, and went to change money. Due to the restrictive currency controls in Venezuela (Venezuelans are heavily restricted from purchasing US dollars to import goods), there is a significant black market for outside currency. So tourists are best advised to bring as much cash over the border as they feel safe carrying. I managed to withdraw about 1,000,000 pesos (around $500AU) and get about 5,850 Bolivares. Thats about 10 BsF for a USD, much better than the 'official' rate of 4.3, which is what I'd get at an ATM in Venezuela. So the Budget was set. By the by, Venezuela is a cheap country to visit using the black market rate, but very expensive at the official rate. So future  visitors to this lovely country: bring cash (USD or Euro), or stay at hostels/hotels that will let you wire them money o/s, and exchange it for you.

I arrived at the border at 9am, and didn't leave until 430pm. I managed 60km in the whole day, which is somewhat depressing. For those of you following this and attempting a similar crossing (or those who enjoy revelling in my misery), I've written a how to on Drive the Americas (link on the right). It will probably shave only an hour or two off the crossing, but it's information badly needed. San Antonio de Tachira (the Venezuelan border town) isn't particularly dangerous (and I saw a bit of it in my goose chase for a permit), but unexciting. If you're not driving/riding, then immigration will be easy - that bit only took 30 minutes, tops. Permits will kill you.

Anyway, after getting through the border I headed as far as I could, and checked into a Motel as the sun set. At 100BsF for the night, it had me in high hopes that I'd get to Brazil with a wad of cash in my hand.

The next day started with a hunt for petrol. Venezuela is blessed/cursed with more oil than any other country in the world, and petrol is heavily subsidised, to a point that is crippling the federal government (any attempt to raise the price is met with riots, putting the government in a bind). This results in the cheapest gas on the planet - 0.09 BsF/L. Yep, that equates to less than $0.01AU/L - I could fill my tank for a 10 cent coin, and get change. However, this is irresistible to Brazilians and Colombians, who cross the border to fill their tanks. This extra cost to the economy is not easily tolerated, and so gas stations near the border don't want to/can't sell to non-citizens. I passed 2 stations, (already low on fuel- you'd be crazy to fill up before Venezuela) before I could get gas. An attendant took pity on me, and pulled  the nozzle out of one car, fuel spilling out, and jammed it into my tank. Once we were both full, the driver paid for both of us. I tried to offer him money, but he refused. I snuck a look at the total - it was less than a dollar to fill both a big 4WD and a motorbike. This happened alot actually - as a motorbike, I had priority, and would skip the queue at the bowser to slot in behind the car filing up. once the car had filled up, so would I. I sometimes paid, but most of the time, the driver would shout me the gas. It cost be about 6 BsF (60 cents) to cross the whole country. As an environmentalist, I was outraged. As a rider (and budget traveller), I was ecstatic.

A symptom of this skewed cost is the prevalence of old American cars. Gas guzzling giants and muscle cars feature prominently. Again, I love these old cars, but they cause problems environmentally. One deep breath anywhere near civilisation in Venezuela proves that - the country just smells of oil. From the badly made roads to the puddles of petrol at stations, to the oil slicks that seem to be everywhere (accompanied by inefficient cars), Venezuela has a distinct aroma of hydrocarbons. At first I just thought it was the cities, but the aroma follows you throughout the countryside also.

After filling up, I headed towards Lago de Maracaibo, for the Cataumbo lightning. This natural phenomenon occurs due to the unique and close proximity of high mountains, tropical lowlands and a large source of water. As a result, spectacular lightning storms occur nearly every night, at such frequency and reliability that fisherman sailing at night have no need for lights on their boats - it's something else. Unfortunately, there is very little tourist infrastructure in Venezuela so no accommodation is readily available close to the lake. Believe me, I looked. After I turned around (I had no intention of camping next to the border - that's pushing my luck), I stayed near, but not on the lake. This was probably the nicest motel I've ever seen - complete with tropical gardens along the driveway, and not much more than the first night.

While I didn't see the lightning that night, I didn't despair - it can be visible for quite a distance. So I could still head East, without ruling out the "Lighthouse of Catatumbo". So that's what I did, skirting around the mountains (I'd had enough of up-and-down for a while). I was passing through land that looked like Africa (sparse, wide-foliage trees, red dirt, goats and the kind of heat you can feel with all of your senses), when I got into the city of -----. That's when the rain began. The most intense rain I've ever felt - it almost knocked me off my bike. I called lunch and headed inside until the inevitable end of the shower. When it did, I kept riding and almost crashed.

Despite the frequency of rain, fresh oil spills are an ever present threat in Venezuela. I hit one as I was slowing down for a red light, with two cars waiting on the line. The wheels locked up, and I kept going. The back wheel woke up and decided to drift to the right, straight at one of the cars. This time (unlike Nicaragua - maybe I'm getting better) I fought back, possibly thinking of all the paperwork a crash would incur. Pushing the errant rear wheel back with the foot pegs and pumping the brakes in an attempt at a poor man's ABS, I managed to slot Izzy in between the two cars (with an inch of room either side) and come to a stop, front wheel on the line. I looked over to the other drivers, expecting a mixture of anger and amazement. They hadn't even bloody noticed. I couldn't believe it. Was I invisible? What does it take to get noticed around here? I know the people behind me noticed, but by the time I looked around at them, I'd calmed down enough to give them a thumbs up and a fake i-totally-meant-to-do-that expression (which is hard to convey in a helmet).

After that, I was keen to stop soon. I pulled into a motel that was reasonable and holed up for the night. at 6pm, the rain started. I know this because it really rained. The kind of rain that meant I slept with my earplugs in. And was still woken at 3am by heavier rain, that no noise isolation gear could block out, short of living underground. I can't even describe it - but if you had walked out with an umbrella, you may have been crushed under the weight of rain landing on you. At one point, I couldn't see more than 5m in front of me, it was a curtain of rain. It was also hurricane Isaac, but I didn't know that at the time. It was still going when I woke up, and I waited a while, but then had to go, rain or not.

 I stopped at a café for breakfast, and some truckers introduced themselves whie quietly laughing at my miserable, half drowned state. When I explained where I was going, they didn't hesitate in giving me advice on the location of fuel stops, which turnoffs to take and where I could sleep. One drew me a few maps, which turned out to be very helpful and reassuring on the long and open road. It needs to be mentioned that the commercial maps are about as helpful as tits on a bull in Venezuela, so these hand drawn mud maps were the best guide I had. There is an open source map available (link on the right), but I was taking a pretty well signposted route. The road was exhausting, varying between smooth tarmac and warzone. At one stage I had to backtrack a bit to get fuel for a long uninhabited section, but it turned out to be unnecessary (it was only 80 miles between fuel, not the 250km like the locals told me).

The rain finally stopped at 2pm (that's 20hrs straight of heavy rain), and I began to enjoy myself again. The rain finally stopped at 2pm (that's 20hrs straight of heavy rain), and I began to enjoy myself again. I checked into a motel (for 250 BsF!) and tried to sleep. I think the motels here do a brisk trade in the "4hr specials", serving as the offices for the local ladies of the night. This motel looked like it came straight out of an adult film - mirrors on every wall and the ceiling, condoms and lube for sale at reception and some weird contraption that resembled a home gym (I don't want to know what it's for). I tried to watch tv which consisted of 4 channels - local news, a movie channel with horrible dubbing in Spanish (Bruce Willis sounds like Justin Beiber!) and two porn channels. Confirming that dialogue is not needed in adult films, these two channels were in English. I slept on top of the blankets that night - there was no telling what a blacklight would reveal between those sheets.

The next day I made it to Ciudad Bolivar, via El Tigre which is tied for the worst town so far - a hurricane is needed there to clean up the place a bit. As I was entering savanna country, the scenery started to look a lot like home - red gravel, low scrub and a dry heat you can see in mirages of water on the road. Once in town, I checked into a Posada (inn) run by a German, who has a garage with a KLR650. They organised tours to Angel falls, and I could wire money to a US bank account to do it, which meant I didn't have to eat into my precious stash of cash. I spent the next day chilling in the city, and had a 'small' hamburger - in Venezuela, you can get burgers for families - the bun is the size of a pizza!

Getting to Angel falls is no easy feat - without any roads in or out of the town, a short flight is necessary. Knowing how often transport breaks down here, I wasn't keen but it's the only way. Thankfully, the plane to Canaima was brand new, pretty much right out of the matchbox it came in. 6 people, including pilot piled in. The girl in the front passenger seat was given a quick briefing, as she was copilot - that didn't inspire much confidence. Once we landed at the Canaima airport / customs / general store / meeting point, I joined up with my guide and group, and headed up the river on a small boat. We had lunch at a picturesque waterfall, and reached our campsite near the base of the falls. The next morning we set off before dawn to head up to see the world's tallest waterfalls. Spectacular is the only way to properly describe the nearly 1000m cascading curtain of water plunging off the end of a gorgeous tepuis into the golden morning sunshine. I had managed to hike up the trail faster than the others, so managed to get 15 minutes or so with this natural wonder all by myself. I couldn't believe that there wasn't anyone else around - Angel falls is one of the natural wonders of the world, and Venezuela's most famous natural attraction.

After spending some time at the falls, we headed back to Canaima. After dropping our stuff off at a Posada and lunch, we headed to another falls: Salto Sapo. We were able to walk behind the curtain of water, which was unbelievably powerful. Standing under a small part of the falls was a good massage, and you definitely could have worse views - looking out over the falls, the green savanna is only halted by the sharp cliffs of the massive tepuis and the impenetrable jungle that surrounds this slice of paradise.

The next morning I headed to the local beach with a couple of friends from the tour. The makeup of our group has changed somewhat from the standard anglo mix that usually dominates tours like this, which is refreshing. To have a lagoon, beach, waterfall and palm trees in the same vista was beautiful, and the water was beautiful. After lunch we said our goodbyes, exchanged emails (I do this so often I've had business cards with my details made) and headed to the airport on the back of a tractor. Everyone who buys a flight into Canaima buys a return ticket, so the boarding procedure is as follows: get on whichever plane is going to your city (1 of 2 destinations) and has room. I caught an earlier flight, as there was a space in the copilot seat. It sounds cool, but this wasn't a new plane. As copilot, I could see that this plane had seen some serious miles, and some of the gauges weren't working (at least, I hope they weren't - otherwise the engine was seriously overheating the whole way). We took off with half a tank of fuel left, exactly what was required to make the distance. We obviously made it, but we were riding on fumes and my prayers as Ciudad Bolivar showed up in the distance. The pilot was calm the whole way, but I spent the whole trip trying not to touch anything (my knees were right against the flap switches) and looking for potential emergency landing strips.

After another night at the Posada in Ciudad Bolivar, I headed to Ciudad Guyana for a Brazilian visa. I eventually found the consulate (a tiny office above a bakery), and after filling out all the paperwork was told to return the next morning at 9 for the visa. Getting visas in the neighbouring country often turns out to be a far cheaper and easier way to travel - in Venezuela it cost me 180BsF & 1 day, as opposed to the $80AU and 4 weeks it would've taken from Canberra. I was coming down with a fever, so retired to a posada and hit the hay early, wet towel keeping my forehead cool. I got to the consulate at around 10am, picked up my visa, and headed for the border, about 720km away. I changed the oil in Izzy, which was badly needed - black as the night, and gritty. I made it as far as El Dorado, which is Spanish for "the Golden" (or similar), but it resembled hell to me. This wasn't a safe town, but it was getting dark, so I checked into the hotel with secure parking and had dinner, careful to stick to populated areas.

I headed out early towards the border, and was rewarded with the beautiful scenery of the Gran Sabana - rolling hills and great plains hemmed in by more incredible tepuis (I'm starting to run out of adjectives to describe this part of the world, suggestions welcome). A nice surprise was also in store: Either I had turned off the GPS at some point, or found a serious shortcut the day before as a signpost told me I was less than 300km from the border, about 100km less than I had thought! I travelled along the road to the border with Guyana (similar to Guatemala/Belize, Venezuela disputes the territory west of Georgetown that Guyana lays claim to). According to the GPS, I crossed over the border by some distance, So I'm claiming I've visited Guyana. All jokes aside, it looks to be a lush and wild country and I am really disappointed that I can't go there (a border strike and too much time spent in Colombia/Venezuela means I'm taking a shortcut). In the national park I saw the most famous tepuis, Roraima which marks the triangular border between Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. There were quite a few small fires in the plains, so I couldn't get a clear photo through the smoke. I got into Santa Elena in the afternoon, and readied myself for the border.

I needn't have worried - this was the simplest border in Latin America so far. I did everything wrong - arrived on a Sunday near lunchtime, but still got through in about 2hrs, including the 1hr lunch break. I got across with a full tank of fuel, and checked into a hotel in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima, as the customs office was only open Mon-Fri.


Monday, 3 September 2012


After several days at sea, I was glad to set foot on solid ground in Cartagena, Colombia. We stumbled bleary eyed but excited from the M/S Independence, and set about booking into hotels/hostels/garages before reconvening at customs at 9am. As luck would have it, several of our group was staying at the same hostel, run by a fellow Aussie, Stuart. Whenever there is a choice of hostels in a city, I usually go with Aussie owned/run. I don't know why, but they always seem to be better run & cheaper, and being able to understand the owner/manager is always a bonus. Before heading to customs, I pulled money out of the ATM. I was in such a rush to get to the boat that I didn't withdraw any cash beforehand, and now needed to change Colombian pesos for US dollars. Thankfully, some of the other passengers needed to do the opposite, so it was an easy and efficient switch, without a middleman taking a cut.

It was at Immigration that we three bike riders were told customs was closed until Monday (it was Saturday), so the bikes would stay on the boat. I was planning on spending some time in Cartagena anyway, so wasn't particularly bothered by this development, but the others were keen to put the Carribbean in the mirrors, so they weren't too pleased. I believe this is the first time I've entered a country by boat, which led to a discovery - Immigration offices at port authorities are much more attractive than sterile airports or warzone land borders. After getting my increasingly worn passport back, I headed out and bought a new laptop charger for a sum that felt like I was being scammed, only I wasn't. Electronics in this part of the world are ridiculously expensive - I could live in Caratgena comfortably for the weekend for the price of that charger.

Laptop reliably powered yet again, the group met at a bar on the wall (Cartagena is another walled seaside city, in the mould of Campeche) for drinks at sunset. We headed out on the town after a few to a more reasonably priced outdoor bar on the plaza. After a few more beers, one of the group was offered cocaine by a street vendor selling fake cuban cigars. Mark it down people, it took less than a day to be offered cocaine in Colombia. It has happened a few more times since, but never aggressively - I never felt threatened, only slightly shocked at the audacity. Anyway, the others continued on into the wee hours, but I had hit a wall so went back to the hostel.

The next day I visited Castillo San Felipe, which is the largest fortress that the Spaniards ever built in their colonies. It was well deserved - Cartagena has a long history of piracy and ransacking, both private and crown sanctioned. Nowdays, it provides a great place for silent reflection on the history of Latin America, and the possible influence one person can make. If voyage of Columbus had not gone exactly as it had, what would Colombia look like now? For that matter, what would Australia look like? Considering how close Australia came to being a French (or Dutch) possession, one would think my French would be better. Pondering history questions like that does my head in sometimes.

To soothe my head, I took solace in some comfort food - I had heard that Cartagena was home to decent Indian food, and I was desperate for something that didn't include beans or bbq roasted chicken. I took refuge in a delicious butter chicken, but not before having a chat with the chef, lamenting the lack of cricket on tv. He has hopes of setting up a cricket league in Cartagena to compete with the Carribbean nations, and while I hope he succeeds, I have my reservations.

The next day was pretty much spent at customs. If this becomes a trend I may spend half the trip sitting in halls, staring at immigration officers who share the same job satisfaction and demeanour as a prison worker! After waking early, we had to deal with delay after delay both on the boat (the crane wire snapped!) and in customs. We finally got our paperwork done at 4, so quickly rode to the insurance office to get covered. It's sad, but that was as close as I've gotten to a group ride so far. A special plate on one of the bikes meant more delays and other offices, but eventually everyone was set to go our separate ways.

I set off early in the morning, stopping at the insurance office to pick up some paperwork I'd left behind. 600km+ lay ahead, so I set off at speed. It wasn't long before I came across the first military checkpoint. They couldn't be friendlier if they'd given me a high five when I passed. From directions to recommendations for restaurants/accomodation, the Colombian military are there to protect, serve & help clueless foreigners. I have also noticed that people are starting to get more impressed by the fact that I've come from Canada - some of the double takes/jaw drops have been quite comical.

Colombia is a country of remarkable beauty, and I covered a startling range of picturesque vistas for one day - from the Carribbean seaside, to impossibly green pastureland, to tropical jungle, to Andean mountainside. From sea level to 3000m and back down. To put that in perspective, Mount kosciuszko (Australia's highest mountain) is only 2228m high. It was well and truly dark (and raining) by the time I made it to the hostel, but by following trucks through the mountains, I made it to Medellin in one (albeit wet and cold) piece.

The hostel was as close to a resort as an inner-city hostel can get - pool, volleyball/basketball court, soccer field, hammock area, as well as the standard lounge room and bar.

The next morning I set about making the most of these, before heading out on a tour of Medellin's most (in)famous resident - Pablo Escobar. While el Jefe of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar was largely responsible for production and distribution of cocaine in Colombia in the 1980's. You've no doubt watched a movie or two about his life, but 90 minutes can only capture so much, and Pablo's life was much bigger than any film can possibly capture. We visited one of the nearly 300 properties that Pablo once owned in Medellin. Although it was once a luxurious condo tower, sh**hole probably best describes it now. Most of the credit for the degradation must go to the Cali cartel, who bombed the building in one of the tit-for-tat attacks that plagued Colombia for the best part of a decade. We visited his grave, and were regaled with the story of how he was eventually stopped - with the police breaking down the front door of the house he was hiding in, Pablo attempted to flee by rooftop. A bullet through the ear put a swift end to his reign as the cocaine king, but it remains a bit of a mystery as to who shot him - the police claimed credit, but its dubious that any of the officers had the marksmanship to make shot, unlike the US forces who were there to assist.

From there, we visited the only property the police didn't confiscate from the Escobars- untouched as Pablo's mother had bought the property with legitimate earnings. It was there we met Pablo's brother (and former accountant to the Medellin cartel), Roberto Escobar. It was a bit surreal to be looking at an old wanted poster of somebody, only to come face to face with that person. Having served his time (22yrs halved to 11) in prison, he now dedicated his life to reducing the impact of AIDS in the Medellin through education & medication. In fact, the profits from the tour were going to the charity. It was interesting to be able to talk to someone like roberto about his life and perspectives. An interesting fact - Roberto was a champion cyclist for Colombia before his links to crime were discovered, and he was booted out of the community. I tried to ask him a question about the rampant nature of drugs in cycling, but it go lost in translation (or he just didn't want to answer).

The next day was spent relaxing, and buying a new hammock - a beautifully made colourful creation, in the traditional Colombain style. I also took some photos of Medellin, but (like the idiot I sometimes am) I had forgotten to put the memory card in the camera, so no photos.

It was time to get back on the bike, and the city of Bucaramanga was the target. The departments of Santander and Norte de Santander are no-go areas according to DFAT, but it's kinda hard (impossible, actually) to get to Venezuela via land without crossing these border areas. So I resolved to be extra cautious, and be well and truly in urban areas by nightfall. the day's riding was only 400km, but included several large roadworks in the mountains which slowed things somewhat. I met some great people along the way, including a guy taxiing people down a rail line using a motorbike, and some of the nicest soldiers I've met so far. Night began to fall as I cruised down the final hill into Bucaramanga (I was able to leave the bike in neutral for over a mile, thats how big these 'hills' are!), and I quickly checked into my hostel.

I was going to head up to the border the next morning, but wasn't sure that it'd be open on the weekend (As it turns out, that was a good call - Venezuelan customs was only open Mon-Fri) and the hostel was having a 4th birthday party that night, which sealed it. That night I went upstairs expecting to see a few fellow travellers, and a few friends of the owner/staff. I was pleasantly surprised - the place was full, and half the crowd were locals. It was exactly what a hostel party should be like - a cultural exchange fueled by copious amounts of cheap drinks. On drinks, I've found a local firewater that I don't like - Aguardiente. The stuff tastes like Sambuca mixed with paint stripper and instant regret - not recommended. Getting back on the rum, I met several locals, including Tutty. As Tutty was an english teacher, we were able to easily communicate, and she was able to translate for her brother, friends and myself. We got along like a house on fire - Tutty also sings, and I have to say I've become a bit of a fan of the songs she sent me.

Tengo Ganas.mp3

The party started to wind up at the hostel, so a bunch of us headed off to a club to continue on the night. I've gotten awfully used to cheap alcohol here - a beer at a club in Colombia is cheaper than at a bottleshop back in Perth, and it's going to take some serious mental preparation to set foot in a pub back in WA. Anyway, I learned some Salsa moves (watch out ladies!) and beat the sun back to bed (just).

The next morning was generally spent regretting all the drinking the night before. In the arvo I headed out to do a bit of shopping, before heading back to catch up on missed sleep. But people were heading out to a Salsa club, so I rolled out of bed and headed out again. When everyone said "Salsa club" I imagined a dance hall style venue with instuctors. This was more like a wild west saloon with a dancefloor. Our group ranged from professional dancers to novices to me - two left feet would be a step up for me. A couple girls took pity on me and taught me a few more things, and I definitely enjoyed myself. I called it quits early and caught a lift back to the hostel with Andreá who I had met previously at the hostel party.

I struck out fairly early, hoping to make it across the border that day. Looking back at it now, the mere premise seems laughable. The road out of Bucaramanga was pretty treacherous from the start, and some serious roadworks (a 100m section of a whole lane was missing due to a landslide, and had to be remade - into the mountain!) meant serious delays. The awesome scenery didn't help - I'd stop at eacch bend to take the perfect photo, only to come across a better vista on the next turn. It never ceases to amaze me the differences in climatic zones here - I was able to buy strawberries and mulberries for dinner (two 500g bags for two dollars!) before heading down in the hot and dusty frontier town of Cucutá. There's not much to see there, but the ride had taken most of the day, so I bunkered down at the only hotel I'd trust Izzy with and mentally prepped for the border, and Venezuela.

Colombia has really struck a chord with me. In Australia we don't hear much news from this part of the world, and  when we do, it's not often good. Cocaine, guerillas and La violencia tend to dominate the headlines and history pages. And they certainly warrant column inches, but only as part of a greater picture of Colombia. Colombians are some of the friendliest people I've met so far, and would go out of their way to help in whatever way they could. Colombia is also one of the prettiest countries I have seen so far. I often judge places I travel on the basis of whether or not I could live there, and Colombia deserves a resounding yes. I will be back.

Having made it to South America, I now consider the trip to be a success - every km that Isabella makes from now on without requiring major repairs I consider a bonus. I also am not concerned about missing "must-see" destinations or countries - I have seen enough to say for sure that'll I'll definitely back.