Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Budget

Our overall budget was 60 CAD per day for the two of us, plus shipping the bikes (Darien and home) and major services which we had budgeted for separately. We almost succeeded in keeping our costs below this number, and we did have our costs at about 55 CAD per day before the engines broke, but we had to significantly pick up the pace to finish our key parts of the trip after we got the bikes back. I think post engine meltdown we rarely came in under budget at the end of the day because we were averaging 311.36 km/day whereas before we were averaging 171.92 km/day. If we can pretend that we weren't spending unproductive dollars waiting around for working bikes we actually spent less overall because we covered the same amount of ground in less time.

This trip can be done for less or more than what we did it for. For the most part we weren't concerned with wasting time finding the most economical place in town to stay. As long as we found a place that met our criteria we were happy. We stayed at medium quality budget accommodations and ate at relatively economical places. Though we didn't put too much effort into reading guide books and finding cheap places to eat and sleep. We just made things up as we went along.

So my advice is: make a budget that realistically fits your travel style and doesn't bankrupt you. Finding the balance is the tricky part. If you've read our blog you probably have a sense of the places we went and what we did. For more details on our costs and spending hit the Trip in Numbers tab at the top of the blog page.


Throughout the entire trip is was clear that everyone is scared of their neighbour to the South, with the United States probably being the most terrified. Whenever we were in a particular country telling people about our trip they would warn us with genuine concern about the next country. They would tell us scary stories of things that had happened to people in those countries and while I do not doubt that they are true stories you can't do a trip like this in fear. You have to just take the leap of faith and hope that things will work out.

One of the top questions people ask us is about safety. We have been lucky and during the entire trip never found ourselves in a particularly scary situation. Do bad things happen? Sure, but I think you can take precautions to safe-guard yourself and then you also need a bit of luck. We follow a few rules to help eliminate our interaction with dangerous situations. We don't drive at night. We don't really venture out at night (unless it is with trusted locals) or just around the corner for food. We try to stay away from large cities and generally trust your instincts for situations that make us uncomfortable.

Alberto insisted on bringing disklocks for the bikes but after a few weeks in Mexico he stopped using them. We never went out of our way to secure things down (though most of our items on the bikes are relatively secure). We generally didn't leave the bikes unattended for long and on the rare occasions we did (Copper Canyon and Perito Moreno Glacier) we never had anything stolen. The only time we had something stolen on the entire trip was 100m from Alberto's parents house. Oh the irony. Alberto's old, smelly, knock-off shoes were stolen off the beach.

Security wasn't something we worried about too much, but that's not to say we were careless. The key is to be smart and trust your instincts.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Border

Oh what a foolish person I have been to complain about the sometimes over-the-top Canada/USA border. The great thing about the getting to cross the borders in Latin America is that they make great stories, and they are always a great conversation topic when you meet up with other bikers.

The Mexican border was quite tame, though it can be confusing as a first-timer because of the “travel free” zones for Americans. We thought we were lost since we had to drive 50km to the immigration offices. For the most part we tried to stay away from Panamericana border crossings but things were still hectic for pretty much all of our Central America border crossings. Even with the advantage of speaking fluent Spanish it's hard to make sense of the borders. Knowing Spanish did not seem to make things move any faster. South America was noticeably more organized though the experiences were still sometimes just as frustrating.

We managed to get away without paying any bribes whatsoever, but it can happen because you will find yourself at the mercy of the border officials. Some time and money can be saved by having copies of your driver's license, title and passport cause almost every border before crossing the Darien Gap will ask for copies. I've included a list of all the borders we crossed and what we encountered (fees paid, time etc...). The list can be found here. Also there is lots of information on the HUBB regarding border crossings and you can find lots of personal accounts on rider's blogs. I think that every experience is different but it's nice if you have an idea of what to expect.

Friday, June 3, 2011

My Police Rant

Numbers of Tickets Received: 5
Numbers of Times Pulled Over by the Police:
Mexico: 1
Nicaragua: 1
Panama: 2
Colombia: 2
Peru: 14*
Chile: 1
Argentina: 2
*Doesn't include times we ignored gestures to be pulled over
Our Traffic Violation paperwork collection
The times we were pulled over in Panama, Colombia and Chile were mostly harmless. Our interactions with the law in Mexico, Nicaragua and Argentina all resulted in one or both of us getting tickets. The Nicaragua ticket Alberto got was stupid but the other two were completely justified. Peru, on the other hand, very much felt like the exception because we were pulled over repeatedly by unbelievably corrupt police. The issues we had in Peru with the police got so bad that it really ruined my time in Peru and my opinion of the country.

I am not going to go into detail about the specific interactions, you can retrace the blog for all the juicy details. What drives me crazy about the corrupt police in Peru is the inconsistency. We had mild police interactions, such as Day 191, which lasted only a couple of minutes to long drawn out paper work competitions like on Day 177, to the most extreme where we just had to flee the scene Day 182. The police officers had no shame and it ruins it for any legit ones that might be hiding out there. Alberto had already warned me about police in Peru before we got there, so I was already skeptical of their dubious honor but even if I hadn't been per-warned I would have caught-on pretty quick. It was clear after only a few encounters that the police were lazy and always searching for a bribe not justice. It is disappointing for a country like Peru which has so much tourism potential.

Dealing with Police (in particular Peruvian Police since those were the only ones we had problems with):

Disclaimer: I am a total goody-two-shoes and always follow the rules, so much so that my own mother frequently makes fun of me. But I am also realistic and when the system doesn't work because the people in charge of enforcing the rules don't follow them it's every man for himself. I have never handed an official a fake document. All the documents I use are copies of real and valid documents, I just don't trust certain individuals with the real copies because they don't play by the rules.

How to deal – Our number one trump card was speaking only English, and taking this to the extreme. Even if the average person would understand what was going on we would continue to play dumb and speak only English. Most police we encountered in Peru were pretty lazy so sometimes this was all it took. They would quickly realize that they couldn't communicate and move on. The other critical thing to do is do not to give the police any power and do this by only giving them documents you can afford to lose. This ensures that the power stays in your corner. With the more persistent police try paper-working them to death. If they are asking for a specific document, like insurance, give them every official looking document you have. They most likely will become overwhelmed, and give your documents only a glance before sending you on your way. The key is to remain calm and stand your ground. Being really stubborn and animated can work to your advantage.

Chances are that when you undertake a trip like this you will be pulled over by the police at some point; either legitimately or not. My advice is to stay calm, stand your ground and enjoy the experience. Even the worst day of our trip (police-wise) really frustrated me at the time it makes for a great story later.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Final Final Thoughts

Getting to ride the Americas on a bike is an amazing experience. I have had the chance to see many different landscapes and meet tons of truly fantastic people. Since the Americas were never really at the top of my list of places to go visit I was able to experience all of the different places and countries without any per-disposed bias or favourites. Our trip was simple, we just quit normal life and set out with a course due South. We never really had a plan more than a few days out and chose places to visit and roads to ride on the fly. Doing our trip in this hap-hazard way helped us get an even experience of all 12 countries we visited. But if I think back at the whole experience as an overall package it wasn't something I would go back to do again and again.

Everyone has their own travel style and priorities and my main priority when I do motorcycle travel is the riding. For me it is not about where I end up but how I get there. This is why you will have seen throughout our trip that we didn't hit up some of the common places travelers do or when we did we didn't really get out and see stuff or stay long. In a perfect world I would have a day full of fun riding and then find somewhere remote and peaceful to camp for the evening. We were only really able to achieve this perfect travel nirvana in Peru and Chile, and not coincidentally these are the only two countries I would re-visit by motorbike.

I enjoyed the whole trip overall but there were long sections where it felt more like endurance instead of enjoyment. In particular Mexico and Central America didn't really match well with my style. In hindsight the driver's in Mexico weren't as bad as they seemed at the time but the weather was way to hot to be wearing riding gear. It's hard to fully appreciate the beauty of a country when you are constantly uncomfortable. In Mexico's defense we didn't go during the favourable weather season, but in order to time reaching Tierra del Fuego there isn't really much flexibility for riders starting in North America. Also it felt that Mexico didn't offer anything specific to my personal tastes that I could not find riding in Canada or the United States. At first we were really enjoying Central America but as the weeks went by the whole experience felt worn and repetitive. The riding wasn't satisfying enough so we tried to compensate with typical tourist activities. This just turned into a continuous loop between beaches, volcanoes, colonial cities and jungles. We were missing out on diversity. We experienced spectacular spots here and there, Roatan and Playa Venao stand out in my mind, but they alone could not make up for the monotony. The mostly uninteresting riding and the terrible borders made a bad combination. And the funny thing I found on the road was that most of the other riders we met felt the same way about Central America: fine to do once, but no need to do it again.

Arriving on the continent of South America was a huge breath of fresh air. The Andes breathed new life into our riding and scenery viewing. Also because of the difference in scale, South American countries are a lot bigger than Central American countries, it felt like there were more route choices which in turn resulted in better riding. There was also a downside to the larger countries, sometimes there were long periods of riding with little change in topography or scenery.

This is all part of any long journey. The cruel reality is that not everyday will be filled with hand picked epic riding, at some point you need to get where you are going and it can't all be fun times. That's what makes it a worthwhile experience though, the diversity and adversity. But in the meantime I will focus my riding trips to selective epic riding adventures and focus my energy on conquering a new continent. The Americas.... been there done that.

One of the best parts of traveling is meeting people, both locals and fellow travelers. There are exceptions of course but across the board we met amazingly friendly people in every single country we visited. Not to mention the joy you get when you meet a fellow adventure rider on the road. Despite having no clue what this person is like in normal life you immediately completely trust them and become friends. This trust is a two-way street as you will find that locals will invite you into their homes just because you are an adventure traveler. The human aspect is one of the truly amazing facets of travel.

I think that 8 months of travel was the perfect amount of time for me, maybe even a little long. Near the end I just wanted to come home. I think that traveling through Latin America has advantages and disadvantages. For Canadians and Americans it is very accessible. No paper work required you can jump on your bike and leave today. Also there is only one language to learn, however I think the harmony of Latin America was a negative for me. I got bored. The fact is, a large amount of land and countries share the same cultural foundations and it means that you aren't confronted with anything really new or fresh during the trip. Africa or Asia, in my opinion, has more diversity to offer for a similar amount of distance traveled.

There is a reason why it is called the comfort zone; it's comfortable. I missed my things and the freedom to do other things besides riding my bike. It was a great trip but I was okay when the end came after 8 months of travel.