Mèxico (part one)

So to Mexico. My last Latin country of this trip. I was never going to be able to stay in Mexico for as long as I had wanted. I was already very behind schedule and my two months in Guatemala meant I only really had a month, but Mexico has been a real eye-opener. I had heard good reports from other travelers so I knew it would be good but everything I saw just made me want to see more. Unfortunately my delays meant that I had arrived during the season of bad weather and even my Mexican friends advised me to race up to the United States to make the most of the summer, but I wasn’t really fazed by it all as I totally intend to return. More about that later……..

I crossed into Mexico at the border at La Mesilla, which was super-chilled and without any problems at all. The price to temporary import my bike was a bit steep at 60-odd dollars but was valid for 6 months with multiple entries to the country so wasn’t that bad really. My first impressions were that Mexico was way more developed than Guatemala, but still with very traditional elements. The roads from the border were in great condition and it felt great to be riding along, listening to music after being inactive for so long in Guatemala.

The colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas was my first port of call and I was pleasantly surprised by the city and the reasonable prices. I found some fantastic accommodation well within my budget and stayed for a couple of days to take in the sights. The city is pretty touristy and I saw loads of foreigners walking around although I didn’t really get involved in the night life. San Cristobal is in the state of Chiapas, which has a huge Mayan culture just like Guatemala and is famous for its Zapatista rebels who were able to obtain a level of autonomy from the federal Mexican government through their struggles. I passed through the state capital Tuxlà and rode through the mountains to the southern coast where I stayed at the ‘Boca del Cielo’ coastal village following a recommendation of a friend. I only stayed for two nights. The beach was beautiful and deserted but I was bored after a day and I headed further west to the city of Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca, I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing contact and I had been in contact with him all throughout the day to advise of when I would arrive. I still arrived late though (too many photos) and my contact had to go to work. I parked up outside a restaurant where the friendly owner saw my number plate and invited me in for some food and drink. Many hours passed with me waiting to go somewhere to offload the bike and relax before I gave in and went to find a hostel instead, apologising to my would-be host but it was 11pm and I had been riding for about 8 hours and really needed to crash. The next day I went for breakfast with another CS contact who had a place for me to stay, but she had lots of commitments and we didn’t get to meet up until way later in the evening when I was worse for wear after an afternoon drinking Mezcal with some guys I had met in the street. She still put me up, but probably wasn’t very impressed with my drunkenness! Anyway, I had a laugh in Oaxaca and made some good friends.

I had no idea where I wanted to go next, but the ride up from Chiapas had been great and I wanted more of the same. I elected to ride north through the mountains towards Tuxtepec. The ride started off great but then the heavens opened and it became a taxing ride through the rain and I was completely soaked and tired by the time I arrived. I had much better luck the next day and I road through more beautiful mountain scenery to Puebla. I was now far from the Mayan Chiapas but Mexico is full of indigenous cultures and the villages and towns I passed through looked exactly like those in Peru or Bolivia. Later in Mexico City I would go the anthropological museum which I have to recommend as a must for anyone who wants to travel in Mexico and learn about the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Puebla is another beautiful colonial city although very big and modern too. I only stayed there the night before riding the short journey into Mexico City. Mexico City, known locally as DF (pronounced de-efe, Distrito Federal) is HUGE. Greater Mexico city has a population of over 21 million people and is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. Its also at over 2000 m above sea level and can be pretty cold in winter, not the image that most of us have of Mexico. I had gone to stay with Ana, my Colombian CS friend who had put me up in Bogotá back in January. I had caught Ana when she was moving to Mexico city but now she lives there with her daughter. She works in TV and is such a workaholic that I hardly saw her in the whole week that I stayed at her place. The weather was awful, raining hard most days and the one opportunity I had to explore was wasted when my GPS sent me on a wild goose chase of metropolitan Mexico City for a few hours. I found my way 2 minutes after turning the bloody thing off and using my head. Then my bike broke down kilometres away from the pyramids at Teotihuacán due to dodgy carburetor internals. It was a Sunday and with limited tools on me and nowhere open to help I was incredibly lucky to get the bike back on the road just in time to get caught in another torrential storm as I road back through the city.

I had a bunch of things to get done in the city, but the main one was to see if I could get a visa to go to Russia. I had planned on getting a visa in the US but the websites of the various Russian consulates in the US are very specific that visas are not granted to non-residents of the USA and I had thought that they might be more ‘lenient’ in Mexico, the website certainly didn’t mention anything about non-residents so I thought it was worth a shot. Andrey, a Russian rider that I met in Patagonia had made an official invitation for me and had sent it to Ana’s office. It took me a few days to get to the embassy when it was open for consular services but when I did I was told that I would have to get my visa in London. I wasn’t as pissed off as I thought I would be, perhaps that had something to do with the Russian lady telling me the bad news being Bond-girl hot, but the more I thought through possible remedies to the problem, the idea of coming home started to appeal to me. It had always been my dream to ride around the world without coming home, without a break and in the many thousands of miles I’ve ridden, the dream of riding back up familiar streets to see all my friends has kept me going from the very beginning and it just wouldn’t be the same to return without my bike. When I left, my plans were to travel for 2 years and I’m now coming up to the end of my 3rd year away and I have to be honest and say that I’m starting to get a little homesick. I love to travel solo but its not always easy. On one hand I’m free to do whatever I want, whenever I want and I have met so many great friends through random events and serendipity, but on the other hand I’ve largely been on my own for 3 years. I’m getting tired and its getting harder and harder to keep moving and I sometimes find myself wanting to stay in places out of laziness instead of enjoyment. When I am having adventures the excitement and adrenaline makes it all worthwhile, but I haven’t been doing anything that adventurous for quite a long time now. Maybe I’ve become so used to life on the road that so much of it seems normal to me now. Who knows? but I shall be flying back to UK in October and I’ll have plenty of time to see how my feelings change. Maybe a ‘Holiday within a Holiday’ will help me focus, maybe being back at home will remind me why I was traveling in the first place, either way I’m very happy and excited to be seeing everyone again. I’m certainly not the first moto-traveler to have misjudged the bureaucracy of visa applications and I wont be the last and to be fair, it would have been impossible to have predicted when I would have been passing through Russia when I was getting ready to leave UK. Its still my plan to complete this around the world trip. I want to make the most of this amazing opportunity that I have to see the world. My funds, although I am way, WAY over budget should still be enough for me to complete the trip, but probably not if I stay in UK for 9 months waiting for June 2015 to arrive. Just as well that I happen to know of so many lovely, cheap places where I can live for practically nothing and planning a place to got to pass the winter is exciting too. I’m such a jammy (lucky) bastard aren’t I!

Anyway back to Mexico. So after a week in Mexico City, which is a place I definitely have to see again as I saw practically none of it and sampled none of the night-life as I was staying out of town where it takes over an hour to get into the center, I left for the nearby town of Metepec. I went to meet up with Sergio, a friend of friend who had also randomly knew me through my blog. The weather was still bad but I had a great week hanging out with Sergio and his Colombian girlfriend Maria-Paola and all their friends and family. The world cup was on and Mexico was still in the game. We went around to a friends house to watch them play against the Netherlands and even though they lost, the party continued well into the night with loads of tequila and Mariachis (Traditional Mexican Musicians).

Sergio advised me to shoot up to USA too, but he urged me to take the main roads and to pass through the north as quickly as possible. Mexico’s reputation for violent drug cartels is well known but as per usual I was wondering how dangerous it would be to the passer-by. I’ve generally always considered gang violence to be between rival gangs with innocent bystanders being in the wrong place at the wrong time, however Sergio and many other Mexicans have told me that this stopped being the case in Mexico a long time ago, and that the gangs are out for any opportunity they can get, be it trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, whatever that pays. I’ve been through many dangerous places on this trip and you can see how the lack of security effects the lives of the normal people. For example, in South Africa people don’t stop at red traffic lights at night in the city because the risk of armed car-jacking is too great, but in Mexico’s Michoacán state, locals have had to take up arms as vigilantes to push the cartels out of their villages. This to me is the point where the division between a ‘dodgy area’ and ‘war zone’ becomes a little blurred. I had been warned while I was in Oaxaca of the disappearance in Mexico of fellow motorbike traveler Harry Devert. His remains were found in Michoacán after I had left Mexico. My thoughts go out to his family.

On leaving Metepec I went to stay in San Miguel de Allende for a few days. My friend John had put me in contact with his friend Linda who lives and works there as a teacher and artist. Just like Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, San Miguel is one of these places that makes it very difficult to think about Mexico’s problems. Its a beautiful colonial city that is very popular with ex-pats and has many bars and restaurants full of foreigners who have chosen San Miguel to be their home. The weather was nice and I relaxed for two days hanging out with Linda before I planned my mad dash through the northern states to the US border at Laredo.

The ride north was strange. I was really expecting to see desert, but instead I saw rolling grasslands with torrential downpours that I could see coming for miles away. Sometimes I dodged them, other times I took a beating from wind and rain only to be dry again minutes after riding out the other side. I was at the junction to turn into the city of Saltillo when through a lack of better judgement I decided to ride the extra 80-odd km to Monterrey. This turned out to be a complete mistake. I rode through a patch of road where fresh tar had just been laid down but hadn’t been marked off and I was lucky to not come off the bike as the wheels slipped around. The road that descended to the city was incredibly windy and the mountains on both sides of the road were channeling the wind from a storm that was raging over the city. Monterrey was flooded when I arrived and I got completely soaked riding through a ‘puddle’ that turned out to be as deep as any river crossing I’d ever done. A few miles down the road I saw a huge Kenworth truck passing through a similar ‘puddle’ that would have completely submerged me and the bike with a wave of water passing off the top of the truck’s engine. Being Mexico’s third largest city, it had been very stupid of me to try to enter the city so late in the day. Visibility was bad with the rain, I had no idea where I was going and traffic was gridlocked at rush hour. I asked several people and police for directions to a cheap hotel but they all just pointed me to a Holiday Inn Express which was way out of my price range but after another hour of messing about I gave in and haggled down their cheapest room, which would have been fantastic luxury for the evening had I not been cleaning tar off the bike for 4 hours in the hotel car park.

All in all, I’ve spent practically nothing in Mexico. True its not as cheap as Guatemala but its still very cheap to travel around although I think the main reasons that I spent nothing was the bad weather preventing me from doing anything and the fantastic hospitality that my Mexican (and Colombian) friends had given me. I got side tracked looking to buy waterproof trousers to replace my now tar-covered ones and ended up staying another night in Monterrey (albiet in a very cheap sex motel) and thereby missing the 4th of July celebrations in USA.

The border at Nuevo Laredo was absolutely rammed and it took me 4 hours to get through, but it was a pleasant surprise to see that there are no customs formalities for my bike so it can stay in USA while I return home.

So yeah, that’s been two years in Latin America. I feel really sorry to haven’t given Mexico much time but I’m coming back real soon (hence the part one in the title!). I’m still hatching plans of where to live through winter and there are many places in Mexico that would be ideal. I’ll give it all more thought while I’m at home but first, on to USA!

Central America

I’ve traveled so fast through Central America that my usual day-by-day account of the journey doesn’t seem appropriate to me. I knew I was going be to traveling fast. I had been in South America for much more time that I had planned and my time in Central America was going to be cut short so that I could still enjoy Mexico and North America and have time to ride home through Asia in summer. Enough people had told me to take my time traveling through Central but after the awesomeness of everything in the Andes I really didn’t think that I’d find much to interest me in Central. Most of the people I met coming the other way only really spoke of beaches and jungle and riders said that the roads are nothing compared to those of the South. Obviously this was a stupid way for me to be thinking and I found myself being enthralled just as much as I had been anywhere else. Every country has something to offer, places can’t really be categorised simply as ‘beach’ or ‘mountain’ and I felt bad every time I left for the next country wishing that I had had more time to explore. Besides, Central America has enough mountains and volcanoes to keep anyone amused for a lifetime.

Central did seem to me to be much more popular place for tourism. I mainly say this because I saw more foreigners around. In some cases it could simply be that the countries are so much smaller so foreigners stand out more. In other places it was much more obvious, with all of Costa Rica, Panama City, and Antigua in Guatemala being full of foreigners from all walks of life, from ex-pats and older tourists, to organised school trips, backpackers and everything in between.

Surprisingly, I never experienced the rampant corruption that most riders told me they had seen at Central’s borders and I was only stopped by the Police a couple of times only to be sent on my way with a smile. There was certainly nothing like the madness of borders in Africa. I can see how Central’s borders could be more of a shock to riders heading south as they are the first developing countries that they encounter on their trips, possibly when they don’t speak Spanish so well, but then again the exact same could be said about my experiences of African borders which were also in the beginning of my trip too when I wasn’t so savvy and didn’t speak any French. I guess comparisons are kind of pointless and a lot of it depends on the luck of the day, but I certainly didn’t see anyone getting whacked around the head with a plank of wood like Laas did at the Mauritania-Sengal border.

I was in Panama for three days before riding on to see my parents in Costa Rica. I hadn’t seen my mum for a year and a half since Rio de Janeiro and my dad for almost two years since I saw the two of them together in Cape Town. I left my bike with Rolbin, a Tico (Costa Rican) mechanic friend of a friend and I drove my parents around Costa Rica in a rented car. After they left, I stayed in Quepos with more new friends, where I serviced my bike with parts brought out to me by my parents (oil change, brake pads and springs, new chain and sprockets, new speedo drive and cable and new rear shock spring). Carter, a friend of John from Carlos Paz kindly put me up for the week and I got to be a fly on the wall as the marina he manages prepared itself to host the most prestigious sport fishing tournament in the world, the Offshore World Championship, which mainly involved me drinking with loads of fisherman, unable to follow their conversations and asking questions like ‘whats a billfish?’.

Laeticia had offered to come and see me and we arranged to meet in Guatemala. The date of her arrival made the most of the UK Easter holiday and also helped me to stick to my schedule by racing through Nicaragua and Honduras in only 6 days. This was a real shame however as everything I saw in Nicaragua just made me want to stay for longer. I crossed the border and spent two nights on the volcanic island of Ometepe, a place that some travelers stay for months before moving to a town near the border and having a fun night out with random new Nica (Nicaraguan) friends that I met in the street while I was buying something to eat. Honduras had intimidated me a bit, with the principal cities having an awful reputation for gang violence and crime in general. I spent my first night in the capital, Tegucigalpa with Eldin, a contact from couchsurfing before riding across the country towards the border with Guatemala. Although Honduras’ bad reputation is totally deserved in the cities, outside I found the countryside to be just as friendly and welcoming as anywhere in Latin America leading me to feel bad again when I left the county so early.

I spent my first night in Guatemala in the town of Esquipulas. The place was full of religious pilgrims from all over Central America who had come to see the Cathedral. With a loads of cheap hotels housing whole families from El Salvador and a huge market selling religious tat and cheap street food.

I stayed in Guatemala City with Daniel, a couchsurfing contact who made me incredibly welcome and helped me immensely, taking me to out on the town, taking me to pick up Laeticia from the airport and generally giving us fantastic hospitality. Daniel is also into paragliding and I have him to thank for encouraging me to learn to fly, making another one of my dreams come true.

Laeticia arrived from UK prepared to travel by bike. She had brought a helmet, jacket and gloves and I offloaded all my non-essential luggage at Daniel’s place to make space for her on the bike. We had made plans to go and see loads of places. Guatemala really doesn’t look that big on the map and I honestly thought that we wouldn’t need to be on the road for more than 4 hours a day to get around. I was of course, completely wrong and the list of places had to get cut short after we spent the majority of her holiday time riding from Guatemala City through Antigua, Cobán, Semuc Champey, Flores and Tikal and Lago Atitlán.

The days were longer than expected but the riding was great as my GPS had decided to send us through twisty mountain dirt roads giving us the kind of adventure and insights to a country that can only be obtained by taking the road less traveled. Guatemala has a very indigenous population and many times I thought that we could have been in Bolivia or Peru. Lago Atitlán is a paradise on earth and it was the perfect place to relax in our last week before Laeticia was to fly home. We had found the Maya Moon lodge run by a British couple along with legendary Twatrick (boooop) and I would find myself going back there many times during the rest of my time in Guatemala.

Laeticia went home and instead of making for the border as I had originally planned, I decided to learn to paraglide. I’d wanted to learn it for years and Daniel had put me in contact with Yankell, an instructor of paragliding and paramotor (paragliding with an engine and prop strapped to your back) and besides his very good value tuition he also arranged for me to stay at the finca where I would be practicing so that I could keep my costs down and make the most of the time to practice. The finca is in Chimaltenango, a small town with practically no foreigners about 15 minutes from Antigua and I camped out there for a few weeks while I was learning to take off. My plans of doing a ten-day course were pretty stupid though, as Guatemala was entering its rainy season and the conditions were frequently unsuitable for flying. It wasn’t so much the rain but winds from the north that kept me grounded and after 3 weeks of little progress, I was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to finish the course but I’m glad I persisted. My graduation flight at Lago Atitlán made it all worth while.

So despite rushing through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras I have still ended up way behind schedule and there is no way that I’ll be riding home through Asia this year. If I’m being honest, there was never really any chance that I would. You’ve all seen how I get stuck in places and I still haven’t sorted out any of the visas I’ll need. I can’t really rush myself and besides whats the point? On the plus side though I now have loads more time to enjoy Mexico and North America although we shall have to see how my money will last once I am back paying first world prices for things. I may need to get a job! Wow that was hard to write after almost 3 years of not working!

I don’t regret spending so much time in Guatemala. Two months is nothing compared to how long some people I’ve met have been here and besides big expenses like paragliding courses, tyres, and candlelit dinners, I’ve been able to live very cheaply here. Its the kind of place people don’t want to leave. Its the only country in Central America where I’ve had enough time to find out a bit of what its all about and I’ve made a whole bunch of new friends that I look forward to seeing again.

Its not always easy to write a blog. Sometimes the adventures are so intense that they write themselves, other times I’m half writing-half reminding myself what it is I’ve actual done (I’m assuming that anyone reads it!). I’d love to be able write about the my observations of the different places and people but for such a short time, I really don’t think I could do these countries any justice. I’ve been in Latin America for almost two years now and sometimes the differences between countries can be very subtle and it takes time to truly appreciate them. My apologies go to all the people I’ve met along this section of my trip who deserve more mention for helping to make my Central American experience a good one.

I’m still at Lago Atitlán now. I’ve been staying with a Andrés, a chapin (guatemalan) paragliding friend and we’ve been waiting to fly for a week without any luck. I was all excited to be flying over the lake again and to practice soaring but with bad weather I could be here for weeks before an opportunity arises. Of course its not all about paragliding, and the place itself is difficult to leave, but the time has come to pull myself away from this place and continue my trip into Mexico. See you soon in the land of tacos, tequila and Salma Hayek (and loads of other things too).