And now – Peru!

One of the many mobs of locals who surround us when we stop!

One of the many mobs of locals who surround us when we stop!

17 October – Day 87

Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru
Distance: 340kms
One thing I haven’t mentioned about Ecuador yet was the extent to which we were – regularly – mobbed in the streets. In a positive, rockstar kind of way. People wanted to look at the bikes, touch the bikes, have their photos taken with us and the bikes etc etc. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before. Even when we weren’t with the bikes – ie just walking around – I had women walk up and give me their baby to hold while they positioned an older child/ren next to me for a photo. It all felt very surreal. Anyway.. that was Ecuador… and now…

Border crossings are back! And.. still long and somewhat trying. Our exit from Ecuador was a dream…. Really fast, friendly officials – I think the whole thing took less than 10 minutes. However getting into Peru… wowsers. We got ourselves in and our passports stamped without issue. Then, to get the bikes in, we needed a photocopy of the Peru entrance stamp in Adrian and Jeremy’s passports. Unfortunately, there was no photocopier on the Peru side of the border. Well… there was, but the customs guy refused to let us use it, saying it was just a printer and not a photocopier. Adrian even offered him a bribe, but no cigar. You can’t photocopy with a printer. Mr customs directed us back to Ecuador to a photocopy stand apparently located at the Ecuadorian side of the border (about 400m away). So Jeremy took all the papers etc and walked, in blazing sun, over the bridge and back into Ecuador… only to be told that there wasn’t a photocopier there and he’d have to go back into the last town before the border to find one, which was a good 10 minute drive away. But… we’d already left Ecuador – including exporting the bikes… so there was no way we could legally just ride back over without re-importing the bikes etc. Luckily, Jeremy convinced the Ecuadorians to let him ride to the town and back, so again he was off with all documents in search of a photocopier. It took about an hour, during which time Adrian and I tried to entertain each other with games of eye spy, scissors paper rock and thumb wars. It wasn’t really all that entertaining!! However watching a couple of customs officials solicit ‘donations’ from almost every ute that went past actually was quite interesting. We saw a few utes go back and forth multiple times and so put it down to fuel in Peru being 3-4 times more expensive than in Ecuador… it makes it worthwhile to cross the border for a petrol run, that’s for sure!

Eventually, we made it across the border – after the unhelpful Peruvian was somehow able to keep a straight face as he made photocopies of the bike import forms. Photocopies! On the Peru side of the border! Not just a printer after all..!?

By this time, we were racing sunset to reach Piura. My first impression of northern Peru is that it is dry.. much drier than Ecuador. Possibly because of this, the poverty seems starker; without irrigation it looks like it would be difficult to even grow food for the family. Yet clearly there’s a wet season here at some point – or wealthier people/corporations have access to significant underground water sources – as we past a number of very large fruit farms.

Piura is really just an overnight rest stop; we plan to be on the road straight after breakfast in the morning.

 

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A whirlwind tour of southern Colombia – and crossing into Ecuador

A gothic cathedral in Colombia

Las Lajas Cathedral in Colombia, just north of the border with Ecuador

10 October – Day 80 – half way!

Pasto, Colombia to Otavola, Ecuador

Distance: 232kms

Today we and visited a unique gothic Church built into the side of a valley and then crossed the border between Colombia and Ecuador.

It was our first border crossing for a while and probably took an hour and a half, which really isn’t too bad as these things go. A first for me was having two bikes to look after instead of one… I was on ‘bike duty’ while Adrian and Jeremy organised the paperwork. Another first was that Adrian was able to use my passport to check me out of Colombia as well as himself – even though I wasn’t actually standing anywhere near the immigration building at the time! Can’t see that happening in Australia…!!?

There were a ton of roadworks along the way, which meant that the relatively short distance actually took most of the day… we only just made it into Otavola by nightfall. We also had a bit of a challenge in finding petrol; the first four petrol stations we went to were either completely closed, open but totally out of fuel or open but only had low grade fuel available! Given that we’d deliberately not filled up before crossing the border because we knew the petrol in Ecuador was significantly cheaper, we did really need some! It was a good reminder of the fuel situation in South America, where it’s not always easy or possible to get fuel.

Adrian and Jeremy wiggling the bike through the door at our hostel

Adrian and Jeremy wiggling the bike through the door at our hostel

We parked the bike inside the foyer of our hostel… nothing out of the ordinary there, other than the fact that the doorway was slightly narrower than the bike’s handlebars are wide! So Adrian and Jeremy had to sort of wiggle it through.

 

9 October – Day 79

Cali, Colombia to Pasto, Colombia (via Popayan)

Distance: 390kms

Today was a bit of a whirlwind tour of southern Colombia, taking in the cities of Popayan and Pasto.

Popayan is also known as ‘the white city’ because all of the buildings in the centre of the town are painted glowing, snow white. It was really noticeable after the bright colours of previous cities.

White buildings in a white city!

White buildings in a white city!

On the ride into Pasto, we met up with another overlander on a BMW, Jeremy from France. He’s in the middle of an epic multi-year world tour combining travelling and working. We ended up riding to Pasto together and will probably ride together for the next few days.

Crossing from Costa Rica to Panama

26 September – Day 66

Puerto Viaje, Costa Rica to Boquette, Panama
Distance: 286kms (time on bike = 8.5 hours including 3 hours at the border)

So… which way to go? The direct route, risking potentially getting stuck in a roadblock for an indefinite period and/or having to turn around and go back across the border (=bleh) into Costa Rica and then around the long way ie 600kms + through Costa Rica. Or – just go the long way, thus not risking having to get back across the border.

We asked around in the morning and one of the local travel agents phoned someone –no idea who – to ask if the road was open. Apparently, it had been blocked the day before due to a protest but was absolutely fine today and we’d be able to get through. So we decided to go the way we’d originally planned – ie directly across the border. Yay! At the border, I also asked the officials there and they said they didn’t know either way. Then I asked a guy who was crossing from Panama into Costa Rica and he said the road was fine. And it was!! So that was a relief… it was nice to know that we were going the shortest/most direct route.

Nevertheless… I’m sick of border crossings with the bike. Seriously – I’ve had nine now on the trip, and that’s enough!! It’s not even that I have to do all that much.. as per a previous post, because the bike is in Adrian’s name, he’s the one who has to do the back and forth with the import and export paperwork etc. Sometimes, I think that would be easier than just standing, for hours, in full sun and motorbike gear, waiting. Just waiting. At least doing the paperwork means I’d have a focus!! So yeah – suffice to say that this most recent border crossing, from Costa Rica into Panama, was long and hot. Three hours, in fact.

We’d heard from other travellers that Panama is a country where you just don’t speed, because there are radars everywhere and they take speeding very seriously. The evidence would suggest that there’s no problem with cars and trucks literally belching out thick black smoke, or cars so rusty I’m not sure what’s actually holding them together, or cars with no mufflers and so sound almost as loud as a plane taking off… however based on my limited time in the country (less than 24 hours!), speeding is definitely a massive focus. I’ve never seen so many motorbike police standing by the side of the road! Sure, many of them seemed to be playing a game on their phone or texting or something rather than actually using a radar, but that’s beside the point! We were pulled over by one policeman in a 60 zone. I think we we’re doing about 70-75kms.. he told us that we’d been doing 95kms. Eventually, he just waved us off and said “slow down.” I think the fact he didn’t actually have a radar probably worked in our favour.

Boquette seems to be a US retirement town… it’s so much like the US that you could blindfold someone and drop them here, and I don’t think they’d be able to tell that they were actually in Central America. Dinner at Mike’s Bar and Grill, where they served San Francisco garlic fries and were showing a NFL match on the big screens, certainly helped cement that picture.

Prolapses at the border

13 September – Day 53

Antigua, Guatemala to Juayua, El Salvador
Distance: 238kms (time on bike: about 6.5-7 hours including 3 hours at the border)

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me.

It started in the last little stretch of Guatemala really… The queue to the border, several kilometeres long and three and sometimes four trucks wide (even though it was a two lane road)  didn’t help… although we were able to weave our way through to the front.. just. This ‘weaving’ including a section where I walked ahead of the bike and acted as a traffic cop, stopping bikes going off road in the other direction so Adrian could get through, and another section where there was literally less than a hair’s width between us and two  semi-trailers, one of which was moving. To get through the last little bit, Adrian had to turn the handlebars and get the mirrors just past the back edge of one of the semis before straightening up again to inch slowly, carefully forward and out of the ‘Lauren and Adrian motorbike sandwich’.

Having made it to the front, we were immediately surrounded (literally) by a group of men saying that they would ‘help us’ with the ‘very difficult’ paperwork to exit the bike from Guatemala. ‘No fee, no worry. I just help you. No problem. You want to change your currency. I help you too. This way, this way.’ Adrian did his best to say no, but there was one very persistent guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and followed Adrian around as he got the paperwork, got documents photocopied (at every border crossing there are a myriad of documents you have to get copied including with an official stamp and without an official stamp– and there are special photocopy shops just for that purpose), stamped, photocopied again, had the bike inspected and finally got the Guatemalan temporary import permit cancelled. I don’t know how much the ‘helper’ actually helped… but we got the stamps etc we needed and then proceeded across the border into El Salvador.

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me. I had about a two hour wait ‘guarding’ the bike while Adrian went back and forth doing bike import stuff (which was a saga in and of itself – at first, they would only give him a temporary 24 hour transit permit to cross the country but not actually stay here and it took quite a while and lots of negotiation to get the import permit needed. Although my Spanish is better, I can’t do it as the bike is in Adrian’s name).

I think the bad impression was mainly due to constantly seeing emaciated female dogs with terrible, raw angry prolapses. I’d never seen a dog (or any other animal, for that matter) with a prolapse. I’ve now seen several – and it ain’t pretty. It was awful. The dogs were clearly starving. And their insides were hanging out, just dangling outside. I actually felt ill. At one point, a very poor man who was selling (or trying to sell) padlocks, miniature walking sticks, big knives and nail clippers to people in parked cars and those queuing at the immigration building went over to one of the big rubbish bins scrounging for food scraps, which he emptied out onto the asphalt for the dogs to eat. It was such a kind, thoughtful gesture from someone who very clearly had very little himself, I almost started crying.

Welcome to El Salvador.

A little later, while I was still waiting, guarding the bike with my fiercest ‘don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-tougher-than-I-look’ stance (ah yeah: not really), some very friendly Guatemalan ladies stopped to talk with me while they were waiting to get across the border. So that was nice. And while I was talking with them, Adrian returned with the right import papers (we think… the proof will be in our ability to successfully, smoothly exit the country in a few days!!!) so we got going. We took part of the ‘Route of Flowers’ and it was incredibly pretty… bright flowers lining the side of the road, with coffee plantations (and sometimes macadamia or orange trees) lining the fertile volcanic-ash-soiled mountains tucked just behind the flowers.

Our destination was a little town called Juayua and I’m pretty sure that we were two of only four gringos in the entire place.  We found a hotel with a lovely view over the several (I think five or maybe seven?) volcanoes in the area, settled in, ate dinner and then drank beer on the terrace looking out at the mountains. It was lovely.

– And I started to like El Salvador more.

From Mexico to Guatemala – border crossings with a motorbike

BMW r1200 GSA in on a busy market street just inside Guatemala

The bike just across the Mexico-Guatemalan border.

5 September – Day 45

Comitan, Mexico to Panajachel, Guatemala (Lake Atitlan)
Distance: 305 kms

Border crossing day!! We left Comitan by about 9am and made it to the border by 11am. Armed with blogs from other motorbike travellers who’d crossed at this border, we started by trying to check out of Mexico… only to be told that there was a $30 fee to exit. Notwithstanding that the signs in the customs office clearly said (in both English and Spanish!) that the fee only applied to those tourists who arrived in Mexico by air – ie clearly not us – there was no budging the official. If we wanted to leave the country, we had to pay the fee.

Here in Central America and I think probably also South America, there’s a bit of a circuitous process to get into the country: first you go to the customs office and get some preliminary paperwork. Then you have to take that paperwork to the bank (usually located very close by) to pay an entrance fee / tourist visa fee and get a receipt. Then you have to return back to customs with the receipt, hand it over and then – and only then – do you get stamped into the country. When there are queues in both places, it can take a bit of time.

Anyway, we paid the fee – and figured out that it was the same fee we’d paid when we first arrived in Mexico, so theoretically we shouldn’t have had to pay it again. However because we had to hand over our initial receipt to get our entry visa, we didn’t have a receipt to give to the customs guy at the other end. Good to know for next time…!!

Once we left Mexico, it was a pretty straightforward process getting into Guatemala: first we had to get the bike fumigated, then change our pesos for quetzals with one of the many guys standing just over the border waving wads of cash around, then pay for the fumigation, then get our own passports stamped, then start to get the bike officially imported and registered, then go to the bank to pay the import and registration fee, then back to the vehicle import office to finalise the paperwork and get our rego sticker. And then, finally, we were off!

The whole process about two hours.

And then we were on our way in Guatemala. Straight away we noticed that there were fewer speedbumps – and more armed soldiers. Banks, for example, keep their doors locked at all times and there is an armed guard or soldier standing on the inside, peering through a thin clear panel on an otherwise frosted glass door. If he thinks you look ok, he unlocks the door. Inside the bank, there are a couple of other heavily armed guards (I’m talking semi automatics/AK47s/other assault rifles) standing at various points. This was the scenario in two of the banks I went to, looking for an ATM. Ironically, ATMs are outside the bank – and not at all guarded or secured!

Our first day of riding in Guatemala was possibly the hardest day of riding so far. Blinding, driving rain.. so much so that often the streets were flowing. Pot holed roads – and often the potholes were hidden by the volume of water flowing over the road. Thick fog, reducing the visibility to less than 20m – it was a total white out. And it was soooo cold – particularly after we got back above 3000m. And to all of this, add crazy traffic with cars overtaking trucks on blind corners, other trucks using the whole road to make some of the bends, speed bumps that weren’t marked at all, cobblestones and all the usual challenges of driving in Central America.

So we were pretty happy to make it to a hotel Adrian had found the day before… only to quickly become less happy when we discovered the price has gone up from $22 a night to $70 a night in two years!!! Such a rip off. Under normal circumstances, we would have just kept looking… but it was still raining hard, we were really cold and had just spent the past several hours riding in atrocious conditions and neither one of us could really face getting back on the bike and riding slowly around town checking out other hotels in order to save $20.

So – here we are. We’ve been for a walk (and couldn’t see much due to the fog and rain), we’ve had dinner and have got a day off the bike here tomorrow so I’m really hoping for some sunshine!!!

Mexico

16 August – Day 25

Tucson, US to Hermasillo, Mexico
Distance: 392kms

We are in Mexico!

We got started early this morning to hopefully hit the border crossing at Noagles before the traffic got too bad. I’m not sure if it was our early morning start, but the crossing was surprisingly easy and fast – I’m hoping that bodes well for all the other border crossings we’ve got coming up! We literally just drove out of the US. No queue, no gate, no customs, no passport control. We then drove into Mexico, through a gate, but no customs or passport control – and we’d arrived!

Straight away, you could tell we were in a different country. Even though the border at Noagles is literally a big unfriendly wall – similar to the Berlin wall in some respects, although this wall is designed to keep Mexicans out rather than East Berliners in – it’s literally a wall across a road. So if you were crossing as a pedestrian, you’d take ten steps and everything would change: the people, language, money, smells, sights, sounds – everything. For most people, ten steps is the distance from the couch to the fridge. Here, it’s a journey between worlds.

We parked just across the border and found the customs office, got our passports stamped, paid the temporary entry fee and jumped on the bike to head to the ‘imported vehicles registration office’ 21kms down the road. We found it, got Beamsky registered and stickered, paid a refundable $400 ‘security deposit’ (which we’ll get back when we cross the border at the other end – I hope) and we were on our way! It was hot again today – not quite as hot as the two previous days in Tuscon, but still high 30s – and with humidity! Until today, we’d only really had dry heat.

Anyway, we were pretty keen to get away from the border area as quickly as possible, so we high tailed it to Hermasillo. Adrian did a great job navigating the road/cars/trucks/pot holes/gravel pits/hawkers – and topes. Topes are killer speed bumps that are made from a series of ‘silent policemen’ or raised moulded plastic cones too close together to weave a path through, yet not close enough to ride smoothly over. Basically, the bike skids all over the place. Adrian tries to balance and steer the bike over/through – and I hold my breath.

Hermasillo is.. sort of touristy but not really touristy at all. It is touristy because it’s the first major town across the border, so lots of travellers stop here on their way through and there are hotels lining the main drag. Yet it’s not touristy, because there’s nothing really to see/do/experience in the town. It’s very much a transit spot. So we found a hotel, went for a walk, had dinner, and called it a night.