11 June 2018

Side Notes: Writing While Traveling

I am currently sitting in a hotel room in Bogotá, Colombia. The South American portion of this trip is coming to an end, and we will head to the shippers to crate the bikes the day after tomorrow. It feels so strange that what has become the norm--riding everyday and seeing new things--will soon be a part of the past.

Earlier today, I read over one of my previous blog posts (Bolivia) and then looked back over the list of the posts from this trip. It was astounding to me that I managed to publish eight posts in the first month. That may have been a bit of false advertising, and I apologize for that.

I still have so much to write about concerning this trip. Though I wish I could have written everything down immediately after it happened, there are very good reasons I didn't. I know that writing things down so long after they occurred--I started Antarcticain January, but have yet to finish it--will lose some of the crisp details and even some of the things I thought, at the moment they happened, would be so great to share.

So why didn't I "just buckle down" every day and write? To be honest, I spent a lot of time just enjoying. In the same way, I probably missed photographing things people would have loved to have seen, but I wanted to be living them out loud, not from behind a camera. One other reason is that quite often, at the end of the day, I was exhausted. Some of the riding has been physically exhausting. Some of it has been mentally exhausting as well. And many days, I feel wiped out from struggling to communicate with people in a language I am not fluent in.

The last reason is pretty simple. I don't have to. This is not my job, and I don't have a deadline. On days I am tired, it is often easier to pick up and read a book, rather than write one.

But, as I said earlier, I still have a lot to share. Even if there are only two of you reading this, I will happily write it for the two of you. And, of course, I will be writing it for me--for those days when I don't remember what I did in my early forties!

Somewhere in Bolivia, the second time we were there. A collectivo jeep had buried itself into a hill, breaking an axle and effectively blocking the road. We did a quick scan of MapsMe and found this work around. In the end, we made it through to where we needed to go, but there were times like this in deep mud and sand, meeting huge work trucks, that made us wonder if we shouldn't have just waited for the mules to be brought around to remove the broken down jeep. THIS was definitely an adventure!


09 June 2018

Salinas: City of my Gastronomic Dreams

Today didn't feel like living on the road. Today felt like actual vacation. I woke up snuggled in a bed covered in fleece sheets, two heavy wool blankets, and a comforter, then walked out to a breakfast room already warmed by the sun to have breakfast. After breakfast, I had a little dessert of local chocolate. Eating breakfast dessert makes me feel like I'm on holiday!

Due to weather, we disappointingly found that Chimborazo was a no-go

We had arrived in Salinas (de Bolívar) the day before. We had ridden from Riobamba to Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, and the point on the earth--due to the equatorial bulge--farthest from the core, or closest to the moon. The mountain, an inactive volcano, was so socked in with clouds that we stayed at the visitor center for only about twenty minutes, being very disappointed we wouldn't be able to hike. From the parking lot, we made the decision to to roll into Salinas.

We headed right for a hotel Josh had read about. There wasn't a room ready, but there was already an inviting fire going in the fireplace. The woman at the desk told us there would be a ready room in about an hour, so we went back into town for a little lunch. After driving the wrong way down a one-way street (par for the course on this trip) and circling the plaza twice (three times in Josh's case), we finally found a place to park and a little cafe with a wood burning stove going like crazy. While Josh ordered lunch--complete with local hot chocolate--I sat next to the stove, warming up and looking at the town map/info pamphlet I had been given at the hotel.

What I read was an amazing story!

Sitting high in the Andes at about 3550 meters above sea level, Salinas was a town that prospered on its salt mining hundreds of years ago, prior to the spaniards coming in. (Of course...) The original way of mining the salt had been tedious, but the town used the salt to trade with all the surrounding communities for other things they needed, so much so that they referred to the salt as Oro Blanco--white gold. The spaniards changed the method for mining the salt--no doubt collecting their perceived amount due--and over the following years the town grew extremely poor.

By the time the spaniards had been run out of South America, Salinas was in a bad way. By the 1970s, the town's inhabitants were poor, without electricity, living in what appeared to be huts, with a mortality rate of close to fifty percent for children under five. They needed help, and it came in the town of a visiting friar. With his help, the city turned it's economic tide by creating co-ops that supported the production of cheeses, chocolates, yarns and more, using raw materials from surrounding villages.

Due to the location and climate of the town, they couldn't grow all the raw materials needed. But, they managed to learn the techniques and find the equipment needed for turning those raw materials from elsewhere to finished products. On top of that, the town began to embrace tourism as a way to showcase those products, and create more revenue for the town.

The story was fascinating, and as we walked through town after eating a delicious lunch, it was clear to see how that change had impacted the town. No one lives lavishly, but people seem comfortable, healthy, and happy. Everyone was extremely friendly, and to be honest (for me, a fairly telling sign of how well a town is doing) the town dogs all seemed to be healthy and friendly. I pet A LOT of dogs yesterday!

We may also have bought a number of things, including, but not limited to, cheese, salami, chocolate, hand-knit alpaca gloves, and more chocolate. We talked to the town's people (who had all seen us ride through the plaza...) and wandered up and down most of the streets.

Finally, we decided to head back to the hotel and chill for the night. And I mean chill! It was cold. I sat out on our balcony (as promised by the girl at reception, it had a great view of the city) with my new alpaca glove/mittens on, marveling at their warmth and softness. How am I only discovering the joy of such a simple thing now??

While stuffing our faces with local chocolate and cheese, we made a plan for the following day. Though we usually do most of our exploring on our own, we decided Salinas would be a great place to take a guided tour of the town--the tour that included the local factories.

So, after waking in my warm, comfortable bed, then being served a beautiful breakfast in a sunny room overlooking town and eating breakfast dessert, we wandered into the tourist office in town. We were introduced to Don Victor, a local septuagenarian all set to introduce us to local life. Don Victor's role as tour guide was just one more way the town had embraced change to make life better. This town absolutely embraced tourism with a sincerity that had me feeling like a friend of everyone in town we met.

Our tour started at the local knit/crocheted goods co-op. They had about 150 women from all around who created goods at home, which were then sold there. The goods could also be found in small stores in the town, and the alpaca gloves I bought were made by the woman who sold them to me. Making sweaters, hats, gloves, shawls, etc., from sheep's wool and alpaca is a tradition passed down through the generations of women in local families.

So, where do they get the yarn?

That factory was next on the tour. In the heladeria, eighteen local men take wool from dirty shearing to fine yarn in all the colors. Some of the machinery was developed there, while the more complicating combing and spinning machinery was sourced from Europe and Canada. The building was humming with activity, and every part of the process was fascinating to watch--I loved the process and Josh loved the machinery.

Leaving the working part of the plant, we stopped in the small bodega which sold the skeins of yarn. I stood amongst the rainbow hued softness wishing I was interested in knitting or crocheting. I wanted ALL the colors, but knew I'd never do much with them. Also, space on the bike is tight--indulging in something like that was completely impractical. No matter, I am so completely happy with my gloves I bought, and they're the best of both worlds. I got the soft warm yarn, AND someone to make it into something. Perfect!

We wandered back outside into the somewhat surprising sunshine. It was warm enough I shed my jacket, and we walked back down a hill to an essential oil shop. The owner informed us it was a micro-business that did its own distilling, and product creation. The space was indeed micro, but filled with the calming scents of eucalyptus, rosemary, and other local plants. I bought a small tin of of something smelling of rosemary and promising to relieve insect bites, and we moved on.

Our next stop were the salineras. Getting there involved a bit of a trek, and I wondered not for the first time, how Don Victor was doing. But, in his lined wool trousers and North Face hiking boots, I'm a little embarrassed to admit he was fairing better than us. Though we were acclimatized to the high altitude, we didn't walk it every single day like most of the town's residents. On the way to the start of the trail, we made a quick stop at the salumeria. Okay, I know that's an Italian word, but I can't remember the word in Spanish. Nevertheless, we stopped in for a peek at the hanging salamis and the giant, walk-in smoker.

After gawking for a few moments, we continued on to the trailhead for the salt pools, and began that part of the journey. We passed cows on the hillside none too interested in us. After we crossed the river, we wandered through the salt pools, now only used by two women. My guess is they only keep those few pools growing for the tourists. It takes an entire day of work to produce a kilo of salt that sells for about $2. Salt production really went out with the spaniards.

Our reward for making the hike up and down the valley to the salt pools was a stop at the local chocolate factory. Here, through giant Windows we could watch the cacao from the coast of Ecuador be turned into the chocolate delights the town is so popular for. Walking into the small attached shop, a bowl of chocolate-covered coffee beans awaited. I popped one in my mouth, bit down, and my teeth sank into the softness of a raisin. GROSS! I couldn't believe I had let my guard down enough to be raisined. I quickly bought chocolate-covered coffee beans, and enough truffles made with the local liqueur to erase the taste from my mouth.

Josh, Don Victor, and I each popped the bombones into our mouths as we made our way to the next micro-business. Another small business with gleaming stills, making "health and beauty" products with local ingredients. After listening to the owner's spiel about the products--she exports 40,000 packages of product to help urinary problems to the U.S. Each year--I asked which product would be best for dry skin.

She handed me a container with a snail on it.

Right.... Well, I bought it.

And, out the door we went. To the cheese factory! Every morning, farmers from all over deliver their cow's milk via car, truck, moto, llama, donkey, etc., and the cheese factory turns it into delicious cheese. We had missed the farmers--as they are there between 7 and 9 in the morning--but we got to watch workers making cheese.

Then, we got to taste the cheese.

And then, we bought the cheese. Delicious, creamy, aged cheese.

Yeah, okay, there's more. I just got caught up in the deliciousness of that cheese. Sue me.

Our next "factory" was the fabrica de balones, where they make balls for futbol. Seriously. They don't just bring them in from somewhere else, they make them here. And, the reason I put the word factory in quotes is that this is a single-room, two-man operation. And it's not a big room!

Sadly, they were not working that day. But, being the small town it is, and Don Victor being the quintessential tour guide, he knew all about the process and explained it. He showed us the equipment, the leather, the glue, and the oven, and that was when I realized I had never questioned how a soccer ball got to be a soccer ball.

Though we thought that was the end of the tour--Don Victor informing us we had just walked a little over five kilometers for our tour--he took us to two more stores. One was a store with a tiny factory we could view through big windows, where they processed soy beans, and made all the soy products a person could want. We sampled some cookies, and they were tasty. You know, as far as soy substituted for butter could be....

The last little store had local liqueurs. We sampled chocolate and coffee liqueurs, as well as pajaro azul--the liqueur my chocolates were made with. We then bought a locally-produced limoncello, and a liqueur similar, but made with raspberries and blackberries.

Having exhausted the local treasure trove of businesses and smiling new friends, and being at the actual end of the tour, Don Victor escorted us back to the hotel--his own home being right across the street--and we dove head first into a lunch of salami, cheese, chocolate, and local liqueurs. It was ridiculously decadent, but seemed only fitting after our day of learning about the city.

However, as I finished an hour-long session of grazing on foods one should probably only enjoy in moderation, I realized we still had half of the day ahead of us. Since the weather continued to hold out, we headed for the hills. Our first stop put us high above the town, where a cross sat looking out across the valley. It was a pretty good view, though we have noticed that in most of these small towns, Jesus gets the best views from atop nearby hills.

We continued up the hill and away from the town, soon dropping into what was one of the most beautiful little canyons we had been in on this trip. The walls towered above us with beautiful rock formations, and patches of dense jungle clinging to the sides. The valley floor was vibrant green, with the occasional cow lounging in the tall grass. Once in a while, if I looked carefully and found a small trail through the trees, we would be rewarded with a cave entrance.

The further in we went, the sides became steeper, and the floor got narrowerer and narrowerer until it disappeared into the river. We came to a spot where we would either have to cross the river, or turn back. We headed back the direction we had come, until we found something that looked like a decent spot to cross. And, when I say "decent", I mean super sketchy, but I think we can make it....

This is one of those points where I weigh the risk versus the reward. Okay, if I cross this bit and make it, I still probably have to cross it to get back, and I might not make it. There could be something great at the end of this trail, or it could be another two kilometers of the same thing I've been looking at, and a dead end. If I make it across, there's something fabulous, and I make it back safely, that is a win! If I struggle getting across, there's nothing at the end, and I fall in the river coming back, that is really NOT a win.

The adventure side of me almost always wins out in this argument. Plus, I always assume the best. I mean, what if there was a cave at the end, filled with glittering crystals, and a family of unicorns waiting for me? Do I miss the chance at crystals and unicorns, just because I'm afraid of an icy-cold dousing in a rushing river? No, I do not!

Onward, and across the river we went. There were more magnificent views, and as we got deeper in, the going became more difficult. Slipping and sliding in the mud, grasping at trees for support, I climbed a little higher and found a really lovely waterfall. It was small, but the water rushed over rocks, dividing itself into two, then rushing back together to form another fall. It may not have been a family of unicorns, but it was worth the river crossing.

We continued on a bit further, and Josh nearly ran into the back of me when I pulled up short, looking back across the river where the valley opened up a bit again.

Josh said, "Oh, someone is cutting and drying wood for lumber."

Oh yeah, okay. That made more sense than, "someone is building a really tiny, well-ventilated house." Which, is what I had thought when I first saw the wood pile. Cheese and chocolate for lunch may have given me energy, but it had not made me any smarter.

This was where we decided to turn around. As we re-emerged from the closed off waterfall, we saw the clouds had begun to creep up the valley. The weather had been astonishingly beautiful all day considering the time of year, but we knew that if we didn't head back, we'd be pushing it.

Sure enough, as we returned to the hotel and made our way to the balcony again, we were able to watch the clouds creep into town, slowly taking over and smothering everything in their dampness. I watched the sun fade and the street lights come on while sipping limoncello.

It had been a really great day. The sights, the food, the people, and the leisurely pace made it feel like vacation. The following day we would get back on the road, and head for a campsite and our own cooking again. But, we had some salami, cheese and new gloves to take along with us, and a hot shower before we got on the road in the rain again.


08 May 2018

Whack jobs and nutters...every single one.

Our first pass through Ecuador was pretty quick. As we had taken our time getting through Central America, we were making up time in order to get to Ushuaia in time to meet our friends for the summer. We stayed primarily in the eastern ridge of the Andes on our way through, and passed through Vilcabamba without stopping the day before crossing the border into Peru.

Looking across the Valley of Longevity

That was five months ago. On our way back north, we decided we would stop. For some reason, I remembered thinking I wished we had stopped, and then I thought I recently had read it was a major Incan site. Josh reminded me it is what is known as the Valley of Longevity.

Oh, right! Where the people who lived there lived well into their 100s. Cool! We searched iOverlander for a spot to stay, and there was a campground listed that people loved, including an Australian couple we had spent a few days riding with in Chile. At $5 a person per night, with great hot showers, wi-fi, and an available kitchen, we headed right for it when we got into town.

There was a parade as we rolled into town! I think all the drivers were in their 90s--just ask National Geographic...

We found the Tierra Madre Hotel, then another 50 meters down the road, the black iron gates that opened to the driveway to the campground. It was actually just a piece of property with a number of buildings and some lovely grass area where people could park rigs or throw tents.

We were greeted by Mohan and asked if we were there to camp. Upon hearing him speak (in completely unaccented English) I asked where he was from. Texas. He and his wife Nina had been in Vilcabamba for seven years. She is a life coach, and they were hoping to pick up two or three clients per week and move back to the states. He remarked on how strange it would be to teach his son to drive, when he himself hadn't driven in so long. (Seriously all this in the first two minutes)

Mohan quickly showed us around--the place was really nicely designed, and we knew we'd be comfortable there for a couple nights. While we started unpacking the bikes, we chatted with him.

And that's when things started to get a little weird....

He asked if we went to any of the Incan sites, such as Machu Picchu. We said we had done, as well as a number of sites in Mexico and Central America. Totally normal conversation.

Then he mentioned that there were some weird things there in Vilcabamba. He told us a story of how a local woman, who had walked the same path every day for thirty years, recently found a sinkhole which had opened after a big storm. I waited for him to tell me that buried beneath were some Incan ruins.

Nope. He told me his buddy Bill--described as a really nice, big tall, totally normal guy--went down into the hole with one or two other guys. They found one large, round cavern-like room, with two other smaller round rooms branching off. On the walls were "scoop" marks, as though they had been made by someone scooping the earth away.

I thought, "Huh, maybe pre-Incan. Maybe the people who lived there hundreds of years before made rooms below ground by scooping away material with a tool."

The thoughts of the local Americans who were sharing this news? They were made by humanoid creatures that resemble Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, using their scoop-like claws.


Then he told us the story of how someone else was walking with his girlfriend one night when they saw a group of people off in the distance with flashlights on. They soon realized the lights weren't bouncing around like flashlights do when someone is walking and carrying one, but moving smoothly over the ground. When they got closer, they could see through a fence and some bushes, five "beings" floating above the ground. In the center of each of their chests, a light glowed from within.

And this was seen by not one person, but also verified by his girlfriend. TWO people witnessed this.

At this point, I'm pretty sure I was staring at him in disbelief. Not necessarily disbelief this could have happened, but disbelief that seemingly educated, well-spoken people bought into this stuff!

I said the only thing I could. "Well, if we consider how huge the universe is--how many stars and galaxies exist out there--and we believe we are the only possible intelligent life, we are pretty full of ourselves."

He then reminded me how John Kerry was in Antarctica on the night of the last presidential election. Quite honestly, I can't blame him and I wish I had been there...no electoral college amongst the penguins. Many "people" have theories as to why he was there, but Mohan informed us it was to see the underground civilization.

50,000 years ago (geologists and climatologists of the world, feel free to corroborate this story...) Antarctica had a warm climate. Apparently, there was an incredible freeze--which happened in a matter of seconds--that froze all the animals where they stood. We know this because woolly mammoths were found with "warm climate food" still in their mouths. This tells us there used to be a warm climate, and that the deep freeze happened in seconds. Had it happened in hours or even minutes, the animals would have spit the food out and gone to find a warm place to be....

How the mammoths and an underground civilization are connected, I don't know. We never got there. I just said that we didn't get to see any of that on our trip to Antarctica, and now I wanted my money back.

We finished unpacking, Mohan wandered off, we put up the tent, and I hit the wifi. Why had I wanted to stop in Vilcabamba?? What had seemed so interesting? I googled the town, and instead of finding Incan ruins, I found weirdos. I don't mean strange, eccentric people. I mean conspiracy theorists and the sheep who follow their spouting of "facts."

In the 1960s Johnny Lovewisdom (not his real name, shocker!) arrived in Vilcabamba with his cultish followers. Lovewisdom was a "spiritual guide" and leader of some interesting lifestyles while there. He believed in a raw, fruit-only diet (though he ate yogurt and some other fermented items later in life), water fasting, sun diets (wtf?), and breathanarianism--surviving on nothing but breath and spiritual energy. I'm pretty sure this guy is the reason the face-palm was invented.

In the 1970s, National Geographic, along with a couple other respected sources reported that Vilcabamba had an unusually high number of centenarians, one who was upwards of 134 years old. By 1978, this misinformation was debunked by scientists from Harvard--finding most people thought to be in their 100s were really in their 80s.

But, it seems people (a whole lot from the United States and European countries) still flock there. Despite the truth of the matter, people read what they want and believe what they want. They still search for the Valley of Longevity, long life, and answers to poor health and life's questions. Visitors and tourists come from all over, sometimes paying upwards of $70 a person to participate in a partaking of a hallucinogenic drink, made from a species of local cactus. It typically includes hallucinating and puking--sounds fun! Hmmmm...people were seeing floating beings with lights emanating from their chests....

NONE of this was our reason for being there. In fact, I couldn't even remember why I wanted to be there. Nevertheless, we were, so we made the best of it. Our second day, we caught a cab to a nearby town and did a hike to the local water fall. It was a tough-ish hike of a narrow trail. At one point, we pulled off the trail to allow a large group of European teenagers on horseback with two guides go past us. One of the kids was annoyingly playing music from his phone, loudly enough that everyone had to listen to it. As I huffed and puffed up the trail behind them, I decided I hated those kids, and at the same time wished I had their horses.

On the 7.6 km hike up to the Cascada El Palto there were loads of spiders!
Cascada El Palto--a 30 meter waterfall at the end of a moderate hike. If this 134 year old can do it, so can you!
I think this butterfly was 121 years old!

It was a long walk back down the trail, and we were ready for dinner and a drink when we got back to town. As we walked through town on that Sunday afternoon, I mostly heard English spoken. White people abounded, speaking nothing but English. When I googled the town, I read one traveler's report of talking to an American who had moved there because it was cheap to live there, and he didn't have to learn to speak Spanish.

It is a divided town--local Ecuadorians and the Americans who have moved there for some reason, but don't mix with the long-time residents. Speaking with the owner of the restaurant where we had dinner that evening (in Spanish...) he said a lot of people move there with health problems that they think will be fixed or cured by living in The Valley of Longevity. Students at the local college study why the local inhabitants live happy, healthy lives into their 80s. So far, it seems to boil down to drinking good water from the mountains, eating healthy food, and living lives like most other small-town South Americans.

Many of the stores in town cater to the hippy or hipster clientele by stocking many foods one would find in the United States in health food stores. Many signs state "non-gmo", "no chemicals", etc., and they're stocked right next to the packages of Oreos and off-brand syrup. The whole thing made me roll my eyes.

It also made me angry as I learned more about how violent crime has been on the increase. Americans have bought property, then begun selling it at inflated prices when they either got bored of the place or just wanted something different. Locals can't afford to buy anything anymore, and Americans show up and flaunt their money. We never felt threatened in anyway, but we don't run around flaunting our money. We also speak, or at least attempt to speak, the local language, and get to know the locals.

The second night we were in Vilcabamba, we spent the evening with Mario and Cecilia, two other travelers from Argentina. They had a small truck and and even smaller camper. They had been on the road for almost two years traveling around South America. They were young, interesting, and fun to be around. The town and English-speaking residents there had put me on edge--I was quite happy to not feel like I had to be on my guard while talking with Mario and Cecilia. We spoke mostly Spanish, except when I didn't understand something. Then, Cecilia, in her English (probably on par with my Spanish) would help me out. It was fun. It was the same way I felt with the restaurant owner and cab drivers--they weren't going to bring up aliens and conspiracy theories.

The last morning we were there, we chatted a bit more with Mohan. Honestly, he is a very nice person, as is his wife, Nina. Josh asked Mohan why, after seven years, they had decided to return to the states. He said they were bored. I was floored when I heard this. Of course, it seemed they hadn't tried to do much--earlier in the morning he mentioned they hadn't been to Peru (which is only about 100 miles away) or even to the coast of Ecuador. They don't seem to have a car, but in this part of the world you can get a bus just about anywhere pretty cheaply. He didn't seem to speak any Spanish, and it seemed the only work he did was tidying around the "campground" daily. Ok, I can see why he was bored.

I was packing my bike when the owner of the property, Nathan, came to "settle up." He is an American who seems to be trying to pass himself off as Swiss--the posting he listed on iOverlander states "Swiss designed" and he said he spent some time there as an exchange student and such. It felt like a very awkward conversation. I made a few jokes, and I was really happy when we finally pulled out of that place. I kept going over everything--did I get all my things out of the shower, did I grab everything from the kitchen? I kept feeling like I had left something behind. I told Josh I thought it was a piece of my soul, and he answered it might have been some of my sanity.

One other little interesting thing about how awful this place was. When we walked past the Madre Tierra Hotel on the second day, I said it HAD to be American owned. No Ecuadorian would call a place "Madre Tierra"--it is a very clumsy (literal) translation of "Mother Earth" that would only have been used by an English speaker, for other English speakers. There is a very lovely name which captures the idea of Mother Earth/Mother Nature in South America, and you learn it quickly if you spend any time down here. It is Pachamamá. Sure enough, when I was talking with the owner and paying for our nights, he mentioned that his brother owned it. I'm not certain why, but this cemented my dislike of the place.

I am sure the people who have decided to live there are very nice. I am sure they have lovely intentions of living a happy last thirty years of their lives in a beautiful place. And it is a beautiful place. I just can't help but think they're ruining something beautiful, and that I wish I had just given this place a miss. Then again, if I had, I would never have known why John Kerry was in Antarctica!


06 May 2018

The Stahlratte Von Bremen--a real and true review of a moto's best friend in Panama

I was not hating life at the moment. I had just spent the better part of three hours roaming the beach, picking through the tide pools, and lounging in the serene warm water of the beach on which we were camping in Nicaragua. Nicaragua! What a spot. The Mind The Gap Hostel and Camping was our home there for three nights, while we relaxed and took a few days to catch up with life. Bills paid, emails returned, and blog posts underway, Josh surprised me with some news--amazing news.

The Stahlratte was held up in Cartegena, and would have to adjust its schedule accordingly. There was a chance we could make port, and sail with the bikes. He also emailed the captain to find out if there was room for two more--there was!

A few days prior to this, when we entered Nicaragua, we ran into a young woman and her friend traveling from Denver in her Subaru. We chatted as we all had to wait in different lines first in Honduras, and then in Nicaragua. One of the topics of conversation was how we were all planning on getting from Panama to Colombia. If you had a public education like mine, and are not an adventure motorcycle rider, you may not have any idea that although the two countries touch each other (Mom...Colombia's touching me!), there are no roads that will get you from one to the other.


That was my reaction when I learned about it a bunch of years ago, though only in my own head so as not to let on to anyone around me that I didn't already know of this. The Darien National Park sits on the land in the east of Panama, and it encompasses a huge area of jungly-swamp, which used to be occupied by guerillas--this was not a place people tried to go. Over the years, a few brave souls have attempted, and even succeeded, to get through, but the stories involved machetes, people carrying motorbikes (I'm no expert, but I think you're doing it wrong...), and no doubt lots of snakes and bugs (Ick...).

So, if you're traveling through the area, how do you go about getting yourself, and potentially a vehicle, from one place to the other? There are a number of ways, and we researched them all. And by "we", I mean Josh. Josh researched them all.

You can fly. And your bike can fly. Not together, but typically within a few days of each other. We looked at this option. It is fairly expensive, and can be a bit of a pain to get your bike to the right place, loaded, and later unloaded. But, it's definitely quick.

Or, you can fly and you can put your bike into a container to be shipped via freighter. This is expensive if you use a full 40' shipping container for only a bike or two. However, if you can find friends with a car or a rig to share the space with, it suddenly begins to get more reasonable. Once again, however, it can be a bit of an ordeal to get your vehicle back. All parties who own something in the container must be there at the exact same time before they will open the container in port--your new friends better be reliable.

Another option, which is still a bit pricey, is to put yourself and your bike onto a sailboat. There are so many reasons why this is an appealing option, one of them being that the bike is always with you, and it's very easy to get it off the boat and back into your own hands. This is NOT an option for cars/trucks/rigs--bicycles and motorbikes only.

There are a number of different sailboats that do this, but the most well-known in the adventure moto community is the Stahlratte. A 38 meter-long ship, she can carry 21 motorcycles and passengers. Over the years of getting ready for this trip, I've seen a few posts here and there of people I "know" on Facebook making this trip. The pics are always fun, and it looks like the riders are all having the time of their lives. However, I was always under the impression that in order to sail on one of these ships with a bike, you had to reserve months in advance. That straps a rider down to having to be in Panama on a very specific date. I just couldn't make that kind of commitment!

But, here was Josh, telling me that not only would we be in Panama at the same time, but there was available space. My immediate reaction was, "Oh, hell yes!" Though he needed to spend a bit more time comparing methods, he eventually came around to wanting to also. We emailed all the info and paperwork for ourselves and our bikes, and sent a deposit off via PayPal.

We would be loading November 3, and sailing November 4. I was stoked!

But then, I started to do a bit more research, and I found out real information on it. I found that I did not have nearly the entire story. Knowing she was a working sailing ship, I assumed that when you booked passage, you also became a working crew member. I figured we'd load the bikes, return the next day to load ourselves, then start three solid days of sailing, doing our share here and there.

I was so wrong!

Here is what the experience is really like...

Heading out from Panama City on the morning of Panama's Independence Day--we flew the Panama flag

Friday, November 3 was Panama's Independence Day. We rode out of the city, heading towards Guna Yala, the port for the formerly-known-as San Blas islands, flying Panamanian flags on our bikes. A few kilometers out of the city, while stuck behind some particularly slow traffic, I noticed a lot of aftermarket lighting behind us--a 1200GS had caught up. Out that way, I remarked that he was probably on his way to the Stahlratte, as it was probably a safe bet. He must have thought the same as us, and when I rolled on the throttle to pass a couple of cars, I looked back to see not only Josh, but the other rider keeping up.

I thought it was fun that we had another rider joining us! A little ways on, we were once again moving very slowly behind what I could see were three or four cars behind a larger truck. As soon as we got to a straight area where I could pass, I very quickly made for the front of the line. I could see for a long way, and knew that all three of us would easily make it if I just hauled ass up there and they followed.

So I did. And so did they. And as I really looked at the car directly behind the bigger truck, I said, "Oh shit! It's a cop..." And as I dropped back into our lane in front of the truck and the other two followed me, I saw the cop's lights flashing.

Me: Oh god, his lights are going.

Josh: Maybe they are always going...

Me: He's not passing the truck yet (though at that moment all the traffic behind us was shuffling to get further ahead in the pack)

Josh: Don't stop...

I'm not going to. Oh crap, I really hope I didn't just get us and the new guy arrested...

And I didn't. I may have passed a cop doing 120km/h in an 80km/h zone, but they didn't seem to care. Later when we had to stop for traffic and Josh hung back and introduced himself to the new guy, I told him to apologize for almost getting him arrested. Our new friend, Benjamin, didn't seem to care--though, as it turned out, he was French, so maybe he just didn't understand--and the three of us rode on to the port.

Twenty-one motorbikes all waiting to be loaded onto the Stahlratte

We met up with the other eighteen bikes and nineteen riders. We all chatted and tried to find shade, while the Stahratte waited off shore. Soon, the captain, Ludwig, came to shore. He introduced himself, gave us some info, and asked us to get the bikes onto the dock and get our luggage off. Josh and I didn't hesitate, and our bikes were first at the end of the dock. Soon, the entire dock was filled with motos shining in the sun, and riders, trading stories and laughing while pulling luggage. We quickly fell into the habit of working together while we handed down the luggage to the small motorboat that made multiple trips to the ship with our gear.

Stripping the bikes of their luggage
So much luggage, and my friend Eckart from Austria--he was riding a KTM 1290
My friend Peter, from Germany, who was riding a R1200GS

When the luggage was safely aboard the Stahlratte, two more boats came to get all of us. We boarded the Stahlratte, and were soon pulling what we would need for the next three days from our luggage, and stowing the rest in a couple of closets below deck. The amount of luggage that came from those bikes was phenomenal, but we were done within about twenty minutes. After a delicious lunch up on the deck, we were on motorboats, headed to Porvenir Island. That is where we would spend the night.

Our first day and night felt seriously action-packed. First were the couple of hours of ride, then meeting twenty new friends. Hauling the luggage around was slightly exhausting, and then flying across the Caribbean to our (nearly) private island for the night. As soon as we arrived, our hosts at the Hotel Porvenir got us all shown to our rooms. We quickly changed, made friends with the hosts while buying beers, and headed for the beautiful white sand beach and into the warm, clear water. Coral and fish abounded, and for a person who really isn't in love with swimming, I spent the better part of the next three hours swimming around, amazed by all I saw.

Relaxing on Porvenir Island after a long, hard day of swimming and walking the beach
Josh wore himself out relaxing, so needed a nap

When Josh and I finally dragged ourselves from the water, we hit the hammocks pretty hard. I'm telling you, it is exhausting spending an entire afternoon on the beach. We drank Panamanian beers, swung lazily in the shade of the island trees, and did nothing more than smile at our new friends, two and three hammocks over. Eventually, we dragged ourselves in to change for dinner, and met up with everyone again.

Dinner was delicious! I mean, really delicious. The fish...oh, gawd it was so good! I. Ate. Everything. After dinner, and another hour or so hanging out on the beach, we headed for bed. The next morning, the sun shone across the water, and we saw the Stahlratte waiting for us. We were gathered in three dinghy-loads of passengers, and deposited on board in time for breakfast. Josh and I, along with an Australian named Paul, had volunteered for clean-up duty after that breakfast--things was the "work" we were asked to contribute. That's it. One meal's worth of dishes, and we were free.

Bunks on the Stahlratte--singles and doubles
Everyone searched for their bunk, waiting with a little label to tell us which was ours. For being 22 people plus 4 crew, the bunks were surprisingly spacious

Josh and I immediately headed to the net below the bowsprit to relax in the sun. And watch dolphins. Dolphins played below us in the bow wave, springing out of the water, bobbing over the top of each other. This was suddenly our vacation from our vacation. It didn't suck.


We had pulled anchor right after breakfast and began motoring towards the outer edge of the archipelago. Three hours later, we found ourselves dropping anchor and thinking about lunch. In case I forget to mention it at any other time, we did not go hungry. And the food was delicious. And this is coming from a woman who, when not in control of her own food/meals, assumes she will starve because she won't be able to eat enough. This was not an issue.

Vacation from my vacation
Rope swing!

After lunch--and an appropriate amount of time, because we all know what our moms told us about swimming right after eating--we all hopped into the water. We were anchored off a beautiful island, in clear water that was so salty, we just floated. A bunch of people swung off the boat on a rope, some went off to another island to do some snorkeling, and some swam to the shore of the closest island. It was a lazy, fun day in the sun and water. We stayed anchored there as people slowly filtered back on board, rinsing the salt from their hair, and rlaxing on board again.

Dinner came next, though don't be concerned. There had also been afternoon snacks. Anyway, dinner was served, and after clean-up was over, we pulled anchor and made for Cartegena. It would be a solid 18 or so hours of motoring, as the wind was nearly non-existent in the Caribbean at that time. This would be the one big downside for me. Having grown up sailing, and even having done some more in the recent past, I was looking forward to heading across the Caribbean under sail. Sadly, it was not to be.

The next day, people slowly woke up and came above deck. Most of the people on board had a bit, if not quite a bit, of seasickness. I wasn't feeling terribly great after breakfast, so I went back to our bunk, took some Dramamine, and snoozed until it kicked in and my seasickness wore off. I am the only person I know who loves to sail, gets seasick, and just doesn't care. Usually, it only takes a bit of time, or a single dose of some good drugs, to kick my sea legs in and make me feel better.

Our captain, Ludwig

Later in the morning, I joined my shipmates again, and we spent the day chatting, lounging in the sun, and playing dice and card games. Of course, the meals and drinks were ever-present as well. Cokes and other non-alcoholic drinks were all included. Beers ran guests a dollar each, and a bottle of Cuban rum cost $20.

Baz from the Netherlands and Charlie from Toronto/Detroit

As the sun began to set, we spotted land and came into Cartegena with the city's lights blazing in the sky. The city was lovely. We had a final dinner together as a group, including fish and lobsters caught in the waters we were sailing through. We enjoyed the food and each other's company under the night sky, Cartegena's skyline welcoming us as a twinkly backdrop.

That was Sunday night.

Monday was a holiday. Though we would have typically disembarked that morning, taking our bikes and paperwork with us, the holiday made that impossible. We would have the day to ourselves in the city, then reconvene on the dock the following morning. We were picked up and deposited back onto the Stahlratte at 7:00 Tuesday morning, and quickly pulled anchor to head to the pier where we would off-load luggage and bikes.

Spending the day wandering Cartegena's old town, we found a Botero sculpture

We all pitched in to get luggage back above deck and then off the boat. Then, as we were organizing our luggage in the port, the crew along with some local hied help, off loaded the bikes. I felt really excited in a silly way when I got to ride my moto down the pier to my waiting luggage. This was a fun adventure.

Josh was less excited.

As his bike came off the Stahlratte, and he got on and turned it on to ride away, he noticed a sizeable dent in his tank. His bike had been in perfect condition when he left it on the dock in Panama, and now it had a dent that had already, thanks to the salt air we had been sailing through, begun to rust. He was very disappointed. To the captain's credit, when Josh pointed it out to him, he said no problem--send him the bill.

But, that was just the start of the group's problems. Another rider's R1200GS was dropped on the pier as it was being unloaded. I don't believe any real damage was done, other than scratching up some crash bars. But, still...

We all got our luggage put back on, and were instructed to head to the Cartegena Aduana office. Typically, all immigration and customs paperwork is handled by a fixer prior to the Stahlratte arriving in port and unloading. Travelers usually walk off the boat with all the paperwork they need, including the compulsory insurance we had all paid a premium amount for, in order to have this hassle dealt with. Because we arrived on a Sunday night and Monday was a holiday (as it seems every Monday is a holiday in Colombia...) the paperwork was not done. We all sat outside the immigration and Aduana office that morning, waiting for it to come our way.

Around 10:30, the fixer brought us our passports, stamped and ready to go. Yes, we had been running around Cartegena Colombia without having actually been admitted to the country. No biggie....

Now we just had to wait for the customs paperwork and insurance.

We waited...
...and waited...
the awesome women of the Stahlratte. L-R: Andrea, Germany (650GS single), Maryna, South Africa/Australia (700GS), Christine, Canada (700GS), me, Margaret, England (2-up with her son, KLR 650)

It never came. Eventually, we managed to wrangle our customs paperwork from the fixer, but by 4:00 in the afternoon, the insurance still wasn't there. The fixer fed us some line about there being a shortage of the correct motorcycle insurance forms in the city. We would later find out this was untrue.

Four people in our group would have all their paperwork completely done, while the rest of us would be left completely confused and frustrated. To make matters more frustrating, this was all coming down close of business on Tuesday. That left us all having to spend another night in Cartegena, whether we planned to or not (we had NOT planned to, and w pull in fact never make it to the place we had planned to go that night) and having to fix our own problems in the space of one day. We had Wednesday, and Wednesday only. Why?

Starting Thursday, Colombia was celebrating a four day holiday weekend. Apparently Colombia has more holidays than work days. Hell, I say more power to them, but not when I need to get insurance to be riding my motorcycle legally in their country.

Sadly, though we as riders had a whole new group of awesome moto-traveling friends, and though we had had an amazing journey across the Caribbean on a sailing ship more than one hundred years old, seventeen of us were left with a soured taste in our mouths when it came to our experience.

Josh and I, along with a number of other folks left Cartegena and made for Medellin to try and get the insurance issue figured out. Several people from the trip would never purchase it, and several wound up spending an entire day overcoming the obstacle while still in Cartegena.

From what I understand, this was a completely different experience from what other travelers have experienced in the past. This was not what anyone has ever gone through before, nor have I heard of it happening after. Still, it was shitty for us, and that's how the story ends. Boo.

Well, not quite. When we are home from this journey, Josh will get a quote to have his tank replaced and send it to the Stahlratte. We shall see if the captain's word stands true, and they fix what they broke.

Are you confused after reading this as to whether it's is so me thing you should do? Do you wonder if I would do it again?

I would. The on-board experience was fantastic, and I have twenty new friends to keep in touch with around the world. I am finishing this blog six months after we sailed (I started writing it just a couple weeks after, but got sidelined by other things...) and we still, as a group, keep in touch on WhatsApp. The downsides are somewhat considerable--a damaged bike, and we rode through a country for several days without appropriate paperwork--but everything was and is fixable. I think it was worth it, though I am not super precious about my bike, and my fury about the paperwork issue is long in the past.

If you're planning this trip, don't miss this opportunity. There is not anything else quite like it. If you have questions, email me or post them up in the comments. I respond to REAL comments here!

Me, on my pony, on a boat.