Assorted trip reports from assorted places

Follow me! And we did. We encounter a couple of hundred brahma bulls on Bolivian Ruta 4. We follow a cowboy closely to thread our way through the herd. By this time, potentially getting stomped by a ranging brahma bull didn't seem so out of place.

Eleven days in Bolivia are simultaneously too much and not enough

We never gave Bolivia much of a chance to impress, though it certainly did. La Paz during Carnival is wild.  Cochabamba is a rocking town.  The mountains between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz reminded us of the Sierras.  Dropping down from the Altiplano into the lush tropical jungle was like heaven.  Miles and miles of jungle split by an almost perfect piece of asphalt makes for unique motoring.  And the people, oh the people, they were terrific: curious, helpful, and warm.

Yet, we know we didn’t see Bolivia at its best.  We couldn’t make it to the Salar de Uyuni because the rains washed out the roads.  We didn’t have the time to go into the Bolivian Amazon or to really explore La Paz and Santa Cruz.   We never even made it to Sucre and Petosi, reportedly two of its most interesting cities.  And, some of the scenery is a blur as we motored through it with haste.

We never found all the things we were warned about.  Overwhelming poverty?  Poor yes, but India’s level of poverty, no.  Terrible, impassable roads?  Most were pretty good, considering the HUGE amount of rain Bolivia just received.  Crime?  No, we just lost one camera stolen out of our hotel room in Santa Cruz.  We never felt afraid on the streets.  Political protests blocking the road.  Huh?   Bolivians and Peruvians take their politicking seriously, so there were frequent rallies in the cities.

So, just eleven days after entering Bolivia, we leave it for Brazil.   Too short, for sure.  But powerful none the less.  My strongest memories will be…

  • The visual shock of seeing La Paz for the first time spread out below us as we enter via the Autopista.  Its size, its redness, and the way it just fills the mountains and hills.  Breathtaking.
  • Riding right into the middle of Carnival 2011!  On a Saturday night and into the neighborhood for partying.  Crazy.
  • Anxiously awaiting the fresh rolls for breakfast at our hotel in La Paz.   The only hotel we’ve encountered where one of the girls picked up fresh rolls on her way to work every day.  She was inevitably late : )
  • The dim, bleak hotel in Oruro.  No Wi-Fi, no Internet, five cable stations, and depressed attitudes.  We beat it out of there post haste.
  • The cold, beauty and rain of more than 30 days on the Altiplano (both Peru and Bolivia).  All the time spent at 10,000+ feet, most of the time at 12.5, and at least a half-dozen times at 13-14K.  Clear, crisp, green and cold.  Rain at 38 degrees is ruthless.  I don’t think KR and I ever got warm the entire time we were up there.  Not being able to sleep as a byproduct was the pits as well.  But pretty, and oh so green.
  • Cochabamba!  A three night stay in the finest hotel we’ve been in since Santiago.  A rocking middle class.  Another Carnival celebration complete with street parades.  And really nice folks at Masters BMW who worked all day on servicing Now Voyager.  Cochabamba was great.
  • The mind-boggling change that occurs in the course of an hour as we ride over, and then down, the mountains going south from Cochabamba toward Santa Cruz.  All of a sudden, we’re in the tropics!  80 degrees.  Jungle vegetation.  Houses built on stilts because of water and various animals.  Eastern Bolivia is a vast jungle.
  • One of the best moments of the trip:  sitting on the curb under the canopy of the only gas station that was working west of Santa Cruz.  KR is looking at The Book (Footprint’s South America Handbook) trying to find us a place to stay in Santa Cruz.  We’re tired, but have a coke and beer.  Then the sky opens up with a monsoon style rain storm.  We sit there “safe” and watch the rain crash down and about.  Of course, twenty minutes later we had to ride into this storm, but we felt safe for a few minutes beforehand.  An admittedly weird great moment.
  • Being on Now Voyager, running straight and fast east on Bolivian Ruta 4.  The road is so smooth because its perfect cement. KR comes over the intercom and say, “Wow, stress free riding!”  Five minutes later the road ends abruptly with a hand painted detour sign.  This commences a two hour fight down a dirt road connecting the western and eastern part of Ruta 4.  The most stressFUL riding we’ve been in 🙂
  • Making our own coffee in a restaurant in Carmen.  The proprietor also sold us some gasoline.  We sat there and made coffee and somehow communicated with Johnnie and took photos of him and his kids.
  • The last 200+ miles to the Brasilian border on Ruta 4.   Cement smooth, fast, and the landscape was stunning.  Had to hold NV back at 85.

Riding with risk

When you’re flying along, running fast and smooth, one has a lot of time to think.  Any motorcyclist knows what I mean when some of my clearest thinking occurs at these times.  Seventy-five days on the road is a long time to be riding a motorcycle (for most people!  for some reading this this post, it’s just a short stint).

Both KR and I are tired.  Strangely, not from the physical effort, which is much, much more than I remember.  Nor from the hassle of packing and unpacking everyday.  We’ve got that down to easy to assemble modules.  Nor is it from the few really scary situations we’ve been in.  Or the sometimes very long days in the saddle.

No, we both agree that most of the weariness comes from not knowing something(s) key about the day ahead.  (Note:  this is not a complaint as its also the source of much of the thrills).   Most days, we don’t know at least one of the following:

  • Where we’re going the next day?  Week?  Month?
  • How far the next night’s stop is
  • How do we get there?  What route will be best?
  • What’s the road condition.  Is it passable?
  • What’s the weather going to be like?  How much rain will we get?
  • Where we’re staying
  • Will we have enough gas and will the gas stations be operating
  • Where do we get local currency when we need it
  • Some part or aspect of NV is questionable and needs attention.  Will I — or whomever — be able to fix it?
  • How much is this all going to cost?  How are we going to pay?

There have probably only been a handful of days in the past seventy-five that haven’t had a mixed collection of the above.  Sometimes they’re really minor and just take up a small amount of our “worrying capacity.”  Others consume our attention for days at end.  Should we take the “New Road” from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz? The bridge is supposedly out.  Or, maybe the “Old Road” is passable now?  It’s longer, but maybe we can get trough…

Once again, none of this is a complaint.  This is exactly what KR and I signed up for.  If we wanted it any other way, we would have signed up for a tour.  Yet, there ARE days that a tour sounds pretty damn good 🙂

Another note about logistics:  money

It’s true that one can go through much of South America on an ATM card as cash machines are in most decent-sized towns.  The best offer both local currency or dollars.  Yet, a couple of notes of caution here.   First, your ATM card will not work with all cash machines — especially in Bolivia.  If your ATM card is a Visa bank card, most of the ATMs won’t work.   Secondly,  ATMs are scarce when one really needs cash — small towns.  Most establishments only take cash.  This is especially true of gas stations.  Only hotels in sizable towns take credit cards.

Dollars are a decently traded currency in Argentina, Peru and Bolivia.  They are the only currency Border crossings take from Norte Americanos.  Chilians won’t take  a dollar even if you wanted to just  it to them as a present.  For that reason, I would always recommend keeping a stash of dollars with you as a fallback position.

Exchange rates and bank charges vary widely and its difficult to decipher how much you’re getting f___ed.  For example, hotels and such apply a really low currency exchange rate (low as in lower # of their local currency to each dollar) if you ask how much something costs in dollars.  But they always charge your credit card with the local currency, which means your credit card institution is the ultimate decider of the exchange rate.  I’ve found that they’re usually much better than local cambios and this advantage often offsets their 3% “international transaction” fee.  Same principle applies to ATM machine commissions, which are charged in local currencies.

And aside from exchange rates, what do things cost?  Varies greatly by country.  Most expensive is Chile, then Argentina, Peru and finally Bolivia.  We just entered Brasil, but I’m afraid it will be on the top of this list.   Hotel rooms in Peru and Bolivia are $30-$40.  In Argentina, $50-$75.  Chile you can easily spend $75 and we were hit for $160 in Santiago.  Also depends on whether you’re in-season or not (evidently, we were in season in Chile and the off season in Peru).   Wine is consistenly cheap.  Food can be, but we got screwed with really expenisve meals in Chile a couple of times.  We unknowingly spent $55 for lunch in one out-of-the-way Chiliean resort.  And it was horrible: )

Gas?  Between changing currencies and converting litres to gallons, I don’t have the slightest.   But, gas won’t be a budget buster on a bike anyway.  I miss the Altiplano where I got great gas mileage enabling us to go more than 300 miles with all our on-board gas.  Down at sea level, I’m lucky to get 200+.

Here are the videos

We shot some more amateur-hour video while in Bolivia.   Sorry, most of its on the road. And I still haven’t figured out how to adjust the camera’s brightness settings.

#1. Bolivian mountain road:  Deep in the heart of South America we discover… pine trees and the Sierras!

#2. 26 miles of dirt:  A clip on riding in mud and dirt of a Ruta 4 detour.   Although it was just 26 miles, it took us a full two-hours to get through.  Both KR and I thanked our lucky stars that it hadn’t rained for a day or two, or we would not have made it

#3.  FW comments on 26 miles of dirt:  Look closely and you can see my riding partner give me the thumbs up with a different finger.

#4. Welcome to New Mexico — not! KR and FW riding on Ruta 4

#5.  FW in the middle of the jungle and New Mexico: Ruta 4 is ever changing

#6.  Ruta 4 at speed. The Bolivians have spread miles and miles of glass-smooth concrete on Ruta 4

Here are the pictures

Wherever we go,there's a party. One week to the day after experiencing Carnival in La Paz, we experience Carnival in Cochabamba. This time we spend an afternoon watching the parades and celebrations jammed in with all the Cochabamba(ians). Great people watching.

The only thing nice to say about Santa Cruz is that they have a very neat church. My camera stolen out of our hotel room -- a first for the trip.

Seeking advice and gas from a Russian Mennonite in Bolivia? The only reason we got gas here was that we saw this gentlemen's horse-drawn wagon getting his barrels full of gas. Gave us the lowdown on the road ahead. Not surprisingly, he was wrong.

Great ass. NV is starting to look and act like an adventure machine. We kept hoping that around the next corner pavement would await. For two hours we fought clay, mud, dust, rocks, ruts, and the occasional cow. Trucks and buses that broke down built camp fires to signal oncoming (night!!) traffic to be aware. We knew if we broke down, we were cooked.

This is the reward for poor planning. No money. One hotel. No bar. I bought the combo meal from the only food vendor. I couldn't super-size because we didn't have enough money.

The proprietor of said fast food restaurant took great pride and fun in sitting on NV for his friends and customers.

The best thing I (OK, Ryan actually found them and installed them) put on the bike were the spare fuel tanks. Practically eliminated the risk of running out of fuel.

But not completely: ) Here we buy some gas from a restaurant owner in Carmen, Bolivia.

We had a great cup of coffee in Johnny's restaurant. He insisted on getting his picture taken with and the picture of his son on the wall.

I know we're talking a lot about gasoline on this post, but its mother's milk to NV. This station was manned ONLY by Bolivian police. They kept close watch on NV's gas consuming requirements.

The easy part: going through Immigration, Customs and Policia on the Bolivian side of the border. Difficulty began when we went 100 yards up the road to the Brazilian entrance...

Quick, what does this look like? Whatever your answer, it's wrong. You're looking at the Brazilian Consulate's office in Puerto Suarez, Bolivia. Tough to find in a town of dirt roads and no road signs. Tough to get them to do anything in real time. The problem? We couldn't purchase Brazilian visas at the border. Sammy Hershfield told us this two weeks beforehand, but we ignored his sage advice.

It took us a total of 27 hours to get through the border. Here, KR waits in the Brazilian Immigration line.

I told you wherever we go, a party follows. First night in Brazil and we crash a party of friends and relatives on a three day fishing vacation. All welcomed us warmly and we danced, sang, ate and drank together like we were old time buddies. Very, very nice people. Only one person spoke English. We're beginning to realize that Portuguese is going to be a real foreign language...

We thought getting on and off this ferry would be the major challenge ofthe day. Boy were we wrong.

The longest day:  175 miles of thrills, near spills, high anxiety, confusion, Carnival celebrations, and ultimate survival

After getting through a three-hour, three-bribe  border crossing on our way to La Paz , we thought everything would be downhill from there.   Then, when we muscled our way on and off a rickety wooden ferry without falling into the lake, we were ecstatic to be on solid land again. We just knew it would be smooth sailing into La Paz, just 70 miles away.  After we were led through the worst traffic of the trip on the outskirts of La Paz by yet another good Samaritan to our intended hostal, we thought we were minutes away from a cold one in said hostal’s in-house brewery.  Not so, but two hours later KR came back with good news from an on-foot reconnaissance trip :  we had a hotel just down the street.  Wow, we  had beat the zero occupancy of Carnival weekend!   Forty minutes later I had bobbed and weaved my way through traffic to make it the five blocks to our hotel only to be confronted by… a garage entrance that was smack in the middle of this neighborhood’s Carnival celebrations.   With KR holding back the the traffic, I felt like an Indy 500 winner as I successfully charged between two street vendor’s stalls, jumped the curb, and dissapeared through the door down into our underground hotel parking garage.  High fives all around as we had somehow made it through this day with no new scratches to person or machine.  We celebrated with a glass of vino at a pizza shop (pizza is Bolivia’s favorite type of restaurant) 13 hours after leaving Puno.

Bolivia had always been on my “be careful” list, as in be careful of the lack of good roads, of rain, of street protests, of poverty, of the gasoline, of their corrupt officials and petty and not so petty thieves.  KR was worried too and had been combing other motorcycle  blogs for road conditions for weeks prior to our going to Bolivia.  Yet none of these worries proved to be too challenging.   Yes, the roads weren’t terrific, gasoline stations were few and far between, it rained as often as the sun shined.   Moreover, we had searched for, received and taken all the advice we could get about how to handle Bolivia.  None of these efforts and cautions were worth a damn.  As we know so very well, sometimes shit happens and you just need to deal with it…

  • We went off the main route to an out-of-the-way Peru/Bolivia border crossing because we were advised that it would be deserted, quick and hassle-free.  Not so fast for us.  After convincing a Peruvian immigration official  that our lack of tourist card could be remedied with a $20 bill, and helping a Peruvian police official agree that a digital proof of insurance card would be acceptable (it wasn’t stampable) with another $30,  and paying $270 for a Bolivian visa, and waiting 90 minutes for the Bolivian customs office to open after lunch, and finally agreeing with a Bolivian police officer that he indeed deserved financial remuneration ($3), he lifted the  bar blocking the road and we rolled into Bolivia.  A scant three hours later 🙂
  • We were also advised that this alternate route would be shorter, faster and more beautiful than the normal Panamericana Highway route.   It would also avoid all the traffic of Julicaca. a well-known traffic nightmare.  The only hitch would be a short ferry ride across the lake to the north side.  The road was indeed wonderful and the view of Lake Titicaca shimmering below as we rose to 14,000 feet was awe inspiring.  We were encouraged as we came off the mountain and saw a small flotilla of ferries scurrying between shores.  This was obviously a water transportation system.   That proved total bull shit as we were hurried past all the inspectors and were directed toward an awaiting ferry.  As I approached said ferry,  I  was surprised mid-way through the curb jumping that there were significant gaps in its floor boards — gaps large enough to swallow an entire wheel.  Somehow I avoided falling into these gaps only to notice one of this ferry’s most notable features — unlike every other ferry we’d been on in the world, one had to back up to get off the ferry instead of simply driving forward.  So, after wallowing across the channel, KR, the “captain,” his mate, and I muscled NV back and up the ferry’s deck, once again avoiding all gaps, jumping the exit curb, and maneuvering down the ramp without dumping said vehicle in water or on the ground.  Relieved doesn’t describe how we felt having met this latest challenge.  Although it was getting on toward 4:00PM, we were comforted that La Paz was just 70 miles away, all on terafirma.
  • About 10 miles outside of La Paz it started to rain hard and the traffic started to slow. This made it difficult to see while lurking along in the stop and go.  Instead of getting better, the traffic just got worse as we got closer to the city.  There was a lot of partying going on next to the road (heck it was happening in the road too) with people dancing, bands playing, and people getting totally blitzed.  Pretty impressive neighborhood party we thought, having no idea or sense of time/date.  Traffic was now a real-time nightmare.  One side of  the divided highway had been closed off for the party’ers, squeezing all traffic on just one side.  Which side was open to traffic alternated every few blocks, making  kamakazi kinds of lane switching into on-coming traffic a frequent occurance.  We couldn’t see an end to this mega-jam as we were squeezed in between buses, trucks, cars, taxis, SUVs, ambulances, police vehicles and anything else that would move.  A red SUV with a family inside jerked up along side us.  “Where are you going?” I think he said.  “La Paz” we answered.  Duuhh!  He motioned for us to follow him and, not having a better plan or other option, we tried to do so.  For a couple of miles we swerved through traffic, down little back streets, and made a couple of U-turns to arrive on a wide divided highway high in the mountains.  As we entered the highway, there spread out below us was La Paz — a huge city built over dozens of hills at 12,000+ feet.  Our good Samaritan pulled over, suggested we take a picture here (we did) and then offered to take us to our intended hostal.  Five minutes later we were in front of the hostal and our friends in the red SUV were waving and driving off. 
  • KR walked out of our intended hostal with a frown on her face. Did you know it was Carnival this weekend? They don’t have any room!” Hell, I wasn’t entirely sure what month it was, let alone remembering that Carnival was the first week in March.  More specifically, this Saturday night was the big Carnival celebration in La Paz. We had no pre-selected hotel alternatives, it was closing in on 6:00PM, and we didn’t have the slightest idea of where we were since we had no map of La Paz. We got a couple of recommendations from the folks who turned us away, so we tried to erase the disappointment of no brewskies yet and began to navigate to the alternatives using a small advertising map of the local area. One thing needs to be emphasized here: La Paz is built in the hills and mountains. There are few flat stretches, most roads are going up, down or jagging across steep, steep hills. For the next 60 minutes we ride up and down these hills (executing two perfect U-turns on steep, steep hills in the process), without finding our intended targets. Finally we get a tip that a hotel across the canyon has both a room and a garage for NV.
  • It was now dark and the city was afire with Carnival celebrations. The traffic, or more accurately the cut and thrust of anything with wheels, was beginning to make Kathmandhu’s look tame. Horns honked, buses rumbled into too-small spaces, pedestrians drunkenly played chicken, taxis stopped at any moment to take on or disembark passengers, fireworks shot off from all directions , bands were playing in the street and … into the middle of this we plunged, just trying to find a street sign, an address, or a hotel sign. For once, I was calm inside without the usual OH-SHIT anxiety that comes from dangerously slow-speed muscling of NV in crazy cities. But on this night, at this time, I was on my game. Making moves that were unthinkable just weeks  before, we avoided buses, people, taxis, man-eating potholes, and everything else that could be thrown at us. I approached everything matter of factly.   Bus about to run over my left foot? No big deal, hit the horn, lift the foot, and hit the throttle to spurt in front. Need to make a U-turn from uphill to downhill after hitting a dead-end? No big deal, KR’s gets off and helps guide us back down the hill to make a perfect Y-turn. On this day and at this moment, we were good.

So, on this “short” 175 mile day, KR and I had earned another Adventure Guy stripe. It wasn’t like we had waded through rushing rivers, or swagged our way through a jungle, or plowed mile after mile down a sandy wash. No, for us, we had simply survived everything that had been thrown at us and handled it. It wasn’t always pretty, it certainly wasn’t done with bravado, but we handled whatever “it” was with a calmness and a resoluteness we didn’t have two-plus months ago.

Geez, I need a drink just thinking about it.

After successfully getting through Peruvian Immigrations, Customs and Police offices with just two bribes, we thought it would be all downhill on the Bolivian side. The police officer taking this picture was smiling too as we had just contributed to his kid's college education.

KR descends into the Bolivian Immigration, Customs and Police stations. We were done a short 2 hours and $270+ dollars later.

The fleet of ferries looked professional from afar...

KR holds Now Voyager steady as we roll across the straight.

Our captain uses modern equipment to keep our vessel pointed in the right direction.

The road from the border to La Paz was scenic and made for easy riding. La Paz is near the snow capped peaks in this picture.

Our La Paz traffic nightmare begins about five miles out. This is one of the few "action" shots as KR was too busy looking at maps and giving me real-time directions. Oh, and she probably had her eyes closed most of the time: )

We had no idea that the San Pedro neighborhood that we drove into was party-central for Carnival. Streets were jammed with revelers for days and nights.

This shot is taken from NV as we're parked waiting for KR to come back from a hotel scouting run. A continuous stream of taxis would pull up, their passengers would pop out and run into one of the stalls pictured here, and return with arms full of booze and ice. It seemed that we had parked on Liquor Store Row with stall after stall of booze. I looked on jealously.

La Paz's Carnival reminded me of Mardi Gras as groups/clubs/teams would dress up and dance in the streets. This guy kind of looks like the Joker, while

these folks were dressed more traditionally.

Some of us didn't have to dress up to scare anyone. Most of the time people looked at us like we were from another world anyway.

Police officer appears to be saying, "Are you going to walk the line or not?"

Even huddles of more "Mature" women got into the spirit of things. These women were passing around large bottles of beer.

This is shot from our hotel room on a SUNDAY morning..

The target. The brown double door in the center is where I had to put NV through at night, with the street jammed with people, stalls, cars and bands.

The first thing one notices when crossing from Peru to Bolivia is that building materials change from the stone/adobe of Peru to big, solid red bricks in Bolivia. This shot of a La Paz hill is typically dominated by red brick structures, giving the entire city a monotone look of dark red.

There are lots of colorful markets in La Paz. Here one of the sellers takes stock as a potential customer approaches

What is it? I didn't ask nor did I volunteer to taste.

Given its monochromatic background, La Paz's streets are wildy colorful at ground level is colorful stalls, food, flowers and dress.

La Paz won't win any "most charmingly beautiful" city awards. Most of what we've seen is either red, really ugly, or downright weird. This shot is typical. Aside from aesthetics, La Paz is a vibrant, kind of gritty big city that feels much smaller because it fills the mountains/hills nearby. The neighborhood we're staying in -- San Pedro-- is a weird combination of San Francisco's Haight, NY's Little Italy, with the outdoor market feel of Mexico.

Is he real or made of wax? KR's growing collection of Peruvian and Bolivian children is amazing.

About 10 miles outside of La Paz it started to rain hard and the traffic started to slow. It made it difficult to see while lurking along in the stop and go.  Instead of getting better, it just got worse as we got closer to the city.  Pretty soon we noticed that there was a lot of partying going on next to the road (heck it was happening in the road too) with lots of people dancing, bands playing, and many people totally blitzed.  Pretty impressive neighborhood party we thought, having no idea or sense of time/date.  Traffic was now a real-time nightmare.  One side of  the divided highway had been closed off for the partiers, squeezing all traffic on just one side.  This side alternated every few blocks, making  kamakazi kinds of lane switching into on-coming traffic a frequent occurance.  We couldn’t see an end as we were squeezed in between buses, trucks, cars, taxis, SUVs, ambulances, police vehicles and anything else that would move.  A red SUV with a family inside jerked up along side us.  “Where are you going?” I think he said.  “La Paz” we answered.  Duuhh!”  He motioned us to follow him and, not having a better plan or other option, we tried to do so.  For a couple of miles we swerved through traffic, down little back streets, and made a couple of U-turns to arrive on a wide divided highway high in the mountains.  As we entered the highway, there spread out below us was La Paz — a huge city built over dozens of hills at 12,000+ feet.  Our good Samaritan pulled over, suggested we take a picture here (we did) and then offered to take us to our intended hostal.  Five minutes later we were in front of the hostal and our friends in the red SUV were waving and driving off. 

San Pedro de Atacama. I discover Chile's future in this six hundred year old city high up in the Andes

My kind of place: full of people just like us

Chileans who live in Santiago and Valparaiso will think I’m crazy and probably hate me for denigrating their country since I’ve seen their future and its full of people just like us.  Well, people just like we were fifty years ago.   If you want to relive the 60’s and 70’s, and who of our generation doesn’t, come to San Pedro de Atacama and see people exactly like you were 40 or 50 years ago.   The future of Chile will be in the hands of  the hippies and trekkers and Rastafarian’s and shaggy haired youth that have flooded SPdA.  Before coming here, we were told this was a weird place but we didn’t understand why.  Now we do.

I know many of you think of me as a fashion-forward kind of guy anyway, so it won’t be shocking  that I’m a trend-leader here.  I’m getting my Andean cap, my blue long-johns, dirty crumpled t-shirt and flip-flops unpacked as we speak.  I’m even thinking of opening a Back to the Future kind of clothes boutique in which I’ll just keep updating the merchandise to what we were wearing 40, 39, 38,37 years ago.  Yellow power tie anyone?  This is a slam dunk business idea.  I’m accepting investments now.

I’m not sure this bodes well for Chile’s future, however. They seem to be doing pretty well now.   If our generation is a good predictor of what’s in store for Chile, they’re on their way to financial crisis after financial crisis, lots of debt, and a series of go-go years that will make their heads spin followed by low-go years that will make them weep.

Chileans are already on their way to enjoying my generation’s greatest inventions:  sex, drugs, rock & roll (and technology).  Both KR and I were stunned by the number of young mothers this country has.  My ad-hoc poll shows that 4 out of 5 young women seen on the street are mothers of young children.   This was especially true of Antofagasta.  Maybe there’s something in the mines that make men especially horny?

Any country that uses coca-leaves for both high altitude and digging mines has their share of drugs.   Unlike my generation though, the streets of SPdA don’t smell like pot.  And it doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem as it is in the US.

Good old (meant literally) US of A rock & roll has taken over this country’s radio, iTunes, videos and TV shows.   Want to see that wonderful video of Madonna or Duran Duran or Prince, just turn on the tube or listen to radio from the car next to you.  This is great  for us too as its the only time we get to listen to something in a language we can understand: )

Chile’s grasp and use of technology is still a work in progress. Hold off on throwing the tomatoes as I”ll explain.  Chilean’s use of cell phones, GPS, and the Internet is second only to Argentina’s.   What’s missing is the technical infrastructure necessary to run some of these things.  Like wall sockets.  It’s useful to have more than one in a room.  Like telephone pole wiring, which makes Puerto Vallarta’s spaghetti’s wiring plan look well organized.    And while Chilean’s drive some fast, pretty trick automobiles (especially muscular pick-ups), most are in need of a Drivers Ed course or two.

My final observation on Chile will get me more hate mail from our Chilean friends:  what’s up with the language? I know that I’m not speaking from a position of strength here as KR and I haven’t quite come to grips with Spanish yet.  But we’re trying: we have the electronic translator, the Garmin GPS translator, the two printed dictionaries and the flash cards that KR studies while riding NV.  Our Chilean guide, Ercio even told Karen that she spoke good Spanish.  So, what’s the problem?   Chilean’s speak a version of Spanish that must be used on the moon.   Their diction is so sensitive to pronunciation that if you’re off by just a tiny, tiny bit, they’ll look at you like you’re from the moon.  Come on guys, we’d guess what you’re trying to say if the tables were turned!

This is a motorcycle trip and you're going to see lots of m/c pics. This one is as we descend to San Pedro de Atacama from 11,500 feet. The face of the Atacama changes pretty dramatically as one goes north, changing from a schrub covered Mojave-like desert to a moonscape with jagged rocks and NO vegetation.

Way out there. In the Atacama somewhere between Calama and SPdA.

KR likes this picture because you can't see much of me and you can see lots of 20,000+ foot Lincancabur volcano.

The entrance to SPdA isn't very imrpressive. At first sight, it appears to be a maze of mud-packed street lined with Adobe buildings. No street signs to guide the way.

Late Friday afternoon and the streets start to get crowded. Try riding a bike down this street looking for a hostel.

What's a Chilean town without an art mart? They could use something like this in Copiapo to spicen it up a little.

Trekking over hills and dale can be tiring. Especially when

You're carrying a small house on your back

I hope she's waiting for friends who have a car

This young lady couldn't wait to get out in the rain, late on a Saturday afternoon. She was worried about getting mud on her pants. What about the thousands of dollars in back surgery you'll need?

It rained every afternoon for a couple of hours. What's with the driest desert in the world moniker?

Surprisingly, SPdA is packed with very interesting restaurants-- architecturally, cuisine-wise, and art-wise.

The two gentlemen in this picture are brothers from Germany riding their BMW motorcycles south from Bolivia to Valparaiso. One's a doctor who confirmed my hip problem: arthritis.

Cross selling. Bike rental shop is a full fledged Internet cafe. Or is it an Internet Cafe that offers ground transportation to its customers. Whatever, there are lots of these in SPdA.

Can I interest you in a pair of blue long-johns to wear under those shorts?

Just like me. Bicep wise, almost an exact duplicate.

Commerce Rastafarian style, making jewelry on the "sidewalk." Bob Marley is big up here as well.

Just like in the US, hats are a big thing in Chile. This stylish couple look as lost as we were.

Come on, you gotta give this guy lots of style points. The Robin Hood hat with a feather is unusual even in this town. The blue clogs are a nice touch as well. Guy gave us a recommendation to a terrific restaurant.

A look back on the first 42 days…

We’ve now been on the road for forty-two days, yet it seems that we’re just getting started.   This feeling is borne out by the statistics, which I know you Quant Jocks out there have been waiting for.  This table is just for you:

So, only 17 days of 42 have been riding a motorcycle.  Most of the others have been waiting for a motorcycle to arrive or be repaired.  But, once we’re on board, we cover 225 every day.    This number is weighed down by two purposely short days.   Overall, this trip has been hugely expensive and way-over what I forecasted.   Getting screwed  by the shippers, having to rent a m/c to go on the Dakar, and having to spend a lot of money staying in big cities all made this expensive.

DOWNGRADED AND DOWNSIZED. The days of wine and roses are over, and our accommodations show it. Upper row is the palacial Estancia La Paz in Cordoba and our wonderful Cabana in Punta de Ghoros. Next row down is the worst of our crew, the Hotel Costa Mirabel. It's large and spacious room at the right served as a laundry room for us. Current abode in San Pedro is Hotel Tambillo with prison-like hallway and staff with an attitude to match.

Things that have worked well along the way

  • My Blackberry. Long live Blackberries!  It’s worked almost everywhere.  Many a night the only way to get to the Internet has been through this magical device.  iPhones are for wimps.  International unlimited data plan make it affordable.
  • Two computers.  Many of you laughed when I said I was taking one computer, let alone two.  Well having a ThinkPad (me) and a MacAir (KR) has been terrific.  The Internet is THE planning tool whether before or during the trip.  So many places have Wi-Fi, we do most of our planning in a cafe with Wi-Fi.
  • The Garmin GPS.  I’m not a huge fan of using GPS’s plan your trip primarily because we don’t do much trip planning:)  But, having the Garmin has really helped when in a large city and we’re trying to find our way around.  While it too often doesn’t contain the street/city we’re looking for, the Garmin Zumo 660 has really come in handy.  I”m going to buy maps of Peru and Bolivia.  If anyone has experience with maps of these two countries, please let me know.
  • The Starcom intercom.  The intercom has worked flawlessly, which is the first time ever event.  Long live Starcom!
  • The Wolfman water bags and Touratech panniers.   Because we had to carry enough stuff for two people for three months, we needed some space.  The two Wolfman bags are used for KR and my clothes and are  strapped to each pannier.   At night, it’s relatively easy to unstrap and carry to room.  The left pannier carries tools and spares.  The right pannier carries the computers, electrical connectors, and all paperwork.  The fact that all panniers are lockable with one key is really useful as well.
  • All the nylon clothing that Zigy told us to use.  Washes easily, dries quickly.  The only way to go.
  • The Rotopax extra gas tanks.  These are terrific.  One gallon each side, easy on/off/filling, and they’re light weight.  Full up and riding conservatively, my range increases to 280 miles.
  • Having a top box serve as junk drawer.   The top box is the most useful space:  spare water, maps, purse, hats, guidebooks, KR’s computer, you name it.
  • The Wunderlich tank bag works really well in two ways:  (1)  Most importantly, it goes on/off really quickly a.nd (2) Its side pockets are very useful and appear to be waterproof

Things that have worked out less-well along the way.

  • BMW’s engine cooling system for the F650GS.  It’s inadequate.
  • BMW’s service along the way.  South American dealers have been well meaning, but not totally together.  US Corporate service has been even less helpful.  The only saving grace has Ryan Reza’s personal support out of Hollywood BMW.
  • Some accessories were not needed or useful.  Top of  this list would be the Touratech radiator guard that is highly suspected of restricting NV’s radiator’s cooling.  That’s off.  The Touratech windscreen extender was a stupid thing to buy and fell off.
  • The Wunderlich throttle control is very trick looking, but back asswards in operation.  Instead of turning the locking mechanism counter-clockwise (ie, the same direction that you’d twist the throttle to open it) to lock the speed, the folks at Wunderlich decided to do the opposite.  This makes locking the mechanism nearly impossible to do so smoothly.  No one there has used the product, obviously.
  • KR’s BMW Riding Suit has been a pain in the ass from moment one.  The jacket is great, the pants were too big and heavy for KR.  We ended up taking out all the armour to give her enough flexibility to get on/off the bike.
  • The Wolfman Soft Tank Panniers are still a work in progress.  I’ve now figured out how to secure them to various NV bars/frame rails, so they’re no longer in the habit of coming loose.  But, in order to get them to stay on, they have to be mounted far back on the tank, which doesn’t leave enough room for yours truly.

Now Voyager’s Status

Forgiveness is a hard thing to achieve in life, especially if you’re trying to forgive a child who is repeatedly getting into trouble.  What must Lindsay Lohan’s mom think?  What pain?  Same thing with Now Voyager as he’s been a troubled child from the very beginning of this trip.  Then, after major surgery, he’s been trouble free for 1200+ miles.  All’s right in the world!

Now Voyager standing proud in the Atacama desert.

Lindsay, say it isn't so! How could you? Yes folks, we have another heating system problem. This one is a leaking hose.

I must have a kind (or dumb) face as nice people keep helping me out. A fellow motorcyclist staying at the same hotel, Ruben Sebastion Santonino, helped fashion this temporary fix: epoxy, wrapped by a sheet of rubber, secured with nylon ties. Looks pretty good to me 🙂

The situation as of Sunday, April 6th in San Pedro de Atacama

The newly discovered leak will force yet another repair detour.  Since SPdA is no place to be making repairs, we’re going to try and nurse NV”s leaking hose the 65 miles to Calama, the next biggest town.  KR is happy as the Lonely Planet  has this to say about Calama, “there’s no other way to say it, Calama is a shit hole.”    If and when we make Calama, I’ll attempt open-heart surgery to replace the patient’s water hose.

Keep all body parts crossed.


We spend a day exploring the Andes at the San Francisco pass, which reaches 15,000+ feet. Ercio and his trusty 4X4 provide the guidance, instruction and mode of exploration for a wonderful day. The sign here gives the passerby two alternatives: the frontier ahead or the tallest volcano in South America to the right

Where upon we opt for a day of 4×4 exploration

Only reporters covering the 33 trapped miners have spent more time in Copiapo as we spent- three full days in this nondescript mining town.  As with most things on this trip, we didn’t mean to spend so much time here, but things have a way of moving s…l…0…w… here and our hotel was cheap.   Anyway, we took the opportunity to get some things done,  recharge our batteries and to spend a marvelous day exploring the Andes in a 4×4 hosted by our guide, Ercio.

The Events Since Our Last Report

My wife is telling me in her-cut-to-the-bone  way that nobody wants to read all the verbiage, they just want the pictures.  So, here’s the recap of what’s happened followed by the pictures.  It’s OK if you all write in and tell KR she’s wrong.

  • Sunday-Tuesday in Copiapo, the last day of which we spent riding high in the Andes with Ercio and his 4×4.  One of the most wonderful days of any trip.
  • Yesterday we rode from Copiapo to Antofagasta, a trip of 350 miles, and arrived in Antofagasta in early evening.  This was a (another) great motorcycle day in which we cruised the Chilean coast, tested Now Voyager in altitude and heat, and and made the trip with no problems.
  • The highlight of arriving in Antofagasta was riding around the town center (population of Antofagasta is around 500k, compared with Copiapo”s 125K) and having the entire left pannier, tool chest, spare gas tank and wet bag fall off into the street behind us.  Seems that the Touratech locking mechanism is subject to getting loose…
  • We’ll spend today in Antofagasta in the worst hotel we’ve come across yet and then push North/East to San Pedro de Atacama tomorrow.

COPIAPO. While Copiapo is a mining town not a tourist town, and thus very, very plain, I could spend quite a bit of time talking about it. For me, its a city of contrasts: old houses like the one pictured on the left still stand from the 1850's and are the predominant personal structure, yet there are a fair number of newer structures like the one above, which overlooks the town square. There are lots of gold and copper mines in the mountains surrounding it, thus its full of miners and those who do business with them. Yet, Copiapo has received little direct, lasting benefit from its commerce as it didn't have the power/foresight to force the mining companies to invest locally. As a result, most labor is temporary and living outside of Copiapo and most of the mining companies have no permanent presence here. There were a couple of "cool" cafes which we tended to visit often, but we spent most of our time at the hotel on the Internet. On the right, KR surfs the Internet while sitting in our hotel's courtyard.

THE ANDES. We spent a spectacular day exploring Tres Cruces National Park in the Andes with the amazing Ercio. We decided to temporarily trade NV for Ercio's 4x4 and we're glad we did. We covered more than 300 miles, climbed to more than 15,000 feet, and spent 12 hours driving around the upper regions of the Andes by the San Francisco Pass. Not only is Ercio a knowledgeable guide about the region, but we learned a lot from him about photography as well (second from left). We had our first lunch at 10,000 feet in a meadow covered in tall pampa grass. I'm sure Ercio was as excited to be with us and we were him.

ANIMALS. Lately it seems that all of our adventures are started because KR wants to see some animal in a far off place. This was no different. Not satisfied seeing the little ______ penguins, we go to 15,000 feet in search of flamingos. We also see lots of vicunas in packs. I guess there's no privacy even in the middle of nowhere.

People live up here, apparently. While housing leaves a little to be desired, the view, and (absence) of neighbors probably goes a long way toward "happy."

10,000 feet up and there's a lush meadow fueled by a half-dozen streams. Ericio says they can be a result of glacier melting, underground springs, snow melting.

The view inside can be pretty spectacular as well

Last year I saw this yellow grass on the other side of the Pass. They stretch as far as one can see.

KR takes a look at Laguna Santa Rosa, home to many a flamingo.

The birds are over there! Pretty nice place to get photography lessons.

It actually wasn't too cold at the high altitudes, though short sleeves isn't the gear to have.

Many will think of this as visual clutter -- why put us in this picture of Lago Verde? This picture is for us, to remind us that we were actually in this stunning place.

This is NOT a photoshopped image. KR and I take warm mineral bath at 15,000 feet, overlooking Lago Verde.

By this time, KR's starting to get excited. Flamingos, screwing vicunas, emerald lakes, mineral baths...

This is a hut that passes for a refugio at Lago Verde. I really want to go back someday and spend the night there.

Inside, it's something less than cozy. Here Ercio prepares some soup while talking with another guide. This guide is leading an "expedition" of Russians to the tallest peak, 22,000. They spend 3-5 days at each altitude getting acclimated. BTW, this place is a whole lot more inviting than the hotel we're stayinga at in Antofagasta.

Most of the 300+ miles we did were on roads like this.

The next day we ride the 350 miles from Copiapo to Antofagasta. About 100 of those miles were along this coast north of Taltal.

The road was an excellent m/c road. Here KR opens her eyes long enough to get this shot

ADVENTURE MACHINE AGAIN? NV had a really good day: lots of trouble free miles, up to 7000 feet, heavily loaded with extra gas, and running steady in 85 degree heat. The next test will be 10,000+ feet and the Atacama on our way to San Pedro de Atacama.

This is our plan: we're going this way until we decide to go that way ...

We end the day at a fantastic restaurant named for the little town we're going to next. Food, atmosphere and people were great.

What Do We Need to Take to Be “Ready for Anything?”

Two conflicting desires are colliding.  One of the reasons we’re taking a motorcycle to South America is to travel light and fast — we want flexibility to wander and change direction at a whim.  Yet, we’re going to be on the road for a long time; logistics, weather, communications, and mechanical breakdowns figure into the mix too.   What do we need to take in order to be prepared for anything?

We’ve done long trips before so we have an idea of what/how to pack.  Yet, it’s our  experience that’s whispering inside my head,  “There must be a better approach!”   We always start neatly packed, but by the end of the trip we look like a Nepalese street hawker with stuff tied everywhere.   Is this just our destiny, or is there a better way?

We’ve decided to ask an expert for help.   Enter Zigy Kaluzny, a professional photographer and experienced motorcycle adventure traveler.  We’d met Zigy at one of the Horizons Unlimited meetings and we were impressed with his presentation on what to take and how to pack it.

Our packing expert, Zigy Kaluzny, giving a presentation at the Colorado Horizons Unlimited meeting

So we asked Zigy to help us figure out what we should take on our trip.   Here’s what he said.

FW:   How’d you become so knowledgeable about motorcycle traveling?

ZK: I think travel is travel; the same basics apply:  less is always more than enough. Unless you’re crossing the Darien or the Sahara,, there is probably not much you really need beyond the basics, but more on that later.

I’ve traveled all my life, starting with immigrating to America from Italy when I was four, so I could say travel seems normal to me.  Because my parents were divorced, starting at about 10, I regularly traveled alone a day by train to visit my father. As a kid in Chicago, I went away to summer camp and then Boy Scout camp every summer, and when i was 14, my best friend and I took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Philmont Scout Ranch in NM and again the next year when we were 15, we took the train. It was great to be on the loose like that.  After college i spent a year traveling in Europe and North Africa with a backpack.  When you carry everything on your bac.k, you quickly learn to lighten your load.

As far as motorcycle travel, I only started riding at 42, in 1989, and did my first long trip — six weeks across the west from Texas — on a BMW K75s with the standard bags in 1995.  Seemed pretty simple to pack.  I probably spent more time deciding what books to carry than what clothes.  Since it was fall, the weather was gorgeous and barely got too cold.  I did have Aerostich gear and a Gerbing electric jacket; those took care of being warm on the bike.

FW:  What’s the biggest mistake people make when packing for a trip?

This is bad packing. (Photo provided by ZK)

ZK: That’s easy: taking too much stuff.  it seems people want to be “ready for anything” but the reality is that for most — and i stress most — motorcycle trips, from a weekend to a month (and beyond that more months are just the same in terms of basic needs) there really isn’t much more you need that you wouldn’t take on a week-long car trip.

FW:  What’s the one thing that you’d never travel without?

ZK: Hmmm; hard one.  how about two?  1. bungee clothesline. 2. camera .  If I get a third, I’d say a netbook for accessing info and staying in touch.

FW:  What’s the one thing that most people think they need and really don’t?

ZK: Some will call this blasphemy, but I think that one thing is a GPS.

Really: how often are you truly off the grid and need to know where you are?  if you can’t read a basic map — and we’re talking roads here, not gridlines, elevations or more esoteric topographic info — how can you possibly benefit from a GPS?  Last summer I was planning to ride the Trans-Lab and so I bought my first GPS.  That trip got put off, but during a substitute ten-day ride up to Yellowstone I spent more time messing with the GPS than I everhave with a map.  Yeah, it was intriguing to observe the little indicator move as I rode, know how far it was to the next gas (ok, i DID once make the error of not topping off and was relieved when the GPS told me that there

I'm trying to avoid looking like this. (Photo provided by ZK))

were 10 gas stations around, even if most of them were BEHIND me…), and know exactly where i was at any point (for journaling and identifying images). However, in all the miles and kilometers I’ve ridden across the American west, Canada, AK, Europe, NZ, and Tasmania,  if iwanted to always know exactly where i was i could have stayed at home.  I LIKE not knowing exactly where i am.

I also think using the GPS to find a motel in the next town is a form of “cheating;” isn’t part of travel the discovery of what’s around the next bend?  I LOVE to come into a little town, ride around checking out the few motels and deciding which I’d stay in. Sure, we’ve all arrived in some dump late, tired and perhaps even wet, and it’s frustrating to wander around, but if that’s not part of what riding a motorcycle is all about, you should have taken the SUV.

FW:  Is there any way to plan by the number of days you’re away?

ZK: For me, only in terms of consumables like coffee, powdered milk and the food i carry since i really am sick of road food.  I carry good oatmeal, dates, and almonds from Whole Foods in zip-locks, as well as a particular brand of  East Indian meals.

FW: Are there “economies of scale” that two people can achieve, or is it just 2X the amount of stuff?

ZK: Good one; apart from the obvious of camping, i can’t think of much that both people can share unless they are fortunate — or unfortunate — enough to wear the same size clothes.  And i’ve not yet needed a bra.

FW:  What’s your strategy for what clothes to take?

ZK: The basic fact is that if you really need something you don’t have, you can usually buy an acceptable substitute.  But, here’s my list:

  • Motorcycle jacket / pants (Aerostich Darien and Roadcrafter pants — built in Gore-tex and great venting, as well as super strong.
  • Gerbing jacket (not vest — yr arms freeze)
  • Motorcycle boots
  • Helmet (and depending on where i am going, an extra visor)
  • Riding Gloves:  two or three pair (Held x2 and a vented summer pair); Aerostich Triple Digit rain gloves.

Clothes (almost NO cotton — its bulky, heavy and takes forever to dry)

  • 1 pair long pants — I like REI’s “Guide Pants.”

    The unreachable dream: ZK's packing system. (Photo provided by ZK)

  • 1 pair shorts ( i like the Patagonia heavy cotton “Stand-Up” shorts — super tough)
  • 1 running shorts/swimming trunks (which i wear under my riding pants and wash by wearing into the shower in the evening; dry in the morning)
  • 3 pr mid-weight socks (SmartWool or REI equivalent); my feet sweat a lot
  • 2 pr underpants
  • 2  synthetic t-shirts (REI or UnderArmor), also worn into shower to wash
  • 1 Polar-tech type long sleeve t-shirt
  • 1 black cotton turtleneck (can wear anywhere, and great for layering)
  • 1 pair silk or equivalent light long john bottom
  • 1 thin fleece
  • 1 pair light hiking boots. motorcycle boots not made for walking — and i want mine to air and dry.
  • 1 pair Keens sandals or equivalent
  • 1 hat

AND the famous bungee clothes line (the one from Coughlan’s is vastly better than REI model

Since this is the second time I’vve mentioned this, it must be important, right? YES.  I use it to: hang clothes to dry in motel (better in room than in the steamy bathroom) or at campsite.  hang my sleeping bag to air. This thing is great: no clothespins and costs $10.

And for making  lists of gear, this is a great site, allowing you to custom create a checklist for any reason:

FW:  How do you pack them?  Do you have special bags?

ZK: I’ve been using compressible dry  bags; the ones i use, by WXtex, or the ones from REI, allow me to squeeze all the air out of the bag once my clothes are in.  I can pack all the above clothes (less boots/sandals) into a 15 lt bag and squeeze it down to about 8″ x 20″

FW:  How do you handle the potential for rain?  Our m/c riding suits have an inner layer for rain proofing, but that seems pretty inconvenient to put in if you’re riding along and hit a rain storm.

ZK: Ah, the benefits of Aerostich riding gear! I’ve ridden through what seemed like walls of water at 80 mph on the autobahn for almost an entire day and remained dry.  i’ve never understood the idea of having to stop and take off my jacket to zip in the waterproof liner — as it begins to rain!

FW:  How do you rain-proof your stuff?  Are panniers enough?

ZK: My Jesse cases are waterproof, but the compressible dry bags are both extra insurance and reduce the space needed.

FW: Shoes are always an issue.   I usually just take a pair of flip flops and hiking sandals, in addition to my m/c boots.

ZK: Yes, for me, too. as i said, light hikers and Keens sandals.

FW: Do you camp when traveling?  What’s the minimum you need to take to camp?

ZK: I’ve camped, and that is definitely one thing i can’t imagine doing two-up.

But when traveling alone, i take a comfy one man tent with large vestibule for gear in case of rain, or else a larger tent with enough room for me and my gear inside.  full-length Thermarest (keeps my feet off the cold ground),  goose down bag in fall and spring or a lighter-weight one in

summer; liner for extra warmth if necessary; ground cloth so i can sleep out, weather and bugs permitting.  one thing i never travel without is an inexpensive  camp chair (about $5 at Walmart or other such store); sitting on the ground is cold and often uncomfortable.  My basic cook kit so i can at least have fresh coffee or tea in the morning.  And the famous, oft-mentioned clothes line.

FW:  What about tools? There seems to be two basic strategies.  Bring a mini-tool box and the “right” spares or bring a Gold AMEX. Which do you use?

ZK: I’ve only had one major problem travelling, and that was a dead starter — luckily in Moab — so NO tool kit would have been enough! I carry more than the basic BMW -supplied tool kit, but with an R12GS there is less and less one can do oneself, besides fixing flats, and I have not yet learned to do that… my tool kit has additional metric drivers and ratchet, allen key set, small star wrench set, some wire,  duct tape, lots of zip ties of different sizes, a pack of various size locknuts and washers, some of that steel bondo stuff (NAME??).  i also carry some repair items for clothes:  Aerostich zipper replacements, velcro, rip-stop nylon press-on patches, and a very small sewing kit.  Unless you’re in the middle of the Sahara, its always possible to find someone to perform repairs of all kinds; remember the nomads in LONG WAY ROUND who repaired the gearbox of the photographer’s Chinese (Russian?) motorcycle right on the road?

FW:  What about a first aid kit?

ZK: Another of those location specific things; since i travel in first world countries — US, Canada, NZ, Australia — I carry a basic kit with ace bandages, antibiotic creme, bandages and sterile pads, waterproof tape, scissors,  blister pads, etc.  Nothing really clinically critical.  If I were traveling in South America or Africa, it would be a fully stocked kit, prepared by my physician or as found on some websites.  I bet Horizons Unlimited has some recommendations.

FW:  Any thoughts on how to prevent theft?  I’m not looking forward to having to unpack every night or worry about taking everything into a restaurant during lunch.

ZK: Location specific: in South America, i’d park the bike right in front of the restaurant and keep an eye on it.  In America, I’ve only had one thing stolen, and that was in Taos, NM.  I either take my helmet in, or use a cable to secure it and my riding jacket to the bike frame.   It’s something i just trust my gut on, but again, eyes open.  I know someone who had all their camping gear taken off their bike just outside of Yellowstone…

FW:  What other sources are good for packing tips?

ZK: Your brain.  How much do you REALLY need that you can’t get in most places, besides your riding gear and tech tools?  What’s the old saying? take out half the gear and then take out more… That clothing list i included above is really about it – and I’ve used only that gear for two months in NZ and Tasmania,  a month in BC and AK, and long trips at other times.  Wash every night, hang it up and let yourself be dirty.  We’re motorcyclists: we’re supposed to be dirty and smell bad, even if we DO ride BMW’s!

FW:  Thanks Zigy for all your help!  Now all we have to do is actually pack!

Post Script: The jury’s still out as to whether KR and I have achieved the perfect answer as we haven’t put all of our stuff on Now Voyager yet.  As I write this, we’re in an apartment in Buenos Aires awaiting the arrival of Now Voyager, which is a week late.  We won’t know how over-packed we are until we try strapping everything on.

Here are some stats so far…

  • FW clothes:  16 lbs (not including m/c riding suit, boots, helmet)
  • KR clothes: 13 lbs (not including the above plus all the stuff she’s hiding from me)
  • Electronics and paper: 34 lbs (two computers, three cameras, two GPS, one DVD drive, three flash drives, and assorted cords and batteries)
  • Tools and spares:  unknown weight, but its a lot.  Fills up three tool tubes and part of the left panniers

I sure hope we don’t end up like the guy from Sturgis above…

18 months and $20K later, Now Voyager is ready for crating in front of the shipping company in Los Angeles

Toys Gone Wild: Now Voyager Gets All Dressed UP

Just about ten years ago we were driving through Haines, Alaska and I saw a motorcyclist parked in town.  The guy was outfitted from top to bottom and his GS was dripping with gadgets and bags and stuff.  He  looked like an Adventure Dude, ready for anything, and I was immensely jealous.  KR and I had done a fair bit of motorcycling by that time, including a trip to Alaska, but it was always on our Honda Pacific Coast — the antithesis of what a Real Adventure Bike was suppose to look like.  Sometimes an image just gets burned into the brain, and o, the GS in Haines

Roll camera forward and the world was about to unfold at our feet via our new 2009 BMW F650GS.  We needed to get Now Voyager outfitted for our trip and I was determined to replicate that ten year old image.  No catalog would be left out, no accessory would be left off the list, no gadget or gizmo would go unchecked-out.  I was a man with a mission — build a world class adventure bike and have fun doing it: )))))!

Now, there was a serious side to this as well.   First, Karen and I would be living on this bike for long stretches at a time and it had to be comfortable and safe. Second, and this won’t be news for those who know me, I’m not particularly mechanically (nor electronically, pneumatically, etc.) inclined.  I wanted to build something that would take care of itself, or at least I wanted to be prepared for almost anything.  And, of course, it needed to go most anywhere we would want to go — hill, dale, expressway or back alley.

OK, it had to be cool too.

Trust But Verify: Planning, Mounting, Configuring, Repairing and TESTING

As I write this, I have an 85-page journal chronicling our prep for this trip.  While I’m tempted, I won’t put the whole thing up here:)  I’m going to summarize our efforts starting with some basic stats:

  • We’ve gone to 4 seminars/conferences and countless dinners/lunches to meet as many people as possible who’ve done something like this.  We wanted to learn from them.  There are lots and lots and lots of knowledgeable people out there who’ve done this kind of thing before.  Really.
  • We’ve used almost every adventure accessory maker for various things:  Touratech, Wundelich, Adventure Designs, Wolfman, Starcom, Garmin, Wilbers and many, many more.  There’s nothing like coming home to a new UPS package every week: ) Suffice it to say that we’re not likely to be sponsored by any one of them.
  • We’ve taken eight test rides covering 9,000+ miles, ranging in length from a weekend to two weeks, to test various aspects of the bike and its new parts/configurations.   These have been invaluable and prevented numerous mistakes that we would have had to live with if we were on the road.  These tests are in addition to the 6000 miles that I rode a rented 1200 GS in Argentina and Chile Chasing the Dakar in January 2010..
  • Hollywood BMW and Ryan Reza have done most all the work on the bike.  He’s terrific and I wouldn’t have been able to do all the prep without him.  We have spent hours and hours  and hours together getting Now Voyager ready.  Unless you’re able to do the work yourself, you need to find someone you can trust and make sure you take good care of him/her.

What’s The Goal(s)?

I’ve written about why we selected a BMW F650GS in another post — light, comfortable, go-anywhere, highly configurable.   Now our challenge was to make Now Voyager into a bike specifically for us and for our intended uses.  Sounds rather simple doesn’t it?   Well, while its not brains surgery, there were a lot of moving parts and issues to deal with…

  • We’re small people.  I’m 5’5″ on a good day and way 170lbs.   We need a bike low enough to the ground that I can wrestle it at very low speed situations when its fully loaded with KR and gear.  Moreover, weight is a big deal for lots of reasons including the heavier the bike, the harder it is to wrestle at slow speeds.  We also like to talk while we’re riding, sharing what’s going on.  This is especially important on long stints or riding through cities in which one has to do the navigating and the other does the driving.  Finally, we like our stuff.  For KR, that can mean anything from kitchen stuff to pieces of art that we gather along the trip.  My stuff is almost all electronics:  two computers, backup drives, cords, batteries, headphones, etc.
  • The Lower Suspension/Payload paradox. I was extremely disappointed to learn that BMW accomplishes its “lower suspension” option by making the shock softer.  This causes one really significant problem for serious tourers:  because the shock is just soft, the payload is sharply reduced for a lowered suspension bike.  This was a huge problem for us  because I know we’re going to end up carrying a bunch of stuff in addition to us.
  • How do we keep it as light as possible, yet meet all the above? Not easy, but that’s one of the prime reasons we chose the 650 vs. the 800 as a starting point.  Everything that we put on the bike and intend to take is as light as it could be.  We weighed everything and then we calculated spring rates and dampening for the shock absorber.
  • It’s going to be a moving office. Yes, I intend to work on the road, which is why I need so much computer equipment and while I’ll need a little bit of space for files/papers.   Honestly, if I could have found a small  enough and compact enough printer, I would bring that too:)
  • It has to be comfortable for both of us. This is especially true for Karen since she broke her  back in the Sportsmobile accident five years ago.  We changed seats, put in a back rest, raised the handlebars, etc. all in the pursuit of making Now Voyager a Bark-O-Lounger.

The Parts, Accessories, Gadgets and Gizmos on the bike

Here’s a stream of consciousness list of the stuff that I’ve (Ok, Ryan) put on the bike.  For those of  you who have questions or want more detail, just email or call.  Each piece was put on and then tested.  If it worked, it stayed.  If it didn’t, then it was fixed, modified or eliminated.

The Bike/Bags/Suspension/Body

  • Touratech Panniers (as big as I could get),top box and matching inner bags.  Solid pieces of equipment priced to match.  Aside from the top box, they mounted as advertised.  One of them leaked during a rain storm, though, so they have to be rain-proofed.
  • CeeBaily lowered seat with back restWas made to fit our butts.  Lowered as well.  Very good (so far)
  • Wolfman water proof bags including soft gas tank pannier. Untried, but they look great.
  • Wunderich tank bagFinding THE tank bag was one of the most difficult decisions.  There are lots of tank bags out there, but none seemed perfectly suited for what I wanted.  The Wunderlich bag mounts VERY EASILY, has plenty of nifty pockets, looks like its rain resistant, and has a place in the front where you can run electrical sockets into it.
  • All available Touratech crash bars including oil pan protector and radiator guard.  Lots of folks make these things, these just looked like they were sturdy and they were so convenient, since I was in the Touratech catalog/web site every day 🙂
  • Wilbers shock built specifically to my physical and weight specifications and mud flap.  The shock was one of the best things I’ve done  for a wide range of reasons (bought it from Ted @ 831.438.1100).  We bought it to solve the height/weight problem.  The shock was specifically made for our weight (full up and loaded) and the desired ride height (after sag) that we needed.  The bike ended up being about 1″ higher than the stock shock, but way more stiff and able to handle weight.  And here’s the shocking thing (did I say that) — it improved the precision of the handling of the bike to the point that it was immediately noticeable.  Especially two up.  To compensate the increased ride height, we lowered the bike on the front forks by an inch.
  • Center stand. BMW does not offer a center stand for a lowered bike.  So I bought a after market center stand and a friend, Ron Cottriel, shorten the stand to match the bike.  Works great and it doesn’t scrape at the speeds and lean angles I’m going.
  • Wunderlich throttle cruise controlWouldn’t ride without one.  Very, very high quality piece that works fine.  But its set up backwards so that you lock it ON when you rotate forward
  • Wunderlich adjustable clutch lever Small hands require small levers
  • Wunderlich rear view mirror extenders. So I could see  around KR.  Does the job, but the stock BMW mirrors still suck
  • 20MM Touratech handlebar risers.  I put these on because I had read so much about risers, but I wasn’t really convinced.  I am now, its just more comfortable
  • Air Hawk passenger seat. This is an adjustable seat (by blowing into a little tube) in which KR can make it softer or harder depending on the terrain.  She seems to like it.
  • Two Rotopax1 gallon gas cansI’ve been looking for extra gas cans for bikes for years.  These are definitely very, very trick.  Highly recommend them.
  • Three GT Moto Tool Tubes. I originally expected to mount it inside the panniers, but there’s no room on the F650GS, so I ended up mounting them on the bottom of the panniers.  Since I’m taking a lot of spares and tools, I bought three.  Very high quality stuff.
  • Knobby tires front and rear. After I went over the Andes on a GS 1200 equipped with knobbies, I decided that the standard tires wouldn’t cut it.  On dirt, they make a big difference.  On pavement, I never reached their limit in the mountain sweepers on the big GS until you get well over 100mph.
  • Two thermos mounted with a Touratech mount. Keep drinks hot or cold out in the middle of nowhere can’t be over-rated.
  • Two helmet locksI don’t suspect they will prevent a theft from someone who has the time and tools to have at it, but they will work for quick lunches, etc.


  • Starcom rider to rider communications systemAside from not crashing/breaking down, being able to communicate with one another is really important.  As a result, KR KR and I have gone through many, many communications systems looking for the answers.  I think the Starcom 1 Advance system is very, very good and we’ve now mounted it properly so it should work well.  But IT DIDN’T WORK FINE FOR VERY LONG.  Various problem kept coming up during our test trips, everything from buzzing to not being able to hear the iPod.  I tried getting help from everyone including the factory but was out of luck until I contacted Jeff at Biker Effects (see links).  He totally solved my problem(s) and impressed me that he actually knows something about the system.  Ryan mounted the unit under the EMU under the seat and put in a couple of helmet wire connectors and we’re set to go.
  • Garmin 660 Zumo GPS and various maps. GPS’s are another black box area for me and I finally picked the 660 Zumo, which works fine.  The problem with this is threefold:  (1) Garmin’s user interface/customer support/web site sucks big time  (2) Their mapping software for Mac is not particularly intuitive;  and (3) I still haven’t found the right maps for South America…
  • Gadget Guy GPS mounting kit. The Gadget Guy was another hugely helpful guy.  Genna spent three hours on the phone with me talking me through GPS, the pros/cons of mounting them particular ways,etc., etc.  And his mounting systems are works of art.
  • Adventure Design  VOP 1.5 video camera and mounting system.   Haven’t tried it yet, but saw Jim Hyde use it on our Dakar trip to great affects.  My suspicion is that it will be weak on the software side.
  • Scott automatic chain oiler.  I’m a lazy guy and figured its best to get something to do the daily stuff.  I replaced the standard chain with a much better one too.

Bike Preparation

Not only does all the above stuff need to get put on or mounted, there was a ton of specialized stuff that I wanted done. Here’s a list of the key things

  • Center stand shortened.  See above
  • Back box moved back 1/2 inch.   This little bit made all the difference to KR
  • Panniers lined with foam. I carry a lot of electronics
  • Starcom system was wired to the ignition system, the Starcom box was located under the seat, the helmet wire connectors located at the back and gas tank
  • EVERYTHING was siliconed and or Locktited
  • GPS was mounted as ignition dependent
  • The video camera was mounted in two ways:  forward-looking  and flexible hand-held.  See above
  • Suspension was adjusted numerous times with various loads.  This is an art of which I’m not too skilled.  We tried to reach a balance between ride height, shock travel, and stiffness.  Only time will tell, but there are not a lot of alternatives for us vertically challenged guys.
  • The front forks were lowered about 1 inch to compensate for the above suspension adjustments
  • The Scott Oiler was mounted and tested for flow rate.   When we first tested it, it threw oil over everyone and everything for the 100 miles the oil lasted.
  • A complete service, including new spark plugs, oil/air filers, brake pads, etc.,etc,
  • A spare clutch cable was installed next to the existing one.  Ryan mounted the cable right next to the existing one, just in case I lose one, its a five minute replacement. Very trick.

Pictures of the fun along the way

A rare photo of me working on NV and getting something done

A rarer shot of KR polishing NV's new panniers

One of my favorite shorts. It's very early one Sunday morning and I'd just spent 10 hours trying to get the top box installed.

Many of our tests were weekend rides with the BMW of So Cal folks. The rides always included new and interesting roads to places that we hadn't been to before. They were very useful in testing various things on the bike. And they were also a fun group to play with.

We went to anything we could to learn. This was a well-attended talk by the Simon and Lisa Thomas (see 2ridetheworld link on the links section) at BMW Ventura. If you're thinking about taking a long trip, go to as many of these as possible.

Learning on a whole other level, the Horizons Unlimited meeting every summer in Colorador and California are the single best places to go to learn how to do "this." These folks are the real thing.

Another way of learning -- the hard way. NY stopped running in Gallup, NM on our first significant test trip and we spent FOUR DAYS while a BMW dealer tried to diagnose the problem. We (I) found the answer in the AdvRider Forums of course. 40 pages on F650GS fuel pump problems...

NV will serve as mobil office as well

I've found that the best relationship between rider and technician is based on mutual respect. The guy on the right is Ryan Reza, the best technician I've come across. He needs some training in people skills, though 🙂

One of the last things I installed (OK, Ryan installed) was two one-gallon Rotopax gas tanks. Very trick. They're easy to fill and lockable. Range for NV is now about 280 miles. Definitely cheaper than buying the Touratech large gas tank for $2K.

This is what the electronics look like now. Garmin and POV1.5M camera mounted. The lipstick camera is in its resting place. There's also a mount under the windscreen for road shots. My intension is to hold the camera -- or have KR hold it-- while we're riding.

Gadget Guy GPS mounting brackets

Staging area! My m/c stuff in my temporary living room in Steve and Rita's basement

All suited up and nowhere to go -- yet! First test of my first ever riding suit -- the Revit "Dakar" suit. It's a very good suit, but I wonder whether the whole rain/winter layer underneath is going to work in climates where it rains off and on every day. Bought on sale, of course.

Now Voyager waiting to get crated. I'm feeling a huge amount of separation anxiety...

“Working the Problem”

You know something has changed inside when you really believe that riding a motorcycle around the world is no big deal.  You begin working the problem rather than being overwhelmed by the complexity and risk.  A scene from the movie, Apollo 13, comes to mind when the Flight Commander demands of his team, “work the problem people, work the problem!”  Riding a motorcycle around the world is no moon-shot, but most people view them with equal survivability.

Once we crossed into the “work the problem” mode, relating to other people became harder for all concerned.   The poor souls from Jonestown probably felt similar before drinking the Cool Aide, “What’s everyone worried about?” I suspect that friends quietly wonder, Are Fred and Karen OK? As our ”disease” progressed, we found ourselves seeking out a different type of friend, much as a cancer victim might seek out survivors to gain knowledge and empathy.  In our case, we wanted to talk to  people about the best way to ship a motorcycle around the Darien Gap, or what countries were safe to camp and which were not, how much should you pack, what types of clothing to take for three months rather than three days.  Talking tools, spares, and gizmos all night long is a good thing.

We crossed our personal Rubicon in the summer of 2008 when we attended our first Horizons Unlimited (HU) meeting in Colorado.  HU members are the real deal when it comes to motorcycle adventurists, made up of hard-core travel types who ride to far-away places, regularly.   Rugged and independent, most HU members gather around a tire-changing seminar with the same joy and concentration as a fantasy footballer studies the injury report.   No pretences here and no need to hide; we’re among friends.

After three days of “seminars” on how to travel to faraway places on a motorcycle, KR and I came to the same conclusion.  Like most important things in our life, KR was the first to voice our collective thought, “We can do this.  We’ve done a lot of this kind of traveling already.  We know more than most people here.  We can figure this out.  We can survive!  This is no big deal.”

To be honest, it was a lot more than three days of seminars that got us to this point.  No, it was a couple of decades worth of trips to Alaska, Mexico, every state in the US but one, Nepal, Argentina, Chile, India, a few places in Europe, Puerto Rico and some others I can’t remember.   Not all of these were by motorcycle, of course, but they contained enough “shit happens, we dealt with it” episodes that we’re comfortable with the unknowns of what lies around the next blind corner.

The Modified Plan

I knew the likelihood of getting KR to go around the world on a motorcycle at one time was less likely than the aforementioned moon-shot.  So our first modifier was “one continent at a time.”  We were both up to traveling for an extended period of time – say a continent — but then coming back to a home base for some period before heading out again.  Through a series of back and forth discussions, we generally agreed that the sequence of continents would be South America, Europe, and Africa.  Somehow we’d also find time to explore Mexico and probably dip down to Central America as well.  Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East, and Australia/New Zealand are not sequenced yet.

So, in the summer of 2008 we made the decision to start making this idea a reality, causing a two-year series of consequences chronicled in Rewired, Journey to a New Life.

We have relatively low expectations for this trip; survival, go to some far- away places, meet interesting people, experience! as much of the world as we can, and share it all with our friends.

We’ll keep in touch.

About Us

After years of writing emails to friends about our various trips, I’ve finally gotten around to creating a blog about our restless travels. TheRestessTraveler (TRT) is a website about and for people who like to take the road less traveled. It’s ground-centric as Karen and I like to wander, following our instincts rather than a set plan, and that’s easiest to do on a motorcycle, RV, car, bus, train, taxi (ground or water), horse, wagon and — god forbid — our feet.

We’ve been traveling together for more than two decades, yet we are still beginners in getting to know the world. We’ve just scratched the surface with entire continents still a mystery to us. We intend to work the problem vigorously.

Blogs are suppose to be about what is happening now, yet much of the initial content for TRT will be a mash-up of where we’ve been rather than where we’re going. We need to catch everyone up fast. Where to begin?

Maybe my most recent trip chasing the Dakar off-road race in South America would be a good start. Or the life-changing (literally) trip to Nepal that I still think about almost every day even though its been 18+months ago. Many of you have read my notes on the trials and travails of building Little Big Sur, our jungle palapa south of Puerto Vallarta.

I should probably just cut to the chase and get to what everyone’s wondering: our planned trip to South America on our motorcycle, Now Voyager. As preparation, we’ve put thousands of miles on NV trying to get ready; in the mean time going to Colorado (what’s not to love), New Mexico (pretty much the opposite of Colorado, because we spent four whole days stuck in Albuquerque), Northern California’s Lost Coast (most descriptive name of any place we’ve been), Nevada (best seen at 85+ mph), and Arizona (what’s riding a motorcycle in 125 degree heat like? Don’t ask).

Trying to sell one’s house is a trip of a whole new flavor, probably deserving of a blog of its own, but chronicled here in Rewire: Fixing What Isn’t Broken. None of our adventures and terrifying experiences have cast KR and I closer to blows than remodeling and selling our house in Hollywood, commonly known as Hollyridge. Accomplishing this little task was the one prerequisite to starting our Big Motorcycle Adventure.

So there, I’ve done it. No more embarrassed silences as friends ask, “Why don’t you have a blog!” Here it is, all for you:)

Geez, I hope somebody comes.


October 2010

Our Crew

Question: Can eleven Type A personalities get along for fifteen days? Answer: Yes, if they’re riding bikes and being taken care of by Pampa Adventures.

The Dakar Chasers

1. Jim Hyde, Rawhyde Adventures.  Jim was the Organizer, Expedition Leader, Protector and Main Cheerleader of our group.  ( ) Saved my ass more than once, but that can be said for most of my fellow Dakar Chasers

2. & 3.  Tom and Ken Petrillo. Tom and Ken hung together like brothers should.  Tom’s my hero, being an auto parts magnate, as he’s owned and sold more great cars than I’ve ever seen. Ken’s my hero as well, not because he owns his insurance agency, but because he ‘s like rated #1 in some AMA motocross series.  Very studly dirt rider.  Also saved my bacon more than once.

4. Kent Clausen, hotel developer from the Big Sky Country (or somewhere out there…)  I think of him as Gentle Kent, being an X Football player.   Didn’t take any knocks on the head as he’s a very, very sharp hotelier.

5. Raphael Bertolus, Jim’s friend and LA high-end builder.   Raphael set the record for being stopped by the police. THREE times.   He claims it was my fault as the police were looking for me.

6. Charlie Walton, Las Vegas surgeon.  Charlie was my roommate for most of the trip and a fine one at that.  Then, he deserted me for someone else.  I’m heartbroken.

7. Chuck Brown, retired BART manager.  What more can I say, Chuck’s fast and a major babe magnet.  Does it get any better than that?

8. Jim McMichael, Reno investment banker.   Jim’s riding strategy was keep your head down and plow straight-ahead, no matter what.   Probably what’s made him a successful financier.

9. Bassel Fares, 747 pilot living out of his flight bag.  Basel joined us a little late but immediately got in the swing of things.  Always rode covered from head to foot in black.  I suspect he’s wanted somewhere…

10. Mark Smead, retired software developer.  Mark was totally prepared, had all the latest gadgets, and was always up for the next ride.  Did I mention he helped pick me up out of sand?

The Pampa Adventures Crew ( )

There’s no doubt that the Three Amigos pictured above were the real heroes of this trip.  Jim’s company partnered with the Argentina-based Pampa Adventures who mapped out the entire trip, brought two chase trucks, and cooked some great meals in the remotest areas imaginable.  And, believe it or not, they did it with a smile on their face

Left: Ignacio, “Nacho.”   Good-natured, the Main Man and chief interpreter on the road.  As a bonus, Nacho mapped out my South American motorcycle trip route J

Middle:  Dario. Driver, cook, and all-around great guy.  Always quick to go to the cooler for a cold one.  And he drove his truck fast enough to keep most of us at bay.

Right:  El Jefe, Jorge .   Master of the expedition, a really welcome site at the end of the day standing in front of the hotel.  Picked great hotels and restaurants.  Had almost as many clothes with him as Raphael.

Best hotel. We stayed in four homes in the small city of Fiambala, Argentina since the real Dakar teams had taken up all the hotel rooms. This was perhaps our most memorable stay as we got a tiny glimpse of what an “average” Argentinean’s life might be life.

Which brings me to my final observation:  I’ve now been to four relatively poor countries (Nepal, India, Chile and Argentina) in the past year and guess what – people seem a lot happier there, than here.  What’s up with that?


Real Men are Made in the Atacama

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles along the coast of Chile.  It is the driest desert on earth, having no recorded rain for the last 150 years.   Think of Death Valley, and then multiply it by 100X.   There is not ONE plant growing in this place, not a shrub, cactus or weed.

We spent four days riding through its heart, along its western flank on the Pacific Ocean, and criss-crossing its mountain ranges trying to get a glimpse of the racers, rarely successful, except for a few check-points.

The Atacama replaces the Sahara’s role in the Dakar race. The Dakar, long famous for its Saharan dunes, focused much of this year’s race on the Atacama Desert. Many competitors thought the Atacama was harder and longer to get through than the Sahara. During just one day’s stage, about 25% of the bikes couldn’t make it and were forced out of the race. This is a shot of competitors racing off into the mountains.

The Atacama as economic engine. Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in South America, partly because of its substantial natural resources, mainly copper, nitrate (salt), iron and coal. The Atacama was – and is – being mined ruthlessly for its resources. We had lunch one day in a modern ghost town, Pedro de Valdivia, a huge nitrate mine that operated from 1931 to 1996. This is the purest company town I’ve ever seen, on a scale that can’t be explained via pictures or words. Thousands of three room worker houses, supermarket, schools, churches, a hospital and of course a huge factory. It’s all located in the middle of the Atacama, cut out of a mountain that was strip-mined for the salt and then abandoned when nothing was left. This is Jim Hyde, on the main street, and on the right, a dozen doors of different, but exactly alike, apartments.

The Atacama Coast of Chile. Bold, beautiful, endless blue skies and clear water. The coast is dotted with hundreds of small mining camps and fishing villages, each looking pretty worn, but with great views. We had lunch one day in a fishing village in one of these coves and became even more fond of the people of Chile.

Crossing the Andes the Hard Way

Our tour was organized by Rawhyde Adventures, BMW’s official off-road riding school which teaches guys like me to be Real Dirt Eating Men.   Typically, I skipped the school.  Also, to “qualify” for going on this adventure tour, one had to fill out a questionnaire asking about one’s dirt riding experience.   I approached answering these questions as any ex-ad man might:  lots of embellishment on the positives, not too much emphasis on the negatives.   Net, I omitted the fact that the last time I’d ridden a motorcycle on dirt was 1993.  This would come back to haunt me when crossing the Andes, which in this case included 250 kilometers of dirt road…

Every Andean crossing starts out with Coca leaves chewed beginning at 6:30AM. Coffee? I don’t need no f…king coffee.

The road up the Argentinean side to the peak was spectacular. Beautiful pavement, fast curves, breathtaking scenery, few vehicles. This was one of the few straight sections. I averaged 90+mph on this road, but it wasn’t enough to beat...

Charles “Chuck” Brown. Chuck is one of the best motorcyclists I’ve ever ridden with. He’s fast on dirt, fast on pavement, fast everywhere. He’s the best student of riding that I’ve ever spoken with. I wonder what he was like at 25 rather than his 65? Perfect example of you are as old as you feel. Chuck hauls ass.

This is what altitude can do to one. Along with the Coca leaves. This is near the top.

Yellow tundra? I don’t know what this bright yellow grass was, but it covered the top of the Andes between 10,000-15000 feet.

The sign says it all. That translates to about 15,000+ feet

This is the beginning of hell, even though it looks like heaven. This was 100+kms (60 miles) of dirt road with trucks, cars and buses traversing the ONE ROAD over the Andes (note to self, remember to ask what kind of dirt road it is in the future as not all dirt roads are created equal). As I weave through soft gravel and dirt, desperately trying not to be knocked off the road, I remember the one piece of advice Jim Hyde – our Expedition Leader – gave me: when in trouble, twist the throttle! I did and somehow survived, but the whole experience scared the hell out of me.

Looks clear ahead. Oh damn, what’s that way back there? This guy was going way over 60 mph and like his fellow truckers, never lifted off the throttle to go around me. This takes place high up in the Andes, which can be accurately described as being in the middle of nowhere. Time required to get an ambulance to scrape one stupid Gringo motorcyclist off the mountainside would be measured in days.

As I was dodging the grasp of the Grim Reaper, my fellow Dakar Chasers were having a pleasant lunch next to an Andean salt lake. “Another piece of cheese, Nacho, please? Has anyone seen Fred lately? I’m sure he’ll be along shortly…” I was too sick to eat. All I could do was sit there and congratulate myself for not dropping the bike the eight times I should have.

My Fifteen Days of Being a Rock Star (Impersonator)

I stopped feeling guilty after the first day of seeing hundreds of people on the side of the road cheering our little band of Dakar Chasers.   I started to sign my name, “Fred USA” with more gusto after the first dozen autograph requests.  At first, pictures with girls, their boyfriends/husbands, their children, and grandparents were done passively – OK, if you insist!

“We aren’t the real racers!” I wanted to shout. “You’re cheering for the wrong dudes! “

But then I finally got it, it wasn’t about us, it was about them.  For most of these folks, seeing any part of the Dakar   — even groupies like us – was a BIG EVENT. People came out to cheer, clap, yell, wave flags, hold their babies up and blow kisses our way at any time of the day or night we came by.

The Dakar is simply the biggest thing to come to these towns ever.

So, it didn’t take us long to get into the spirit of things.  Soon, all of us Dakar Chasers started to get into our new found fame:  we stood up in the saddle, beeped our horns in greeting, blew kisses back to the babes and babies, and encouraged pictures with us and our bikes.  Gas stops were 10% about getting gas and 90% about giving autographs, taking pictures, and thanking our fans.

How good is that!!?   Sign me up anytime for being a Dakar Groupie

Hey, there’s a racer! Crowds in the small village of Fiambala. Pretty good knock-off of the official Dakar sign from kids in the Atacama desert.

Babe Magnet: I finally stooped to kissing babies. The real babe magnet, at the right, was Chuck. Here two “representatives” from the local health club climb on his bike.

Typical gas station stop in which filling the tank is the least important activity.

Part 2: A Taste of the Race

Question: Why do people stand so close to the action? Answer: You'd have to be there to understand

It’s difficult to capture the pure adrenalin rush that standing a few feet away from these monsters gives you.  For just a taste, go here for a clip of Robby Gordon hauling ass in his Hummer, followed very closely by the leading truck and ever-present helicopters. Robby was probably going close to 100mph in this clip.

This section of the race comes down South America’s largest sand dune, near the city of Iquique.  This took place on a Thursday and there were thousands of people lined up at this race watch spot not including the thousands lining the streets of Iquique to watch the competitors drive to the Bivouac.

How difficult is this race?  To give you a personal perspective, I crashed no less that five times trying to make it through the dunes to the viewing area, a half-mile stretch.   These were rather shallow soft dunes, they weren’t even mini-dunes, but micro-dunes compared to what these guys go through.  My teeth were clinched as I barrowed into them at….maybe 10 mph – not the 50, 60 ,70, 80 mph these guys do.

After today, I’m not sure I deserve a seat at the Adult’s Table.

Different terrain, same excitement. Each daily stage has a few viewing areas set aside in which fans can come out and watch the action -- for free. This is the leading BMW Diesel car careening through the bog in the early dasys of the race. Notice the crowds.

Just like a NASCAR race. If there's a race, then there's a tailgating party, even in South America. One cannot overstate the amount of partying and excitement the race causes in every town it passes. These Argentines offer us a beer and some BBQ beef as we look pretty tired just getting to ths site. And this is just mid-way through our first day of riding.

These are real Iron Men. This is the motorcycle start of a stage in Chile (see video of start here: . At this point, more than half of the motorcycle competitors are out because they couldn’t make it to the daily finish in time allowed. There is no way to explain how tough this is; these folks ride in terrain that only the very, very best off-road racers dare to go. They do it for fifteen days straight. If they have any problems “out there,” they have to take care of them by themselves. When they get to camp each night, they have to prep for the next day’s ride. Our tour group was tired after each day’s riding along just a portion of the pavement part of the race. This is tough. Real tough.

Well not everyone is an Iron MAN. This competitor had to be helped at the line. They were just 5’ tall and way too short to stand on a Dakar bike with both feet on the ground. Solution? Crewman put a rock under their foot to balance at the start. Same competitor without their helmet reveals this is an Iron WOMAN. I felt like a true wimp having just taken my life into my hands riding the mile through mild sand to get to the viewing station.

A city that is built, lived in, torn down, and moved EVERY day (usually in the middle of nowhere). The “Bivouac” is the daily camp where all the competitors, support teams, media and officials rebuild what broke today and prepare for tomorrows. The Bivouac houses thousands of people and hundreds of vehicles and is built from scratch every single day. So, while the racers are off racing, the support crews break camp, drive to the next camp, re-build the campsite and await the arrival of their team members. This caravan moves across country causing as much excitement as the racers themselves.

Extremes. On the left is one of four VW prototypes being worked on shortly after it arrives from the day’s stage. VW is dominating the car race occupying the top 3 positions. They are spending big money with hundreds of people. The motorcyclist on the right couldn’t even make it inside the Bivouac, having to camp with his one support member outside the fence.

To the winner go the spoils. Winning the Dakar is equivalent to winning the Indianapolis 500 and gets similar attention in worldwide media (except the US of course). Carlos Sainz, the VW driver who won the race, gets out of his car and faces this onslaught of attention every day. Just a few feet away, his VW teammate, American Mark Miller --all the way down in third -- can’t get arrested.

The Russians are coming and they’re big and fast. No race report would be complete without covering the race’s most popular vehicle type— big, really big, really fast trucks. These monsters are the size of Semis’, but half the length. They’re so fast that they lead many oft the top car drivers and are easily in the top ten overall. Three top trucks are crewed by Russians and they’re big, fast, and angry.

To see one of these big guys up close in action, go here:

Thirteen days in South America following the toughest off-road race on Earth

Many of you have never heard of the Dakar Rally though it’s acknowledged by motor-heads as the greatest off-road race in the world.  The Dakar takes its name from the original event in 1979, which ran from Paris to Dakar, Africa.  Paris was dropped from the name some time ago and then the race came to South America last year because it became too dangerous to race in Africa.

Changing venues because of danger is ironic given the Dakar’s reputation as the most dangerous race in the world.  It’s not uncommon to have at least one competitor killed each year. It’s also dangerous for spectators as they like to stand right next to the course watching racers speed by.  This year, five spectators have been killed and one motorcyclist is in critical condition.

For those who follow motorsports, the Dakar is recognized as the toughest as well as the most dangerous motor race in the world because it takes place over fifteen days and covers almost 6000 miles of the toughest terrain known to man, woman or child.   Notice I didn’t say “road” as most of the competition take place off road in horrid sand dunes, mountain passes and just plain bad territory.   One measure of its toughness is that more than half of the 500-750 entrants each year don’t even make it to the finish line.

The race part of the event is only one of its challenges as the logistics of moving a caravan of competitors, support personnel, mechanics, and media from one daily finish line to the next would challenge the Army Corps of Engineers.    This caravan criss-crosses Argentina and Chile, causing a ripple of excitement and activity through every little (and large) town it passes through.  Competitors start each day early in the morning (motorcycles first, then ATVs, cars, small trucks and then the BIG trucks), race hundreds of miles through mountains and desert only to have to drive another couple hundred miles on main roads to the nightly camp site. There, they set-up camp, repair the vehicle, catch a shower and a meal, and fall asleep in a tent (everyone sleeps in tents — no RVs!).  This happens every day for fifteen days with only one day of rest.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Well. I joined a tour of ten other motorcyclists and spent two weeks following the Dakar circus from town to town in Argentina and Chile.  My pitch to Karen was this would be a good scouting trip for our Big Trip.  She saw through that immediately and called a spade a spade — I wanted to go ride a motorcycle in South America and the Dakar race was a good excuse.  The old saying, “be careful what you wish for,” has new meaning to me now.

Here’s the report of my two weeks chasing The Dakar.