“And she’s down, again…” winced Jason for the third time in less than a mile. Although having a blast, admittedly I was in too deep. Getting increasingly buried in the sand pit we thought would be a rideable road—a disused section of the old Ruta 40 in Argentina. Weary and winded with no clue on how to conquer the sand, Jason enquired on my well-being and lifted Pearl upright, my fully laden 650cc. I brushed myself off and casually suggested we turn around. For the umpteenth time, I was comforted by having my fella alongside my motorcycle and me.
Someone enlightened about moto-travel advised that before setting off with your loved one, the practicalities of riding as a couple should be weighed into the argument, not to mention the pros and cons. To my mind when you both love to travel, it goes hand in hand that two wheels—as does four perhaps—facilitate that shared agenda. Whether you’re ‘two up’ or astride your own motorcycles, you’re both enjoying the same open-air experience on a road in a way four wheels can’t quite compete or sometimes even accomplish. Through an unobscured view, you’re living out an adventure next to one another. Enraptured by motorcyling you may already be; how you will fare with your ‘marvellous other’ on a prolonged open-throttle journey is another matter entirely.
Executing a big motorcycling trip involves one step: going. However, trying to keep a handle on planning a moto-adventure with your beloved other isn’t always a cushy ride. What if it’s the instant gratification of rural rideouts over long weekends that appeals most? A sustained two-wheeled stretch is a complete lifestyle change and a reality one of you may not relish for so long. You might not be a well-groomed prince or pampered princess but what if you’re unable to find certain items, particularly those us females need in remote places?
Enthusiasm could outweigh skill level at some point or one of you could lose control down a steep hill. Worse still, you may be riding alongside a partner whose off road prowess could leave you lost in their dust—becoming as crestfallen from holding them back as much as not being able to keep up. So many whats, scary ifs and buts. At some point, a conscious decision has to be made to shelve the excuses and ruminate on those reservations no longer. Crikey, how hard can it be?
I won’t deny it, from personal experience of riding small stints throughout the UK and Europe and being 15 months and 23,000 miles into the Americas, there have been a few challenges to riding as a couple. Anyone considering co-motorcycle travel for an extended period, your relationship will be tested as will your forbearance levels. When you’ve both endured a longer than anticipated day in the saddle, feeling beastly tired isn’t always conducive to being amiable to one another. Suck it up, the low lows are just part of long-term travel together. Never hold a grudge.
Assigning roles such as tent-pitching while the other cracks on with the dinner for instance can prevent a cacophony of conflict in petty arguments. Having a solid relationship built on tolerance throwing in a big pinch of humour from the outset will stand you both in good stead.
Someone very dear to me recently advised that spending time apart on a regular basis is recommended. I couldn’t agree more: taking walks, going off to do your own thing, signing up to a class or course that doesn’t involve your ‘cherished other’ is undeniably beneficial; to keeping the relationship healthy and having new things to bring back to it. Not to mention fresh material to chitchat around. Otherwise, what would you converse about if you experience absolutely everything together, only having a break when one or both of you sleeps… My advice: don’t go there! What’s more, my wizened friend also suggested that having one or both of you be accountable in an argument goes a long way where one takes overall responsibility, even if that happens after a ‘cooling off’ period. Well said, Sam.
It can be tricky when a person assumes a grossly different pace to the other. Especially if one has considerably greater riding stamina than the other. Namely not biting off more than the lesser experienced can chew will result in them having enough energy leftover at the end of the day to stay sweet-natured, ensuring that you both remain happy.
Moreover agreeing to keep the off road riding in particular, well within daylight will prevent many a day on the bikes turning sour. If one of you prefers to spend every waking hour in the saddle while the other is more inclined towards a shorter stretch in order to be able to relax, go off and sight see on foot, establishing a mutual agenda each day will ensue greater long-term harmony. It will give rise to fewer unforeseen compromises as opposed to engaging in a constant battle of negotiation with each other, which will be as frustrating as it will unendurably wearing. Moto-travel is supposed to be fun! Keep it that way. And why not consider a few days apart if that’s what it takes to do just that.
Despite the potential tribulations on the trails, with motorcycling as a couple comes constant companionship. Sharing all the firsts, incredible experiences, soaking up jaw-on-the-floor scenery that will make your souls sing, not to mention the hand-holding on a beach, star-gazing under spectacular skies and being there for one another during all those moments of elation and accomplishment.
When riding in partnership, a cherished aspect has often been attributed to technologies such as the two-way intercom system affixed to the helmets such as the Sena or Scala Rider. The device is a convenient way to point out a family of four including the dog astride a moped, eagle-soaring or an iguana crossing the road up ahead, help each other over the trickier terrain but above all, as a means to further enjoy the experience on two wheels together. Whoever overtakes in busy traffic first for example, acts as the other’s eyes in following suit—especially in countries whose drivers of vastly varying speeds on single carriageways demands it. Moreover, forewarning something potentially perilous on the road is priceless.
Admittedly, some may find it nigh on impossible to communicate for hours on end and instead crave the peace and quiet that comes with the solitude of one’s own thoughts. Absolutely fair enough. For us, being able to jabber away now and again on the road facilitates the optimum way to ride with each other.
In summary, riding as a couple through unfamiliar territory is sometimes demanding. When unforeseeable circumstances occur, tensions can rise when your biking abilities, personal needs and wants differ if not clash on occasion. Although it’s good to take the time and address those early on. Acknowledging different strengths each of you will bring will help make the trip a sustainable one. One of you may be more apt at maintaining the motorcycles in a tip-top condition for example whilst the other happier to execute the agreed route that day.
Above all, taking extra effort to recognize each other’s boiling points and sources of irritation, even if you become one, is key!
As for any grave misgivings you may hold before setting off— mechanically or otherwise—there are no basic needs that can’t be met. If you’re on a road and need assistance, chances are someone will pass by with an offer of help. As far as sourcing specialist items is concerned, folks that reside in the middle of nowhere still require the same basic things all men and women worldwide do. Your motorcycle is highly unlikely to somersault out of control, and if one of you has less riding experience than the other, thank them in advance for mentoring you and foremost exhibiting unfaltering patience in allowing you to keep pace—it’s a recipe for shared motorcycling success.
And as for faring in the saddle alongside your partner goes: you’re as free to let your minds wander as your wheels are to roam. Motorcycle overlanding as a couple draws on a joint freedom to live a life dictated only by the pair of you. You’ll manoeuvre into a happier you: “Getting peckish yet? What’s that chap selling by the road?” or “Fancy heading that way on the map today?” are the light-touch mutual exchanges that will get you there. Ultimately pursuing your shared passion as a partnership—wanting the same thing in the spirit of self-governed adventure, travelling by the same means and wishing to see the same countries—no one can remove the exultation on your soul for which that will bring.
A version of the above post appeared as an article in Adventure Motorcycle Magazine.
The air, leaden with its usual heavy humidity was also laced with thick vegetation and alive with the noisy chirps of crickets. As well as the deep bulging calls of howler monkeys, affording us a quick glance as they were beckoned into the black heart of the forest. It provided a melodic background to the faint purl of an ebb tide; its subdued waves gently stroking the sandy shore. Manuel Antonio usually tended toward a manic tourist spot throughout peak season, although we greeted it—a small oceanside village in the Pacific region—in the serenity of the off-season.
The glowing face of an orange sun slipped down over the western horizon, its brilliant shades of sunset kindling the heavens. Red ripples of light danced across the sea, they gleamed with a translucent fire in peoples’ hair. Moist sand squished between my toes as I strolled barefoot across the beach, grateful that the lightest of sea breezes tousled my hair about my shoulders.
There’s nothing not to love about the inundation of rainforested hills sweeping down to the sea, gleaming like polished turquoise and the blissful beaches—to my mind—making Costa Rica worth every cent attached to her reputation. Home is where the motorcycle is and not having found any camping in this corner on the southwest, we kicked the side stands down at Beach Packer Hostel in Manuel Antonio, just down the road from Quepos. Whoa, the beach lay a hop, skip and a jump away from our bed; a spot renowned as the ‘Monaco of Costa Rica’ being so close to the wildlife-centric national park. The beach-relaxed owners of the lodging, Eurich and Nale made us exceptionally welcome with a discounted room and an evening of chilled beer and chatty banter to boot. Cheers, guys—good times.
Having not yet overdosed on the tropics (good job, there’s much and more of that to come), it was sayonara to the Pacific in order to scoot across and caress the silky sands of the Caribbean. As a nice problem to have, we had a bit of clock to kill waiting for Touratech Costa Rica ship a rear shock over from Florida; a glorious outcome of Jason winning the 2016 Horizons Unlimited photography competition. Touratech HQ in Germany had willingly agreed to swop the prize of a super-suit for an equivalent value suspension system making someone and their two-wheeled Cadillac the happiest duo going on the west side. A radiant result and again, dankeschoen! Equally so, Marco—the manager of Touratech in San José liaising with Jason had been nothing but accommodating towards us, the bikes and our bellies—treating us to a pizza and cooled coconut juice was heaven sent.
Less than an hour’s ride and an overnight stop in Orosi took us to Turrialba volcano the following morning, in the Cartago Province. No one could blame us—we were bursting to see it post the recent seismic activity—resulting in the closing of San José airport having spewed ash, gas, mud and incredibly a little magna throughout the central valley. Since the last major eruption in 1866, it was a tad disappointing to get within 6 kilometres; the last leg being closed to the overly-curious.
Nonetheless, the place was home to wild horses—tall, lean mares, some seventeen hands at least and the volcano was visible, covered mostly in dense primary vegetation looking out over around 4,000 acres of montane rainforest. Although a coolness had climbed onto the shoulders of the air—so heavy that I shivered in a cold rush—the ride to near the top was nonetheless smoldering; traversing up the trail saw the various lava flows indicative of the once flowing rivers of white hot magma oozing down. One I’m glad we meandered up to 3,000 metres and down again.
A day on a ribbon of highway wound us from atop the ethereal clouds down to Camping Maria in Playa Negra, situated 1.5 kilometres from Cahuita. Another campground whose untamed back yard was home to the beach. Pitching our tent just ten yards in fact from the roaring rumble of waves. Maria greeted us on arrival with a sunny nature and her smile was impeccably composed. This lady ran a tight ship alright. She was a planet in a perfectly elliptical orbit, with the campsite’s attentive volunteers gliding like moons behind her.
Waking up to the lavender glow of dawn, which haloed everything—the palms, the coral reef and the endless expanse of sea—pleasant thoughts spun dreamily through my mind. As the sun climbed slowly over the eastern horizon, each of the rocks on the shore lit up, their crevices filled with golden sunshine. The ivory coloured shells that had washed ashore gleamed with intensity against the black rocks. Pelicans hunted the water, soaring and skimming over the whitecaps with their wings tucked.
It was a day to stretch out on the shell-laden sand under the spreading fronds of a palm, listen to some local music on a tinny transistor radio and let the world take care of itself. I could scarcely believe where I was. A patch of cherry red flowers bobbed their bright heads and black eyes at me; its beauty and symmetry reached straight to the depths of my soul.
In silver-edged darkness, night soon draped the land. Tatters of cloud, black and opaque, coasted through the purple sky along the horizon. The irregular rents in the clouds picked up the starlight and gleamed with a gossamer fire like pale, silver eyes in the blackness, looking down on our home for the night. The ocean trembled turbulently. Lightning leaped through clouds against a dramatic indigo sky as I paused to listen to the sound of crystalline rain tinging off Maria’s patio roof.
Dark grey swells rolled in, one after another, thunderous as they curled and crashed, shattering on the beach. The hair on the nape of my neck started to prickle. Water rushed in white and boiling, almost up to the place where we’d made camp. No fury summoned from Seven Hells could have brought more tumult and fury in the instants that followed. Mother Nature was peeved about something as she ripped the sky asunder in a sonorous rage. Upholding a saturnine glower, she held sway for as long as time itself—the sound as sharp as a knife in the closeness of the tent. A spellbinding show.
The rain was a continuous drumming and its runoff beat a staccato as it spattered into pools of water on the ground. It took all night for the waves to exhaust themselves, melting back into the body of Pachamama once more. Eventually, whispering gently, rhythmically, against the shore. A stinging wash of desire emerged, born out of a morbid curiosity or perhaps the stifling heat and it took all I had not to run in with childlike abandon and make for the waves. Condensed as the waves were compared to their nighttime appearance—didn’t remove much of the lethal undertow nor the skull-smashing rocks that lay beneath—a watery world of silken menace in which I’d rather not come face-to-face. Still, as a water-soul, I’d run out of lifetime before I’d stop marvelling at the sea’s intense and enigmatic beauty.
“Oooh, I can’t see him. Where is he?” I asked Rich and Ash (a good time, media savvy and cute-as-a-button Canadian couple who are ‘Desk to Glory‘) as my eyes narrowed, searching for any imperceptible movement of the sloth. I saw only a pequeño of fur atop a tree in the camouflaging foliage. Still, on the coastal trail in Cahuita we spied a woodpecker doing his ‘ting on an ancient tree trunk, and got up close and personal with a green basilisk lizard. He looked straight at me, sizing me up in an instant. Why does it feel that it’s only through the eyes of animals that we see ourselves correctly…as we really are. Is it because animals can see a person’s soul, unlike humans, who often see only the body.
Sure, Costa Rica knows how to charge for her unapologetic beauty but there are a myriad of workarounds in order to keep on budget while indulging the ‘rich coast’. For us, it was time to step up our camping game—iOverlander, S&M Boiler Works (the website of Mike and Shannon, who are an absolute hoot), Nomadic Matt, A Dull Roar and Horizons Unlimited were excellent sources of cost-saving accommodation and value-added information on Costa Rica.
Heck, we couldn’t wait to wild camp; undisturbed spots are ten a penny if you’re prepared to leave the tourist-beaten track and the retired American population. The Caribbean side is cheaper than the popular Pacific destinations yet just as stunning. As well, choosing to visit between April and November when it’s off peak may well have promoted a little more bargaining power. We’d been mostly cooking for ourselves, and when grabbing a bite didn’t result in a fiscal-induced stomach ache for three days, we’ve dined at either a musmanni, bakeries dotted all over Costa Rica or sodas, spit and sawdust type places that serve the menu del dia—menu of the day. All priced at a snip of the tourist menu tariffs destined to keep hunger locked up until dinner without unleashing too much of our hard earned cash.
I’m still learning to increasingly quiet my talkative soul, to relax my mind—strung as tight as a drum sometimes. Ruminating why I used to indulge folks that behaved in ego-centric ways; bringing themselves up at the cost of dragging others down. Largely competitive, status-driven types or those constantly playing the role of an on-message politician—selling themselves, living out their solipsistic lives where the self is all that they need to know to exist.
Precious weekend evenings had been spent back home when you realise that you’ve been talked at for hours, rather than shared an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. Any attempt to do so had fallen on deaf ears, or treated as an interlude until they could continue where they left off again. There was no mal-intent, just an inability to relate, an indifference towards understanding or simply a lack of interest. Was it just the the history of bygone years with these so-called friends that had kept the connection going all these years?
Within the comfort of space consumed by my motorcycle wending one’s way in the great outdoors, it was a struggle to see how at a future point I was going to connect to some individuals. Their priorities simply didn’t correlate to mine any more; I’m not sure they ever did. Perhaps they’d been humouring me as much as I’d been obliging them; a friendship of convenience. Of course everyone has the right to design their own lives, living by their preferred means and methods but things change, I’ve changed.
I read somewhere that the average person has around 300 friends in a lifetime, suggesting that folks we once held close, come and go, friendships sometimes fizzle out. Without any animosity, I let my thoughts wash over me and immersed myself in the engulfing lushness. Back in the now, a pair of toucans burst into a tumult of chirps and took wing from atop a tree while a spiny lizard scurried past my flip-flopped feet. His skin shone luminous lime green in the sunlight. “Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of nowhere; and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself” said by someone—hit the nail on the head.
Making camp at Adonis’ Crocodylus Power Inversiones campground in Puerto Jiménez on the Osa Peninsula was taken on a recommend, thanks to happy campers Mike and Shannon. Located on the Golfo Dulce (sweet gulf), according to the National Geographic Society the Osa Peninsula is considered “The final frontier on Earth and the most biologically intense place on the planet.” Hello! It wasn’t kidding: our beach campsite alone was home to a cute croc called Chita; a handful of hungry caimans, a resident bat living comfortably in a hole gouged in the dining room wall alongside the owner, Adonis; and an iguana called Changa. Among all the usual suspects of eagles, tree frogs, howler and capuchin monkeys and more lizards than people. Yep, think we’ll stake the inner-tent out here.
A crimson twilight had flushed the world with colour. The odd evening beach dweller strolled over the sand in a halo of pink light, watching the kids stalling for time in a warm sea. Flecks of scarlet twinkled on the surface of the ocean, sunlight still glittering with blinding intensity. The gleam that had possessed the evening finally dimmed as colour drained from the land, shapes that had been distinct only moments before melted into each other. Far to the west, the crescent moon poked through a thin layer of clouds, and its light cast a milky veil over the beach. I’d thought Playa Venao in Panama was aesthetically up there but this place commanded a vista and feeling to behold. Yet I couldn’t put my finger on why.
An incline told me Jason was struggling with the heat when clocking his third cold shower, a pattern that fell on the hour, every hour. It seemed nigh on impossible for him not to exert himself, not even just a little. Impossible to resist smirking, just sit still man! It’s that easy. Even breathing was making him hot…poor lad. And dehydrating him with the occasional pounding headache on top. Keep drinking darlin’, there’s nothing else for it I’m afraid. By morning, sweat had glued Jason’s hair to his forehead; he peeled himself from the tent and left a sticky Spafford-shaped mark all over his mat. Nice.
Roaring both bikes into life, we’d organised for Adonis the campground owner to guide us through his uncle’s land, a dense pocket of virgin forest. Aside from being rather handy when it comes to: DIY minimalistic house building; an unofficial guide to the wealth of local wildlife; and a local healer using natural medicines—you wouldn’t realize how smart this guy was. Not unless you happened to overhear him give his dog orders in Japanese, eavesdrop him studying Hebrew or learn that he can also speak conversational French and German on top of being fluent in English. I struggled to grasp words and phrases spilling out like a tumbling river of gemstones. His mental agility was fascinating, he quietly spoke with erudition and I realized there was much in the world about which I’m naïve.
Adonis lived in the most modest and rustic of surroundings, with very little in terms of monetary wealth or material possessions. He’d adopted ten children over the years, and what he did have, he offered to us without a second thought. Nothing was wasted, clothes were deemed unimportant and shoes were simply not worn on the property’s five hectares. With zero narcissism attached to this unpretentious guy, the point was to treasure people, explore the basic good inside of us all and finding peace as the end destination. I wish more of us adopted such constructs as a barometer of success, rather than the accomplishment of the western world’s expectations…Pura vida, Adonis would say—pure life.
I was mesmerized by how full of peace Adonis was; he was a beautiful person who left an indelible mark upon me. As demi Greek Gods go, this guy was dangerously close to his namesake. Having arrived on his land as no more than a travelling camper but leaving as his friend, it’s only when you invest the full emotional spectrum in a place and its people, do you begin to know that place.
Jumping in the saddle of Pearl, Adonis and me bobbled over a gravelly road alongside Jason, whose bike still bore the up-down rhythm of a two-wheeled Cadillac. We happily got 10 kilometres into the destination’s 28 to Rio Piro when Pearl simply cut out. Again?! We’d just topped up her battery fluid, so that surely wasn’t the culprit. Fortunately, Puerto Jiménez is a small town—comprising one main street with a few unpaved side roads and is isolated from the rest of the country—so getting to know people quickly was easy and made a cinch as Adonis knew just about everyone within a population of around 2,500. It took minutes to hail down a friend in a 4×4 and borrow some towrope, okay, webbing strap that would do the job. Más o menos—more or less.
As towee, I felt comfortable having previously been pulled bike-to-bike through slushy mud on hard ground and asphalt roads. The road back to camp however was undulating, a little loose and peppered with potholes where it wasn’t corrugated. Oh crap! Time for Pearl and I to ‘up our game’. Feeling smothered by the insufferable heat, I tried to establish some inner mental balance. Stood up on the foot pegs, it was tricky trying to avoid veering wildly left or maintain balance in and out of the rugged dips while dragged along by your marvellous other’s motorcycle. Not to mention keeping the connecting line taut going downward on the slidy stuff. Especially standing upright; the rear brake became unreachable by having to keep my right foot firmly rooted to the foot peg on which the tow strap was coiled. It made sand riding look like a day at the beach.
A certain artistry was required and one which I was still at the beginning of mastering. I accidentally let the strap release a few times requiring Jason to: turn around, realign his bike in front of mine and attempt to reinstate some patience without blowing a fuse. While the sun remained an executioner, we continued to cook inside our ready-made furnaces, courtesy of the three season motorcycle suit. “Lisa, stop letting the rope go!” Jason urged on more than a couple of occasions. I’m not doing it on purpose..! We glared at each other, waging a silent battle of wills. “When we’re going downhill, you’ve got to feather the front brake, controlling the speed at which I go, not me pulling you down faster. Got it?!” he shouted. “YES!” I hollered back. I looked away, rolled my eyes and tutted in heated exasperation.
In fact, I hadn’t been braking at all on the declines, in fear of skidding and suffering an ‘offy’. I’m amazed I didn’t witness a comedy moment of me overtaking Jason while still attached, “Hola mi amor!” Although over the helmet intercom, I’d tried to remain helpful by exclaiming “The rope’s slackening off” quickly followed by screeching “It’s gonna YANK ME then YOU! BRACE YOURSELF!”
My expression said I knew that Jason was right—and hated having to admit it. He made uncomfortable sense, telling me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted. My need to surrender battled like a rabid wildcat with the understanding that Jason couldn’t ride my bike for me. We spent some time on terse territory. We exchanged only indispensable instructions between playing the roles of cause and effect.
CRASH, BANG, WALLOP!
Along came the first entanglement: I lost control and swerved left after Jason swung right. Before I could blink the sweat from my eyes, we’d become a tumbled set of dominoes—me the perpetrator, dragging Jason down with me. Sorry..! We were a sorry sight alright of fallen motorcycles, splayed arms and legs, snapped mirrors and shattered glass. Startled but unscathed, Pearl was the unlucky one that had taken the hit. I jumped back on her and without hesitation, started feathering my front brake and discovered the key to this towing-off-road-terrain-malarkey. The skidding shenanigans still surfaced but we exuded just enough joint-control and made it back to the small beach town as team players. Okay, at this point I hear you Jase, there’s no ‘i’ in tow. That is until my fears were realised a second time.
This time, I reacted to the foregone control; released my foot off the peg to avoid another ensnaring scenario but the damned webbing held fast to the teeth protruding out of my foot pegs. Pearl rapidly buckled, going down hard and the offending strap resolutely attached sent me skidding down the road before a somewhat unsuspecting audience.
At least I’d learned to crash in style that time round—even if my body had become the enemy. I’d no sooner been flung furiously onto the road like a losing WWF wrestler—Pearl somewhere in my periphery—when two strapping Costa Rican men sprung me to my feet again. Round three. Oh muchas gracias fellas but timeout—spine and neck both appear intact so I suppose we’re all good here…! Unlike Pearl, poor old love. She’d suffered severely but I had no idea how and where to readmit her into intensive care. Double crap.
Pulling Pearl up in a sad and pitiful state, scathed in scratches, Jason opened her up to start assessing the internal wounds. Unbeknown to us, word of a gringo motorcyclist towing another spread like wildfire in parched prairie grass. Ishmael, a young moto-mechanic of Yamaha received a call about the local spectacle we’d created; he rocked up within minutes of Jason’s hesitant diagnosis and enquired if we needed any assistance. He pretty much jumped at the chance of purging Pearl of her ailments since he’d accepted a job with BMW the following year.
Relishing the repair of my wheels as much as we needed his expertise of bigger bikes, I could’ve kissed Ishmael right there and then. He examined Pearl beneath the cosmetic damage and realized her spark plug had worn out. Hah! Great spot Ishmael, time to remunerate this man with some greenbacks and beers. Looking at my battery, air filter and right mirror, there were some other bits we’d have to source in San José too, such as how the heck did I break my horn?—“Oh no!” Jason bleated as he broke my mental shopping list for Pearl. “Come and look at this, Lisa” he said with a tired heaviness.
What else had penetrated my bulletproof Beemer? Since repairing my snapped rear suspension linkage post conquering the Cordillera Blanca in the glacial mountains of Peru, I’d now gone and broken t’other one. Clean in two. A phone call later revealed word of a local chap who’d offered to carry my bike to San José for $450, a hundred smackers knocked off for our association with Adonis. I was going to elevate our new friend on a pedestal if he carried on like that. Thank you but no to the offer because there was the labour and repair on top plus all the other parts that needed replacing. That’s $450 before even fixing the problem.
In a town this tiny, where the flyspeck would we find an aluminium welder? “Oh that’s easy” remarked Adonis’ friend, relaying “We are less than one kilometre from the landing strip, where there is a welding workshop.” Marvelling more, even Adonis’ close acquaintances were heaven-sent. Of course! Those planes sporadically soaring above were largely aluminium, perfecto. Relax and the universe will intervene, help will materialise in the unlikeliest of ways like she always seems to. Oh but it’s Sunday, they’ll be closed. “No no, the workshop is open seven days a week,” they helpfully added. Well alrighty then…happiness leaching into my soul.
Bike blunders mostly mended, relationships atoned and towing-induced stress levels assuaged, Adonis took us to where we’d miserably failed two days previous. Rio Piro. Take two: his uncle’s 50 hectares of unadulterated wilderness. Revealing a playful side, Adonis had made me jump out of my skin a couple of times, feathered a vine on Jason’s neck from behind or hid behind a tree to scare us silly. Just to see our reactions. There was nothing not to like about this pure-hearted man who wore his skin so easily, I just grinned like a Cheshire cat at him constantly.
After a forest trek guided by the dear Adonis—who had us crawling between the super-sized roots into the underside of an ancient tree to see a habitat full of bats, as well as listening to poisoned dart frogs somewhere ‘out there’—we emerged half melted from the enveloping foliage onto a picture-postcard beach. But one that erred on the wild and prehistoric than the people-friendly and holiday-tropical.
Its aquamarine waters shimmered in ten-foot breaking rolls—pounding the ears—before stringers of brilliant white foam unfurled across a huge expanse of beach. A flood of light drenched the beach in a deluge of pink against thick jungle that lined the coastline, which felt untouched and primal all at once. The spines on trunks protracted like pointed claws, clustered and spread across the beach. Scarlet macaws soared in synchronisation over the shore on silent wings; in search of berries that had secreted themselves in dense patches of vegetation. All that was missing were the mastodons and mammoths.
Rather than hack our way through a 99-mile swath of malarial, guerilla-infested, roadless swampland separating South America from Central America—with a machete in one hand, throttle in the other—we took the cowardly route and boarded the Ferry Express instead. Actually, Jason towed Pearl and me up the ramp onto the vessel. After gaining 22 grand on the clock, I could hardly call her anything but admirable—having mosied me partly down and up an entire continent—albeit with a couple of hiccups along the way. Pearl’s old engine was dispensing a watery Americano from a faulty water pump while her fork seals oozed a rich espresso. Her battery had seen better days as well. Admittedly, we had run out of road in the northern portion of Colombia’s Chocó Department connecting with Panama’s Darién Province—the Pan-American’s missing link—so sailing around the Darién Gap seemed sensible if not impressively unexciting.
That is, until gravitating towards those with the same idea as us, moto-overlanders, as one naturally does. A heady mixture of quick-witted Americans, a good time German couple, a laid back Brazilian and an affable Argentinean blended a dynamic that kept the group in stitches for the duration. And believe you me, there is muchas tiempo to kill before, during and after the crossing to Panama. I think we were on some sort of fabulous-people-meet streak, where the recent weeks had comprised a seamless succession of superbly salt-of-the-Earth folks. All motorcyclists but that could just be a happy coincidence of course…or not.
A faint slate-blue glow shone on the horizon. Around 19 hours later, we dropped anchor in a port aswarm with ships, night cloaked the water and the rusted hinges of the ferry let out a pair of screams. The heaving metal door shrieked open and out we spilled, tower and towee. Disembarkation drifted us along the ripples and eddies of the immigration and customs processes, which plunged us fathoms deep into boredom. Welcome to the first Central America border crossing…suck it up or sayonara! Still, a good book, some nourishing snacks and someone to talk to, or at, will munch up the monotony.
A mandatory appointment between a somewhat knackered Pearl and Panama City meant requisitioning a truck and its driver, transporting her from the port to Antonio’s place (a blue building on the same side, slightly up the hill from but close to Panama House Bed & Breakfast, Avenida Norte 1C, Panama City) and calling into BMW to pick up parts. A quiet unassuming chap, softly spoken Antonio was semi-retired but worked like a machine in the mornings. I was grateful to the moon and back for his astronomic efforts in the restoration of Pearl—bringing her back to her chipper road-worthy self. Antonio barely charged us a dime compared to the man-hours inputted; as he wouldn’t let us pay him more, then the very least I could give Antonio was the highest recommend to all. What a moto-mechanic and generous man to boot. He fixes all sorts of other vehicles too although bikes seem to dominate his focus these days.
While waiting for BMW’s stores to scoop up Pearl’s parts, we met Gustavo and two of his biking buddies. They were in the midst of an intense 20-day riding holiday astride their R1200GSA beasts. The conversation spiralled from one thing and corkscrewed into another, and before you know it, they’d whisked us up into a taxi and whirlwinded us across town. Not a ‘Plata o plomo?’ scenario (namely ‘Silver or lead?’ meaning money or a bullet) but more of a servicio plata—silver service at a rather plush restaurant. A slap up meal upon their magnanimous invitation wasn’t what I was expecting. Wow, the places that two wheels lead you to sometimes; my stomach hadn’t been this elated since our ceviche extravaganza with Ricardo and Julio in Peru.
Where the rolling hills of the Azuero Peninsula meet the rolling waves off Playa Venao beach, a surfer’s Mecca due south was our first reforested taste of Panama. I confess to not being overly enamoured with Panama City itself: a tad too sky rise, mall-centric and traffic heavy with scant room to swing even a dead cat. The usual suspects of some Latin American big cities.
Nope, we sooner settled for a white sandy shoreline mingling with calm grey-blue water instead, which lapped gently around our bare feet. Sea scoured pebbles, the odd piece of driftwood and crab holes punctuated an otherwise pristine beach. A crab scrambled to dig a hole before anything bigger than himself saw him. A sandy breeze softly sizzled against the kayaks, flowing fronds of beach palms barely stirred—thank King Neptune for this delicious ocean in which to dunk ourselves. The air, a trifle below 40 was akin to a sauna; everyone a glistening mess while enduring their own personal summer—sweat simply pouring out of pores like gentle rain. The heat stymied even the insects, which usually hovered in clouds of glittering membranous wings.
We opportunely caught up with Vera and Ernst from the ferry en route to Playa Venao; a ballsy, travel-hungry couple straddling big bikes. Helmets off to these two; among a myriad of adventures, they’d only gone and walked a sizeable section of the Darién Gap back in the early ‘90s. And they were still ‘out there’, now in their mid-sixties. When like-minded folks are that gutsy, whose age is a just a number, doesn’t ‘the more the merrier’ always kick in? It was also a treat to talk ‘woman’ with Vera, a language that would always remain obscure to Jason. The body boards were free of charge; each of us grabbing one, we made a beeline for the blue. I felt six years old again paddling with legs like bees’ wings, trying to catch the crest of the waves and pleading for them to take me where only mermaids go.
Playa Venao beach was also my first taste astride Jason’s wheels. Deferentially parking the F800GS on the hard sand for me, I jumped aboard and Jason implored: “Just remember Lise, about having three points of contact when you stop, not four. Okay?” “Yeah yeah”, I barely acknowledged about to burst with excitement, yadda yadda.
Loose-shouldered, I slowly opened a tall first gear and I was away—making tracks in the sand, curving around the shoreline and feeling the salty sea air curling around in my hair. Building a little speed over the sand, this machine needed no coaxing—she was a beast: responsive, beautifully balanced and purred like a puma. Oh my, so this is what riding a big bike’s all about! And heck knows why it took me so long to have a dabble on the 800. Happy Mondays.
What was heavy air by day, pressing down from above, allowed us to bask in the feel of a warm breeze at night. That and a sun-kissed glow. Despite slathering sunscreen factor paint all over myself, I was a walking dot-to-dot, speckled in freckles. Persistently popping up like nobody’s business—you never know, when they all merrily merge together, I might just have myself a novel off-white tan.
A three quarter moon blazed so brightly, it silvered the sea tainting the sand with a silver sheen to match. A dancing floor’s worth of decking situated a stone’s throw from the sea permitted us the perfect spot to make camp. Sleeping mats pumped beneath bodies that were pooped, I was able to marshal enough energy to stuff a pillowcase full of clothes before nose-diving into a deep slumber. Without persuasion, the soft rumble of the waves was all it took.
The waking sun sent shafts of light to pierce the drifting clouds hovering on the canvas of predawn. Quite an eye-opener to our Tuesday morning. Stretching like a cat and without bothering to tame hair wild with sleep—indulging in a bonus day of more surfing, snoozing and clinging onto a body temperature just below hyperthermia—seemed only apt. Alas, we decided to give Panama her cards, as drinkable as the tap water was and scenic as her two back pockets were. Sadly, she’d drawn the shortest straw, even though we’d barely arrived. Costa Rica and her best friend Nicaragua, the wildcard were calling.
En route to migrating to Costa Rica, Pearl’s battery died, predictably. Despite clinging onto hope, a wing and a prayer of jump-starting her into life every time—courtesy of J’s bike—handy beyond convenience when you can do that. And thus, wishing to keep charging her battery for as long as Pearl deemed possible. This worked a charm right up until reaching the border—upon which a Harley rider called Jim popped up who, incredibly, showed us where and how to illegally exit Panama in order to source a battery in Costa Rica. Namely, riding up the road, down a ditch onto the opposite carriageway and boom, we’d crossed the threshold into a new country..! Who said Central American borders were tedious beyond comprehension? Pah! That one was about as fast and feisty as they come.
Upon closer inspection of Pearl’s battery, only one of six cells contained a full column of acid. Oops, when did that lot evaporate? A refill for $4 later—having executed the world’s cheapest BMW fix known to man and moto—we snook out of Costa Rica and commenced our obligation to make an official exodus from Panama. I was loving Central America already and Pearl, have I ever told you you’re a peach? Thanks for costing me pennies and not mounds of pounds.
Confronted by an angry beggar on our Panama departure, my personal space and I were taken aback by a rather prunish face with almost no teeth left in his head. Grey hair had grown so sparse that it looked as wispy as a spider web spun about a round skull. Sadly made disgruntled that I, on this occasion, calmly refused him moolah. What a cold stone-hearted woman, I agree but the few coins of change with which my pockets jingled, would purchase our stack of mandatory photocopies at the border. Rattling a cup half full of silver at my chin, the vagabond’s withered lips worked over gums while his overgrown finger nails gesticulated his rightful demands on my dinero in a boisterously barbed manner.
I pulled up my drawbridge and retreated into sympathy albeit surrounded by an impenetrably stubborn moat. His clothes weren’t exactly hanging from his frame like the hide of a winter-starved buffalo either. Sorry chap with a medium build—you’re hollering at me and while I can’t help but hear your insistent requests, I’m no longer in the habit of taking crap. His face pinched into a thousand lines as he sniffed his nose in disgust at me. And while his belly may well have been hungry, his outright expectancy and aggression left a sour brew in mine. After a few last minute obscenities, foreign to my ears but lucid all the same, he stomped away surveying his next prey worthy of his advance. You win some, you lose some.
‘Tis well known that many scaremongering stories circulate around the frenetic chaos of Central American border crossings. No sooner had we kicked the side stands down and there he was, a fixer accosting Jason. A fixer is someone who offers to hand-hold you through the immigration and customs processes in exchange for as much as they can milk from you; their golden goose on a great day or cash cow on a good one. I’d been ruminating on these folks while harnessing thoughts of ‘strong confident woman’ in my mind all morning and didn’t relish indulging a single one.
“You better go and ask the boss, she’s right behind me”, Jason humoured the fixer with shrugged shoulders. Gliding over, a suave smile spread across his chops as he outwardly believed it was already in the bag. With excellent English to boot. I somehow doubted he fancied sharing a refreshing drink and making some polite chitchat. To burst his overinflated bubble with my power-of-intent pin, I respectfully apologised: “Sorry Sir” and declared “I think I have enough survival Spanish to exit Panama and enter Costa Rica without your help but thank you all the same.” “If we need you, we’ll definitely come and find you”, Jason added to soften the rupturing blow.
Lines of growing concern furrowed the fixer’s forehead as he asked rather incredulously, “You’re going to do your own paperwork, by yourself?” He announced it tautly, as though a dilemma with the same fear as if he had been forecasting an imminent volcano eruption, capable of burying our bikes in ash. I smiled and casually replied, “Si. Come oon, how hard can it be when you know the words inmigración and aduana [customs]?”
Old tactic abandoned for a new strategy: “Okay then, let me do it and pay me whatever you like as a tip as I will make the process really fast for you.” Nice try buster but I’ve got forms to fill in and stamps to acquire, adios amigo. Our passports as it happened were starting to make cracking souvenirs, particularly Jason’s with about 1.5 pages worryingly clear. Better not machine wash them this time, like I did in Australia seven years previous but that’s a story for another time.
One hour later and we were roaring triumphantly down the road, our exhausts expelling a rather smug plume of satisfaction. I hadn’t left my head in Playa Venao’s sand that all Central American borders would be such a civilised breeze but while we were in the middle of its two richest countries, it was time to seize the day.
My attention wandered like the flight of a bee through a field of wildflowers. Everything distracted me: the noisy trill of crickets; the deepening darkness of the forest’s dense evergreens whispering silently in the midday sun; the neck-craning ancient boughs feathering the bellies of the clouds; the raft of fruits and their flowers in unbridled bloom; the dazzling colours of exotic flora wowing me around every corner; and the noisy birdlife soaring on the warm currents—their wide wings spread in such freedom that it made my soul grin. Clean-as-a-whistle Costa Rica baby is the queen of an American beauty pageant. She’s the head of her sorority, a crowd-pleaser without suffering overcrowding and made flagship by a glamorous set of credentials. What a resumé! Certainly compared to the ugly duckling neighbouring her below; a smile warmed my sidetracked face.
“Where the plantain are we gonna park the bikes for the night?” I barked down the helmet’s intercom at Jason, as we cruised into Caucasia around dusk. Scruffy buildings with washing strewn all over them dominated the municipality. Daylight was rapidly receding. Some Scots cruised up on their 1200ccs, the three amigos whom we’d missed out on meeting in Medellín and the five of us unknowingly kicked the side-stands down at a US government protected hotel. I was in high spirits as we walked away from the reception desk, somehow having managed to assimilate a negotiation of room rates strategy into my lexicon of survival Spanish for the group. A few friendly beers and a night’s worth of banter later, they offered us a trio of eyes for Central America, the Scots’ next destination. Fine fellas.
The next morning, the sun beat down with a club like intensity and my clothes clung diabolically to my body in clammy wet folds. Our daily norm. As we bounded through the overcrowded barrios—neighbourhoods via a busy connecting road, I did my utmost to ride like a Colombian motorcyclist; sticking my neck out and overtaking in the face of oncoming heaving great freighters. I’ve got quite a way to go to compete with the locals, not being the first to observe some were bearing flesh the shade of roasted coffee beans. Which reminded me, I was going to need sunscreen factor ‘Paint’ in a realistic aim to baste over bake here. Upon enjoying the hiatus of a departing sun but by no means the humidity—the ugly sister part of Cartagena unfurled her least redeeming features.
Reuniting and spending half a week in Cartagena with Mikey and Orla was outright cheeky postcard fun. From beginning to end, we seemed to spend more time erupting cavernous laughs than anything else, and saying our goodbyes was easier than the previous two occasions, knowing there’d be a next time. No drama, hasta luego chicos!
Within half a day from Cartagena, we had mosied on and met Minca, a hidden gem where dense vegetation scaled the mountainside up to a snow capped line before running back down to a sparkling turquoise shoreline. Fruits and colours ran rampant while the sun—searing those in Cartagena below—abated just enough to permit a lovely breeze atop our Sans Souci hostel. It took the edge off the afternoon’s hairdryer heat at least. An invigorating dip in the hostel’s cosy pool cooled me instantly; the fan in our room didn’t have a prayer in keeping up. Drying off almost immediately, I swung gently from a hammock, falling into a leave-me-here-forever siesta.
Minca is the perfect place if you adore your nights to be almost as hot as the days, alongside seeing to the odd spell of lethargy in the height of the heat. I liked the early evening best, when the light wrapped every contour of the landscape in a patina of pure gold. I looked out from our hostel, a perfect viewing platform to simple Colombian life settled upon the mountainside. Gorging my eyes on four toucans making their way home as the sun started to set, auburn red squirrels dashed from branch to branch while hummingbirds fluttered around frantically. Just eyeballing them was exhausting. It’s official: I’d reached an unprecedented level of lazy. Dusk deepened into the night, settling over the land like a dark blue cape. The blue deepened to smoky indigo, it was easy to let my soul drift on the beauty around me. Yep, this place in Colombia was achingly agreeable.
Bobbling a little further up Minca’s broken and unsurfaced road, we hit a pot of black gold at La Victoria. Not the oily variety, an English-built organic coffee plantation, now owned by a German couple. All processes were air- and water-pressure operated; every coffee plant was tended by hand including picking each individual bean. I’d think twice about sourcing big city, lower grade supermarket coffee; all the good stuff stays within local villages as a whopping 70 per cent is sold for export.
A fascinating story unfolded where FARC guerrillas came to La Victoria a short number of years back, assumed occupation by effectively squatting on the premises for the long haul. (And Minca in its entirety for that matter, made attractive to the belligerents for its all-seeing-eye vantage points and one-way entry.) The coffee plantation had been left to the son of a German man that had passed away. Frustrated but remarkably composed, the son walked onto his inherited estate, unarmed and calmly sat down to negotiate.
Long story short, the son managed to: communicate the guerrilla’s new responsibilities of running the place alongside the massive debt they’d have to manage against the banks; convinced them all to either embrace such a livelihood; or leave. Not a single shot was fired and without any further persuasion, they all scarpered. Another variation of the story involved the guerrillas working and living beside the German owner, all mucking in to keep the plantation a going concern, before eventually deciding to make tracks and skedaddle. Whichever the more accurate account, it left me with a profound sense of intrigue about the feel-good closure.
Coinciding with our laid-back, hammock-swinging days in Colombia, we sauntered up to Rancho Relaxo, a four minute stroll from the beach and a forty minutes ride to Palomino. I gravitated towards the personable owners, around my age, particularly Ryan who laughed enough to migrate an entire flock of birds. The place sat in a beautiful setting with rates to match, so I casually enquired if they had a website, declaring that we were carrying a drone. A twinkle in Ryan’s eyes suggested that he guessed the fanciful direction of my thoughts. And I felt pure gratitude when I noted his expression—his face every feature a picture of understanding. The rates for a private room plunged to within reach; in exchange for ten minutes of raw aerial footage. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
Upon a wish to return to Palomino—and it was a shame that for the first time we lacked the time—we’d hire an indigenous Arhuaco chap called Bienvenido. At the right price, he’d guide us on foot for a week or so, high up and trek deep into the mountains to track down jaguars. Now there’s a lure in its purest form.
Our last look at Colombia came in Cartagena, tucked away high on a stony hill at an Air B&B, affectionately strap lined: ‘Livin in the Barrio’. While not sailing motorcycles to and from Panama on the Stahlratte ship, Ludwig floated around the B&B. Given his professional matter-of-fact correspondence, he was about the most unexpected person known to my imagination. A larger than life German character, he had the appearance of a sun kissed, avuncular hippy. I just had to look at him and thought ‘lentils’. It wasn’t just his appearance that was outlandish—clad in either his snug undercrackers or just a towel—he also possessed a novel sense of humour. I warmed to him instantly; his jokes as my-sides-are-hurting-now funny as his laugh, this guy was a firebrand alright. Playful personified..!
Cataloging his mannerisms as wildly unpretentious, forthcoming without being over-familiar and so effortlessly at ease in his bronzed skin, I felt enmeshed in his happy aura. A solid and transparent sphere of cheerfulness. His lips were pursed in a smile even when he wasn’t smiling. And when he did smile, it curled at the corners of his lips—one movement away from a roar of hilarity about to burst forth. This guy could hardly contain himself and I was in a permanent state of amusement because of it.
To add further fun and frolics to the raft of entertainment, we met Mike, Shannon and Clinton. Two Americans and a Kiwi, all astride splendidly light Suzukis: hellbent on giving me more laughter lines. They were heading south having covered a tidy portion of territory we’d be wending our way through; engaging in a monster information swopping exercise seemed only right and rational in middle Earth. I love it when you get to ‘pay it forward’ with travellers on the road.
Mike had seen previous pictures of us online and must’ve studied me anew because it tickled him pink that I wasn’t “the ‘churchy lady’ with a pocket for her Bible” he’d envisaged—after a few days under the same roof with me. Mike’s voice was perpetually laced with a cheeky streak, which teased the feistiest form from the lot of us. Guttural laughter rose continuously with a boisterous beauty, pervading the close air.
I wouldn’t argue that Colombia was my ‘Go to’ South American country but it was by no means a ‘Don’t bother’ part of the continent. Despite its twice- and thrice-fried, cholesterol-filled, gob-smacking heart-stoppers. Fortunately, there’s a whole array of placatory fruits for the arteries in Colombia, which were totally new to me. The most exotic quickly became an unassuming orange skinned, fleshy green fruit called lulo—whose flavourful taste convened somewhere between gooseberry and lemon. I’d heard of various people raving about it, but believe me, it all but turned my face inside out, sucking the moisture from my mouth in the process. Startling; strange; citric thing. It catapulted me out of my languid torpor if nothing else.
With only a handful of main highways in Colombia, it facilitated travel around its curvaceous landscapes; the Andes and its coffee-covered valleys, the Amazon rainforest, the sandy coastlines of the Pacific and Caribbean, and the Llanos—plains. Unexpected extras like Minca cropped up and the tantalising prospect of jaguars, which restored my confidence in a place whose past is as wretched as it is woeful. It’s a country that’s easier to misconstrue than mitigate—yet it has more on offer than people—myself included appreciate.
So that concludes our 14-month chapter of South America. We’ve meandered for 22,000 miles, mostly up, bearing enough Latin American memories to last a lifetime. And to be fair, I really think I’ve only just gotten a feel for this overland motorcycling malarkey. Admittedly, it’s nowhere near as mind-bogglingly difficult or body-beseeching as I’d imagined, but it is as ‘out there’ as we’d come to date. Not ones to rush, an extended and jaw-on-the-floor year has been spent in almost every corner, nook and cranny of South America—a continent into which we’ve sunk our teeth and hearts. Bodies a little more intact over budget, we were all set for the next volume.
Reluctantly extricating ourselves from the Ecuadorian jungle, we found ourselves in a non-lulling state of head-loll as the bus buckarooed its way back to the concrete jungle, Quito. Seated near to a pair of young males, I overheard a similarly aged girl sat adjacent pipe up: “Sorry, I’ve got to ask: why’ve you got a broom with you?”
“Oh ya, this is so fun-ny” in between hyena-like laughter, as though caught out by his own hilarity, “I’ve literally just bought it so that my friend Will, here, will have to carry it around where ever he goes. Crazy I know but not as crazy as Will. Ya, Will bought a parrot and gave it to his friend Mark at the start of his round the world tour. He’s had to carry it around with him the whole time, and get this: smuggle it across borders by putting it in the fridge on the back of buses! I know, hil-ari-ous!” The girl burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. I turned the volume up on my David Attenborough audio book—being back astride Pearl couldn’t come quick enough.
As cyclones in Colombia, due primarily to the last ferry crossing the Darien Gap to Panama ending for the foreseeable, we had to roar up the road like conquistadors. And faced only four scanty weeks in which to do so. Entering Colombia all guns blazing—stiflingly hot—the first thing we encountered was guns and riders. So many of each but one whose nose was poised pointing down, while the other was razz-tazzing around like a sniffer dog. Thumbs up from virtually every armed soldier was the order of the day—a reassuring state of civil rest, where security remains an issue on occasion in the southern portion of the country. So far, so calm.
That is, until I was rudely bumped by a local on his 125cc, flinging me forward haphazardly in a drunkard fashion up a hill. Easy chap. Keep your eyes ahead, would you, dear? No matter, my thoughts were elsewhere: the heavy presence of the military didn’t stop me pondering if we were already wandering on ground unwelcome. Good work either way fellas (although fellas might be stretching it; most hadn’t yet broken into that deeper octave range), and gracias for watching our backs against any unsavoury acts from guerrillas or armed bandits.
Go figure: Colombia’s reputation isn’t exactly speculative. Neil Bennion in his book Dancing Feat neatly summarised—and I barely summarise his words—that it started with one of those long, drawn-out internal conflicts back in the mid-60s, with its root in La Violencia—a period known as The Violence in the 1940s. The death toll over fifteen years reached an estimated 300,000, came to an end around 1958. What started as brutal, politically aggravated vengeance became the norm until Colombia was drowning in its own blood. An agreement was eventually struck between two political parties but the shadow of that era still looms, not least in the form of armed groups that emerged thereafter.
Bennion continues to explain that it’s not just the FARCs (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that seem to elicit all the media’s attention, they’re just one of many militants across three main divisions: “left-wing groups (known as guerrillas), right-wing groups (known as paramilitaries) and government forces. Together they’ve been involved in a special citizen-twatting competition, with the first two also showing a predilection for terrorism, kidnapping and drug trafficking. And whilst in recent times the guerrillas have very much been pushed back to the margins of the country, all the entities are still very much alive and present in the belly of Colombia.” Days after riding out of the coffee zone that is Cali and its neighbouring areas, it was reported that a FARC group had shot ten soldiers there. Good grief. I’d heard of a Colombian guy recently commenting “After 200 years we’re still uncivilised. We haven’t learnt to value our freedom and all that we’ve been given.”
Thanks to Lady Luck, we only fell victim to a phenomenon that troubles various South American countries—arroyos—street rivers. Part way up Colombia, we rode into a town treading water in a torrent of rain having sought out shelter for the night: a love hotel in Tuluá moments before. Eyeball-sized rivulets of rain streaming down aside, what the pair of us couldn’t stop staring at all evening was the main attraction, right above our heads.
Lightning bounced around inside the purple belly of a bank of dark clouds as thunder billowed deeply in our ears. Talk about electric. Loving the love hotel—the entire bathroom was on display in the corner of an open plan bedroom—there goes any mystery in one’s relationship. Still, such gaudy establishments always offer a perfect place for not only couples eager to consummate their premarital relationship, folks having a fling and needing a little discretion but foremost, motorcycle overlanders in daily requirement of secure parking. Boom! Forget third base, that’s a home run.
Although Colombia’s reputation is far from remedied, the country is undergoing some serious amelioration. For the first time in a long time, tourist revenue has overtaken the income generated from coffee export. What’s more, the drug cartels were largely disbanded in the late ‘90s. Even so, Bennion informs “where big efforts have had some success, in the bigger, international picture there is still an ongoing problem of the ‘balloon effect’. This is where you squeeze it in one place and it grows bigger somewhere else.”
While the khaki-clad boys had our backs on Colombian turf, we watched the backs of beefy but immobile iguanas on asphalted turf—suddenly coming into view a little faster than felt comfortable at 50 miles per hour. Magnetised to the warmth of the sun-baked road, I slammed on the brakes a flurry of times and swerved in order to avoid elongating these already lengthy reptiles. The novelty of arboreal lizards frequenting roads rather than trees soon passed—the choked carriageways comprise such a spectrum of road users—undertaking becomes a sucking-your-backside-up-through-your-heart necessity.
Munching miles, we ploughed bottom up through Colombia; impossible to miss an inordinate number of low flying vultures and the odd pair of kites overhead. As well, the prevalence of deforestation and low-lying cane toads—the former being an utter disservice to the latter. We were half way up the country and the security detail all but disappeared. It was one of those rare occasions where an absence of evidence is actually valid evidence, where lack of guns spelled a more peaceful place. I didn’t exactly need to be reminded to stay off ground uninvited—this was Colombia..!
A flying visit meant we managed to see little and less of Medellín, although listening to Lucy, our hostel owner of Grand Hostel flung us right into her past hell. Tearing up, Lucy briefly touched upon her first boyfriend’s merciless death, his life executed by guerrillas for greenbacks. She went onto relay the story of a well-known wealthy family—employing 2,000 employees in their company—whose figurehead, the father got kidnapped. The eldest son arranged a non-negotiable exchange of his father held hostage, for himself. Or no money thereafter. The kidnappers agreed, surrendered the father and took the son captive. Within the next six months after the exchange, the family, including third cousins removed all left Colombia—many to the States.
The son beforehand, had organised his own hefty and private army to enter the jungle once his family could be deemed at a safe distance, and attempt his no-guarantee-getting-out-alive rescue. There must be a God; the mission was a success—no family member was murdered nor a cent paid to the captors. Around 80 guerrillas were killed. Business operations ceased and proceeds were distributed to the family and ex-employees. This was one of a handful of happy-ish endings. People have not forgotten, nor will they ever be likely to forgive.
NB: Special thanks goes to Neil Bennion, author of Dancing Feat whose un-put-downable account of Colombia added meaningful value to my experience of the country. Top stuff!
In Luis’ back garden one bright morning, he randomly brought out a couple of snakes he’d caught for identification and study purposes, before releasing them back to where he’d scooped them up. For God’s sake, let me take hold of one. Had I been body-snatched? On the brink of flinging it away from me in a trajectory as far as one could manage with pipe-cleaner arms, I held onto my teetering nerve along with the writhing creature. To calm myself, I called it Sally; now a ‘she’, I noticed Sally possessed the temperament of a purring pussy cat; and wasn’t actually writhing at all; rather, lay quite still in my hands. She didn’t even have teeth.
Minutes later, I happily handed Sally back to Luis. I’d just done something that had terrified me. Relinquishing irrational fear is a process and I suppose I’d undergone the necessary-evil start of one. If nothing else, I remained unruffled on the proceeding night walks. And wasn’t it Elizabeth Gilbert that said, “The point is not for you to do something that’s never been done before. The point is for you to do something you’ve never done before.” I headed off back to my cabin feeling satisfaction rather than smugness. You betcha!
Stepping foot into the Amazon rainforest by day is a world apart from its overpoweringly exotic experience at night. In dappled daylight, you are entering: a pharmacy and DIY first-aid kit; a carpenter’s dream and house-builder’s heaven; a birth control clinic and beauty parlour. As a starter for ten. It’s the Genie’s bottle inside Aladdin’s Cave. I was too human to absorb the significance of everything engulfing me but tried to drink in the enrapturing benefits of it all. Starting with smearing an anti-wrinkle tree sap around my eyes, upon which Jason assured me took a day off.
The sap of one tree for instance is used to cure diarrhoea while the potent sap of another would do more than bung up your business; it would anesthetise, or in greater quantities kill as a component in a poisoned dart. Luis had to use something approaching ‘the knowledge’ in order to avoid getting us all heinously lost, especially penetrating the swampland. We later encountered a tiger vine, which when a negligible sized nugget is cut away, boiled down to a treacle like oil and drunk, relieves symptoms of asthma. Whoa!
Next up, a tenant-loathing tree grabbed my attention when I learned that it sheds its ‘skin’ every year or so, in order to cast off anything parasitic—clinging on for a free ride. The natives refer to it a selfish tree, although I preferred to think it was ‘survival-chic’. I meandered a little further along the snaking forest floor and met a walking tree. Sounds like a scene from Lord of the Rings meets a scene out of Avatar—what a profound message-invoking movie that was—but this tree was literally capable of upheaval, putting down new roots and moving 20 centimetres about every 20 years. Por qué? To remain in an optimum position, alive and kicking. Well, it’s more of a snail-paced walker. Knock me sideways; utterly dumbfounded. What Jason and I wouldn’t do to become Luis’ lifelong apprentices.
We stuck our fingers on the latex sap of a rubber tree, observing from where the material of our wellington boots and ponchos had derived. The jungle canopies alone give adequate protection from showers. A tiny cut made by Luis into an inconspicuous tree oozed a strong anti-malaria sap—one where the smallest of smears spread on the crease of your arms at the elbow and cheeks—the places where you sweat first—combined to emit the most potent smell, apparently; an aroma that mosquitoes loathe and will keep their distance for hours on end. Armed with rain gear, repellent and rubber boots along with my Girl Guide approach, I really needn’t have bothered.
Luis pointed to a tree bearing an exotic orange coloured fruit—its vitamin C levels tenfold that of an orange and one that can be fermented to produce a rather energising beverage. If you can’t be a good Girl Guide and glug a little too much of the enticing ‘Red Bull and vodka’ jungle equivalent, you may end up needing the tree rich in a substance capable of preventing the prospect of pregnancy. Indeed, there’s no morning after pill here but guess where the chemical properties of said birth control capsule comes from? Amazing, ya.
If you are a good Girl Guide or Boy Scout, you might not fancy getting gazebo’ed in the jungle with your fellow foresters. Then why not snap a twig from a scrawny branch off another particular tree, light up the end and enjoy a soothing smoke on a long, somewhat-skinnier-than-average ‘cigar’. No nasties inhaled either—beats the non-nicotine out of those faux Parker Pen cigarettes. And keeps any biting blighters at bay to boot!
Upon side-stepping around a city of termite houses, we eventually noticed that they were always constructed on the west side of the forest. Why’s that then? Because when it rains here, precipitation always comes from the east. Did you know that the exterior of their habitats also incorporate ridged drainage systems, which allow any rainfall to neatly drain off and divert away from the material holding their live-in premises together. Talk about enterprising engineers and award-winning architects for ingenuity.
On an arbitrary note, I clocked columns upon columns of leaf cutter ants, all on their global deforestation programme. They crossed the trail, carrying dismembered plants from one side to the other, despite there being plenty of plants on the side they were already on. The reason for this I am yet to become enlightened. Every so often I’d spot a lost ant away from the colony; like a line dancer looking for a line.
Although the snuggery of Siona Lodge was more untouched by tourism—the Caiman lodge in our second week was the landing spot for backpackers—attracted by the mixture of low cost and authenticity. A shock to the system having left the sunny exuberance of Luis and four other like-minded jungle-adoring explorers, compared to around 30 kids and 10 others all chomping at the bit for a piece of jungle pie. Come now, let’s have you all jump aboard the motorised canoe and tootle back from whence you came. Not that I was suffering from a bout of fellow-outsiders-ruining-my-authentic-experience annoyance or anything.
Plus, I’ve never been sold on the idea of modern-day ‘adventure tourism’. For me, adventures should involve chewing your way through undergrowth with your bare teeth, dodging jaguars and patching up wounds with a spider monkey. Going on well-established tours several times daily, led by guides who cater for all your needs is only as ‘out there’ as going to a job interview wearing a loud tie.
“Mira”, pointed David, our new naturalist guide at Caiman Lodge bringing me back to where I should be. Look. A load of yellow-handed titty monkeys. Arrr, wow—haven’t seen those before. See Lisa, stop being prissy because all’s good again. It always was. Just look where you are! The two of us were given free rein with our own personal guide, away from the masses and the rigidity of schedules, plus a second week in the Amazon for free in exchange for some professional shots and a little aerial footage. Which kept us just about on budget despite being where we were…right oh, I’ll stop being a ginger whinger.
A canopy tower from the Caiman Lodge, at 25 metres tall gave us access to a different perspective, showing us secret gardens of jungle life from the treetops—impossible to see from the understory—standing like a sentinel guarding the fruits of the forest. It facilitated travel through different levels of the rainforest and emerged us on top of the canopy. Caiman Lodge was growing on me fast.
David had to depart so hanging out with Vin, perhaps one of the Caiman Lodge’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides took over and us deep into the Amazon. By means of a slightly leaky, slow-going paddle canoe. The experience that greeted us was worth the wait. While we watched tropical birds and chatted like monkeys for hours, Vin had a 101 stories—all filled with firsthand knowledge of indigenous peoples throughout South America, their shaman culture, the forest and rural life. What it is and what it can be. I felt at ease and content, full of peace around the guy.
The Amazon has to be one of the most exuberant places on Earth, a place some people still get to call home. Upon entering a native village Puerto Bolivar one day, I got to glimpse a life so simple, so achingly beautiful that I couldn’t stop staring: a laughing child waving at a canoe, a shawl-clad woman gracefully throwing grain to her hens. A breathless charm. Each little thatched lodge we passed, nestling amongst its banana palms, drenched in sunlight, was a vision of Eden. A vision of happiness I wanted to keep. Surrounded by the Amazon’s wreath of wildlife, I was beginning to think…Could we stay right here; til the end of time; til the Earth stops turning? The forest was starting to get at something very deep in me.
A stillness settled over the lake as dusk grew closer. A hand pointed at 9 o’clock from the bow and I led my eyes in said direction. A fully matured boa coiled itself serenely around a low tree branch, at eye-line with us in the canoe. Like the snake, I was unable to blink. I watched the silken surface of a small inlet below, broken only by brown and gold leaves that fluttered onto it from nearby trees. My life it seemed, had been transformed, the scales fallen from my eyes. I idly scooped up some water and let it aimlessly trickle through my fingers. How on Mother Earth would we leave this place? They say endings are usually laced with regret while beginnings are sprinkled with hope. We glided close to the bearded shores of the creek to get a more intimate look at this limbless reptile. She was a boa beauty, embossed with a flawless and bewitching skin.
The Amazon’s orchestra of indigenous organisms—comprises en ensemble so large in one given location—is, well, beyond wild. The air is permanently alive with cicadas; in harmony with a pacifying symphony of tropical birdsong, which paints the air with colour; magnified by growls from the howler monkeys; and a bit of base from the bull frogs. Mentally spent from over-stimulation with cravings for more—despite holding in a myriad set of visuals—is how one will leave the Amazon. Because fortunately, your filters will be forgotten. We lived, breathed, ate and slept at becoming one with nature; my umbilical cord connecting with the roots of the jungle so profoundly, I felt an energy like no other.
The hauntingly beautiful power that Pachamama—Mother Earth had over us was simply a given. Not to mention almost tangible forces at all levels: whether furrowed deep in the understory, forging ahead on the forest floor or reining over all high in the treetops—we absorbed an assembly of colours, sounds, scents and the most captivating creatures on Earth. A chance to perceive life ancestral of Pachamama and forest nature; it’s all here in the lungs of the planet. Yet in the face of wanting to feast our eyes on it all, we only saw a finger monkey’s breadth of it.