If you are going to be riding south of the US border for any extended period of time, learn Spanish and or have someone in your group who does. Don’t expect to be able to get by speaking English “louder and slower”. You are in their country, learn their language. It will make you life so much easier, and the experience so much richer. You will learn things from locals that you’ll never find in a guide book. I made this last trip to Panama without knowing but 20 or so words in Spanish, but I don’t think I would have made it without Chick, my riding compadre, being there to smooth out the tough situations and the border crossings. He was fluent in Spanish, so I just kicked back and relied on him. My bad. I won’t do that again. For those with time, head south and find a place to take a week or two week long Spanish Immersion school. San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, MX, San Pedro on Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala, or Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala are known for their immersion schools. They are dirt cheap too. In San Pedro you can take a two-week immersion class with one on one instruction, and live with a local family (room and board) for the entire two weeks, for less than $200. I imagine that San Cristobal and Antigua would be a bit more expensive though, since they are larger cities. You will have unbelievably more pleasant experiences and come home with much richer memories if you learn the language!
Central America’s dry season is approximately from late September thru April. Most travelers heading to South America will depart in the fall, so they cross over to South America in time to still enjoy the summer season (seasons reversed below the equator).
You can ride south anytime you wish, but the wet season will greatly complicate your trip and render many regions inaccessible due to the conditions of the roads. You probably wish to miss the fall hurricane season as you might have a chance to experience both Pacific and Caribbean tropical storms if you don’t.
Daylight (sunrise and sunset) will increase the farther south you go, so those cold, short winter days in the US, will grow longer and warmer the farther south you ride. This is a good thing! If you are riding south in the middle of the year, don't expect much change.
Before you depart, it is important to plan for the worst, and hope for the best. If you have thought about all the contingencies and have prepared for them, it will make life much easier on your family/survivors, should the worst happen. I’m not being morbid, just realistic.
1. Personal Affairs:
Will, Living Will, all in order? Executor or beneficiaries know your preferences? An adventure trip is a good reason to put things in order. Get it together. How are bills going to get paid while you are gone? What is the timing for bill payments? Can you or someone else do it on line? Who has signature authority on your various accounts? Who can access emergency information or get key documents or other things in your absence (like back-up title documents, copies of passports, medicine prescription renewals and forwarding). Keep a record of monthly bills and develop a method to have them paid while you are gone. Some methods are a family member paying, automatic deduction, or prepaying for a specific period.
Unless you are going to be in major resort areas, you will not be using your credit cards much once you cross the border into Mexico. Pemex (the national gas chain in Mexico) does not accept credit cards, and neither will almost any other fuel station until you get to Costa Rica. However, you still need to notify your bank or credit card provider that you will be traveling outside the USA. They need to know the countries you will be in, and the approximate dates you will be there, so they will not cancel your card the first time they see it used outside the USA. Also, ensure your PIN is set to a four digit number. Many ATM machines outside the USA will not accept a PIN that has more than four digits. If you are worried about loss of a credit card during the trip, get a new card with a low credit limit, specifically for use during the trip. Also make sure you talk to your bank(s) and know the associated foreign exchange fees that will be added to your bill every time you use it. My bank charges an additional 1% on every purchase in a foreign currency, but you will get the bank exchange rate on the transaction. This is usually much higher than you will get even if you were to exchange cash at a local bank.
This is what you will use for almost every purchase. I personally carry a large amount, secreted in several areas, both on the bike and on my person. I recommend an emergency stash of several $100 bills, for major problems like an accident. But for day-to-day use, keep your money in the smallest bills possible. Do not ever show a large roll in public, and keep the smallest bills on the outside.
Travelers Checks: I don’t recommend them. They won’t be accepted by anyone other than a major bank, and even then you will receive the worst exchange rate possible.
These were our primary source of cash, and give the best exchange rate available, in the local currency. Make sure you know how to use your ATM card or credit card for cash withdrawals. Also make sure you talk to your bank(s) and know the associated foreign withdrawal fees that will be added to your bill every time you use it. And as Lone Rider has pointed out, make sure you keep you cash supply flush, because ATMs are not easy to find once away from major metro areas.
Internet café’s are widely available in Central America even in the least expected places. Unless you are far off the beaten path, you can expect to find internet access every couple of days. Make sure you have an email account set up with a web based system so you can access it from anywhere. (yahoo or hotmail accounts are nice). Also, have digital copies of all your important documents sent to your email account so they are accessible from the road, if your hard documents get lost or stolen. Update your online email address book with addresses and phone numbers of critical contacts so you can call them if necessary. This is an important data resource to have access to.
Good idea to have a multiband mobile phone with a provider that roams to Central America (you can check that on their web site). A phone is useful for safety, important communication, and staying in touch via reasonably priced text messaging (SMS). Mobile phone coverage is widely available in major centers and along major transportation corridors (like in the US). GPRS service is available in some locations in Mexico and sporadically elsewhere so you can check your Email if you have that service. Text messaging (SMS) is cheap and easy. Have your key contacts know how to work SMS and know why it makes sense ( a call is between $2 and $4 per minute, and is worthless if not answered, but a text message is about 35 cents, can be received at any time, and gives you a “hard copy” message with phone numbers, times, and whatever else that can be referenced later) We used text messaging many times between ourselves when we were separated. It is a reliable and cheap method of communication.
I do not use a GPS, so you might like to consult elsewhere on this. One of our party had a GPS, but it was relegated to back-up, behind paper maps and common sense. GPS mapping of Central America is spotty at best, so I would recommend primary reliance on recent paper maps. If all else fails, knowing the language allows you to ask a local, but even that is risky because half the time we asked, the info they gave us was no better that what we already knew. Or in some cases (like being lost downtown in San Salvador or Teguchigalpa) paying a taxi, or a guy on a motorcycle, to get you through a large city is also a good option.
5. Emergency Data:
Make several 3X5 cards with all your personal information on them. This will not only help you plan for the trip, but might also save your life if you are injured. Keep a card in your tankbag, one on your person, and give at least one to a riding companion. Also, make sure your key contacts back home have it too. The intent is for someone to always have access to it if you are unable to communicate. The information should include:a. Full name, address, phone number (fixed line and cell), Email.b. Passport number, Issue and expiration dates, and place of issue. Give a copy of your passport to a companion and leave one with your key contacts at home.c. Drivers License number and state, name of vehicle insurer and policy no. and contact phone no.d. Emergency contact data: Who, relationship, where, how to phone, Email, office and home, more than one contact preferred.e. Medical data: Blood type, medications you are taking and why, health issues to specifically include drug allergies as well as food allergies.f. Medical Provider member number and contact data. They typically require notification of emergency hospitalization etc.g. Medevac Insurance etc. number and company contact data.
6. Copies of Information:
I carry several back-ups of data with me. I have paper copies of important documents (Passport information pages, drivers license, vehicle title, vehicle registration, Emergency contact data, medical insurance policy, credit cards, etc). I also digitally scan the same information into computer files and carry them on a 1Gb USB Flashdrive. If you don’t have a flashdrive (they are very cheap now), you can also start a free online email account that you can access over the internet. Then send this data to yourself and it will reside online in cyberspace for you to access from anywhere you can find a computer.
7. Medical Issues:
Cover medical issues in advance is a reasonable way to protect a good time. Visit a doctor and tell them where you are planning on going. Get a check-up and make sure you are current on immunizations. Go to the Center for Communicable Disease Control in Atlanta GA website (www.cdc.gov
) and check out their recommendations for inoculations and immunizations, medicines to carry, precautions etc. Depending on the experience of your medical provider with international travel you may have to guide them to the CDC website. Immunizations are expensive, but can be worth their weight in gold in preventing a major illness. Many of them are multi shot series over a period of time, so they cannot be put off to the last minute.
A basic immunization for an extended touring in the third world (or adventuring) trip should look like:
-Tetanus, Diphtheria (typically bundled)
Depending on what you plan to do and where you might add:
-Yellow fever for CDC recommended areas. An inoculation is good for 10 years. Be aware that some countries may consider other countries a Yellow Fever zone (like Panama) and if they see you have been there the country receiving you may require proof of a Yellow Fever inoculation (though Panama does not require it.) Note: to be valid at a border a Yellow Fever inoculation must have been given at least 10 days prior to entry. If you get a Yellow Fever shot be aware only certain licensed providers can give it. The CDC web site provides a list by location. This is usually a Public Health Service or an International Travel specialist service. They are hard to find in Central America. A properly signed International Certificate of Vaccination (Yellow form) is the only usually acceptable document to certify you have a valid Yellow Fever immunization, though a Public Health Service letter may work.
-Meningitis for CDC recommended areas. Not a problem in Central America again depending on what you are going to do and where you will do it.
-Malaria: The advice on malaria medication is area specific in Central America. Chloroquine is recommended – (start two weeks before and take for four weeks after visit) The CDC web site is specific as to the malaria medication recommended for each area by country and region in the country in question. Malaria is a serious event.
8. Medical Evacuation Insurances:
Most medical insurance carriers will cover emergency care in an international location that is being visited. Make sure your program does! You should advise them of your trip. It is also good to have in hand something like “medical evacuation insurance (medevac)” or international emergency medical assistance insurance. It covers among other things medical evacuation back to competent medical centers. For details check with www.dedexassist.com
for an example. A full year costs $163 or so. Many use www.Medjetassist.com
as well. Worldwide medical evacuation back to the US, for around $200 is a good investment if you ask me.
9. Vehicle Preparation:
Only you can really know your bike. Have it serviced before you depart, or do it yourself. Know the maintenance intervals for your filters and fluids and be ready to do those services on the road. Be sure you check and fill battery. Know the mileage you get from your tires. You may have to plan on a new set of tires depending on the length of the trip and the type of tires the trip will require. You may have to ship them ahead or make sure a local dealer somewhere stocks them. Match your tires to the trip to be taken or the pace at which you do the trip. For example, although Continental TKC’s are great tires in bad conditions, they wear out very quickly. Tourances routinely yield 10,000 or more miles for me, so I mounted them before departing on this trip. The set lasted the entire way. Don’t depart home with a half used set of tires, knowing you’ll have to replace them in a country that may or may not have them available.
Anticipate the distance you will travel on the trip, and take those fluids, filters, or parts you will need for routine service. I ride an R1150GS, so I carry an extra fuel filter, oil filter, spark plugs, rear main bearing, rear main seal, and 1 qt of oil as my basic load. If I know I am going to be doing long distances off pavement, I also carry an extra air filter. I have gone thru my basic toolkit and supplemented it with a complete socket set, and the allen-head sockets and star-head sockets I need for my bike. Included are zipties, JB Weld, hose clamps, a multi-meter, bailing wire and electrical wire, electrical tape, electrical quick connections, duct tape, fuses, spare bulbs, miniature jumper cables, 12V air pump, tire repair kit/plugs, air pressure gauge, siphon hose, etc. This is one more item that I would carry the next time I rode south, and that is a folding, reflective warning triangle. Twice we were asked to produce them by policemen in Nicaragua, but were able to talk our way out of it. Apparently it is a law that all vehicles must carry them.
Research and write down the location and contact information for the closest dealership (of your brand MC) in the countries you will be traveling. There are BMW motorcycle dealerships in Mexico City, Guatemala City, San Salvador (El Salvador), San Jose (Costa Rica), and Panama City (Panama). If you have this info before you start, it will save time, and hassle, if you need it on the road. Also, develop a good relationship with your local dealer at home. Have their phone number and fax number, and/or email address. If you need a part on the road, they will most likely be the easiest to contact and the fastest way to get something in the mail/courier to you. Remember that courier services (FedEx, UPS, DHL) frequently have figured out how to easily clear customs, which may be more difficult if you ship a high dollar part thru the postal service, so their extra cost may be a good thing in the long run.