Just along for the ride..
Joined: Nov 2003
Location: Petersburg, Virginia
Part Six: Road Wisdom
Road Hazard warning signs: We all know that there is a sign for everything in the USA. Other countries don’t have that kind of money to waste on signage, so they’ve developed an informal way of warning you there is a traffic hazard ahead. The most common warning is a bunch of large rocks placed in the road, usually around the corner from the hazard. The second most common is a bunch of branches cut from a tree/bush and placed in your lane. So if you are zipping along and see ANYTHING in the road ahead, reduce your speed and start looking for the hazard. It could be a broken down bus, logs rolled off the back of a truck, or a 10 foot deep ditch where the road has washed away. Just be on guard for anything placed in the road.
Topes/Tumulos: In America we call them speed bumps. South of the border, in Mexico they are called Topes (or sleeping policemen). In Guatemala they are called Tumulos. You will learn to either love them or hate them because they will slow traffic down to 10-15 mph at the entrance to, in the middle of, and coming out of almost every little town you pass thru. I personally love them because they bunch up all the traffic at one location and make it easier to pass long lines of cars queued up behind a doble remoulage (double trailer semi). Technically passing trucks and busses in town is illegal, but almost everyone does it. If you don’t learn to do it, you will take forever to cross Mexico. Heck, I’ve even seen TOPES on a four-lane divided highway outside of Poza Rica. Explain that to me please. But these speed reduction devices are pretty much confined to Mexico and Guatemala. I don’t recall seeing them used much south of those to countries.
Animals: You will see every conceivable species of animal on the roads as you head south. Cattle, horses, donkeys, dogs, vultures chickens, pigs, if it walks, it will be on or near the road. Some will be tied up and grazing, but most will not be. Ride as if every single animal is going to bolt in front of you. Give them lots of lee-way. I had never seen bulls, cows and horses dead alongside the road before I went south. Now I have.
Night riding: Don’t do it! There is a reason you hear horror stories about riding at night below the border. Combine very poorly maintained roads, no signage or warning markings, large animals, pedestrians, and vehicles with no lights or reflective markings and you are playing Russian roulette. I am not kidding. We rode after dark for the first two days we were on the road in Mexico. When we saw what we had ridden thru on the morning of the third day, we stopped doing that for the rest of the trip. IT IS NOT WORTH THE RISK. Stop and find lodging well before sunset.
Double Semi-Trailers: These are double (tandem) trailers pulled by semi trucks. They are marked with a sign on the back of the last trailer, which I think says “Doble Remolque” (fixed). This is critical to remember when you pull out to pass one on a tight two lane road. You now have to pass a vehicle that is almost 75 feet long, or roughly twice as long as what you are use to passing. This could become a fatal error if you don’t realize it before you start your pass. Always check to see if this sign is on the back of the tractor trailer in front of you before you attempt to pass.
Turn signals: I still don’t understand this, but let me put it simply. Do not believe any turn signal you see in use, anytime, anywhere. Turn signal use means different things in different countries. Sometimes a truck or car will put on their left turn signal in an attempt to let you know it is clear to pass, but sometimes it just means they are turning left in front of you. Other times it will be an attempt to tell you the road ahead is NOT CLEAR to attempt to pass. For these reason, I completely ignore the turn signals of the vehicle in front of me, and watch the road until I can decide myself what I can safely do. Do not allow someone else to decide for you when it is safe to pass them. Ignore their attempt to be helpful with their turn signals.
Auto Hotels: Throughout all of Mexico and down into El Salvador, you can easily find along the major roads, a type of hotel called an “Auto Hotel”. They usually have signs that advertise they are open 24 hours. They are typically walled compounds. They usually have a gate that prevents passing travelers from seeing inside the compound. Inside the compound each room generally has its own garage with door, or curtains that can be drawn across behind the car. The object is complete and total privacy to the clients. These hotels are cheap, but almost always have only one bed, and trust me, the clients don’t go there to sleep. We were quoted $20 for a night at one, but when we found out none of the rooms had more than one bed, we elected to more on. Don’t think I could sleep between the sheets at one of those places. Your standards may be different than mine, and often mine are fairly low, but even I’ll pass on one of those places.
Real hotels: They are around, and are fairly inexpensive. Always ask to see the room first, and ask about hot water, and air conditioning. Mostly you will find this readily available, but on occasion you might not even have electricity all the time. There were many days where we did not have any of the above in our room. Most places do have a large black water tank on the roof, so the water will at least be tepid for a shower.
Hospedajes: These are little “motels” that usually are not even marked. Sometimes they are actually a family’s home. If you have to stop and ask for lodging in a remote area, this is probably what you will be directed to.
Do not worry about fuel on your trip. Okay, do not worry about the quality of the fuel, or about finding unleaded fuel. You do need to pay attention and ensure you fuel when you need to, based on your own fuel tank capacity and fuel economy. I actually found that my fuel economy went UP once I started filling up with Pemex gas. There is also no need to remove the catalytic converter on your BMW for riding in Central America. However, you must be prepared to pay for your fuel in cash. Credit cards are not accepted by gas stations in 98% of the places you will be riding.
It happens. It is part of the danger of travel. Use commons sense, keep aware of your surroundings, and travel with a partner or group if possible. If you feel uncomfortable in a place, do not stop. Gut feelings can be fortuitous. I’ve traveled to many potentially dangerous regions and have minimized my risk by not putting myself in a position where I had no escape. I also try to minimize my value as a target by reducing the temptation I offer to a criminal.
I’ve found that most theft is usually caused by easy opportunity. Soft saddlebags, or a tent, casually tied over a seat of a bike, or a tank bag held down by a nylon strap are easy to grab, or cut off. They can disappear quickly. I’ve always used hard, lockable saddlebags, and packed my camping gear inside a Pac-Safe wire-mesh duffle which is then wired and padlocked to the bike. When I get off the bike, I lock it, then walk away with my tank bag in hand. Nothing is left on the bike that is not secured against anything but wire-cutters or bolt-cutters. But most thieves don’t carry those around, so I’ve never had anything stolen.
At night, ask your hosts if there is a secure place to store you bike that is out of sight of the street. I carry a thick Kryptonite cable and lock the bike to an immovable object, then cover it with a travel cover. If they can’t see what is under the cover, it removes the temptation. A cover is a very good idea, and doesn’t take up much room.
As mentioned before, stay aware of your surrounding. That includes not imbibing so much of anything that you become an easy target. I do not carry the majority of my cash on my person, and what I do carry I have in a couple of places, one of which is my throw-away wallet. Yes, a throw-away wallet. It is my normal wallet, purged of everything of value, except a few dollars, some local currency, a couple expired credit cards, an old AAA card, and several generic credit cards that say “Your business name here” on the front. It is designed to give a potential thief something that appears to be legit, making them happy, and to buy you enough time to get away before they realize they don’t have much. I’ve never had to use it, but I do carry it. My actual credit cards, license and important stuff is wrapped with a rubber band around my cash, in another place on my person.
I also suggest that you carry a couple of emergency credit cards and some type of identification, stored in a safe location in case you are robbed, or lose you primary ones. It does happen occasionally and back-ups can be a life-saver.
Jeff Munn screwed with this post 11-20-2013 at 08:56 AM