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Old 01-25-2008, 10:53 AM   #1
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SF to Panama... eventually

This is being copied from my livejournal so if it looks more like a blog than a trip report... that's because it is

I confess that I'm starting this thread a little late - the trip has been underway for a month. There are still at least five months more to go, and I've been trying to write a little every day... so reader beware, this might get long.

The blog is here and the complete set of pictures can be found here.

A little introduction: I'm a 34yo techie from San Francisco. I've been riding on-and-off for the last 10 years but have never taken a motorcycle trip longer than a 3-day weekend. Also, while I've seen a fair amount of the world, I have never traveled alone. A few months ago I left my (highly unusual, but that's a different story) dotcom job, rented my apartment to friends, and decided it was time to hunt Grand Adventure.



Now, on with the story...

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Old 01-25-2008, 10:55 AM   #2
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The Trip

[Originally posted December 27, 2007]

This trip is defined by a direction, not a destination. The direction is South.

I don't have a lot of specific plans. Ride great roads (both paved and not). See cool things. Eat yummy food. Meet interesting people. Drink. Learn Spanish. Write code for the Next Big Thing.

The closest thing to an itinerary I have:

* Xmas with the parents in Prescott.
* Ride down Baja.
* Spend a week in southern Baja with a friend flying into Cabo.
* Ferry across to the mainland from La Paz.
* Find someplace pleasant in southern Mexico to spend a month taking Spanish lessons.
* See what's left of Villahermosa.
* Set foot (and tire) in every Central American country.
* Visit Yaviza, where the road ends in Panama.

I'm planning to do this the slow way, taking the most obscure routes and staying a few days wherever the natives are friendly. Honestly, though, I've never taken a trip like this so I don't really know what to expect. I'm not even sure when it will end. I'll be gone at least six months. If I'm still having a great time when I bump into the Darién Gap, I will probably put my motorcycle on a boat and sail around to Columbia to continue the tour south. Unfortunately the timing would land me in Tierra del Fuego in the middle of winter, but I've heard Brazil is a good place to hang out for a few months while the seasons change... so a return date is hard to predict :-)

Start here:
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Old 01-25-2008, 10:58 AM   #3
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Prescott, AZ

[Originally posted December 28, 2007]



My prime directive for this trip is to avoid anything that looks like a schedule. So naturally, it starts with a mad race to get to my parents' house in Prescott, Arizona by Xmas.

Departure was determined by the date I got my bike back from its final service at Scuderia. This turned out to be three days later than planned, plus I needed another day to remount and rewire the GPS after I got it back. On the positive side, the mechanic let me watch most of the service and gave me tons of advice; I'm new to KTMs. I don't plan to do much wrenching on this trip, but... it's a KTM.

By the time I had everything packed and ready, it was late afternoon on the 23rd. It was sad saying goodbye to San Francisco and the people I love.

My first stop was San Luis Obispo, where I lived twelve years and still have many old friends. I had hoped to spend a couple days there but the clock was ticking. I had a great dinner with Shawn, Zac, Joel, Alana, and Cindy. As usual, the conversation turned to the merits of leaving SLO and moving to San Francisco. As usual, Shawn and Zac remain unconvinced. I try.

I set an alarm (ugh) and woke up at 8am (UGH) to ride from SLO to Prescott, AZ. It's about 600 miles. This is far, far too many miles to do on an LC4 in one day, but the idea of spending Xmas eve in a hotel didn't appeal to me. I made it in about 12 hours, but just barely - it's $@*#%!! cold here. Below freezing. Various parts of my body were going numb, despite the heated equipment and wearing every layer I had.

Here's a picture of Roy's in Amboy, on the old Route 66. Amboy was part of the inspiration for Pixar's Cars. The freeway was realigned and the town (along with Essex) died. All that remains is a huge gorgeous building in partial state of restoration.



Xmas with my family was, well, xmas with my family. I love them and we get along great. But as a friend told me, there's your biological family and there's your logical family. I missed my SF family. Here's my brother and my parents:



Here's my mom and the greenhouse she designed and built. It keeps her orchids alive in the less-than-tropical environs:





Incidentally, I had my first motorcycle problem on the way to Prescott. One of the bolts holding the luggage rack sheared off in the subframe. Fortunately my parents' house is quite literally full of tools, including the necessary drill and easy-outs. I brought a small bag of KTM bolts for just such an eventuality. The problem is fixed, but I'm less than thrilled with the mount design of my Happy Trails luggage rack. Part of the problem is that I tweaked the subframe dropping the bike in the mud on Usal Road, so it puts odd stresses on the bolts... but it shouldn't be this fragile.

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Old 01-25-2008, 11:38 AM   #4
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Nice looking blog. Not caught up yet but getting there. Keep the story coming!!!!

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Old 01-25-2008, 11:47 AM   #5
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Looks like a great trip you have planned and thanks for the link to your blog!

I hope you can update this thread from time to time
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Old 01-25-2008, 11:50 AM   #6
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Sounds like an outstanding trip.. good luck to ya and i'll be reading along.
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Old 01-25-2008, 11:51 AM   #7
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San Felipe, Baja California

[Originally posted December 30, 2007]


[google doesn't know where San Felipe is!]

I spent the night before last in a random hotel Yuma, Arizona. It was the first relaxed day of riding on this trip; not too many miles and plenty of time to do them. It also provided the first "holy cow, this is amazing" experience of the trip, riding through gorgeous southern Arizona desert into an enormous, glowing pink sky. A coyote looked at me quizzically as I rode past. I'm pretty sure he immediately got on the phone to ACME corp demanding an elaborate and experimental contraption to catch my modern orange interpretation of the roadrunner. I'll keep an eye out for anvils, big red fireworks, and tunnels painted onto mountainsides for the rest of the trip.

Southern Arizona is strange. I'm fairly certain that the only foliage that grows naturally here is the RV Park, mobilitis senioris. The landscape actually reminds me of Mexico, but instead of haphazardly constructed cinderblock buildings the shantytowns are made out of haphazardly placed mobile homes. Acres and acres and acres of them.

Crossing the border into Mexico at San Luis Rio Colorado was anticlimactic. There was a gate, I drove through it, I was in Mexico. It actually took me a while to find Immigracion (right next to the gate, DUH). You can visit the border towns (and most of Baja) without any paperwork, but southern Mexico requires visas for both myself and the bike. From stories I hear of border crossings in the rest of Central America, this was a painless process, but it still required me to visit two different offices, plus get photocopies of the visa (which, btw, was itself a carbon-copied document) made at a random copy store across the street.

What is it with the need for copies, and why on earth don't they put a copy machine in the office??

Immediately upon receipt of bureaucratic blessing (good for 180 days, after which I become public enemy #17323586), I proceeded to get myself totally lost. For a few not especially good reasons I haven't loaded Mexico maps into my GPS so I had to navigate solely with paper maps and the conspicuously absent street signs. I ended up riding cross country on several dirt farm roads and asking directions a couple times in my broken spanish. On the plus side, I got a good tour of Sonora farmland and several towns that have exactly nothing to recommend to tourists except maybe a slightly different shade of silt.

I did find one cool thing in my meandering - a set of derelict railroad tracks in pretty fair shape. I'll have to check google earth to find out where they go; this could be a truly hardcore adventure for Anton's makeshift railcar.

My wandering finally took me to the main highway to San Felipe, which is a spectacular road that cuts across deserts and a vast dry lakebed that dwarfs Black Rock. Again with a giant glowing pink-and-orange sunset. My second "holy cow, this is amazing" moment in as many days.

San Felipe is standard Baja tourist town, with a Baja-1000-themed twist. Lots of gringos, dirt bikes, and quads. The beer is excellent, though. I think beer tastes better in Mexico. Must be the dirt.

Today I continue south, taking some roads the map marks as unpaved. I promise to get pictures this time.
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Old 01-25-2008, 12:10 PM   #8
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My god, it's full of stars

[Originally posted December 31, 2007]



I spent the last two days exploring the less civilized part of Baja.

I left San Felipe heading South. After Puertocitos, the road turned to dirt:



I saw two more coyotes. I think they're up to something.

I spent most of the afternoon standing on the footpegs doing 40-50 mph on a rocky, sandy, rutted, ugly excuse for a road. There were many tempting opportunities for jumps and other such hooliganism but sanity got the better of me; I've already seen a flock of vultures picking over a lone bovine carcass on the side of the road. Nevertheless, the bike handled the day beautifully -- this is the kind of surface it was made for. I only had a couple moments of terror when the frontend decided to set off on its own route through Baja... but gassing it really does work. I wish I had gotten pictures of the rough spots, the road looks pretty good here:



After a couple hours of this, I found a gas station at Bahía de Gonzaga. Parked next to it was a an ancient derelict airplane. This was unusual but not surprising since derelict cars seem to litter the landscape of Baja. The shocking part was when people climbed in and that relic took off.



I struck up a conversation with three bystanders who were just as amused as I was: Scott (who has ridden a KLR all over the US), his sister Heather (who owns an old Guzzi and an old BMW airhead), and her boyfriend Max. They're down from LA to stay at a place they bought on a tiny beach just a few miles away. "Come camp on our beach!"

I brought camping gear on this trip but I didn't really expect to use it; hotels are cheap here and I like showers. However, I try to make a habit of saying "yes" as often as possible, and I *did* go through all the trouble of riding out to this desolate place. I bought a six pack of Tecate and some munchies at the store (like the gas station, the only one in 70 miles radius and staffed erratically) and set off to find my new friends.

Scott, Heather, Max, and their five dogs are awesome. They pointed me to a great camping spot just a stone's throw from the ocean, fed me spaghetti, made a fire, stayed up drinking and chatting with me most of the night, and even made me breakfast! Camping out here... wow. The only sound comes from the waves and the only light comes from the sky. There isn't even the faintest hint of city-glow from the horizon. The milky way shows as a brilliant band. I doubt there is an inch of coastline in the US that you can get this experience from. Fifty years from now, probably not an inch in Baja either...










The next day's ride was another rendition of my own private Baja 1000 (abridged), but the roads on this side got a little better (or I'm getting more confident) and I kicked the speed over 60 mph for much of it. Probably stupid but it was fun as hell.



Baja has abandoned hulks of derelict cars in abundance.

Baja severely lacks ROAD SIGNS.

I think someone may be on to something here:



Back onto pavement, the miles flew by and I crossed into Baja Sur. The terrain got rockier and the wind was raging. I had the bike leaned over 20 degrees just to ride straight. I'm not sure what produced this accident but I'm certain the wind was involved:



I made it to Santa Rosalita just after dark. It's NYE and I had hoped that I might find something festive in a coastal town. It turns out all the locals do here is go to church and go to bed! All the restaurants and most of the bars are closed. I had a few beers with a couple other gringos I met on the street and now I'm going pass out - riding dirt is hard work.



Next stop, if I can manage it: La Paz

[Editor's note: I did]

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Old 01-25-2008, 12:11 PM   #9
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Mexican Cellular Service

[Originally posted January 2, 2008]

I've now done a fair amount of research on Cell Service In Mexico. My original plan was to buy a Telcel prepaid SIM for my iPhone when I crossed the border. This turned out to be trickier than expected. I wanted to get out of the border towns as quickly as possible, so I didn't stop there. Then the dealers in San Felipe didn't have SIMs and then I was camping in no-man's land. When I got back, everything was closed up on the 31st and the 1st...

This is how life is in Baja. "Slow down, relax" says the world. I don't think I've heard a single automobile horn yet. It's nice.

Here I am in La Paz and I decide it's finally time to work out the cellphone arrangement. Especially since I was terrified that the dozen-or-so "happy new year" text messages I got cost me a small fortune in roaming fees.

This is the most concise explanation of the options I could find: http://www.mountainwireless.com/mx_roaming.shtml

It turns out that roaming on TMobile isn't so bad, as long as I don't pick up the phone. International text messages are only $0.15 to receive and $0.35 to send. Of course it's $1.50 per minute to talk, but that's easy to avoid. If I had a Mexican SIM, receiving calls would be free but then my US friends would spend a fortune both to call me and to send me text messages.

I'm going to keep my TMobile service. My phone number remains the same, feel free to text message me with impunity. If you want to actually talk, it's best to arrange some sort of iChat during the times I have internet service.

Probably I should investigate Skype.

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Old 01-25-2008, 12:13 PM   #10
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[Originally posted January 2, 2008]

Journey so far: 2100 miles
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Old 01-25-2008, 12:28 PM   #11
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Where am I and what did you do with La Paz?

[Originally posted January 3, 2008]



The dash from Santa Rosalía to La Paz was uneventful. Arriving, I was in for a shock.

I first visited La Paz about 11 years ago. It was a gorgeous town that brilliantly toed the line between tourism and "real" Mexico. A handful of cabana-style restaurants lined the Malecon and hotels were cheap; $10 per night (double occupancy) got a pretty nice place. The diving was great. Rachel (who I was dating at the time) and I loved it so much we went back the next year too.

La Paz has "grown up". I barely recognized the place. The Malecon looks like South Beach Miami and there are gringos everywhere. I was horrified to discover that across the street from the famous Hotel Los Arcos...



...was this abomination:



It's still a beautiful, pleasant city, but there are new buildings everywhere and they've started building large hotels in the downtown area. It reminds me of what happened to Avila Beach when Unocal razed all the old buildings and built it anew. Sadly, La Paz is becoming the next Cabo San Lucas.

I stayed in a pretty nice hotel though:



I'm glad that my favorite restaurant in La Paz is still there:



I also found a libraría and bought a Moon Guide to Baja. I should have done this before I left Arizona, but it's critical for the Cabo area.
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Old 01-25-2008, 12:47 PM   #12
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Cabo San Lucas

[Originally posted January 3, 2007]



I knew I'd found civilization when I rode by a BMW motorcycle dealer on the way into town. Yes, I stopped.



Cabo San Lucas is a party town. There might actually be more tourists than residents, and they're all having a Very Good Time. Gigantor hotels line the waterfront and the marina is full of multimillion-dollar megayahts. I want to hate it but I actually had a lot of fun.





I found a cute hotel recommended by the guidebook, a block away from the marina. Almost as soon as I had unpacked I was adopted by a local; a bubbly 55-yo blonde woman named Diana who has been living in Cabo for 19 years and knows *everyone*. She gave me a quick orientation to Cabo, including the local politics, and then introduced me to few other old-timer expats. I spent about an hour talking to a guy who has been captaining fishing boats for the last 24 years. They showed me pictures of Cabo San Lucas from twenty years ago - no hotels, no roads, just beach. Wow.

My hotel:



I ate dinner in the nice Italian restaurant adjacent to my hotel. A tip for social travelers: When eating at a restaurant, sit at the bar. Bar people are talkative and most likely drunk. I met, in chronological order:

* A british couple on their honeymoon. They live in NYC and work for the consulate.
* A man writing a book about the history of common markets and how they have evolved with societies.
* A small group from Canada and Montana exchanging bear stories (yes, I have a few).
* A local Mexican hottie who seemed to enjoy my flirtation in broken spanish.
* A somewhat deranged guy about my age who was certain the CIA uses orbital mind control lasers to control the price of beer in Cabo.

This last guy was by far the most interesting. He talked constantly and I would swear he was high, but he never left to snort anything and he was a riot all evening. It turns out he had the room immediately adjacent to mine, so I had one last drink while he jabbered about night vision goggles and cellphone bugs. At some point (for reasons I can only guess) he laid out on the table the no less than SEVEN prescriptions he takes every day:



Cabo San Lucas is nuts.

It's also hot here. I finally removed the liners from my motorcycle gear.

Now I'm off to pick up Catherine from the San Jose del Cabo airport. She will be here a week. Our mission: Beaches and margaritas!
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Old 01-25-2008, 12:54 PM   #13
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Keep it coming.

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Old 01-25-2008, 01:03 PM   #14
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San Jose del Cabo and Cabo Pulmo

[Originally posted January 11, 2008]



Surprisingly, San Jose del Cabo is actually a really nice town. It's more expensive than most of the towns in Baja but it hasn't been flooded with partygoers the way Cabo San Lucas has.

Catherine and I spent two nights in San Jose in a little posada downtown. During the day we lounged around the beaches, read books, and drank Coronas. The beaches themselves are a short walk from town and nearly obscured by a long chain of luxury megahotels in the "Zona Hotelera". The first night we stumbled across one that stood out: The Cabo Azul was lit with candles and torches, made extensive use of dark woods, and looks like it was designed by a Mexican Frank Lloyd Wright. It was *gorgeous* and totally empty, having just opened three months ago. We ate in the restaurant, chatted up some timeshare salespeople sitting in the bar, jumped in the jacuzzi, and spent the next day on the beach under their palapas. Apparently this is what you get when you spend $400/night for a room (we checked):







The next day was our first motorcycle ride 2-up of any significance. We set out along the dirt road that follows the beaches of the East Cape, stopping every half hour to stretch out. The 640A has passenger pegs but it is not designed with passenger comfort in mind, especially with two people's worth of gear. I was a little concerned that Catherine would be nervous about riding on sandy roads but both the bike and my passenger seemed to have a good time. The scenery probably helped:



We stumbled across Baja's least likely internet cafe, Crossroads:



Our destination was the dive camp of Cabo Pulmo, a collection of bungalows and restaurants on what is apparently the only live coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.

[Google doesn't know where Cabo Pulmo is, so no map. It's towards the north end of the "east cape", the dirt road the follows the coast from San Jose to Los Barriles.]

This is a place I will probably return to with friends, especially for a long weekend's dive trip. They have a large beach house for rent, plus the bungalows are super-cute:



One night we moved a foam mattress up to to a private deck and slept outside. In contrast to the storms that are apparently tormenting San Francisco, the weather here is perfect:



We woke up in the middle of the night to un gato purring on top of us. In the morning he was still there, asleep. Friendly little things.

Unfortunately at this point Montezuma's Revenge set in, and I was partially debilitated for several days. All in all, I can't really complain - a beautiful location, no need to travel, and a friend to take care of me. My only further hope is that next time I am bedridden it will be somewhere with a stable internet connection.

By the last day I had finally recovered enough to go on a snorkeling trip with Catherine. We dove along the reef, poked at giant brightly colored lobsters, and swam with sea lions. Sadly I forgot the camera at home so I don't have pictures of Catherine turning green from seasickness on the way back.

Sadly, all vacations must come to an end, and sooner for some of us than others. My plan was to spend Catherine's last night in Santiago, a cute inland town about halfway to the airport. Unfortunately Santiago has only a single posada with four rooms and they were lleno when we arrived, so we rode 20 minutes north to Buena Vista, a sleepy beach town just south of Los Bariles. Much to the dismay of my passenger, it was getting dark and I was riding fast to catch the daylight, but we arrived intact and even managed to watch a few more episodes of Boston Legal on my laptop before turning in. Yes, it's an addiction.

The trip to the airport was uneventful except I marked on my GPS what I thought was (and turned out to be) the turnoff for my adventure that afternoon. Saying goodbye was sad:



You may notice from this picture that I rather stupidly forgot my shaving kit in Cabo San Lucas.

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Old 01-25-2008, 01:12 PM   #15
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Todos Santos

[Originally posted January 11, 2008]



Leaving the airport, I plotted a course directly across the Sierra de la Laguna - the only mountain range in Baja Sur. The Moon Guide describes a dirt road, passable only in the dry season, which cuts directly across from just north of Santa Anita to just south of Todos Santos. Adventure!

For those of you looking to ride this in the future, the northwest intersection is at N23 16.667 W110 09.002 76 ft and the southeast intersection is at N23 14.617 W109 44.626 669 ft. Or you can just find the road marked "Las Naranjas" (only from the north!) about 8km north of Santa Anita, like I did.

The route is gorgeous, if treacherous. This is Baja's version of Usal Road, and probably looks like it during the wet season. It occurred to me several times that if I injured myself out here I might not be found for days so I rode carefully. Unfortunately my pictures don't do the scenery justice. I also didn't get pictures of the quizzical looks that the weathered campesinos living in the mountains on the northeast end gave me.





I spent the night in Todos Santos. It's a cute town that once served as the capitol of Baja Sur and got it's start as a major sugarcane growing and refining center. Close to the Pacific coast, Todos Santos now hosts large numbers of surfers, but it also has a large number of 19th century historical buildings and one decaying-but-interesting museum. It even has a (very bad) sushi restaurant and (finally!) decent produce:







Read the caption (go to flickr for the fullsized image) of that last one.

What Todos Santos does not have is shaving cream or a razor more sophisticated than a disposable Bic. I'd rather shave with a sharpened Pez dispenser. The scarcity of shaving supplies is odd because very few Mexicanos have beards. Even more strange, the disposable Bics are only sold at farmacias, not at the supermercados where every other imaginable toiletry item can be found.

Breakfasting at a taco stand, I met a local todosantaño lawyer about my age who builds racing dune buggies for fun. I got his business card just in case I needed some, uh, legal advice.
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