I think ever since the little scooter in New Orleans I’ve had a fascination with taking some cross-country pan american road trip on a motorcycle.
Unfortunately, like many intrepid fascinations in life this one was diluted by the sheer logistics of the task. That was until I took my first South American night bus. Stopping once in 12 hours for some cheap fried snacks in between being sleeplessly whipped around mountain roads by a driver that must clearly be on potent stimulants was enough for me. So when we were hanging out in a hostel in Medellin the idea was once again brought up to purchase motorcycles and say to hell with all trains, taxis, and dreaded night buses for the duration of travels.
Thankfully we befriended an Israeli expat who fell into the role of our moto sage for a few key days who guided us through the labyrinth of purchasing and registering motos in Colombia. I set a budget of $5,000 for two bikes, with some extras and accessories. If you’ve ever seen the documentary “The Long Way Around” with Ewan Mcgregor, or have a vision of the epic South American conquering BMW/KTM motorcycle equipped with bulletproof luggage boxes and matching riding suits then think about the opposite kind of bike in terms of quality and that is what we were after. A BMW touring endurance bike will run around 15k, a Chinese made 200cc endurance bike costs $2,400. The math is pretty simple, plus I can get the entire engine rebuilt on a Chinese bike anywhere in South America for around $40 dollars because the parts are everywhere!
After two weeks in Medellin people would ask us what we’ve been doing. With a long sigh we typically replied “sitting and waiting in a moto shop”. Finally what seemed like an eternity in the city of the eternal spring we had two shiny new “Moto ABCs”, and after Liz practicing on some calm side roads we were “sort of” ready to hit the not so calm highways of Colombia.
In the documentary “The Long Way Around” Ewan Mcgregor and Charlie traverse from the UK to New York on motorcycles. In the first three episodes they did nothing but route plan, learn motorcycle maintenance and test out riding gear. We on the other hand didn’t plan for a moto trip, so we bought a bunch of bungee cords, a couple of wrenches, strapped our rolly bags to the bikes and with very little route planning equipped only with google maps on my phone started heading south.
The last few days of Medellin were filled with an inherent sense of anxiety. The frustration of the logistics, known and still unknown, Liz being new to riding, the lack of appropriate gear, and the concern with safety on South American roads weighed heavy on us. If traveling is about straddling the line between bravery and stupidly for the outcome of what we might call adventure then we were pros.
As soon as we hit the road many of these concerns and sacrifices started to melt away. The freedom and exhilaration of winding through the mountain roads of Medellin on a motorcycle is a healing experience compared to the traumatic experiences associated with preparing for and acquiring the motorcycles.
In Colombia and South America there is a very well defined gringo trail. If you started on the Caribbean coast and followed the Lonely Planet prescription I bet I could predict where you would be in exactly three weeks and what hostel you might be staying at. With motorcycles the confinement of this trail vanishes. We eat where we want, stop when we want, and if we want to go explore some distant region lush with tropical activities then we don’t have to work out the intricate details of public transportation time tables, we just put gas in the tanks and go.
I’ll trade waiting in some smelly bus station for periodically waiting in some mechanic’s shop for him to replace all the screws on my front brake housing for $5 any day for the freedom of having the road as my own.