Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Adv #7 Continued: Finishing in Colombia

I'm here in Cartagena, Colombia!

Back in February, I arrived in Ushuaia, the southernmost point in South America, and here we are in December looking out over the Caribbean Sea. Having ridden South America now from bottom to top with a bunch of zig-zags in between....the continent has certainly left an impression on me.

My departure from Medellin a couple of weeks ago gave me more opportunities to see this fantastic country of Colombia. There is huge potential for tourism here, I am certain I'll be returning soon (in fact, I have some tourism work & plans lined up with a couple of guys I met here.)

The downside to this last portion of my ride though is that not many pictures turned because of the "La Nina" weather system this year and Colombia being pounded by rain every day. The result while riding is that I don't want to take the camera out in the rain, and when the rain finally stops, the lens fogs up so badly my pictures don't even turn out. Really though, the pictures aren't that important to me. These are images that will be in my mind for a long time to come.

I finished the cargo preparations for my motorcycle, and confirmed my flight; tomorrow I’ll be in Miami. Tomorrow I’ll be in the United States??? That feels very strange to say, having not been there for 2 years now.

(Puppers above, chewing on my turn signal while sniffing for cocaine. I have never, ever seen a more "happily employed" character than these drug-sniffing dogs. They are given a tennis ball with a little cocaine in it to help remind them what they're looking for, and I swear, some of that coke must be seeping through onto their tongues. Below: Anti-narcotics officers want to ride the big KTM, too.)

What's running through my head right now.....

Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing friends and family again. I also wonder if this is going to be "shocking" in any way, returning to my home country after all this time. At the very least, I look forward to blending in a bit better again. Must say, I've had enough of being stared at.

Feels like I've been watching what's going on in the U.S. from the outside, actually catching much of my news from Facebook. Seeing what friends are doing and saying about the issues of the day.

A million little thoughts, some happy and some sad are racing through my mind. For the most part I’m definitely a little choked up just writing this. The past couple of weeks moved very slowly with the ridiculous motorcycle shipping process, so my work on the project has been minimal.

As I walked through Cartagena tonight scouting out my dinner options, I’m thinking a little about “what if I had never lost my job in Atlanta?” Or, “what if I hadn’t bought my motorcycle, and instead just flew to California for my job with Suntrek?” “What if I had never met Peter, and never rode down here to South America?” It’s somewhat silly to even ponder such variables, but in moments like this, it’s unavoidable. “What could or should I have done differently while I was here?” “Instead of just changing my life, could I have done more to help others?” Again, silly to ponder…but….those are the thoughts and impulses that are coming to mind.

One things's for sure though: I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything else in the world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adv #7's thirteenth and final country: Colombia

2 Years Ago Today!

December 1st, 2008 is when I crossed the border from Arizona into Mexico, and I haven't been back in the U.S. since. Just a couple of months before that, I had started what I was calling "Adventure #7" at the top of the west coast in Washington State where my plan was just to ride down the coast to the Mexican border and finish Adventure #7. Well, 2 years and 13 countries later....I'm now in my final country on this trip: Colombia. I'd be lying if I said it didn't choke me up a bit the moment I crossed into this country...

Enough with that, and onto this fabulous country that the world does not know enough about.

It needs to be said that, "our impressions of Colombia need to be updated." Absolutely, this was a dangerous country for many of the past 40 or so years. The citizens of Colombia were as afraid of the FARC as anyone else in the world was, and our impressions of Colombia from movies and media were completely justified. But in 2002, they elected Alvaro Uribe as president, and Colombia has been turned around dramatically ever since then. (Uribe is credited with practically removing all guerillas and FARC from the face of the planet.) While there are rumors about small groups still operating high in the mountains, the only semi-monthly news anyone seems to hear these days about the FARC is that "another one of them was eliminated."

I'm sure I'll write more about Colombia sometime, but for now, let's get to the pictures below:

Above, the Sanctuary Las Lajas, just across the border from Ecuador. What a great first impression of beauty upon entering Colombia! Normally I'd say I've seen enough churches and cathedrals in all my travels, but the setting and design of this one is absolutely worth a visit. Below, just more of what the Pan America highway looks like when entering Colombia. BEAUTIFUL!

I made my way to Cali, and had the chance to meet with Mikkel Thomsen, a Danish guy that's been living and managing his motorcycle renting/touring business there for a few years now. He also does quad/ATV tours as well, and as the photos show, some friends of his had a farm-type property that was available for our riding pleasure. Just a little mud out there, as his cousin Thomas steams his way through some water in the photo below.

There was actually quite a group of riders there, as the guy that invited us was hosting a barbeque, too. - Kids riding quads: Is it possible to see an expression like that and not love life? This little ripper was so happy, buzzing around the farm all day, stopping only when her quad did.

On through the beautiful countryside (and I'm not just saying that.....Colombia is BEAUTIFUL!) I made my way through the area of Armenia to a town called Salento, considered to be at the heart of the coffee-country in Colombia.

A few nights in Salento gave me the chance to meet some other great travelers, go on hikes, and of course tour a couple of working coffee plantations in the area. A place called The Plantation House runs a great 2-hour tour every day that's very informative, and walks us through the working parts of what it takes to grow and prepare coffee. Including all the sampling going on, I saw tourists walking and talking their way around Salento MUCH faster than they normally would. Pretty funny to see everyone so jacked up on caffeine.

My 2nd day there, I joined about a dozen other tourists for a Jeep ride up into the Cocora Valley and a half-day hike. Standing on the back of the Jeep with some now-famous girl from Salento, this was a great chance to get into deep into the rainforest atmosphere.

AGAIN, surprised by the amount of responsibility that South America seems to put on the shoulders of the tourists....WOW was this a rigorous hike! A slippery and deeply mudded path hugged the rivers and waterfalls all the way up through the valley, and most of the time all you had to hang onto was this barbed-wired fence for support. Then when getting more into the jungle, there's no way to swim safely across the rushing river, so the National Park Service put out these nicely gapped and unsteady bridges for us to wobble across.

The Cocora Valley hike finishes with the highlight of seeing the Wax Palms, known as the tallest palm trees in the world. In the rolling hillside leading us back down to Salento, this is a fantastic hike that I highly recommend.

I write this now from Medellin, having spent some time here getting to know folks and enjoying the fantastic and fun district called "El Poblado." If you're looking for nightlife...and don't mind seeing the occasional pretty girl.....Medellin is certainly worth a visit.

Off to Cartegena now : )

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Adv # 7 Continued: Last part of Ecuador

So after Baños, Ecuador I headed down further into the Amazon rainforest through Puyo and Tena, really putting my Klim riding gear to the test for the first time. Riding 4 straight hours in rain, the GoreTex proved itself as I showed up in Tena completely dry inside. (My previous gear I used in Patagonia failed me miserably.)

What a beautiful ride though! Through the valley of the River Pastaza that I had just rafted, and all the beautiful waterfalls and vegetation, absolutely nowhere near what could be considered a major city, traffic, or pollution.

(Above, just like any other day in a random small town in Latin America, there seems to always be a celebration going on. This was in Tena, a small parade with all the costumes and locals. Below, buzzing by on the route to Quito, somebody either didn't do her homework last night, or was so anxious to do her homework, she had to do it there in gutter along side the road : )

Looping back out of the rainforest to Quito, I had the chance to meet a group of motorcycle riders after a meeting I had with KTM-Ecuador's management (they want to start hosting tours of Ecuador, and of course will enjoy my marketing assistance outside of S. America.)

The next day, these riders and I head out of Quito a bit to see some Rally Racing action, and had a great time touring around the beautiful countryside of Ecuador. Much of our conversation was about this topic of motorcycle touring in Ecuador, as there's very little of it being done. Without getting too much into this topic here, let's just say there are ENORMOUS possibilities for running great tours. Having the beach, mountains, jungle, and valleys all concentrated in one country, and so much dirt-riding connecting it all, I predict the touring of Ecuador is about to BOOM.

Finishing my time in Ecuador is tough to do, but Colombia is a large country, and I’ve only got about a month or so before I plan to be back in the U.S. to enjoy the holidays with my family (whom I have not seen for 2 years.) As I headed north out of Ecuador, the obligatory visit is a pass over the equator. That’s right! “Ecuador” of course being on the equator, which runs right through the middle of the country.

Stopping for all the photos, the park ranger actually did a nice job explaining all the history of this location called “Quitsato” and how pre-Incan cultures were actually using the surrounding mountain and volcano peaks to mark the Tropics of Cancer, Capricorn, and solar declinations, etc. This moment, actually stepping across the line represented my first time being in the northern hemisphere in almost 2 years (the last time being on the steamship headed from Panama to Chile, shown in the February 5, 2009 blog post.)

Northern Ecuador becomes even more beautiful than parts I’d previously seen, as the cloud covered mountains carve the pathway to Colombia. Whereas the Pan American highway is generally not a pretty stretch of highway (usually polluted, and littered with too much traffic) this final stretch out of Ecuador is simply beautiful. It was interesting again to see how the faces of the people change, this time evolving from the more typical Inca-Indian appearance to that of Caribbean & African black. Whatever the case, the people have been completely friendly and always inquisitive about where I'm from, and where I'm going.

More news soon….the thirteenth and final country on my trip is ahead….

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Adv #7 Continued: Ecuador!

The site of American cash: I hadn't seen it for almost 2 years now, so pulling these out of the cash machine in Ecuador sure made for a strange feeling! (They use our U.S. Dollars.)

After Peru came Ecuador, yet another great surprise in all my travels. I mean, who knows anything really about Ecuador? As I got closer to the country, I had heard a few things, but nobody did a great job just explaining how beautiful of a country it is. (I'm guessing that's because many folks only ride the Pan American highway in a bus, and don't get to explore other routes. Chalk one up for Julius The KTM and Eric!)

I had the chance to meet the owner of KTM-Ecuador while I was in Cuenca. Great timing for that, because he's interested in starting adventure tours for the public, and needs help of course with the marketing aspect of things (perfect for my project

After a few nights in Cuenca, getting to know the city and doing a few things to my bike, I headed up to the highly talked about town of Baños, just on the eastern side of the Andes on the way down to the Amazon. For an outdoors-lover, Baños is a paradise!

One of the first things I did was rent a mountain bike and head down to check out some of the dozens of waterfalls in the area. Most notably (above) is "El Pailon del Diablo," or "The Devil's Punchbowl," and certainly worth the hike to see!

The next day, I had the pleasure of meeting Ellen and Susan from Holland, both traveling Ecuador and Peru for a few months before getting back into the working world. We met on our half-day canyoning expedition, and had a great time for a couple of days and nights meeting other people along the way. The girls quickly named me the "Inca guy," as for some reason I was given the raincoat with the most local feel. (Plus, I look so Incan.)

Canyoning is basically rappelling down cliff walls, and in this case, through waterfalls using all the necessary ropes and harnesses and such. Below, Ellen is starting to look like a pro already. We rappelled down 6 waterfalls in total, progressively getting longer and longer as we continued. The final drop was around 120 feet, and difficult to photograph of course because of the situation we were in.

Above, our tour guide, Jose preps us for the biggest drop down into the canyon of the day. Below, to finish out the day, the girls and I rented a Jeep to do a little exploring in the San Antonio Forest Reserve, and finished out the days with locals and other travelers we'd meet throughout the day. I also spent a day river rafting on the Pastaza river in some nice class-4 rapids, but of course, the photos in that situation are pretty tough to take, so just take my word for it: It was a great day.

The entire area around Baños should not be missed, as there's limitless hiking, hot-spring bathing, waterfall watching, and even bungy-jumping to do there. I only spent 4 nights there, but could have easily enjoyed 2 more weeks.
More news coming, as I have met some local KTM riders in Ecuador and will share news on that soon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Adv #7 Continued: Done with Peru, and now in Ecuador

Finally here in Ecuador! Just left Máncora, Peru today after 14 great days on the beach...

It’s been about 7 weeks since leaving Santiago, and a great trip so far. Had a few mishaps that led me to delays and searching for new tires and such, but it’s funny how those bumps in the road can lead you to new and interesting people.

Through some of my contacts in my work, I was in touch with Luis Deza in Lima, a fellow KTM rider and extremely generous guy. After helping me track down the right tire (a tire that even motorcycle tour operators in Peru swore was not available) Luis invited me to stay with him and his family in Lima while I spent a few days freshening up my motorcycle. What a great treat that was, staying in an actual “home” for a change, and not to mention his sister Carmen Rosa’s cooking non-stop everyday for us! As good food and hospitality seems to be tradition in the Deza family, I was welcomed and enjoyed a great visit with my new friends, Luis for sure being a guy I'll be in touch with for a long time.

After leaving Lima, I headed up the coast and actually met Luis’s brother, Carlos in Trujillo. Had the chance to visit the beach town of Huanchaco, the Sipan Museum in Chiclayo, and eventually made my way here to Máncora, just about 2 hours before the border with Ecuador.

I’d heard about Máncora from a few friends and random travelers along the way, and figured I’d spend at least 3-4 days here to relax, take some time off of the motorcycle, and just enjoy the sunshine and beach. Those 3-4 days turned into 2 full weeks, as I absolutely loved Máncora!

Not that it’s the most beautiful of beaches, or towns for that matter. But when you combine the weather, location, activities and pricing….it’s a place I just adored. Upon arrival, I learned that a major tourism factor here is the kitesurfing, and that Máncora is considered one of the Top 3 destinations in the world for this growing sport. As kitesurfers search strong steady wind, the right wave situation, and hopefully warm water and nightlife, Máncora is definitely a great combination for a large portion of the year.

The authority on kitesurfing in Máncora is definitely Skip from I was introduced to Skip through Canadian Honeymooner’s Neil and Lindsay whom I met on my first night in Máncora, after which I quickly found myself bouncing through lessons, kitesurfing, and a daily routine that was so much fun!

Along with all the other kite surfers including Mike the Free Swede, Nadia the Swiss Chick, Bill from Australia, Doug “Stingray” from Calgary, Marina and Holt from California, and a handful of other people who circled throughout from day to day, it was so much fun to have a regular crew to run with. We started at about 10am for breakfast, overlooking the beach and early morning surfers. Then around 11am, we’d gather around Skip’s shop on the beach just to take it easy and make some rough plans on where to go for the day. Fresh empanadas and treats are always circling around us as locals make themselves plenty available.

(Above, Neil and Lindsay spending their honeymoon with all the kitesurfers....great! They've kitesurfed Vietnam, Venezuela, Brazil, and quite a few other places around the world.)

Usually by around 12 noon, the decision is made if we were going to stay right here in Máncora, or head down the coast a bit where the wind might be a bit stronger. If traveling was necessary, we’d pack up the 4x4 van, crank up some Warren Zevon, Rolling Stones, or Led Zepelin, and head down the coast to pick the spot for the day (usually a small beach called Los Organos.)

And the kite surfing begins! A steady 25mph wind seemed to be offered every day, as arid inland areas heat up and suck in the cold air off the ocean. From about 12:30 to 4:00 every day, it’s a smooth pulling wind just perfect for learning this sport. The experienced riders were twirling around in the air, and the rest of us just tried to perfect the part on the water. The whole time, Skip walks up and down the beach giving lessons with his beach dog, Rubina always by his side.
(Mike, El Sueco Libre above, and Nadia the Swiss Chick below. Everyone developed a simple nickname pretty quickly.)

(Above, one of Skip's instructors, Alexei shows off above, and there I am below!)

(Doug, above we easily named "Stingray" because he stepped on one and got stung the first day. Below, Skip works the barbeque situation at the end of the day. What a great time we had!)

I would have gladly spent another few months (seriously) there in Máncora, but my plans are still to be in the U.S. for the holidays, so it’s time to move on. Here in Machala, Ecuador, heading further north tomorrow, I’ll try to post news more often.