California to Patagonia
How do you summarise a trip on a motorcycle spanning seven months, thirteen countries and over 22,000km?
As an engineer my thought process takes me down a numerical rabbit-hole. My weapon of choice, a 2001 Honda XR400. With my calculated fuel efficiency for the trip (50mpg), that’s over 1,000 litres of fuel burnt, approximately 45 full tanks, about 14 oil changes, 6 new tyres and more punctures than I have the heart to recall.
In an age of algorithms numbers may be king, but I’m not naive enough to think this will interest anybody. One number which may prove more palatable: 40 - the rolls of film I brought along for the ride, at 36 exposures each that’s 1,440 photographs.
Cormac McCarthy once said “There is no such joy in the tavern as upon the road thereto”.
Here are a small selection of photos I took before reaching the tavern.
A local San Felipe kid with his puppy. The historic district of Panama City was my base for about a week whilst I organised shipping papers and a 40ft container for my motorbike. A section of untamed mountainous jungle and undeveloped swampland separates Panama and Colombia. Although it has been done a handful of times, crossing the gap is considered virtually impossible. Even amongst locals it has a dangerous reputation, known to be rife with paramilitary groups. I opted for a safer passage aboard a container vessel which sailed from the Caribbean coast to Cartagena. Exploring the ‘San Felipe’ district, meeting the local kids and getting involved in some games of street football was a perfect antidote to the mountains of paperwork. Casco Viejo, Panama City.
Sam performing a spot of roadside maintenance in the hot and humid region of Chiapas, Mexico.
A modern petrol station, a rare luxury and a welcome break whilst on the ride from Nata de los Caballeros after a miserable night attempting to sleep on the beach, Panama.
A pair of peaceful protestors, a stark contrast to the heavily armed pro-government groups we saw patrolling the streets amidst social security reforms. Political disarray in León, Nicaragua.
Packing the bike for the day’s ride ahead, a morning ritual. Central Peruvian Andes.
An introduction to the utter carnage of a Columbian bullfight. A rare moment of stillness in the baptism of fire. Tolú Viejo, Columbia.
High altitude encounters climbing Yanapaccha. You may think you are tough but then you meet a couple girls from Bordeaux riding the same route as you under their own steam. Parque Nacional Huascarán, Peru.
Makeshift first-aid for a cut that would not stop bleeding whilst riding at 16,500ft altitude on the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes. It turns out that altitude sickness is not exclusive to the human body. On these mountain climbs my carburettor splutters and struggles as the fuel/air mixture becomes too rich. Parque Nacional Huascarán, Peru.
Cleaning the bikes after a challenging day of riding salt flats from San Ignacio to reach the Pacific coast. Not the easiest of terrains at the best of times but following a recent rainstorm the desert became a dessert, comparable to having to navigate a giant crème brûlée. A hardened crust of sun dried salt cracks under the weight of the bike. You’ve just got to keep your speed and hold your line to avoid sinking the whole thing into a rich custard base. San Juanico, Baja Mexico.
Jonathan and a stash of hammock beers, a favourite form of hydration after a long day of riding in the sun. Camping in mainland Mexico possessed a certain mystique which I did not experience anywhere else on the road. On this night we were treated to a concerto of dog howls, crickets and gunshots. Not your typical lullaby but certainly one I will not forget. Chila, Mexico.
Lacing my rear wheel and putting an end to my central American hub debacle. Unforgiving roads and the relentless pace of the trip down through central America flogged our bikes. I was having issues with my rear hub – ‘la manzana’ early on and by the time we reached Nicaragua I ended up pulverising the whole bearing system completely. Some spare parts are extremely hard to come by. Luckily for me Jonathan had some contacts in the Ecuadorian/USA tuna fishing industry. After several calls we managed to get a replacement shipped from California, via New York to the Pacific coast – no mean logistical feat, when you consider the chaos and havoc involved with central American postal services. Manta, Ecuador.
South America – where tyres go to die. At times on the trip we were averaging almost two punctures a week. It would be safe to say that we quickly became seasoned puncture repair veterans.
Baja California, before we learned to lighten the load. One of the best pieces of advice I can give for anyone planning a motorbike trip is to go light. I’ve got a soft spot for Baja: learnt plenty of lessons on that 1,200km stretch; its where the stabilisers came off and the adventure really started.
Encounters whilst on the road come in all shapes and sizes. I definitely gained a feeling of real kinship with those on horseback during my travels. Neiva to Guayabal, summer in the Cordillera de los Picachos, Colombia.
Road checks at a military outpost in the Columbian mountains. Threats of kidnappings at this time were no longer too high in this province. Regardless of this fact these Columbians sure were surprised to see me – ‘a gringo’. I stayed for coffee and a soldier gave me a rundown on the trail ahead; local knowledge of road conditions and areas to avoid where guerrilla activity is still present.
Film may not be dead but I have a real nack for killing cameras and this trip was no exception. A combination of bad weather and rough riding took out my Pentax whilst in the Peruvian Andes: a camera I had once considered to be indestructible. I tried with little success to save this roll, and although the shot shown is aesthetically poor I deemed it worthy of this WT collection. Not all roads are created equal and this climb in the Cordillera Blanca is a stairway to heaven, one of the most beautiful mountain ranges I have ever spent time in.
Armed to the teeth. Packing light is preferable but when the climate is so changeable extra gear is a necessary burden. Central Chile where you can be freezing your fingers off in the early morning and sweating under the beating sun by lunchtime. Getting the XR some new shoes in Los Ríos region, Chile.
7am, dusty road - I’m gonna ride until it burns my bones. On the edge of the Atacama Desert, 2 hours out from the northern Chile border. My plan had been to leave Peru and cross into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca but following some complications with my passport, getting a visa was going to be an issue. My best option was to head down to the Pacific coast and cross into Chile. Los Palos, Peru.
An empty canvas - drawing lines in the sand on, what felt at the time like, an endless stretch of barren Peruvian coast. I spent days riding south along the Pacific coast through this never changing desolate scenery. A couple of hundred km north of Lima, Peru.
Life can be pretty simple if you want it to be. Another day’s ride, another night spent under the stars. Aysén Region, Chile.
A bizarre afternoon crossing one of the driest places on the planet. Sculptures in the sand, a mirage I certainly did not expect to encounter whilst in the desert. Presencias Tutelares, Atacama Desert, Chile.
Riding my engine rich and loosing power in the thin air of Parque Nacional Cajas. Last light in Ecuador.
In the south, distances between towns start to become a real challenge. You can run out of fresh water and without planning you can easily run out of fuel. If you are having a real good day, sometimes you can run out of both. After months on the road you learn to take situations like this in your stride. South of Huacho, Peru.
The vast, relatively unexplored and unpopulated coastline of the South Pacific. Riding south, a painful exercise of seeing endless point breaks with no means to surf them. South of Huacho, Peru.
A Patagonian guanaco in southern Argentina. A camelid native to the south, these guys were everywhere on the last leg of my journey. I was amazed by the surprisingly high number that get stuck on fences which run parallel to the road for hundreds of km. National Route 40, RN40, Argentina.
A selfie of sorts - as the sun sets in the south of Argentina the plains become flooded with a beautiful golden glow. Don’t be fooled, the warm tones paint a very deceptive picture: temperatures here were around zero. Santa Cruz province, Argentina.
Riding through an expanse of empty red plains south-east of the Atacama. A pretty challenging day involving blood, sweat and lots red dirt. Regressing to my childhood self and channelling my best inner ‘biker mice from mars’. Antofagasta Region, Chile.
As I progressed south and my trip drew to a close I entered a two man race I had not foreseen, up against an unrelenting opposition - Winter. Originally the plan had been to arrive in Patagonia for mid-summer; that schedule had been flung out of the window pretty early on, and by autumn I was still weeks away. Conditions got gradually harsher in the final weeks as I closed in on the finish line. Mechanical issues became a daily occurrence as my bike threatened to give in, something which my numb Raynaud-ridden fingers struggled increasingly to resolve. The road to El Chalten and Fitz Roy, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina.
Fitz Roy Mountain, located on the southern Patagonian ice fields. Climate in these latitudes is well known for its strong and unpredictable nature. I arrived in El Chalten just as a storm hit, forcing me to stay for a few days. Making good use of the down time I gave my XR some much needed TLC. On the morning of my departure I hiked up into Laguna de Los Tres, a perfect vantage point to capture a shot of the famous mountain range. Fitz Roy Mountain, El Chalten, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Patagonia, where my hands required 15-20mins of defrosting after each ride. Howling winds and gusts that will knock you off the road are notorious in this area. The wind and cold were inevitable companions at the end, and although my body suffered it was a worthy compromise for the sights I encountered along the way. Patagonia’s southern Ice Field, Argentina.
You can follow Manu’s future travels via his Instagram here.