Panama and back on a 250 Super Sherpa Minimalist Adventure

Discussion in 'Epic Rides' started by JDowns, Apr 5, 2010.

  1. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    So riding down the coast Rte 200 south from Puerto Vallarta to Playa Azul is my favorite road so far. Nothing but cranking and banking up around the cliffs and down into the river valleys. Really a nice day of riding. It is warm and sunny and I am in the riding zone. Sort of a zenlike keen awareness that you find yourself absorbed into while riding in a foreign country. Where you don’t know what is around the next hairpin. Like this broken down dumptruck:

    [​IMG]

    that was hiding around a blind curve with no announcement. I wasn't blazing, so had time to stand up the bike and slam on the brakes to avoid him. But it pays to expect the unexpected around every corner. Riding the center line leaned over into a blind left is a dangerous place to be. Too many wide swinging buses and trucks. Don't say I didn't warn you. I remember swearing at the top of my lungs at least once a day until I got used to trucks passing buses coming straight at me when there was a shoulder to ride on. They flash their lights to warn you off the road onto the shoulder as they whoosh by missing you by a foot or so. And it doesn't happen often. But it sure gets your attention.

    I would also slow down when I saw one of these shrines at the apex of a hairpin:

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    The more shrines, the nastier the decreasing radius hairpin.

    It was getting late and I stopped at Playa Azul for the night. Kind of a cheesy beach town, but I was tired.

    The next morning the owner of the guest house let me use his kitchen. I usually eat out of grocery stores and roadside stands to save money. So I went down to the store for some abarotes (groceries). I pointed to some eggs and a hamlike thing and some bananas and yogurt and headed back to the guesthouse. Mind you, I'm no culinary genius, but I can do scrambled eggs and ham. I eat to ride. And usually don't work up much of an appetite when all I'm doing all day is cranking my right wrist and squeezing my left. There are plenty of roadside fruit stands that will fix you up with fresh pineapples, mangos, bananas, coconut juice fresh out of the coconut. And the roadside taco stands where you can see the food being cooked and the locals are hanging out are always good for some tacos or frijoles. And the 24 hour OXXO (pronounced osso) convenience stores that are popping up next to all the new Pemex gas stations have do it yourself hot dogs with jalapenos, onions and relish in fresh containers along with a hot drawer with steaming buns. So I would pop in for a coke and a dog if I was hungry. I think they were 10 pesos, so like 90 cents. So you won't starve riding in Mexico. Plenty of good stuff to eat.

    Anyway, I left Playa Azul and somehow took the wrong turn and headed up into the mountains on a GREAT road. After 30 miles or so a road sign said Rte 37. WHAT? I thought I was on 200. But this road was KILLER. Nothing but hairpins and freshly paved as it wound up into the pine forests. No way I was turning back. The hell with the coast road. This was now my favorite road in Mexico.

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    Check out that pavement. I can almost smell the pine trees and the fresh cool mountain air. That road went on for 100 miles or so up to Nuevo Italia (New Italy). Very little traffic, like a racetrack. It was heaven. The houses even had red tile roofs. I could have been in Europe. So I stop in Nuevo Italia in the shade next to some guys relaxing and watching the world go by and ask them where the camino con curvas peligrosos was. (Road with dangerous curves). And they point to the right. So I head that way. And boy, it was another great road.

    So I'm tootling along cruising in the mountains and all of the sudden a high school kid in his school uniform wearing a backpack full of books blazes past
    me on a Honda Cargo 125. Man that kid could ride! It was all I could do to catch up and pass him and the dump truck he was stuck behind. So I thought that was the end of it as I was cruising through the hairpins. I was feeling like a real ADVstud having blown by a high school kid on a 125. BUT NO! A few miles later the little booger catches up and passes me again. And this time he is racing and pulling away in the corners. I caught up in the straights, since his top speed was a little over 60, and followed along until he tooted his horn and waved as he turned off at the rancho where he lived. What a fun little ride! I didn't realize what a capable bike the 125 Honda was. I think I want one.

    I later stopped to take a picture of one:

    [​IMG]

    These kids can ride. And the flames are no joke. I got burned by one.

    more later....
    #21
  2. TwistySV650

    TwistySV650 Adventurer

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    First off, great report, keep it coming.

    The picture is a cop/soldier looking in a suitcase.
    #22
  3. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    Riding a 250 on the back mountain roads of Mexico is SO MUCH FUN! There is just nothing like riding a slow bike fast. I would be concentrating on the task at hand and all of the sudden notice that I had a stupid grin on my face. Mexico has some GREAT riding. Especially riding a naked Sherpa, you feel like you're going 80 until you look down at the speedometer and realize you're going the speed limit. I passed through the big town of Morelia as the sun was getting low and hit another wonderful winding road. I think it was Mex 15 libre heading to Zitacuaro. It was continuous curves riding a mountain ridge with views out to Cathedrals across the valley:

    [​IMG]

    I never stopped at the tourist sites. I'm leaving the museums, cathedrals, historical ruins and sitting in the plaza watching the beautiful latina women walk by for when I get too old to ride. Right now I was looking for the killer backroads. I was having too much fun riding. I really had no idea where I was alot of the time. And I didn't really care. I just kept riding until it got dark and pulled over for some rack time.
    #23
  4. enceladus

    enceladus I want off this rock

    Joined:
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    That is a sign meaning that there is a immigration checkpoint ahead. I live in Mazatlan so if you pass thru going north drop me a message and we can get together for a drink. That road you were on with all the curves is the Durango highway. It makes the Tail of the Dragon in east Tennessee look like a Kansas interstate, and changes altitude from 10,000 Ft down to sea level.
    I am origionally from Tennessee but I live here in Mexico now so I should know.

    Good Luck
    Ron
    #24
  5. petefromberkeley

    petefromberkeley -

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    This looks like a real nice ride
    #25
  6. Lobster Grrl

    Lobster Grrl Ground feeder

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    That picture of the desert in bloom is very pretty. I've always wanted to see that, and snow in the desert.


    Ride on :ricky

    lg
    #26
  7. shadman

    shadman Been here awhile

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    Great report, I especially like the images of a changing country, one we'll all be missing in 20 years. Did you ever let off the throttle long enough to take in some of the culture or slow pace of old Mexico?
    #27
  8. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    Hi Shadman,

    I confess, at this point after being cooped up all winter in the northern plains with howling sub-zero winds I was just so glad to be somewhere warm. So I found myself riding my brains out for the first few days. I understood the concept of slowing down and enjoying the more casual Latin pace of life and drinking in the rich culture of the area. I just wasn't there yet.

    Kindest regards,
    John Downs
    #28
  9. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    I LOVE Mexico. The people are friendly and helpful. The young people are respectful of elders. Which is good for me. So many people tell you horror stories they've read in the newspapers. It just wasn't my experience.

    The mountains are cold in the winter until things warm up. I wait until late morning to head out into the countryside. It is another beautiful day.

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    It dropped down into the 40s last night and there was no heat where I stayed and one thin blanket, so was glad to have brought a summer down bag. I don't use it often, but it came in handy. I have it in a compression bag and it is the size of a large grapefruit when compressed. I keep it in the bottom of my duffel bag with my warm clothes in case I need to crash on the side of the road, or the bike breaks down somewhere cold. I'm glad I brought it along.

    Mexico is HUGE. It doesn't look that big on the map. But riding to Guatemala down the pacific side is like riding from LA to New York. I can't believe there are snow covered volcanoes off in the distance.

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    It got more arid as I rode south into the state of Puebla. And the roads straightened out as I headed toward Oaxaca.

    I remember whipping around a corner and narrowly missing making roadkill of a two foot long giant bluegeen iguana as he was waddling across the road wagging back and forth. Boy, that got my attention! Also, was getting ready to pass a truck, when he ran over the tippy tail of a six foot long green snake, and the lugs of his tire flipped the coiling flailing mass backwards narrowly missing me to the left. Now that's not something you see every day.

    I met a nice young man while I was stopped taking a picture. He was on his bicycle and had come from Prudhoe Bay Alaska, and was heading to Tierra del Fuego.

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    He was living on a couple hundred pesos a day. Talk about minimalist! And I thought I was traveling on the cheap. By the way, I put 600 pesos in my riding pants each day and had over 100 pesos left over. A peso is currently worth eight cents. But with border crossings and such I ended up spending more like 50 bucks a day. But I am poor and traveling low frills and staying off the toll highways. Anybody who says they can travel on a moto for less than that in Mexico is probably remembering a trip from ten years ago when prices were half what they are today or they are rough camping.
    #29
  10. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    When you pass from the state of Puebla into the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, the pavement changes from smooth to rough. It is more like Mexico used to be. And the topes (speedbumps) become HUGE. I tried to take a pic, but there isn't enough contrast. Topes come in all sizes, but I remember they seemed to be getting bigger. And you will go over literally thousands of them by the time you ride the length of the country. On a dirt bike this is no problem, since you can stand on the pegs and compress the forks and release as you hit them. Everybody else comes to a stop, so I found myself often swinging out to the left and passing the big trucks if there was no oncoming traffic and taking them at speed. Down, up, down. I got into the rhythm of the topes. I do remember hitting an unmarked one that I missed seeing at speed and going airborn. That got my attention.

    Rte 190 libre winds down through the canyons after leaving the city of Oaxaca. It is a great road. Some potholes and cracked pavement so you have to pay attention. It drops down, down, down. To the flat plain that is called the Ithsmus of Tehuantepec. If you look on a map it is a fifty mile wide flat plain that is at the narrowest point in southern Mexico. It is a gap that is formed between the southern and northern mountains. And the wind howls through here from the Gulf of Mexico straight through to the Pacific Ocean.

    And I mean HOWLS. I have been down here before on a big bike and it was a handful. But this evening as the sun is setting it is gale force gusting winds like I have never ridden in. AND I'M ON A 250! It is blowing so hard this evening that the telephone lines are whipping up and down like jump ropes. The metal road signs are wagging back and forth. I literally can't keep a straight line. I just slow down and favor the right side of the road. It was pretty exciting. I saw some long distance cyclists with their bikes laying next to the road. They were huddled down in the ditch taking a break. I bet they were thinking this pedaling to Tierra del Fuego thing wasn't such a great idea.
    So I pull off onto the shoulder to decide if I should backtrack and hole up in a motel in Juchitan. I can't get off the bike. In fact the gusts are so strong I can barely hold up the bike. And I have stopped over a culvert that is about three feet in diameter. And the wind is making a low pitched howling sound as it whistles through the culvert. It is like something out of Dante's Inferno. It's WILD!

    So I decide to press on. No guts, no glory. I see an overpass in the distance so I wobble down and find a place out of the wind where I can think. The large cement girders holding the overpass up are catching the wind and making an eerie low pitched howling hum. It reminds me of the sound from the monolith in 2001: A Space Oddysey. Only louder. I would have to yell if there were anyone around to talk to. But I am alone. I find myself in an otherworldly place. I know it's only another hour of this before the road heads behind the protection of the southern mountains and it will be a distant memory...
    #30
  11. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    So I press onward. I soon am following a semi truck that is creeping along at 40 mph. His trailer is literally leaning at a 5 degree angle from the wind. I can’t safely pass without running the risk of being blown into him. And there is no relief from the sidewind gusts riding in his wake. So I slow down and follow along, trying to keep a straight line. Which is impossible. But with slight steering corrections, I can keep six inches left or right of a straight line as I continue down the road. And soon the wind abates as the road passes into the lee of the southern mountains. It is a memory, as the wind slowly fades and the road turns into a 4 lane freeway heading south to Guatemala. But I have made it through La Ventosa (the windy place) on a 250, and it was a thrill ride! It is getting dark now, as the road passes through a small town and suddenly, whap, whap, whap. I pull over into a Pemex gas station and look at the rear tire and find the rear tire has picked up a huge nail that was hitting my swingarm. So I pull it out, and pfffffft, the tire starts deflating. But the nice guys at the service station air me up and point me down the road a couple clicks to a motel. What a break. A nice place to stay for 200 pesos (16.00) with wifi, cable TV and a brightly lit parking lot where I can change out the rear tube. There is a platoon of federales staying there for the night. They have armed guards with machine guns posted to watch their trucks overnight, and are really nice as they watch me pop off the rear wheel and air up the new tube with my battery powered air pump with enough air to ride back down to the Pemex station and fully inflate the new tube. It was a lucky break to get a flat in one of the few places with a 24 hour gas station out in this sparsely populated area of Mexico.
    The next morning all of the Federales are gone except one truck. It is a 2009 Ford F150 in Federale dark navy.

    [​IMG]

    And only one guy is left to guard the truck. He lets me check out his machine gun. It is called a Panther. Never heard of it. But he says it is muy fuerte (very strong).

    [​IMG]
    #31
  12. TaZ9

    TaZ9 Happy Adventurer

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    John,

    I can relate to comments about your riding in strong winds. A buddy and I were out riding in the Moab area last week and the winds had to be 20-30 mph steadily for 2 full days and gusting up to 40 or so. It made riding miserable, but we were there and did the best we could. I can handle snow, rain and cold, but I hate riding in the wind!

    Just curious what your load looked like on the sherpa. You have posted some partial views of you SS, but would appreciate a shot showing how things were loaded up.

    I will be picking up a low milage Sherpa this weekend and can't wait to test it's dual sport abilities. I have a fullly set up DR650 and a XR250L and am curious how the Sherpa will fit in with, and maybe replace one or both of my other bikes.

    Great report and photos...keep it coming and ride safe!

    Taz
    #32
  13. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    Hi TaZ9,

    Everything is black on my bike, so hard to photograph.

    [​IMG]

    I replaced the Sherpa peanut tank with a 4 gal. XR650L gas tank. And use some Cortex soft bags that frankly don't hold much. So I carry my lightweight clothes, down bag and tarp tent in a small black drybag on the stock rear rack which came with the bike. But with the black sheepskin seat cover I zip tied to the stock Sherpa seat, it is hard to make out what is what in my photos

    I have an XR250L as well, and it is sitting in the garage. But I love that bike so haven't sold it yet. In fact I have a garage full of bikes back in Oregon that I really should sell. However, the old BMW R80ST has taken me 120,000 miles from Alaska down to Guatemala and all places in between, so have a hard time parting with it.

    When I moved to Nebraska a couple years ago I only took one bike. It's the one I ride all the time. SUPER SHERPA, FTW!

    BUT I'm biased. And poor. And a little nuts. So probably not the best person to ask. It does everything I ask of it and after 20,000 miles has required nothing from me other than routine maintenance. Later on in the story you'll learn just what an amazing little bike the Sherpa is.

    Kindest regards,
    John Downs
    #33
  14. PartyOfOne

    PartyOfOne Adventurer

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    Love your RR...I really appreciate to little details in them...keep them coming...:clap
    #34
  15. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    The coast road straightens out in southern Mexico. I haven’t been down here since 2006 right after a hurricane ravaged the area and washed out many of the bridges. I can’t believe the changes. It is now a 4 lane freeway that runs inland and bypasses the towns. Kind of boring, and I should have headed into the mountains to the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, but I figured I’d head that way on the way home.
    Nothing much opens before 9 in the morning or so. I would usually ride for a while and stop for breakfast on the side of the road in the later morning. It was another beautiful day as I turned off the freeway and stopped at a small comedor (cafe) for a big plate of Huevos Mexicanos (scrambled eggs, onions, cilantro and tomatoes), frijoles (beans) and tortillas harina (whole wheat tortillas). The shy waitress hid behind a brick column when I got my camera out, but I snapped a pic when she peeked to see what I was doing.

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    The two local guys chowing down were riding these China bikes.

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    They looked like they were heading out into the fields to work as they kick-started their little bikes and rode off.

    I almost missed the turn up into the mountains at Huixtla since the PanAm is a freeway now and bypasses the town. The last time I came through the border crossing at Tapachula down in the hot coastal plain, I decided never again. That busy crossing on the Panam Hwy is a zoo. It is much cooler and more relaxed crossing at La Mesilla up in the mountains. The road used to be 211, but has been renamed 220. It is a great road. Winding up and up into the milder mountain air. I stopped to check my map and the owner of a roadside food stall came out and started talking Kawasaki. He had just bought a used Ninja and had to show me his new bike. So he opened up his garage next door and showed off his new bike. Of course he had to show me his phone video of his friends canyon carving on this great road I was on. His phone had a cracked screen, but the two thirds of the screen that was working looked like they were having fun. He insisted on fixing me a steak, and cranked up the stereo with some sixties rock.

    Here is my new Ninja buddy sweating over a hot grill cooking me up a steak in his dingy kitchen. The picture doesn't show him dancing a little salsa to the cranking beat of the Stones song Start Me Up. You'll have to fill that in with your imagination.

    [​IMG]

    So I find myself relaxing on the terrace, listening to the Stones and CCR while eating a steak. Who would have thought?

    I don't exit Mexico since my permits are good for six months. This is not exactly kosher, so I don't recommend it. It's just what I do. The crossing into Guatemala is easy. I am the only one there and am in and out in short order. It is the weekend, so I change a 100 dollars to tide me over until the banks open. It costs 8 dollars to enter Guatemala with the bike and the exchange rate is 7.5 Quetzals to the dollar. It is 7.85 Quetzals to the dollar at the bank so I pay a 35 Quetzal penalty for changing money at the border. The convenience is worth it to me.

    The road goes through a crack in the mountains formed by a river. You ride up a canyon with waterfalls and steep cliffs on either side.

    [​IMG]

    It is hazy as the road winds up into the mountains and drops down into valleys.

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    You definitely aren't in Mexico anymore. The terrain is somehow more rugged and soon you encounter the colorful Guatemalan buses.

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    They are diesel belching converted schoolbuses with awesome paint jobs and detailing. Here is a close-up of a grill.

    [​IMG]

    And these guys fly when they're going downhill, and are always in a hurry. I followed a cool Esmerelda Line bus for a while. It had color shifting green paint and chrome with a yellow tweety bird painted on the back end. The ticket taker stands in the doorway and when a passenger needed to get off he would boost a little kid out the door and up onto the roof WHILE THE BUS WAS CRANKING AROUND THE HAIRPINS! My jaw dropped as the little kid hustled up and untied some bags on the roof rack that he tossed down to the ticket taker as they pulled over and let the passenger off as I rode by.
    #35
  16. Klay

    Klay dreaming adventurer

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    :lurk
    #36
  17. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    There is a beautiful mountain sunset as I pass by Huehuetenango. But as usual, the color is gone by the time I find a place to pull over and get out my camera. This would be a recurring scene. The further south you travel towards the equator, the quicker the sunsets are. You have about one minute to catch a good tropical sunset. There is barely a half hour from the time the sun sets until it is dark. And dark it gets as I continue down the road. And then an amazing thing happens. There is a brand new road. It is four lanes wide and freshly paved. HOLY COW! This is all new. The road is nothing but horseshoe bends winding through the mountains. There are reflectors on all the lanes and brand new striped lines. It lights up like an airport runway in the cool dusk air. I finally reach the turnoff to Lake Atitlan and drop down the super steep road to Panajachel. This place has grown from a sleepy lakeside hip hangout into a real touristy place. With discos and lots of Euro and American kids. So I find a room at the El Centro Hotel for ten bucks and call it a day.

    I have traveled 3000 miles, so in the morning I go next door to the Texaco station and buy some Havoline Supreme 20W50. Two quarts costs 65 Quetzals, so about 4.50/quart. Not my first choice, but any kind of oil that you’ve heard of is hard to find down here. And good motorcycle oil is unheard of outside the big cities. So I drain the Sherpa into a couple empty water bottles and change the filter with one I brought. It only uses a quart and a half with filter change. And the Super Sherpa uses the same oil filter as the Honda XR250, so easy to find more down here. The town is quiet in the early morning hours after a hard night of partying. And Lago Atitlan is beautiful in the crisp morning air. But this place is too touristy for my taste.

    Now I wasn’t planning on going any farther than Guatemala to go to the dentist. But the weather is gorgeous, and my money is going farther than it does with a bigger less fuel efficient bike. So I think to myself, why not head south a ways and come back to Guatemala to get your teeth looked at later? Anything to put off going to El Dentista. And at my age, who knows what the future holds. So I think, why not explore some countries you’ve never been to.

    This starts sounding like an excellent idea. The bike is running like a dream. The Sherpa is easy on tires. I might need a new rear before I get home. But so what? There are plenty of small bike tires down here. Hmmmmm.
    Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. So I fire up the bike and head out of town towards Guatemala City.
    #37
  18. badguy

    badguy Susan

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    :super Great writeup...can't wait to read more :thumb
    #38
  19. JDowns

    JDowns Sounds good, let's go!

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    It is another beautiful day of riding in Guatemala. Winding down the mountain. Blue sky with puffy white clouds drifting by the Volcanoes in the distance. I LOVE riding the mountain roads in Guatemala. It has changed so much in the last four years since I was down here.

    I reach the outskirts of Guatemala City. It is HUGE. I have no idea where I am going and get off the main drag and am having a total blast. I pull over to take some pictures of bikes. Sitting on the curb I catch a shot of this delivery bike.

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    And a guy on a China bike

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    My camera has a one second delay, so catching these guys in frame is next to impossible. This is a picture of a typical pizza delivery bike.

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    You can't believe how fast these guys ride a 100cc bike in rush hour traffic. They are a delight to follow. Slicing through traffic. Splitting lanes. Riding where the cars aren't. Squeezing between the stopped cars and buses and scooting up to the front of traffic at the lights. And pinning the throttle the minute the light turns green. It is SO MUCH FUN riding through Central American capitols on a skinny little thumper.

    Of course I have no idea where I'm going. And it is rush hour. I see this cool Honda in a window and stop to take a pic.

    [​IMG]

    It is a sweepstakes prize in the Claro cell phone store. Boy, would that 125 be a blast to ride across town today.

    Eventually I pull over and ask directions at a tienda (shop). A nice man is buying his daughter a coke and takes the time to give me excellent directions out of town. People speak so quickly, and my brain is slow, but by now I can catch the gist of what they are saying. Quadras means blocks. Izquierda means left. Derecho means right. And when they twirl their hand in the air it means roundabout. And directo means straight.

    So I take an Izquierda after 4 quadras and a derecho to the roundabout and soon I'm heading off directo into the quiet countryside of southern Guatemala.
    #39
  20. RamblinKevin

    RamblinKevin Adventurer

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    Man, this ride report started off great, and just gets better every day!

    I've been to Mexico, and I've owned a 200, but I've never come close to doing what you have done! You go man!
    Thanks for sharing! :clap
    #40