This guest post was kindly contributed by Joe Siegel (inmate @SouthAmerAddict). This is Part one of a three-part article about planning and riding South of the Border.
While in the military overseas, cobbling together a Triumph Trophy in the 1970s, and with a Wing in the 1980s, I’d always pondered doing some overseas riding after exiting Uncle Sam. During and after my second career after retiring from the military, I finally got around to it.
For context, my overseas trips not including some riding during my overseas military time in Germany and The Philippines include a mix of guided, self-guided, and solo tours. Most to Latin America, but one to New Zealand and two to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and the Northwest Territories.
So, here are five foreign bike travel methods, and suggestions based on my lessons learned, with the proviso that there are others with far more experience than me undertaking in this type of endeavor:
- Guided tours. The most convenient, and concomitantly the most expensive. You can count on a minimum of $600/day plus additional for a pillion. However, don’t choke, there’s value: A bike, usually gas, a truck with your luggage, a Spanish fluent guide riding point, breakfast and fancy dinner, nice hotels, maintenance, and sometimes required intra-country airfare. (International airfare, lunch, and alcohol extra.). But remember you’re still riding, sometimes in challenging conditions, sometimes off-road, Patagonian winds, etc. Our 2017 Argentina and Chile pillion trip included 3,000 miles with 1200 off-road, some in deep gravel and serious crosswind. It’s possible to find paved only trips, but you’re limiting some great destinations.
- Pros: all of the above, plus new friends to enjoy a beer or three with. You’ll see great places that otherwise you’d miss.
- Cons: a lot of the adventure (at least for me) is removed, and there’s always “ohh..that guy” on every tour. You’ re locked into the plan. You’re also limiting your contact with local.
- Self-guided tours. Like my Costa Rica trip, this involves flying to Country X, met at the airport, taken to a hotel, and the next morning taken to a bike shop. You’re then given an insured bike, trip map, and pre-planned hotel vouchers. Daily routes are planned; food and gas are on you. For any show-stopping mechanicals, they’ll come and take care of it, although you may be holed up for a bit.
- Pros: all of the above and cheaper than guided tours
- Cons: again, some of the adventure is taken out of it, and you’re pretty much locked into their plan, although routes and hotel types are hashed-out beforehand. If you’re not comfortable with handling yourself in a foreign environment, stick with a guided tour
- Fly and rent. (Or buy/sell.) This starts approaching the adventurous side. Fly to Country X, rent an insured bike and off you go.
- Pros: the adventurous aspect of the trip, but again with showstopping breakdowns they’ll handle it or direct you to somewhere that can.
- Cons: you’re on your own. Navigating, accommodations, food, etc. I personally don’t find these a con, but some might.
- Ship and drive. I haven’t done this yet, but if/when enough borders open again after Covid, I’m planning on air freighting my DL650 V-Strom to Valparaiso, Chile then riding back. Probably three months.
- Pros: a true on-your-own adventure and depending on shipping cost, one of the cheaper options. You’ll really get to know the people and culture. Unlikely to happen while traveling with others, as you’re not as approachable, certainly unlikely on guided tours.
- Cons: Accidents, breakdowns, etc. require quick thinking and patience. Some level of Spanish fluency is obviously a huge benefit, but not mandatory.
- Ride round trip. I’ve done this twice. Usually the cheapest option but involves border crossings. Crossings are sometimes simple, often notoriously frustrating. More about this follows.
- Pros/Cons: see para. 4., but you’ll avoid the logistics hassle of shipping your bike.
Here are some issues you’ll need to plan for:
- The language barrier. This question I’m constantly asked. English is fairly ubiquitous in Latin America, but not necessarily in rural areas. Waving your arms and pointing at things are the international sign language for communicating sans fluency. But it won’t get you that far and you’ll get funny looks. Please don’t rely on speaking English slow and loud. You’re just being annoying, reinforcing stereotypes, and setting back goodwill a decade or four. Be a good ambassador.
You’ll find English speakers in the cities. Buying food equals putting stuff on the counter and whipping out credit cards or currency. Hotels can write the price down; have calculator will travel. Getting directions in rural areas without fluency? Problematic. Use your GPS (smart phones are better IMO) and carry paper maps, the more detailed the better. If it comes to an accident or breakdown, try to find an English speaker to get your point across about hiring someone with a truck to take you to a shop. If you have an unfixable flat, tire repair shops are everywhere. Take off the wheel and beg a ride. There are several apps where you can translate with people. The translation quality is something to be desired, but they’ll work for basic stuff. Hotel staff can be extremely helpful. Again, some fluency is a benefit but again not mandatory. Many do RTWs (Round the World) speaking only one language, and no one speaks every transited country’s tongue on an RTW.
As an aside, I started studying Spanish three years ago. I’ve been to the Spanish school Baden-Powell in Morelia, Mexico three times. (Highly recommended! baden-powell.com) I have dual-language video chats with English learners all over Latin America. Not only does it make things easier, but I find the Spanish learning journey rewarding, even though at Medicare age my neural pathways aren’t so flexible. (Argghh.) Being able to communicate, even at a basic to intermediate level, opens up a world of friendships and experiences. One person that I shared Spanish-English learning sessions with took me to a fancy restaurant in Mérida, Mexico with her family for my 65th birthday. Unforgettable. I have standing invites from Mexico to Peru.
- Navigation: By preference: 1. iPhone. 2. Paper maps. 3. GPS. With smart phones, you can plug in hotels, bike dealers, etc., pretty much anything. Garmin in my experience is more limited. There are many apps that work off-line, where no data usage charge or signal required after downloading regional maps. Download region specific maps to your GPS SD card also. Signage is usually pretty good. Before I started studying Spanish I googled “Spanish road signs” and memorized some. One of my favorites in Guatemala is “Jaguar Crossing”.
- Communication. Even in rural areas Wi-Fi is common. Verizon has $5.00/day plans, and SD cards are available with reloadable minutes/data in all countries. Cell coverage is pretty good, although there is a long stretch without it in Baja, California and in mountain ranges like the Sierra Madres or the Andes. It never ceases to amaze me when I’m 30 miles in on a dirt road, watching immaculately dressed school kids using smart phones by their cinderblock houses.
Spot, Garmin, and others have emergency locators with satellite texting. “Honey, everything’s fine.” I’ve made phone calls through my Sena from Guatemala and can video through my doorbell. (A far cry from Ted Simon in the 1970s, let alone Robert Fulton in the 1930s.) An incredible app is iOverlander. It’s crowd sourced and gives information on anything you can think of. Camping, hotels, food, bike shops, cool places, etc. If you’re not willing to dedicate three years like me grinding-out the Spanish subjunctive pluperfect, memorize a few phrases like “do you speak English”, “I don’t speak Spanish”, “where’s the bathroom/ATM”, “please write down the price”, etc. When I was an international airline pilot I carried flash cards for four different languages. But remember, when you spout out a phrase, sometimes locals assume you speak Spanish and will answer in rapid fire. When this happened “in my early days”, I’d drop to a knee and beg for mercy. Haha.
Se dice que solamente vives una vez/It is said that you only live once.
Cheers and ride safe!
Comments criticisms and catcalls welcome
Joe Siegel, Fox Island, WA, USA