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.
- Breakdowns, accidents, traffic: Fortunately, the first two haven’t occurred. If something unfixable happens, you’ll have to find transportation to the closest repair facility. Someone with a truck or trailer usually will accept cash, or with Mexpro Insurance e.g. you can call for a truck. Most major cities have BMW and Japanese bike shops. Most bikes are <= 250cc, but a shop should be able to call the Brand X rep., order parts, use diagnostic tools, etc. They don’t have all our resources, but because of this they’ve developed very impressive skills repairing stuff we would just replace. Especially at roadside “tallers”/workshops.
Accidents, well hopefully help will arrive, call an ambulance for you if necessary and get you to a hospital. Many ADVers carry emergency locators. Press the button, and a stateside organization coordinates with local authorities. Also, Mexico has an organization called the Green Angels that assist motorists. Bring a list of bike dealers, “por si acaso”/just in case.
The big cities are street jungles. The only rule is that there aren’t many rules. Traffic can be horrendous. Bike lanes split and ride on the shoulders. Never lose focus, keep your head up, and expect the unexpected. I mount my GPS on the dash, so I don’t have to look down. Sometimes things seem out of control, but there’s a method to the madness once you start analyzing the patterns. Remember that motorists down there aren’t used to being around large powerful bikes, so won’t expect your acceleration and high-speed capabilities.
Consumables and Preparation: Tires, oil and maintenance. Do a look-see over your bike every night. Once I changed oil at a V-Strom forum member’s house in Baja. Another time I threw a few pesos at a garage to use their space. You could probably do it behind an auto parts store (Autozones are ubiquitous in Mexico) and see if they’ll take the oil for you.
I go over Ms. Señorita V-Strom intensively before departure. Drill your skid plate to access the oil drain. Start with fresh chain/sprockets (or 90W), tires, oil/filter, brake fluid, brake pads, spark plugs, TPMS batteries, fork oil, and coolant. Check wheel bearings, spokes, calipers, steering head, and fork seals. I use Shoksox to protect seals. Squirt contact cleaner and a tiny dab of dielectric grease on as many electrical connectors as you can. Run a couple tanks of injector cleaner. Change your fuel filter if it’s been a while. Do your owner’s manual maintenance like valve adjustments.
Carry a portable fuel filter to use at gas stations. Check all possible fasteners and mark them with paint to detect slippage. Insure all the Velcro, zippers, etc. are in working order on your gear and carry a zipper repair kit and extra bootstraps. Bring quick dry washable underwear and T-shirts, and zip-leg cargo pants. I carry one set of summer gloves and use rain overgloves for additional warmth.
Regarding farkles, at a minimum I’d recommend crash bars, extra lighting, grip heaters (yes, I got snowed on in the Sierra Madres), tire pressure monitors, Barkbusters and/or folding levers, folding gear/brake pedals, phone holder, good windscreen, 1-gallon Rotopax (I rode straight into the 2019 Mexican gas crisis), and a 2×2 to prop up the front wheel. Despite the extra weight I’m a believer in center stands for wheel removal, and I use an auto chain luber. Farkling is a personal issue and arguments always abound about functionality vs. weight. But remember weight like a center stand is carried low, and different than weight carried high like your kitchen sink camping supplement. My lithium battery with restart capability negates cables or a battery brick and saves six pounds. My slip-on saves nine pounds. My non-sideplate mounting strap-system panniers save eight pounds.
Speaking of tires. There are more opinions about this (standing by for incoming) than Gringos in Cancun. ADV tires – 50/50s, etc. – outperform in sand, deep gravel, and mud. However, I’ve gone this route and they wear out far faster than street tires. Many riders ship to planned stopover locations. I shipped tires to Whitehorse, Yukon for my last Arctic Ocean trip. Shipping internationally is possible, but the logistics are more complex. BMW dealers might have your size tires on the rack.
My philosophy is to use street tires. Why? Even though I like doing off-road stuff (dirt/gravel roads, nothing gnarly while solo), street tires are usually adequate. If conditions worsen, I’ll backtrack. Remember, people rode all over the world before ADV tires. I got 10K miles from my last set of street tires. This could mean hopefully just one swap-out on the 20,000+ mile trip I’m planning from Valparaiso, Chile to the US. (When renting I insist on tubeless 50/50s.) I’d recommend tubeless (my V-Strom has tubeless spokes), unless you think you’re proficient at removing a stiff sidewall tire at dusk 25 miles from Ciudad de Nowhere with (heavy) tire irons. Have a nice day. Catch up with me at the bar in a few hours, I’ll keep one cold for you.
- Parts, tools and bags: Perform tasks you might have to do on the road at home, then bring those particular tools. Don’t go overboard. Weight is everything! I could swap clutch plates with an 8mm, extension, pliers and my spare gasket if really necessary. A partial list: medical kit, tools, extra hardware, filters, starter relay, batteries, clutch plates, header and duct tape, JB Weld, spare wire/connectors, fuses, multitool, circuit tester, plastic ties, extra straps, compressor/plug kit, and front tube (in case of a bad sidewall tear and in a pinch, it might work temporarily for the rear). Also, I zip tie a spare clutch cable and spare throttle cables to the existing ones in the event of failures. Some riders strap tire(s) on the bike. IMHO too much weight.
I prefer Kriega 32L soft bags with attachable smaller modular bags, but I don’t want to get into a soft vs. hard panniers snowball fight. Personally, I’m not a fan of tank bags. I can strap a much larger map case to the tank, and I strap more modular soft bags to the crash bars also keeping weight lower.
- Solo vs. traveling with others. There’s been countless articles written about the positives and negatives of this, so I won’t expound on it. All I can say is I prefer to travel solo, trading some safety for freedom. Also, as I mentioned above, I’m far more approachable by the locals when I’m alone. Interaction with the locals is one of the things – for me anyway – that I enjoy most. (Really, the bike is just the tool.)
- Other resources: travel.state.gov details warning areas. Honestly (IMHO again), if you followed their guidelines verbatim, you’d never leave. For example, in one of the Mexican states under advisory sits the beautiful city of Morelia. You’d be missing opportunities avoiding every one of these watch zones. If an area is under a serious advisory, “Okayfine”, but otherwise just use common sense. You can register your itinerary with US embassies for email advisories about need-to-know-info, severe weather, etc. Embassies and consulates are there to help a traveler in distress, but I wouldn’t consider a mechanical issue or an upset stomach “in distress”, nor do I think understandably would they.
The “interweb” = resources. ADV Riders and other int’l bike forums and dedicated Facebook pages provide area specific info, chatting and meet-up opportunities. I’ve heard there are Latin American bike clubs that watch these forums and help riders in distress. I had another rider in Creel, Mexico see my trip thread on ADV Rider and contact me from a nearby hotel. We rode into Copper Canyon, Chihuahua together.
- Budgeting: I prefer hotels. Anything from 4 star to ½ star. Others camp to maximize savings. I carry a small tent and sleeping bag for emergencies… so far unused. Some cook; I do restaurants. In small pueblos there’s usually somewhere you can get a bed, meal, and a cold one. Part of the adventure and all that.
Some wild camp as much as possible, but accommodations south are incredibly cheap due to the current exchange rate, and very comfortable. Add souvenirs, tires, lubricants, cell phone bill, border fees, and sarsaparillas in addition to food, gas, and lodging. It goes without saying that you’ll need a reserve for the unexpected.
- The bike: This comes under the dictum that opinions are like nether regions. I prefer middle weight ADV bikes under 500 pounds wet. ECM, FI, TC, ABS… fine, but I don’t need or want riding modes, fobs or Canbus’. There was a thread on one of the forums about a BMW rider that got stuck for three weeks in Santiago when his fob disabled the ignition.
For me a 650cc balances weight and comfort. Some say the best RTW/ADV bike is the bike you have. Fair enough I suppose. I prefer a bike that has plenty of dealer support (see Breakdowns above). Google “Triumph Mexico dealers” and you’ll see two, both in Mexico City. Google “Mexico Suzuki dealers” and you’ll get the picture.
Some extreme types have done RTWs on…wait for it… a Yamaha R1, a Triumph Rocket, a scooter and a Goldwing. Hmmm…Well OK then, whatever floats your R1…
Renting? Chances are it’s a Beemer. They’ve done their ADV marketing well. I can only say: out of five times I’ve rented BMWs, three times myself or someone else I was with had computer/electrical issues. Only my experience, withdraw the artillery please at your earliest convenience.
So for the wrap, lastly, don’t rush. I made it once from The Port of Mazatlán to the Guatemalan border following the coast in heat and humidity in 4 ½ days. In retrospect there was no reason to push this hard. One of my overnights on this stretch was a shack on a deserted beach with a hammock on the veranda, and a Mom-and-Pop hacienda a block away down the dirt street with fresh fish and cold cervesa. I should have spent several days there. You know, smell the roses and all that.
In conclusion, talk to others that’ve done it and contemplate it. Cruise the forums, YouTube, podcasts, and of course ADV Rider. With common sense, patience and reasonable precautions it’s very doable. If I can do it- so can you; so sayeth Señor Medicare eligible.
I’ve been asked what I find the most different about other cultures, and it didn’t take me long to realize that we’re more alike than different. It’s a fascinating world and wonderful people from the Mexican border to Tierra del Fuego. As this article’s title says: Se dice que solamente vives una vez./It is said that you only live once.
Cheers and ride safe!
Comments, criticisms, and cat calls welcome.
Joe Siegel, Fox Island, WA, USA