Categories
Border Crossings Hiking Nicaragua Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Ometepe

Do you ever wake up and have a moment of absolute puzzlement as you forgot where you are? Well, I woke up confused on the edge of the water as the I heard the sounds of livestock and splashing. I’d forgotten where I was for a moment. 

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Ah, I am on Ometepe. A farmer brought his cattle to the lake as I rubbed my eyes.
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I had two days to really explore the island. A small road circles the two volcanoes, which isn’t longer than 80 kilometers. With the bike, you can easily see it all in a day.

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I packed up my camp and almost immediately crashed as I steered the bike in some deep sand on the way out. Fun stuff, sand. The weather today was perfect:
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On the east side of the island, the pavement ends and I’m once again in dirt road heaven.

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So nice to take it easy and just go sightseeing. I did have a near-accident when I waved at some locals while coming down a steep hill and a dog suddenly jumped out of the brush. He missed my front tire by a few inches at most.

Of course, with the leisurely pace and hot weather I’d left my armored gear at home, so a crash would’ve cut me up pretty bad on the rocky dirt road. That would’ve really had me feeling like a moron.

The roads on the ‘backside’ of the island were described to me as being barely passable and a difficult ride, and I found them a breeze. I suspect it’s highly dependent on the weather conditions, but once again people made things sound a lot worse than they really were.

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Looping back to where I started, I discovered there was a spot called Charco Verde, a park and butterfly sanctuary. A good opportunity for some hiking and saying hi to the locals:

RIDEEARTH-1004624 It’s a stunning little park with a beautiful tiny lake. I wish the tiny lake had a small island — that would make it an island on a lake on an island in a lake!

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More friendly Ometepe natives:

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Lots of gorgeous butterflies here, but they’re rather hard to photograph well. They just won’t sit still!

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The longer hiking trail spits you out at a beautiful black sand beach with a view of the other volcano, Volcán Maderas.

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Going back on the trail, there’s also a beautiful rocky outlook that overlooks the entire lake.

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Some friendly locals chatted with me about my ridiculous oversized dirt bike and gave me a nice parting gift:

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As a base of operations for the next few days I figured I’d go a little nicer than a campsite and get a hostel bed. My requirements were simple: some power, running water and a good bar. Little Morgan’s had all of those, and a nice view from the ‘crow’s nest’ tower in the middle of the property to boot.

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After dropping off my heavier camping gear I checked out some of the beautiful dirt roads the locals use for their cattle and farming.

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Volcán Conception:

RIDEEARTH-1004668It was a gorgeous sunset. The volcanoes seem to always have their head in the clouds.

Volcán Maderas:
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Every now and then a farmer would come by with his cattle, amused at the weirdo riding these roads for the fun of it.

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They sure picked a great spot to be a farmer!

Some of the fellow travelers at Little Morgan’s told me about pizza night at El Zopilote, a sort of hippie-hangout-cum-hostel that was a short walk up the hill from our hostel. I hadn’t had pizza in a while, so that sounded brilliant!

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El Zopilote seemed really nice. It lacked the riveting action of Little Morgan’s bar, though, which was the kind of place where you’d see people from any nationality and walk of life getting drunk together and making terrible life choices. Exactly my kind of spot.

The ‘tab’ system of Little Morgan’s is unique: when you arrive you just kind of open a tab, and then you just pay for all your drinks and food at the end of your stay. It definitely has potential for forgetful-drunk sticker shock, but it makes it very easy to just order a few rounds.

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It’s very easy to make friends in a setting like this, which is exactly what I did. I needed a few friendly faces to go hike the volcano the next day!

After far too many drinks we all hiked up to El Zopilote at 5 AM to start our hike. We got a few pre-made sandwiches to pack and hiked out of the Zopilote property and through adjacent farms.

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It turns out the forests are also grazing grounds for local cattle!

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The dry dirt and low shrub of the rest of the island disappears quickly to lush forests and wet, clay-like mud on the slopes of the volcano. A beautiful view at our first rest stop:

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Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy this morning. These cows don’t seem to mind, though:

RIDEEARTH-1004707They must’ve won some kind of cow lottery to get to live in such a place!

Some of my newly-made friends mentioned that it was recommended to go on a group hike with a tour because the trail was easily lost. I can attest to that: there were a lot of different trails, and it was a pretty minimally maintained trail up the mountain.
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And before you know it, we hit the clouds that always circle the top of the volcano.

Clouds on fertile volcano slopes like this create a unique biome that countries like Costa Rica are so well known for: cloud forests. These kind of jungle forests have an absolute cornucopia in species living in and on the trees. The plentiful water in the air and sunlight creates a veritable explosion of life.

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It also makes the hike a fun muddy affair, with high moisture and water dripping off every plant:

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One of the most stunning forest hikes I’d ever done. The photos make it look very easy, but it was a very stiff hike.

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As I was both out of shape and taking lots of photos, I was at the tail end of the pack, but my friend Nick from Baltimore didn’t mind. He was great company and a nice bright red reminder for me to keep my pace up.

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These hiking sticks were very nice on the steep uphills!

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The last thirty minutes were extremely cloudy, wet, and muddy. We came on a site of a landslide, which was a fun demonstration in the classic Central-American lackadaisical attitude to safety: when one of the members of our little hiking group asked what would happen if you slipped on the ultra-slippery muddy slope, the guide kind of shrugged and said ‘You’d probably die’.

I guess we should probably not slip then!

RIDEEARTH-1004785After a seriously tough hike we finally went downhill for about 10 minutes to hike into the volcano’s crater, which had a lake in it. Still covered in clouds, the view was… anticlimactic.

But the sandwich was the best I’d ever had in my life. Nothing like hiking for a good six hours to work up your appetite. I even ate the little bag of mayonnaise it came with, which Annina and Nick found extremely funny. They later sent me a love note written with mayonnaise.

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My camera got a real workout in more ways than one. I should probably invest in a waterproof camera?

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Eh, it’ll be fine. I hope.

I took a quick portrait of one of the hikers on the way down (I forget her name):
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And would you know it, barely any clouds by noon. All the hikes tend to start so early because it’s such a lengthy hike down, which would be difficult to do in the dark. Apparently some absolute madmen do a hike of both in one day, which I found absolutely inconceivable.

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Nothing but gorgeous nature on the way down:

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And here’s the rare image of the guy behind the camera, happy with the mayonnaise in his stomach and the prospect of celebratory beers at the bottom of the hill:

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I spent the last night with Annina and Nick from Baltimore, which were a lovely couple of gregarious and wonderful humans. We ate curry at a restaurant down the street and talked about life, Baltimore, San Francisco, and art. There’s so many inspiring people in the world, and I’m incredibly grateful that I somehow always end up making friends with them when I am on the road.

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The next morning it was time to pack up the bike and head out of the country. The next day, my girlfriend was arriving in Costa Rica and we’d get started on putting this trip on pause.

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I said goodbye to all the chickens, dogs, cats and pigs of Little Morgan’s and paid my tab and rode back over the airstrip:
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I got yelled at for stopping there this day. I guess that isn’t the best of ideas.

The ferry back from Ometepe has an additional exit-tax fee that you pay. I felt like I was just getting swindled, but upon looking it up I found it’s really a policy. Just a heads-up!

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Today would be a quick ride, but of course I’d budgeted essentially a full day for the border crossing. This was also the biggest border crossing I’d ever attempted to cross; typically I go for the smaller border crossings where fewer people cross to avoid the crowds. This time, I was right on the Pan-American highway.

The Nicaraguan side’s vehicle administration has perhaps the most bizarre layout:

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Exiting Nicaragua was a very annoying and lengthy affair. Some would probably describe it as a pain in the ass. I had to find a customs official and a police officer to sign off on some documents, and take it to a variety of offices to get copies and more signatures before they could cancel my temporary vehicle import documents.

Once I was done with that, they happily stamped my passport and sent me on my way. A military police officer at the border stopped me as I tried to ride out, asking for my new border office signature collection — which they’d taken at the hilariously empty office. A ride back and I got the papers and we were all set to enter the absolute nightmare that was the Costa Rican side:

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Ah, Costa Rica was popular! I was astonished to find it entirely different than the previous crossings, however: people spoke English, the offices looked more like a US border crossing, and it was all handled rather efficiently despite the crowds.

That illusion of organization quickly fell by the wayside when I had to get paperwork done for the bike, though, which had me sent to a little back office where I had to jump between three different dudes until a trucker helped me with the exact paperwork I needed to get the bike into the country.

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I rode to Liberia and promptly broke my camera’s sole battery. It’s a good thing this trip was about to be put on pause…

Categories
Motorcycles Nicaragua Ride South Travel

Ride South – Nicaragua

While it wasn’t quite a full day, the border crossing into Nicaragua had taken a bit more time than I would’ve liked. As I mentioned before, when it comes to Central American border crossings, it’s best to assume they’ll take quite a bit of time. I ‘budget’ about a day to cross one; if it takes less time than that, then great; I’ll use that time to explore and find a nice spot. 

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So hey: Time to find a nice spot with the time I had. After the border, the terrain changes a bit. You ride through stunning forest on a beautiful road (really, I was shouting into my helmet how amazed I was at the quality of the pavement). Wonderful twisties sling into slowly into lower, drier land and you’ll eventually hit the town of Palacagüina. I made a gas and snack stop and weighed my options. I’d heard nice things about Léon, and it was a fairly quick ride there. 

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It was 2:13 PM. Doable? I guess I’d find out! 

I passed through some areas where the locals were burning fields and it created some very cool light for a motorcycle glam shot or two:

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Nicaragua really enchanted me with gorgeous landscapes out of the gate. Things got a lot more monotonous and dry as I progressed south-east, until I turned onto Nicaragua Ruta 26, a somewhat straight-shot two lane road right to Léon. 

Out of many rides through Central American countries, for some reason, this particular stretch really stuck with me. I don’t know if it was the unique, purple and orange light that preceded the sunset that started casting itself on the small, makeshift homes between the thin forests that lined the road or the interesting pockets of dwellings I rode by. It might’ve been the looming turrets of volcanic buttes and mounds that dotted the landscape in the far distance, making for an alien and new landscape, or the entirely-new shade of volcanic brown that the soil took on.

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Either way, it felt magical; a really unique, and different place to be riding, which was nevertheless ruthlessly casting longer and longer shadows as I rode through it. 

It wasn’t looking very good for me. I was racing the sunset. It’s not a race I won.
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In my resignation, I pulled over and took a few shots of the ridiculous view. I was on a small two-lane road, which a clear view of spectacular volcanoes on my side; the brilliant orange—yellow sunset light creating a for-once harmless conflagration of their slopes, a light-show that defied superlatives. Stars were already visible and barely a car passed by while I sighed into my helmet. 

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I kept riding, feeling like a bit of a moron. I remembered how things turned out in Honduras and I decided against pressing on. I pulled into a marked turnoff for a small town. 

I often use previous ride reports, tips from friends and other travelers or something like iOverlander to find a nice spot to stay. I had no data, so this was going to be a fun adventure. I barely knew where I was. That made my first order of business was finding a bit of food and a beer. 

At the restaurant, I asked the locals who were extremely surprised to see a giant space suit wearing gringo if there was a hotel in town. There was one! Just… one. With two rooms. I was happy to have a spot and wandered the town, which was having a religious parade of some kind:

It was impressive and I would’ve loved to find out more about tit, but after a solid 500 km day it was time for some rest.

–––

The sole restaurant / cantina of sorts in town wasn’t open for breakfast so a quick load-up in the blazing Nicaraguan heat and I was off to go to Léon. I could go on the main road, but it looked like there was a trail into town that was dirt…

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Easy choice! I did run into some traffic, so some lanesplitting was required:

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The road wasn’t incredibly scenic as it was dug into the landscape, but it did have some fun technical bits with rocky parts and deep sand in addition to cattle dodging. In about an hour or so I was in Léon.

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Hmmm, dirt. I love it. I had washed off some of the previous dirt with some low water crossings and it was now time to properly dirty it again.

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I made a quick stop for breakfast in Léon and decided to push on for Granada. It looked a bit more fun than Léon, which I didn’t find all that appealing.

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Granada is a beautiful town, reminiscent of Antigua Guatemala. I settled on grabbing a spot near the lake to explore the town and relax a bit.

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Colorful buildings with volcanic backdrops; the Central-American speciality. Granada has a bustling center, but if you’re staying near the water you can explore it without having to put up with the overly-touristy buzz of the main square.

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The weather took a turn for the worse later in the day.

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I took the early afternoon arrival to grab local fish lunch, walk around and generally relax a bit. The pace of the last few days had been intense, so it was nice to kick back. At night, I met a few other overland travelers and had a pleasant dinner with them in the touristy-but-fun-bustle-y center of town and even drank a few (good!) local brews.

It’s great that microbreweries are just about anywhere now, which makes for better drinking than a dozen of Nicaraguan’s regular Toña lagers.

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Relaxation day was over, and since I budgeted only one day to get from Nicaragua to Costa Rica and my girlfriend was coming in on the 22nd, I had some time to explore something I’d really wanted to go explore: the island of Ometepe.

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It’s a quick jaunt down to San Jorge from Granada, where you can grab a ferry to the island. Ometepe is a volcanic island, formed by twin volcanoes that pop out of the massive lake Cocibolca.

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Ferry tickets are bought at the dock.

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This is why you bring your own ratchet straps, folks! It’s worth noting there’s two different ferries, but the other one isn’t exactly great for vehicles; it’s a much smaller boat. You might be able to get a motorcycle on it, but it’d require some skill.

Anyway, for this one the price was 50 cordobas for a person and 420 (heh heh) for a vehicle. After chit-chatting with some of the people on the dock (with a Toña or two) and talking shop about bikes they simply let me on the ferry for free.

They even let me play Captain for a bit:

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I like Nicaraguans.

While it was a bit windy and choppy the day before, today was smooth sailing with some white-heads and rocking but nothing terrible. A beautiful view of the island was paired with intermittent rainbows of light casting through the lake waves the bow was smashing through.

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It was already getting a bit late by the time we made it to the dock. Longer shadows cast from the ship and golden light was playing all over the island.
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I travel rather spontaneously, so I hadn’t really looked into where I should stay or eat. As the sun was setting, I found myself on a far more important mission: Finding the best possible spot for watching the sun set into the beautiful, vast lake. I rolled off the ferry and quickly zoomed through the tiny port town and onto the ring road that loops around the volcanoes.

I came across the island’s airstrip, which you get to drive on — a first for me!
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A short distance down the road from the airstrip was a dirt trail, leading to two farms near the water.

RIDEEARTH-1004576I asked the (also motorcycle owning!) owners if I could pay them to stay on their beach and they happily welcomed me, offering me food and a beautiful spot to pitch my tent and watch the last rays of sunshine lick the faraway mountains as the weather cooled.

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This will do.

Categories
Border Crossings Honduras Nicaragua Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Honduras: Copan Ruinas

I set an alarm to wake up early in the morning to get a solid breakfast in and check out Copan Ruinas before it’d be swarmed by the less dedicated (and more flush on time) tourists. RIDEEARTH-1004205

I had the hilarious privilege of taking a tuk-tuk to the site — I really wanted to ride one and I didn’t really feel like having my bike at a tourist-heavy site where people could rummage through my stuff or steal my jacket. I hopped in one in the main square of Copan and we booked it through town.

RIDEEARTH-1004209I think the reckless abandon of tuk-tuk and scooter / small motorbike riders in places like Honduras is a true inspiration. The guy could really ride, and it felt like really lifted a wheel off the ground in some turns. Other tourists might not appreciate the stomach churning ride as much as I did. I thought it was awesome and over far too quickly. 

The Copan site is a marvelous example of Mayan architecture. While it looks like an overgrown ruin, it was a site of worship from the 5th to 9th century AD. Kind of bizarre to think that as little as 1100 years ago, the site that is now the ruins of Copán was a living city.

At the main site of Copan Ruinas (which is right on the highway as you exit Copan) you pay an entry fee and then walk into the park. Most people opt for a tour, which I’d probably recommend. While there’s signs around that can inform you about what you are looking at, if you’re with a few people the extra background is probably fun to hear about. 

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I was so early (and had no fixed plans) that I was actually the first person at the site. It was marvelously, splendidly, absolutely empty. I was blissfully alone in what looked like an overgrown Mayan temple site. Or so I assumed. A dreadful roar rang through the jungle trees and smaller birds flew off as the roar increased in ear-piercing intensity. 

I assumed it was some god awful jungle predator or perhaps a person being murdered, but it was the combined cries of the scarlet macaws that call the ruins home. Some apparently live in a small fixed home on the perimeter of the site and they’d all flown to the tree that grows out of the top of the largest ruin on the site. Gorgeous creatures to look at, but they make the absolute worst sounds.

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I wandered around the site and really marveled in some of the preserved details and massive scale of it all, with beautiful views of rolling jungle from some parts of the temples, until I left the site in a sort of roundabout way.

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It was interesting to fantasize about how differently things could’ve looked if the Mayans had developed their cities in parallel with ours and weren’t destroyed so thoroughly by many factors; Copan, like many other Mayan sites, fell before the Spanish conqueror even appeared.

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RIDEEARTH-1004317 RIDEEARTH-1004345Some theorize it was because of a catastrophic famine, but there are many theories abound. It’s interesting to think that in a different parallel universe, these temples stand tall, pristine, in the center of a large modern town like the magnificent cathedrals of Europe. 

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That looks out over rolling jungles.

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A small walk East of Copan’s main ruins site is a much smaller, still-overgrown site you can visit for a very modest fee. This is a site that is under active investigation and excavation, with small portions of it excavated and visible. It’s fascinating to me to see how people work to excavate and preserve this crucial piece of human history, and I’m happy that even in an exceptionally poor nation like Honduras people seem to understand the gravity of sites like these and the need to protect them. I hope it stays that way. 

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Next to the site, it’s life as usual.

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Who knows what still lies buried beneath the adjacent fields?

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It was getting hotter and the sun was rising in the sky, so I decided to grab a tuk-tuk back (weeee!) and ride out. Right after Copan, the highway gets… fun. Dirty and fun. 

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The truck here didn’t have as much fun as I did. 

Given my short time and reading a bit about the rather high homicide rates in Honduras, I decided to kind of skip Honduras. Outside of Copan, Honduras does offer some great spots with wonderful nature, great scuba diving and more, but I wanted to get to Nicaragua and take enough time to cross the borders ahead. 

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I was somewhere halfway in Copan when it finally happened: the cops stopped me on a long stretch of road. Observant readers have have noticed that outside of some military checkpoints in Baja and near Matzlan we haven’t really had any encounters with cops. Many people have horror stories of being extorted or having to bribe their way through countries in Central America, but we’d been spared — so far. 

The car appeared in my mirror and flashed its lights. It was an official looking vehicle with some heavily armed military police toting machine guns, so I was cautious but accepted being pulled over. As it happens, around the bend was a checkpoint with a bunch more military police looking types. 

I had been making good time across Honduras. Really good time, actually; I was going pretty fast. I enjoyed opening up the throttle on empty and clear stretches, where I could safely use my 1200 cubic centimeters of engine which usually just weighed me down on fun trails. 

“Hola amigo!” I yelled, all smiles as I took my helmet off and the cop walked up. He fired off in rapid Spanish: “Do you know how fast you were going?”. I laughed a bit and answered “No, sorry. Is there a problem?” 

Some of his friends spilled out of the car and they rapidly surrounded the bike. His friends at the checkpoint had also taken an interest at the scene and were all walking over. I was doing mental math in my head. I wasn’t sure if I had enough cash to pay all of these guys off if they wanted a bribe. And who would I even bribe? I was such a newbie at this stuff. I’d probably screw it up and end up with a mess on my hands. 

Without answering my question, the cop asked me “How many CCs?” with a curious look thrown at the cylinders sticking far out my bike. The crowd of seven or so military police was circling my bike like a group of curious sharks. “M- Mille dos ciento!” I said enthusiastically. Twelve hundred! Questions were now being fired at me from all directions. How fast does it go? What brand bike is this? It’s super fast isn’t it? Where are you coming from? What is this? What does this thing (my Spot beacon) do? We chatted a bunch, and it seemed they were all just getting a kick out of this weird gringo on his giant bike. They offered me a cigarette and I declined and asked if I was OK to leave. “Si, si, claro amigo! Buen viaje!”

And with a wave and some laughter from the cops (and a few stickers lighter) I roared off, taking extra care to really rip as I departed. Sometimes your encounters with the police can be fun. I’m sure others have had nightmarish encounters, but I felt like my friendliness and being utterly unintimidated probably helped me a bit. The other part that helped was having a fast bike. Fun times! 

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Honduras wasn’t quite as small as I’d assumed, and I was forced to retire my lofty goal of making it across the country in one day as it got dark as I was riding out of a gorgeous mountain pass near Comayagua. 

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The roadwork had delayed me quite a bit, and I felt tired. I’d gotten in two near-crashes that day, which were my only ones so far, and I felt like I was pushing myself too hard. On top of it all, I was too generous in estimating my progress for the day, so I ended up riding after sundown in a crappy outskirt of a larger town. It was sketchy-feeling, and the gas station attendant told me to get the hell out of that area. After getting a tip from him (a very friendly local) I rode up out of the barrio and found a decent hotel with safe parking near the town square of Comayagua. 

I think on any motorcycle trip, regardless of your pace or schedule, you’ll have days where you feel like you’re pushing yourself. It’s entirely OK to do so, but there’s also times where you realize you push yourself too far. For me, this day was one of those days. In an unknown country, which already had  many risks, I basically traded more risks for getting somewhere a bit faster. That tradeoff is simply never worth it. Don’t do what I did. 

The border was three more hours of riding away. I hit the bed and instantly passed out. 

———

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Still on the early-morning rhythm of my Copan trip, I woke up nice and early the next day and rode out of town quickly. The road to the border was a quick and easy shot straight across Honduras, and some nice scenic curves spit me right out near an absolutely massive procession of trucks that probably went on for miles. 

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When I run into traffic like this at a border, I just ride up past them. Trucks and other traffic usually gets a different type of treatment than ridiculous motorcycle touring gringos, and if they don’t they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms. My assumption was correct. 

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The Honduras/Nicaragua border is a fairly straightforward affair, but you do have to take some time for it. On the Honduran side, I ran into what must’ve been the biggest pack of ‘helpers’ I’d seen on my trip so far which I had to practically swat off. Once at the passport control, I met a rather unmotivated team of customs and border control people that weren’t spectacularly happy to tell me what to do or how to go about it.

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Regardless, after about an hour of talking to various desk jockeys I got myself stamped out of Honduras — less than 48 hours after getting my entry stamp — and I was on my way to Nicaragua.

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I met a jolly bunch of helpers on the Nicaraguan side which I only used to find someone to change my Honduran money into something Nicaraguan. For once, I had no data service, so no way to check the exchange rate. I just went with what the guy suggested as a rate and later found out it was surprisingly reasonable. 

The basic Central American business is done entering Nicaragua: a ‘quick’ passport stamp (there was a line of perhaps 50 people this time, and they took a break halfway into processing them), and vehicle import work. They once again diligently checked the VIN on my bike and all the paperwork. They made errors three different times on the documents, forcing me to ask them to fix the VIN and my name until it was completely accurate. Never settle for a slight inaccuracy of one character on your document as it can cause a huge headache down the road as you try to exit. 

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Nicaragua also had me go to a set of tents to get fumigated (well, the bike did…) and to get insurance. With insurance and a fumigation paper I went back to the vehicle import window and they quickly processed my paperwork. “No copias?” I asked, incredulous. No, the customs officer said with a smile; he’d do them himself, no need. That was a first. As he copied the paperwork I snuck a Ride Earth sticker under the window and I rode off. 

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Thumbs up!

Total time for the border crossing: three hours. 

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I rode off from the border, grabbing a drink from some friendly merchants who were selling refreshments to the tired truckers trying to make their way into Honduras, and smiled as warm Nicaraguan forest air flowed through my helmet. This was going to be a good country, I could feel it. 

Categories
Border Crossings Guatemala Honduras Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Antigua Guatemala

San Pedro de Atitlan has two roads going out of it: one that goes back the way we came, through the hairpin fun-zone, and one that was repeatedly (even on ADVRider) marked as too dangerous too cross. It was unpaved and ran the periphery of the lake, right unit it hits one of the volcanoes and tickles its back, carving a route south of the slope and then looping back to the lake to Santiago Atitlan until finally meeting a road south at San Lucas Tolmán.

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Well, this sounds fun…

We did ask the lone police guy we’d been seeing in town and he didn’t really seem to have an opinion on the road. “¿Es peligroso, el camino?”, we’d ask, and he’d just shrug. Good enough for us. An American told us not to do it. Lots of robberies.

The thing is, we have fast bikes. And not that much to lose. And we love scenic byways. So in the morning, after having gotten some fruity breakfast by the lake — fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere in Guatemala, and incredibly cheap at that! — we set off to ride this mysterious and supposedly dangerous road.

Breakfast first! It was a sunny day today, none of the clouds from yesterday (yet):

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This girl was just riding her horse through town, alone. She can’t have been older than 8 or 9.

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A funny syndrome of riding the Americas so far has been something I like to refer to as Relative Southern Danger. Wherever you are, whether it’s the US, a Mexican state or any South-American country, up until Costa Rica you’ll encounter a particular conversation with the locals.

You’ll first tell them others have told you it can be dangerous around here. “Ahh, no!”, they will exclaim. “The [area South of wherever you are] is the dangerous part. Around here, it’s quite safe.” The area in question can be the next country over, the next Mexican town or state south of you, or even something like a road. This will continue for some time until you reach Costa Rica, where it’s hard to claim things are less safe than Nicaragua.

It’s almost always an exaggeration. By all means, follow common sense, but also take things with a grain of salt. And a grain of recklessness.

The loop out of San Pedro is gorgeous, and quickly climbs to beautiful fields and farms.

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Farmers were out here and looked surprised to see us, and all waved us hello. That was nice. We waved back.

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Eventually the paved section ends and you drop rather precipitously (seriously, I think the drop was almost a foot, as if someone had just… disappeared the road) into a sandy wash and the fun dirt road begins. I suspect they were building more pavement here; lots of men were working on the road and they were all in a great mood. And again, rather surprised to see us. We said hi and chatted for a bit before blasting down the dirt.

It was definitely a rough dirt road. The constant water from the slopes carves channels and rocks out of the road and at times it was kind of a shit-show, with riverbed rocks and ruts all over the place.

It didn’t help that at times, an astonishingly stunning vista of the lake and its volcanic rim would come into view, momentarily distract you, and then lure your bike’s front wheel into a massive rock. All part of the game around Atitlan… Ah, Atitlan, you beautiful devil. Distracting, yet so demanding.

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After about an hour or so, we’d rounded the ‘terrible’ road and were on a beautiful sinuous paved road towards Santiago. Little farms and buildings dotted the route, the sun played through the leaves overhead and we soon found ourselves in San Lucas.

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Here, I’d say goodbye to Stu. It didn’t make any sense for him to follow me at my breakneck pace to Costa Rica, so he’d stay down here and explore Guatemala before also riding at a gentle pace to Costa Rica to sell his bike there. We’ll resume the ride at a later point, when we’re ready for it.

For now, it was goodbye. The town square was as great a place as any to say bye, and I felt a strong tug at my heart as he left. You get very close to a friend as you ride the Earth with them; you share hotel rooms with your stinky gear, brave what might be mortal danger with them and push yourself to and perhaps through limits you never knew you had. And now, I’d be alone. It felt weird.

RIDEEARTH-1004096He’s a great dude. I wished him the best, we pointed bikes in opposite directions, and off I went.

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The road out of Santiago quickly meets up with the Guatemala highway 11, which blasts straight south between some volcanoes on a gentle jungle-y downslope. After I rolled through this scenic route, there was a sort of intersection of four roads where I grabbed some quick food, a fresh coconut, and set off for Antigua.

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Antigua is a gorgeous town. According to my admittedly limited understanding of Spanish, ‘Antigua’ stands for ‘Antique’ or ‘Old’; as in, it’s the old city. The tiny city is a great example of gorgeous colonial architecture, and its set right between imposing volcanoes, which is kind of the Guatemalan thing to do.

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I rolled in to El Hostal and rolled my bike into the lobby as was customary. This is always a great conversation starter with fellow hostel-mates and I made friends in no time.

While my time in Antigua was going to be brief (sadly — if you go here, stay a few days and hike the volcanoes, seriously) I made sure to hit some places. CA Moto Tours and Cafe is a motorcycle rental joint in Antigua and I dropped by to chat a bit about bikes and life. Super fun people, those! They talked a bit about Tolga (known as ‘Ride Must Go On’ or just ‘Ride Must’ on Instagram) who’d been through earlier. It’s a small adventure-motorcycle world!

I discovered the American Embassy:

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And just sauntered around a bit to take some photos:

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And found a BBQ joint in town. Don’t get me wrong, I love local food, but sometimes you gotta take a newfound hostel friend (and moto tours office) recommendation and grab something smokey and delicious and wash it down with local beers.

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A big benefit of my pick of lodging, El Hostal, is its proximity to Cafe No Se. I’m a big fan of mezcal — that’s no secret — and this place was the birthplace of Illegal Mezcal, a little-known mezcal at first but now commonly found in the US as an upscale tipple. It’s a great stiff drink and this tiny bar / café matches its character: it’s a raucous place, full of weirdos and dirtbags. 100% my thing.

For once, I enjoyed a bit of solitude at the bar. While it was pretty busy, I walked in at the right time to get a stool at the bar and chatted a bit with the bartender — over some mezcal, natch — before writing a bit. In the smoky, busy ambiance I reflected on my newfound solitude. It was refreshing, different, strange and a bit lonely. You really get used to being so close to someone on the road for months, and the change was kind of profound.

I enjoyed my meditative drinks, internalizing and processing all the sights and experiences of the last weeks, as rowdy bodies crammed into the bar, burning up the last oil of an exotic warm Wednesday night. I caught wisps of stories of selling psychedelics to fuel a trip around the Americas for years, hitchhiking in faraway deserts, how homesickness was the sound of the creek next to the ranch they grew up in. Everyone’s singular, beautiful stories echoing off the walls in a faraway place. I was alone, and yet, I felt a sense of immense belonging.

———

Sunrise came the next day and despite the mezcal I had an easy time getting up and prepping the bike.   After just two brief days I was leaving Guatemala, easily one of my new favorite countries. It was time to ride to Honduras.

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An easygoing breakfast at El Hostal laid a good foundation for a walk around town.  One more photo walk? One more photo walk:

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This place is so stunning. The energy on Antigua is unique, and its people wonderful. A city I’d love to come back to.

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Better leave a sticker to remind myself of that.

I rode around town a bit with a newly made motorcycle friend who was a local, who was hoping to help me find some synthetic oil. Unfortunately we had little success, but he did show me a nice mirador, or viewpoint:

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It’s easy to understand why people felt like this was a place for religious significance and reflection.

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Ah. I love Antigua. I love Guatemala. It was rough to leave. I put a reminder on the bike:

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And started my six-hour ride to the border.

Guatemalan highways were surprisingly well maintained. I had a rough time getting through traffic in Guatemala City and got lost through a few of its confusing road layouts, which sent me through some dodgy barrios and into some even crazier traffic, but I made work of it.

By the time I reached the Honduran border, it was getting dark.

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Darkness seems to tap the will to work out of the Guatemalan border workers, and I found myself almost tempted to use the services of the always-present, always-annoying ‘helpers’ that offer to speed you along the border if you pay them. It almost never actually works, and you end up supporting a rather annoying practice, so I never did.

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But a solid hour of copying paperwork, waiting for computers and general bureaucratic nonsense later, I was allowed to head to Honduras.

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Mr. Hat here did change my Guatemalan quetzals for Honduran currency, which was nice.

After stamping myself out and canceling my import permit, it was time to do the reverse in Honduras. It was pitch black as I walked into the abandoned and large custom’s office.

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Honduras’ border must have been influenced by the Big Copier lobby, as you need 4 copies of everything. I was sent to a small room to do copying of all sorts of documents: my passport, the vehicle registration, my drivers license, the vehicle title… and after getting all that, copies of my stamped documents. It took a while, and then the officer demanded a rather high price for my vehicle entry.

I’m not entirely sure if there is a fixed price to enter Honduras. From what I’ve heard, it is one of the worst countries as far as bizarre border inconsistencies go, with some people being forced to pay tons of cash to get in. I was being asked about $30, which seemed exceptionally high coming from Guatemala.

I ended up calling a friend to ask him to Google the fees. Danny, the friend, picked up the phone terrified, assuming I had been kidnapped and this was finally the call where I asked him to wire tens of thousands of dollars before they started sending a variety of my appendages in registered air mail to my family.

It wasn’t quite that dramatic. Failing to find a definitive answer, I paid the man, which in retrospect seemed to be the legitimate price. Who knows? Forget it Jake, it’s Honduras.

It was late enough at this point anyway, and I wanted to just end the day.

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The last bit of light outside was the green glow of my GPS, which pointed me to a hotel in Copán just a bit down the road. That’d do. Cold air brushed my face as I cautiously but enthusiastically rolled into Honduras, through a curvy road, into unseen unknowns.

Categories
Guatemala Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Guatemala: Lago Atitlan

Guatemala is dangerous. Not in the traditional meaning of ‘danger’, which is the type of danger you get warned of from sheltered people that assume anything 100 miles south of where they’ve lived is a shady place nobody should ever go; no, Guatemala is dangerous because it swallows people whole.

Particularly people like us.

You see, if you’re a traveler, you might come through a country like Guatemala with plans for an epic trip North or South of its borders. But you’ll find the kindest people you’ve ever met, vast jungles and epic volcanoes, dramatic landscapes dotted with ancient temples, fascinating cultures and exotic animals — all accessible at an incredibly low price. Guatemala is beautiful, kind, diverse, and incredibly cheap. Guatemala is dangerous because trips end here. People just forget to leave.

Today we were going to a spot that eats a lot of people whole in Guatemala, Lago Atitlan (English: Lake Atitlan).

First, it was time to wake up Stu:

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We had a quick breakfast and went out on the road. Would you look at that, a non-Pemex gas station! Mexico has a nationalized gas company, so you really only see one ‘brand’ of service station. It’d been almost three months since we’d seen a new gas station brand. Ola Puma:

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As a bonus, this nondescript gas station overlooks a valley dotted with gorgeous, dramatic volcanoes. They seem to spring forth out of the Earth in Guatemala like mushrooms. Just tons of them around every turn. A fascinating landscape.

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Traffic situations, roads and general traffic rules are even more relaxed / nonexistent in Guatemala compared to Mexico.

It was already noticeable riding down further South in Mexico that people started being a bit more ‘loose’ with the rules of the road, maintenance of roads or even paving of roads, and in Guatemala it reaches its logical conclusion:

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When they’re not running you off the road or generally driving like a malicious idiot, these ‘chicken buses’ are beautiful to look at:

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After the more dodgy intersections and traffic situations of Guatemala, we had a stretch of beautifully paved and fast highway, that led is into some nice high mountains.

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That little dot is Stu, cheerfully flying along.

We soon had to turn off to get to the lake, though. Clouds built on the ridges of mountains and volcanoes ahead of us as we dipped off large highways into smaller byways, from larger villages into smaller pueblos…
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Seeing more and more people in their native dress, as the villages got sparser and smaller.
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Eventually, it was just countryside we were riding through. Our reading of maps wasn’t the most brilliant, so we had a small but fun detour through the scenic countryside of the mountain ridge that surrounds Lago Atitlan.

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At times this little dirt road was little more than some two track road, and with the wet fog it all got a bit muddy, too. Pretty fun, but we were getting properly lost and it was time to see if we could find a way out and to the lake we’d been promised.

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We ended up getting some help from a fellow who led us the right way. Turns out there was some pavement hiding in these mountains!

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We finally found the edge of the clouds…

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A few more miles of fun, fun dirt road…

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And here it was, in view now, Lago Atitlan.

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I didn’t really take photos of the way down as it is basically a fantastic set of hairpin turns on gravel and sand that didn’t really allow for a lot of one-handed shooting, but I really regret that I didn’t pull of somewhere to figure out a way to get a shot. We were already dodging chicken buses and other traffic on the road, so there wasn’t really a good way to snap a photo, but let this map serve as a general indication:

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Oodles of noodly fun.

A short road takes you from the bottom of this hairpin salad to San Pablo La Laguna, where you’ll get your first lake-level views of the massive volcanoes that define the perimeter of the lake.

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We rode on to San Pedro La Laguna, rather famous for its eccentric hippie inhabitants and wonderful views.

While the entire lake and its surrounding volcanoes (3 in total, one rather big one) were covered in clouds, light filtered through it like a lamp shining through milk. It was spectacular to see.

Lake Atitlan is over 700 feet deep, and the result of a massive eruption some 80,000 years ago. The volcanoes that dot the rim of the caldera, large as they may seem, are an order of magnitude or two smaller than the one that blew up to form this lake. As the years went by, it filed with water, and it now feeds two rivers that flow downstream from the massive reservoir. Precipitation fills it constantly, keeping it full of water.

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It’s known as one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the world.

I’d agree, even when it’s cloudy out.

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The towns on its rim are accessible by road, with some of the smaller ones only accessible by boat. Tons of Mayan culture runs through the towns, in everything from customs to food and architecture. It’s a remarkable place.

For visitors, it’s an easygoing place.

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For everyone, life revolves around the lake.
SanPedro-01095 SanPedro-01111 SanPedro-01124Well, perhaps some more than others.

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Strolling the streets you find animals, small backyard farms, coffee being dried…

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And, inexplicably, a Dutch evangelical community? I’d recommend against learning Dutch, it’d be more useful to learn English. And that’s coming from a Dutch guy.

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Classic shrines are found throughout, and the layout of the city seems organic and spontaneously grown rather than planned. It forms beautiful little parks, spins tiny streets and alleys around trees and geological features, and always dips down into the waters of the lake.

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Please keep your giant cock jokes to yourself, folks.

The actual ‘downtown’ area of San Pedro, which you’ll visit if you want to get out some cash or some such, is much more of a typical Guatemalan town, with chicken buses and traffic craziness in spades:

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But you won’t spend too much time here. This is where you wander:

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And where you find Life, nestled on the slopes of a volcano, seemingly plunging into what is an even bigger volcano crater. A meeting of fire and water with steaming mountains all around.

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And as the sun started rolling behind the sharp ridges of the rim the fire lit the steam alight with beautiful fire.

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Another victory of the fire over the water.

It’s not hard to see why people get lost here. Or perhaps, why some try to get lost in this particular place only to make attempts at finding themselves.
QuickJPG-1004078 We, as humans, travel and change our lives to seek that very vague thing. It doesn’t matter if you are home or on the road, or if you feel satisfied or lost in life. The greatest developments in my life I’ve experienced were times when I truly felt lost, alienated from what I knew, and it forced me to grow.

It seems like you seek something in those moments: a sense of balance, perhaps. A grounding influence. Something that makes you feel like yourself again.

I truly felt that way when we rode up to Alaska, in a strange state where my entire life seemed uncertain. The future, entirely vague. My mind muddled and feeling disconnected with everything, including myself. In Atitlan, I noticed it in other travelers, too; some perhaps more lost than others.

We spent the evening meeting with other travelers or locals who’d gotten stuck here a long time ago. Eaten by the giant caldera, willingly trapped on the slopes of a volcano.

It’s a stereotype, but in the end, I related to the lost ones so strongly. And I hope they found themselves — or the thing they were looking for.

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Categories
Border Crossings Guatemala Mexico Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – ¡Adios México!

San Cristóbal is a special place. That isn’t just because it’s a ‘pueblo magico’, or ‘magical town’, but because it is in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most unique states. Chiapas is a humid, tropical state covered in jungles that house various well known and yet-to-be-discovered Mayan ruins like Palenque, Bonampak and Toniná.
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As I mentioned in my last post, all that culture is still very much here. It’s here in the people, in the tiny villages, and it’s very much here in San Cristobál. Like Oaxaca City, it felt alive with the throbbing pulse of a local culture. Chiapas’ indigenous culture has been clashing with the Mexican government for quite some time, and you don’t have to look far to see signs of that.

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There’s marks of the Zapatista (a left-wing, indigenous-rights socialist group) throughout, and there were a lot of words of roadblocks on the roads going out of town.

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You also see a lot of people in their native garb.

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We were in the heart of the city, in the very pleasant Rossco Hostel. The place has a really quaint charm to it, with its lush courtyard (where we stored the bikes) and friendly house dogs. Being a backpacker hostel, it also has its fair share of colorful characters moving about, and we explored the town a bit with some of them.

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I had to do a few maintenance things: I needed a new key for my bike panniers, so I went to ask around town to find someone who could make keys. I was pointed towards a crafty young boy who told me it’d be the equivalent of about half a dollar and to come back in about an hour.

I came back to get this key:

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Yep, it was slowly and painstakingly etched by hand. No machines here, just actual handiwork. It works like a charm. Just amazing.

In bike maintenance, since we’ve been in such hot and humid climates I couldn’t help but notice the HP2 running rather hot. Hot, in this case, means ‘at the notch’, which is the top of the engine temperature dash.

I’d gotten several suggestions on the HP2 thread on ADVRider but the most helpful one was just to perhaps cut off part of the front fender that was blocking the airflow to the oil cooler altogether. Wouldn’t you know it, it cooled down the bike quite a bit.

The fix:

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An interesting situation arose for me: I have to meet my girlfriend in Costa Rica in about 11 days. We’d had plans to meet up for some time, but she’d finally nabbed a ticket out of Chile where she was doing a trip and the date was now final. That gave me a bit (a lot) less time than I wanted to check out Guatemala, but at least Stu could take his time there.

Some great sights still awaited us: the ruins of Palenque and the beautiful sights of the rest of Chiapas were tempting, but we had very consistent and reliable reports of entirely shuttered roads and violent protest with several tourists gone missing in the days before, so we made the decision to head for the border the next day. Fortunately, Guatemala would offer excellent riding, Mayan ruins and a slightly lower chance of violent mobs.

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So with that, we loaded up our bikes in the courtyard, tossed out a half HP2 fender, slapped some Mexico stickers on the panniers and headed for the border.

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Our late start combined with roadworks and roadblocks led to a 90 km ride — which was supposed to take about 2 hours — becoming a 5 hour affair. We had only traveled about 90 km south of San Cristobal de las Casas when we hit the town of Comitan at nightfall with angry clouds boiling in the sky. Forecasts said downpours, and we’re fairly close to the border, so we stopped.

Not wanting to attempt the border crossing at night, we decided to stay one last night in Mexico here.

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A beautiful town.

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I love this zippy (unofficial) yellow police motorcycle.

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Yeah, those clouds are bad news.

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The next day we rolled through the hotel (this never gets old), off the curb and into the streets of Comitan and bid Mexico adieu.

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It’s a pretty sort of roll downhill towards the border crossing at Ciudad Cuahtemoc / La Mesilla.

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Ah, border crossings.

In Central America, you should budget time. It’s a currency they are generous with, so your budget should be substantial. In the case of border crossings, I usually budget about a day. If we get a border crossing done in less than a day, that’s pure profit as far as time goes. Don’t go into it expecting things to go well, fast, efficient, or in any way normally. That way you’re much less likely to be disappointed.

The Mexico-Guatemala border isn’t half bad.

When we entered Mexico, we put down a deposit when we got our ‘temporary vehicle import permit’ or TVIP. There’s more names for this particular document, but let’s refer to it as the ‘TVIP’ in our posts about border crossings. Much like you get a temporary visa upon arrival that lets you stay in the country for a few months, your vehicle gets to be in a country for a bit by the grace of this piece of paper.

When you enter Cuidad Cuahtemoc, the first order of business is to get your vehicle checked out of the country, and then yourself checked out.

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This is the spot for that. There’s a big awning that you cannot park under, so bring some sunblock. Then be prepared to be told to go get copies of documents. You can’t do these in advance: they’ll be stamped documents and of course there’s only one spot in town that does copies at somewhat-extortionate rates. It’s also up here, on the hill behind the adauana offices:

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Oh well. We went up to get copies (and water, it’s in a convenience store, hooray!) when a giant bus full of smelly backpackers (not as smelly as us, mind you) arrived. Oh no! The last thing you want is to be stuck behind a 150+ people who need their papers processed.

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Fortunately they gave us priority and they refunded our deposit on the vehicle, stamped out the paperwork and got us stamped out of Mexico.

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Currency changers walk around here and can give you a decent exchange rate, provided you negotiate a bit. You’ll need local currency at the border and unless you collect international bills you’re better off exchanging whatever cash you have left at a decent rate. Just look up what the exchange rate is on Google and show it to the money changer. They’ll counter at something and if you’re happy with it, go exchange your cash and rejoice in your newfound local wealth.

There’s a little road between Ciudad Cuahtemoc and the actual border between Mexico and Guatemala, and on that exact border line is where you’ll find the customs and immigrations of Guatemala. This is what’s called a ‘no man’s land’.

Right before you get to it, there’s a jaw-dropping lookout of the rolling hills of pure Mayan country.

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This is the splendor that the once-mighty Mayan empire ruled over. Images don’t do it justice. The landscapes and skies were vast, with god-rays shooting between scattered clouds over mountains that dramatically erupted from the fertile valley. The very mountains themselves felt like resting gods, perhaps nearly forgotten, their powers slowly diminished over time until they went to rest here, only to be overgrown in thick jungle.

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Or perhaps it was this photobombing butterfly that was the reincarnation of the native gods.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, I’d lost Stu, who had left to go to the border already. Time to catch up! Stop here for the initial customs paperwork (passport stamps!)…

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Then pull up for the mandatory vehicle import permit.

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This little office is the one you want, and they’ll actually check your VIN! We were surprised at how diligent they did their work. No attempts at overcharging, we got the regular 160 quetzals for the vehicle permit and 40 for the mandatory fumigation of the vehicle.

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Stu’s doing the work of getting the KLR legal in Guatemala.

And a hose-down with (likely not really effective) fumigation chemicals.

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Interestingly La Mesilla, the border town, really grew an entire little ecosystem around the border. Things are no doubt more and less expensive on both sides, and thrifty people have set up tons of shops with almost everything imaginable on both sides, which grew to this bustling little ramshackle metropolis:

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Little taxis shuttle people back and forth, annoying ‘helpers’ dot the area, and tons of merchandise is moved in trucks.

The border crossing didn’t take more than an hour or so and we got on the road. Not having a clear goal for the day, we rode to Huehuetenango, the closest city that should have a bank for getting some currency and perhaps a good spot to grab some food.

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The ride there was pure bliss. Beautiful, twisty mountain roads flanked by epic cliffs and mountains. The road snakes through the valley following a river that splits off somewhere near Colotenango, leaving you to the two-lane ‘highway’ 7W to Huehuetenango. We got in sometime after nightfall.

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It’s not a very fantastic town. In Huehuetenango, we looked around to find a kind of nice local’s spot, but really only found some dubious truckstop kind of joints. At the end of the night we did manage to find some Americans that lived in Huehuetenango that were here for ‘mission work’.

I wonder what kind of mission it was?

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I think their mission might have been drinking. What a coincidence, that’s ours too!

After a night of chatting with their super friendly community and exchanging tales of travel we grabbed some roadside food to get a true local flavor:

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After which we hit the hay. There was a whole new country ahead of us just waiting to be explored.

Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Oaxaca to Chiapas

Come on, do I really have to leave Zipolite? At this point, I’d met locals that had given me a coke bottle full of cloudy (purportedly) ‘mezcal’ that I really enjoyed and we’d made friends with half the town. We never thought we’d find another town like Skagway on our Ride North, but here it was. And it was a nude beach, at that.

We had to go. Stu fired up the KLR and almost steered the KLR into a wall at speed thanks to the 1+ foot deep sand we were parked in, so I decided to spare my (dry, bah) clutch and just push my bike out to the street.

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Where we loaded up the bikes in searing hit. Pro-tip: put your helmet in the shade while you do this!

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All nicely packed up. We looked our old digs up and down once more and had some breakfast in town, where the local policy was clearly spelled out:

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I’m not entirely sure if all the locals really adhere to this rule…

After a bit of snacking we had the hot air of the road blast the tears off our face that beaded our cheeks after tearful goodbyes… Okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite that sad, but I felt less than motivated to move on.

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This is our route today. The coastal Oaxacan route 200 is super fun, twisty, offers gorgeous ocean views and plenty of great (and not so great pavement). It’s not terribly busy, either.

We pulled right up to two guys really ripping up the road on their smaller bikes and got off for a drink and made some new friends:

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We gave them some stickers and patches. One of them was named ‘Galileo’. What a cool name, man.

Salina Cruz was an interesting town. Coming from a very naturopath hippie micro-beach community, we were thrust into an industrial port town where a gas refinery and trash fields around it burned in the distance. Tons of people were in and about the town, and it had a decidedly different atmosphere and feel than all of Oaxaca we’d seen so far. We found the edge of the state, and not a particularly happy slice of that edge.

The day’s ride had been hot and exhausting and after looking for camping near the water we just gave up and got a cheap hotel instead. We wanted to rest up a bit after hearing some horror stories about the road we’d do the next day, anyway.

We were planning to ride to San Cristobal de las Casas, a ‘pueblo magico’ in Chiapas, the final Mexican state. To get to Chiapas, you have to cross what’s know as the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrowest little piece of land. As the Sierra Madre hunches down and the volcanic mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala arise to its East, wind gets channeled in from the Caribbean and blows across the isthmus at great speeds. We heard stories of toppled trucks, motorcyclists unable to stay on the road, all sorts of terrible tales of horror.

I recalled the great video from Becky (Motoventuring) where they were blown over on the road.

Well, we went on the ride and while it was windy… it was kind of a joy. Tons of windmills (quelle surprise!) and trucks on this route, but by no means the Death Winds we’d heard of. We probably got lucky, or some aspect of it might have also been the penchant for drama people have. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories and have yet to find a road or place that was quite as bad as people said!

L1003776 L1003777 Hey Stu, what do you think—
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Yeah, he’s cool with it.

After the flat terrain of the isthmus, the mountains pick up again. Roads snake up a set of rolling hills which rapidly turn to scenic mountains and before you know it, this gorgeous state of Oaxaca is no more:

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This is it, the last state of Mexico! We can’t believe it. Despite having seen so many parts of it, we were still craving more. Every part of this country is a delight.

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And would you know it, Chiapas would prove to be no different. Look at this dramatic, gorgeous landscape. Hot, but gorgeous.

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The road into Chiapas, towards San Cristobal de las Casas, is stunning. Probably in my top 5 rides of all of Mexico. This unreal, golden set of dry hill vegetation turns to greener and more colorful varieties of scenery before fading right back into dryness and golden hues again. A feast for your eyes — and the road, a feast for the soul.

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And there’s quite a bit of road to cover! We entered the hills near San Pedro Tapanatepec (what a mouthful), to cross the highlands of Chiapas and then make a blast for the hills near Tuxtla Gutiérrez and hopefully ride into San Cristobal by sundown.

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The flatlands were smoky. We rode through thick smoke for a good 30 minutes until we ran into the source: burning fields. We were absolutely starving but decided to push through this to save our own lungs, and found a mariscos (seafood, yep, perhaps a bad idea) out here in the highlands to chow down on. Surprisingly good!

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In Tuxtla Gutiérrez we gassed up and found a Minecraft bike (?). We debated if we wanted to check out the town but it seemed truly dreadful to us, and we had a bit of sunlight left.

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Boy, am I glad we drove up the mountain to San Cristobal.

As we ascended through hills and mountains outside of Tuxtla, we rode through our first small Mayan villages. Unlike Aztec culture at large, Mayans continue to live to this day, still cultivating corn at high altitudes, still speaking their Mayan language and observing a lot of its customs. The dwellings, while somewhat modern, were still dotted on the ridges of mountains by the roadside and were still surrounded by stalks of corn and other traditional crops.

The people on the side of the road looked like they could’ve been here many centuries ago. It was a powerful reminder of just how strong Chiapas’ native identity and culture is to this day — something that is the source of many conflicts with the Mexican federal government.

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There are the hills they live in, and the hills they have lived in for generations upon generations. And we’re just lucky enough to see them as they are in this small snapshot of time, bathed in golden glows of a setting sun.

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I suspect the Spanish had something more tangible in mind when they were out here looking for the gold of the natives, but this can’t have been a bad consolation prize. Sunsets in this high country are magical, and the warm light played with the cornstalks in a beautiful fiery way.

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Ah, how can I keep going? I have to stop and take photos. I have to keep moving, too, as we hate riding in the dark in unknown places and on mountains without great visibility and into a town we’d never been in… but, the scenery. Just look at it:

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I’d stop to take some photos, and Stu would overtake me. I’d keep riding for a bit, and fly by Stu on the side of the road, taking photos. The process would repeat so often that eventually I was trained to listen to that big pig of a thumper’s roar echoing of the mountainside and make sure I had my camera ready to snap him rolling by:

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And with that purple glow, the sun had been laid to rest. Only the light from our own headlights poured over this twisty road now, the last few dozen miles to San Cristobal, no doubt scenic but it scenery and views now invisible to us.

It’d been a solid ride, and we checked into the Rossco Backpacker Hostel, which we were told gives a free night to bikers. We were not just warmly welcomed, but for the same price they gave us a full room to enjoy in the back and a beautiful spot in the courtyard to park the bikes. Tomorrow, we’d set off to explore San Cristobal and make plans for Chiapas and what lay beyond the Mexican border.

But first, beers, food, and a bit of rest from our taming of the isthmus and chasing up the Mayan trail.

Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Zipolite

As I was packing up the bike to leave the magical city of Oaxaca, I started to wonder what lay ahead.

Mexico has been a particularly excellent country to travel through. The sheer variety of it is mind-blowing. This would be our first return to one of its coastlines since we went ashore in Mazatlan after our ride through Baja. With the temperatures picking up in Oaxaca, the ocean did sound appealing.

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There was a KTM 1190 Adventure in the lot at our hotel, Hotel Paris (fine spot, by the way — and nice secure parking!) in Oaxaca. Stu’s KTM cravings continue to intensify.

After a bit of looping around town to find gas we drove through some very flat and empty terrain before starting the ascent of the mountains the separate Oaxaca and the ocean. Today’s ride would be exceptionally twisty and fun and see a the weather change rapidly and frequently.

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As the first turns and hills appeared it was time to try and put on a podcast to listen to while carving turns.

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Not a bad view from here. People build some beautiful homes out here, with little farms and gardens in the loamy fertile soil.

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It was very hot out, so the best thing we reckoned we could do was to move quickly to ensure adequate air flow. That does mean you have to really hit those corners hard, but I suppose there is just no other choice. We had to do it, officer, you know how warm it is today!
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But as we gained altitude it started looking like some clouds were meeting right on top of the mountain range that we were crossing.

L1003355 And indeed, not just the temperature dropped: we saw some rain, which was the first time on this trip we’d been caught in it.

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We sought a bit of food so we could let the rather violent rain pass. This was… possibly the worst food we’d had in Mexico yet, and perhaps one of the worst meals of my life. I am assuming villagers here eat at home, not at the street-side restaurant.

Look at that, the rain has passed!

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Out from our parking spot we could see a seemingly steaming forest, a bizarre and beautiful play of earth and air as wisps of cloud ran its tendrils through the woods like a million ghostly white hands.

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These are the kind of views that are like music to your eyes. Beautiful, classical music, with a range of complex layers and indescribably beautiful textures that a camera or microphone really can’t capture well.

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Stu was also very impressed. And wet. Impressed and wet.

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As we continued, we basically started riding in the clouds themselves, which still had plenty of moisture to go around. We rode through some sheets of rain, wet fog/cloud, and the roads were slippery as hell. Heidenau K60 tires are great for a lot of things but the grip in the wet sucks sometimes.

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I believe me taking these exceptionally bad photos with my camera is what eventually led to water getting into the viewfinder. Oops. Well, they should’ve sealed it a bit better.

After about an hour of relative cold and rain we cleared a bend and it was suddenly beautiful out. We truly just rode out of the clouds, on the edge of the downward slope that would lead us toward the coast.

A short lesson in Spanish signage:

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‘Curva Peligrosa’ means ‘fun turn’. The more you know! Speaking of signage, there was a massive surplus of curve indicator signs in Oaxaca, apparently, because they absolutely studded the hills in them. Almost every turn had these reflective signs showing you helpfully the the road did, in fact, turn here:

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I was delighted to find another first on our trip: a proper jungle. The windward half of the mountain range receives a remarkable amount of moisture from the ocean and dumps it onto not just unsuspecting motorcyclists, but also the forests, leading to a truly lush and gorgeous forest full of palm- and banana trees and deciduous trees of all kinds. An absolute explosion in biodiversity.

L1003420 This side was also quite dry, and we enjoyed being able to hit all the turns a bit faster. We did, ironically, work up quite a thirst and found this fantastic roadside family who cut and served coconuts. Highly, highly recommended:

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How’s the drink, Stu?

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After you finish it, you just give it to the good man and he’ll cut it up, throw in chili, lime and a few other goodies and you can eat the flesh. Delicious. Such a brilliant idea.

The twists and undulations in the road started to even out a bit, villages started appearing, and eventually we found ourselves on fairly flat ground. A massive mountain loomed behind us and the sun was rapidly sinking towards the now-sometimes-visible ocean. We crossed a bridge:

L1003445 … and tried to make it for Zipolite before dark.

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Zipolite was something I’d just heard about through the grapevine. I was told that despite Mexico’s somewhat conservative nature there were places where people took the laws and rules a bit less seriously, walked the beach nude, and let others do with their life what they pleased. Zipolite is one of those places, or so I was told, and I from what I heard its menagerie of crazies and eccentrics made for a very unique small beach town.

Being from San Francisco, I enjoy a good hippie beach town as much as the next guy.
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We definitely rushed once we hit the coastal highway, having to ride a little bit north (boo! We should be going south!) to make it to Zipolite. A small byroad shoots off the highway after a little mixed sand/dirt/pavement trail takes you right to the famed beach town.

We got in right as the sun started kissing the horizon. I just hopped off the bike and ran to the beach. It’d been a long enough day.

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The first order of things was, naturally, a dark beer, but also a quick gander at the local cuisine:

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Fish, right off the boat. You can’t just pass on that.

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This wonderful open-air ‘kitchen’ makes the absolute damn best fish and shrimp. I think it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had, period. That makes for one of the best and the worst meals in my life all in one day!

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This was a great beginning to a stay in Zipolite that went by far too fast. We met some locals and drank the night away. We rolled our bikes into a sandy, crappy beachside hotel so we had a place to stash our stuff safely. It was also right next to a bar called ‘A Nice Place’.

It was a nice place.

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Zipolite is a bunch of ramshackle structures all dotting a beach that is flanked by dramatic jagged rocks.

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Around sunset, you can actually see the sun spilling through some of the eroded rocks, spilling it last bit of warm and orange light into the cove.

L1003543 It’s a stunning sight, and it never gets old.

L1003552Then, as the sun starts to set and move against the horizon, it somehow feels like it lingers, as if the light that spilled in past the rocks hangs in the air like smoke.
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We were so mesmerized by this that we routinely forgot about the sometimes powerful waves and nearly drowned our telephoto lens…
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It’s all good, we kept it dry.

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Zipolite’s a small place, so you see most people come out to watch the sun set. This couple had a beautiful moment as the last light was slowly extinguishing and giving way to a clear starry sky:
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And then that was it. But a purple glow of the sun remained and we had another nice night out with some really great people we met and instantly got along with. It’s fun how easy it is to make friends as a smelly motorcycle bum.

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The next morning it was time for Stu to do some work on his fork. What’s the best possible place to work on motorcycles? I’d say a sandy courtyard of a crappy beachside hostel is just the ticket.

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Alright, give me your war face!

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Ah, yes, this is our accommodations. The place isn’t much, a sort of driftwood-fire-hazard by the beach, but it was ours for a few nights, and it did great. The owner was a total ass to us, but I kind of love that. Who doesn’t dream of quitting everything and moving to a tiny nude beach paradise far away to heckle strangers every day?

I know I do.
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Speaking of dreaming, Stu was looking dreamy so I took his portrait.

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It was our third day in Zipolite already, and it was starting to become apparent that if we had any say in it, we’d probably stay around for a long time. Perhaps we should do something productive or keep traveling, I would tell myself.

And then I’d walk by our regular spot:
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OK, we’ll stay just a little longer.

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Zipolite’s main drag is paved (!) and has all sorts of fun little shops and restaurants. The food’s great almost anywhere and there’s tons of gluten/meat/dairy/cat/dog-free meals available everywhere. I personally eat everything, but despite their laid back attitudes in life a lot of hippie types tend to be very picky eaters.

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Ah, how can you not love this place? Wandering around was a joy, with the town being so tiny. We were offered some exotic psychedelic drugs on the street at times, too — it’s not often you see a kind stranger offering to sell you some DMT. It reminded me of San Francisco a year or 10 back, where in Dolores Park you’d get offered a multitude of fun mind expanding substances if you just sat around with your friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

On the beach the drug of choice was alcohol, though, especially in the form of a nice chilled Pacifico. Ahh.

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I took a short hike up to the ‘meditation point’ which overlooks the cove. You get to really see the remarkable texture of the jagged rocks from up close — when they’re not covered in cacti and other interesting plants, that is.

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I have to admit, just the salty air and rushing waves really felt calming after what felt like such a long time riding inland.

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A change of pace.

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Oceans have a grounding effect on me. I’ve always lived near the ocean, and as a kid I found its sights, sounds and smells uniquely inspiring and important. There’s a saying in Dutch, that goes something like ‘to go and have the wind blow it out of you’; to have the ocean winds clear your head, and cool you down.

Oceans do that. I suppose that’s why this little meditation point was here, up on a cliff being battered by waves, up and away from the town and in a bit more wind than the cove the town hides in.

L1003658 L1003659 I walked back, the wind now playing a softer ballad through the little paper ribbons on the trail.

It’d be our last night in Zipolite.

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I wrote a bit in my hammock and had a beer as I sorted out some thoughts. Being on the road every day is nice; you get new sights, make new friends and have adventures every day. It lets you take your mind off a lot of regular thoughts in your mind, and it helped me lift myself out of a horrible depression I plunged into after my divorce.

But you do have to take time on the trip to reflect, and think a bit. Let the thoughts intrude on your mind so you can sort some things out.

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But as the light on my sandy feet turned orange, it was time to snap a few photos of the sun dipping behind the rocky outcroppings again. Stu ran out with our new friend Laura, who enjoyed photography herself:

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her brother Alexander and Bregje, our other new friends had already set up a nice little beach base right outside of A Nice Place:

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Where we could grab ample beverages to talk the night away and lament our having to get back on the road. Zipolite would be an easy place to ‘lose a trip’; with how cheap it is to live here, it’s tempting just to stick around for a while and see if you can work out some things in your life or write that novel you always wanted to write.

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And sometimes you’re lucky enough to make wonderful friends there, as well.

L1003730 With the glow of sunset vanishing we turned to the glows of a beach bonfire where old, young, hippies and locals all gathered to warm themselves, play music and dance.

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Here’s to the crazy ones.

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Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Photography Ride South Travel

Ride South – Oaxaca

To get from Tehuacán to Oaxaca you have two options: The toll road, 135D, or the free Ruta 135, which is looking exceptionally twisty and fun. The border between the states of Puebla and Oaxaca is also a unique transition into a high desert.

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This map again: sticking to the twisty 135. Where are we?

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Starting to get pretty close to the end of Mexico! This is where things start getting noticeably different: different climates, environments, our first jungles, and the edge of Aztec Mexico as it starts to transition to ancient Mayan Mexico.

Fortunately, unlike the explorers of yore, we had faster means of transportation than donkeys, and these roads have beautiful, curvy tarmac to carve with our tires.

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What a unique landscape out here. It reminded us of Baja, but at such altitudes and with such desolation. Morbidly brown, dry mountainsides with dramatic rock striations.

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Stu loves a good rock.

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We made occasional water breaks; it was getting warmer as we descended towards Oaxaca. We also stopped just to take some photos, because these curves lent themselves to some dramatic sweeping.

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Weeeeee!
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If there’s ever a need for a promotional image of Ruta 153, we humbly submit this one:

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Note the green stuff on the next mountain over. We’d successfully escaped the arid region and were now heading into the hills around Oaxaca, which surprisingly bloomed with actual green vegetation. It was wetter here, and the air hitting our faces felt warmer with every turn.

It was also the lower sun that was now shining in our face. It was getting dark by the time we rolled into Oaxaca.

Oaxaca (pronounced kind of like Wa-Hakka) is a state in Mexico that’s very well known for its culture and scenery. It’s pretty vast, stretching almost from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and almost smack dab in the middle of it sits Oaxaca City. Once an area of settlements of warring Zapotec and Mixtec natives, the greatest ruin that reminds you of its past is on hill outside of town called Monte Alban, which is the site of an Aztec fortress that was once used to maintain a military presence to rule the area.

When the Spanish came around, they used a their traditional, exceptional peacemaking technique to finally end generations of fighting between the locals by killing basically everyone and enslaving whoever remained.

They also established what is now modern day Oaxaca city, which gives it its beautiful colonial architecture.

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It was far too late for us to make it up the hill, so we wandered town for local specialties: mole, chocolate, art, and one I’d heard of since Baja: mezcal. Oh boy, do I love mezcal.

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Side note: apologies for the photo quality drop as we often avoid walking with big cameras in unknown cities at night. You never know…

The streets were slammed with people, music, and food. Oaxaca is a sublime city, one I truly loved the moment I started wandering around in it. If you’re not in the colonial cobblestone streets you’re walking through covered walkways filled with people and stalls.

There was also some kind of party happening (in Mexico? You don’t say!) and people were in costumes, playing music and having an incredible time. There were balloons all around the place and people selling various edibles and beverages including this rather fantastic rig:

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Nevermind, I decided to grab a camera. 

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I love the image Stu took of me with this kid, who kept calling me ‘Thor’. There were actual people in costume there, like Captain America, and I guess I looked the part!

Apart from the bucolic zocalo and the partying locals, another treasure of this place that we kept coming back to was chocolate. I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling like chocolate was a drug. Some people (cough, girls) joke about how chocolate is a drug to them, and something they need to keep them happy. Sound recognizable?

Well, we’re near the birthplace of chocolate. The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word chocolātl. Aztecs loved the stuff. And sure enough, the chocolate here is insane.

We had a cup at this particular place, Oaxaca en Una Taza (Oaxaca in a cup). It wasn’t just good; I felt invigorated and pulsing with energy until 3 AM. I’ve had highs from drugs that were less intense. If you’re in Oaxaca City, you owe it to yourself to get a hot cocoa or a mocha here. Who knows, perhaps they slipped some amphetamines in our cup, but it was a real experience.

After the joys of mole and chocolate we indulged in some mezcal (ahem, some) and we hit the bed.

We got an early start the next day just taking in the city and its sights.

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There’s always an ‘interesting bike of the city’ we find, and this one is awesome. I’d do a RTW trip on it, you?

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Some kind of dog show! These good boys were doing a very good job following commands. As far as our experiences with dogs in Mexico go, they must be the 0.1%.
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A short walk from the zocalo is the gorgeous cathedral of Oaxaca.

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Beautiful vignettes of colonial architecture, color and character at every turn. I really, really love this city.

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A piñata? Unsure. Beautiful, though.

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This blind man played music. We did ask his permission to take a photo — it’d be rather tasteless not to.

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Just your average street decorations:

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Mercado Benito Juárez is the most-go indoor market in Oaxaca City. Expect to find everything, including some really weird foods like maggots, grasshoppers and lots of meat. The place was absolutely filled with smoke. Awesome.

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The markets go on on the streets, with beautiful little bits of art and culture whichever way you go. We purchased a few skulls to safety-wire to the bikes. Unfortunately mine only made it a few miles before it shattered.

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As we walked back to the hotel, we reveled in the bustle and warmth of this city.

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Stu noticed some locals having a very hard time getting a lug nut loose on their car, so we helped out. By ‘we helped out’ I mean that I took photos while Stu did the hard work:

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Content with food and sightseeing in the city we rode the bikes up to Monte Alban, the Aztec fortress. The views got staggering:

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… and unfortunately that’s where it ended. Monte Alban closed very early, so we weren’t allowed entry. We peeked at it from afar and walked around the old trails up on the mountain. It’s a beautiful hill, and being up there makes it easy to understand why they fortified it so long ago. It has a commanding position overlooking the entire valley, with all its hillsides easily in view. Thick shrubs make it hard to get through the vegetation unless you follow certain routes.

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Disappointed, we headed back down and debated whether or not we should stay in this magical city for just another night.

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How could we not. Chocolate, magic, mezcal and superheroes filled the city as the sun went down. Adventure could wait a day.

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Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Ride South Travel

Ride South – Leaving Puebla

It was a crisp morning in Puebla. It doesn’t really get that cold in these parts of Mexico, but if you’d ask the local they would probably have a different opinion. People were huddled up in thick sweaters.

OK, it wasn’t actually morning. We had a bit of a long night, and I got up without a sign of Stu. He eventually made it back to the hotel just in time for some breakfast — another cemita, of course — and we had a bit of a wander around quiet Puebla.

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This helmet, though:

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A new year means New Year’s markets, apparently, and the they had all sorts of interesting things to peruse:

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Also cats, which were not for sale:
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I recalled the Dutch restaurant that we ran across when stopping in Cholula and I’d reached out on Facebook to see if they would be open. They excitedly replied ‘Claro!’, so that was the lunch plan. It would give us a great chance to visit Cholula’s historic church and Aztec ruins.

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Time to get out of this beautiful parking spot! It’s a 20 minute ride to Cholula from downtown Puebla. Make it 35 when you’re hungover, hungry and a bit slow.

Today’s route:

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The two dots near Cholula are Puebla and Cholula. Tehuacán is our stop for tonight, and Oaxaca our goal!

Cholula is an unglamorous city sitting in the shadow of the giant volcanoes that separate it from Mexico City. Today, it was quiet; it seemed nobody was out and every shop and restaurant was closed.

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Not so much the church, of course! Mexicans really love churches, and today was a special day, with people all about the church and common areas. The church here actually sits on an Aztec pyramid, which has been covered in dirt and grass as the ages relentlessly buried it in time.

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I am sure building a church on top of it didn’t exactly help the situation.

Puebs_y_Pops-00724 In some areas, you can still visit the ruins and admire the incredible scale and craftsmanship of the Aztecs. A genuinely fascinating and impressive society that was completely eradicated.
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Oh, and for the Dutch restaurant? We arrived at the ruins and church only to find it closed. Just like every other restaurant and shop. A taco stand managed to cool my hangriness, but I was very, very upset.

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So I suppose after taco lunch it was time to get on the road. From Puebla we had less of a clear goal: we really wanted to just get to Oaxaca. There’s brilliant riding between here and there, but for now it was a lot of highway in some very urban areas.

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Sometimes, the volcanic nature of the landscape surprised you as you rounded a turn…

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And light played beautifully on long stretches of roadway.

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Finally, we arrived in Tehuacan as the sun was setting and angry clouds were starting to gather. It’s never a really great idea to ride at night, let alone in countries like Mexico, so this would be home for tonight.

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Did I mention we’ve been blessed with unreal weather? This was the first sign of that changing. A very orange sunset betrayed moisture in the air, and the clouds amassing on the horizon made us realize we probably wanted to avoid camping tonight and grab a quick motel.

Tehuacán was an interesting industrial town. After having a chat with the ladies that ran the motel we walked across a myriad of train tracks to a set of working-people-neighborhood restaurants that happily served up food on a day where so many other places were closed.

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Another new favorite food discovered: tacos al arabe. Kind of like a kebab meets a taco.

Tehuacán might have many redeeming, beautiful and even interesting sights but as we arrived late and it was a holiday, we’d have to skip most of it. We were on a mission to get to Oaxaca, anyway!

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When dawn broke we realized just how colorful our choice of lodging really was! Little did we know this was but a taste of things to come…

Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Ride South Travel

Ride South – New Years with Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl

It was an early enough morning for us waking up in our tube hotel. Today an interesting challenge awaited us: circumnavigating the periphery of México City as we pushed eastward through the old Pass of Cortés (aka ‘Paso de Cortés).

It’s a pass drenched in history; supposedly Cortés, the Spanish conquerer of the Aztecs, marched his army through this pass to bring the native Mexicans of yore to heel. They fought the Mexicans at Cholula (yes, like the hot sauce…) and then went right up to Moctezuma’s home. Some strong tales of soldiers going into the volcanoes nearby to extract sulfur survive. Hmm, we should try doing that…

Nah, all that wasn’t really on our mind today: it was a lot of miles there, and we’d had some scattered reports that the path which ran through the saddle between two mighty volcanoes was pretty tough. Wikipedia listed it as ‘at least sometimes drivable’. That’s perfect, sounds like fun!

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Our route for today. We rose from our tube home

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And got some really rather great breakfast at the local haunt Les Colorines.

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It’s a beautiful pink building and you can grab some of the pulque this area is so known for. We also ran into some fellow adventure riders from Mexico City!

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Ahh, this isn’t helping Stu’s KTM envy at all.

Anyway, time to hit the road. I turned the key on the HP2 and it instantly popped my taillight. Cool, nice.

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Popped a new one in there. On to the highway!

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These roads.
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Have utterly.

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Incredible views.

We had a bit of highway slabbing until we made it to the short paved section up to the pass. Mexico never gets enough credit for how spectacular its roads are; this is right outside of Mexico City and it is breathtaking. Smoldering volcanoes lie asleep between rolling hills as you ascend slowly through corn fields, lush forest and small farms.

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This dip-in was the beginning of a pine tree-studded road absolutely riddled with turns. You couldn’t keep the bike upright for more than about a third of a second. It was pure joy and we took zero photos. Seriously. what a fun road. We saw absolutely nobody go up here and made it up the pass in about an hour or so.

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There’s a small cultural center at the top where you can learn about the history of the pass but also the volcanoes. There it is: Popo. Popocatépetl. The big pope.

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Not only is it a massive volcano, it’s actually still active. It has small eruptions all the time and you can see the plume of its smoke coming out of it here. It’s quiet.

Perhaps too quiet.

This thing is the 5th highest peak in all of North America, and the 2nd in Mexico. It’s kind of insane that it is sitting within striking distance of the most populous area of Mexico, with all of its massive power able to probably wipe out millions of people. For now, it’s a great backdrop for a motorcycle.

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We kept our guard, of course, in case this would suddenly turn into a scene from the 1997 disaster flick ‘Volcano‘. With some help, Tommy Lee Jones would suddenly appear too. Or Anne Heche… on second though, we’d rather have her around.

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Glam shot time! Which one is your favorite? I have a favorite. It’s the blue one.

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After our incessant clicking away with cameras we rode to the visitor center and met this huge fantastic family from Puebla! They loved the bikes and we took a ton of photos with them. I love how friendly they are around these parts, they even offered us candy and snacks (and soda, always soda…).

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Anyway, it was time to make it down that supposedly ‘sometimes traversable’ dirt road.

It’s beautiful. As soon as you start descending from the visitor station, it’s a rather sandy and dusty affair, but the views are insane. The entire valley soon stretches ahead of you with Puebla and Cholula in the distance, and turn after turn drops you slowly through forests of pine trees which give way for deciduous forests that grow on crumbling hillsides. The volcanic rock that sticks out at times is beautiful and jagged, and roots and sand washes keep it interesting.

We both kept a pretty good speed and as I’m perhaps a middling dirt rider I’d rate the route a 5/10 in terms of difficulty. There’s definitely some gnarly parts that could wipe you out if you’re not paying attention as well as some deep sand that’s always fun to wiggle around in at speed, but nothing you can’t handle if you take your time or pay attention. We did a bit of both.

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We stopped only once for a sip of water. What a ton of fun this road is. We again, didn’t run into anyone else, and quickly flicked the bikes around the final turns down to a disappointingly well paved road.

There it was, we’d finally cleared the pass. Much like history and Cortés, it now lay behind us, and Popo smiled as we left it growing smaller and smaller in our rear view mirrors. I was daydreaming about the pass and the magnificence of the volcanoes… and trying to steer around a pack of stray dogs when I saw Stu’s KLR hit a tope at speed in front of me and narrowly managed to avoid his panniers which comically flew off with a big arc.

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He should really fasten these things a bit better, a tope always sends them flying. There they are!

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A nice opportunity to snap another headshot. Calm. It stopped smoking. Probably better for its health.

We had a brief stop in Cholula! Right next to a historic buried pyramid and beautiful church, there’s an ostensibly Dutch bar. They might have the snacks I crave the most from home: bitterballen. Fried little balls filled with meat ragout. Alas, they were closed. Holidays.

Pretty church, though.

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We weaved through celebration traffic (seriously, there was a ton of traffic) to the downtown area of Puebla, where we were sure we could find somewhere to stay.

Did we mention we really never make reservations? We figured it’d be easy enough to find a hostel or somewhere else so we could enjoy the festivities right in the middle of town. We parked on the zocalo (the main square) and started looking around for hotels.

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Such a beautiful square. Puebla is a gorgeous town. It’s also a pretty busy town when it comes to festivities, apparently, because we couldn’t find a single hotel anywhere. Just when we were about to give up, we found a sort of refurbished governor’s mansion that was turned hostel… and it turned out they had a spot for us!

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What a spot!!! This might be the most beautiful parking spot we’ve ever had on this ride. Did we mention this place was a steal? The only catch was that they were having a gala that night. We weren’t invited, and we’d have to move the bikes into a hallway near the kitchen. Fine with us! We got a spot!

We met some of the fellow travelers at the hostel and went out with them to grab…

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Ah, the life giving dark Bohemia beer. I really love this stuff. Damn. As usual there’s several local Mexican treats to try here, and Puebla has a bunch of great ones. Mole Poblano is pretty well known, but the ‘Cemita’ is less famous. It’s a sesame seed sandwich with chicken or pork cutlet, mayo, avocado, and just tons of good stuff. It’s probably one of my new favorite sandwiches!

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Mei is one of the backpackers we ran into at the hostel. She’s an NY film student and was fending off practically the entire male population of our hostel, who were all trying to get lucky with her on New Year’s Eve.

Her way of dealing with it was beer. Always a good idea.

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After dinner and beers, I did some work on my laptop as Stu got ready for a date with a girl.

As droves of people celebrated in the city, I went to a local bar to make some new friends and drink my favorite dark Mexican beers until the celebration and dancing reached a crescendo at midnight. I couldn’t have been happier to ring in the New Year.

The next day I woke up with a blurry brain, a soft pounding reminder of walking the bustling streets into the city, the round of Heinekens I bought my newly made Mexican friends and a New Year’s Eve party at another hotel rooftop that I snuck into at 2 AM.  It was a night to remember, and a great way to kick off a year of adventure.

Categories
Mexico Motorcycles Ride South Travel

Ride South – Tepoztlán

They say altitude sickness resembles flu, or a hangover. What they don’t tell you is the swirling, odd dreams. Under the shadow of Xinantecatl, the Naked Mountain, I slept a restless night with Nahuatl patterns behind my eyes, with smoke in my nose and the sounds of animals and shaking pine needles of the trees around me in my ears.

Waking up in the shadow of Nevado de Toluca is interesting.

It’s December 30th, my sister’s birthday. Stuart was comfortably huddled in his sleeping bag. The temperatures were low — literally freezing, actually. Even the stray dogs around our campsite huddled up for warmth together under a small roof.

We’d spent enough time in Toluca and the area of México City – so once Stuart was up, we decided to set off with a just a little coffee. The road out is a nice, fairly well packed dirt road and is a blast to ride. We saw two other riders on their way in, wheeling heavy 1200GSes over the gravel. We stopped in Toluca for a quick bite of the most Mexican of breakfasts: bread with sugar on it.

They did have a beautiful painting of Nevado de Toluca, though:

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We want to spend New Year’s Eve in a nice city that isn’t México City, and we had a fun idea for a ride: from the volcano campsite, we could pop down by Tehuantepec to visit the Nahuatl mountaintop ruins of Tepoztlan, allowing us a night in a hotel before crossing the Pass of Cortez (Paso de Cortez) between Mexico’s biggest volcanoes: Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. The road down from there is a fun if somewhat technical sand and dirt road that eventually rolls into Cholula (yes, that Cholula, from the hot sauce!) and on into Puebla City, our New Year’s Eve spot of choice.

Our route today:

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It was a pretty nice route in, about three hours of riding.

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I’d found a hotel that wasn’t completely full (most hotels were sold out, likely for festivities?) and this one sounded just fine. We were slightly surprised to find our cheap hotel was… a tube.

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Not the most secure parking for our bikes but it’ll do.

The main attraction of Tepoztlan, the small town south of the grandiose basin of México City, is El Tepozteco. The town itself cowers in the view of a near-vertical range of mountain cliffs, which is in turn adorned with a temple at the very top. Dense forest covers the tops of the cliffs like some sort of dense vegetative foam. We were here, we might as well lock up our stuff and start hiking up.

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Tepoztlan is now mostly surviving on tourism, so as you walk the single pathway to the mountaintop, the town gives way to small shacks for a mile on end selling all manner of products. Indigenous woodworks, beads, jewelry, food… ah, food.

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We love the cutting of sweet fruits with lime and chili on top. It was hot, absolutely sweltering tropical heat, a strange change from freezing temperatures in the morning. We were melting, and the cool fruit gave a welcome respite despite its spicy kick.

The trail up wasn’t too hard – perhaps a few miles, and tons of people were hiking up. It made us happy, as a trail like this was unlikely to see this much traffic in the US. A fairly steep climb made it somewhat unfriendly to families, but we saw tons families with kids and teenagers hiking up. Once at the top, a small manned gate demands your dineros before letting you into the site. It allows for a free hike up (a rare thing) and a smart upsell: you came all this way, you might as well go see the temple…

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Even without the temple, the hike is worth it. Not only is the climb up a crazy, jungly affair of long tangled vines and vegetation, the panoramic views atop the mountain are gorgeous.

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It takes little imagination to see how the sheer jagged cliffs could be the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.

The temple itself was once the shrine to Tepoztecatl, an Aztec god of booze. Particularly, pulque, the agave pulp drink you can find in Central México. I’m not a huge pulque fan, but the Aztecs believed it was one of the best things you could imbibe and even had an entire god dedicated to it.

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Disheartening and obnoxious to see people systematically ignore signs put up to prevent further wear to the ruins and climb on the 1500 year old carved stones. We could yell them down, but masses more would come up to take selfies. Not the ancient ruins or meticulous carvings or the views: no, their own ratty faces. It’s unfortunate that sacrificing youth isn’t a DIY affair at these places today.

We spent a few hours up there, as the sun was setting late.

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It was the last sunset of the year, and we looked as the mountain ridges all around us shone, glowed, and finally bathed in the blood from the reddened sun that was impaling itself on the ridges. Purple light cast on the face of the pyramid, now quiet from the crowds, and in the jungle around the warm rock life began to stir.

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We were the last ones up there when a park worker came to yell at us to leave.

As we turned down the path to the town, a majestic gradient of peach color cooling into cobalt blue dominated the sky. On the cliff above us, the temple lay there, with the resplendent grace of petrified gods.

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When we got down, our warm night was spent walking through town and its old, central market. It contrasts heavily to the tourism-centric main streets, which are thinner in crowds and sees more backpackers and resettled hippies. We sat and chatted with one, which was kind enough to brew us some delicious tea to cap off our night as we talked about paths, travels and living all over the world.

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Somewhere, a feathered serpent shrugged.

Categories
Gear Photography Reviews Travel

Leica M – The Full Review

It was early in 2014, long enough after the introduction of the Leica M (also known as the ‘Typ 240’, or ‘M10’) when I finally bit the bullet and decided to sell my trusty Leica M-E for this newest, rather different digital rangefinder camera from the German niche camera maker.

I always vowed I’d write a thorough review on it, much like I’d done for the Bessaflex TM. I do always feel, however, that a truly great review puts a product through its paces. It frustrates me when a journalist only gets to use a product for a short amount of time to deliver a rushed impression to an inquisitive reader. I didn’t want to be that guy. So, I ditched a few drafts in the last two and a half years.

Until now.

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After I first got it, I took the Leica M to Europe and back. Then, I covered it in dust in a 4-day music festival in California. Finally, I got on my motorcycle, threw it over my shoulder and rode to the Arctic Ocean with it – took a break, and continued to ride to Costa Rica. It has seen 13 countries, almost every biome on Earth from Arctic Tundra to the tops of Central American volcanoes, deserts and Dutch polders, has shot through over a dozen lenses, shot an Eryc Prydz music video behind the scenes, and has gotten (nearly) destroyed with abuse.

So by now, I can truly give you my thorough review of this camera.
 
 
 

Basics and Usage

 

The Leica M is a full-frame, 24 megapixel digital camera wrapped in a tough brass enclosure.

 

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Leica M cameras are ‘rangefinder’ type cameras, which is something different than an SLR. The main difference between an SLR (‘Single-lens reflex’, like Canon or Nikon’s cameras) and a rangefinder is the viewfinder and focusing mechanism. With the SLR, the camera user always sees through the lens. Effectively, your view of the world is entirely the same as your lens, and once you release the shutter a mirror moves the image onto the sensor or film. Rangefinder cameras are mirror-less and do not operate in this way: they have a little window which shows a set of lines overlaid on the image that correspond to what your lens will capture. Looking through the viewfinder, it looks like this:

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Note you can even see the lens on your camera in the bottom right!

The bright patch in the middle is for focusing. Rangefinder based focusing is one of the older technologies for capturing a sharp image and works incredibly simply: as you turn the focusing ring on the lens it pushes in a cam on the camera which in turn moves a prism near the viewfinder that projects a horizontally offset image of what you are focusing on on top of your viewfinder. Once these two images — the projected, offset image — and the regular image of what you are framing are overlapping, the focus is accurate.

It sounds more complex than it is:

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… the end result is simple: overlap the same thing in your viewfinder and boom, perfect focus.

The benefits of rangefinders are multiple: for one, as you can see more than just what your lens sees, you can frame your image more effectively. You never have to hunt for your subject as you see things the same as you would with your eyes. When you take a photo, the viewfinder remains unobstructed; contrast with an SLR immediately interrupts the image as the mirror moves, blacking out your view for a moment.

Personally, I also feel like looking through an un-magnififed image directly into the world with your framelines overlaid gives you that particular hard-to-explain feeling some people wax poetic about when it comes to rangefinders: it becomes an extension of your eye. As there’s no adjustment in perspective, it feels like adding a little overlay to your actual eyes to shoot a photo. You feel part of the scene, involved, connected. You can think of the photo more conceptually than you would when you would look through the lens. The end result, I’ve found, is that it forces you to think about your shot a lot more.

The drawbacks are also real: for longer focal lengths like telephoto lenses, it can be quite difficult or impossible to even see what you are shooting. Rangefinder cameras just weren’t made for longer lenses — well, until this particular one. More on that later.

Leica has an excellent reputation as one of the best camera lens makers in the world, and the M line of cameras has an incredible variety of glass. Thanks to the all-mechanical aspect of the lenses — no autofocus, all-metal — even some of the oldest Leica lenses from many decades ago work perfectly with the modern M camera. With the new M, you can also adapt a huge variety of lenses from established camera brands like Canon, Nikon, Sigma and even Leica’s old R-line of SLR lenses, thanks to the new camera’s sensor being a CMOS.

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The previous Leica M camera, the M9, used a CCD sensor. While it gave it lovely colors and a more pleasant-looking noise pattern, it had poor high ISO performance and no movie or Live View capabilities.

The newer M, with its CMOSIS CMOS sensor can indeed now record movies or show the photographer exactly what the lens is seeing with ‘Live View’: a video feed right from the sensor. It’s a fantastic addition: not only does it offer more options for focusing and exposure checking, it also eliminates one of the drawbacks of a rangefinder camera: putting a long telephoto lens on it is now completely viable through the use of the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the screen on the back.

With Live View, you’d think the battery life of the M would suffer, but as the battery in the M is significantly larger than the older generations of digital Ms, it shoots for a significantly longer period of time on a single charge. I don’t measure battery life in my reviews, but when I use it intensively I only have to charge it once every few days. In my experience the battery lasts longer than a Canon 5D Mark II / III and far, far longer than the Sony A7S / A7R II in a similar day of usage.

What also sets it apart in daily use is weight. Despite being tiny, it has quite a bit of heft: the Leica M is pretty much a solid piece of brass, and it feels like it. People who handle mine often exclaim ‘wow, this thing is heavy!’. Comparatively, though, a Canon 5K Mark III body is 860g (just shy of two pounds) whereas the Leica M is a svelte 680 grams (24 oz). What fools you is the difference in size: the Leica is just so damn compact. Before the Sony A7 series, there was no smaller full-frame digital camera on the market, and it is still impressively small coupled with its small lenses.
 
 
 

The Design

 

Leica makes some of the world’s most beautiful cameras, which has the somewhat sad side effect that what seems like a majority of Leica shooters don’t really go out and use their cameras. I often get called out at serious shoots on sets or at music festivals by astonished photographers that find it insane that I actually take it out to shoot with. A bit embarrassing, isn’t it? If you aren’t going to use your camera for its sole purpose — taking photos — what good is it?

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But sure, it looks gorgeous. I’ll hand it to the ‘stable queen’ keepers who baby their Leica on a shelf in their home: it looks beautiful just sitting there. It’s a camera that doesn’t just take photos well, but also photographs well. My friend Garrett Murray hilariously observed that his most popular photo on Flickr was a photo he took *of* his Leica while it’s being held by his wife.

The M comes in two colorways: silver chrome and and black. I have typically opted for chrome-finished Leicas. Some people swear by the notion that a rangefinder camera, being the tool of the street photographer, should be as stealthy as possible and thus black. I have found the chrome versions to be a bit nicer looking and reactions much nicer if people are aware their photos are taken anyway — not to mention putting any camera up to your eye will get you noticed, black camera or not. They seem to hold a higher value, too, for a reason I am completely unaware of.

An added benefit of the classic look of silver chrome and black leather is that people almost always assume it is a film camera, which is generally received with a more warm attitude as well as having the great benefit of letting you take photos without people wanting to see them immediately after.

Functionally speaking, the M has a very minimal take on camera controls: it simply has one dial for setting exposure and a shutter release button. The two buttons on the front are a lens mount release button and a button you can use for focus assist if you use the electronic viewfinder.

Aperture is controlled on the lens itself, and a smattering of buttons are on the back of the camera to view images as well as adjust ISO other and settings.

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Leica’s lenses are something else entirely as far as design goes, as well. ‘Design’ is often misunderstood to be a mere aesthetic flourish or a lick of paint, but for Leica it’s not just the impeccable color highlights and typography on the lens that makes them a design leader. Their products have a tactile sensation that’s not quite unlike the feeling of an ultra-high end car door, or a finely tuned motorcycle gearbox. I can’t actually think of a single physical object that has as pleasant and satisfying of a tactile feedback as the aperture ring on Leica’s top tier lenses. You may only have manual control — Leica’s M lenses are simply metal and glass, with no electronics — but the treat is that the manual controls feel exceptionally good.

Where many camera lenses offer a shoddy feeling plastic hood, Leica’s lens hood literally just slides out, and completely vanishes into the lens barrel design when not in use.

Newer lenses even have the hood lock into place – and thus, putting a hood on your lens is as simple as 1, 2, 3:

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These are but a few of the small things you run into that make you hopelessly fall in love with the Leica Way of Doing Things™ once you get (un)fortunate enough to use one of their cameras. Optional hoods, like the one on the Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH FLE, can be removed, but also ship with a small metal ring that can be screwed on to maintain the smooth design of the lens barrel and not leaving the lens hood thread exposed. When screwed on, these hoods have a patented detent that ensures the lens always locks flush with the camera body, and the hood itself features a small cutout to minimize blockage of the viewfinder when attached.

These details are so impeccably detailed and well thought out that it sometimes feels like you’re just spoiling yourself a little too much. It’ll certainly make you smile if you appreciate great design.

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The camera body’s geometry is fairly ancient. It still resembles the first Leica camera from 1913 quite a bit. The Leica evolved into the M3, eventually, which stayed mostly identical in design until today. The main difference is size: the Leica M is a bit thicker than its film cousins.

It also got greatly simplified, with each previous generation losing an external feature on the camera body as technology allows.

Compared to the M7 film body, the overall finish of the chrome is improved, as well as the shutter dial receiving a nicer design. They dropped the frame selector lever on the front as well as the rangefinder lighting window. Otherwise, it looks unchanged from the M9 and M-E, though in a rather puzzling change, the shutter release button uses a different thread.

Yes, I say ‘thread’: where most modern professional cameras use a remote shutter release either powered by infrared, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or something else, Leica still only takes a shutter-by-wire remote release like you sometimes see in movies from the 1950s. It also lets you screw in an, in my opinion, absolutely non-optional accessory known as the ‘soft release’, which gives the somewhat stiff shutter release button a more pleasant and tactile action.

A small byline: Leica has a way with packaging. It’s a lovely experience to receive anything from Leica. The M arrives in a type of folding box, with all packaging beautifully and thoughtfully designed. It’s a far cry from the average Japanese camera company, with its boxes stuffed full of black and white booklets, small mountains of black cables and shoddy packing materials.
 
 
 

Shooting with the M

 

It’s nice to look at, sure, but the shooting experience is what makes the M excellent. The sensor of the Leica M, while not made by a company like Canon, Fujifilm or Sony (who makes the sensors in Nikon cameras and even in your iPhone) is really quite great. Out of the gate, the only quibble with it was its white balance being a bit off, but subsequent firmware updates improved the auto white balance performance quite a bit.

The most important quality of a sensor in this day and age, for me, is its dynamic range. The dynamic range is essentially simply how well it can cope with images with very bright and dark areas in one frame. You can imagine the camera attempting to expose to retain detail in the highlights, but in doing so making the image darker, and thus losing detail in the shadows. If a camera sensor deals with this well, it has excellent dynamic range.

Here’s an example of an image I shot in Rennes, France. When I shoot, I tend to expose for the highlights, leaving the image dark out of the camera. With the M’s default light metering mode, it also tends to expose very well for highlights.

After correcting the shadows in Lightroom, you can see a ton of data was well-preserved in the shadows:

Shadow Recovery with the Leica M

This is a great characteristic to have in a camera. I found other modern cameras like the Sony A7R2 to be great in the area of dynamic range, too, but its fine grained noise (likely caused by its rather extreme pixel density on the sensor) is very bothersome in most shots I took once I pulled the shadows up a stop or two.

Additionally to its excellent sensor performance, the Leica M lacks the low-pass filter of many full-frame cameras which gives it superb sharpness. It also makes it more susceptible to moiré patterns, though I have never found this to be an issue.
 
 
 

Focusing

 

Focusing is incredibly easy with the M, with the caveat that your rangefinder has to be well-adjusted. I have never had to adjust a Leica rangefinder camera for any issues save for a motorcycle accident once, but rangefinders can get out of whack: my Zeiss Ikon rangefinder camera had serious issues with its calibration over time. The prisms and mirrors that create the focusing patch in the viewfinder can be misaligned when the camera takes a beating, leaving you to do focusing with the lens focus scale. Fortunately, it seems the hard body of the Leica Ms protects the rangefinder workings well.

Naturally, with the new M you’re always able to get focus another way: the option of being able to frame and focus with the screen on the back or the optional EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) lets you see what the sensor in the camera sees; looking through the lens instead of the traditional rangefinder is a nice addition, and I use it often for some of my adapted lenses or to get an idea of what my ultra-wide lens sees.

I have restored an old Helios 40, for instance, which was nearly seized up and in a bad shape when I got it from eBay. Once I cleaned the elements and re-greased the focusing helicoid I had a great, quirky and fast 85mm lens:

Leica M with Helios 40 lens

I have also adapted the rather huge Leitz 350mm Telyt-R to the M, which looks both hilarious and terrifying:

Leica M with Leica Telyt-R 350mm lens

But it performs quite well, and with the EVF it’s easy enough to focus. Here’s a photo I took at sunset of Sutro Tower in San Francisco from Bernal Hill:

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This is where you can see how much of a difference Live View really makes: thanks to the addition of it you can actually use the M with longer lenses!

In the past, it’d be quite literally impossible to do so. A rangefinder camera simply wasn’t able to use lenses that long. It was a pleasure to use them on the M, mainly thanks to the new features added in a firmware update that let you enable an electronic level overlay and ‘focus peaking’, a filter on the image that highlights the areas that are in critical focus for even easier focusing.

 
 
 

Optics

 

The Leica M doesn’t come with a lens; it has to be purchased separately. Leica lenses are impressively small and perform incredibly well — particularly the wide-angle lenses. A hallmark of the Leica wide-angles is the lack of spherical distortion (often referred to as ‘fish-eye distortion’). Thanks to the lack of the mirror box in the Leica M bodies, the lenses can be engineered in an entirely different and much more compact way. There’s simply no way to build the same lens for a longer focal plane length, and Leica reaps those rewards with great grace. It is worth noting that Leica also added a unique micro-lens design on the sensor to minimize the color shift in the edges of the frame.

One of my favorite lenses for the Leica M is the 12mm Voigtländer Ultra-Wide Heliar. I previously used the 15mm Ultra-Wide by Voigtländer as well, on the M9, but it seems the M handles these lenses even better, with less discoloration and vignetting at the corners:

Leica M with Ultra-Wide Angle lens

The reason this discoloration exists, is that light hits the camera sensor at a rather extreme angle of incidence and refracts into various wavelengths — thus, colors — of light. It causes a pink or green color shift which can be rather undesirable. Again, I noticed the M handled this better, which may be attributed to the improved design of the micro-lenses on the camera’s pixels.

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Sony’s A7 series of cameras are not great at handling these lenses yet, sadly, due to the lack of such specialized micro-lens design on their sensors, causing actual pixel smear and detail loss in the corners. Their sensor also has a significantly thicker cover glass that makes it lose some critical sharpness if you use your Leica lenses on the A7-series bodies.

A common critique of all things Leica is, naturally, the price of their wares. Leica M lenses are certainly pricy: one of my favorite go-to lenses, which was used to shoot a lot of the photos in this article, is around four thousand dollars. But the point of a true system camera is options; for an M shooter, those options are drawing from a long list of vintage rangefinder lenses going back almost a hundred years (which are often optically excellent), Voigtländer lenses, Zeiss’ line of ZM lenses and Leica’s modern M lens offerings. Between all of these, acquiring a set of fast primes can be very affordable.

While tangentially related to optics, it is worth noting that due to the small size and soft shutter action of the M body — and of course, the lack of a mirror slapping — vibration is reduced so significantly that it is quite easy to shoot handheld photos at slower shutter speeds than comparable SLR cameras. I can shoot my 35mm lens at 1/20th to even a tenth of a second without the image getting too blurry. A compact lens helps here, too.
 
 
 

Build

 

The Leica M is, like its M series predecessors, made out of brass, which gives it a nice bit of heft and makes it feel quite dense. Its solid feeling body is no illusion. In this particular version of the M, some weather-proofing and a stronger lens mount were also added. I haven’t noticed the improvements significantly: I always took my old M-E out in adverse weather and continue to do so with the M.

I can, however, share an anecdote on the M’s general solid build.

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While shooting in Alaska I crashed my motorcycle. I was going about 55 miles per hour when I hit a bunch of large rocks in the road, and a rather wobble quickly flipped my bike right into the ground, tossing me off the seat and onto the rocky ground. I had my Leica M on my shoulder and I happened to land on it. Ouch.

I gathered myself, and ran back to my bike to pick it up. After I assessed the damage to the bike, I started to grab my belongings off the road and noticed the camera that was still dangling off my shoulder – but the lens was missing.

The lens was a bit further down the road — I landed belly down, so the lens and the top of the camera took the brunt of the impact. The lens, a Zeiss ZM 28mm f/2.8, snapped off at the mount. The mount was a bit damaged, but worked fine. I was certain that I wouldn’t be shooting with the camera body anymore – I’ve accidentally kicked my 5D Mark II across a floor once, and it was completely destroyed with pieces of plastic flying all over the place.

Not so for the M. I was actually in a nervous enough state to put on another lens and take a shot, which resulted in this rather creative image:

Leica M Shutter Broken

I figured the sensor was probably toast. The shutter didn’t sound very healthy, but once I triggered Live View it took photos fine.

The sensor was (obviously) quite dirty, but the mount, sensor and the rest of the camera was completely usable! I ended up attaching my remaining lenses (a 35mm Summilux and a 12mm Voigtländer Ultra-Wide) and shooting more. 18 days later, I took this photo riding over the Golden Gate Bridge:

M on Golden Gate

(that is one dirty sensor!)

Once back in San Francisco the camera started showing some more issues — particularly with the shutter — so I took it to Leica which fixed it up. Leica being a bit of a small shop takes a pretty long time to get a repair assessed and done, which is my biggest complaint with them. Other than the turnaround time the repair was very well handled by the Leica Store SF people and the company, and when I got it back it worked perfectly, while still showcasing its character:

My worn, beat up Leica M

My faithful former companion.

I wouldn’t have it any other way — it certainly looks used and abused now. I often get comments from people that are astonished I bang it up so much and take it places where it gets scratched or dinged up. Which is silly — you shouldn’t buy a camera unless you plan on using it without any reservations.

The lens I was unable to fix. Even when I attached a new mount (the old one was bent beyond repair) the lens itself is a bit shaky and less than sharp. I suspect some of the elements were sufficiently shaken up to get out of alignment. A real bummer as it is easily one of my favorite lenses of all time. Zeiss offered me a discounted replacement at this time of writing, stating the lens was unrepairable.
 
 
 

The M vs. the competition

 

A few thoughts on my use of the M versus other oft-used comparable cameras. While I’ve used the SL for about a week, I can’t really make a sound case for it yet so I have omitted it.

Leica Q icon

The Leica M vs. the Leica Q

 

Leica released a new, pocket-sized but premium fixed-lens camera last year and dubbed it the Q. Comparisons with the M are abound, but overall the Q is not so much based on the M as it is a reimagining of a pocketable camera with modern technology using M-grade optics.

The Q excels at quick and simple snapping. Smartphones occupy this niche firmly, but no matter what huge billboards tell you, their photos simply aren’t that great. Barring any extreme advances in camera engineering, they will always lack depth of field, low-light sensitivity, sharpness and dynamic range. The Q has been designed to go exactly in the same use case as your phone:

– it uses a comparable wide-angle fixed lens (28mm for the Q, compared to a ~22mm equivalent on the iPhone);
– it autofocuses as fast or faster as a top smartphone today;
– it comes with a touchscreen to quickly swipe through photos or even tap to focus on a subject;
– it takes great, no-fuss video;
– and it has Wi-Fi for pairing with your phone to immediately share your snaps

In doing so, it does things the M probably never will. The Q is great with dynamic social settings like being in the backyard with your kids running around; continuously manually focusing would be tiresome and difficult there. It can go head-to-head with the M on street photography, with a shutter that is possibly the quietest I’ve ever heard. Notably, unlike the M, there is no direct viewfinder or rangefinder but a (decent) EVF that looks through the lens. I found the EVF to be acceptable, but no substitute for the optical rangefinder of the M.†

Overall, the Q is an exceptionally great point and shoot camera. Its manual focus system and macro switch are things that are so well engineered and so much fun to use I actually laughed with glee when I used them. To me, however, it’s not a camera for more demanding usage scenarios simply by virtue of feeling more fragile and less flexible than the M. Being unable to swap lenses leaves you with the one (admittedly exceptional) lens on the Q, and when traveling with both it just made me reach for the M that much more often.

the SL’s EVF is really, really exceptional. In some cases, better than most optical viewfinders. I still found its color and shadow rendering suboptimal, though.

Sony A7R2 Icon

The Leica M vs. the Sony A7R2

 

The Sony A7 series are the current cream of the mirrorless full-frame crop. I’ve used the A7, A7R, A7S, A72 and A7R2 (confused yet?) and the latter — also known as the A7 R Mark 2 — is arguably the most advanced and ‘best’ of the bunch‡.

The Sony A7 series wins over the Leica in sheer flexibility. You can literally load apps onto the A7 cameras (the time-lapse one is my favorite). It has several buttons which only exist to be bound to a particular feature. There’s 12+ pages of menu settings to explore. You can install a smartphone app and shoot through that, or pair your phone with NFC.

The A7R2 wins over the M in both video usage (the M’s video feature is a token video feature that I have personally never used) and raw megapixel count. It’s delightful to be able to crop down to a quarter of the image and have adequate resolution left. That being said, I can’t say I use this often, and it makes for extremely large files that can be a hassle to work with. Another tradeoff of such a high pixel density is some more ‘cross-chatter’ between the pixels on the actual sensor which can produce the aforementioned bothersome noise in images.

Above all, the A7 series are simply not nearly well-built or as pleasant to shoot with. I found the controls often irksome, the control scheme overly cluttered (even coming from Canon and Nikon pro-level bodies) and the buttons flimsy. This is also true compared to competition in the same field from Fuji, which makes the impeccable X-Pro camera that is just a lot more pleasant to take photos with. Usability and feel are very clearly a distant afterthought in the A7 series, which is a huge bummer. Anecdotally, the build the bodies I got from Sony was questionable, as I had shutter lock-ups at very high altitudes and battery door hinges come loose in the field before.

As a last minus of the A7 series, I also found the battery life unacceptable. I usually get about half a week to a week of fairly intense use out of my M battery, and with the Sony bodies I find myself needing spare batteries on the same day.

in actual usage in our trip to South America, me and Stuart both vastly preferred the A7S build, reliability and even images over the A7R2, which felt more like a bundle of endless compromises to achieve its high megapixel count. Several A7R2 bodies I used exhibited hardware failures at some point.

 
 
 

Gripes

 

I have very few gripes with the M. In fact, it’s my favorite camera on the market. I’ve tried all of Sony’s current offerings, but they simply fail to offer the experience and feel of shooting the M. In my travels, they have been unreliable, and their poor build quality doesn’t inspire confidence. Somehow in the M’s feature set, they have found everything that a camera should do and put all those functions in a place that makes perfect sense.

Of course, for different people there’s different ‘perfect cameras’: what might be perfect for me could be completely different from you. But I’ve certainly heard nothing but praise from the friends that have borrowed my M for short periods of time.

Small quibbles with the M I do have, which I mostly have now that the Leica Q is out which boasts a number of features that I’d love to see in the M.

– I certainly wish it could focus closer. I wish Voigtlander could make a close-focus adapter for the M, like they made for the Sony A7 series! I think the flange distance prohibits this.

– The ‘M’ button for movies should be either moved so it’s not easily triggered on accident, or be made reassignable in firmware to other functions. I have made a few accidental movies in my time.

Unknown

– An upcoming M having a method for remote shutter release that is not an old-fashioned cable release would be great and save on my usage of timed release shots for long exposures (or upgrade the ‘auto exposure’ mode to max out at more than 60 seconds at ISO 200)

– The new Leica SL has gotten proper weather-sealing, and while the M is arguably weather-sealed, it’s certainly not as weaponized as the SL. That being said, I’ve used it in pouring rain many times and it’s been fine.

– It goes against being the bare essence of photography, but shooting with the Leica S and SL made me miss their built-in automatic GPS geotagging. To accurately have your photos store their location in their metadata is extremely cool, particularly when traveling.

– Leica simply does not put enough employees on repair duty for the M series. I have heard their pro-level S cameras have a great repair turnaround, but if you do send in your M for repairs, expect to be out of it for weeks – sometimes months. This is absolutely unacceptable, especially at its price point.

 
 
 

Verdict

 

The previous version of the M which I owned, the Leica M-E, was a very capable camera with incredibly beautiful colors (photos from that camera featured here), but poor high-ISO performance. It also lacked a high resolution screen, weather sealing, and movie recording / live view.

With all that improved in the new Leica M, it is now my favorite camera. It has earned that in its sheer pleasure of usage, performance in image quality and robustness. If I were to buy any camera on the market today, even with Sony’s latest offerings and the new Leica Q, I would still pick the Leica M. Like a film camera, it has improved my photography greatly, but it is also simply one of the most refined tools for a photographer to use… and abuse.

Leica M on bookshelf

It stood up to some of the most serious wear and through some of the worst conditions for cameras we can find in the world – and it stuck with me where many a modern SLR would have failed. I hope Leica will continue making the legendary M for quite some time.

   
 

A selection of photos

 

Here’s a selection of photos I took with my trusty M through the years. Most photos on the ‘Ride South’ and ‘Ride North’ articles on this website were also shot with the Leica M.
 
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