South America by Motorcycle

A Kawasaki Motorcycle Tour

south america 1

Dan Ricker looks out over the road to Abancay in central Peru as the Crazy Gringos head into the mountains toward the end of their trip

Photo by Neale Bayly

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Customs Office, Guatemala City, Central America: Each of our four Kawasaki 550 motorcycles now has 31 different sheets of paper, ranging from photocopies of passports to typed forms with VIN and registration numbers. Thirteen people at 13 desks had to stamp each piece of paper. Mercifully, not all of them needed to be bribed.

The strain was beginning to show on our faces, along with the sweat. Maybe we had made a big mistake; maybe our motorcycles would be stuck in Guatemala City forever; maybe we should have just ridden down through Mexico.

The idea had seemed simple enough: Buy four beater motorcycles, ship them to Guatemala, and tour Central and South America by motorcycle riding as far south as we could in five weeks, but sometimes things don’t quite go as planned. Spending two days in the middle of an expensive Latin American paper chase was not the start we had envisioned in Florida during the planning stages.

Getting started

The story actually began for me in 1988. Having returned to the U.S. after riding around Australia, I was working on a new motorcycle adventure to South America. An industrial accident requiring two major spinal surgeries to correct put an end to that trip, but not the dream. Fast-forward to 1995, and while working at Precision Cycle in Sarasota, Fla., a new motorcycle tour was planned. Ron Kilma (owner of the shop), Dan Ricker, Joe Eriei and I bought four $300 mid-1980s Kawasaki 550 motorcycles and made sure they were mechanically sound before sending them on ahead to Guatemala City. With each of us riding a similar motorcycle we could carry one set of spare parts that fit all, minimizing the amount of equipment we needed to carry.

We used the shipping time to get our shots, passports and other details together and, after our wonderful Latin American paper chase on arrival, saddled up and hit the Pan-American Highway by motorcycle.

Nightfall of our first day’s riding found us on the border with El Salvador. A miscommunication caused us to ride 30 miles of incredibly rough road after dark, costing us two speedometer cables and two sets of fork seals. We certainly couldn’t afford too many mistakes of this nature. The next day things settled down, but by the time we arrived in Costa Rica, things were getting set to change.

Diary excerpt: We made the outskirts of San Jose by lunch and stopped in a little bar to the south of the city. We lost “Little Joe.” She was young, shy, and very pretty; she told him he was beautiful, and now we are three.

With a plan to meet Joe in Panama City, we headed off to the mountains and began climbing up to the clouds, before crossing into Panama and back down to sea level and the incredible Panama Canal. Here we booked our passage to Colombia and took a day to attend to domestic duties.

Diary excerpt: So here we are in Panama City, a multiracial crossroads of the world, doing our laundry and waiting for our ship to Colombia. The body needs a rest today. Sitting here catching up on my writing, looking out at the world going by, evokes a kind of contentment that is hard to describe, an intense feeling of living in the present, of RIGHT NOW! A brightly decorated bus flies noisily by, a horn honks, and two beautifully dressed women catwalk by. The washing machines rattle and roll as if they are washing their last load. A black and white TV blares some soap opera as the laundry ladies chatter. Dan and I sit writing (in our shorts, no clean clothes yet). A young boy in school uniform comes in, learning English.

Into South America

With a troop of performing Russian dancers and a storm for accompaniment, Ron, Dan and I steamed through the night, before disembarking into a golden sunshine-filled Colombian day port side in Cartagena. We cleared customs, made our way out of town and headed into the lush, green mountains with a feeling that the journey was really beginning. Latin America had been fairly hard on us: We had lost Joe, Dan had crashed and fried his wiring harness, and the bikes were looking decidedly beat. Yet we were feeling confident, and the world was a beautiful place on that sunny morning as we rode.

Diary excerpt: The views across the ever-larger mountains are lifting our spirits constantly higher. We stop at one of the highest points to watch some hang gliders soaring on the thermals, thousands of feet in the air. Passing on these roads is a blast! We cruised into Medellín, and a couple of young lads blasted us around town to change money and eat. Totally cool. We gas up and head back into some serious mountains. We enjoy some marvelous views, clouds hanging in between the peaks: the colors slowly changing as the sun goes down.

As reputedly one of the most dangerous countries in the world to ride through, Colombia was an incredible surprise. Beautiful and blessed with the most peaceful, tranquil and helpful people, our time there was intensely satisfying. Things were getting set to change as we crossed into Ecuador.

So into Ecuador we rode, the mountains suddenly turning bleak and harsh. The sky turned dark, the clouds to gray, and the countryside became damp. We came to our first fork in the road and up ahead a small town appeared. Well, the road was full of people — burning a car in the middle of it. The faces were very Indian and not very happy, so we detoured off, down into the town. All the roads were blocked, but we got down a muddy sidewalk and out of town — most strange. We didn’t see many vehicles, and in lots of places there were signs of where the road had been blocked with fires that were still smoldering. We saw poor Indians with their small felt hats, staring blankly at us from their incredibly squalid huts along the side of the road.

We rode on, and then stopped for gas, as some local women sold apples. As Dan and I drank coffee, Ron attracted the usual crowd of curious onlookers. What was this strange leather-clad creature peeling oranges next to three mud splattered, loaded-down old motorcycles?

Heading for Quito, night came quickly up in these mountains, and we pulled over. Lady Luck being on our side, we found a resort-type place to stay, with log cabins, indoor heated pool, hot tub, sauna and a nice restaurant. The first light of morning revealed the wondrous sight of Dan on his way to the bathroom, and through the window picturesque views of our first snow-capped mountain. We are over 10,000 feet, but being so close to the equator it is cold but not freezing. We breakfasted with the distant mountain dominating the view through the window and were on the road for Quito, at 11,500 feet.

By the time we got to Quito, we had crossed the equator, but could find no sign to commit the event to photographic memory. The sun was shining, and when I had to take my eyes off Ron and Dan we got separated in the near demented levels of traffic. With numerous tunnels and one-way systems everywhere, by the time I got back to the last place I had seen them they were gone. Six hours later we were reunited and decided to stay put for the night.

Diary excerpt: We are in a seriously noisy hotel. I can’t sleep, so I am writing. There are cars crashing, horns honking, dogs barking; Quito is totally crazy! Big and sprawling, it is overshadowed by a 14,000-foot mountain; it is a wild mix of new and old. I can’t get over how congested the streets are and the ever-constant pollution. Here’s to another wild day and another night without sleep.

Safely out of Quito we carried on riding through the incredible high mountains of Ecuador as we headed for the town of Macarra and our border crossing to Peru. It is incredible to think this is the main road through this country! At times it was impossible to travel without being in first gear with our feet down, and sometimes we stopped and walked the road first to see if it was possible to ride it — you go off the edge here (like a lot of days) and it’s hasta la bye-bye! The road was possibly the most demanding we had yet ridden on. Ron caused a small landslide ahead of me, and I was stuck in a cloud of dust, unable to see, with a sheer drop of thousands of feet not 3 feet to my right.

Diary excerpt: As the sun was going down, we pulled into a really cool little town of old, faded buildings and wide, dusty streets. We took a cheap room and had an interesting evening driving what seemed like half the town around on our bikes. Dan is pretty sick this evening, and because of the smell of gasoline in our room from our bikes, which are in there with us, he sleeps outside on the sidewalk. The beds are unbelievably uncomfortable and there’s no running water at this place; life is good.

On to Peru

We rattled and rolled down the gravelly road to the border, and after one wrong turn we passed peacefully into Peru. We had dropped two miles in a day, and the landscape was changing as we left the mountains, heading for the coast, and headed out across a desert. Yes, a desert.

The entire west coast of Peru is a nearly empty desert, save for some oasis-style towns. The large distances between towns found us running out of gas.

Diary excerpt: Close to sun down, I leave the others in search of gas. I know there should be a town in 30 miles or so, so I ease back on the throttle and make myself small against the wind. I hit reserve and the wait begins. The miles roll by. Just as the bike begins to hesitate and miss a little, I see shacks up ahead and come to a stop. Out of gas! Luckily, the inhabitants have some, and the owner measures it out by the jug-full. His kerosene lamp reveals the mud floors and bare concrete walls of his house. The wind blows through the room, as there is no glass in the windows. By the time I’m done the boys have arrived; they fill up, and off we go.

We followed the ocean for a few days, making some much needed repairs in Chiclayo (I had crashed in Ecuador) before ending up in the town of Nazca, made famous by Erich von Däniken in his book Chariots of the Gods. We had been on the road for nearly four weeks and set our sights on climbing into the Peruvian Andes and the town of Cusco, base camp for a trip to Machu Picchu.

Diary excerpt: The usual slow start and on the road for Puigo — straight into the arid, barren mountains, twisting, turning, climbing. Well, after two hours and about 20 miles, it becomes evident we are not going anywhere fast. After four hours and 70 miles, and some of the roughest roads to date, it’s conclusive. The mountains have greened up and we are pretty high; it’s easy to get out of breath. We have to take our time on these roads, first and second gear for hours on end. The scenery is too beautiful for words and the landscape so wild, with no real towns, cars, or people. By late afternoon it starts to get cold, so we call an early halt at Puigo. It looks like we will take three days to get to Cusco; it took all day to go less than 100 miles today. We met a German rider, Rudy, and Richard, a 21-year old English lad riding a Yamaha 400. Richard was working in Canada when God told him to go to Peru to do missionary work. So he bought his first motorcycle and rode here from Canada by himself.

And so we rode on through the small mountain towns of Chalhuanca and Abancay that seem more like islands, connected by a small ribbon of dirt road across the mountains. It was here we met Father Gio, a Canadian priest on a Honda XL185, and here that Richard hit a dog.

Father Gio was on his way to Ollantaytambo to visit an English priest, Father Mike, and invited us along. The scenery was going into a new dimension, and the beauty held us in awe. We crossed a pass at over 13,500 feet and saw snow-capped mountains. We stopped at Inca ruins in a beautiful, lush, peaceful valley as Father Gio took a prayer break, then back into the mountains. As night was approaching, we began to ride into a huge valley — up ahead we could see a dark storm pierced with lightning.

Just as we hit the storm, Gio turned left down a small dirt road, and we took a detour around the storm, heading for the parish. We passed through small villages of native Indians so off the beaten track they barely seemed touched by Western life. Many times, we were down to walking pace as we threaded our way through goats, sheep, cows, people and dogs.

We ran along the side of a mountain on some Inca terracing — unreal! The terraces were at least a mile long, with 15-foot steps on the 20 or so perfectly flat platforms. It was our first sight of Inca stepping that we would see everywhere in the days that followed, often in the steepest, most unimaginable places. How did they move the massive boulders or such massive quantities of earth? It was well dark as we flew down unlit mud trails, Father Gio riding with the Lord, and right before the asphalt, I took my second fall of the journey. No problem, just everything covered in fresh mud. We got to the village, and Gio took us riding on the old Inca stone streets and on to the church at Ollantaytambo.

The following days saw us visiting Machu Picchu before finding buyers for our bikes and preparing to head back to the States. Machu Picchu is too much for words, a mass of walls, steps and buildings of what was once, 400 years ago, a thriving city. It was incredible and a perfect conclusion to our 5-week adventure.

And so it ends

The next day, Dan boarded a plane, and before we delivered Ron’s bike we rode down to Lake Titicaca, two up. Back in Ollantaytambo we set our sights on home. We had some stuff to do at the church in Ollantaytambo and rode Betty (as Ron’s bike had been named) out for Abad, who had been our guide to Machu Picchu, to take possession. Magnificent? Splendid?

onderful? I don’t think they have invented the words to describe the scenery in the Sacred Valley; the ride out was as mind-blowing as any we took on the trip. Father Mike wasn’t home, so Ron rebuilt his Yamaha dirt bike as I tried to paint over the graffiti some English students at the bike shop had written on the gas tank of Dan’s bike.

Diary excerpt: I think I had my perfect Peruvian experience today. I was walking through the village as the sun was going down, the snow-capped mountains still visible in the valley. Walking on Inca pavements, the water running through the aqueduct system, young Indian children calling out to me, and an old man walking his sheep on a piece of string. The sun was on fire behind the mountains, casting shadows on the Inca ruins — now I see why they call it the Sacred Valley.

The clock was ticking; in the next 11 hours we had to ride through the mountains to Cusco, pack, shower, sleep and get to the airport. Another hour ticked by, and we were on our way, a freezing cold, breathtaking journey through the mountains for over two hours; there was a good moon and so many stars it was incredible. We paused at around 13,500 feet, turned the engine and lights off, and absorbed the total peace and silence.

The following day found me flying over the Andes, heading for Panama City and a little señorita with big brown eyes. But that’s another story, or as the song goes, “Wanna know the rest? Hey, buy the rights!” MC


Motorsports author, rider and general gadfly Neale Bayly made this trip 15 years ago. It’s among the first travel pieces he ever wrote, and is published here for the first time to celebrate his work raising money for orphans in Peru through Wellspring International Outreach (www.wellspring-outreach.org), which came as a direct result of this trip and his chance meeting with Father Gio. An article detailing Neale’s continuing efforts can be found in the June issue of Ultimate Motorcycling.