Thursday 5 September 2013

Boats, Bikes and Beer

It's time to put the woes of central america behind us and move to sunnier climes. We had 5 days booked aboard the Stahlratte. We met Lou Lou, the captain, who had helped acquire transport for us from our breakdown to the boat. Time to load up and the boat came into the dock and using the winch normally reserved for the mainsail they hauled the bike onto the deck where she would sit, unmolested, for 5 days. We covered her with a rain sheet to stop too much salt water getting in and went to meet up with the others.
Loading the bike onto the boat. Was I nervous, not a bit...

Onboard the Stahlratte

In the launch going to the island.

Al, Andi, Ellen, Ron and Gale had arrived before us and were already relaxing on a small island just off the mainland. We were to stay here for the night instead of on the boat. It was a bit of a joke having to pay for accomodation after just handing over $1500 but it was a good experience. A true local island with no setup for tourists, soon after arriving we were shown our rooms. There was a quick scrabble to get the current occupent out. We were to stay in someone elses private room...
This is where we stayed the first night

On the dock meeting Ron and Gale for the first time.
We wandered around the island for a little bit. It was not much more than a patch of sand with houses on it. Every last inch had been built upon using traditional building materials and methods. The ladies walked around in traditional clothing and they cooked for us too. We soon dipped into the bottle of rum we brought with us and spent the night talking about motorbikes. It was a nice experience if a bit unexpected. In the morning I woke up early and got to see the women leaving for work. They all hopped on a long boat and headed off to various islands. One of their main economies is farming and selling coconuts. Most of the islands used to be mangroves but they cut them down and cultivated them. Most of those wonderful islands you see in the pictures are natural formations but the look, palm trees and sandy beaches, is man made. 
Local Kuna lady

Sitting on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away

View from the crows nest

Around 11am the launch came to pick us up and then picked up the other passengers. Within the hour we were on our way to the San Blas islands aboard a restored fishing vessel over 100 years old. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the engine room and learn about the boat. You can imagine all the excited petrol heads checking everything out.

We arrived in our own personal paradise a couple of hours later and moments after lowering anchor people were jumping off the sides and using the rope swing into the water. It was beautiful, calm blue seas for miles around and we were anchored within a group of three islands. I made my first attempt at climbing the mast but I crapped out at the point where you need to be stretch armstrong to get into the crows nest so down to the rope swing instead. I forgot to mention that Heb had bought a new camera. A BulletHD helmet cam that's also waterproof to 10m. I decided it'd be a brilliant idea to use the rope swing and the camera at the same time. Just as I let go of the rope the camera disconnected from its laynard and plummeted into the water below. This was the first real use of the camera and I lost it. Awesome! The captain and I donned some snorkling gear and tried to find it. I saw it on the bottom and dived down to reach it. My dive computer recorded it as exactly 10m deep which is pretty lucky if you think about it.
Our own little paradise

Heb on a swing. She managed to hold her nose as she went into the water.

Finally made it to the top on the second attempt

The bow of the boat from above

We spent the next couple of days drinking rum, snorkeling and eating ridiculous amounts of amazing food. The Stahlratte is famous for its meals and they did not disappoint. While snorkeling, apart from the sunburn, we got to see stingrays, eels, an octopus and someone saw a turtle. They need an air compressor on board so they can take people diving. It really was beautiful. The first night we headed over to one of the islands and had a great BBQ as the sun set over the island and Heb got some great photos of the boat with stars in the background. The stahlratte was probably the most expensive boat for the trip but it was well worth it for the experience. The staff were great, the captain had some amazing stories and the other passengers were a lot of fun.
Starry night, hard to get the boat to hold still for the long exposure.

Captain, crew and passengars

All too soon it was time to leave, bring on the seasickness! Bigger boats are less likely to cause seasickness but still the swell seemed to be just right for some people and quite a few were getting drugged up to deal with it. We sailed for 24 hours in open ocean with no sight of land before finally arriving in Cartagena. The relief on Ellens face as we pulled into the port was obvious. 

The bikes were to be unloaded the next day so we took the launch to the mainland and found ourselves a hostel for the night before facing the wonderful immigration and customs officers.

Heat, have you ever been too hot? Not like working in a kitchen and getting too hot but heat everywhere with no relief? Cartagena is the definition of too hot! After the first day I was down with a headache and mild sunstroke. Just constant sweat all day and night. To make matters worse I had to drag my wheel halfway around the city to find an innertube and get it fixed up. It was not fun and the night wasn't any better. We were in a dorm room and there was a barely working fan. One girl was sleeping stark naked. I wish I could say this was sexy but the conditions were just horrible for everyone. In the morning it was time to attach the wheel to the bike and unload them from the ship. We found out they would be loading the bikes onto the tiny launch and taking them across the bay before driving them out of the boat. None of us were happy about this. We thought we'd be using the winch again. Andi and Ellens KTM was first to go. To say we were nervous is an understatement as we watched each bike being unloaded and taken across we all sat biting our nails.
Lugging the tire around Cartagena

Loading the bikes onto the launch to take it to the dock. More nerves.

All the bikes got over without incident. The launch did almost sink with Ron's BMW, the largest of the bikes, but everything was good. All the bikes had picked up a bit of rust while at sea but nothing too dramatic so it was time to get the bikes registered. At the customs office, the DIAN, we were to meet Manfred. Manfred is a whale of a man who would lazily and extremely slowly get our bikes through customs. First time through he managed to put the paperwork in with all the bikes being marked as negro/amarillo black and yellow. Only one bike actually was. There were various other problems with the paperwork so Manfred took the paperwork to redo it all and told us to meet him at 4pm. It was Friday and we were getting worried about time so we headed off to buy insurance as Manfred had instructed. You may be getting the feeling we don't like Manfred, you would be right. We arrived at the insurance office where we were promptly informed that we wouldn't be able to insure the bikes without the proper paperwork from the DIAN. Better news, the office closed at 5:30 so we would only have an hour and a half after meeting Manfred to get the bikes through customs and into the insurance office.

We arrived early to meet Manfred who managed to turn up late, and when I say he was a whale of a man I mean it. He was planet sized and always had food somewhere. He turns up with the paperwork and gets angry when we ask to check it all. We check every single detail and its mostly correct. Poor Al has the wrong passport number and so we all have to wait while Manfred slowly walks to the office and takes his time adjusting the papers again. We are all fuming and watching time tick by. Al breaks and yells at Manfred who promptly tells him we should all respect and thank him. Yeah right. We run out the door, jump on the bikes and blast through the streets of Cartagena like men possessed reaching the insurance office at exactly 5:30 where we told they can't do it. A bit of good biker bad biker (Al looked like his head was about to explode) and they finally said they could do it. It was Friday afternoon and they obviously wanted to go home so we all really appreciated them helping us out. Being stuck in Cartagena without the bikes for a long weekend was not a part of the plan.

We stayed a couple of days, checking out the sights and enjoying the food. Everyone was on a different time scale so when Heather and me decided to leave we only had one other bike with us. Andi and Ellen on their KTM, so we loaded up and headed East along the coast towards Taganga. Along the way we passed a volcanic mud bath and so had to stop and enjoy the health benefits of sitting in mud.
MUD BATH! A childhood dream come true.

We climbed this big cone and at the top their was a big square pit with a ladder going down into it. We climbed down the ladder into the mud. It was, to put it simply, gross but also kinda nice. You float on the surface of it and if you go upright you float with the mud level just below your nipples. It's a very weird sensation. We got a nice massage and floated about for a half hour or so before going for a wash in the lake. This treatment back home would probably cost you a months wages, we got it for about $4 each! So a quick lunch and with Andi and Ellen leading the way we rode to Taganga.

We spent just over a week in Taganga, we hoped to scuba dive and even got a job offer from one of the diveshops. We talked about it a lot and after the initial excitement of possibly working for a few months in the caribbean we decided against it. Taganga was nice but it wasn't right for us at the moment. We were more excited to travel than dive so headed off the next day. Andi and Ellen had left a few days before so it was back to a solo adventure.

Time to get away from the heat so we headed south again, this time towards the mountain city of Medellin, known as the city of eternal spring. It took us 3 days in total to reach Medellin. We stopped in a couple of small towns, for the night. It was still bloody hot and kept looking for the mountains that seemed to never come. Finally, on the third day, we saw peaks in the distance and it wasn't long before we were climbing up into the mountains. Along the way we met some other riders from Quebec, Yan and Mary riding a KTM and a BMW so we rode to Medellin with them. The mountains rose quickly and it took very little time to reach 9000feet. The temperature change was so great that Heather had to put on extra layers, I was very excited to be cold. when we stopped for a drink the people were so nice and friendly. It was a completely different culture from the lowlands. Our moods had also changed from being tired, hot and sweaty to suddenly having loads of energy. I love the mountains!
Riding into the mountains with Yan and Marie

We arrived in Medellin in mid afternoon and promptly fell fast asleep in the hostel, it was cold and we were loving it!

I think that's a good point to stop. Lots of bike stuff has happened since. Needless to say it has been expensive but worth it. We're going to get a bike back that we both feel happy riding. It should be finished in a day or two so I'll let you know what needed doing and the end result when that's all finished.

Sunday 1 September 2013

So we left you in Nicaragua and we are in Colombia...

So we left you in Nicaragua and we are in Colombia now so I think we will play some catch up today and try to update you to today....
Volcanoes of Ometepe Island

In Nicaragua we met up again with Andy, visited an island in a lake and saw some more volcanoes. It was nice, we also tried some more surfing which was tiring. Andy advised me on a mechanic in Costa Rica and I got in touch with Aileen who, with Ceri and Mark, were visiting Costa Rica in a few days time. Aileen kindly agreed to bring some parts out for me so I could get the bike fixed up and we got in touch with the mechanic who said it would be no problem getting the bike fixed up. We were quoted $400 for the full job which was cheap but still a blow to our finances.

Mum always said I had a monkey on my back

Sunset in Limon

We left Nicaragua happy and hopeful about the bike. At the border we met Al who is travelling on a Honda Varadero. We had the usual border fun, another fine for being in the C4 for too long and a few hours spent doing nothing. It took a couple of days getting down to Heredia where Dave and Jackie were living and working as english teachers. Dave had kindly offered to let us stay for a few days and it was great to catch up with everyone from back home. In total there were 6 of us from Sully and it was like a home away from home. I unwrapped my new toys from Aileen like a kid at christmas and we talked about old times. We planned to part ways while I got the bike fixed and we would meet them on the caribean coast a few days later. Insert something about the best laid plans of mice and men here....

After the Sullyians left I rode the 100 miles to Nicoya and the mechanic along the pan american highway. Costa Ricas main highway for cargo, people and everything in between. Its single lane and choked with traffic. On reaching Nicoya I met Raul, the mechanic who was supposed to work on the bike but he told me he was too busy but knew a great guy who was going to do it. There should have been alarm bells. He took me to meet Nemo. His garage was dirty, bike parts were everywhere. Should have been more alarm bells. He told me he could finish the work in two days when I was originally quoted 5. More alarm bells. I ignored them all.

There were problems getting the engine out of the bike as some mounting bolts had seized but after the first day the engine was out and taken apart by the second day. New parts in and back together by the third day. I was excited to try out the bike but it was making a strange knocking noise. I was assured it was normal for a bike of higher mileage and the noise stopped when the bike was upright so I promptly rode the bike back to Heredia. About halfway back the bike lost all power, it was vibrating more than usual and I was worried but the power came back and it was easier to continue home than to return. I can only blame myself for this. I should have gone back. By the time I got to Heredia my hands were numb from vibrations. I got back in touch with Raul and we arranged to have the bike shipped back to Nicoya. More money, more worry and plenty of anger. Turns out the new part was slightly smaller than the original and the knocking was not normal. We got that fixed soon enough with a slight modification to the part and I went to pick up the bike again. I was still not happy with the bike as it was vibrating still but I made another mistake and decided to ride back.

By now the Sullyians had returned from their trip and were getting ready to return home. We were sad to have missed out on travelling with them but glad the bike was working and a day or so later we left for the coast. About 60 miles out the clutch stops working so I contact Raul again. He basically told me it wasn't his problem. Super angry now and feeling completely down in the dumps over the whole thing I didnt know what to do next. In the end we found a mechanic in the city who would fix the clutch. Turns out Nemo had added parts to the engine. An extra washer was causing the clutch to slip.
Carrying the bike back to Heredia after the clutch failed

Welsh themed going away party for Dave and Jackie

I'll be honest, even now weeks after I'm fuming about the whole affair. So many ifs and maybes. I wish I had waited until Colombia as I have met some great people here who have been incredibly helpful but I digress. The bike was running again and we had a boat to catch.

For those of you who dont know, there is a big gap between Panama and Colombia with no roads. Its called the Darien Gap and the only way past is by boat. The boat we wanted to travel on was the stahlratte as it is big, comfortable and has experience carrying motorbikes. We had very little time to get from the center of Costa Rica to the bottom of Panama so we hit the road running. Flew through Costa Rica and visited the Sloth Sanctuary where Heather met some new friends. Got through the border with no problems and into Panama. Brilliant.

Once we were in Panama we headed for a town called David. Its the jumping off point for a lot of cool places in Panama. We visited the highlands near there and a town called Boquete. Really beautiful and most importantly, considerably cooler than the lowlands near the coast. We rode some beautiful roads and tried to forget about the drama from the previous three weeks. It was nice not to worry for a bit.
Crossing a rickety bridge in Boquete

Still on a time budget we headed south to visit the town where Panama hats were originally made and a womans artisan group. We found the town but no hats and the artisan group had expanded from the quaint little stalls the guide book had promised us.

We finished the bolt down to Panama City to meet with Al again and get ready for the boat trip. Al had been in town for three weeks and was a wealth of knowledge on the area.

With a day or two spare we visited the Panama Canal and learnt all about its history. An incredible feat of engineering started by the French and finished by the Americans it has only recently been given back to Panama to govern it and they are building an extension to be opened next year. A hugely expensive project expected to bring in billions for the government.
Ships entering the docks at the Panama Canal

We soon recieved an email from Lou Lou, the captain of the stahlratte and got in touch with a few other bikers who were on the boat too. It was here we met Andy and Ellen, a couple from New Zealand travelling two up on a KTM 950. On the 11th it was time to leave for the short ride to the coast and the stahlratte. Hopefully saying goodbye to the woes of Central America. Yet she had one more thing to throw at us. About 30km from the coast we got a flat. Seems the rear was running low and overheated causing the innertube to disintergrate. Luckily we were going fairly slow and only had a small wobble but with no spare tube for the rear we were screwed. We were at the back of the convoy so they didnt realise we had a problem for a few minutes we sat there alone and started to remove the rear wheel. Andy and Ellen turned up and they had a spare tube. Al carried on to inform the boat about our delay. New tube in, inflated and off we go, 1 km later.... bang. We were shifting along this time and it burst mid corner. the bike veared violently to the left as the rear wheel tried to overtake the front. Legs flying everywhere and the bike lurching all over the road I managed to bring it to a stop right side up. Heather was shaking on the back of the bike and we were out. For Heather this was the first real brush with what can happen on a motorbike. The adrenaline and fear left her truely shaken up and I think, even now weeks later, she isn't fully happy on the back of the bike. In all honesty I dont think either of us were enjoying ourselves. With a  few spots of fun along the way the past month or two has been problem after problem. The bike just isn't right and its sapping my energy. I'm not sure how much more of this we can take.

One dead inner tube on the way to the Stahlratte

Andy and Ellen headed to the boat to try and find someone to carry us back on a truck. 4 hours alter, $100 and the pain of having to be carried instead of using our own power and we made it to the boat. For now at least someone else could take the load and we could sit back and relax on the trip to Colombia.
The Stahlratte ready to take us to Colombia