Panini Tour: South through Mexico and Central America

With our KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs – recently serviced in the USA – we started the next stage of the Panini Moto Tour round the world trip which is set to take us through seven central American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – and then on “down” to Columbia.

The Baja California Peninsula is the most westerly state in Mexico, and a paradise for anyone who loves offroading. It is particularly well known for the demanding Baja 1000 rally through the desert. We follow the course of the rally for a few kilometers along rocky tracks, past barren but picturesque mountains and every type of cactus imaginable. This is motorcycling paradise for a KTM 1190 ADVENTURE R – we could not have imagined it any better: no traffic, gravel, sand, deserted beaches and not a drop of rain. Every now and then, we happen upon a small, friendly place outpost surrounded by palm trees, with a filling station and a bar. So, we allow ourselves a stop for a cool, refreshing beer and then it’s onwards!

Unbewohnte Sierra zieht sich über die gesamte Halbinsel | The uninhabited sierra stretches across the whole peninsula Auf den Spuren der Baja 1000 | Following the Baja 1000 Highlight der kleinen Oase San Ignacio: die 1786 aus Lavasteinen erbaute Missionskirche | Highlight of the small oasis of San Ignacio: the lava stone mission church, built in 1786 Unübersehbar: der örtliche Barbesitzer ist ein Fan der Rally Baja 1000 | You can't tell the owner of the local bar is a Baja 1000 rally fan! Echtes „Off“-Road | Real offroading Corona & Pacifico: kühle Erfrischung nach einer langen Offroad-Etappe | Corona & Pacifico: cooling refreshment after a long offroad stage Oh Tannenbaum: „weihnachtlich“ dekorierter, toter Kaktus | "Christmas" trees in Mexico: dead cactus plus decorations Durch das Gelände einer aufgelassenen Salzgewinnungsanlage | Across the site of an abandoned salt production facility Das „Hotel California“ aus dem Song der Band Eagles gibt es tatsächlich | The actual "Hotel California" from the song by the Eagles Dattelpalmenslalom | Date palm slalom Renn-Käfer in Pension | Racing Beetle at our guest house Gigantisch | Huge Wächst und blüht auch nach Jahren ohne Wasser: der Cirio-Baum | The cirio tree continues to grow and flower, even after years without water Küstenstraße am Mar de Cortés | Coastal road on the Gulf of California
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Highlight der kleinen Oase San Ignacio: die 1786 aus Lavasteinen erbaute Missionskirche | Highlight of the small oasis of San Ignacio: the lava stone mission church, built in 1786

A local cargo ship ferries us and our motorcycles over to Mazatlán on the Mexican mainland as we leave the Baja peninsula behind. We cross the mighty Sierra Madre Occidental coastal mountain range and, after a short stop in Durango, reach the silver mining town of Zacatecas. One of the most beautiful towns in Mexico, it is gradually becoming possible to visit Zacatecas again after years of domination by the violent “Los Zetas” drugs cartel. The large, heavily armed police presence in the town gives some reassurance … but we are not entirely convinced.

Not far away from the massive, ornate cathedral in the center of the town, we witness a traditional “Quinceañera”, the celebration of every Mexican girl’s 15th birthday. And in the middle of what used to be the bullring, for a brief moment, we feel like proud toreros.

We were bowled over by the small artists’ village of San Miguel Allende in the center of Mexico: steep, narrow, cobbled streets, brightly painted houses, romantic courtyards, a mild climate – a really relaxed atmosphere.

Crossing Mexico City on a motorcycle, with its 10 million residents, is a “pleasure” of a very different kind and definitely an experience we will not forget.

Visiting the new Museo Soumaya in the city center was a must, but as we leave the city behind us, riding between the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in the orange-red glow of the sunset, both our faces relax into a relieved smile.

Riding further south brings a whole new variety of scenic routes. Oaxaca de Juárez is a World Heritage Site and a town full of art and culinary magic: historical murals, bright arts and crafts as well as two enormous market halls provide an experience for all the senses. Here, you can try Mexican food in all its glory and exoticism: Carne cecina (beef, thinly sliced in a zigzag pattern) spiced with ground worms, roasted locusts, corn dodgers, chili in every degree of heat and mole poblano (a sauce made from chili, chocolate and at least 30 other ingredients) – we were certainly ready for the tequila after all that.

As we travel further south, we pass through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific at 216 kilometers. Traveling through this unavoidable bottleneck proves to be extremely windy and a not particularly exciting ride.

We are gradually approaching the Guatemalan border. Crossing borders in Central America is generally not a problem; you don’t need a visa, just plenty of time and patience for the nonsensical customs formalities … so if you are one of life’s more impatient people, you will have plenty of opportunity to practice your patience skills.

Fähre von der Halbinsel Baja California nach Mazatlán | Ferry from the Baja California Peninsula to Mazatlán Sierra Madre Occidental auf dem Weg nach Durango | Sierra Madre Occidental mountains on the way to Durango Vor der verschnörkelten Kathedrale von Zacatecas | In front of the ornate cathedral in Zacatecas „Quince años“: Heute feiere ich meinen 15. Geburtstag! | "Quince años": 15 today! „Revolutionsmauer“ in Zacatecas | "Revolutionary wall" in Zacatecas Zwei „Motorrad-Toreros“ in einer ehemaligen Stierkampfarena | Two motorcycling toreros in what used to be a bullring Mexiko liebt den Tod: Straßenfest in San Miguel Allende | Mexico loves death: street festival in San Miguel Allende Besuch bei KTM in Toluca | Visiting KTM in Toluca Im Zentrum von Mexiko City: Kunstmuseum Soumaya | Mexico City center: Museo Soumaya art museum Mexiko City liegt hinter uns: Zwillingsvulkane Popocatépetl und Iztaccíhuatl | Leaving Mexico City behind us: the twin volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl Durch die Sierra Madre del Sur | Through the Sierra Madre del Sur Phantastisches mexikanisches Essen: Tortilla und Carne Cecina | Fantastic Mexican food: tortilla and carne cecina Am Markt von Oaxaca: Chili in allen Variationen | Oaxaca market: every type of chili you can imagine Mexikaner beim Wochenendpicknick mitten im Fluss | A weekend picnic for local Mexicans, in the middle of the river Sonnenuntergang mit Corona an der mexikanischen Pazifikküste | Sunset with a Corona on the Mexican Pacific coast
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Mexiko City liegt hinter uns: Zwillingsvulkane Popocatépetl und Iztaccíhuatl | Leaving Mexico City behind us: the twin volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl

Guatemala is a colorful but very poor country with a majority native Amerindian population where we experience Mayan culture up close. Visiting the multi-colored Mayan weekend market in Chichicastenango, tucked away in the uplands of Guatemala, is a fabulous experience. Every Thursday and Sunday, the Mayan traders come to town from the surrounding villages in the mountains to sell their wares and to visit the church. Taking in the atmosphere in the market, admiring the indigenous women in their bright, traditional outfits, sampling the local street food, buying a souvenir or two (a woven belt fits easily into the motorcycle luggage) is a wonderful experience. On the cathedral steps, we witness quasi-shamanic ceremonies and even the local cemetery is unexpectedly colorful.

Lake Atitlán, surrounded by stunning volcanic cones, is also a favorite destination for the Guatemalans. Dozens of small restaurants rub shoulders in the main village of Panajachél, with fish fresh from the lake on the menu.

We avoid the hectic capital Guatemala City and, instead, visit the former capital Antigua de Guatemala: a lively place with beautiful, recently restored colonial buildings, imposing church façades, green parks and a charming atmosphere.

The brightly painted public buses are a real eye-catcher throughout the country, whereas the thick black, caustic cloud of smoke they belch out is to be avoided at all costs. The only sensible course of action is to overtake them as quickly as possible. On the Pan-American Highway, our route takes us further south to El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Buntes Guatemala | Brightly colored Guatemala Entlang des Atitlán-Sees: Vulkane Tolimán und San Pedro | By Lake Atitlán: Tolimán and San Pedro volcanoes Ein Graffito ruft zu Umweltbewusstsein auf | Graffito calling for environmental awareness Wäscherinnen am Straßenrand in Cuatro Caminos | Washer women at the roadside in Cuatro Caminos Handarbeit: bunte gewebte Gürtel | Local crafts: bright woven belts Streetfood: sehr lecker | Street food: very tasty Schamanische Traditionen: in Rauch gehüllte Kirchentreppe | Shamanic traditions: church steps wreathed in smoke Skeptische Beobachterinnen | Skeptical onlookers Blick auf den Vulkan Tolimán | View to the Tolimán volcano Junge Maya-Frauen beim Einkauf am Wochenmarkt | Young Mayan women shopping at the weekend market Farbenfroher Friedhof von Quetzaltenango | Colorful cemetery at Quetzaltenango Autobusbahnhof | Bus station Hauptplatz von Antigua Guatemala | Main square in Antigua Guatemala Quietschgelbe Kirchenfassade in Can Andrés Xecul | Bright yellow church façade in Can Andrés Xecul
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Schamanische Traditionen: in Rauch gehüllte Kirchentreppe | Shamanic traditions: church steps wreathed in smoke

El Salvador and Nicaragua are the “Lands of Volcanoes”. Picture postcard cones are strung across the horizon, almost like a painting, and there is more than one way of getting up close to one of these volcanoes: either hike up the slopes and look into an enormous, dry cone or ride up and look into a water-filled crater. But, don’t linger for more than 10 minutes or so because of the poisonous smoke that is still rising from the active volcano.

During the coffee harvest we saw workers taking their sacks full of fresh, red coffee beans and depositing them at the feet of fat coffee barons who weigh the day’s harvest, record it and pay the workers. Our experience: the closer the coffee is brewed and drunk to the coffee plants, the worse the coffee … odd.

A wonderful ride over the vivid, luxuriantly green slopes of the volcano leads us to the Salvadorian artists’ village of La Palma where the painter Fernando Llort founded his school of naive art in the 1970s – his striking, bright paintings are now known throughout the world.

The people of Nicaragua say that they invented the hammock … and as it happens it is in use everywhere. Nevertheless, Nicaraguans do not have an easy life: more than half of the population works in the informal sector, with women often selling home cooked food by the roadside while the men harness their thin horses to carts and wait until someone needs to go somewhere.

In many towns in Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution is commemorated in museums and by statues and is clearly held in high regard. The colonial town of Granada is a photogenic place whose open courtyards and buildings have a more Soviet style, just as in the capital city, Managua. We enjoy a perfect ride down smooth trails through luxurious vegetation and along endless, perfect Pacific beaches which appear to be much better suited to riding along on a motorbike than to swimming.

Vulkankette am Horizont | Chain of volcanoes on the horizon Blick in den Vulkankrater „El Boquerón“ in El Salvador | View into the crater of El Boquerón in El Salvador Der rauchende Vulkan de Masaya im Zentrum Nicaraguas | The smoking Masaya volcano in central Nicaragua Der Kratersee Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua | The crater lake Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua Frisch geerntete Kaffeebohnen | Freshly harvested coffee beans Der Kaffeebaron wiegt und notiert die Ernte des Tages | Coffee baron weighs and records the daily harvest Vulkanhänge: staubige Wege durch üppig blühende Vegetation | The slopes of the volcano: Dusty paths through luxurious, vivid vegetation Naive Malerei auf einem Haus im salvadorianischen La Palma | Naive art on a house in La Palma, El Salvador Bunte Unterkunft | Colorful accommodation Süßer Weg: durch die Zuckerrohrplantage | The sweet road: through sugar cane plantations Schweres Leben in der Hängematte | Tough life in a hammock Beliebter Snack: Tamales (Reis und mehr in Bananenblätter gewickelt) | Favorite snack: tamales (rice and other ingredients wrapped in banana leaves) Hat jemand etwas zu befördern? | Need anything taken anywhere? Der sandinistische Revolutionär: Statue vor der Galerie der Helden in León in Nicaragua | The Sandinistan revolutionary: statue in front of the heroes' gallery in León in Nicaragua Die verwitterte Basilica von León in Nicaragua ist die größte Kathedrale Zentralamerikas | The weather-beaten basilica in León, Nicaragua, is the largest cathedral in Central America Blick über die photogene Kolonialstadt Granada in Nicaragua | View out over the photogenic colonial town of Granada in Nicaragua Nicht ganz so charmant: Hauptplatz von Managua | Not quite so charming: main square in Managua Leckere Vielfalt der zentralamerikanischen Straßenküche | Tasty morsels from Central America's street kitchen Keinesfalls fassweise: „Flor de Caña“, nicaraguanischer Rum | Definitely not by the barrel: "Flor de Caña", Nicaraguan rum Ein Vogel lässt sich die Früchte der Weihnachtspalme schmecken | A bird helps itself to the fruit of the Christmas palm tree Pazifikstrände erfreuen Surfer … | Surfers love the Pacific beaches ... … und Motorradfahrer. | … so do bikers.
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Die verwitterte Basilica von León in Nicaragua ist die größte Kathedrale Zentralamerikas | The weather-beaten basilica in León, Nicaragua, is the largest cathedral in Central America

There is no better way to experience nature than in Costa Rica: one third of this small country is subject to nature conservation orders and it is possible to get right up close to the flora and fauna in the many national parks. The whole country is green, but the price you pay is a lot of rain. Nowhere else on our trip have we had to empty our boots as often as we have here. And before putting your boots back on, it’s best to check whether one of the many native frog species has taken up residence during the night. On the other hand, it makes riding through the well-filled streams lots of fun!

Our contact with the animal world in the unbelievably diverse Costa Rica makes a real impression on us: in the dry tropics near the coast, monkeys leap over our helmets and the eyes of inquisitive raccoons follow us from the bushes. On the coast, the screech of parrots drowns out our twin cylinders and turtles creep in front of our offroad tires. In the high altitude cloud forest, we quickly learn to differentiate between greens in order not to be bitten by a snake. Even the vegetation is gigantic: leaves as big as tent roofs and flowers in all the colors of the rainbow, blossoming literally everywhere! Costa Rica is a real slice of paradise on earth! The motto of its fun-loving inhabitants, “pura vida” – pure life, is one you can really live by in this part of the world.

Meistens im Nebel, aber heute ausnahmsweise nicht: Volcán Arenal | Usually shrouded in mist but just this once, it isn't: Arenal volcano Regen ist an der Tagesordnung | Rain is the order of the day Der Vorteil von Regen: tolle Bachdurchfahrten | The advantage of rain: fun riding through the streams Nachts in Costa Rica | Night in Costa Rica Über uns: neugierige Affenmama | Above us: inquisitive monkey and baby Schildkröten haben Vorrang, ganz besonders, wenn sie von rechts kommen | Turtles take priority, particularly when they come from the right Übernachtung im Grünen | Accommodation in amongst the greenery Hier blühen die Blumen um die Wette | The flowers blossom everywhere here Neugieriger Waschbär | Inquisitive raccoon Rund um den Lago Arenál | Around Lake Arenal Unterwegs im immerfeuchten Nebelwald | Underway in the permanently damp cloud forest Blätter so groß, dass man sich darunter verstecken kann | Leaves so big, you can hide under them Ein lustiger Geselle: Rotaugen-Laubfrosch mit KTM-orangen Saugnäpfen | A cheerful fellow: red-eyed tree frog with KTM orange suction cups Tarnung: Diese giftig-grüne, wirklich giftige Schlange blieb zum Glück, wo sie war | Camouflage: fortunately, this poisonous green, properly poisonous snake stayed where it was Pelikanformation über türkisen Pazifikwellen | Pelicans flying in formation above the turquoise Pacific waves Landpartie im Valle Central | Country outing in the Valle Central „Pura Vida“ (pures, reines Leben) ist das Motto der Bewohner Costa Ricas | "Pura vida" (pure life) is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica Ein Plätzchen zum Verlieben: Pool mit Aussicht über dem Lago Arenál | A place to linger: pool with view over Lake Arenál
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Tarnung: Diese giftig-grüne, wirklich giftige Schlange blieb zum Glück, wo sie war | Camouflage: fortunately, this poisonous green, properly poisonous snake stayed where it was

Panama is a country of contrasts and motorcyclists are not an everyday sight here. The modern financial metropolis of Panama City, with its banks housed in elegant skyscrapers, grinds to a halt several times a day. Casco Viejo, Panama’s historical center, has been partially renovated but remains dilapidated in many areas. The streets are full of life: kiosks, fish stands, cafés or just a couple of chairs in the middle of the road where the locals meet and welcome visitors at full volume.

Visiting the Panama Canal is an absolute must and a fascinating experience. At the visitor center, it is possible to see the locks being operated and to have the impressive technical specifications explained as well as the canal’s checkered history. However, the ride along the canal is just as interesting, over old wooden bridges and through rain forests full of wild animals, to the other end of the canal at the Caribbean.

A word on the Caribbean: far from anywhere, there is a stunning, palm-covered archipelago with countless islands. The home of the Guna Yala Indians who live a modern life while maintaining their traditions. There are no roads here so we leave our motorcycles behind for once and rumble off into paradise in a tiny propeller-driven airplane. For a few days, we let our souls drift under the palms, visiting the island villages of the Guna Yala, and are allowed a brief insight into their traditional way of life, but one which is becoming increasingly modern.

Panama is actually a dead end for travelers on the road. The overland route to Columbia would be an “illegal” jungle trail without any official border crossing … so we decide to go by water. Boat found and booked, everything checked by customs – this takes a lot of patience – when, 24 hours before casting off, we are suddenly told: no permission to land on the Columbian coast! So, no go by boat.

But, they say if you want to travel you have to like surprises. So, we change our plans and travel by air. A tip from an Argentinian fellow motorcyclist proved a stroke of luck: motorcycles loaded on an aluminum skid together with the luggage and just 24 hours later, after a short flight, and a long delay at customs, we finally step onto South American soil.

With fabulous images both in our heads and on camera and 10,000 Central American kilometers more on our KTM 1190 ADVENTUREs’ speedometer, the madness of evening traffic on Bogotá’s streets swallows us up. South America – here we come!

Moderne Metropole Panama City | The modern metropolis of Panama City Banken residieren in futuristischen Wolkenkratzern | Banks have taken up residence in futuristic skyscrapers Fassade im Casco Viejo, der Altstadt von Panama City | Façade in Casco Viejo, the historical center of Panama City Graffito: Panther, nicht Prinzessin! | Graffito: a panther, not a princess! Der berühmte „Panama-Hut“, der eigentlich aus Ecuador stammt | The famous Panama hat, which actually comes from Ecuador Faszinierendes Bauwunder: der Panama Kanal und seine Schleusen | A fascinating wonder of engineering: the Panama Canal and its locks Revolutionsdenkmal: erst seit 1999 gehört der Kanal den Panameños | A monument to revolution: the canal has only belonged to the Panamanians since 1999 Regenwald entlang des 80 Kilometer langen Panamakanals | Rain forest along the 80 kilometers of the Panama Canal Unterwegs von der Pazifik- an die Karibikküste | Underway from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast Alle helfen mit, wenn das Fischerboot ins Wasser muss | Everyone helps launch the fishing boat into the water Polizei an der Panamericana: zum Glück nur eine Attrappe! | Policeman on the Pan-American Highway: fortunately, just a dummy! Mango-Vitamintankstelle am Straßenrand | Mangoes - top up on vitamins by the roadside Archipel Comarca de Kuna Yala – stressfrei im Karibik-Paradies | Comarca de Guna Yala archipelago – leave all the stress behind in this Caribbean paradise Besuch in einem Kuna Yala-Inseldorf | Visiting a Guna Yala island village Stolze Indígena: Frau aus dem Stamm der Kuna Yala-Indianer | Proud indigenous woman from the Guna Yala Indian tribe Fußball gibt´s weltweit: auch die Kuna-Jungs sind da keine Ausnahme | Football is a global sport: and the Guna boys enjoy it as much as anyone Ende Gelände: bereit für den Abflug nach Bogotá, Kolumbien | Final destination: ready for departure to Bogotá, Columbia
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Archipel Comarca de Kuna Yala – stressfrei im Karibik-Paradies | Comarca de Guna Yala archipelago – leave all the stress behind in this Caribbean paradise

Photos: Barbara Kenedi


Info: Around the world – Panini Moto Tour
Barbara Kenedi, a KTM employee in Mattighofen, and her partner Peter are on a round-the-world adventure tour. Why the mysterious name Panini? Because that’s the name of the couple’s cat, which is naturally placed in good hands while they’re away.

The keen travellers, who have been on tour with two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs since March 2013, are completing the round-the-world trip in stages, rather than all at once. The first major stage led from Austria to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Then they continued the trip on the Australian continent, starting in Darwin. This was followed by New Zealand and, as the first port of call in North America, the crossing of Alaska to the south of California, before they finally step onto South American soil.

The marathon pleasure trip, entitled “Around the world – Panini Moto Tour” can be followed on Facebook, although only after prior registration.

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