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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.