Reflections on El Camino

Back on the good o'l "Coastal Highway" which we maintain is not really a highway! This photo represents the first day we did real ADV riding. (Photo: Alex Washburn)

Back on the good o’l “Coastal Highway” which we maintain is not really a highway! This photo represents the first day we did real ADV riding. (Photo: Alex Washburn)

Nearly nine months have passed since Alex and I rode through the gates of Ushuaia realizing our goal of riding from San Francisco to the end of the world. When we got back people wanted to know what our favorite country was or the best experience of the trip and what I found was that it was hard to put this trip into the mini sound-bites people wanted to hear. Yes I have a favorite country from the trip, I have places I would like to go back and places I don’t ever want to go back, but they are all a part of one massive undertaking Alex and I completed.

Another thing that I think people want to hear is that you had a life altering spiritual experience that has moved the clouds of doubt from your life and everything is clear now. Unfortunately, for me, that was not the case. I’m not saying that this trip hasn’t changed me, it most certainly has, but in small ways I see in my every day life.

On the adventure to getting our bikes back from the shipping container (story to follow) a fellow biker and I found ourselves on the long road to LA talking about our trips and the experiences. One comment that he had was that he could remember every day of his trip distinctly for one reason or another, but since being back the weeks blended together and he could hardly remember what happened last week let alone a couple weeks ago. I find the same occurrence in my own life. I can run through almost every day of the trip in my head, but often forget what I did last week. It’s because during “Autopista End” every day was a new experience or a new place. I need that in my life now because at the end of it all, I won’t remember any given weekend I spent watching Netflix but I will remember crashing in Cusco.

The other thing I learned was that I needed to stop procrastinating with the goals in my life and need to take steps, even little ones, every day in achieving what I want. I don’t want to wake up twenty years from now saying that the best thing I did in my life was the Autopista End trip. I need something more than that.

Alex and I have talked about the phenomenon of the “Bucket List” in recent years and how you will overhear people saying, quite literally on a daily basis, “oh I am putting that on my bucket list”. I don’t have a bucket list anymore, if there is something I really want to do, I am going to find a way of doing it, of taking some step toward accomplishing it. It doesn’t mean it will happen this month or this year even, but if I keep taking steps toward it I will eventually succeed or realize it wasn’t what I really wanted. I would rather die in the process of achieving a goal than with a list of a bunch of dreams I never even attempted to realize.

This trip has changed me in ways I can’t really put into words and there are still some days where I think it was all a dream, that Alex and I are still planning this crazy idea we had so many months ago.

I would like to thank everyone that followed our blog, left us comments or helped us along the way. I would like to thank my Mom, for teaching me that “I can do anything, it may take me longer, but I will get there” and my Dad for keeping my imagination alive and young. But most all I want to thank Alex Washburn for without which this trip wouldn’t have happened. She is an amazing person that I have been fortunate enough to share my life with.

Onward!

The Coastal Highway

This video was shot on the Coastal Highway in Belize, the road that all of the locals told us not to ride. I shot it all with a GoPro Hero3 silver edition and edited with the new GoPro suite.

Three Roads

Nathaniel prepares to record me crossing a bridge along the gloriously names 'Coastal Highway'. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel prepares to record me crossing a bridge along the gloriously named ‘Coastal Highway’. Photo: Alex Washburn

It is impossible to get lost driving in the country of Belize. It’s tiny – at only 8,867 square miles in size it is barely larger than the state of Massachusetts.

In addition to this; a large percentage of this tiny country’s land is still untouched and they have minimal infrastructure. This has negatives and positives for the country as a whole, but what it meant for us as we looked at a map on Sunday is that there was only one obvious route to Placencia from Belize city and really only three major roads in the whole country.

A Canadian very familiar to the country had warned us about how terrible a fourth road (the coastal highway) was but we took the warning with a grain of salt because foreigners from first world countries sometimes have a skewed perception of what a ‘bad’ road is.

Sunday morning several Belizeans at our hotel confirmed that the coastal highway (which by the way is neither coastal nor an actual highway) was a terrible road. However – when we came to the turnoff where we could take the unpaved coastal highway or continue on the road most traveled we decided to have a little adventure (video coming soon).

We were on the coastal highway for less than 10 minutes and I could feel the smile slowly spreading across my face. It was rocky, dirty, muddy bumpy and everything our Kawasaki KLRs were meant to handle when we decided they were the best bikes for the trip. It took us 2.5 hours to drive 37 miles and it was fantastic (even if I tipped over twice and got super muddy).

A group of locals concentrates on their game of dominos in the shade next to the only gas station in Placencia Belize. Photo: Alex Washburn

A group of locals concentrates on their game of dominos in the shade next to the only gas station in Placencia Belize. Photo: Alex Washburn

Placencia itself was pleasant enough… We decided to go because a local Belizean told us the miniature peninsula along Belize’s southern coast was beautiful and it is! However, most people seem to be in Placencia to lay on a beach and get a nice day drunk going which is just not the kind of tourists we are. Although, I got accidentally tipsy one day because the infamous “Ms. Brenda” served us two rum and punches but Nathaniel doesn’t drink. Ms. Brenda is not the kind of woman you send food back to so I had to drink both glasses while Nathaniel ate his spicy jerk chicken lunch without a beverage.

As we attempted to leave we ended up hanging out at a gas station for about twenty minutes with some of the locals. I was feeling really dehydrated and I didn’t want to start the three hour ride to San Ignacio before drinking some water so we filled up and chilled out. The taxi drivers and gas station attendants were more than happy to let us share their shade and laugh at their brisk games of dominos.

Belizeans have been super friendly towards us no matter where we’ve gone. There were a lot of homeless people and panhandlers in Belize City, but everyone we’ve met from gas station attendants to hotel clerks, fellow restaurant diners and random people on the street have been welcoming and talkative. The men at the gas station accepting our presence so quickly is just another example of this.

The ride to San Ignacio up the Hummingbird Highway was the most beautiful stretch of road we’ve come across in Belize. The hills are so overgrown with palm trees, flowers and vines they resemble the scenery in Jurassic Park. The asphault on the “highways” is generally in great condition and it isn’t until you drive through the cities that you encounter insane potholes. I have never experienced potholes like they have in Belize.

They are epic pits appearing from nowhere waiting to swallow your front tire whole. In many places swerving around one hole just dumps you right into another so it’s best to just ride straight through and try not to break your teeth as you grit through it.

When we arrived to San Ignacio we had our first meal of the day at Hode's where this flute player provided the soundtrack. Photo: Alex Washburn

When we arrived to San Ignacio we had our first meal of the day at Hode’s where this flute player provided the soundtrack. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our bikes parked in front of Hode's restaurant in San Ignacio Belize. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our bikes parked in front of Hode’s restaurant in San Ignacio Belize. And yes – that is a giant red umbrella attached to my bike. Photo: Alex Washburn

We arrived to San Ignacio in the early afternoon and after battling some epic potholes and unpaved surfaces in the city itself, found a place to eat and a hostel with a secure yard for our bikes. We didn’t have to actually come to San Ignacio, but we wanted to be close to Belmopan (the capitol) because we made an appointment to have our bikes looked at today.

We are both eager to (hopefully) cross the border into Guatemala after our appointment and continue our adventures in Spanish speaking Latin America.

RECOMMENDATION: If you are riding bikes from the US through Latin America it might be hard to get your bike serviced in Mexico depending on what you are riding. If you come to Belize – Motor Solutions in Belmopan is a well stocked shop that should be able to help you out and English is the official language of Belize which should be a relief if you don’t speak spanish.

Swimming with Sharks

Alex already mentioned that we did a snorkeling trip out of Caye Caulker that went to three specific dive spots: the coral garden, Shark & Ray alley, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

From the video you can see we saw all kinds of wild life there, and even though the weather was trying not to co-operate, it still left us with about 80% visibility in the water.

The whole video was shot on a GoPro Hero3 Silver Edition with the basic waterproof case (included in the basic packaging). I forgot my mono-pod in the bike, so had to make do and just held the GoPro in my hands the whole time. Got through almost the whole day on one charge before it died and had to swap out batteries. The film was edited using the newest GoPro studio and I sourced the music from freemusicarchive.org.

Caye Caulker

We hopped into a taxi boat Wednesday afternoon excited to leave the grungy heat of Belize City and looking forward to a few days of almost vacation.

We don’t plan very many days ahead of ourselves and since the islands off the coast of Belize are transitioning into ‘high season’ we had a little difficulty booking a place to stay.

We ended up getting a really great last minute deal on a hotel that was only a few more dollars a day than some hostels on Caye Caulker.

After our 45 minute water taxi ride to the Island we found ourselves blinking in the sunlight walking down a rough dock towards unpaved roads and brightly painted buildings- the tense feeling the city had given us started to fade. After dropping off our bags to the hotel we immediately made our way to what is know as ‘the split’ on the North end of the inhabited portion of Caye Caulker.

The area known as 'The Split' on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The area known as ‘The Split’ on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The split is a gap in between the northern mostly unsettled portion of the island and the southern end where most people live, work and visit. ‘The Split’ beach area is actually privately owned but there is a two story open air bar at the point selling ridiculously cheap beer and a dock for laying on and jumping off.

I can see why Caye Caulker is still a backpacker and budget traveler’s paradise with a few non-budget travelers thrown in. Some of the tours are a little expensive but if you want to sleep, eat and drink cheaply you could enjoy the island for less than $50 USD a day and get a rockin’ sunburn in the process.

We were lucky that we decided to go to ‘The Split’ in the last few hours of daylight we had Wednesday – that night the storm clouds rolled in and didn’t leave for the next 40 hours.

Thursday it drizzled a lot but the crazy wind didn’t kick up till we were on our way back from our snorkel tour of Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

A portion of the tour allows you to snorkel with sting rays and nurse sharks which is pretty incredible. It is unfortunate to be surrounded by an equal number of tourists but being able to reach out and touch a sting ray or a nurse shark as they glide past you is amazing.

This was Alex's second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn't tell me she was going to attempt this the first time - which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

This was Alex’s second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn’t tell me she was going to try it the first time – which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I floated there watching the sharks nibble at the fish stuffed conchs our guides were using to attract them and I kept getting the image of all those Discovery Channel specials in my mind where a diver slightly twists the tail of the shark and it goes limp.

Well – I really wanted to see if that would work.

I picked out a smaller nurse shark perhaps 3-4 feet long and swam down to it. When I got close I reached out to grab it’s tail and very gently twisted. The shark rolled over in the water like a puppy looking for a belly rub and allowed me to bring it almost to the surface. I let it go and it swam away and went back to eating.

The entire incident lasted less than 20 seconds but I would strongly discourage other people from doing this. The guide came over to me and warned me that although nurse sharks seem docile they can hurt you.

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Nathaniel got some great video of our trip to the marine park and we should be publishing the video tomorrow morning.

After our day in the ocean we were pretty hungry and decided to splurge for dinner. While you can get some really legitimate meals for $5-6 on the island I really wanted to try the local lobster.

Lobsters are generally laid out near restaurant front grills on Caye Caulker and you select your lobster based on how much you want to pay for it – the dinners also come with a variety of sides. A giant lobster with garlic toast, pasta and salad for $25 USD is just not possible in the US.

Although the lobster was good I prefer eating at places the locals go when I travel. If you prefer the same I suggest grabbing some lunch at Pirates on Caye Caulker if you come. My $6 USD lunch consisted of Baked Chicken on rice and beans with a side of potato salad and a glass of limeade. If the same restaurant existed back home I’d still eat there.

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don't expect a smile (they don't cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don’t expect a smile (they don’t cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

While the rain ruined a large part of our time on the Island (and cursed me with unappealing lighting) we’ve had fun walking it’s dirt roads, talking to people and exploring this tiny island. Belize would be a great starter country for many people people in the US nervous about traveling because it’s still incredibly affordable and the dominant language is English.

TIPS: There are january flights under $500 available from San Francisco to Cancun right now. A $50 (isn) bus ride from Cancun can get you to Belize City within a few hours. Our Hotel was $56 USD a night although you can find cheaper if you book ahead.