After spending a few weeks in Mexico (and loving it) I realized I needed to pick up the pace. The issue was an 80 mile no-man’s land called the Darien Gap. There is no road from North America to South America, the Pan-American highway ends abruptly in southern Panama. There are only two ways from Panama to Colombia; fly or sail.
I’d done a lot of research, talked to a lot of people, and spent hours on HUBB trying to find a way around the Gap. Each time I thought I’d figured it out something would change, the boat sank the ferry is cancelled, the flight isn’t going to the right city, and on and on. After a few weeks of frustration I decided the only way to get things done would be face to face. I needed to be in Panama City. Soon.
All of my research and conversations revealed one thing: booking passage takes time. Getting through customs takes time. The longer I waited to get to Panama the longer it would take for me to get to South America. I’d made contact with a sailing company and there was a chance I could get on a boat on May 9, that was over a month away, but that was the earliest ship I could find. If I delayed I might be stuck in Panama even longer.
I needed to go – and quickly.
Riding through Mexico is wonderful. I will have to return, there just wasn’t enough time to explore this amazing country. I’m ashamed to admit that this was my first real exploration of my southern neighbor. I’ve lived in Arizona for over 20 years and I’ve never made it past the border towns. Now I know what I’ve been missing all this time.
The state of Chiapas is a real treat. It has large lakes, forests, and mountains. Unfortunately for me the gas stations are a bit sparse. As I was riding south on 145D through Parque National el Ocote I almost ran out of gas. But it worked out to my advantage, when I finally found a gas station it was across the street from a little taco stand. That was one of the best meals I’ve had in a while.
Riots in the Streets
As I rode south toward Tuxtla Gutierrez I noticed a lot of trucks carrying Federal Police. The police presence was noticeably larger as I approached town. I didn’t think much of it, perhaps because I was getting used to seeing all of the trucks along the road. I decided to rent a hotel room in Tuxtla and and get some rest.
The next morning I packed my bags and gassed up the bike. As soon as I started heading out of town I knew something wasn’t right. The traffic was unusually light and I could see a helicopter flying in low circles about a mile ahead of me. Black smoke was rising in the distance.
As I approached I could see that that the chopper was from a local television station, although my guard was up I wasn’t concerned yet. But as I got closer I could see that I was in a potentially dangerous situation. There were hundreds of protesters and hundreds of Federal Police in full riot gear.
The protesters had blocked one side of the road with a 18 wheeler. On the opposite side of the road a car was engulfed in flames. Rocks were being thrown at the police and crowds were gathering. As I got a bit closer I could see that tensions were rising and I had a single thought, “get away now!”
I’m sure I could have stopped, taken out my camera, and shot some great stills or video footage. If I had a GoPro on my helmet I certainly would have been rolling, but the risk of being pulled into the skirmish was just too high to stop and grab a camera. At the first sign of violence I got away.
Unfortunately the city maps aren’t incredibly detailed and I spent a bit of time trying to find my way around the blocked highway. After about 20 minutes of riding through side streets, hitting dead ends, and making lots of U-turns I found a clear path out of town. I realized that if this was a serious problem (like a full military action) it would have been very difficult to flee to safety. It was a good lesson in preparing myself for future locations that have a higher potential for military danger. Yes, I’m talking about Africa.
I have no idea what the fuss was all about. But as I was leaving town I saw dozens of large busses that had unloaded Mexican militia. There were hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, of military police. All in full riot gear. It was clear that the police had seen this protest coming and had sent in reinforcements. I scanned the news for days afterward and never found an explanation.
Accidental Off-Road Riding
The rest of the day was mostly uneventful. I planned to stay the night in Hidalgo, a small border town. But just before I got to my destination I took a wrong turn and my GPS automatically calculated a new route for me. I’d forgotten that I’d told my GPS to include dirt roads when looking for new routes, and so my Garmin Navigator took me exactly where I’d told it to, off-road.
Technically it was a road, but more for horses and hikers than 700lb motorcycles with inexperienced off-road riders. The road wound through fields and hills, I saw locals staring at me with wide eyes (I’m sure they didn’t expect to see a huge BMW R1200 GS riding through their back yard).
I rode over boulders and down steep rocky slopes. I conquered stretches of sand and gravel. I knew that if I stopped I’d never get started again, so I tried to relax and remember what I’d learned during my practice sessions in Arizona. And after just a few minutes I realized I was having a blast.
After what seemed like an eternity (more like 45 minutes) I found the pavement again. I wasn’t planning on going off-road but was glad I did. It was a lot of fun, not as difficult as I’d thought, and I was able to see more of the countryside. It was great.
After a long day of riding I was exhausted. I spent the night in a shabby hotel and prepared for the border crossing the next morning.