STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Greg Davis
"Sand replaced soil and soon enough we left the pavement and headed into the bush, following without certainty a network of dusted and sand swept goat paths toward the north."
After a week in Quepos, Costa Rica with Rachael, mi familia, a bunch of monkey’s and a stray cat named “Winter”, everybody got in a van to go the airport and I packed my bags to head to Panama where I’d catch the boat to South America. Homesickness set in hard. All that family fun and love was far better than the thought of another border crossing, and the Panama authorities made sure to make this one extra special. Longest one yet, 5 hours of the typical lines and of “lunch breaks” but this one was peppered with fun requests like “let’s see $500 in cash” and “you need a plane ticket out of Panama to your home country” Eventually worked through this and was en route to Boquete on the Panamanian side.
I headed down to Panama City, merely glimpsing at the gaping Panama Canal as traffic swarmed into the downtown. After a couple wrong turns and some wrong ways down one ways, I met with a bunch of the other riders catching the boat to Colombia. In the morning we set off in a mob toward the Kuna Yala territory in the San Blas bay. I had forgotten to fill up the day before so soon after getting out of the city I stopped for gas. The mob continued on, all except for Matt from Australia on his Yamaha 225 kitted with a surfboard and a heap of optimism. A 15 minute fill up and we were well behind when we set off again, guessing our way toward the Kuna territory and our boat to Colombia. After rolling down the Pan American Highway another 30 minutes, we turned east toward the coast on a thin and winding road through the jungle. Crossing into the indigenous territory the rain started to sprinkle the road mixing with truck oils, jungle juice and Kuna magic to create a thin but deceptive film in our path. Riding behind Matt, I entered a corner and attempting to knock off a little speed tapped the rear brake. A nano-second later the bike and I were on separate paths toward the roadside drainage ditch, shaped perfectly for mangling metals and plastics.
I sat in the ditch for a second observing the bike just below me, taking inventory of what appeared broken, distinguishing what bits of plastic in the surrounding ditch had been claims of previous entries and which belonged to me. A truck came around the corner (one of the few vehicles even out there) and to my relief was filled with 4 Kuna guys who were eager to help pull my mess out of the concrete abyss. I took the obligatory photo of the crew and was on the road again, 8 miles from the boat and the end of my time in Central America. Damage inventory recorded a bent rear plate, twisted rear sub-frame, broken turn signal, broken taillight, twisted Macbook Pro (but still working), sheared off plate light, hole in the pants, one lost license plate bolt, new vertically oriented exhaust silencer casualty, and shaken confidence. Onward!
With a damaged bike and wounded pride, I arrived at the Kuna village to board the Stahlratte to Colombia. The Stahlratte (Steel Rat) is a German sailboat built in 1904, the captain of this rusted sea bucket is a past-life pirate and behemoth of a soul name Ludwig. Regularly clad in nothing but his thread-bare underwear and a gold chain with a tooth at the end, he operates the boat with a surly wide-stance. We winched 20 bikes aboard and set off toward a Kuna island where we’d be knocking on doors in search of beds for the night.
In the morning, we dingy’d back to the Steel Rat and soon headed out to some deserted islands on the outskirts of the bay and just before the open water, the San Blas Islands. With the anchor dropped for a couple days, we filled time with snorkeling, rope swinging, climbing on boat appendages, drinking beer, swimming to surrounding islands, listening to the ocean in shells, listening to the ocean outside of shells, and drinking rum. I kept eyeing my broken bike and convinced Captain Ludwig to stand atop my bent luggage rack while I rained hammer blows upon it with a giant metal hammer, part therapy and part x-it effort. After 10 minutes it had regained some of its former level. Feeling satisfied, I re-attached. That early morning after, we set off to cross open water to Colombia. Warned that the water was going to be rough, I popped a couple dramamine and 30 hours later woke up within approach to Cartagena.
In a stretch of Cartagena there lies a row of motorcycle shops and within that row there sits a very accommodating little space that will let you use their tools and work in their garage with no questions asked. Could be that those questions were asked, but since they were in Spanish we didn’t understand them and assumed they were saying “we’ve nothing to do, come in, take over!” and so we did. Another night in sweaty Cartagena. Consulting with some like-minded travel buds, three of us made plans to set off northward in the a.m., determined to get to the northern most point in all of South America, that mysterious and sweltering land known as La Guajira.
We burst out of Cartagena along the northern coastal road as fast as we could go, which meant as fast as Matt could go, which wasn’t fast at all but a comfortable speed of around 60 mph. We rode along that humid loving coast until somebody spotted a sign for a “mud volcano.” Detour. Great idea. Turns out a mud volcano is a giant mound of dirt with stairs to the top, and from there, a ladder leading down into the center of the geological phenomenon. Once you pay your 2 dollar entry and strip into your undies, you are granted the privilege of full immersion into the muddy depths, a surprisingly relaxing and weightless experience and the perfect way to break up a sweaty day of riding. After a rinse in a nearby lake, we set off toward a farm where a friend of Matt’s would be, and where we were invited to stay. The road climbed into the jungle, temperatures got right and soon we were looking for the “pink shack where you turn left down the dirt road.” A beautiful retreat set between some national parks in the north Colombian jungle, the farm was a recent purchase of Matt’s friends Colombian family, the Montoya’s. They invited us in with open arms, and for 2 days we stuck around.
After consulting our collective map collection, digital and otherwise, we worked out a route that would take us on dirt roads from Riohacha all the way to the coveted point, a lighthouse that marks the furthest north one can go on the South American continent. An early morning start and we broke free of the jungle, back onto the coast and toward an increasingly drier landscape. Sand replaced soil and soon enough we left the pavement and headed into the bush, following without certainty a network of dusted and sand swept goat paths (complete with goats) toward the north. Matt approached the next farmer we found and through a series of charades asked if we could camp the night on his land. We pitched our tents amongst goat turds and cacti. A beautiful little spot actually, and with unbroken stares from the nearby family we felt we had our own security guards, guards from what I’m not sure but it still seemed nice.
The next morning we packed up, shared some breakfast and coffee with our hosts and hit the “road”. Within minutes we ventured off onto a sandy path through the bush that had no previous tire marks, only goat hooves as proof of travel. I crashed, Dan crashed, and we decided this can’t be right so consulting a family we asked (we think) for directions and they pointed us the other way. We found our way back to the main road, filled up on cheap Venezuela gas being sold from Coca-Cola bottles and set aim on the true Guajira, the far north, the deserted and unforgiving expanse toward the point. Turned away by the Military, “no bueno” where we thought we should enter, we continued down the main dirt road until a suitable turn off presented itself. With some backtracking, we bypassed the Military naysayers and headed into the thick of it. 6 hours later, having crossed endless dry lake beds, rocky ascents, deep pockets of tire grabbing sand and a few smacks in the helmet from roadside shrubs, we arrived at Punta Gallinas. This point on the map is inhabited by just 8 indigenous families, one of which runs a small hospedaje that allowed us to pitch our tents for the night, despite the best efforts of a ripping wind. The only other non-wayuu local was a guy named Fredy and his wife.
It was my birthday eve and when Fredy found this out, he insisted on buying a drink. He bought a few pours of the local moonshine, served in a Coca-Cola bottle. After sipping down this rubbing alcohol, and through gritted teeth, mentioning how I liked it, Fredy bought a whole bottle for me and insisted we drink it together. All of it. Right then. So that’s what we did.
The next day we rode out of the desert and back to the jungle by nightfall, myself a year older.
Greg Davis is a photographer and designer based in Columbus, Ohio. After several years working as an in-house illustrator for Victoria’s Secret, he chucked it in and set out on a self-inititated motorcycle tour of the Americas. Two years removed and now back in Columbus, Greg runs a small freelance operation out of a distillery. He strives to live and work in the center of a venn diagram comprised of (travel-photography-design-art-illustration), conflating these categories whenever possible. For more from Greg, visit www.gregwdavis.com