July 14, 2010

The what I learned posts; Driving in Latin America

One of my earlier blog posts was on driving in Latin America, I don't have much to add, so here is the link

In that post, dated March 25, I made the observation that despite the apparent anarchy (strike that, there is nothing apparent about it)  I saw almost no accidents. 

So I did a bit web research to see if my impressions were accurate.  According to W.H.O. statistics (Abbot and Costello,  please! Be quiet!), the number of deaths due to car collisions is a lot lower in Latin American countries than in the USA.  I was a bit surprised to see that the USA was not the most dangerous country to drive in, even though it has the largest overall number of deaths by car, the USA drops to 15th of 49 nations when the measure is adjusted for population (the US had 17.5 car deaths per million population).
See for yourself, and oh, don't drive in Hungary.   The deadliest South American nation listed is Paraguay at number 18 or 13.2 deaths per million.  To my surprise, Canada is much safer than the USA, which I never would have guessed.  Canada comes in at number 29 (7.4 per million), just ahead of Argentina and Panama.  Mexico is way back at number 40 (0.7!!! per million), riding in that Tijuana taxi is safer than you think.  Also contending for last place are Chile (41), Costa Rica (42), Ecuador and Uruguay (45 & 46).
P.S. Apropos of nothing in particular, if you check gun death mortality on that death site, you will find that you are nearly 5 times more likely to be killed in a car crash in the US, than to be shot by a hand gun. If you visit the Dominican Republic, stay in your bullet proof car,  number last in car deaths is numero uno when it comes to muerte por la pistola.

July 10, 2010

The what I learned posts; You can take it with you.

Well some of it anyway;
Once you have your bike it should be fitted with luggage.  I am totally satisfied with the Givi three bag set up I had on the KTM.   The de rigueur adventure look requires those boxy aluminum 'I made it myself in shop class' cases.  If you like em, more power to ya, but I don't and here's why.
Square metal edges can do a lot of damage to whatever they hit (including el piloto).
Lid style covers means the whole bag needs to be emptied to get whatever is on the bottom.  This is important, because you need to pack the heavy stuff (tools) on the bottom, and they may be what you need access to most often.
They are generally not easily removed from the bike.  This is important because you may need to remove the bags to get your bike unstuck, get your bike through a narrow doorway into the hotel lobby, or be able to take your bags into your room.  All three of my Givis are off the bike using one key in less than a minute.
Givis are also very strong, nearly unbreakable, and because they are made of ABS plastic, the same material used for most car bumpers, if you do manage to crack them, they can be repaired at most body shops, or you can learn how to fix them yourself, it's easy.   
Another good choice is soft luggage, but only the kind that is 100%, throw it in the river and it comes out dry  waterproof.   The last thing you need to find after riding hours through cold pouring rain is that you have no dry clothes to change into.
Whatever you choose, the good stuff is going to cost more and is definitely worth paying for. Beware of shoddy knock offs selling for 1/3 the price of the real thing.
This is no place to cheap out, consider buying quality secondhand luggage before wasting money on  poorly made imitations.

July 07, 2010

The what I learned posts; Choose Your Weapon

If you are going to ride to South America, almost any motorcycle will do, but some will do better than others.  Where are you going, and what would you like to see?  Central and South America have good roads and bad roads, mountains, plains and deserts.  Some areas are densely populated, and in some you may travel for hundreds of miles without seeing a soul.  If you are going all the way, you will be racking up many odometer digits, you will encounter every kind of road, including no road, just about every kind of weather short of a blizzard, and you will be gone for months. 

We gringos lean towards bigger is better, and too much that is never enough.   Choose a bike that is light, 650 cc or less, has excellent suspension, some form of wind protection, can go a minimum of 300 km (200 miles) on a full tank, runs OK on regular gas, has simple maintenance requirements  and long service intervals.  Low speed handling in tight spots is going to be more important than extended high speed capability, you won't be able to go very fast most of the way. 

In heavily populated areas, your average speed will be closer to 60 kmh (35 mph) than 60 mph.   The distance between towns is only a few miles, and the road goes right through the center of them all.  Speed bumps are used to slow everything down, big trucks and buses will come to a complete stop at each speed bump.  Roads are filled with pedestrians, buses, taxis, animals, pushcarts, wheel barrows and street vendors.  In 'el centro' you may find yourself threading through an open air market at walking speeds.

Avoid heavy bikes (more than 500 pounds) unless you are an Olympic weight lifter or are traveling with many strong friends.    The mere thought of muscling an over 500 pound  unladen  bike through the sand in Bolivia or the Argentinian mud  makes me want to take up knitting for a hobby.  Another reason to stay away from heavy and or powerful bikes is tire lifespan, sub 100 horsepower bikes go a lot farther on a set of skins and use less gasoline.  

You may need to fix flats or repair damage resulting from tip-overs and crashes.  If you are going all the way you will rack up many thousands of kilometers, wear out tires and chains, need to change oil and filters. What service will your bike choice require over this distance?  Even if you plan to do your own maintenance and repairs, you will still need access to parts, tools, and a place to work.  All information is available on the internet, you can research dealer location, model availability, sources for chains and tires before you leave.

Is your bike sold in South America?  If  so, parts and service should be easier to obtain.  There are many more bikes in Latin America then in most parts of the US and Canada, but not the same makes and models.  The typical Latin American two wheeler is a small scooter,  standard,  dual purpose or  cruiser, of 200 cc or less, made in China and sold for the equivalent of between 2,000 and 3,000 US dollars.  Japanese brands are well represented, but the models they sell in South America are not the same  ones they sell in the US and Canada.  Check the internet to see if your bike is sold where you are going.  In many South American countries cops ride Kawasaki 650 KLRs.   BMW and KTM sell the same models in South America they sell in the US and Canada and have dealerships in in most of Central and South America.   I saw a few Aprilias, mostly in Argentina, and the odd Harley, usually a Sportster.    Having said all that, if you must ride your Gold Wing or Road King to Tierra Del Fuego, you can probably get away with it, but you will be restricted as to where you can go.

One thing to consider,  if your goal is to reach some destination in South America, how important is it that you ride all the way?   I spent three months in South America and two months getting there.  Riding all the way was the goal for this trip, but I enjoyed South America far more than the stuff that was in between.  If I was going back (and it is likely I will) I don't think I would ride all the way again.  Flying the bike in sounds expensive, but it will be cheaper than riding it when you factor in that you will be on the road for weeks or months, and you still have to get across the Darien Gap.  Flying the bike back from Santiago was not much more than flying it from Panama City to Bogota. 

I will also be seriously looking at buying a bike down there and selling it when I leave.  The hitch is to find a country that will allow you to register the bike without having resident status.