South America – Spencer Conway (Issue 18)

After successfully circumnavigating Africa through 34 countries and covering 55,345 kilometres in nine and a half months I am now attempting to circumnavigate South America. Attempting is the appropriate word, as things are certainly not going to plan!

I have no GPS, no phone and until recently, no map! My philosophy is to ask five or six people for directions and if two of them are the same I take that route. This proves to be a very unsuccessful strategy so I’m sticking with it. However, I have ended up in incredible situations and experienced some stunning rides and landscapes which I would never have experienced. A cursory look at a map will show that the distance from Bogota Colombia to my present location in San Juan Argentina is 5,200 kms. I have covered 11,118 kms because I have been hopelessly lost on many occasions. Long may it last. Although I am circumnavigating I decided it would be undiplomatic not to visit the two landlocked countries of Paraguay and Bolivia. So if I am still wandering around aimlessly in two years do not be surprised!

Many adventure riders and travellers find Customs and border crossings one of the most frustrating experiences of their whole journey, what with the delays, petty officialdom and often open corruption and bribery. I fully understand that, but I have had some of my most memorable experiences at border crossings and South America has not disappointed. The mantra I use is ‘day by day, border by border, nothing lasts forever and delays are part of the journey’. This simple sentence has turned frustration into calmness and has once again proved invaluable on several occasions.


Let me illustrate with an example. The San Ignacio border between Ecuador and Peru is a small quiet affair and at first glance it looks like smooth sailing. I approached it with the same philosophy I always do; that my whole day might be engulfed in red tape and even then I might not make it. As I approached the Ecuadorian side, the Customs Officer was standing outside a small rickety office chewing on a stick. His uniform was crumpled and sweat glistened on his brow and dripped from his impressive moustache. He reminded me of John Cleese, albeit one shrunken to about 5 foot. Add an impressive paunch – he looked like he had swallowed a basketball – and you get the idea. He seemed approachable and friendly so I had a glimmer of hope that all might go well. As I always do, I stopped the bike, took off my helmet and walked towards him with a big smile, an outstretched hand and a hearty ‘Buenos Dias Senõr’.

He responded well and gave me a firm handshake. After a brief discussion in broken Spanish I ascertained the basic procedure and just as I reached into my rucksack for my passport and relevant papers, he halted me with a raised hand. ‘Momento Senõr’, and with that he disappeared into the little office behind us.

I was used to this ‘I’m in charge, we go at my pace’ attitude, but it was all harmless and friendly. I sat on a small concrete wall, happy to wait until he had finished a pressing engagement with his non-existent superiors, but I wasn’t prepared for his next move. After fifteen minutes or so he came out, gave me a brief nod and crossed over the potholed road to a large tree. He then proceeded to strip off all his clothes and stand under what I now saw was a makeshift hose and shower head, hanging over a branch of the tree. With gay abandon and stark naked, he proceeded to lather up and had a truly efficient and detailed wash that lasted for no less than 20 minutes. After drying himself off he dressed slowly, brushed his hair in the reflection of a truck window and sauntered over, nodding his head in the direction of his Office. He was ready for business. My paperwork took five minutes. I loved it!

I was not out of there yet though, as the Peruvian Customs Officer on the other side of the frontier had his little party trick. As soon as I greeted him, he looked at his mobile phone and stated that it was his lunch time. At ten O clock in the morning? I had to stifle a laugh because I had actually heard of this man! No matter what time of day it is, he apparently must have lunch when a foreigner turns up. It’s a cunning ploy, because his sister owns the only little shop/restaurant at the border. He heads there for an hour or so, eating at a snail’s pace. Eventually any traveller who is waiting, will go and buy water, a soft drink or even a meal. Hey presto, she gets thirsty customers who otherwise would have rushed through. I admired the theatre of it. After forty minutes I followed him in, bought the obligatory drink and secretly filmed him having his Seafood Ceviche. Only when I had bought something was he ready to stamp my papers.

Being the idiot that I am, I made the conscious decision to hunt out the most difficult roads I could find in each of the South American countries. I am not a fan of asphalt and I am proud that I have only covered 45 kms on the paved Trans American Highway so far. In Colombia this desire to keep off the main highways produced the most difficult but exhilarating ride I have ever done. It is an absolute must for any rider heading through these parts.

Trampolin del Diablo - Colombia

Located in the south of Colombia going through the Valley of Sibunday, the road between Mocoa and San Francisco in Putumoya was built in 1930 and zig zags the Andean Mountain Range. The road is 69.7 kms long. It is known variously as the Trampolin del Diablo (the Devil’s Trampoline, for the obvious reason that it throws people over the edge), the Adiós mi Vida (goodbye my life) or the Trampolin de la Muerte, (Trampoline of Death). None of these names instil confidence but when I saw a sign ‘This road is difficult but not impossible’, my spirits rose. This road is definitely not suitable for public transport and was originally built to transport soldiers during the war between Colombia and Peru. More than 500 people died on this road in 2011 and in 1989 more than 300 died in a single incident when a huge part of the road collapsed. The track, because that’s what it is, at times, gets extremely muddy and slippery and after a storm it is impassable even for four wheel drives. It is 70 kms of pure wilderness and light local traffic; a no man’s land; a place to connect with nature where you can find solitude but also pure adrenaline.

It abounds in radical twists and turns next to cliffs and precipices and has more than 100 hairpin bends. On top of that landslides and avalanches are a common occurrence. Heavy mist and low visibility increase the rush. I was lucky that the weather was dry, perfect really. I was pleased about that as I had Cathy on the back plus my equipment with a total weight of over 500 kilos. On one particularly vicious bend there is a local man with a flag who voluntarily warns people of the impending danger, unpaid, but doing his humane duty. Superb.

It was a beautiful road with bubbling waterfalls, verdant green fauna and colourful butterflies everywhere. I felt like I was on a Spielberg film set and didn’t want the experience to end. We loved every second of it and it is a day I will never forget especially as it was completely un-touristic unlike the next road I sought out, the relaxingly named Death Road in Peru. But that’s another story….

I left from Bogota, the colourful capital of Colombia on the first of September and have now travelled through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. At this minute I am sitting forlornly in San Juan, Argentina with a semi burnt out bike and a look of despair on my face. Over the last four months I have been nearly driven off a cliff, had a nearly catastrophic blowout, suffered from altitude sickness on three occasions, faced treacherous roads, had food poisoning, been bitten by a bullet ant and a spider and have broken down in the middle of nowhere. I’m not complaining and wouldn’t change anything. I have seen beautiful places, met wonderful people and I wake up every day, look at my bike and think, ‘YES’, I certainly am the luckiest person in the world, with the best job in the world. I feel privileged and humbled. Bring on the next eight months and all the wonder of South America.

An extended version of this article first appeared in Issue 18 of Overland magazine.