Having now spent the best part of three and a half years on the road we felt it was time to share some of the more practical elements of our trip. You know, things like how do we get cash, what’s the petrol like (have we run out), how do we find places to stay, how do we back up and manage photos, what websites and applications do we use etc. I’m not sure this will be an entirely comprehensive list, it’s more a brain dump than anything else but hopefully a useful one. If you have something specific you want to ask please feel free in contacting us using the Contact Us page or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page.
OK, here goes.
How easy is it to get local cash – answer, really easy. We always use ATM’s to withdraw cash with the exception of those occasions where we cross a border and it can be useful to exchange existing cash, for example, Colombian Pesos for US Dollars (used in Ecuador) with the money changers. If we know we’re going to do this we always check the exchange rate in advance on www.xe.com to give us an idea of what to expect and spend time to ensure that we’ve been given the correct amount and in notes of the correct currency! It’s also worth checking that notes are not damaged as in many countries damaged notes are often rejected.
For ATM withdrawals we use “Currency” cards. We have two from different providers just in case there is an issue with one or the other. When we started our travels we also had one MasterCard and one Visa provider. However, it appears that most, if not all, Visa providers of these cards have pulled out of the market and both our cards are now MasterCard. In Honduras this caused a bit of an issue because a good proportion of the ATMs took Visa cards only and we’d spend time riding/walking round trying to find an ATM that would accept our cards. The beauty of “Currency” cards is that the risk associated with them is low. We load UK pounds onto the cards in limited amounts, which reduces our exposure if the card is stolen/compromised in any way, and then withdraw cash from the ATM. There is usually a small transaction fee charged by the owner of the ATM and we don’t quite get the full official interbank rate either but it’s close. Using a UK credit or debit card is a non-starter due to both the transaction fees and the dire exchange rates used by UK banks.
It’s also worth noting that we also use the “Currency” cards to make purchases in local currency, for example, in hotels or at the supermarket. There are no transaction fees for doing this but we do take the same small hit on the exchange rate as we do when withdrawing cash. Often we’re asked for ID when buying stuff with the card so we carry photocopies of our passports which usually does the trick.
How do we find places to stay – varies. In smaller towns and villages we just turn up and take a look around. We’ve never not found somewhere to stay and we prefer to take a look at a place before making a commitment to stay. For larger cities it’s often better to book something. Ensuring that you can be closer to the main attractions, especially at weekends, means booking ahead although we do this maybe 10% of the time. For peak periods such as Semana Santa (Easter), Christmas and New Year where we may want to book an apartment for a week or two we always book ahead. Of course, on occasion, we’ve been fortunate enough to be invited into peoples’ homes for which we are very grateful.
These are the main sources we use for finding places to stay – in order of frequency used
- Just turn up and see what’s available
- Online sites such as booking.com
- Airbnb for longer term stays
- Recommendations from other travellers
- Contacts made through the web
Vegetarian food – with the exception of the USA, Canada and really touristy places the concept of a vegetarian rarely exists. In a restaurant the conversation usually goes something along the lines of “do you have vegetarian food?” and the answer is usually an emphatic no. However, if we ask “do you have rice, beans, salad, plantain, avocado and cheese” they will say yes! So you have to ask the right questions. However, that’s often not enough. These are some examples of where, for Janette, being vegetarian can be really difficult and is why we often end up cooking for ourselves.
- Checking multiple times to determine if the lasagna really is vegetarian only to find that it contains chicken “because chicken isn’t meat!”
- In similar fashion being offered Hawaiian pizza with pineapple and ham “because ham isn’t meat!”
- Finding that the home cooked “vegetarian” beans have lumps of pork fat in them.
- Finding that the vegetable tamales have pork in them. Not because pork isn’t meat, it definitely is in this case, but because the tamale has vegetables in it so must be vegetarian.
- Being offered insects to eat because Janette didn’t specifically say she doesn’t eat insects and there’s no way they can be considered as meat.
- Restaurants will often have, for example, chicken and vegetable soup where chicken legs are cooked in a vegetable broth. Easiest way to make the soup vegetarian is just remove the chicken leg before serving to the customer, right! I don’t think so.
Fortunately, the Americas offer a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. Shopping for these at the market is fun, although I’m sure we sometimes pay some “gringo” tax. Panaderias (small bakeries) also have an array of both sweet and savoury breads and serve hot and cold drinks and fruit juices. Cheese can be purchased at specialist shops or in supermarkets but unfortunately, unless we buy imported, has little flavour. For additional protein there’s always nuts etc. from the supermarket. Janette being vegetarian is only really a challenge when we go out to eat. As Steve likes to try as much local food as possible, including street food, it can be the case that Steve will eat out whilst Janette looks on with her fruit smoothie.
Where vegetarian restaurants do exist we usually try them out. However, our experience here has not been great. Often they seem to be able to take great ingredients and turn them into an extremely bland meal. Artificial meat such as tofu, or similar, is often available but Janette is such a fussy so and so she refuses to eat it (although to be fair even the street dogs in Guadalupe, Colombia refused to eat it when offered!). I, Steve, also have an observation to make regarding vegetarian restaurants. The vast majority don’t serve beer. If you’re going to present me with bland food at least give me the option of washing it down with a nice cold beer, but they don’t. What’s that all about?
Cooking in hostels – as a follow on from the vegetarian section above we’d like to make the following observations about cooking in hostels. All hostels will have a rudimentary kitchen consisting of at least a hob, fridge, plates, mugs, pans and cutlery. The best hostels come equipped with more than one kitchen, modern appliances, ovens and sometimes free basics like oil, salt, pepper and free coffee. These are some of the challenges when trying to cook for yourself in some of the “not so good” hostels.
- Saucepans and frying pans have no handles and the non-stick coating departed years ago.
- Not enough cutlery for the number of guests.
- Blunt knives.
- Stuff can sometimes be downright dirty.
- People cook too much and keep the leftovers in the pan meaning it can’t be used by anyone else.
- There just aren’t any cups or mugs.
- Some people just don’t clear up after themselves and expect someone else to do it (mostly the younger generation!).
So, given the above, we are thankful that we carry our own cooking equipment. Very often we’ll exclusively use our own pans and stuff knowing that it’s both in good condition and clean :-). We would recommend carrying your own stuff if you plan to use hostels extensively.
We’ve also been known to break out the cooking gear whilst in hotels. If there just isn’t vegetarian food available in local restaurants we’ll buy something to cook and take it back to the hotel. Setting up outside does draw some strange looks and comments but we don’t care 🙂
Useful websites – some of these were instrumental in helping us plan and prepare for the trip whilst others have been useful since we left. Some have been useful both before and after leaving.
- wikioverland.org – this has been a good resource of information when crossing borders i.e. what documents and copies do we need as well as an idea of any fees we need to pay and the overall process.
- advrider.com – a motorcycle website with communities in various parts of the world, discussions on equipment and threads covering technical and practical aspects of Triumph motorcycles.
- horizonsunlimited.com – a community based website for finding and sharing travel advice. Primarily for motorcyclists but in more recent years has expanded to include overland travellers of all flavours.
- tiger800.co.uk – a great online forum for all things related to the Triumph Tiger 800.
- booking.com for booking places to stay.
- airbnb.com for booking longer term apartment rentals.
Applications and software – here’s a list of the main applications and software that we use and why
- Windows 10 operating system because the laptop would just be a paperweight without an operating system and I happen to like Windows 10.
- Office 365. This one is a subscription and includes the full Office suite of applications and services of which we use the following:
- Outlook as the email, contacts and calendar client.
- Access. We have a database of all expenses incurred for later analysis.
- Excel. Reporting tool against the data in the Access database. For example I know that, as of writing this, we’ve spent £2,590.86 GBP on fuel and £164.05 on haircuts. Integration between Access and Excel is key.
- OneNote as the note keeping application – extensive notes on lots of stuff including Spanish and recommended places to visit.
- Word for document creation and editing.
- Skype for calling landlines and other Skype users. Subscription comes with 60 free minutes per month to landlines. Most of our calls on Skype are free to other Skype users.
- OneDrive cloud storage for storing photos and documents. The subscription gives us 1TB of storage for up to 5 users so 5TB in total. This is worth the subscription price alone, excluding all the applications.
- WordPress – this the hosting platform for our blog and web pages.
- Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Another subscription. I use Lightroom extensively for managing and editing photos. Hardly ever use Photoshop but it comes as part of the photography plan subscription from Adobe.
- Garmin Basecamp for managing track logs from the GPS. Also used to export track logs to kml format for later import into Google Earth and subsequently Google Maps to help create interactive maps for our website.
- Spotify for listening to music. As of March 2018 we’re on a £0.99 per month introductory subscription offer for three months. Will review when required to pay full price of £10?/month.
- Microsoft SyncToy is a free backup application for our photos and documents, highly recommended.
- FastStone image viewer. Windows 10 does not allow me to preview RAW files from the camera in Windows Explorer. FastStone allows for viewing RAW files from many camera manufacturers and is free.
- Maps.me (Android) – mapping, directions and finding local resources.
- SpanishDict (Android) – Spanish dictionary. Also works offline which is useful.
- iOverlander (Android) – application for overland travellers. More useful for overland travellers in trucks as a lot of the information relates to places to camp, park and get your truck fixed. Can be useful if/when we want to meet other overlanders.
- Facebook and Messenger – Janette only uses these primarily for keeping in contact with family and making Messenger calls. Janette also maintains a Facebook page Tiger 800 RTW.
- WhatsApp (Android) – we use it mostly for making free calls to other WhatsApp users over WiFi as well as sending messages.
- Olympus OI.Track (Android) – when hiking or walking around used to record a track log vis GPS. The track is then synchronised with photos taken on my Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark ii camera to geotag the photos (camera does not have an inbuilt GPS).
Managing photos, documents and backups – as you can imagine we have a fair few photos/documents to manage and ensure that we don’t lose. My workflow is designed to, hopefully, prevent the loss of photos/documents in the event of our laptop or backup disk/s going bad or being lost/stolen. Here’s how it works:
- I have a recovery stick for Windows 10. In the event of a failure I can rebuild the machine. Applications I’ve installed are either synchronised via OneDrive for installation or can be installed from the vendors’ site e.g. Adobe Lightroom Classic CC or Microsoft Office.
- NEVER store any data exclusively on the laptop. Documents are synchronised with OneDrive if I need offline storage for some content. These same documents are also backed up to two external SSD drives that we try and keep separate. Documents are now in three places.
- Once new photos are on an SD card they are imported into Lightroom using the copy option. New photos now exist in two places, on the SD card and on an external SSD.
- Run a backup using Microsoft SyncToy so that photos are now on two external SSDs and the original SD card. Now that the photos are on the two SSDs I have the confidence to go ahead and format the SD cards in camera.
- Upload the newly added photos to OneDrive. Photos now exist in three places including in the cloud (OneDrive). I also synchronise and backup my Lightroom catalog in the same way. We’re now in a position where even if all our stuff was stolen we still have all photos, documents and Lightroom edits for download from OneDrive.
We’ve only ever lost a handful of photos this way. A kayak accident in Belize resulted in the loss of the camera. Due to the fact that I’d had the discipline to go through my workflow the night before, gloating a little :-), we only lost the photos taken that morning. Not sure there’s a way to mitigate that particular risk.
Bike maintenance – I’m fortunate enough to have both the capability and aptitude to be able to perform all my own maintenance and most repairs. I also find it to be quite therapeutic. On occasion I have let others work on the bike when, for example, they have kindly offered to perform maintenance for free. But it doesn’t always go well. Here are a few examples of when it would have been better to do things myself.
- In San Jose, Costa Rica, the Triumph dealer offered to change the brake fluid for free. It was due a change so I agreed, how hard can changing brake fluid be? Well, after watching them literally pull the front brake lever so sharply that brake fluid literally shot from the reservoir and all over the tank and handlebars I was not too impressed. They declared they’d finished and I asked about bleeding the ABS which has to be done with a computer to open the valve to the ABS unit. They said they’d done it but I knew they hadn’t as they never went anywhere near the bike with a computer.
- Going into the dealer in Managua, Nicaragua, they agreed that I could use their tools and workshop. I needed to grease the steering head bearings and swinging arm bearings. They said they could do it but on opening their toolbox it was clear that they’d never done the job as all the Triumph tools were still wrapped in their original packaging and it was clear they’d never done the job before. They admitted that they’d never seen either a swingarm or steering head dismantled before. The workshop manual was also in English and they did not understand a word of what was contained in it.
- Removal and refitting of the front wheel for a tyre change in Guatemala City caused issues later down the road when I needed to remove the front wheel. The wheel spindle had been done up so tight that I needed to borrow a 1/2″ three foot breaker bar to get it undone. Usually my 3/8″ drive short bar is sufficient.
- The same dealer in Guatemala City also changed the coolant for free to help out. They clearly didn’t follow the procedure as when I checked the level later that day I discovered that they had only managed to put about 1 litre of the required 2 litres into the cooling system.
- In Ibarra, Ecuador, I decided to take the rear wheel to a motorcycle dealer to remove the tyre and fit my new one. The bead is difficult to break. After struggling with their tyre levers for a while the mechanic then proceeded to attack the job with a screwdriver at which point I just had to stop him, I couldn’t watch any more. He then went over to the car place opposite to use their machine to remove the rear tyre. Unfortunately in the process he managed to completely destroy the inner tube.
It’s not all been bad. In Tucson, Dave recommended a local dealer to change the chain and sprockets and they did an excellent job. The dealer in Seattle was great and changed the oil and filter no problem, as you would expect. We’ve just heard too many horror stories about bodged jobs and experienced a little of how local mechanics can operate ourselves to entrust Tigger to anyone else. I can’t imagine letting someone loose on adjusting my valve clearances, removing the cams, changing shims and putting it all back together again and have it all still work smoothly a few thousand miles down the road. My advice is to know your bike well, be able to perform at least the regular maintenance yourself and be careful who entrust your steed with.
Overall packing strategy for Tigger – our packing arrangements for the bike have worked extremely well for us. The camping equipment, spares and most tools are held securely in the panniers whilst our clothes, shoes, documents and camera are held in the soft grey bag that we strap to the back of the bike, and the tankbag. This gives us the advantage of being able to quickly remove the stuff we need when we arrive at a hotel and leave everything else locked in the bike. Lovely :-).
Where do we buy spares for Tigger – this has varied depending upon what we’ve needed. Most service items are available in country as there has been at least one Triumph dealer in each country we’ve visited. Things like oil filters are readily available as is oil of the correct viscosity and grade. However, things like our new Nitron rear shock absorber were procured from the UK as this kind of thing is just not available locally. It would be possible to buy a Triumph shock absorber in, for example, Guatemala but it might take a while to arrive, would be of inferior quality to the Nitron and probably cost as much if not more. When we needed a new rear wheel in Mexico we purchased it from a dealer in California because even after shipping and import costs it was still about one third cheaper than buying locally. Tyres are easy to get. Most major motorcycle brands are represented now in all countries (except Cuba) that we’ve visited and they do sell larger motorcycles in these markets. This means, for example, that it’s easy to buy tyres of the right size and our preferred brand, Heidenau, in Central America. I don’t understand why some motorcyclists we’ve met insist on strapping bloody great spare tyres to the back of their bike? As a last resort, if it really is impossible to get something locally then, we would just use DHL to get whatever we needed shipped in. We might just have a few challenges then with customs :-).
Parking Tigger – security for Tigger is always a concern and secure parking is one of the first things we check for. In the USA and Canada it wasn’t really an issue at all. We spent most of our time in the National parks and we had no concerns about leaving Tigger, or any of our other stuff for that matter, when we went hiking for the day. From Mexico onwards it’s been a little different. Many hotels will have secure parking, but those in older colonial towns often do not. Often we’re invited to park Tigger in reception or in an interior courtyard which can be entertaining as I ride past the family watching TV :-). On those occasions when parking is not directly available where we’re staying we use a public parqueadero (car and bike park). These are secure and manned all the time they’re open and locked when not open, so no concerns there. Occasionally, and reluctantly, we have had to leave Tigger on the pavement or on the street outside. Up until recently we had a bike cover (it just got old and faded with holes and eventually totally shredded in the wind when we left Tigger in Ibarra, Ecuador for a couple of months) which I called the cloaking device. It’s amazing how a cover can effectively make something disappear. This strategy didn’t always work though. We were awakened one night by someone banging loudly on our room door in San Ignacio Belize, it was the hotel manager. The police had spotted someone stealing our cover and had chased them down the road to retrieve it. We do not have an alarm on the bike, I just find them extremely irritating and absolutely nobody takes any notice of vehicle alarms in Latin America anyway. All in all we take a few common sense precautions when parking and overall have no major concerns about Tiggers safety.
Petrol, Gas, Gasolina – we’re often asked if we carry extra fuel. The answer is no. The reality is that it’s just not been necessary to have more than the 200 ish mile range that we have with the standard fuel tank. I’m sure there will come a time in Patagonia when we will need extra range. In that case the plan is to buy cheap plastic petrol cans and give them away when we’re done with them. We can count on one hand the number of occasions when a petrol station has not had fuel meaning the possibility of Janette having to push :-).
Quality of fuel hasn’t been an issue either. Fortunately Tigger is able to run on pretty low octane fuel with no issues and we’ve, so far, been able to fill up at “proper” petrol stations. Maybe we would have fuel quality issues if we were to buy it in a small village at the side of the road high up in the Andes but we’ve not needed to do that yet.
What about bike insurance – from the outset we’ve accepted the fact that we will not have insurance for Tigger. That is, if we drop and damage the bike then there’s no one we can claim from. I’m not even sure if such insurance is available to us in many of the countries we visit and I’m pretty sure I could not buy a policy in the UK to cover us, for example, in South America. It’s just part of the risk we have to accept when travelling as we do.
3rd party insurance – is compulsory in most countries and typically available at the border. For example, in Colombia it’s called SOAT and is provided through a number of companies. It can be challenging to buy a new short term policy e.g. three months, when not near a border town. For us our initial three month SOAT expired when we were in Medellin and it took the best part of a day walking the town trying to find somewhere that would sell us anything less than the usual 12 month policy. For reference, we eventually found a SURA office which sold us the three months we needed. It’s not prohibitively expensive at about £11 GBP per month and I guess buying a full 12 month policy would have been an option it’s just that paying the best part of £100 more than we needed to wouldn’t have sat well with me. We did have a problem when crossing the border from Ecuador to Colombia. The guys there selling SOAT only did it for cars. This meant running the risk of riding without insurance to the next town a few miles away where we were easily able to buy the three month policy we wanted at the Exito supermarket (like a Tesco back in the UK).
In summary it’s been easy to buy 3rd party insurance when needed. We have serious doubts as to the value of such insurance but at least we’re able to produce all the necessary documents on the rare occasions we’re stopped by the police or army.
What about travel/medical insurance – this one is most important to us. We’re not prepared to take the risk of travelling without adequate medical insurance. An accident where we both require extended hospitalisation or repatriation could be horribly expensive. Before we left home we insured with Navigator Travel Insurance (www.navigatortravel.co.uk) who were able to offer us an 18 month policy, including using the bike as our main form of transport, at a very competitive rate. For long term travellers like us the issue with travel insurance arises when the initial 18 months expires. Because we were already travelling it was not possible to renew the Navigator insurance and it soon became obvious that almost all insurers require you to have been resident in the UK for the 6 months prior to the commencement of a new policy or policy renewal.
So, the search was on. Not only did we need to find someone who would insure us given that we were already on the road but also cover us for riding the motorcycle. Most policies cover motorcycling but not if you use the bike as the main form as transport i.e. motorcycle touring. It’s also necessary to check that the 12 or 18 month policies actually cover you for the full duration, many only cover, for example, up to a maximum of 90 days in a single trip. People suggested the usual suspects such as World Nomads but they don’t cover UK citizens, or didn’t when we were checking. Insurance is a minefield and I spent hours pouring through policy documents to ensure that we would be covered. Eventually, Trailfinders came up as a possibility. I had to call them and check that we would be covered on the bike, the underwriters agreed but doubled the premium but at least we could get insured.
Everyone has a different view on risk and we’ve met long term travellers who don’t have travel/medical insurance. We’ve also heard stories, probably embellished along the way, of individuals being liable for 10’s of thousands of pounds in medical expenses because they weren’t insured, I’m sure it happens. Do you want to take the risk? We don’t.
Here’s a few things to check before handing over your hard-earned on a policy:
- Ensure that the company will cover you based on your normal place of residence/nationality. I think this is why it’s difficult to renew a policy whilst on the road. The approach seems to be that if we’ve spent the last 12 months travelling out of the country then we can no longer be considered resident in the UK and they refuse to offer cover.
- Purchase the policy before you leave home. Buying policies whilst already on the road is a lot more difficult.
- Ensure that you make it quite clear that you are a long term nomad and not just making a few shorter trips within the period of the policy. Some policies are limited to a certain number of days cover only in a given period of time.
- Ensure that they know you are using the motorcycle (assuming you’re biker 🙂 ) as your main form of transport. I’d assume this also applies if driving a vehicle as you are not just hiring a car for a few days whilst on holiday.
- Be sure to declare any pre-existing medical conditions or treatments you may have undergone in the last few years.
- Check the lists of activities excluded/included. For example all policies will have an altitude limit for hiking e.g. 4,000M. In some parts of South America we’ll be at altitudes higher than that when walking down the street!
- Start your search for the right policy in good time.
It’s best to give them as much information as possible. I work on the basis that insurance companies are there to make money and not to help me as a traveller. Now that may be a little cynical but I’m sure that if there were a way for them not to pay out on a significant claim then they would find it. These people are not stupid and any attempt to pull the wool over their eyes could potentially end you up in court on a fraud charge.
Hopefully you’ll be able to find a policy that suits you. Good luck!
Maps for GPS – our GPS, a Garmin Zumo 660 originally came with maps for Europe, as you would expect for a device purchased in the UK. Unfortunately these don’t help a lot when trying to find your way in the centre of Guatemala City. Garmin do sell maps for the Americas, North, Central and South, but they’re expensive and don’t get good reviews. Fortunately it’s easy to install 3rd party maps to the Zumo 660 so I take full advantage of that and download all our maps from Garmin Open Street Maps. Maps are free and have proven to be pretty reliable, although they don’t always know about the one way systems. As a result I have been known to swear at it a lot. You can get your free world maps from http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/
If you need it and see it, BUY IT – If you’re in actual need of something and see it for sale then buy it there and then. Never assume that you’ll be able to get it cheaper down the road as you’ll invariably find that you can’t actually get it at all. For us this has been more true from Belize onwards. You can get most things you’re likely to need in Mexico and certainly in the US and Canada. If you live in the 1st world and are used to getting anything you need relatively easily you can fall into the trap of assuming that stuff is also readily available in the 3rd world. Just because you’re in a large city doesn’t mean they’ll have what you need. Guess how we found this out 🙂 Of course, if all else fails, there’s always DHL (other shipping companies are available) but why incur the extra costs and hassle with shipping and import duties etc.
Creating and maintaining a website – if you decide to publish a website similar to this one try and understand how things work in advance. As I have found to my cost, it takes a loooong time to change things further down the line once you realise that what you did in your initial haste was actually a poor way to set things up. YouTube is your friend here.