Welcome to Rio airport… jack-booted, gun-toting policemen and a faint whiff of sewage in the air… yes, it sure felt good to be back in South America!
I have had a soft spot for this continent since 2003 after riding my Yamaha XT225 from Alaska to Argentina. Now, nine years later, I was back on South American soil, gearing up for another ride, but this time, in a very different set of circumstances.
A year or so ago, I had been approached by Compass Expeditions to host an all-female tour of Brazil. They were keen to introduce a women-only ride to their already impressive list of itineraries and of course I jumped at the chance. Although I had ridden through South America on my trip from Alaska to Argentina, my route had been mainly on the West coast, so Brazil was uncharted territory for me and a country I had always longed to visit.
Our group of intrepid ladies converged on Rio, flying in from various corners of the world -Australia,Britain and all over theUSA. The six of us spent a couple of fun days in the city, hanging out, enjoying the easy-going beach culture, sight-seeing and, as one might expect when you get a bunch of girls together, doing a spot of shopping and a bit more than a spot of eating.Rio de Janeiro’s reputation of a crime-infested fleshpot teeming with pickpockets and drug lords couldn’t have been further from our experience. The city was far more laidback than the South American capitals I have visited; the locals were friendly and welcoming, despite our lack of Portuguese, and there was no hint of hassle or the hustling often found in big Latin American cities.
It was almost a shame to leave the relaxed life of Rio but after a couple of days, adventure was calling and it was time to hit the road! Our ride was to start out in the west of the country, at the world-famous and truly awe-inspiring Iguacu Falls that, at twice the size of the Niagara Falls, straddle the frontier between Brazil and Argentina. We took an internal flight out to the border town of Foz do Iguacu where we met up with the Compass Expeditions staff, Thomas, a well-travelled Italian rider who would be the tour leader, and Silvana, our glamorous Argentine support-truck driver.
You might imagine that working for a motorcycle tour company is about the most fun job you can possibly imagine but as we discovered, disaster can strike at any moment in this crazy business! The week before we arrived, Compass’ main tour leader, Hans, had broken his leg and was now out of action in a Bolivian hospital for the foreseeable future. Hans was meant to have been our group leader with Thomas driving the truck, but now Thomas had to take the lead, and Silvana had gamely stepped in to drive the support vehicle. Despite this disaster they had everything under control, thanks to Silvana’s superhuman organisational skills and multi-lingual capabilities. When you’re working for a motorcycle tour company you have to be ready for anything!
The following day we were introduced to our steeds – Compass’ fleet of BMW F650 GS. We set off in a proper tropical downpour for a test ride around town, which was thankfully uneventful, although I spent most of the time peering at my handlebars through rain-streaked goggles, trying to fathom the idiosyncrasies of BMW indicators. Why the need for three separate switches when the Japanese make do with just one? This was a question that we all spent much time pondering but for which no-one could come up with an answer, except for ‘Huh! Germans, eh?’
For me, having clocked up all my trans-continental rides on small 250 trail bikes, it was an altogether new experience to be astride the smooth 800cc twin (another source of confusion – why is it called a 650 if it has an 800cc engine? Germans, eh?). But once I got used to the extra weight of the bike, I was soon flying along merrily and enjoying the fact that I could overtake trucks in the blink of an eye. On my 250 the overtaking process is such a long, drawn out affair that you end up making friends with the truck driver while you’re at it. But the BMWs were perfect for our Brazilian ride, as the majority of the route was on tarmac roads, and the few dirt roads we did encounter were well-maintained and easy to ride… well, all except for one, where we accidentally ended up sliding around in a mammoth mud bath, but hell, this was supposed to be an adventure, and fortunately the guys at the next petrol station were happy to put their jet-wash to use on us!
So, the time had come! After visiting the magnificent Iguacu Falls by foot, boat and helicopter – the moment of departure had finally rolled around. Despite plenty of confused use of our indicators we made it out of town and on to the highway. The first couple of days saw us riding through the wide open plains of Brazilian gaucho country, covering over 300 miles each day as cowboys trotted past us in the early morning mist. But any weariness at the end of the long second day was blown away when we were rewarded with what must be one of the most sensational motorcycling roads that exists on this planet – the Serra do Rio Rastro.
This craggy mountain road starts at almost 5000 feet above sea level and boasts the twistiest hairpins I have ever ridden. The road was so tight and steep that we zig-zagged our way down in first and second gear, stopping at every turn to catch our breath and gasp at the route ahead, carving its descent through the rocks below, taking us down what felt like a sheer vertical drop.
From here on the scenery just kept on coming. Each day brought new glorious vistas as we left the misty highlands and weaved our way back towards the Atlantic Coast. The scenery became more tropical with each passing mile. Banana trees and brightly flowering tropical plants lined the road and roadside stalls sold freshly-picked fruit and young green coconuts complete with a straw to drink the juice straight from the shell.
We soon settled into our riding routine, starting around eight in the morning and then pulling over around mid-morning when Thomas sensed a coffee break was in order. His instinct for our caffeine and sugar cravings was always impeccably timed and he soon realised that the way to keep a bunch of lady motorcyclists happy was to always have a packet of chocolate biscuits at the ready. In fact, the lowest point of the trip was one dreadful day when the combination of his unfastened top-box and a speedbump resulted in the jettisoning of the last packet of choc-chip cookies. Poor Thomas… he wasn’t prepared for the near-mutiny that followed…
As we headed east through the tropics what struck all of us was how colourful and cleanBrazilis. There was never a scrap of litter in sight, and as if to match the natural vibrancy of the country’s vegetation and wildlife, the houses are all painted different colours and even the brightly-patterned clothes hanging on the washing lines seemed part of the colour-scheme. All of this set against a clear blue sky and the bright green backdrop of the jungle made for a gorgeous riding experience with birds and butterflies flitting around, adding yet more flashes of colour. We snaked our way along the back roads and took in a particularly scenic dirt track that followed a winding, fast flowing river, passing through pretty villages where every house, however humble, sported a riotously colourful garden. Our nights were spent in lovely old colonial towns, including the beautiful port of Antonina and the stunning beach resort of Paraty with its cobbled streets, cheerfully painted boats and tropical islands dotted around the bay.
Soon we were on the Atlantic coast again and dodging the crazy trucks and traffic around Sao Paulo, heading for our final destination, the scenic mountain town of Penedo, a former Finnish settlement high in the hills and gateway to the fabulous Itatiaia National Park. We took our final ride up a twisty, steep jungle trail into the park where we rounded off the trip in style with a bracing swim in a mountain waterfall and were entertained by a welcoming party of monkeys who swung, jumped and scampered around us quite merrily, eating from our hands and snatching our bananas from us. What better way to end a ride through the Brazilian jungle?
It was a sad moment to bid farewell to the girls and as we said our goodbyes, future plans to ride together again were already being made. None of us had known what to expect from our Brazilian adventure and I was not the only one who had wondered how it would work out – a bunch of strangers together in a potentially challenging situation – would it all go horribly wrong? Fortunately, it all went wonderfully right, thanks to being blessed with the best bunch of co-riders I could have hoped for. So what made it work? Sandra had the answer when I asked what she most enjoyed about the tour – ‘No egos’, she replied. That seems to be the recipe for success – no drama queens, no show-offs, just plenty of laughter, friendliness and good times. I can’t wait for the next one!