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13,000 Miles of Kitesurfing
By Cedric Dupont
I’ve looked for adventure my whole life. I’m driven by the thrill of the unknown and am in constant pursuit of the next rush of adrenaline, so I didn’t surprise anyone when I announced that I, along with my best friend Emmanuel De Rosnay, had plans to drive from San Francisco, California, to Rio de Janerio, Brazil.
Emmanuel and I are childhood friends from the island of Mauritius, where we grew up together like brothers. When it was time for us to head to college, I ended up studying in Paris and then found a job in San Francisco while Emmanuel went to Australia. We began planning this trip years ago, and we were finally able to make it happen last fall. Both of us put a halt to our current jobs and relationships and focused on what would become one of the greatest adventures of our lifetimes.
In San Francisco, I packed up and stored my belongings, ended the lease with my landlord, and negotiated a sabbatical with my employer. Emmanuel sold his boat, ended his lease, quit his job, and bought a ticket to San Francisco. When he arrived at my door, we spent three weeks planning the trip and then headed south down the road for Brazil.
Our transportation would be a 1980 VW Westfalia camper van that we constantly referred to as Westy. After buying Westy, we added extra security by putting metal bars on the windows and external locks on the doors. With spare tires on the roof, custom-built shelving, and, most importantly, a place to hold surfboards and kitesurfing gear, we were ready to go. We stuffed the front glove compartment with maps, filled up the gas tank, jumped in Westy, and started driving.
Because Emmanuel and I grew up on an island, we are both very fond of the water. We love just about every watersport out there, but kitesurfing had become an obsession of ours, so a main focus of this trip was to kitesurf everywhere and anywhere possible.
DOWN A DIRT ROAD
As we drove down the California coast, we took our time and stopped in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Five days after leaving San Francisco, we found ourselves at the first of what would be many immigration offices. A car permit and a passport stamp later we found ourselves in country number one, Mexico.
We headed down the Baja coast towards San Carlos. We had been told that the roads could be difficult in Mexico, but it wasn’t until we drove the dirt road to San Carlos that we believed the warnings. With only an hour of sunlight left and still over 40 miles to go, we drove Westy slowly trying to avoid the ruts and potholes as the sun sank lower. Four hours later, we reached the ocean and camped out on a cliff above the beach. We had no idea where we were or how close (or far!) we were to San Carlos. We woke up to a sparkling ocean with nothing but cacti around so we decided to keep going and drove along the coast until we saw what we were looking for: kites. To our surprise, here was a campground in the middle of the desert, home only to kitesurfers and windsurfers! At 10 a.m. the wind was already blowing hard so we took out our gear. After an arduous launch from the top of a cliff, we were riding the perfectly-shaped waves of Punta San Carlos.
Our first days in Mexico were only the beginning of an amazing adventure. We drove down to the tip of Baja California where we shipped Westy from La Paz to Mazatlan. We then followed the Pacific coast all the way to the Mexican pipeline in Puerto Escondido before turning inland towards the Caribbean coast. The ups and downs of the roads in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico took a toll on Westy’s brakes. Given the weight of the car and the frequency of our urges to slam on the brakes at every twist and turn, we quickly wore out the brake pads. We arrived at the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez and stopped at the first mechanic we found. It was a small family-owned shop and a young teenager started to work on the van. When he had trouble removing the brake pads, his dad stepped in with a unique method of heating up the brakes and throwing them in cold water. We were very skeptical of their technique, but once everything was done, the brakes seemed to work fine.
We drove to the Yucatán peninsula and then headed south to Belize City where we left our car to explore the Belize Keys. We packed up our kitesurfing gear and took a boat to a small island, Caye Caulker, located approximately 20 miles northeast of Belize City. We arrived to find a long lagoon and turquoise water, a perfect setting for kiters, except for the lack of wind. After two days of forced beach relaxation time, the wind picked up and we were finally on the water. We kitesurfed all day, riding both in the lagoon and over the reef. The water was shallow and so clear that we could see large manta rays soaring underneath us.
We returned to Westy to find it surprisingly intact. We drove through Guatemala and reached the Pacific Ocean before going further south. As we were approaching Leon in Nicaragua, our brakes stopped working again and we came really close to crashing into a truck, avoiding contact by pulling the emergency brake and driving off the road. Once we were able to catch our breath, we tried to go back on the road but were stuck. There we were, somewhere in the middle of Nicaragua stuck on the side of the road. Things didn’t look promising, but just as Emmanuel and I were about to sing a song of curses, a tractor passed by and helped us out of the ditch. Back on the road, we drove as slow as we could to the nearest mechanic. As we arrived, we noticed an old Volkswagen in his front yard. We became two very lucky guys as the mechanic had the exact same brake part that was damaged and replaced it in less than an hour.
We left Leon after a few days and continued along the Pacific coast, looking for remote surf and kitesurf spots. We were lucky enough to find incredible places, but often at the detriment of Westy. Our biggest breakdown took place in the middle of a small river in the Peninsula de Osa, Costa Rica. We had to wait two days before finding a car that could tow us to a mechanic. We managed to get the car running again and made our way south to Panama City where we faced the challenge of getting Westy to Columbia.
SHIPPING A WESTY
The Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia is a vast swampland with no roads connecting the two countries. We had to ship our car to Colombia and the process was long, laborious, and complicated. We managed to rent a container for the car and to ship it on a cargo ship. We then had about four days before retrieving the container so we went on a little adventure in the San Blas Archipelago. We asked a fisherman to drop us on a small deserted island and then return to pick us up in two days.
The island was perfect! It was no more than 40 yards long with a few coconut trees and was surrounded by a beautiful lagoon. We first joked that it was going to be like the TV show Survivor, but our joke soon turned into reality. We had mistakenly left our food bag behind and had nothing to eat. Thankfully, we managed to grab a few coconuts and caught an octopus with a not so handy hand-crafted spear, but that only teased our stomachs. It goes without saying that we were pretty happy to see the fisherman when he arrived to pick us up.
We then flew to Cartagena in Colombia to retrieve our car and discovered that picking it up was almost as complicated as shipping it. After countless hours, we were pumped to have Westy back and to be back on the road again. We decided to make a little detour to try out a kitesurfing spot called Puerto Velero, north of Cartagena. The spot had perfect flat water and we had a ton of fun seeing how fast we could go on the butter-smooth water.
We then made our way south and found more exciting places to surf and kite. We arrived in Bolivia, one of the two landlocked countries in South America, a place that we had no expectation to kite. We found ourselves in Uyuni, where our plan was to drive across the world’s largest salt lake and then through the Bolivian desert towards Chile. After three days on the road following old car tracks, getting stuck in sand dunes, and coaxing Westy to keep going at this very high altitude, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. However, to our delight, we found our way to the Laguna Verde, a lake nestled at 14,100 feet at the bottom of the Licancabur Volcano. Most tourists come here on a guided tour and we arrived just as they were all leaving. We had the whole lake (and volcano) to ourselves and as we stepped out of the car we noticed that the wind was blowing pretty hard.
Without hesitation, on went our wetsuits and up went our kites. The lake, usually green in color, had turned white and our only company was a group of pink flamingos. Given the high altitude, the water was freezing but we were so amazed by the reality of what we were doing that it took about an hour to notice that our feet were numb. The setting was awe-inspiring and we were psyched to think that we were likely the first to kite at such altitude. This was definitely one of the high points of the trip.
15 Countries, 13,000 Miles, 145 Days
We finished our trip by driving through the north of Argentina all the way to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, just as we were getting close to our final destination, Rio de Janeiro, we had another major breakdown. Our clutch burned out south of Rio, about 500 miles from completing our trip. We thought of abandoning the car and hitchhiking our way to Rio, but quickly ruled out this option. We were determined to make it to Rio with Westy, as planned. After a few days of searching we found a mechanic who was able to recondition the clutch. He said that the clutch would be good for a few more miles and we crossed all fingers and toes, hoping it would make it to Rio, which it did.
We arrived in the marvelous city of Rio with the following: Stripped gears, badly damaged clutch, broken exhaust pipe, and a leaking oil tank. We were shocked that Westy (and ourselves for that matter) had survived the trip. We had covered fifteen countries in 145 days and had driven about 13,000 miles. We had visited some pretty incredible places, sandboarded down a volcano in Nicaragua, roasted marshmallows over genuine volcanic lava, paraglided and river rafted in the Andes, and ate as much ceviche as one could desire. It was an amazing trip, and we were melancholy to see it end.
As our adventure concluded, we weren’t sure how keen the Brazilians would be on buying our VW. We soon found out there wasn’t much of a market for a battle-tested Westfalia and we sold what had been our home for four months for a grand total of $200. I left Rio de Janiero and flew to Mauritius for the holidays before flying home to San Francisco while Emmanuel flew back to Australia to grab the last of his belongings before moving home to Mauritius. The adventure that we shared brought us even closer together than we had been before, but at the end of the trip it was time once again to go our separate ways. Now settling back into our normal routines, we both still spend a majority of our free time kitesurfing, him along the coasts of Mauritius and I alongside the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.