By Phil Midler/xlkiteboarding.com | Photos by The Chicken Bike Crew
A few years ago my friend Mitch Andrews and I found ourselves in the back of a taxicab in the mountains of Costa Rica as locals zipped past us on small single-cylinder motorcycles with delivery boxes on the back. They all seemed to be delivering fast food chicken, similar to pizza delivery in the USA. Those small bikes looked like fun so we joked about getting our own and riding them around on our next trip. As the day and night progressed this idea evolved into driving fake chicken delivery bikes from Houston, Texas, to the southern tip of South America with our kiteboarding equipment. It was a late night and we soon forgot all about our harebrained scheme.
Long after our trip I got a call from Mitch. He was at a Suzuki dealership and said he found our chicken bikes. “I need to know you’re in and I’ll reserve these little babies for us.” Without any real plan we both signed up to lease bikes for $75 a month. Apparently chicken boxes are actually hard to come by so I built ours from marine grade plywood and epoxy resin.
The boxes were designed to be waterproof and lockable. We named our chicken company Pollo Papa and put our logo on the boxes. Mitch is an airline pilot, so we broke our trip down into legs we could manage between work schedules. Our plan was to move the bikes from one city to the next, store the bikes, and fly home until the next leg.
There isn’t a lot of room on a chicken bike. We did some tests before we left and the largest board we could take was about a 135cm. The boards were secured on top of the chicken boxes with two straps. Our kites, harness, and pump fit in front of the chicken box under the board and directly behind the rider’s back. I thought for sure we would lose a board on some of the terrible roads but when everything was packed down it actually rode pretty well. We’ve been kiting new spots for years in Texas so our plan was if it was windy we would just roll in and find a spot to ride. Minimal planning was the name of the game for this trip.
The first test for the chicken bikes came when we stopped at the Mexican consulate on our way out of town. As we pulled up a guard actually opened the razor wire gate for us thinking we were delivering food to employees. When we asked where we go for visas he simply asked, “No pollo?” and kicked us out. That’s when we knew our chicken delivery bikes would work perfectly for the trip.
Houston to Guatemala City
Before reaching South Padre Island Mitch managed to lose his chicken box lid along with $45 worth of beef jerky. He’s convinced it was due to a manufacturer defect but I believe it was user error. Even though the wind was light, we still managed to do a few downwinders in the surf, during which we used the bikes to shuttle back upwind. We also found that people tend to give strange looks when they see two grown men on a small chicken delivery motorcycle.
After crafting a replacement lid for Mitch’s bike, we made an unsuccessful attempt at crossing into Mexico. As soon as we stopped on the Mexican side of the border, a pigeon crapped on me. It should have been a sign, right? At the customs office the chicken bikes were denied entry into the country as we didn’t have the proper documentation to temporarily import them into Mexico.
We actually tried to fake some documents, but that was a really bad idea! I seriously thought we were going to a Mexican jail but the customs official and police officers just poked a little fun at the crazy gringos and let us go. We headed back to the USA and checked flights to Houston so we could take care of our paperwork. A few days later we were back at the border, correct (and legitimate) paperwork in hand.
Literally 20 minutes after crossing the border Mitch and I found ourselves pulled over by la policia. I was doing 60 mph in a 60 kph zone and Mitch ran a stop sign trying to keep up with me. In my defense I had a really really bad feeling about those side streets and wanted to get out of town fast. After a few rounds of negotiations we were on our way again. We rode for over nine hours that first day and rode into the night, which was a mess on those crazy roads. Pulling into Tampico we easily found a safe, cheap hotel. After a bit of trouble getting into Mexico, I have to say the scenery was beautiful after the first 100 miles or so.
The next day we slept in a little bit and set off for Veracruz. This was a really long day of riding on back roads through all the small towns and our butts were killing us by the end. The next day we headed to the Guatemala border. The crossing took hours and was a huge hassle. The border town was crowded and had me looking over my shoulder a lot. As soon as we left town though, the drive to Guatemala City was amazing! We were surrounded by mountains, streams, and jungles the whole way.
In Guatemala City we found a hotel for the night and began our search for a place to keep the bikes for the next two months. None of the options sounded good. The next morning the options that had sounded OK after a few beers sounded terrible. We decided to leave the bikes at the airport parking lot, the cheapest place we could find.
Our language barrier with the parking attendant made it really difficult to explain our plan of leaving the bikes for a long time. We ended up just giving the guy a high-five and left to make our flight. Immediately we had a bad feeling about leaving the bikes in an open-air lot in a bad part of town.
Guatemala Rescue Mission
Two weeks later I found myself getting back on a plane to Guatemala to move the bikes to a more secure location. My heart jumped out of my chest when I couldn’t find the bikes where I thought we had left them. Then I remembered we had to move them to the adjacent lot at the last minute. Still feeling nervous I walked to the other lot and there they were! I jumped around and yelled a bit which attracted a small crowd of guards who called me “poco loco.”
I talked to the lot supervisor Richardo (a German living in Guatemala) and he told me to steer clear of cops because it was illegal to drive a motorbike without a helmet in Guatemala. Great! I hadn’t even thought to bring a helmet with me! After about 20-30 minutes of battling my way through one way streets I made it to the hotel where I had worked out a deal to store the bikes. Or so I thought.
I checked into the hotel and only when I showed up with the second bike was I informed that the general manager would only store the bikes for $10 a day per bike – crazy money for six weeks of storage! I headed back to the airport parking lot to see if Richardo could help us locate another place to store them.
Richardo agreed to let us keep our bikes in a shed near his office for just $14/month per bike – most excellent! With the storage problem solved I went out for dinner where I met a group of Guatemalans who asked me if I wanted to go with them to a Guatemalan funeral. As soon as I agreed we were off in their 1980s-era gold minivan appropriately called the Mystery Machine. This little baby’s dash was lit up like a Christmas tree with any and all warning lights either lit or blinking.
My new friends taught me to whistle by sucking through my lower teeth, which is how all Guatemalans whistle. They also did their best to teach me to roll my Rs without success. They kept rolling their Rs at me thinking that would help me learn. It didn’t and I still can’t do it. Since I had to be at the airport at 5 am we called it an “early” night around 1 am and they dropped me back at the hotel. A few short hours later I was up so I could move and secure the second bike in the shed. I locked both bikes together and to one of the shed’s girders. Just 20 hours after landing I was back on a plane home!
Guatemala to Honduras
Back in Guatemala City we found the bikes in good shape albeit very dirty. We loaded up and hit the road to find some chain oil and maintenance supplies to do some work on the bikes. We found what we needed and made our way out of town on the highway much later in the day than we had hoped. After a few hours the road turned into a gravel mountain road, which is normal in Central America. Long after sunset a bracket that keeps the speedometer cable out of the front tire came loose and hooked on one of my front spokes, throwing me off the bike into the dark jungle.
Luckily we were only going 20-30 mph when it happened. Mitch was in front and kept going until he realized that I wasn’t following. I crawled out of the jungle and got my bike out of the road to figure out if it was something I could fix. I ripped off the speedometer cable and all the attachments to eliminate any possible future problems. We were soon moving again but we both felt very unsafe on that road at night. When someone in a village gave us an estimate of four hours to the next town we decided to turn around and head back to Guatemala City.
The next day we left early and made great time to the border crossing. After 2.5 hours of horrible paperwork and endless copies of every piece of paper we had on us we were in Honduras where the roads were great, the people were super nice, and the scenery was fantastic. The little throw from the bike really got me into maintenance mode when I started thinking about what could have happened if I had been traveling a lot faster so we stopped in a dirt alley and gave the bikes a much needed oil change along with some other general maintenance.
It was time to fly home again so we drove to Tegucigalpa, home of the second most dangerous airport in the world. Mitch used to fly here on a regular basis so he knew exactly where to go to watch the planes coming in to land. We managed to get on top of the hill just in front of the approach of the runway. The first few planes flew by really close, but the third plane (a Copa Airlines 737) came by so close I hit the deck. The pilot was very low on the approach and had to add power to make it over the small hill we were standing on. As the pilot added power it was loud and looked to be heading right for us! Needless to say Mitch teased me endlessly the rest of the trip for wussing out when the airplane went by.
From there we went to the airport to find a place to store our bikes. Luckily at the first place we went we met a very nice woman named Vanessa who helped us broker a deal to store the bikes in a building on site. With the bikes secured we headed home. At this point we were really starting to appreciate the distance involved with our adventure.
Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Returning to Honduras we cruised through customs, got the bikes out of storage, strapped on our kiteboarding gear, and were ready to hit the open road again. One of the coolest things about traveling on a motorcycle with kiteboarding equipment is all the questions you get from people on the road. We ended up pointing a lot to the XLKITES stickers on our bikes that had a kiteboarder on them. A few times we brought out the kites and pumped them up to show the locals how it all worked. Some of the villages we rode through didn’t even have running water so I think kiteboarding seemed pretty out there for sure.
By the end of the day we found ourselves in Choluteca, Nicaragua, a very small town that happened to be having a two-week-long carnival. The guy at our hotel said we would not be safe at the carnival but it looked very friendly and full of families so we decided to give it a go. We immediately headed to the showcase ride of the carnival – the Zipper. Now the Zipper is generally accepted as the scariest carnival ride in existence. The only thing scarier than riding the Zipper is riding the Zipper at a Nicaraguan carnival. Apparently Mitch and I were too heavy for one seat so we got split up between two cars.
I noticed fluid leaking in through the holes in my cabin and once I caught the smell I knew it was gear box oil. I looked up to see that one of the gear boxes had blown a main seal and was leaking all over the place. Did they stop the ride? Not in Nicaragua! We went looping and spinning for the next four minutes while trying to dodge the spurts of gear oil being slung around the broken drive train.
Our route from here took us to the city of San Jorge where we had to catch a ferry to Ometepe Island where we were hoping to do some kiteboarding. After a long day of riding through rainy conditions, we were both wet and uncomfortable, but we were excited that we might get to ride the next day. The ferry ride was about an hour long through the darkness on Lake Nicaragua. The roads on the island started out paved but we ended up on some of the worst wet, muddy, and flooded dirt roads we’d seen so far.
We got totally lost and ended up meeting two French dudes who thought it was hilarious that we were lost. After making fun of us for a bit they gave us directions to Santa Cruz, which we almost missed a second time as the town is made up of about four small buildings. After a few really large beers we retired for the night after 15+ hours of travel.
The next morning we headed down to the beach only to find that due to the very wet rainy season there was no beach. We were forced to pump up in a 20′x10′ space between a house and trees under power lines. Sketchy! We rode for about three hours all over the north side of the island. We even rode out to some small islands about five miles away. Riding on the island was amazing as you’re in a bay on a huge freshwater lake between two massive volcanoes.
The lake is one of the only places in the world with freshwater sharks. While we were riding the locals stopped what they were doing and lined the shore to watch us. Mitch and I may not be all that good but those people thought we were pretty cool as they were yelling and cheering when we made our jumps and grabs.
After our ride we packed up and headed back to the hotel. While grabbing a quick rum drink at the bar we met a French kiteboarding couple, so we all went back to the launch we used and helped them get going for another hour session. Afterward we spent the night drinking rum and stumbling through the pitch dark forest to a bar owned by an Irish Oakland Raiders fan.
The next day we managed to catch the morning ferry back to the mainland so we could hit the road to Costa Rica. The border crossing went relatively smoothly thanks to a couple from Canada who arrived before us and were able to explain the process. They were touring on BMW all-terrain bikes that made our little chicken bikes look like toys. They had GPS, communication gear, custom storage containers, full crash suits and boots, integrated helmet cams, everything. I think they thought we were crazy to be doing the trip on our bikes.
Driving in Costa Rica is beautiful and fast. We were cruising at 60-65 mph and out of nowhere a large monkey walked into the road. It was so close that I didn’t even have time to react! Well, I scared the piss out of that monkey for sure because he gave me one glance and got his butt back into the jungle. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself – I almost hit a monkey with a chicken bike. Things just got real!
We arrived in Liberia and headed straight for the airport. Mitch was able to talk to the Continental Airport Manager who was awesome and offered to let us keep our bikes in his backyard at his house for free. With the storage problem easily solved we flew home again. The only hassle was getting my bar and lines through airport security!
Panama and on to Columbia
The next leg of our trip took us through Panama and into Columbia. There isn’t much of anything from the border with Costa Rica to Panama City. We had a hard time even finding gas. We thought we were going to run out for sure before we found gas at a rural hardware store. After weaving through terrible traffic in Panama City we hit the road for Colon.
The drive east was beautiful as we followed the Panama Canal and drove fast through rolling hills covered with bamboo and sugar cane. Colon is a port town and a total dump for sure. If you’re looking to get in a fight or just get shot this is the place you want to go. We were told by an armed guard that we should not stop in the streets or we would be shot and robbed and he was dead serious.
We were in Colon to try to find transportation into Columbia as there are no roads through the mountains between the two countries. This was turning out to be harder than we thought. We talked to a boat captain who was taking his ship to Turbo, Columbia. He said he could take our bikes but not us. He seemed very suspicious, so we looked for other options.
We didn’t trust any of the shipping vessels or captains we met or heard of. We looked into flying the bikes, but that was way too expensive – they wanted $900 cash for each bike! After a lot of searching, we were able to find a situation we were comfortable with on the 50′ sailboat Fritz the Cat. The captain (an Austrian) agreed to strap our bikes to the deck and sail us to Columbia via the San Blas Islands.
Our trip through the islands was amazing. The autopilot on the boat had failed so we had to take turns through the night steering the boat and the winds were awesome which made for terrible upwind catamaran sailing. The swell was huge and pounded the boat all night. It was pretty incredible to be at the helm of boat in the middle of the Caribbean. Our bikes had been tied to the front of the boat and we just prayed that they would start again after numerous salt water rinses. We were able to stop at a few islands for some amazing kiteboarding.
We had crystal clear water, kicking winds, white sand, and not another soul within hundreds of miles. We rode between islands, over shallow coral reefs, and between coconut palms. We also did some spear fishing, snorkeling, and a lot of drinking. The crew was from all over the world including Australia, the UK, Austria, Germany, Ireland, and the USA. Everyone had stories from their travels so we kept ourselves entertained with stories or by watching dolphins and yellow fin tuna chase our bow wake as we made our way to Columbia.
Columbia and Ecuador
We arrived in Cartagena after six days at sea on Fritz the Cat and then stayed at a hostel until our paperwork and importation papers were finalized. We ate everyday at the Black Cat Café owned by our first mate and good friend Elke, who makes the best crepes in all of Columbia! She actually was so inspired by the chicken bike adventure that she bought a 125cc Suzuki motorbike herself and joined us for the first 50 miles out of Cartegena.
During our time waiting in town we headed to the beach and found a small launch where kiteboarders would rig and then ride downwind to another beach on the other side of town. The wind was light but the riding was great with small swells and awesome scenery along the ride with lots of spectators and locals checking us out as we rode by. The best riding was on some islands to the north but we had no time to check it out because it was time for us to get back on the road.
Ecuador and Peru
This was a quick leg involving 1,200 miles of driving over three days. Most of the way was desert especially in Peru but through southern Ecuador there were some awesome mountains. Even though this was a fast burn to cover a lot of miles we had a few interesting things happen.
Mitch and I were driving along and an oncoming semi blew its inside front tire so it swerved into our lane. Mitch was in front when it happened. I immediately slowed down but Mitch looked back to see if it was me that made the loud gunshot noise of the tire exploding. He saw my look of shock and swerved missing the truck by only a few feet. I still can’t believe he was able to bank that hard and fast to get out of the path of the truck. The truck went tearing past us into a ditch and got stuck in a sand dune.
A cat took a piss on my seat overnight in a hostel parking lot, so I had to lose my seat pad as it smelled terrible. That’s going to hurt later. We hit some major rain along the way and Mitch had tucked his rain pants into his boots so the rainwater funneled right into his boots, filling them up. On some rainy jungle god-forsaken gravelly road I managed to rattle my chicken box cover off the box so I lost it forever. I guess I’ll have to make another one before the next trip. Three days of non-stop riding had us in Lima, Peru, where we stored the bikes for the next leg.
Peru to Bolivia
Our temporary importation paperwork for the motorcycles was good for 90 days in Peru. This hadn’t been a problem in any country so far as we’d traveled through them all well before our paperwork expired. This trip though we were both busy with work and weren’t able to get to Lima until shortly before our time was up. Our plan was to head down with plenty of time to get the bikes out of Peru. However, this time of year there are very few flights to Lima and needless to say they were fully booked up.
We finally got on a flight but only had three days to get down there, drive the bikes out of Peru, and get back home. The main problem was that Lima is in the center of Peru and not really close to any other country that we could easily travel to to renew our paperwork. Our best bet was to take our bikes over the Andes and into Bolivia, over 1,100 miles of travel in two days over roads as high as 16,000′ on 250cc chicken delivery bikes. Then we’d try to hop flights from La Paz, Bolivia, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then a Continental flight back to Houston. At best the whole plan sounded far-fetched, but what the hell?
The trip through the Andes was one of the most difficult and spectacular parts of the journey with temperatures below freezing and super high altitudes. It was a tough ride but the mountain views and picturesque roadside groups of llamas and alpacas made the trip worthwhile. Riding along the mountain roads we often faced winds of more than 30 mph.
We couldn’t help but think some of the mountain lakes would be perfect for kiteboarding if they weren’t half frozen. Our journey brought us to Cuzco which is the closest town to the famed Machu Picchu ruins with a runway. As we got closer to the town we saw more and more tourists traveling to see a part of history.
Towards the end of the ride through Peru we ended up riding on the shores of Lake Titicaca, one of the largest lakes in the world. The shoreline of the lake is surrounded by reeds and fishing villages where it would be perfect to launch a kite for a quick freshwater session. All along the road locals were stringing ropes for use on the fishing boats.
The border crossing to get into Bolivia was a piece of cake. It only took about 20 minutes to get into the country with all of our paperwork in order. The border was located in a small fishing town so there wasn’t a lot going on for the customs guys. Because of the remoteness of this crossing very few foreign travelers pass by, especially on motorcycles. After two days of more than 16 hours riding each we arrived in La Paz and the rest of our plan worked out just fine.
La Paz to Buenos Aires
Bolivia turned out to be one of the toughest countries we traveled through on this trip. We had to deal with not being able to buy gasoline, local protests, road blocks throughout the cities, and road construction and closures on 70% of the roads we were using. The Bolivian government subsidizes gasoline to keep it cheap for local citizens. Because of this people from neighboring countries were coming into the country to buy the cheap gas so they outlawed its sale from most gas stations to anyone without a Bolivian driver’s license and Bolivian plate on their vehicle.
As you can imagine this was hard to understand at first and very inconvenient for the chicken bike crew. We only ended up getting gas in La Paz thanks to the help of an awesome cab driver who let us siphon it out of his car.
We paid extra (about $5) at our hotel in La Paz for a private bathroom only to find out that we had no water at all in the room or otherwise. As you can imagine we were pretty happy to get out of town when the time finally came. We did get new tires on the bikes along with some other mechanical upkeep and repair. After all the work was done we hit the road hard and didn’t look back, glad to just be out of town.
Ushuaia, the end of the world!
Our final leg took about two weeks to get from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and figure out how to get the bikes home. Most of the area we were driving though was flat desert and we used our extra fuel tanks the whole time as gas stations were regularly spaced 100 miles or more apart.
The flight from Houston to Buenos Aires is a night flight so we arrived at 5 am and made it to the bikes early. We wanted to hit the road so after packing up our gear, doing some maintenance, having lunch, and taking a quick dip in the pool, we were off. We managed about 170 miles the first day which is a lot after a night of little sleep and so much traveling.
We stayed in the small town of Azul where it was very hot all night. Our hotel had no ventilation whatsoever so neither of us slept very well. We were both amazed at how hot it was down here. We had brought a ton of warm clothes because it is supposed to be very cold in the south.
On the next day we made it to the town of El Condor where we hoped to do some kiteboarding. It must have been a holiday or something because the two hotels were totally full. We had two choices for accommodations – either camp with no tent, sleeping bags, or anything or drive back to the large town about 30 miles away.
We were over driving the chicken bikes for the day and we really wanted to go kitesurfing in the morning so we opted to camp with no equipment. This turned out to be a bad decision with the strong winds and six hours of thundering rain storms that flooded our makeshift tarp and motorcycle tent. The kiteboarding in the morning was pretty good and just about made up for the terrible night. We were the only ones out there and managed to bring a huge crowd to watch us ride.
After our session we packed up for the ride to the town of Sierra Grande, located at the start of the desolate plain that is southern Argentina. The next morning, about 20 miles out of town, Mitch suffered a major rear tire blowout. He had a piece of metal and two wooden spines in his tire. We pulled them out and filled the tire back up with goop and started riding again, but we kept having problems with it.
We broke our pump about 50 miles from the next town, so Mitch was forced to drive on a flat tire. Running on fumes we made it to a gas station that also did tire repair. They fixed Mitch up and actually remounted my front tire which had been wobbling since Bolivia. Back on the road with good tires and full tanks we ended the day in a town called Comodoro Rivadavia.
Our next day on the road was short as we ran out of gas – kind of. We were going through full tanks and sometimes using our extra gas cans just to get to the next gas station. On one of these legs we got to the gas station and they were out. We didn’t have enough juice to get to the next town so we were forced to stop for the night. The little town was called Tres Cerros and consists of a gas station, restaurant, and small hotel in the back.
The gas delivery showed up during the night so we were off bright and early to Rio Gallegos. This town is on a tidal river that had absolutely huge tides of 30-40′. They also had some really old train engines from the coal mining days on display. Our next day brought us into Chile across the Strait of Magellan where we made use of all our warm clothes as it was freezing and windy all day.
Our final 300 miles took us back into Argentina and through the mountains to Ushuaia. It was freezing, windy, and raining the whole way! Nobody said this was going to be easy and it wasn’t. The last 100 miles had wind, rain, freezing temperatures, mountains, gravel roads, everything, but we finally made it! The goal we set out to achieve back in Houston had been accomplished with an official distance of just over 12,800 miles from Houston, Texas, to Ushuaia, Argentina, over a year and a half time period.
Once we got into town we started working on trying to find a way to get the chicken bikes home. Even after a trip halfway around the world we still don’t own these bikes (remember, we leased them), so we had to get them back. Flying them back was expensive, but we managed to find a customs broker who had another four motorcycles in a shipping container going back to Miami.
The bikes won’t ship for awhile and we’ll have to drive them back to Houston from Miami but its close enough. With that settled I climbed a mountain above the city that was about 4,000′ high, quite high considering there was no trail and I was in cowboy boots and moto gear.
The flights home were all full for another two or three days so we had a chance to hang out in the world’s southernmost city for a few days. The plane ride home felt really short – just four hours to Buenos Aires and another 10 to Houston to cover the distance our little chicken bikes had taken us. Those funky little bikes did a great job and we’re planning to have a celebration in Houston for them when they finally return from their half-world adventure.