On the Road Again!
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
After a month of time spent in Cuenca, due to the conflux of the motorcycle breakdown, parts shipped in from the US and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I was absolutely spent from the stress, worry and expenses. My timeline was now a month behind to reach Ushuaia before the ice and snow, which meant I would not be able to explore or enjoy many places I'd wanted to.
I will admit to considering ending the trip entirely, in moments of depression and frustration, and due to the complexity of the repairs by a mechanic who had no experience with such a task, doubted whether the motorcycle would ever run properly again. BMW’s are notoriously complex and computerized, and the chance of all of these systems working properly and requiring computer analysis seemed impossible. If it did get running again, and the repairs worked, I didn’t know if I’d feel safe heading deeper into the Andes and far more remote areas further south.
In addition, each time I'd been told the bike would be ready, the repair shop had either taken another day or two off, or had an excuse as to why they couldn’t work that day. In Mexico, it’s “mañana”. In Ecuador it’s “tranquilo”.
Cristobal the mechanic finally sent me a message on WhatsApp that the bike would be ready on the following Tuesday. Cristobal had been chosen based on his experience in large bikes, rather than the local shops who only knew how to service small Chinese scooters and motorcycles. There was actually a BMW dealer in Cuenca, however a visit there showed them to only sell motorcycles, not repair them. Unbelievable! Dealers in other cities were similarly uninterested in helping and only independent mechanics were available. My preference was to have had the work done in Quito by a reputable and experienced shop, however they were 10 hours away or more and would require truck delivery. They’d recommended Cristobal and that solved the logistical issue.
In the meantime, I’d enjoyed much of the time in Cuenca alternated with worrying at night, having met several expats and been invited into their community. One man I’d met at the moto repair shop was Ron, an ex-pilot who lived in Cuenca and had an adventure bike. He’d given me a ride from the shop to my hotel, along with his contact info. We met again several times and in the process he told me a friend of his was riding his bike from Colombia to Ushuaia and was due into Cuenca in a few days.
Ron was bandying about the idea of riding with his friend to Ushuaia, and wanted to see if we three might travel together. It was fine by me, with the understanding that I would travel alone and follow my own route, interconnecting with them at certain points.
Ron's friend Edward, a Canadian from Toronto arrived and we all met up, also about the time two guys from the US hit Cuenca. Ken and Chip were from Virginia and Colorado respectively, having previously ridden around the world on BMW’s. Ken had experience in BMW repairs and had read of my troubles on Advrider.com, wanting to see if he could help. I really appreciated their coming by and we had a good time that evening discussing travels and solving world problems. Since the bike was in the shop, he couldn’t do much and they continued on for Peru the next day.
I was due to pick up the bike and wanted to test it out thoroughly before heading south for Peru, understandably. I'd wanted to stay a few more days in Cuenca and explore the area to make sure the repairs were done correctly before heading onward. Ron and Ed were pushing to leave quickly, and I felt the stress of being rushed, having agreed to ride with them. I had serious doubts that the BMW would be in perfect order, but the idea of traveling with them alongside appealed to me in case I did break down. At least I wouldn't be alone.
I walked to Mojeron Motos, and the bike was sitting outside, assembled and freshly washed. After seeing it in pieces for so many weeks it was a wonder to behold. The bike started and ran, but was a bit rough above idle which wasn’t normal, however I figured I could live with it until reaching Lima, Peru and a certified BMW dealer to have it properly analyzed and adjusted.
With some trepidation and excitement, I fired up the bike and headed for my hotel, but decided to ride around town as much as I could before the afternoon rains hit. It began sprinkling soon after and I stopped at a coffee shop just before the monsoon rains hit.
Hours later it slacked off enough to make the hotel for the night. The next morning, Ron arrived at my hotel and we set out for a 4 hour ride to see if the bike had any leaks or issues. I noticed the motorcycle didn’t have much power on the highway, and smelled of heavy unburned gas. Worse, the mpg was reading only 17 when it should have been in the mid 40’s, which explained the heavy gas smell as running very rich. Something wasn’t right, but I hoped it would improve with running as the electronics of the throttle position is self-learning. About 30 minutes away from town, as I made a turn for the mountains, the bike sputtered and died. While still rolling I started it but it was barely running. It would only run with the throttle open wide and I had to keep restarting it. My heart sank and I realized I was having big problems again.
Ron followed me back to my hotel and I parked the bike under an awning, where I tried to check what I could and run my computer analysis tool to reset anything I could find wrong. I finally gave up as the heavy rains started and I went my hotel room, despondent and angry. My options were all extremely expensive if Cristobal couldn’t sort the problems. Shipping it to a dealer somewhere, shipping it home, or flying my mechanic and his BMW analyzer from Texas to Ecuador were all costly options. I didn’t sleep well that night.
It was January 1 and the shop wouldn’t open until the next day. Ron and Ed were anxious to leave and I told them to go ahead without me, since I had no idea what the future held. They agreed to wait a couple more days to see what the results might be.
The next day, I started the bike and it idled fine, then after 5 minutes began the same sputtering as I rode it back to Cristobal’s shop. He was distraught at the sight of it, and began checking what he could. The spark plugs were terribly fouled and he felt that was the problem, but I told him the problem had caused the plug fouling. He disassembled the bike to a point to check all hoses and connections, while I spoke much of the day with my mechanic friend MotoHank by phone. Spark plugs were unavailable for my bike in Cuenca and had to be shipped from Quito by bus, not arriving until late the next day. I always bring spare plugs, however I apparently had left them out of my parts kit and had none with me on this trip.
Despondent, I sat on his couch trying to decide what to do yet again, since his efforts weren’t working. Just before closing at the end of the day, he came in and said he’d remembered another bike like mine that was having a similar issue a couple of years earlier and he disappeared back in the shop. About 20 minutes later, he happily appeared, having found that the waterproof Throttle Position Sensor module had somehow gotten water in it. He admitted to using a pressure washer on the bike and felt he must have gotten it too close and forced water past the seal. After trying to dry it out, it still ran a bit rough though better. A second disassembly and drying made it sound even better and he hoped the problem was solved. The next day and a new set of unfouled spark plugs should answer the question. The next day was also the scheduled day of leaving, and Ron and Ed were anxious to get on the road.
I was feeling pressure, not only from the bike issues, but from them as well. I wanted to ride with someone if possible since the bike was untested and would like the help if it failed. I’d decided to cancel my original route into Peru through some spectacular mountains into the remote Andes and decided to stay on the main coastal highway to Lima where there would be a better chance of finding a truck in case of my motorcycle breaking down again. Lima was my goal, as it had a good BMW shop as well as other moto shops who had sprung up from the Dakar Rally.
Ron and Ed wanted to leave at 9 am, but I told them I couldn’t possibly, as I had no idea if the bike would even be running. Much less I needed time for a test ride, loading all my gear and then finding an ATM to pay my month-long hotel bill. I really had no desire to head for another country without testing the motorcycle thoroughly, but prayed the bike would work. I told Ron that in an absolute perfect case scenario, I might be ready by 12 noon. He said they’d be packed and waiting for me at noon.
A final night in Cuenca
The next morning I walked to the shop and Cristobal had received the plugs and installed them. The bike was idling and sounded much more like itself. With a knot in my stomach I headed down the street for a test ride and after 15 minutes it was still running smoothly, a miracle. Everything seemed much better than before and I headed back to the shop.
When I arrived, Cristobal spotted an oil leak and my heart sunk, as did his, since if the new main seal had begun leaking again it was a total disaster. After a few minutes he traced the oil to a hydraulic clutch fitting and retightened it. I hoped it didn’t leak, but asked him to give me a pint of mineral oil to carry just in case it did. Finding motorcycle mineral oil is almost impossible, especially in the countries in South America.
I swallowed hard and made the decision to head for Peru on the bike that day, hoping to make Lima and a BMW dealer in case of failure again. I just wanted to get out of Ecuador and the situation, having felt trapped as I watched finances and more importantly, time slipping away.
It took a while, but I settled up with Cristobal, thanked him and raced for my hotel. I’d pre-packed the night before and after multiple breathless trips up the 4th floor stairs, finally had my gear on the bike. The hotel owner insisted on cash, so I left and found an ATM for cash for the hotel bill and some travel money, then settled up, rushed to get to Ron's place and made it by noon exactly. My arrival was a dud, since they were no where near ready at all. By the time they’d finally gotten loaded, it was 2:30 pm and I knew we’d be riding after dark to make our goal of Macara, the last town in Ecuador near the Peruvian border.
One thing I’d learned about traveling anywhere on this trip, is that it’s best to double your travel time from what Google or any GPS app says and you’ll be correct. If Google says 4 hours, count on 8. Macara was officially about 4 or 5 and I knew it would be very difficult to make it before dark. Riding in the dark is an absolute no-no anywhere south of the US. Terrible roads, bandits and large animals free range on the roadways at night.
When we finally got going, the bike felt good and the mileage slowly climbed into the high 30’s and broke 40, a huge relief which told me the water in the throttle position sensor had indeed been the issue. At a few stops, I triple checked for potential leaking main seals and the hydraulic clutch seal, very happy to see none. Though tense and still worried, it was a good sign. The engine idle wasn’t perfect, still telling me something wasn’t right, but at this point all I wanted to do was make it into Peru, a mental safety net that if the bike failed, at least I wouldn't have to deal with all the hassles of getting a motorcycle through the border crossings with the added complexity of shipping it in a truck.
After about 3 hours, we stopped for a break to warm up and grab some food high in the mountains, and as we left again, the rains started. Ron was in front and didn't stop when the rains began so that we could don rain gear, since we were about 15 miles from the next town and he thought we might make it. It didn't happen and we were soaked when we stopped to put on rain pants and jackets. Ron was having trouble getting his motorcycle boots into his rain pants and fell over backwards into a small stream of water on the road edge, completely helpless and tangled like a large beaver in a net.
I went to help him, only to find his modified boot soles had tangled in the interior fish net lining of the rain pants and were never going to either come out or go in. As he lay in the water on the roadside, I fished out my knife and slowly cut the lining out of his pants until he was free. I tossed the net into the stream, watching it wash away for the Amazon river or wherever it was headed. Phil was soaked, as were Ed and I, but we had to continue as the temperature began to drop.
At this point I must address Ron's modified motorcycle boot soles. He rode a KTM 950 Enduro, notorious for being one of the tallest adventure motorcycles on the planet, and though he was about 6'3", he had a tall torso and short legs. Ron had just bought the KTM from a guy in Cuenca and had no real experience riding an adventure bike, much less a tall KTM. This point had not been made known to me before leaving with he and Ed.
In Cuenca, one day when riding with him in his car, we double parked outside a cobbler's shop and he ran in, returning in a few minutes and tossing a pair of motorcycle boots into my lap. I looked at the boots in shock as we drove, the soles having had about 3" of height added to them. They looked like the boots the band KISS wore in concert, except they had backpacking treaded soles, with a gap between the heels and foot bed area. Ron commented that when he sat on his KTM, his feet were a few inches off the ground so he had a cobbler add 3" and he now figured he'd be flat footed on the bike. I silently thought to myself "This isn't going to end well". I had wondered at that moment just how much experience he had on the big bike, not finding out til later the answer was "none." I looked at the narrow gap between heel and foot bed and knew if he wedged the pegs into those gaps, he'd never be able to pull his feet off the pegs when stopping.
The day we'd left, I'd arrived to see Ron standing next to his bike wearing his KISS boots and had to stifle a chuckle. I also noticed the gap between the heel and foot bed had been noticeably hacked larger with a rough cut knife or something, and knew he'd gotten his foot stuck on the pegs and had to find a quick remedy.
But back to the story. With Ron's rain pants now on, the bottoms flared out like wide bell bottoms and in concert with the tall KISS boots, I couldn't help but laugh. The entire scenario of Ron lying on his back in the running water, trapped like a rat by his KISS boots while I cut the lining out of his pants to free him had me laughing at the memory while we rode.
The darkness came with several hours to go yet and the rain stayed steady. I’m used to running in the rain, but Ron and Ed were not. Ron’s KTM headlight and running lights failed and went completely dark. Ed was really unprepared, having only a cheap plastic rain suit, an open face helmet and worker's safety glasses instead of goggles. In drenching rain and in the mountains, you need serious gear and Ed had none. My motorcycle is equipped with super bright LED lights for just such moments. We gathered up on the roadside and I told them to stay right behind me, to be able to see ahead with my riding lights, slowing my pace tremendously so they could stay near. However they continued to slow and drop further back, bringing us way down on time.
The road was very high, twisty and dangerous with sections fallen away due to landslides. In some ways I was glad I couldn't see off the roadsides in the pitch black, as no doubt we were very high with huge drop-offs to either side. It was a difficult road in any conditions, but in heavy rain and fog, and at such a slow pace it really dragged out. Multiple times Ed had stopped behind us, trying to clear his safety glasses of water and I could tell he was freezing cold and soaked to the bone. He didn't have a face shield or goggles and it was a bad scenario as his glasses were coated with rain both inside and outside the lenses, with the open face helmet allowing the rain to run down inside his jacket. By the time we finally made it through the fog and rain to Macara on the border, it was 10 pm. I wasn’t happy to have been delayed and forced to ride in the darkness for so long, but at least we had made it, and at least my high intensity LED's had helped the three of us.
It turned out my new friends Ken and Chip, whom had visited me in Cuenca, had ridden the road earlier on the same day, and when we met them at the border the next day, Ken said we were insane to have ridden that road at night in the rain, as in the day it had required all their attention and concentration, and there was no way in hell they'd have attempted in the dark.