“NASELLE — As Elisa Wirkala drove down the driveway on her Honda 125 near nightfall recently, there were sighs of relief and tears of joy from the family and friends awaiting her arrival. Although she still had the ride from Naselle to her home in Seattle to fully complete her adventure, Elisa was back in the arms of her family for the first time since Dec. 31, 2013.
She had just ridden the small cycle more than 20,000 miles from Ushuaia (pronounced oos way uh), the southern-most city in the world, located in the Argentinian portion of Tierra del Fuego. The trip took 240 days with travel through 14 different countries in the Americas.
Looking back, a claim could easily be made that the adventure actually started in June 2013 when Wirkala flew to Australia, drove a motorcycle over 3,000 miles through New South Wales and Victoria and, hiked over 120 miles in Tasmania. While there, she met an Australian couple who were planning to ride motorcycles from Santiago, Chile south to Ushuaia. Wirkala had been contemplating a motorcycle trip from Seattle to Ushuaia and, in fact, had purchased a KLR650 the year before in anticipation of making that trip. But, by the time she could have started the trip, it was Christmas and winter weather had become an issue.
After talking with the Australian couple, she began to see the possibility of making that same trip but from south to north. Wirkala returned home from Australia and, within 10 days, had secured an airline ticket and was on her way to Santiago.
Adventurous parents, adventurous daughter
A self-described “addict to adventure,” Wirkala celebrated her 30th birthday during the journey. It’s not difficult to figure out the source of her adventurous spirit.
Her father, Elwin Wirkala, a 1962 graduate of Naselle High School, served in the Peace Corps in Brazil in 1966. After returning and finishing his university degree, he hitchhiked to Colombia in 1970 and, from there, took overland public transportation to Brazil. His intent was to stay two months. After meeting and marrying the lovely Rita Sturam, his wife of 40 years, Elwin ran a business in Brazil for 22 years. Elisa and her two sisters, Karen and Clarice, were all born there.
Meeting up with the Australian couple in Santiago, Wirkala describes, “We looked around together and ended up buying Honda CGL 125s because they were cheap and reliable. Only $1,200 for a brand new bike. We chose such small bikes for several reasons: They are easy to maintain, so I could do a lot of the maintenance on the bike; I could move it around if I got it stuck somewhere; I could pick it up; I could get it out of sand; I could get it up a few stairs into the hotels or hostels that we were staying at, which was really important; and I felt like it would be a safer bike for me since I was eventually going to be alone. It just seemed more intelligent to be on a motorcycle that wasn’t that flashy, that wasn’t a nice BMW that people would be looking at. It would allow me to blend in a little more.”
The ‘really deep south’
The trip from Santiago to Ushuaia is about the same distance as traveling from Seattle to Alaska and takes riders through Patagonia and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. After six weeks, the trio reached their destination. Shortly, thereafter, the Australians boarded a boat for the trip back north, leaving Wirkala in Ushuaia.
A friend indicated a desire to ride part of the way with her. So, Wirkala purchased another cheap motorcycle in Patagonia with the intention of then selling it in northern Argentina or Bolivia. But three other friends wanted to do parts of the ride and so, with different friends traveling with her on different parts of the trip, she had company all the way to Colombia.
Regarding accommodations, Wirkala recalls, “I camped a lot in Chile and Argentina and a little bit in Bolivia, but mostly I stayed in really small family-run places and very infrequently in traveler/backpacker hostels. I avoided a lot of the major cities. That’s not really the adventure I was looking for. It took a long time because, throughout South America, I traveled mostly dirt roads. A lot of dirt roads and a lot of mountain roads. It was some very, very hard riding at times.”
Most exciting time
When asked about her most exciting time on the trip in South America, Wirkala related, “I wasn’t alone this day, which was very lucky. We had traveled some 200 kilometers on extremely muddy roads through the Andes of Peru and came to a little town way up in the mountains. In retrospect, we probably should have stopped for the day, but we still had a lot of energy so we pushed on and ended up riding through a pass at about 13,000 feet in a storm at night. In truth, we got a little bit lost. We ended up on a dirt road that was heading, I don’t quite know where, to some peak. We had almost white-out conditions.
“Mostly because of the fog, we couldn’t see five feet in front of us. We just knew there was a cliff on one side and a mountain on the other side. We had to backtrack in order to find the way again and then headed down the mountain for a long time. We had to ride with our visors open for better visibility, and snow was sticking to our eyelashes.
“On the way down, we noticed a little red light blinking and a guy on a donkey was waving through the mist at us. We pulled over and he said, ‘Did you see a woman with her burros up in the mountains?’ We hadn’t seen her but she was a local who had also gotten lost up there. I don’t know if he ever found her. We did make it across that pass and ended up in a tiny, tiny little town at the base of the mountain maybe at 9,000 feet elevation and found a family that rented out a little room above their shop with beds for $3. Sheep pelts were drying in one corner and we were drying out in the other. Following a meal and hot tea, we felt silly for putting ourselves in that kind of danger, but it was a pretty amazing adventure.”
All by herself
After selling the second bike in Colombia, Wirkala was now truly on her own. She relates, “I had heard Colombia was unsafe, but I had the most wonderful time there. They were just the most hospitable and the nicest people you could meet. I didn’t spend enough time there and, when I was there, it was the very end of South America and I was exhausted and had to work on my bike and had to sell the other motorcycle. So, I kind of hunkered down and rested for a while in Medellin. I’ve been thinking about going back to Colombia just to do another trip there.”
While in Medellin, Wirkala had an experience with the local police. “I was giving an American guy a ride to somewhere in the city when the police pulled me over and said, ‘You’re not allowed to be riding this motorcycle.’ I said, ‘What? This is my motorcycle and what do you mean I’m not allowed to ride it? I have all my paperwork and my insurance.’ They said, ‘Well, you can’t have a man on the back of your bike. He has to be driving it.’ I said, ‘No, you’re joking. This has got to be a joke, right? You’re just teasing me.’ They said, ‘No, no, no. He has to ride this motorcycle.’ They explained that this law is because of the drug trade and only applies in the Medellin area. Men riding on the backs of motorcycles were the drive-by shooters with a woman or a man driving. So now, you can have two girls on a motorcycle and you can have a guy driving and a girl on the back, but you cannot have a girl driving and a guy on the back and you cannot have two guys on a motorcycle. I started getting off my bike as I said, ‘Well, sure, but he doesn’t really know how to ride, and he doesn’t have his driver’s license. Is that still OK?’ They said, ‘Oh, no, no. That’s fine. Just get out of here and don’t do it again.’ It was a pretty funny experience.”
Wirkala was now faced with traveling through Central America and some of the most dangerous countries in the world. She relates, “In terms of safety, Central America was a lot more of a challenge. Honduras is considered the most dangerous country in the world. Guatemala is getting up there as well. Because of drugs and gang violence, it’s gotten very dangerous. I had been there before about 10 years ago, but this time, I had to be a lot more careful. I shipped most of my camping equipment back home and stayed in nicer hotels. I did most of this trip on a budget of $30 a day, but in Honduras I had to stay in more expensive places. Every business had a 24-hour security guard with a giant shotgun.
“I did things to make sure I wasn’t looking like a girl. I had a black scarf that the police gave me in Colombia, and I used it to cover up. I put my hair up inside my helmet and made sure that I wasn’t riding in the evenings. I tried to make sure I always had a place to stay. I planned the route a lot more than I did for South America and made sure the roads, especially through Mexico, traveled through the safer states. I took mostly toll roads through Mexico. I was definitely warier in Mexico than in other places but, I also felt fine and didn’t become worried at any point. The people were very friendly. If I had an issue, people were always there to help.
“You hear terrible news about these countries, but the truth is most people have incredible journeys with no problems. These are some of the most culturally and historically rich places I’ve been to, and the locals want to share that with you. Mexico is one of my favorite countries, right up there with Colombia.”
Back in the USA
After entering the U.S. in Texas, Wirkala recalls, “I was asked by a lot of Americans, especially Texans, if I carry weapons with me. My response was, if you are carrying a gun, you are much more likely to get into even worse situations. Most of the time, people just want to rob you. If so, let them take what they need to take and keep yourself safe. I think that is the most important part. The other part is to just be really friendly. Be friendly with people and make friends where ever you go. I made friends everywhere along the way and they would say, ‘OK, let me know when you get to such and such a place. Here’s my card. If you have any problems, call me. Once I had a problem and I called. Within 20 minutes they were there to help.”
Looking back, Wirkala remembers the great people she met, both adventurers like her and residents. “I met so many people who were having such amazing adventures. All ages of people, some with families. I met a German couple traveling by bicycles, who had started in Alaska and bicycled down to Patagonia. Their daughter was one year old when they started and she was two and a half by the time I met her. It was incredible. They were wonderful parents, with a really happy and healthy little girl.
“Another time, I had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia. A semi eventually came by and the driver provided the number 19 wrench I needed, just asking that I drop it off at a restaurant some thirty kilometers further in the direction I was heading. It was my first flat tire, so he got me started to make sure I knew what I was doing and that I’d be okay. There were just wonderful people like that all along the journey.”
Throughout her trip up the length of the Americas, Wirkala maintained a blog, which can be accessed at travelbugblues.com. Upon reaching Seattle, Wirkala has arranged a teaching position that will last until Christmas. At that point, she wants to focus her efforts on writing a book about her journey, “From the Ends of the Earth: One Girl’s Trans-Continental Journey Home.” Once completed, it should be a very interesting read indeed.”
*Thank you Justin Herx for the fabulous photos!