Trans America: “We followed the stars”

Over 18,000 miles on a couple of 1985 BMW R 80 G/S bikes, 13 countries in six months, two old friends and one epiphany: packing up and leaving everything behind can be the greatest luxury of all. Matias Corea talks at length to BMW Magazine about the adventure he undertook with his boyhood friend Joel Estopà. It is the story of an epic road trip, narrated in seven scenes.

Matias Corea
Lars Gaede

There was this one moment on Matias Corea’s long and dusty road when he suddenly started to fly. It wasn’t the feeling of floating through the countryside on his BMW R 80 G/S that had accompanied him for so much of this adventure, but one where he was actually off the ground. If it was a case of rider error, he had little time to admonish himself as the handlebars began to shake in front of his eyes, wriggling free from his grip. Then he felt the bike lift off the ground, and he flew off it. Twirling through the air, he watched the 550-lb BMW hammer into the ground and do a forward flip. It was a hard landing for both man and machine. And then there was silence. Matias’ face was covered in dirt, and on his shaken mind the question: could it be game over for him or at very least the end of the trip? Had his dream of travelling with his friend Joel Estopà and riding two old BMW Enduros from Brooklyn all the way south to Ushuaia in Argentina – at the southern tip of South America – already turned to hot Bolivian dust?

It was a dream that had begun when Matias and Joel were just 18 years old and Joel was given a 1975 R 60/6 by his father. The two boys had already been on the road together on their scooters since they were 16. But now it was a big old boxer-engined BMW that they were riding across the countryside, to the beach or to Rioja for a glass of wine.
Matias had always been curious about how things worked, and this old machine allowed him to explore its inner workings. “How all the mechanical parts played their part, how the petrol powered the engine, the special sound that it made – I found it all fascinating. Joel’s bike was burgundy red, probably the ugliest colour BMW ever used on any of its motorcycles. But I still fell instantly in love with it.”

It was around that time the two amigos hatched a plan to go on a long motorcycle tour one day.
Probably more of an expedition than a tour, to be honest. However, as so often happens with plans and fondly-dreamt adventures, life got in the way. Joel pursued his career as a DJ, and Matias moved to New York, where he worked for ten years building the creative platform Behance with a partner. In 2012, the company was acquired by software giant Adobe, and Matias left two years later.
These days he still works as a designer, has invested in some other companies and travels the world giving talks about everything he learned on his journey from graphic designer to entrepreneur.

After leaving the company, Matias had both the time and the resources to head off on a big trip. But it was a tragic event – the unexpected death of his sister – that sent his old dream rushing back to the surface. The 37-year-old asked himself one crucial question: “What are we all doing with our lives? And more to the point, what am I doing with mine?”

Not long after, he phoned Joel in Spain.
“I’m doing it. I leave on 10 October,” Matias said. “Are you coming with me?”

“Motorcycling puts you in touch with nature in a very special way,” he says. “You’re not sitting in a box with a roof over your head. The way you take in the environment is as if all your senses are on alert.”

Matias Corea

A motorcycle rider’s dream in Peru: five hours of corners and no oncoming traffic (top). In the Bolivian highlands near Los Flamencos (bottom).

// Scene 01

“This was the first ferry crossing of the trip – over Lago Petén Itzá in Guatemala – and it’s a common scene. It’s funny when people talk about motorcycles being ‘babe magnets.’ The reality is they’re dude magnets! Wherever we stopped or came out of a restaurant, there were groups of curious guys gathered around our bikes, ready to ask questions. As Spaniards in Spanish-speaking countries, we were never short of opportunities to talk to the locals and find out more about them. We spend so much of our everyday lives focused on ourselves, but what I found so stimulating about this trip was the chance to meet other people and learn about how they live and view the world.”

Three years earlier, Matias had bought a 1985 R 80 G/S and asked his old friend Peter – who specialises in vintage European motorcycles – to teach him how to restore and repair BMW bikes.
“It was as if I was already subconsciously preparing for the trip.” The two friends bought an identical machine for Joel, so that they could use the same spare parts for repairs on the road. They put on heated grips, superior front and rear shock absorbers, and added windscreens and all the necessary spare parts. They replaced the brake pads, air, oil and fuel filters as well as all the bike’s fluids and adjusted the valves.
Then they packed their bags: clothes, tents, a camping stove, tools and a football with a pump (so they could play keepie-uppie, just as they had done as kids on the beach in Barcelona).

And at three pm on 12 October, they fired up their engines and headed south.

// Scene 02

“Bolivia is larger than Germany but has a population of only ten million. If you want to know what the world looked like ten thousand years ago, this is the place to go. It’s incredibly beautiful. It’s also incredibly tricky when you get lost, which is quite easy to do. In large areas there’s a lack of roads, gas stations, signs to navigate by and cell phone reception. There’s just landscape. And when darkness falls, there’s even less to go by. You haven’t seen a dark night until you’ve been there. On one occasion we spent hours feeling our way through the blackness trying to find a hostel in a remote area. We thought about stopping and pitching camp, but we were 12,500 feet up, it was cold and there were wild animals around. We kept going. Eventually, we rode over a hill at the end of a valley and a light appeared out of nowhere. We never thought a light could be so welcome.”

Matias and Joel used Bluetooth headsets to stay in touch during the trip, warning each other about dangerous drivers, discussing which way to go at junctions, or flagging up the need for a break. But aside from those brief conversations they rode in silence, alone together.
It didn’t take long for Matias to be gripped by an incredible feeling of freedom.
“Motorcycling puts you in touch with nature in a very special way,” he says.
“You’re not sitting in a box with a roof over your head. It’s as if all your senses are on alert. In the Nazca Desert, you can feel the heat and the sand seep into your helmet. When you ride through the jungle in Guatemala, you can sense the moisture in the air. In Mississippi, you can smell the fields of flowers and in Argentina, the cattle. And that’s exactly what you’re looking for; you want to experience it all.“

There are also obvious practical benefits to travelling by motorcycle. You can fit onto the smallest ferry and squeeze over the narrowest bridges – and if you get stuck in the mud, unlike in a car, you may well be able to pull the bike out on your own. Also, with two riders you can get help on the other bike if one breaks down. This feeling of independence is one of the things that grab people most about touring on two wheels. “But the really compelling side of it is what happens within yourself – your own journey.”

// Scene 03

“We might well have called our trip ‘Rain Tour on Two Wheels’! For three months, it just poured down – from Central America all the way to southern Peru. In Honduras, it was really brutal – like being under a power shower, only worse because you’re riding a motorcycle. It’s not great, but it’s part of the experience and you simply have to adapt to it. It just rains a lot there.”

Being on a bike for hours on end often takes Matias into a parallel space in his mind.
He describes it as a kind of meditation. But rather than just drift past, the thoughts and ideas hit him right between the eyes: “When I was on the bike, I realised who I wanted to spend more time with. I forgave people and apologised to others for things I had done in the past. I thought a lot about my sister and myself, and my relationship with my mother. I asked myself questions I had never gone near until that moment. I didn’t always find answers and there were plenty of tears inside my helmet.”

“But hey, that was a journey in itself,” he reflects.

// Scene 04

“This is Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala – surrounded by volcanoes and painfully beautiful. The ride there was crazy. We were on a road that appeared to be winding its way further and further through the mountains, but then suddenly dropped down and we were there. In the morning, the lake was covered in a layer of fog and it was very quiet. The wind picks up during the day and the lake starts to look more like the sea. It’s magical. We found ourselves chasing water in the form of lakes, rivers and beaches throughout the trip. Maybe it’s because we were born near the sea.”

For Matias and Joel, good food and wine were their greatest luxuries while on the road. ”They were not always easy to find, especially in Central America,” Matias recalls.
“But then we went through Chile, Peru and Argentina.” Every day they pulled over for an hour to allow time for a relaxed lunch. “After all, we’re from Spain,” he explains. “Whatever happens, we eat properly.”

When Matias and Joel arrived at a new place after eight or more hours in the saddle, their normal routine was to find somewhere to stay, unload the bikes, take off their jackets and boots, and then do their own thing for a bit.
While one of them might lie on the bed, check out the news on Twitter or post some images on Instagram, the other would read or take a shower. This was their “alone” time.
Only later, once they’d both showered and were sitting at dinner with some food and a glass of wine in front of them, did they really start to get into conversation. “And we’d do so nonstop for two or three hours at a time. We’d talk about the day’s ride, about wine, food, music and life in general.“
Matias reckons that is the secret of their friendship – and there are a couple of rules of thumb for others to bear in mind when planning to share a trip like this:
1. It helps if you know each other inside out. There shouldn’t be any big surprises along the way.
2. You need to be able to enjoy long periods of silence in each other’s company and not feel the need to fill them all the time. “Tick those boxes and you should be fine,” says Matias. Indeed, when the two bikers did occasionally get upset at each other, everything was back to normal within ten minutes.
“That’s about as long as it ever took for either of us to let the issue go and move on.”

Matias Corea takes to the air: his 550-lb BMW hammers into the ground and does a forward flip, as he twirls through the air before landing hard and ending up lying on the ground motionless. In the hot Bolivian dust he asks himself: Is this the end of the road?

The two adventurers tried to get off the beaten track as much as possible during the trip. They discovered some extraordinary roads like this one in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

The two adventurers tried to get off the beaten track as much as possible during the trip. They discovered some extraordinary roads like this one in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

// Scene 05

“On the way to Cajamarca in Peru we got totally lost once again. Even Google Maps was confused. After four hours we found someone to point us in the right direction. They sent us down the road and told us to make a right at the first turn. We kept going and going for some 30 miles, in the dark, over rocks and large deep puddles, but the right turn never came. We were up 13,000 feet or so, the temperature had dropped and the air was thin. Joel got stuck in a stream and we barely had the strength to get the bike out. After two hours in the dark, we were mentally and physically drained. But we kept moving, and a little later we saw flickering lights in the distance and set out towards them. Eventually we came across Abraham, a miner wearing a headlamp, who owned the land and was digging for gold with his workers. He lived in the middle of the mountains with his wife and his three kids. ‘You’re three-and-a-half hours from civilisation,’ he said. ‘You should stay with us tonight.’ They brought us some tarp to put on the wet soil and a few blankets. The next morning we felt so relieved. We were also able to see the incredible valley we were in. This type of situation happened over and over again on the trip. Moments of struggle and despair were followed by ones of rare beauty. Every place we went, we met people who would do anything they could to help us out. Somewhere along the way, you learn not to panic when something goes wrong, but to trust that things will work out in the end.”

Ask Matias how best to prepare for a trip like this and he replies: “Preferably not at all.” He says he gained little from asking people their opinion before they left. In fact, it was more off-putting than anything else.
“We were given a very negative view of the world. ‘Are you crazy? There are gangs and people get killed all the time! The roads are too dangerous!’ The funny thing is that all the negative stuff was from people who’d never done the trip themselves.”
There was no point in planning a route either. Roads that are on the map might have been washed away three days before you got there or buried in a rockfall.

And at a place called La Ventosa in Mexico, the wind was so strong that the pair had to turn around just a few miles from their destination and find a different route. “The detour took three days!” But if they’d carried on, they would have been blown off their bikes.
“How are you supposed to plan for that?” reflects Matias.
So on many occasions they swapped theory for practice and asked the locals for advice. And whenever somebody told them to go to Oaxaca or Atitlán and check out these ruins or that temple, they added them as a star on Google Maps.

“It’s a great way to plan,” says Matias. “All you do is follow the stars.”

// Scene 06

“Uyuni, in Bolivia, is the largest salt flat in the world. It’s pretty surreal and plays tricks with your mind. It’s as if you’re riding over a mirror. You see two of everything – the bike and its reflection. Joel told me over the communicator that something was up with his bike; then it stalled and wouldn’t start up again. Fixing it wasn’t easy, as it was baking hot. You couldn’t put anything on the ground because there was three inches of water on the surface. After four hours of work we finally figured it out, which went down as a pretty major victory.”

So what qualities do you need to answer the call, leave it all behind and set off into the horizon?
“A sense of adventure is pretty much it,” says Matias. Of course, he realises that going on a long road trip is, like so many things, easier when you have money in your pocket. But he rejects the assumption that this kind of luxury is only for the well-off.
“The road isn’t an expensive place,” he says, pointing out that you can sleep in tents and that a hostel often costs as little as six dollars. “It’s nine dollars for a beer in New York! If you live there, you can save enough money to fund a trip like this just by not going out to eat for six months.”
And Matias also believes you should not be afraid to take a break from a job or career – not if you really want to travel.

“Of course, you won’t be earning anything for six months and you’ll have to let go of your career goals during that time. But you should be true to yourself. A working life can last 30, 40 or even 50 years. Shouldn’t you take just a hundredth of that time and do something for yourself with it?”

You’ll certainly be getting a return on your investment in terms of your personal development: “It’s about the experiences you have, the countries you get to know and the people you meet. That’s not something money can buy; you have to live it.”

// Scene 07

“We explored every kind of terrain imaginable. In San Cayetano, in Colombia, we found many parts with soft mud – not very nice to ride on. There were a lot of off-road tracks that were just exhausting and forced us to go slow. We tried to find a good balance between paved and dirt roads. We avoided cities altogether. Cities all over the world – from Barcelona and Rome to New York, Quito, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires – all fit a broadly similar template nowadays due to globalisation. If you’re curious about how Peruvians are different from Bolivians and Nicaraguans, you have to go into the countryside, into the smallest towns and villages. That’s where you’ll see just how different they are in their culture, music, food and, ultimately, in their way of life. Everything is different.”

Back to the incident in Bolivia. When the dust (not to mention the rider and bike) had settled, Matias opened his eyes. With his left eye he could only see bright flecks. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t understand why he was sitting there in the dirt and what Joel was saying to him; the words were coming at him far too quickly.
It was a while before Matias came to his senses, and luckily he hadn’t injured himself too badly.

He was taken to hospital but discharged the following day.
His hip still hurt and he had strained his neck, but no time was wasted before he began patching up his motorcycle, parts of which had flown more than 150 feet down the road.
With a roll of duct tape and cable ties by the dozen, he was able to patch everything up to more or less working order. The handlebars were slightly bent, the speedo was in pieces and the indicators had snapped off, but none of that deterred the intrepid pair from getting back on their bikes and eventually reaching Ushuaia in Argentina.

If you happen to be in Brooklyn in the near future, you might get the chance to admire the artistry of Matias’ repairs for yourself.
At the entrance to the Union Garage motorcycle gear shop, in which he has a partnership interest, stands the BMW in all its battle-damaged glory.
The R80 is in the same sorry state as it was when Matias loaded it onto a plane at the end of the tour. “Even the dirt is original,” he beams.
Then he wheels the bike out of the store and into the sunlight on the sidewalk. A broad grin spreads across his face as he fires up the machine. “What a bike, eh? Do you want to sit on it?”

The South American expedition left its mark not only on the G/S, but on Matias as well. He misses being on the bike every day.
“It’s a cold turkey kind of thing. I still haven’t stopped posting pictures of the trip. It feels as if my brain is still on the road, processing everything we experienced.”

Of course, he admits, it’s been nice to sleep in his own bed again after 180 days in some 150 different ones. But at the same time, when you get back from a trip like this you suddenly start asking yourself some big questions.
“You’re back in your old life, in your old apartment, having spent six months travelling the world with just a pair of pants, a few T-shirts and socks. You look around and think: ‘Wow, look at all this stuff!’ And you realise you have so many things you’ve used maybe once in the last four years. What’s it all for?”
It was time for an urgent clearing of the decks. Matias is still in the process of sorting through his things and giving them away or selling them.

Could that be his biggest lesson from the trip? “I realised that I function a lot better with fewer possessions; less to look after, fewer decisions to worry about, even fewer friendships, you could say. It’s better to put more energy and time into a small number of things and the people who really matter to you.”
It’s as if a light has been switched on, “and it feels good,” he says. Then comes the wry smile. There’s just one more thing he has to figure out:
"Where on earth do I go next?"

It takes guts to live your dream, to leave it all behind and set off into the horizon.