Review: Los Angeles to Buenos Aires by Serdar Sunny Unal

categories: central america travel, mexico travel, south america travel


When freelance photographer Serdar Sunny Unal set off in December 2007 on a solo motorcycle trip from his home in Los Angeles, his goal was plenty ambitious: to ride all the way to the southern tip of South America. He gave himself five months to do it.

But Unal’s adventure had a way of expanding as he went along, and by the time he was finished, he had logged two full years on the road—and 40,000 miles on his motorcycle. He documented his experience along the way in hundreds of stunning photographs, and now he’s published an e-book showcasing those images. Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, designed as an iPad and iPhone app, takes you through 13 countries in some 1,200 pages.

Unal’s motorcycle, and his camera, give him an unusual perspective on some well-known tourist sites: Acapulco, Machu Picchu, the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Better yet, he artfully captures the charisma of less well-known gems, from a Catholic church in Chamula, Mexico, where parishioners perform live-animal sacrifices, to Bolivia’s Uyani Salt Flat, where Unal stayed in a hotel constructed entirely of salt.

Unal writes of a wide range of mini-adventures: joining New Year’s Eve revelers in Acapulco, navigating narrow mountain roads on his bike (“I counted 40 hairpins in 15 miles”), fixing flat tires in the middle of nowhere. Border crossings are a recurring theme, as in this entry in which he was joined by another motorcycle rider:

“The chaos called Guatemala border is a narrow dusty road packed with vehicles and people, more like an open bazaar. Yet, you somehow end up where you’re supposed to, and before we knew it, our bikes were already getting fumigated. A meaningless and mandatory procedure that costs $2. After visiting a couple more booths, $7 and 35 minutes later, a kid lifted a rope for us to pass underneath and we were in Guatemala.”

In keeping with the spirit of adventure, Unal would figure out where to spend the night on an ad-hoc basis. Some nights he slept in his tent; at other times, a hostel or a cheap motel room. One of his photos, from La Paz, shows a crude shower with the caption: “Each $12 room at Residential Sucre is equipped with a personal torture chamber.”

The quality of the prose in LA2BA—as the book is nicknamed—is adequate, but the real stars of the book are the photos: shimmering beaches, mountain vistas, crowded marketplaces, Mayan ruins, lively cantinas. Unal’s street photography is especially strong, and his portraits of the local people are as exquisite as his landscapes. The photos would make a magnificent coffee-table book.

Los Angeles to Buenos Aires comes in two versions: The full-length, 1,200-page edition ($12.99 at the iTunes store) covers the entire trip, while an abridged 380-page version ($3.99) covers only Mexico and Central America.

In reading the book, you don’t find out much about what prompted Unal’s adventure, about the life he left behind, or about how the experience changed him. The focus here is entirely on the journey, and the unexpected challenges and delights that the road can bring.

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by Tina Hay

Tina Hay is editor of The Penn Stater, a bimonthly magazine published by the Penn State Alumni Association. She’s an avid traveler and photographer. You can read some of her travel blogs: here, here, here, and here.

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