Central America

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Guatemala started with no country at all. The four kilometer section between Mexico and Guatemala, known as no-mans-land, climbed sharply upward to the border. The crossing was lined with street vendors hocking all sorts of wares useless to a cyclist concerned about overloading his rig. A gauntlet of shanty stores was setup reminding me of any street market in India. I stayed the night at the border, feeling a little uneasy of the unknown. Not having been to this infamous country, among travelers, before I didn’t know what to expect. My worry soon wore off as the landscape of the valley floor rolled under me. The road climbed as steadily as a locomotive up to 6000′ to Huehuetenango, passing through a canyon with walls towering thousands of feet above. Patchwork, indiscriminate, corn farms appeared in the wider areas of the valley floor and the road eventually widened to include a shoulder. I felt like an old friend had come to meet me. I had not seen a shoulder in so long, and I missed it. The children here enjoyed trying to scare me by waiting for me to pass, then just as I cranked by, they would yell “GRINGO!” in a way that was more at me than to me. This was always followed by the child then running off giggling hysterically.

From Huehue, I climbed up and down, up and down, until reaching nearly 9000′. I met a couple of Japanese cyclists, Michi and Hiroshi, on the road after just reaching the highlands. Michi had ridden from China to Europe, flown to New York and ridden down from there, in three years. Hiroshi came down from Alaska, seeing quite a bit of the US, and taking two years so far. They were both headed to Argentina as well. I asked them if they though it would rain, noticing dark thunderheads looming in the distance. Michi sniffed the air theatrically, and proclaimed that there would be no rain today. We exchanged info, took pictures, and I headed off. Just before reaching my destination for the day it started to rain. I threw on my raincoat and headed down into the valley as the downpour intensified. Cars slowed, and I pedaled on, careening at 65km/hr down the hill and eventually noticed the rain pained my torso through my jacket like needles piercing my skin. I looked down and saw a few kernels of hail collecting in a dent in my top bag. I at the bottom of the hill I stopped just in time to take cover. Large nickel-sized chunks of ice began falling, a few finding their way through my helmet vents before I ducked under an overhang. Never underestimate the rainy season. The next day, I passed Michi and Hiroshi again, just before the summit of the highest point on the Interamerican Highway, 9,900′. I cranked through this day easily, all in all doing 5000′ of elevation, all above 7000′. Unfortunately, this was one of the last days I really felt healthy. I made a quick stop at Lago Atitlan for a night, a very developed tourist town at the north end of the lake sporting views of two large volcanoes who’s banks extend into the lake.

A couple days of riding in the clean high mountain air, over ridges, down harrowing descents, and through daily torrential downpours and I arrived in Antigua. I immediately made a reservation for a guided tour to the volcano of Pacaya, Jamie having recommended this trip to me a few weeks earlier. I purchased some cheap shoes from the marketplace for the hike and hoped they would hold out. It’s a short distance up the mountainside, only 4km or so if I recall correctly. The guide led us to a large lava field, still a good distance from the top of the smoking volcano. Our only words of guidance: “be like a family, not like crazy people”. I think this was his way of saying, be careful and stay together. Later we heard that no one had died on this tour before but one woman lost her leg when she fell into the lava, or so the story goes. The lava field was a series of crusty, frozen flows; many of them leaving collapsed tunnels and hollow areas which could be heard when walking. We found an area where fresh lava was pouring out of the hillside, glowing orange-red and moving like late harvest honey. No safety ropes here, I took several pictures from a mere 5-6 feet away, getting a nice toasty lava burn on my face in the process. Some tourists brought marshmallows to roast over the vents, all the while lungs stinging with the inhalation of the sulfurous gasses. My cheap shoes didn’t endure, chunks of rock were embedded into the soles and they were generally melted. This was one of the highlights of Central America, it’s not everyday I see something like this.

From Antigua, I descended rapidly down towards the pacific coast, passing yet even more volcanoes belching puffs of hot gas and smoke. The downhill from the highlands was steep enough for me to break my fully-loaded speed record, setting a new bar at 84km/hr (52mph). This is the real reason I have a cycling computer. I’m hoping the Andes will bring even more fun.

Later that day, and only 20km from my destination, I stopped for a drink of water. The lowlands were hot, around 95F, and more humidity than I have ever felt. Immediately upon putting my foot down I felt like vomiting. I became woozy and my view began to twist and turn. Darkness crept in from the periphery of my vision. Realizing what was going on, I dropped the bike and sat down on the edge of the road as quickly as possible, my feet hanging off on the shoulder in some shallow bushes. I put my head down between my knees and my eyesight grew from a softball sized hole of light back to it’s normal dimensions. At the same moment I felt several intense stings on my ankles. I pulled up my feet and found them covered in small red ants, their bites creating welts seemingly too large for such a small insect. After a great deal of swatting, cursing, itching, cursing, and guzzling of water, I got back on the road. I had drunk more water that day than usual but the humidity was killing me. In Mexico it was over 100F but it never felt anywhere near this hot. I took it easy for a while, and ended up repeating this same scenario two more times, sans ants. I eventually walked the last 8km, finding that to be the only way I could keep from passing out. All in all, that last 20km took me four hours. The heat persisted, sapped me of my energy, and again limited my riding days from sun-up to around 11am.

The El Salvador crossing was easy, one of the most laid back borders I have seen, and the road widened even more to include a six foot shoulder. El Salvador’s roads, in my opinion, are the best in Central America, both in surface and in width. I saw several cyclists, both recreational and tranportational, all enjoying the fruits of the interamericana. I never really felt like I had gotten my strength back after being so completely wiped out in Guatemala by the heat. One of the first days in El Salvador I had some shrimp that didn’t sit well with me and left me feeling nauseous for days. I stayed in a cheap hotel to wait it out but on the third day I couldn’t stand it any longer and rode anyway. I felt sick all day and as the heat increased it only got worse. I stopped, and waited for traffic to pass before yawning into the ditch in late morning. This was not for vanity, just that if they saw me they would almost certainly stop and ask if I needed help; the Latin hospitality being what it is.

I passed through a few tunnels, completely dark other than the light at the end and at times busy with traffic. I stopped to take a look around with my light and saw half a dozen medium sized bats flutter just 10′ or so overhead. I took some shorter days to finish the crossing to Honduras, staying in the lowlands, and skipping attractions in an attempt to get south of the heat into the mountains as quickly as possible. A few days later I crossed into Honduras. The roads again became bad again, but the traffic light. Taking the Pacific route, I passed through a small leg of this country, spending only one night between borders.

I no longer fear border crossings, now knowing more of what to expect. Before leaving I really had no idea, which of course was the cause of both the fallacy and the fear. Human nature is often a disservice, recent cultural circumstances being lost on physical evolution.

The Nicaragua border brought 17km of alternating dirt and paved roads, loaded with potholes. I met Josu half way through the day. A Spaniard from the Basque region who turned 40 and decided since he was half way to 80, it was a good time to go tour Central America on his bike. Good man. We rode together to Chinandega, a 80mile slog from Choluteca in Honduras past yet more volcanoes (getting the picture yet?), through more ridiculous downpours, and watched as lightning struck all around us, once within only about 200′. Soaked to the bone, but still warm from the rain, we dried out and swapped stories from the road and plans for future travels as cyclists like to do. The next day he left to climb a volcano and I made my way toward Managua and eventually Granada.

I took a passenger boat to the center of Lago Nicaragua to Isla Ometepe. This small volcanic island, formed by two quintessential conical volcanoes has become a quiet retreat for travelers on their way to Costa Rica. The boat docked at dusk and I rode the four kilometers to the town up a bumpy road dirt road in the dark. Fireflies zipped passed my bike as I picked a line passed through the potholes and between rocks. I found a hotel the next day by the lake and learned that the boat would not be back for another three days so I might as well relax. The roads around the island were mostly dirt, but one very nice road led between the two circular sections.

This jungle paradise had a lot of things to do, but I spent most of my time swinging in a hammock beside the shark-infested waters of the lake. I did take a horseback ride up to a viewpoint, my first time on a horse for more than a few minutes. My steed seemed to know that I was inexperienced and took every opportunity to stop and eat fallen mangoes, go off course, stop and stand around, and generally be ornery. I asked the guide if my horse was tired and he told me: “no, he’s just stupid”. Eventually I got him to obey, by use of less subtle queues. I also got him to run at a full gallop. It was everything I could do to hang on to him, and well really there was nothing to hang on to. The saddle was some sort of wooden thing with a bit of leather and very little padding stretched over the top, the reigns a simple rope around his snout. We bumped into some other riders at one point and my caballo began to lose his marbles, jumping around and staggering about. I pulled him off to the side and later I was told that he was “not friends” with one of the other horses. I was just glad he didn’t buck me off by the time we got back to the hotel.

I left the island in the evening on the same boat, this time heading south toward Costa Rica. After a 10hr overnight ride, we arrived at the south end of the lake. From the border, which was really just a small dock, a 45 minute boat ride took me upriver to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. I paid my fee, had disinfectant sprayed on my tires, and I was on my way.

The northern plains of Costa Rica are rolling farmlands where the road crews decided it wasn’t worth it to cut into the hills. Although you don’t gain any elevation, you manage to climb quite a few very steep hills in this area. The rains of course did not cease and I found myself yet again wet. In humid climates like this, your clothes don’t dry out overnight unless you have A/C in your hotel room. So many mornings are started by sliding on very soggy padded shorts, a sweat soaked helmet, a cold wet shirt, and slipping your muddy socks into heavy shoes. Welcome to the rainy season. Having seen some of Costa Rica a few years ago, I took a course that led me to the Carribean coast. This also cut out some miles and put me on track to see some sights in Panama I was looking forward to.

The Caribbean coast is different feel from the rest of the areas I have been in. Everything moves a little slower, if that’s possible, most people speak English, the food is better, and more people offer you magic brownies on the street. I quickly made my way south to Puerto Viejo, not lingering long in the shady town of Puerto Limon. I spent a day there, trying to line up a jungle walk or a snorkel trip, but failed due to group sizes and not wanting to wait a few days.

I spun south over the border to Panama, the first day making it to a water taxi which took me to Bocas del Toro. The driver stopped alongside an island on the way to whistle, honk, and catcall at every bikini on the beach. The next stop was a small canoe, lobster fisherman. He haggled over a few lobsters with them for a few minutes, then decided they were too expensive and headed for the dock at Bocas.

Bocas is a group of islands which used to be one of the most remote untouched areas in the world. In the last 20 years or so, roads have been built to allow more access, and more companies offer ferry services to the islands, now many, hotels. Still, it’s a great place to relax and catch up on some much sought after snorkeling. I took a snorkel tour that lasted most of the day, about 4 hours of time in the water, enough to crisp my back even on an overcast day. I saw barracuda, stingray, lobster, several schools of colorful tropical fish, many many different corals of vibrant blue, red, purple, yellow, green, and was very wary of some large jellyfish hanging out in a couple of the areas. I also saw a 5′ shark under the dock of a restaurant. He seemed to be waiting for the leftovers they scrape off the plates into the water. Bocas del Toro is the the closest thing to the classic tropical paradise I have found. Crystal green-blue waters, lush jungle islands, and honey to white sand beaches.

I started feeling ill the day I left, and ended up riding for six hours anyway. Cruising the coast, I listened to monkeys howl in the distance, admired the jungle flowers, and saw a couple of toucans tip their wings overhead as I rode the hilly shoreline. I ended up just short of the mountains, and found a hotel. I caught some sort of respiratory infection that’s been with me since. I waited a few days in this little shanty town, full of cantinas and a rough and tumble bunch. It seems that a ferry to and from Colombia comes to this town every few days, it’s main attraction. I was able to see a street fight one night, a good view from the hotel balcony. Around 40 people gathered in to watch the spectacle. Two drunk men, duking it out, seemingly over a woman, who all the time was screaming something at the both of them. It went on for about twenty minutes, each time someone was knocked to the pavement, one of their “friends” would pick them up and push them back together again. Mothers came out of their houses and screamed for children to come back home, some of them watching from the front row. A local mentioned to me that this happens every weekend at some point. When it was finally over, the men seemed to reconcile their differences, gave each other a hug, and went in opposite directions.

Eventually, I got sick of being sick, and left anyway. Over the mountains and down the other side, toward Panama City. I went slowly, feeling tired and the heat still sapping my energy. I ran into some other travelers, a couple from Quebec traveling from Mexico City to Panama City who survive on little else other than chips and beer, a fellow riding to Panama from Austin, Texas, and a Costa Rican man who had been riding for two years back and forth between Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. The Tico, fellow from Costa Rica, supported himself along the way by juggling fire in the streets, washing windows at gas stations, and finding work wherever he could. We pulled into Santiago together and found all the hotels booked since there was a large fiesta in town that weekend. Luckily the Tico had a friend at the local fire station and we were able to stay in a conference room in the back free of charge. He told me that he had spread “good vibrations” throughout all the fire stations on this route and if I ever needed a place to stay they would oblige. We walked around the fiesta that night in Santiago, as far as I could tell it was some sort of homage to the patron saint of loudspeakers. Cars were lined up for blocks and blocks, each sporting five foot by five foot arrays of speakers, blaring music turned up to 11. The streets were packed with thousands and thousands of people dancing and drinking. I have never seen anything like that in my life. The music bumped until the morning and it would have been difficult to sleep had I not been dead tired.

The next few days brought fewer and fewer miles. I felt more and more sick as the days went by and half of my back now stung with a nasty case of prickly heat where the skin had peeled from my snorkeling burn. I finally reached Panama City, riding only 15km the last day. I rode over the Bridge of the Americas and stopped to watch large container ships pass by on their way toward the locks. I have been in Panama City for almost a week now, running errands, giving The Trucker a good cleaning and adjustment, and looking for supplies. I did go visit the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. It’s a strange thing to see a fully loaded container ship sitting in the middle of land, only a couple feet of clearance on each side before the green grass. From here, I will fly to Ecuador rather than riding through Colombia. It is true that Colombia has become safer in recent years and I have talked with loads of people who came through there, including a couple of cyclists. All the same, I would rather just hop over to Quito and get out of the heat and into the mountains straightaway, after a short Galapagos excursion I hope.

More than anything Central America impressed me with the sheer contrast between the reputation it has and the reality of travel here. My perspective may be different from many other travelers, certainly of a minuscule sample size, and I am fairly sure at this point you are better off in many respects on a bike than in a car or a bus regarding safety, but I just don’t think these areas deserve the avoidance they currently have. Guatemala was definitely a place I would visit again. The mountain beauty I cycled through was unmatched. Nicaragua, one of if not the poorest countries, has the best safety record statistically, but the fewest travelers. It’s colonial towns and undeveloped environmental sights attract a few. Most of these countries provided easy traveling for me, good roads, diversity in food, and cheap accommodations. The heat and humidity I did not enjoy but the other sights made up for it. Once again I look back and find that the times I rode through the mountains were vastly more enjoyable to those of the boring, grinding, flats. South America should supply me with plenty of high peaks and vistas to fill my days.

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Mexico

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Oaxaca city is a great place.  It’s the first large city I have visited where I would consider coming back to relax, write, code, make art, or just waste time.  The downtown area is quaint, well kept, has a feel of a colonial town, and a prolific art scene.  What’s more, you can hear live music in the evenings floating it’s way through the streets while you sample restaurants which still incorporate traditional flavors.  The food of Oaxaca is unique.  Grasshoppers, moles, mezcal, and thick hot chocolate from a bowl are native to this area.  I have been getting more and more tired of the usual Mexican grease and Oaxaca afforded me a selection of alternatives other than just the usual sandwich.

Monte Alban is a short drive from the City, on a hill overlooking the Valle Centrales.  The complex is large, in my opinion, but a little produced in places.  I could see fiberglass poking through on some of the rock relief carvings.  Either some of the sights are reproduced or these people were way ahead of their time.

Leaving Oaxaca City, the road became wide; an anomaly in Mexico. A shoulder popped up and I even saw some racer-type cyclists out enjoying the less confrontational construction of the highway. We were able to see some more ruins in Mixtla and take a bumpy truckride into the mountains to see a mineral-fall, or a waterfall-like structure made of minerals.

The road then rolled downward towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a very flat, hot, extremely windy area which few gringos stop to visit.  At one small town, a schoolboy noticed me and shouted for his friends to come join him.  He ran to meet them as they rounded the corner, then doubled back towards me to arrive just before them.  He bowed with an outstretched hand in my direction as if to say: “As promised, I give you … the gringo.”  Moments later, while having lunch another man stopped his tractor outside and beckoned for me to come chat with him.  Dirty, teeth missing, one eye, and very friendly, he had to stop to say hello and practice his English.  Being a gringo in Mexico can mean you are a spectacle of sorts in some areas, but the jovial nature of the culture ensures this is never threatening.

Another section of the Ithsmus brought winds that often topple high trucks.  I rode through them for a few hours, able to keep the bike pointed in a generally straight line despite having no shoulder and heavy traffic.  When I saw the windfarm in the distance I knew I wouldn’t get a break.  Eventually the gusts became too great, catching the surfaces of the front pannier and causing my wheel to inexplicably skid sideways toward the steep ditches.  Having left early in the morning I walked the remaining distance; a difficult task in and of itself in such winds.

We entered Chiapas just as the remnants of Tropical Storm Arthur passed through the area.  Ushering in what would be a very hot, wet next two months through Central America.  In the town of Tuxtla I became solo again, my friend Amy finishing her vacation.  The road led upward into the pines of the higher elevations, juxtaposed next to banana plants and rolling green farmlands.  Small valleys and passes nearing 7000′ screamed by in miniature.  Eventually, I dropped into the central depression and headed across to the border.  I found Chiapas to be one of the most scenic, picturesque, kind, and generally best, states of Mexico I visited.  I reminisce and smile about my cautiousness about riding through this area before I arrived.  I had heard reports of cyclists having issues, the local uprising of years gone past, and general distrust of the region from many people to the north.  I found none of this, other than a few dissenting t-shirts.  I am always careful by my own subjective standards nonetheless.

Mexico is a beautiful country, but I feel only saw a glimpse of what it has to offer. Baja I remember with fondness, already romanced to be larger than reality itself. Aging like the warmth of the Anejos of Jalisco. The magic I found in those lands will linger forever, and that is a great part of the fun. The mainland might as well have been another country altogether. Different in culture and landscape, but those same genuine Mexican smiles persisted. Several times a day I would here a whistle, a honk, a yell, all so that I would glance in the direction of the producer to receive a smile, a wave, or a peace sign.  In an America where some try to pretend that we are all alone, even when surrounded, we could learn a lot from the friendliness of Mexico.  I regret not seeing more of it, but I am sure I will be back and that there are plenty more sights to come.

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