tour update: biking central america

a country a day keeps the bandits away

“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson

Total Kilometers:  70,771 (44,510 miles)
16 February 2010

cuidado, cuidado

a tough but beautiful climb--biking GuatemalaIt’s 7AM, we’ve been on the road for about an hour and we’ve covered about as much distance as two out of shape, over-weight, chain-smoking middle aged power walkers:  5 kilometers.

Swooping down to beautiful Lake Atitlan took a matter of minutes.  Now we’ve got to fight for every inch of altitude gain. We crank the pedals past fallow fields of maize, we grind the wheels through banana plantations, we huff and puff as we pass through coffee fincas, we swerve up the steep grade as we edge nearer the towering twin volcanoes in the distance.

The colorful Maya of Guatemala.Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaOld men with weathered faces and the stocky build of the Maya pass us up with ease.  Each campesino swings a machete as he heads off to the fields for a long day of labor.  Others pass, crammed into the back of sagging pick-up trucks, there are perhaps 30 men in the vehicle, with a few stragglers perched on the running board.

A child shouts out, “cuidado, cuidado,” as I pass.  Be careful, he is warning me.
Before I have time to wonder about what mysterious dangers lie ahead, the asphalt comes to an abrupt halt and a rutted and twisted track makes its way through the forest.  Just then a police vehicle appears from behind a bend. 
In handcuffs, two criminals are skulking in the back seat. 

“Wait here,” the officer in charge instructs.  “I must drop off these men,” and he gestures to the prisoners, “and I will come back to escort you.  It is not safe here.  There are many assaults.”
And a little light blinks on--ah, cuidado, now I get it.  DANGER--BE CAREFUL!

And so we pile everything into the back of the truck and take a lift.  For although the officer assures us that, “there are hardly ever deaths,” assaults, apparently, are a regular occurrence. 
The security situation really sucks in Central America.

heat and hospitality

A perfect camp spot.Now we’re cruising down, down, down, faster and faster and I’m braking hard.  We lose more than a thousand feet in altitude and we’re back to the sweltering lowlands.
It’s hot.  The traffic is hectic.  I’m hungry.  We’re both grouchy.  Then we meet Roberto and we camp at his family’s finca.  Next to a little gurgling stream we pitch the tent and I splash around in the refreshing coolness of the water and rinse of the grime of the road.  Life is perfect. 

A peaceful time.In the morning we hit the road early and the family’s seven dogs are howling as we pass.  “Are they friendly?” I ask the senora
“Yes, yes,” she assures me, “there are only three that bite.”

Now the hills are not so bad, but the heat--the oppressive heat,--is killing us.  By mid-afternoon, my head is throbbing, I’m slurring my words and I’m quite certain I’ll pass out right there in the middle of Highway 2 and be flattened by a semi within seconds.

Behind an imposing wrought iron gate we spot a large two story home surrounded by a lush tropical garden.  No words are exchanged.  We cross the road, call out a greeting, realize that the gate is unlocked and go inside.  I plop down in exhaustion and Eric scurries off in search of the home’s inhabitants.

“They’ve got beds upstairs,” Eric reports back.

He’s only been gone a minute or so and this is weird.  I may be on the verge of heat exhaustion but I still know it’s just not normal.  Who invites strangers into the house after a 30 second meeting?  Normal folks need a little convincing and gentle cajoling.  First they might agree to let you pitch the tent out back.  After they catch you petting the family dog and admiring their flower beds you might be invited in to shower up.  But nobody just tells itinerant cyclists to go on upstairs where there are comfy beds and take rest.

I check out our hosts.  Two adolescent brothers. 
“Where’s your mother?”  I enquire.
“Gone to visit our sister in the city.”
“And your father?”
“Working in the fields.”
Now this is really getting suspicious.  A grand house like this and the father is working in the fields?   No way.  This just doesn’t  add up.

In spite of my better instincts, I let myself be led upstairs to what turns out to be a very comfortable bed.
The boys tell us to give a holler if we need anything and then they disappear downstairs.

I’m feeling better now out of the sun.  I gulp down several liters of water and decide I’m up to doing some washing.  As I’m scrubbing away at our filthy cycling gear, the younger brother comes over to chat.  He’s polite and appears harmless.
I ask him if maybe he’s not a little afraid to let smelly strangers on bicycles into the house when his parents are away.
“Oh, no, of course not,” he replies.  “You are not the first to knock at the gate and spend the night.”

And he tells me that others have come.  A Canadian couple hiding out from the rain.  A Swiss guy with mechanical problems.  Turns out other cyclists have been lured in by the peaceful looking garden on CA 2.
So we spend the night, and the boys are not thieves or murderers.  Just kind and friendly like most people on this planet.

country 66

Looking up in wonder as we pedal past another volcano.Our world bike tour now take us to country 66:  El Salvador.  It’s our second visit and I love it.  Not because the scenery is so spectacular or the people so colorfully dressed like the Maya of Guatemala.  I love El Salvador because it’s a nation of talkers where everybody’s got a story to share.  And for the deliciously greasy pupusas,  stuffed with frijoles and queso.
We meet Erich who recounts his month long overland trip north to the US in search of a better life.  His group of 30 immigrants was robbed of everything (including shoes) as they made their way through Mexico.  The journey was so terrifying that he swore he would never return to his homeland until he acquired legal US residence and could travel by plane.  This was his first visit in 15 years. 

Vincent, a tough looking guy we met while savoring pupusas as at a local market, got deported when he punched his sister in the eye and she called the cops.  He says he’s mellowed out, holds no grudge and, with the help of a “coyote”, will soon return to the US.

Everybody’s got a sister or a son or at least a cousin or an uncle in the US.  And somehow I’m not surprised so many people want to leave El Salvador.

In Usulutan, we check into a small family run hotel.  As we head off for dinner the owner swings back the gate and warns us to be back by 7:00, half past at the latest. 

“After dark the streets belong to thugs,” he says, “only prostitutes, drug dealers and others up to no good roam around at night.”
And I believe him.  For suddenly the streets are almost deserted.  We walk up to a heavily-guarded gas station and find two ladies selling pupusas out front.  We grab a few to go and hide out in our room, behind the big gate with the barbed wire until sunrise when it’s safe to return to the streets.

The next night we actually camp at a gas station.   It’s the safest place to be, we reason, with armed security guards 24 hours a day. 

fed up

a real american cowboyAnd then it’s on to Honduras, where the men blow kisses as they pass.  I actually kind of find it flattering at first (being over 40 and all).  Now I just find it disgusting and sleazy. 

At the border we ask the usual questions about security and taking the back roads.  I’m fed up with hearing about these mythical ladrones, lurking on the scenic routes in hopes of robbing an unsuspecting cyclist.  In fact, we’re both starting to wonder if all these tales of robbery aren’t just rumors spread to keep all the private security companies in business.

So we whiz through Honduras in a little more than 24 hours and arrive in what’s known to be safer territory: Nicaragua.

A big infusion of cash from Europe and America means perfectly smooth roads with a shoulder so wide it’s almost like having a whole lane to yourself.  This is cowboy country, and young men on horseback  in flip-flops and cut-off jeans are out herding in the early morning.  A mother rides a beat-up mountain bike with her toddler balanced on one side of the handlebars and a pail of fresh cow’s milk swinging on the other.

It's a bargain at just $10, just watch  out for the  cops.Little boys hawk iguanas by the side of the road.  $10 they’re asking.  Tastes delicious they insist, grilled or fried.  “You buy, you buy.” 

But of course we don’t and suddenly the boys are shrieking and they scamper away.  A police car passes and I understand.  Their little business in exotic meat is highly illegal.

The locals open up an empty classroom for us, and we spend the night at the school.  As we cook dinner a crowd gathers, and they stare in silence as we fire up the stove and later wolf down our pasta.  The youngest are entranced with our Big Agnes tent, “que bonito, que bonito.”  Isn’t it beautiful.

Everyone calls out greetings and there is a sense of peace and happiness in the air.  As we near the colonial city of Leon, the road is clogged with people on bikes.  The Nicaraguans are a competitive bunch, and if we manage to pass a fellow cyclist you can bet he’ll be pedaling like mad to over take us in moments.   It’s all good fun and there’s a sense of camaraderie on the road.

So here we are in a backpackers dive, Hotel Avenida.  At $7 a night it’s probably one of the cheapest flop houses in the city, but still there’s an armed security guard out front once night falls.

Soon we’ll be moving on to Costa Rica, lest those mythical ladrones catch up with us.

Please share your thoughts or just let us know what's up in your part of the world in the comments section below.

You might also enjoy these recent posts from World Biking:

Touring Advice
Bike Touring Fatigue:
3 Quick Cures for those adventure slumps

Tour Update
Cycling Around the World: Biking Guatemala
Biking off the beaten path we visit Mayan ruins surrounded by pristine jungle, and chill out in the highlands after some torturous climbs.

Bike Touring Tips
A Safe Place to Sleep:
Free hospitality networks for touring cyclists

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