Date: 5th April – 19th April 2012
Where: San Marcos de Colon (Honduras) – Somoto (Nicaragua) – Esteli – Seboca – Masaya – Granada
Distance: 1800 to 1996 miles
Crossing the border into Nicaragua on Good Friday was a very different experience from any other bureaucratic business we’d had thus far. The bureaucracy remained, but it could be enjoyed in peaceful solitude given we were the only people present other than money lenders, soldiers, officials and local spectators who evidentially have nothing better to do. We were confused when asked by one official for a receipt for our bikes, but soon managed to confuse him with our Spanglish and zoom down the hill to Somoto. On the normally bustling Pan-AM highway we met 3 cars, one truck, a friendly policeman who told us to put our helmets on and gave us road safety leaflets (obviously in Spanish), and a procession of 200 or so Spaniards marching with a cross. Something to do with Easter, we guessed, as we solemnly glided past. The evening in Somoto consisted of another procession (much larger) which we joined for 4 blocks before escaping for food. We also met Aran and Andrew again. It was the sort of town where foreigners stick out like a sore thumb. Speaking of which Sarah was having few issues with her own thumbs…more on that later. As a footnote for those who enjoy the vertical rather than the horizontal, there seemed to be a lot of climbing potential and activity around these parts…something for the future maybe!
Easter Saturday we continued down our empty road and then up our empty road to Esteli passing tobacco farms and the corresponding cigar factories for much of the way. Little did we know that we were following in the footsteps of a certain Nico Stavrakakis with our choice of hotel that night. He was already 2 days ride away though. Another night, another town, another procession, this time with a brass band.
We tried the dirt again the next day, but chose the wrong road. Uphill to the point of stupidity. No way! Back to the Pan-Am we went, a 10-mile detour quickly forgotten in the gorgeous scenary of the road to Seboca. Here we attempted to camp at a petrol station but soon got attacked by mosquitoes, a good excuse if ever there was one for an air-conditioned hotel room.
We left the cross-roads town early the next day for Tipi Tapa, a large town by all accounts (on our map at least), and a full 60 miles away. The downhill had finally led us into the heat, and the ride was really only broken up by the lush greens and blues of Laguna Moyua halfway. On arrival, Tipi Tapa was rapidly renamed Shiti Crapa due to it only having one hotel which wanted $50 for the night. After much faff looking for rooms in sex hotels on the outskirts, we eventually decided such establishments weren’t for us anyway and set off for Masaya. A 73 mile day culminated in a simple room with no window. The extra fan Sarah acquired halfway through the night eventually cooled us down for the night…what will Costa Rica be like if we are already this hot we thought.
Masaya has a fantastic craft market where we bought, amongst other things, an Esteli-made cigar for smoking wherever we finish this trip, plus two delicious fruit smoothies made of many fruits of which Mango and orange were the two we’ed heard of before. The changing fruits are something we’re looking forward to as we venture further South. Some traditional Baho for lunch sated our appetite as we looked out on Laguna Masaya and the volcano beyond. In the early evening we set off for the short ride to Granada and eventually settled on a nice-looking hostel in the middle of Gringo Street (If you ever go or have gone to Granada, you’ll know which one!).
During our ride down through Nicaragua we’d struggled to make conversation or friends with many Nicas. We’d heard such good things about the people, we decided we needed to consolidate our self-learning and head back to school for a week. Casa Xalteva was perfect for this, and we were both chuffed to finally be able to speak in the past tense at last and stop living in the present all the time! We had 20 hours of lessons spread over 5 days. During this time we stayed with a local family, the Mother of whom was a fantastic cook, so we experienced all kinds of tasty Nicaraguan cuisine during our stay there. Two small mice eating a hole in Geoff’s handlebar bag slightly marred the first night, but these were quickly caught and we had seven days of complete rest there. By chance, our time at Spanish school fitted in perfectly with meeting Sarah’s brother, Nico, who had been sampling coffee in Matagalpa for a few days, just in time for the weekend. We had a bus and hitchhike packed day to the calming waters of Laguna Apoyo (crater lake) and Masaya volcano (smoking crater) finding time to stop off in Masaya for more Baho in-between. The Masaya volcano in particular was incredible looking down right into the depths of the earth and hearing her roar, all while trying not to choke on the toxic fumes. Even the orangey glow of lava was visible for a time. Later that week the school organised a trip to the Isletas in Lago de Cocibolca (islands) which showed a very different lifestyle to that on-land as it is made up of so many small islands.
Oh yes… Sarah’s thumbs…she is cultivating maggots under her thumb-nails, and we used our new Spanish skills to visit a Doctor in Granada for a bit of help. He prescribed lots of medicine which we hope will sort them out soon.
Date: 3rdth April – 5th April 2012
Where: Santa Rosa de Lima (El Salvador) – Choluteca (Honduras) – San Marcos de Colon
Distance: 1703 to 1800 miles
We’ve come to realise you don’t just need physical and financial means to cycle-tour, but real mental strength too. We’ve been travelling together for nearly 3 months now, and feel it is time to describe some of the mental challenges and pressures of long-distance cycle touring. There seems no better time to tackle this topic than Honduras. Before leaving England we were warned that policemen were holding up banks here, and on arrival, heard tales of cyclists being robbed of everything, on the main road, in broad daylight. We’ve had plenty of time to concoct all sorts of weird nightmare scenarios in our heads!
In leaving Britain, we left the British media, and thus hoped to lose the fear factor which bleeds into society from all angles. However, these countries all have their own version, which seem to relish being able to splash all kinds of gore on their front pages. These strong images quickly become mixed with the imagination to form countless warnings to worry the cycle tourer. The stories, are however, based on truth, and we would be foolish to outright ignore them. It is hard to find a sensible balance between naivety and paranoia when you are dog-tired at the end of an exhausting day. In all this confusion, our experiences suggest that the road is still our most dangerous adversary. Recently, when riding through the tunnels on the coastline of El Salvador, we could hardly see anything save the light of the end of the tunnel. A lorry then approached from behind and, blinded by the light at the end of tunnel (ironic?), only saw us at the last second, whereupon they let out a long loud hoot of its horn. I guess you can all imagine the noise, it was pretty terrifying!
When cycle touring we were prepared to be under the spotlight. After all, you are a tourist, but you choose to travel with a bike covered in lots of strange, dusty bags. We weren’t prepared for dealing with this often unwanted attention when tired and hot. Imagine you’re ending a 70mile day in sizzling temperatures, bouncing over the inevitable speed-bumps into town. How do you respond to the near continuous waving, hooting, shouting (gringo! gringo!), and blown kisses (in Sarah’s case anyway). This has been going on all day, but suddenly it overwhelms you…AARRRGGHHH!!! The tiredness doesn’t just affect your social capacity with strangers, but even each other, often leading to states of complete befuddlement when trying to answer simple questions, like: ‘Shall we stay here for ten dollars or in the identical room the other side of the corridor for five dollars more?’ We guess there is little more we can do with this attention than get used to it!
Life on a bike certainly gives plenty of time for the many random thoughts to manifest themselves into all kinds of bizarre fantasies and questions, good and bad! ‘Do we have enough money? Are we going quick enough? Am I having as much fun as everyone else? I seem to spend all my non-bike-time, fixing, washing, shopping, chopping, cooking, eating, sleeping! I wonder what tasty delight we’ll find for dinner tonight? How do you say “…” in Spanish? Why do some countries work in miles and some in kilometres? What will we do when we return? Some questions may never be answered and some are plain pointless. Speed worries, for example, are easily solved as there seem to be enough fleets of buses to catch up any with any itinerary we dared to dream of.
Some recent minor retail therapy has helped us. A nice cake here, a beer there (only one, otherwise we’re on the floor), a watermelon if our tummys are feeling brave and plenty of other road side fruit. Beats military rations of tuna and tortillas any day! Hell, Geoff even splashed £2.50 on a spare set of shoes that look like crocs (quickly, and rather unfairly, renamed ‘craps’).
It took a while to face up to the fact that we are not your average tourists, who can relax and have fun all the time, being shuttled around the country at speed visiting all the highlights. It’s not such a lonely planet after all. We do however manage to land ourselves in some splendid situations that some people only dream of. We’ve also been lucky to meet some lovely tourists/travellers along the way and have shared some meals, drinks and stories together. Needless to say the cycle tourists we’ve met have also been great and always give a welcome confidence boost by reminding us that there is no right or wrong way to do this journey.
As for Honduras, we passed through without any problems. Sarah was even offered $20 from a passing car in support of our trip. The only dangers we noticed were the enormous pot-holes and a random piece of fruit that got thrown at Geoff from a passing car (unfortunately it wasn’t ripe, else it could’ve been a tasty snack). We spent two nights with Simon, an endlessly optimistic French Canadian who lives in Choluteca, an ideal stepping stone in the middle of Honduras. We shared Simon’s ‘warm showers’ hospitality with Andrew and Arran, a cycle touring couple from the US. We cooked together and were able to share some of our resources – thank you both for the map software! Simon somehow came through the day smiling despite being bitten in the leg by his neighbour’s enormous rottweiler, finding a rotting lizard on his doorstep washed out by the storms (which his puppy Mitch feasted on), a power cut and a broken water pump which meant no running water in the house and NO AIR CON (he had also been robbed twice that week). Simon’s positivity infects us as we go on to Nicaragua.
Date: 27th March – 2nd April 2012
Where: Asuncion Mita (Guatemala) – Santa Ana (El Salvador) – Juayua – El Tunco – Zacatecoluca – Alegria – Santa Rosa de Lima
Distance: 1446 to 1703 miles
Another dose of border crossing bureaucracy over without fuss, and soon we were peddling through El Salvador up to the city of Santa Ana. On both sides we passed mighty trees, remnants of green amidst an increasingly barren landscape. Perhaps, this is explained by the fact we are at the end of the dry season, and this too explained the enormous heat we were beginning to feel. The wet body syndrome began in El Salvador, where each of us resemble a waxwork surrounded by flames, leaving us little more than a mass of individual droplets of sweaty goodness. Our less than healthy Mexican diet may finally be bidding Adios to our bodies! The locals seem to deal with it by all having paddling pools on their front drives! On reaching Santa Ana we quickly discovered a more dangerous form of heat, with guns all over the place. We heeded the security guards advice and were back in our room just after 7pm, and soon asleep. The room itself deserves mention for the fact it had carpet in it. This was the first time either of us had touched carpet for over 2 months; we hadn’t missed it, and we don’t want to see it again, as it had a circus of fleas in it.
We left our biggest city to date early the next day, and made slow progress up the flank of Volcan Santa Ana to Juayua through flowering coffee plantations. Sarah’s progress became slower and slower until she realized she had her first puncture of the trip, not bad after 3,000 miles. A faff-free tyre-change of which we were both proud led to the top, and a pork-rib bonanza reward. We also met an English couple travelling with a similar itinerary as us in a hire car: Jon and Kirsten. We stayed in the same hotel that night.
A rest day at last in the mountain village of Juayua followed, with the only exertion being a (volcanic) dusty walk to some nearby waterfalls, called Las Chorros, where we experienced a waterfall massage for the first time. Very refreshing! We needed that day’s rest, as we then set off for the Pacific, a lovely downhill past 180 degree panoramas of volcanoes, led to the beautiful rugged coast, via a gorgeous road, although a little too up and down to be completely enjoyed on a bike. The tunnels on this section proved an‘exciting’ experience on a bicycle. We finally rolled into El Tunco as the sun set, and were glad to find a quiet spot to camp for the night.
We had planned to stay at the beach for at least one more night and surf a little, but the waves were huge, the currents strong, and it was the start of ‘Semana Santa’ (Easter week) so everyone from San Salvador had crashed the beach party. According to locals, everyone gets trolleyed, falls asleep on the beach and is washed away and drowned. Didn’t sound like our cup of tea so we made 40 miles along the highway to Zacatecoluca instead. The next day we made two mistakes: firstly setting off up a dirt mountain again without proper food in our stomachs (plus it was a volcano and rather dusty to the tune of 10cm in some places), and secondly we assumed the quiet flower town of Alegria would be immune to the hordes of San Salvador. An expensive (but fun) pick-up ride and unsuccessful hotel search later and we were stumped, so ate more food, which helped. We also met Jon and Kirsten again, who suggested gong up to the nearby emerald coloured crater lake with them. We knew we could camp there, so it made sense. After much bike-pushing we found the crater, and yet more people. El Salvador is known as the smallest, but most populated Central American country, and you could tell! An eventful day ended with mounds of spaghetti, drunks shouting at us from across the lake, inadvertent setting off of rape alarms, sonar bat beeping and lightning storms steadily approaching. Quite a day!
It didn’t rain in the night, and after appreciating our camp-spot in the morning light, we were off down the hill to head for the border. On the way down Geoff saw the ‘brightest blue bird you ever did see’, and it is now etched in his memory, so we hope to identify it some day. We reached our destination of Santa Rosa de Lima in good time and quickly settled in for the night heedful of needing to get off the streets early in the big towns.
As for the national emblem of El Salvador, the bird known as the turquoise-browed motmot. Well it evidently knows no borders as we’ve seen it in Guatemala and Honduras (but never in El Salvador, probably too many people!). A bit like us really, as we roll into our fifth country.