San Pedro La Laguna – Antigua – Cuilapa – Ahuachapan (El Salvador) – Mizata – Usulatan – Honduras border – Choluteca – Nicaraguan border.
I ‘grew up’ (ho ho) in the 80s and remember Reagan, Gorbachev and all sorts of things on the news about the fun the Soviets and the US were having with spies and Nuclear weapons and all that kind of thing. I recall a lot less about what was happening in Central America – Oliver North, Contras, death and destruction but (aged about 10) had no particular clue about what was going on, and on what scale. I’m a little better informed now and the places we’ve been in the last few weeks, particularly Guatemala, have a pretty recent and very bloody history. Life was cheap here for a long time. There are still huge problems in some places here, of a different kind. Once again though, the warnings we had that an entire country is somehow dangerous have proved total nonsense. I was assured, vociferously, by a gentleman in California that not only would I certainly be kidnapped in Guatemala, but that my fingers would be chopped off and sent to my mum irrespective of ransom payment, and without question I would end up very dead indeed. I can confirm none of this has happened.
Our experience in the small amount of Central America we have seen so far has been fantastic. We are treated better by drivers than I could ever hope to be in the UK. We have heard perhaps one person mutter something about Gringos which seemed negative, but otherwise we continue to have nothing but welcome and friendship. It has been a pleasure to meet people who genuinely don’t know anything about England, and really couldn’t give two hoots, which is even better. I think we will keep banging the drum for DON’T BELIEVE THAT WHAT YOU SEE ON THE NEWS IS THE WHOLE STORY and UPDATE YOUR PREFERENCES for a long time yet.
So on to the last few days of travels, leaving our host family and the Cooperativa Language School in San Pedro La Laguna. From Lake Atitlan, we decided to head with reasonable speed to Costa Rica. This was partly due to a bit of uncertainty about Nicaragua, and also because time is slowly ticking and the seasons in South America need a bit of consideration, if we want to go up the Andes – which is going to happen like it or not as we head south. We took an easy ferry ride across the lake, avoiding 40k of dirt road and rumours (yes, we do listen to them sometimes – from the locals only) of the occasional bandito. We were then expecting an undulating ride to Antigua Guatemala, and found instead a diversion away from road building which took us on the most ridiculously steep 20k either of us had ever experienced. Good road surfaces were about the only redeeming factor of this afternoon schlep. We also got mixed up in a cycling timetrial, mostly composed of teenagers on mountainbikes, and were quite pleased to note that they too were struggling uphill, even without the weight of lots of expensive camping equipment.
Having finally reached the highest point, and been rewarded with a lungful of exhaust smoke from a chicken bus, we had a more civilised – less hilly – few hours into Antigua. Zoe did manage to fall off, slowly, on some unexpected gravel but no proper injury to bike or person resulted. The broken cobbles of Antigua were Not Fun to ride on in the dusk, nor was discovering that our ‘yeah just turn up!’ Warmshower/hostel was closed. “Shut happens” their sign said, which I didn’t think was funny at the time.
Antigua is a centre for travellers amongst other things so we had no trouble finding another place to stay, though it was a pretty low quality sleep. It seems some backpackers need someone else to control their volume for them. Which I did, at 2am, wearing only my pants and speaking poor spanish. I’m not sure which factor made them scurry off, but scurry they did. Antigua was a beautiful town, settled in between some proper hills and an even more proper handful of active volcanoes. We met up with our friend David, and warmshowers host Ana who was in town on business, and were treated to free food from Porque Non, the best restaurant in town, so spent our budget on red wine. Why not indeed.
The ride out of Antigua and on towards the El Salvador border was one of those ‘a little bit of everything’ days. Starting with a gentle, long climb; a long descent with views of Guatemala City; re-tracing our steps when a man with a shotgun, a whistle and a badge indicated with some enthusiasm that to proceed further on his lovely new toll-road would be perhaps not in our best interests; a huge pizza; 6k uphill at mostly 18-20% grades which really did mean walking was the only option; and finally an undulating run, back into tropical foliage and temperatures, to camp out at the back of a restaurant by a Shell garage.
After a decent night’s sleep we wound our way towards El Salvador – good roads, and the weather hot and humid but manageable. The border was very quiet and easy, and the local currency hawkers were laid back and helpful in directing us to the right office windows. The first few hours in El Salvador, to Ahuachapan, were similarly quiet on a long gentle uphill. At Ahuachapan we managed, in Spanish, to make friends with Luiz who worked at the fire station. Bomberos are known throughout central and South America as being potentially welcoming to cyclists, and Luiz found us everything we needed to get clean and have a good sleep. Unfortunately he didn’t also shoot the dog next door, which I probably would have done given half the chance, so it wasn’t quite as restful as we would have liked. But we were in El Salvador so who cares. Luiz did also show us a video of a security guard, on fire, who they’d rescued from certain death the day before – apparently some gas in the back of his truck exploded. And in complete contrast they’d just returned from rescuing a cat stuck up a tree which we thought only happened in comics. Anyway, lovely people at the firehouse, some very good cheap food for dinner and massive even cheaper ice-cream afterwards 😋.
From Ahuachapan we rode the official Ruta de Flores. There is always some bright spark in the council thinking up a way to bring in tourists and probably this was one of them – a very pretty, but not otherwise remarkable, winding route connecting some small towns as you head south east in El Salvador. Lots of good Ruta, not perhaps as many Flores as I was expecting but it was a very pleasant cycle and probably we didn’t do quite enough exploring. At the end of a great, long, downhill section was the town of Sonsonate, remarkable for us only for the very nice chap, a mechanic, who came over because he wanted to practice his nearly-flawless English and offered to help us with anything we needed (to the jeers of his colleagues/friends – but he didn’t let that stop him). We had intended to perhaps stop here for a night though it wasn’t too promising, so we headed off on a busy section of dual carriage way. Stopping at an Auto Hotel was a reminder that these places charge by the hour (yes sir, you can have 8 hours, but you’ll have to check in at 10pm and be out the door at 6) so we ambled further in the direction of Mizata. We were now back on the flat, humid Pacific coast for the first time since Mexico.
Arriving into Mizata, which I think Lonely Planet probably describes as ‘modest’, were were immediately warned off the ‘Last Resort’ surf hotel by a shopkeeper (overpriced, the hotel not the shopkeeper) and instead found a lovely family with some camping space, food, beer and kids to play with. Mizata defined laid-back, a tumbledown little village but when you have beaches like they have beaches, not much else is required. We’re still struggling a bit with the heat at night, so Edwards opted for a mixed evening of some tent time, a go in a hammock, and then on to the good old floor. Luckily the mosquitoes are not half as bad here as elsewhere. From Mizata to La Liberdad the road follows the coast, a series of gentle ups and downs which while not too challenging definitely are very sweaty. We found a basic hostel towards the end of the day and met a couple more travellers, including some lovely Chileans who had bought a truck in Canada and are driving it home (have a look).
Heading away from the coast the next day, the road levelled out and it was easy riding through to Usulutan, where Overlander (great app) brought us to a convenient but very noisy hotel. In the temperatures here it’s pretty essential to find either a fan or, if you can, Air Conditioning. Which isn’t great, it would be much better to camp, but this limits sleep to about 3 hours a night between 4 and 7am and this is not conducive to well, anything at all. From Usulutan we had decided on a diversion to the coast. A steady 8k climb early in the day, followed by a swoop down to Playa Cuco, we thought. We were right, for a time, and then the road turned to dirt… What followed was pretty much what I would say ‘adventure touring’ is all about – taking a punt that something is rideable, finding out that some of it is and some of it’s not, keeping going as there ‘s no going back, and ending the day hot, dusty, tired, and drinking beer on the beach literally 30 seconds before a massive storm hits. Not easy on ‘roads like these’, but memorable.
We stayed two nights at Playa Cuco, with most of one day hanging out at Tortuga Verde, which is a kind of ‘everything you need’ experience in one place. The problems – ok, the hysteria and media coverage surrounding the problems – in Nicaragua have nearly collapsed the tourist trade in this part of the world so it was very quiet, and out of turtle-releasing season, but the beach was beautiful and perhaps a little more so after Edwards had filled a bin bag full of rubbish off the beach, as suggested by the owners. Grimer took the chance to have a free 1-1 yoga class with Eric the perennial traveller, who was full of slightly unbelieveable stories and perhaps a little bored having such a low number of yogis to teach at present.
Extricating ourselves from the seaside, we continued on towards the border with Honduras via a quick hello to local warmshowers host Jose Garcia. Such a friendly man, it didn’t quite work out to stay with him but he’d been helpful with info on El Salvador so we stopped to say thank you and met a German couple doing a not dissimilar trip to ours, Micheal and Claudia. The ride on to Honduras was mostly still on quiet roads, through the nearly avoidable town of La Union and then to the border early the next day. Borders have been easy so far, it seems being on two wheels not four is a much easier thing for officials to deal with. Still requires going to at least two different office windows every time, but straight forward really. Crossing into Honduras put us on the most immaculate sections of tarmac I’ve ever seen. Some parts of the route from the border to Choluteca and on to Nicargua are being built right now (we rode literally just behind the big roller thing, brand new!) and they are AWESOME to ride on. Big shoulders, not much traffic and smooth-as-glass. Zoom zoom!
Honduras can be crossed in under 200k and that’s what we did, with one night on Choluteca at a cheap, dirty, hotel where we slept surprisingly well and nailed the WiFi from the expensive, clean hotel next door. The route is nearly flat, the hills are green, everyone says hello. The border into Nicaragua is famous for being slow for no particular reason and so it turned out. I was asked the make and model of our bikes by three different officials, why I don’t know, and after 2 hours waiting, some photocopying, $25 and a light interrogation about where we’re going (“we don’t really know, is that ok?”) we were off into Nicaragua. Nicaragua gets it’s own blog post, coming up next because this is already too long…