Fueled by a spectacular roast dinner, complete with supersized Yorkshire pudding, I bade farewell to friends Tom & Joy and joined Guatemala City’s rush hour pandemonium. Worthy of ‘Extreme Sport’ status, the primary objective is dodging the overcrowded buses bellowing black smoke, whose movements are as sudden and unpredictable as a hamster on speed. Somehow the brightly painted slogans such as ”God is in Control – The Keys are in Heaven”, failed to reassure me.
Out of the urban chaos it was only a days ride to the El Salvadorian border, signaling my long overdue departure from Guatemala. As with almost everywhere on this trip I could have easily stayed longer, but I had a rather imminent meet up scheduled with a friend from home in Colombia. Given the time pressures, meandering through the rest of Central America in search of dirt road nirvana was not really an option and it was inevitable I’d have to face my nemesis, the Pan-American Highway, for at least part of the route. If Google Maps was planning your trip this is where you’d end up, along with a near continuous stream of caffeine fuelled truck drivers. Lovely.
Crossing into El Salvador marked the first of many border crossings in my dash across Central America. Moneychangers, smelling fresh blood, swarm around you, typing fictional exchange rates into calculators, whilst you hurriedly scribble the immigration forms, pausing at ‘Destination Address’ to invent something vaguely plausible. With scare stories abound it’s hard not enter each of these new countries without some level of trepidation, as if a line of violent criminals is going to be waiting on the other side to welcome you in. As usual though, these preconceived notions rarely took long to shake off.
Exchanging the temperate climes of the Guatemalan Highlands for the suffocating heat of the El Salvadorian lowlands never promised to be an easy transition. With monsoon season due to start any day, heat and humidity has been steadily building, making cycling an especially sweaty undertaking and generally rendering me an exhausted, slimy mess of perspiration, sun cream and DEET. In fact, simply sitting in the shade is a sweaty business, with camping generally requiring peeling myself off my Thermarest in order to sit up – always a pleasant experience. To help counter the heat I’ve made some dietary tweaks, with copious amounts of cold Coca Cola and cheap ice cream now playing a significant role. I frequently find myself desperately scouring the road ahead for blokes with small carts selling icy goodness, appearing like mirages in the distance; “Can it be? YES, there’s the jingling bell! We’re saved!”
Not long into my El Salvadorian foray I randomly ran into another long distance cyclist staying at the same dingy hotel. It was the kind of dive advertising a ‘3 hour rate’ and where my enquiry of an available room had to be qualified with a “to sleep?”. Having spotted each other from across the parking lot, we were both surprised and curious to meet another of ‘our kind’. Like two male lions on an African plain, the ‘checking out’ ritual commenced, each nosing around the others bike and diving into all the usual questions. Hailing from Germany, Matthias started his trip in Mexico and is also heading to Patagonia. So, after sizing each other up and quickly gauging compatibility like a speed dating couple, we decided to join forces and ride together on unspoken ‘let’s see how it goes’ terms.
By the nature of what we’re both undertaking it was fairly inevitable that the list of things we had in common would extend beyond simply a penchant for crap hotels. He made for great company and it was good to be able to talk at length on adventurous route options, bike geekery and other topics that would bore the socks off a normal person. There was also the added benefit of sharing the often exhausting job of entertaining locals, including responding to the clamors for attention as we rode through villages. For the latter, we soon adopted a fairly tough stance on ‘Gringo’ shouting, with the rules of road being along the lines of:
- Shouts of ‘Gringo’ do not warrant a response. Do not so much as look in their direction, even if, as is often the case, the ‘Gringo’ shouting increases out of frustration with such intensity that the subject appears on the verge of a fit. They have to learn.
- All other greetings deserve a response.
- Greetings combined with ‘Gringo’ (e.g. Adios Gringo) fall into a no-mans-land where it’s down to the rider’s discretion. For example, small children who know no better get the full works (wave, adios etc.)
Towards the end of our first day of riding together a friendly chap in a pickup stopped us at the top of a long climb and asked if we’d like to camp at his place. Both absolutely exhausted we instantly accepted and so began a fascinating evening in the company of the energetic Jose. Basically the El Salvadorian equivalent of Del Boy from ‘Only Fools and Horses’, Jose would buy and sell anything he could lay his hands on and almost as soon as we’d arrived we were off in his pickup to collect bags of maize from local farmers. Whilst not quite the relaxing wind down we’d envisaged, we were happy to lend a hand – a bit of manual labour for camping, shower and beer seemed a good exchange. Bursting with stories, we could have listened to this bubbly man all night; his entrepreneurial antics seemed to know no bounds, as did his antipathy towards the concept of income tax. What a crazy idea…
Having polished off El Salvador in five days, it was onto Honduras, which we graced with our presence for a little over 24 hours. Just enough time to discover the ‘baleada’ – another triumph of Central American street food cuisine, based on the classic tortilla, refried beans and cheese combo. It was then onto Nicaragua, a fascinating, volcano strewn country where I was keen to cash in what few ‘off the bike days’ I could allow and explore things properly.
With distant volcanoes looming in almost every direction, it wasn’t long before the idea of hiking up and overnighting on Volcan Telica materialised. Fortunately Matthias was also keen, as was Toby, a refreshingly adventurous backpacker we’d met in the town of Leon. And so, armed with jam sandwiches and a crude hand drawn map, the only discernable feature of which being a large mango tree, our merry band set off in search of summit glory. Despite the fundamental drawbacks of the map, we eventually found our way up to the crater, which, with belching noxious sulfurous smoke and ominous groans emanating from its depths, really was a living, breathing beast. Perhaps more impressive though, was the enterprising local who’d lugged up a cool box full of beers – genius. As the only customers of the day, he was as glad to see us as we were him, and we didn’t waste any time cracking open a couple of cans whilst gazing down at the glowing lava. Beer vending on the precipitous edge of an active volcano – you just can’t get away with this kind of stuff in the UK.
After a wet and windy night camped near the crater we made our triumphant return to the colonial town of Leon and heart of Nicaragua’s bloody revolution. Reading the modern history of each of these countries you could be mistaken for thinking it’s simply been copied and pasted, with each having an equally depressing and shocking story to tell. In my overly simplistic view the general plotline is: “US backed dictatorship screws the poor/indigenous populations in a ‘reign of terror’, followed by a protracted and bloody revolution/civil war to finally attain some measure of democracy”. What strikes me time again though, is how recent all this madness is and how the covert meddling by the US to protect their interests can be so blatantly unethical.
From one colonial beau to another, we continued to Granada, an essential stop on the gringo trail. At this point of the trip though, I’ve effectively reached the stage whereby a day spent cracking through ‘The Wire: Season 2’ is infinitely more preferable to traipsing round another tourist extravaganza. I think the clinical diagnosis is ‘travel fatigue’, the condition whereby you’ve basically seen it all before and frankly can no longer be arsed. Our real reason for reaching Granada was rather to catch the twice-weekly boat across the giant Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe, a tranquil island dominated by two more huge volcanoes. Yes, I hear you cry, “Another bloody boat? This is a travesty!”, well sit down because it gets worse. After a couple of days camped out on the coffee farm Finca Magdalena, we caught another 10 hour boat ride which took us across the remainder of the lake to within a stones throw of the Costa Rican border.
We’re now in the sleepy border town of San Carlos waiting for yet another boat to take us into Costa Rica and to the nearest road that actually leads somewhere. After slipping through the backdoor into Costa Rica, my plan is to blast through to Panama post-haste and then onto the land of white gold and Shakira to meet up with my friend by the end of the month. Matthias’ timeframe for the next leg is somewhat saner and so we’ll be striking out separately from here, although plans are already afoot for the Anglo-Deutch partnership to resume down in South America. For the time being though it’ll be back to talking to my own shadow and hours of deep thought – namely where my next ice cream will be coming from…