November 2016 archive

Cycling Central America pt.1

We’re making steady progress through Central America, aiming for 1,000 miles a month. Each of the countries has its own personality and culture, with different quirks and customs. Below I’ll outline my experience of each.

Panama:

Straight out the airport we were hit with the humidity: hot and heavy, sweaty and sticky. Being on the bike, changes in temperature happen gradually; aeroplanes jump you to a different weather pattern, drop you in a new ecosystem. And we’d landed in a storm, with thick sheets of bucketing tropical rain missiling down to Earth, flooding the streets.

PANAMA

PANAMA

Panama City is very Americanised, with all the fast food joints, strip malls and oversize billboards you could expect. There is an old town – well worth walking around – whose Colonial architecture is reminiscent of old Havana.

We took around a week to ride through Panama. The locals were invariably smiley, warm and open. The foliage grows thick, right up to the road: dense jungle in a billion shades of green. At the tail end of the rainy season, we were forced to stop each day around 3pm as the rainfall became too heavy for safe visibility.

the Panama Canal in the background

the Panama Canal in the background

Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is just incredible! Almost immediately after crossing the border, the wildlife becomes more intense: maccaws fly overhead as toucans feast on papayas and huge orange iguanas warm themselves in the sun. We saw troops of monkeys and thousands of species of birds. One morning we biked past a banking patch of grass that was covered for more than 100 metres in a thick netting of spider web. We saw huge hanging orb spiders suspended over the road and plenty of colourful snakes squashed onto the tarmac.

To top it all, there is a bridge along the Pan-Am highway that goes right over a riverbank covered with massive crocodiles. Incredible wildlife.

croc stop

croc stop

Everything about Costa Rica was easy. The riding was smooth and quick, the hostels were clean and well organised, clearly well geared to catering to a gringo market. The people were happy, relaxed and welcoming. And the food, my God the food! Healthy, large portions of meat, fish, salads, fruits, all washed down with a delicious fruit smoothie from a fruit you’ve probably never heard of before.

animals crossing

animals crossing

We took a day in Dominical to relax and swim in the sea. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to take a dip since way back in Uruguay, and the first chance Sophie’s had on the trip. I was so excited about running into the ocean that I left my glasses on my face before diving in. I lost them immediately, the strong current washing them to who knows where. Idiot, yes. But I didn’t mind too much: the area was too pretty to warrant being annoyed.

Costa Rican jungle

Costa Rican jungle

I’d revisit Costa Rica in a heartbeat. It’s not cheap – the country has realised its tourist potential for many decades. It’s far ahead of other Central American nations when it comes to ecology and sustainability, and the extra plane loads of tourists do push up the price. But it deserves all its positive international attention. Really, a perfect place for a holiday.

Nicaragua:

Nicaragua: the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. Very flat on the Western side of the country, we could make some quick distance. From Rivas in the South to Somotillo in the North, volcanoes were always in our peripheral vision to the right.

We spent a night in Masaya and took the opportunity to visit the nearby volcano. It’s one of a handful in the world where visitors are able to look into the crater and actually see the lava bubbling and burning. Truly awesome, like looking into the bowels of the Earth. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a shot on my camera that did the scene justice, but it really was incredible.

inside the bowels of the Earth

inside the bowels of the Earth

The rest of Nicaragua passed uneventfully. We did however have our own observations that somewhat marred the country for us. We hardly saw anybody smile. After the near constant friendliness of those we met in Panama and Costa Rica (and in Honduras and El Salvador since), the Nicaraguans struck us as being rather sour. Many of the men and boys brazenly whistled Sophie as she passed. We generally ignored them, but it did make us less open to the people.

Finally, the animals appeared to be treated very badly. Starving dogs are a common sight across Latin America, but you can tell a little about people by how they keep their livestock. We saw countless emaciated cows and horses, beyond the justification of simple poverty. On our final day in the country, we saw a horse whose front legs were tied tightly around the calves. The horse was unable to move without jumping into the air and awkwardly shuffling forward. It looked like agony, exacerbated by the tightness of the rope, which was cutting into the legs causing deep sores. I’d had enough of this animal cruelty and took a knife to the rope, setting the horse free. I’m sure there’ll be an angry farmer somewhere in Nicaragua, but at least it will give the horse a little freedom to enjoy.

Land of Lakes and Volcanos

Land of Lakes and Volcanos

Honduras:

We only rode through Honduras for two days, but it was difficult to imagine it being the murder capital of the world (by quite some margin). The homicides are generally gang related and happen mainly over to the Eastern side of the country. We were met by people who were clearly happy that we had chosen to visit their country. We had smiling strangers shouting: ‘Welcome to my country!’ to us from across the street.

We not once felt slightly uncomfortable, Quite the opposite. The people were lovely!

Conclusion:

Riding through Central America has been far easier than South America. The towns are close together, the roads are not so hilly, the weather is fairer. Looking back now to our challenges in South America – days without showering, biting cold, winds, altitude, no water – the difficult part of this trip is well and truly behind us. Fingers crossed, it will be plain sailing through the rest of El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. There’s still a lot to look forward to!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂

 

A week of waiting in Bogota

'yes' to the peace deal

We had a week to kill in Bogota while we waited for our flight across the notorious Darién Gap.

Cycling culture in the capital 

First impressions of the Colombian capital were that it was clean and spacious, with a respect for cyclists unlike anything we’d seen in South America. Cycling is engrained in Colombian culture, with riders having featured on the international pro circuit for decades. Nairo Quintana in particular has wakened the world to Colombia’s cycling talent. And the locals love the sport! Huge bike lanes crisscross Bogota, offering protection from the traffic that other South American cities would do well to emulate.

It was easy for us to find reliable bike shops to replace some of the other items that were stolen with Sophie’s bike: our helmets, a tool kit, a pump and plenty of patches for the inevitable punctures.

Exploring the city

And then, it was time to be tourists.

We took the famous cable car up to Monserrate to get a bird’s eye view of the city. The mountain looms over the city and is historically a destination of pilgrimage. We learned how the pious would crawl to the top of the mountain on hands and knees as an act of submission to God. Our journey to the church at the mountain’s summit was far more pleasant. The weather is famously unpredictable up there though, and it wasn’t long before the impressive view was blocked by thick rain clouds.

the view from Monserrate

the view from Monserrate

On another day we took a guided walking tour through the centre of the city. It was fascinating hearing about the often bloody history: about how a violent uprising burnt much of the city to the ground in the late 1940’s and how a political power struggle lead to the civil conflict that has characterised much of Colombia’s modern history.

walking the city streets

walking the city streets

It was interesting to be in Bogota at the time president Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We were able to witness the peaceful protests from those who disagreed with the terms of the official government/FARC peace treaty: hundreds of protesters holding white flags and candles gathered in the main square on the Friday night after the Nobel Prize was announced.

'yes' to the peace deal

‘yes’ to the peace deal

Onto Central America 

And then it was time for us to take a cab to the airport for the short flight into Panama. We would be back on the bikes in no time!

boarding

boarding

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂