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The Yucatán, Oaxaca and to Baja California

Tulum

We were excited to be in Mexico, the penultimate country of the trip. We’d been looking forward to the food, the beaches and the rich sense of culture for weeks.

The Yucatán

The Yucatán peninsular is pancake-flat and we made the miles to Tulum from the Belizean border in just over two days.

The tourist town of Tulum is centred around the highway, a strip straight through town that sports the usual souvenir shops, bike rental businesses and overpriced bars advertising Happy Hour. 140 miles in the past two days meant we were in no mood for novelty sombreros or drunken backpackers.

It was the next day, after coffee and an extra couple hours kip, that we understood what the fuss is all about. The famous Mayan ruins are interesting, but that stretch of spotless white sand beach is unbelievable. The sea is this luminescent clear blue that’s almost difficult to believe. Very beautiful.

Tulum

Tulum

And the town itself is cool, with plenty of boutique shops and well planned eateries. It’s a laid back, gringo friendly place: an easy spot for the image conscious Instagram generation to spend a few days.

As ever though, we had to push on.

A further three days riding to Mérida were equally as simple as the first couple in Mexico: the drivers were always courteous, giving us plenty of space, and the road surfaces were excellent – a huge improvement from most of Central America.

We took in Chitchen-Itza en route. Hugely impressive! It’s amazing to visit ruins of a scattered civilisation that are so well preserved it’s almost easy to imagine what the city looked like during its golden era.

Chitchen-Itza

Chitchen-Itza

In Mérida we caught up with my friends Biggsy and Jade who were taking a trip through Mexico and Cuba. It was really fun for Sophie and me to catch up with familiar faces for the first time since saying goodbye to my sister in Rio de Janeiro a year before. And congratulations to them: they’re now engaged after Biggs popped the question in, I think, Tulum!

We’re on a time limit with this trip. Due to circumstances, we want to be home before March. Our plan was to reach Mérida before taking a bus up to Oaxaca for Christmas.

Oaxaca

The historic centre of Oaxaca is defined by Colonial-era buildings which resulted in it being declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. It’s a really pretty town with a rich indigenous cultural heritage and it was the perfect place for the festive period.

Oaxacan church

Oaxacan church

We enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere in the Zócalo – well decked with boughs of holly, tall Christmas trees, nativity scenes and festive lights. We wandered markets and sat in bars. We explored churches and watched fireworks and processions with giant puppets dressed as the three kings. We drank mezcal and put Christmas songs on the playlist.

wandering the markets

wandering the markets

And we roasted a chicken on the 25th, with potatoes, carrots, onions, oranges. I watched the Queen’s speech, Skyped my family and caught up with people’s festive photos on Facebook. It was really a perfect day, a magic time, as I believe Christmas should be.

walking home for Christmas

walking home for Christmas

And onwards

After Christmas we took another bus to Mazatlán to take the ferry over to the south of Baja California. We’ll be boarding in a few hours. From La Paz, we’ll be back on the bikes to make the final 1,000 mile push up the Pacific peninsular to our goal of Los Angeles.

I can’t wait to get back on the bike. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of a day of riding always gives me a warm flush of endorphins. I love the momentum of moving, of eating up miles through beautiful scenery. I miss the tent and quiet nights under the stars. I miss being away from busyness, from shops, from the bustle of daily living.

Staying in towns, even in beds, has worn through for me. I’m excited to be heading back to a wilder place, and Baja promises wide-open skies, giant cacti, diverse wildlife and silent beaches. I’m looking forward to the challenges and hope to appreciate each moment, knowing the trip is soon to be at a close.

The desert is calling.

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 🙂

Why I love Belize

Soph outside a Garifuna restaurant

We didn’t know what to expect with Belize, aside that it’s a former British colony that boasts the planet’s second largest coral reef.

Straight off the boat and into the customs and immigration office. A large black lady welcomed us in English, asking to see our passport. Speaking Spanish to customs officials has become second nature and we were caught off guard – we’d forgotten English is the official language of Belize!

straight off the boat

straight off the boat

We’d fallen in love with the fun-loving Garifuna culture since first seeing it in Livingston. Walking around Punta Gorda on our first day, the atmosphere was much as I’d always imagined the less Americanised parts of Jamaica to be, with easy-going locals kicking back outside wooden shacks. People waved as we passed and everyone wished us a ‘good afternoon’, with some even adding a ‘Sir’.

Soph outside a Garifuna restaurant

Soph outside a Garifuna restaurant

Moving north along the quiet Southern Highway, we passed traditional Mayan villages, with wooden huts built the same way as they had been since the Mayan heyday hundreds of years ago.

the Southern Highway in rush hour

the Southern Highway in rush hour

into the land of the Maya

into the land of the Maya

We spent a couple of days in the sleepy fishing village of Hopkins, where we learned more about the Garifuna culture: it seems to revolve mainly around fishing, drinking, music, dancing and being happy. It’s a simple life and – for them – it works. It was fun to watch a lobster catching party prepare their boat for a five day fishing trip: they were already half cut by 10am and had brought more beers and rum than they had water. With the rich seas around Belize, it’s not unusual for trips like this to return with hundreds of pounds worth of lobster.

fishermen checking their nets

fishermen checking their nets

We had highlighted snorkelling the barrier reef as a priority of the trip since way back in Ecuador. With 2016 signalling a potential finite turning point in the health of the planet’s coral reefs, we knew seeing a relatively healthy reef now was a chance we shouldn’t turn down. The experience of swimming with nurse sharks, eagle rays, turtles and all sorts of tropical fish in abundance was something I’ll never forget – incredible.

incredible snorkelling

incredible snorkelling

I’m going to miss Belize, with its charming place names – Boom Creek, Mango Creek, Silk Grass, Gales Point, Ladyville – with its beaches and no-worry way of living, with its conch soup and coconut rice, its big smiles and Caribbean sunrises. It’s a country seldom mentioned in Central America. And I hope it stays that way – an as-yet unspoilt gem found only by those who really want to find it.

Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker

sunset over the Caye

sunset over the Caye

As we cycled north, more people spoke Spanish than English and the place names became distinctly Mayan. Mexico Beckoned.

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 🙂

 

Cycling Central America pt.2

twilight on the Rio Dulce

El Salvador

El Salvador – like Honduras – has its fair share of negative press. European opinions are shaped by the country’s reputation for gang warfare and homicides but, though both of these do exist, the traveller is unlikely to come across them.

on the Honduras/El Salvador border

on the Honduras/El Salvador border

We cycled through El Salvador within a week and without incident. Similar to Honduras, the locals were invariably warm and welcoming.

I wanted to hear about how the gang culture affects the country. Speaking to Salvadorans, it’s clear that the narcos have bought off the government and police to the extent that it’s not really the politicians who run the country but the powerful gang members. We had policemen warn us to stay safe, keep our wits about us and be aware of the dangers but the only signs of the problem were the heavily armed security with their loaded shotguns who guarded gas stations, banks and other businesses that could afford them.

 

The inland road northwest up to the Guatemalan border took us through increasingly hilly landscapes, up to gorgeous vantage points where we would pause to take in the valleys below, watching the smoke waft up from fields where farmers burned vegetation to clear the land.

across the valleys

across the valleys

An on up to Guatemala, to another border crossing, another country, another stamp in the passport.

Guatemala

The topography in Guatemala is defined by compact, steep hills with the ever-lush green vegetation blanketing every surface untouched by man.

We only dipped into the country, following the road to Chiquimula, Los Amates and finally Rio Dulce. We had heard from Dave, a bike-tourer we met in El Salvador, about a river taxi that took travellers from Rio Dulce down the river of the same name to the small Caribbean town of Livingston. The route sounded fun and we decided to take it.

Guatemalan hills

Guatemalan hills

The small launch from Rio Dulce takes passengers along the river, with canyon walls rising sharply out of the water on either side. There are locals who live in huts along the water’s edge who rely on the river as their sole means of transport and a couple on-board disembarked at one of them, presumably heading home after a trip into town to buy supplies.

Livingston itself has no road access, so all goods and people come in off the boat. There is a strong Garifuna culture there and the Afro-Caribbean flavour was strong, with loud music, plenty of rum, and lots of laughter. The town’s remoteness and slightly anarchic though friendly vibe made it easy to imagine Caribbean pirates mooring up there for a few nights to spend their treasures on good times.

The Belizean border was just a short boat ride across a small corner of the Caribbean away. The 14th country on my trip was the antepenultimate of the entire journey and thoughts naturally turned to home. It would be the end of the trip in just a couple of months. What once seemed intangible now felt very real – that before long I’d be back in London with these long and exciting days of adventure behind me.

twilight on the Rio Dulce

twilight on the Rio Dulce

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 🙂

 

 

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 🙂

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