A while back we entered a part of the world that scares a lot of people. And to be honest, I hadn’t heard a lot of positive things about Central America either. We told ourselves that bad news travels fast, as we left Mexico and started a crazy 2000 kilometres ride on our trusty twin Twins.
We rode from the northern tip of Guatemala, through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. It is my pleasure to announce that we have survived! As I am writing this I’m enjoying an ice-cold beer in Costa Rica, a country almost everyone seems to deem safe. Let me get a pen and paper so I can tell you about all the hardships we had to endure the past few weeks.
It all started when we crossed the Mexico – Guatemala border. Believe me, we don’t take border crossing lightly* and do our research. So, we arrived at the border with a stack of fresh photocopies, enough to satisfy every border official we were about to meet. We had a checklist handy we had received from other overland travellers.
Unfortunately we arrived at the border on a Monday. This happened to be the only day the office, where we could cancel our Mexican motorcycle importation, was closed. Unfortunate. We found a lousy hotel at the border where we had to spend the night. We didn’t pay extra for A/C as we heard a rumour that there wouldn’t be electricity between 10PM and 8AM. They were right.
More luck the next day. Our bikes were still where we had parked them, we rode them to the border again and got our passports stamped. The Twins were fumigated and imported into Guatemala. That day we made it to Flores, a very nice city on an island in a lake. And a good place to set-up basecamp for an expedition to the Mayan metropolis Tikal. Main concern in this area were: Vicious speeds bumps and crossing turkeys, along with other wildlife.
From there we continued our way south towards Antigua, the historic capital of Guatemala. A beautiful colonial city surrounded by giant, some active, volcanoes. We found a safe place to park the bikes in the back of a small restaurant and decided they had deserved some time off.
So we took a so called “Chicken bus” to the Pacaya volcano. A truly hectic ride that started with the driver hitting a lady on a scooter, nearly sending her head-first into a wall. She seemed to be fine and the driver proclaimed we could continue. Then Hanne got severely car-sick. The Princess must have cursed her, jealous that we had chosen another means of transportation.
It was all worth it though because, since we were delayed, we climbed the volcano as night was falling. Once near the top we had to carefully pick the rocks we stepped on. Lava was continuously flowing from the crater and generated enough heat for us to put some marshmallows on a stick and roast them there. We even had a beer on top of the volcano as one of the guys in our group was mad enough to haul a bunch of beers to the top of the mountain.
Soon after we picked up the bikes again and rode to Lago Atitlan. A lake that fills a massive volcanic crater. The ride there was absolutely beautiful. Winding roads through a hilly landscape. But even here we were ‘challenged’ as a bridge had disappeared. So we had to ride through a tiny, shallow river and we had to navigate through a particularly busy local market.
Next destination, El Salvador. Honestly, we were uncertain about this part of the trip. We tried to come up with positive things we heard about this country, but came up short.
We crossed the border and a few hours later I found myself in need of urgent medical care. The border crossing itself was a breeze. The easiest one so far, and completely free of any cost! With time to spare we went to look for a waterfall we heard rumours about. At the end of a very rough and rocky road we found the place all developers of “subtropic swimming paradises” get their inspiration from.
35 degree Celsius thermal waters free-falling for 10 metres into a pool deep enough so you can jump from the edge. Stunning, lush jungle vegetation and… something in the water. Jumping off the cliff I swallowed some water and I discovered I am allergic to something after all. Within 15 minutes my entire body was itchy and covered with a bright red rash. We quickly drove to the town where we had booked a hostel, 30 kilometres down the road. By the time we arrived I had trouble swallowing. Luckily there was a doctor around the corner who quickly diagnosed me. He sent me to the nurse who filled a syringe with antihistamines and cortisones and sunk the needle into my butt-cheeck. They told me to come back the following morning for seconds. Whatever they injected worked very well, as all the symptoms disappeared as quickly as they had come.
I’ll spare you the pictures.
You are welcome.
We spent a little over a week in El Salvador and met several other two-wheeled travellers in a hostel near El Tunco beach. There we also discovered the delicious national dish, Pupusas. Which we had several times at dinner together with Alee Denham (@cyclingabout). A celebrity in the long-distance bicycling community, and currently in his 7th year riding around the world. Super friendly, interesting, and inspirational guy.
The beach area was very hot and humid, absolutely deadly. Luckily there is one certainty in Central America… There is always a volcano nearby. Riding up them is generally good fun, views are amazing and, as a bonus, temperatures drop with increasing elevation.
One of our last evenings in El Salvador was spent in San Miguel. A city that’s not frequently visited by tourists. We planned to go to bed early and be on our way early the following morning. But that plan did not suit the owner of the place we booked for the night. He told us a carnival was happening in town and we should see it. Initially reluctantl, we agreed to join him to have a quick look. He made a few phone calls and got his car.
We realized our host wasn’t on board with the ‘have a quick look’ plan as he soon pulled over to pick up his best friend. Then he took us to all his favourite bars in town, and we started to wonder if we were ever going to actually go to a carnival. After many more beers, we eventually did. And it was hilarious, a mix of a cheap reggaeton shows and a neighbourhood Miss pageant election. Needless to say Hanne got super inspired by their dresses.
The Pacific coast route through Central America is not the best for visiting Honduras. We bridged the 135 kilometres between El Salvador and Nicaragua, through Honduras, in just one day. But after our experiences in El Salvador exploring Honduras does seem like a good idea for the future.
It was a challenging day as we had to cross two borders and drive 280 kilometres to reach Leon, Nicaragua. A relatively small distance in Europe or Northern America, but a good days ride in this part of the world. All was going well until we reached the Nicaraguan border. We started to weave between a long line of trucks queueing to enter Nicaragua when the clutch cable of Hanne’s bike, The Princess, snapped. Unfortunate timing since borders are stressy enough by themselves. After all the papers were signed and stamped we limped the last 100 kilometres to Leon. Trying to always stop on top of a hill so gravity would get the bike moving before we’d force it into first gear. We succeeded and got a new cable installed the following morning. Great success!
It is difficult to stay on this blogpost’s topic, as surviving Nicaragua proved to be very easy. We didn’t have any real problems and really enjoyed our stay in this country. We surfed in Leon and kayaked in Granada, both very picturesque colonial towns where we stayed a few days. Rode the bikes to the rim of the Masaya volcano and did our best not to hit any of the cattle and horses on the roads.
Eventually we took a ferry to Ometepe. The worlds biggest island in a fresh water lake, and signed up for an 8 hour hiked up the Conception volcano. We realized that riding bikes for 5+ months isn’t especially great for the physique but were rewarded with amazing views.
And eventually we found some good off-road trails that brought us near the Costa Rican border. While we are not exactly out of Central America yet, we did survive the part that most people seem to be most scared about. We didn’t only survive it, following a few very simple rules** we had a very good time riding this part of the world!
That’s it for now,
Time to discover Costa Rica
* Crossing borders with a motorcycle, or other vehicle, is complicated. You have to temporary import your bike in every country, arrange insurances and cancel the importation when you leave the country. The entire process; Cancellation in country A, import in country B and insurances took us between 2 – 3 hours for each Central American border we have crossed.
** We made sure we always knew where we were going to stay the night before we left in the morning. The place needed to have a safe place, off the street, where we could park the bikes for the night. We also tried to not be travelling after 4PM and avoided most the big cities.