Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador make up Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ – a region perhaps best known as the worlds deadliest (outside of a war zone). The threat and fear of violence, corruption, and failure of security and justice systems are part of daily life for millions of people, with many hoping that emigration will provide a better and safer life for their children. Reports of potential security risks for travellers were contradictory – on one hand we had a concerned man implore us not to cycle ‘anywhere’ in Honduras (on further questioning I realised that he’d never actually been there); but other cyclists had reported trouble-free visits. With much of the violence resulting from gang turf wars and not directed at tourists, we decided to seek local advice on route safety as we went and avoid the bigger towns and cities.
Our initial impressions of Guatemala weren’t great – the demand for a ‘border fee’ which smelt like a cash grab with no receipt provided, then a pushy ‘change lady’ assuming that we would be delighted to accept her outrageously low currency exchange rate. She appeared pretty angry at our refusal, and we pedalled away wondering what the road ahead would be like…
Of course Latin American friendliness and hospitality soon asserted itself, and I think our experiences in this part of the world can be best summed up by the fact that my face ached from the ear-to-ear smile I wore as we were greeted with warmth, curiosity, huge smiles, waves and shouts of welcome throughout the region.
Spotting some approaching cycle tourers on the road to Flores we pulled over … and after a few minutes conversation we had that ‘haven’t we seen you somewhere before’ feeling – sure enough, we’d met Peter and Kristina back in Yosemite National Park, huddling in the Visitor Centre to escape the rain. The world of long haul cycling is indeed a small one, and it’s great to repeatedly cross paths with the trickle of cyclists all making our way south via a variety of routes.
Most travellers arrive in Flores en route to the archeological site at nearby Tikal – the tiny island is attached to the mainland by a causeway, and it’s a beautiful setting on the lake with plenty of hostels, bars and cafes. For us it was time to pull up for a week or so and devote some time to improving our Spanish language skills.
Seeking accommodation in Flores, we had an offer of a room in a house from the Spanish school operator. We have a rough checklist of things to look for in a room – bike storage, wifi, somewhere to cook etc. I’d add the presence of a loo seat, lockable door and at least one functioning light globe to this list. Up to this point we’d never considered checking for the possible absence of a bathroom door, and we were prepared to overlook any shortfalls in our excitement over having access to a fully operational fridge…. lets just say that our relationship survived the lack of a toilet door, and Ed escaped unscathed from the exploding showerhead episode – a uniquely Central American experience involving water and electrical wires …
Following our week of Spanish lessons we did a trip to the ruins at Tikal. Taking a minibus certainly reinforced just how good it is to travel by bike – the driver barrelling into blind corners on the wrong side of the road while steering with one hand and yelling into his mobile phone.
Arriving at Tikal we were far more interested in wildlife spotting than gazing at piles of rocks. The Petén region provided some new critters to see, including coatimundis and agoutis, and the usual suspects of howler and spider monkeys. We were delighted to spot spectacular keel-billed toucans, and by attaching ourselves to a birdwatching group we also saw the smaller chestnut-mandibled toucan and emerald toucanet.
Back on the road, we stopped in at Poptun, ending up spending three nights with Warm Showers hosts Sergio and Annie – thanks guys! Here we had a temporary repair done on Ed’s dodgy freewheel, and made ‘guest appearances’ in Annie’s English classes.
Approaching the northern border with Honduras and not wanting to risk a bush camp so close to the border zone, we asked if we could camp in the grounds of a church … which led to us staying over the road at a ‘Casa del Migrante’, a church-based and Red Cross supported facility for people making the journey north into Mexico and the USA. We met a Honduran man in his 30’s with a wife and three kids back home here. He was intent on making his way to New Jersey where he has three brothers; there he can make US$22 an hour working in construction which is a fortune compared to the average annual Honduran wage of US$4200. Reading the Red Cross supplied information, which provides advice on equipment, health, transport options (jumping trains), human rights, and what to expect if arrested, certainly makes the whole immigration issue a lot more real.
Once over the border we made our sweaty way towards the coastal village of Omoa. Meeting local cyclist Manuel was a nice welcome to the country, and reassured us that cycling through the centre of San Pedro Sula (considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world) would be no problem so long as we travelled in daylight and didn’t head off ‘exploring’ any dodgy neighbourhoods.
Stopping off at D and D Brewery near Lago Yojoa, we discussed route options with a couple of ex-pats. This gave us the confidence to head off on back roads across the southern mountains – this peaceful route through little villages proving to be the highlight of Honduras for us.
Arriving in El Salvador from the north it was an easy decision to follow the Ruta Longitudinal Norte, avoiding both the busy central roads and the hot and humid coastal route. With Semana Santa (Easter) approaching we were also worried about finding accommodation during this busy holiday period. The route looked to be mostly in the mountains, so we hoped for slightly cooler conditions at a higher elevation.
After a hot day of climbing we’d hoped to find accommodation in the little town of Sensuntepeque – but a passing driver advised us that there was nowhere to stay in town. Then we spotted a sign for a pool and restaurant just up the road and wondered if there might be somewhere there where we could camp for the night. And so we met Ricardo, Denora and their family. They could not have been kinder or more welcoming to a couple of dirty and sweaty cyclists. We pitched our tent in the cabana they are building – and an overnight stay quickly turned into four nights and a real reluctance to leave this lovely family who shared so much of their lives with us – meeting friends and family, sharing meals, showing us their farm and business, visiting the town and taking part in Semana Santa festivities.
Watching the ‘funeral’ procession was a hauntingly beautiful experience – thousands of people filled the narrow streets from wall to wall, walking slowly behind the casket, carrying candles and singing as the sky darkened. We attracted a lot of curious stares and friendly smiles in an atmosphere of peaceful serenity. The Catholic church is a massively important part of life here, and it was pretty special to experience the ‘Holy Week’ through the eyes of a local family.
Since leaving Sensuntepeque we wound our way up and down, until finally descending to reach the border at El Amatillo. Here we crossed back into Honduras again (briefly) for a brutally hot and humid sprint across the flat south and into Nicaragua; complicated only by a touch of heatstroke which saw me vomiting out the door of the Honduran Immigration Office. We’ve now made it to Leon, and have been promised a cool breeze once we get across to Omotepe Island which sits in the enormous Lago Nicaragua.
Until next time
Rubber side down
Ed & Gaye