Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador

The Americas

Chapter 18

A quick trip across the Rio Usumacinta and we’re in Guatemala …

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.

Heading off from the river at Bethel, passing a Guatemalan cowboy glued to his smartphone …
Just one of the numerous roadside churches
The road from the border was a nice introduction to Guatemala – scenic & peaceful
The ubiquitous roadside tyre repair joint

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.

Small boats bustle around Lago Peten-Itza from the little ‘island’ of Flores.
Lago Peten-Itza is a popular chill-out spot for travellers – easy to see why
As the sun drops the soccer games in the plaza start …

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.  

The ever-patient Andrea is a law student who works part time teaching Spanish

Hard at work with Mariela at the rooftop Spanish school with beautiful lake views

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.

Also known as coatimundis, and usually found hanging out near any food outlet
Tree appreciation – Tikal National Park
Restored temple at the Grand Plaza of Tikal
Exploring the temples of Tikal
Easily identified by their weird croaking call – we saw several keel-billed toucans at Tikal, as well as two smaller species.
And the evil-eyed ocellated turkey also made an appearance

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.

Bike shop at Poptun – a temporary fix for Ed’s failing freewheel
Heading out on the school run leaving Poptun
Main street of Rio Dulce, big semi trailers just squeeze past the street vendor stalls

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.

Staying in the dorm at the Casa del Migrante near the Honduran border

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.

Over the border and into country #6
Reaching the Caribbean at the little fishing village of Omoa
Evening exploration around Omoa, Honduras
Pulling up for the a night at the Bomberos in Villa Nueva, Honduras
The hospitality of Central American ‘Bomberos’ (firefighters) is renowned amongst cycle tourers – a warm welcome, safe place to stay & great company
Early morning – 5am starts to get a couple of hours up before the heat kicks in

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.

Most transport is by horse, moto, or foot through this area – just a few vehicles labour up and over the steep mountain climbs .
Schoolchildren tagged along, eventually unable to resist the urge to help push me up the steep ascents. More than a few adults also stopped to pitch in and get us over the steep rocky sections
At this point Ed’s failing freewheel finally chucked it in – providing some lunchtime entertainment as he poached spare parts from my rear wheel
Peak hour on the road to San Rafael
This part of Honduras is coffee growing country
Every man heading off to work carries an impressive machete
Yep – the coffee is good here
We were greeted with friendly curiosity everywhere – and were sometimes approached by men who spoke excellent English after working in the USA.  Odd to be greeted in a broad Texan drawl in Honduras though!
Although it’s incredibly hot here now I guess it’s never to early to start preparing for the chill of winter in the mountains ….
The roads are full of broken-down ‘chicken buses’
The mobile kitchen & homewares shop comes to town …..
And then it’s over the border at El Poy and into El Salvador 
Shopfront, El Salvador
The buses are even brighter but probably equally unreliable

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.  

We stopped overnight at La Palma – famous for the murals that decorate walls and buildings throughout the village
Artwork in La Palma, El Salvador
It’s El Salvador, therefore you get to eat a lot of pupusas – tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, chicken, peppers etc – yum!
A scenic and tranquil ride (more pedestrians than vehicles), but also one of the most punishing sections of sealed road that we’ve ever ridden with repeated climbs at gradients of 10-18%

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.  

Home away from home at Rancho El Porvenir, Sensuntepeque, El Salvador
Pupusa time with Ricardo and family in Sensuntepeque
Pupusa time with Ricardo and family in Sensuntepeque
200m of salt ‘carpets’ – designed by town artists and laboriously constructed from around 5 tonnes of coloured salt – completed by the evening of Good Friday, they are trodden by the procession that symbolises the death and burial of Jesus
With Ricardo, Denora and children outside the church in Sensuntepeque

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

8 comments on “Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador – Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’

    1. Thanks Prita, appreciate the feedback :)
      How was your trip to Argentina & Uruguay? We will be only getting to the west of the country but really looking forward to it …

  1. Fantastic photos and narration. I’m watching “The Kindness Diaries” on television and it reminds me of the people you are meeting on your epic ride. Safe travels!

  2. Take me back to El Salvador! I’m so glad you had a great time and got all the pupusas. Stay well and travel safe!

    1. Hi Cat, loved Honduras & El Salvador & missing those pupusas already – especially the jalapeno ones … so much yum!

  3. What can I say? Another wonderful adventure tale. So so glad you had such a positive experience with those three countries. We always enjoy getting your updates. Here’s to more wonderful experiences. Hugs and Cheers.

    1. Thanks Debbie, we were a little nervous heading into the area & you definitely have to think about the risks, but it was a really good experience. Looking forward to some cooler temperatures & less humidity though

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