After the leg crunching ascents of northern El Salvador it was a novelty to find ourselves zipping across the Nicaraguan lowlands with a series of volcanos in the background. On the downside was the increase in heat and humidity back down at sea level, which we’d managed to avoid since the Caribbean coast back in Honduras.
Arriving in the colonial city of Leon, we decided to take a couple of days off to explore. Unfortunately we’d underestimated the effect of the heat (& the cost of air-conditioned rooms) and spent most of the time flaked out under a fan in a puddle of sweat. My favourite place ended up being the modern ‘gringo-friendly’ supermarket, which was freezing and thus a perfect spot to recover from sweaty outdoor exertions. Leon is an interesting place to explore, and we headed out early to wander the streets in the relative cool as the city slowly came to life.
Leaving Leon we wove our way along a series of dirt tracks, passing little villages and very basic housing. We meandered out to the coast, finding a quiet beach between the more developed villages, where we set up under some trees – apart from a basic store the community seemed to consist of little more than closed up holiday homes and ramshackle abandoned buildings.
Early starts and midday finishes were standard practice as we left a trail of sweat along the roads and tracks to Granada. Despite the oppressive heat we enjoyed the city, possibly because of the fantastic breakfast we had at Jenny’s Waffle House which put us in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Our route across the southern lowlands was largely dictated by our desire to visit Ometepe Island – and low lake levels mean that the only ferry service operating at present is from Rivas on the southern shore. A couple of days roaming the island on quiet tracks with nice swimming spots sounded appealing, so we rolled our bikes on to the ferry and set off.
Returning from the island it was time to make a run for Costa Rica. Our expectations were probably unreasonably high, but within a couple of hours we’d found our way to the wonderful Finca Canas Castilla, cooled off in the river, been pelted with mangos by the monkey population, spotted a sloth and eyeballed the resident croc swimming upriver. Then our Swiss hosts revealed their homemade bread and we decided that we weren’t going anywhere for a few days.
Finally tearing ourselves away we took the northern road towards Upala, camping overnight in a compound that seemed to be shared between the police and the local water board. The next morning we wandered into Upala to stock up at the local supermarket. There was a moment of complete panic when Ed realised that he’d ridden away without his camelbak – containing passport, cards, cash, camera, tools etc. Returning to the supermarket his pack was gone, the staff inside unaware of any problem. As it turned out a woman that I’d greeted outside the store had seen the pack, realised who it belonged to and raced after us on her bike … just as Ed turned back. Eventually Ed and pack were reunited, and our opinion of this lovely country and its people cranked up another notch.
Afternoon downpours were starting to become more regular by this time, frequently dumping huge volumes of rain. Sometimes we’ve been lucky and scored some shelter under a verandah or in a shed, garage or abandoned building. Other times we just curl up in the tent and pray that the seams and bike tube patches (covering up holes from insect attacks) hold out under the deluge. From Bijagua we followed a backcountry route to the south side of Lake Arenal, then launched ourselves up a series of brutal climbs to reach the cloud forests at Monteverde.
Costa Rica is an incredibly popular tourist destination and at times the over-abundance of tourist ‘attractions’ is eco-annoying. In some places you can’t go far without being bombarded by advertisements for ziplining, jungle hikes, canopy tours, quad-biking, white water rafting, volcano climbs, kayaking, coffee tours, and luxury spas.
Fortunately our early morning visit to the Monteverde reserve was peaceful, our encounter with an armadillo being the highlight of our hike through this atmospheric (wet) reserve.
Leaving Monteverde we retraced our route back down to Lake Arenal, delighted to actually get to see the classic cone-shaped volcano poking through the clouds. Our lakeside rest stop turned into an impromptu campsite as a huge thunderstorm came in, dumping rain for hours on end.
Cleaning down the bikes after a muddy ride, Ed discovered a massive crack in my rear rim. It was excellent timing as we were only 8km from La Fortuna and a bike shop – $10 later we had a replacement rim of dubious quality, swopped over to the front wheel so my remaining ‘good’ rim could take most of the load.
After a 2-3 week break off the bikes we restarted from San Jose. It was surprising just how quickly the heat and energy-sapping humidity caught up with us again – a day of being sodden with sweat, pushing uphills and bouncing down a rocky track in pouring rain and I was on the verge of tears. Looking for a fast route south, but wanting to avoid the traffic-choked insanity of the Panamerican Highway we took the recommended coastal route.
By the time we reached the border we’d both had enough of being constantly soaked with either sweat or rain, we were worn out from the oppressive heat and fed up with burning our budget on crappy rooms due to our growing dependency on air-conditioning. And with that we rolled on into Panama. Here at least we knew that we could look forward to a big chunk of roadworks along the highway that had closed off two lanes to traffic – creating the world’s biggest bike lane for passing cyclists.
With flights booked to cross the Darien Gap and on to Columbia we headed to Panama City, possibly the least cycling-friendly city we’ve ever visited. We did ride out to Gamboa hoping to see something of the Panama Canal, but very little is actually visible or accessible from the road. On the way back I spotted an animal on the edge of the road which I initially thought was roadkill. As I got closer I realised that it was a juvenile two-toed sloth, moving at a suicidal pace into the flow of traffic. It’s rare to see one out of the safety of a tree and this little fellow wasn’t going to live long. I managed to flag down the traffic, just as a local guy leapt out and grabbed the sloth, running across the road to place it safely in the bush. Fun times.
Having jumped the roadless Darien Gap that divides Panama and Columbia we are now more than ready for some Andean mountain therapy …
Until next time,
Rubber side down
Ed & Gaye