Rainy season storm, Panama.

5/29/14, Day 325.

San Juan, Panama, on the Panamerican Highway.

A clear sky at 3pm lunch, next town in 20km, head there for a coffee. Leave under blue skies, look up 12km later and see dark clouds ahead. Nothing around but construction so just keep on going, up the pace a little, feeling good. Keep on going, soon everyone knows what’s coming, construction guys start to point at the clouds ahead or point up and laugh instead of just waving. Nothing to do but continue. Darker and darker, plus now scattered lightning ahead, keep an eye for trees to duck under if need be but keep riding, keep pushing, regardless. Get to 19km and luck has held, except shit, hill ahead, the buildings are all at the top. Get to the bottom, charging now, rain lets loose, sudden rain, big fat drops coming down driving as hard as I am. Up the hill in the rain, soaked in 400m, but there’s a mini super at the top, head straight for cover under the eaves. 10 seconds later a guy comes galloping up on a horse, he had the same idea. Eyes meet, rueful shake of our heads. Brightside, free showers now if anyone needs one.

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Costa Rica, part 2: the Beach.

imageFrom Arenal to the Caribbean coast. Once again I rode only lightly loaded, and caught up to Michael and Mario and the rest of my gear a day later. Testing some setup options for upcoming parts of the ride.

imageDown out of the mountains, banana farms dominate the landscape. They stretch on for miles, green shrubs towering and shading the fruit. Close up, the trees look like they’re growing giant blue fruits, since plastic bags cover the banana clusters to protect and maintain their environment. All of these were property of Chiquita; Dole also harvests a lot from this area.

imageJust be careful that you’re not passing through during a spray fly-over…

image Coast in sight! Continuing the cycling ping-pong game between the Pacific and Caribbean waters.

image And then the rest of the ride down the coast, my only company was constant crab remains. They’re not too great about making it across roadways.

image But wait! Found alive, replenishing their population numbers. They can be very… crabby… about having their pictures taken.

image Catching back up with Mario and Michael, we spend a few days on the beach at Puerto Viejo.

image I’m taking some rest days from the bike, others are wandering around on beach cruisers.

image Coconut trees abound.

image Old boats sit waiting, nothing’s so old it won’t still be used.

image All along the water, small groups of people swim or run through the sand.

image And lounge about waiting for sunset.

image In Cahuita, 10km north, a protected national park hugs the coastline. The hike here is a much more relaxed affair than at Arenal, though a rainstorm swings through soon after we start out and hampers our ability to see much.

image But we at least start out under the sun.

image Always on the lookout for oil, even back in 1910.

image A restful few days and a good end to a visit. From Puerto Viejo, Mario and Michael went back to San Jose to fly home, and I set off for Panama. Only one more country left in Central America. Just gotta cross that Sixaola bridge.

image Easier by bike than with a roller bag, just watch your footing. If it ain’t broke…

Costa Rica, part 1: Mountains.

imageFirst order of business: meet up with these guys. Michael and Mario came down to visit and vacation before school starts up again. Thanks for the new coffee mug and other supplies!

imageWe met up at Monteverde, one of Costa Rica’s premier cloud forests. Note: cloud forest implies the place is in the clouds. High up. On top of the mountains. This is all true. It’s an important thing to keep in mind when you tell the non-cyclists to choose a place to meet. Good Andes training though.

imageCloud forest, home to ever present moisture and fog, creating an extremely fertile habitat for all kinds of species. A welcome break from the heat.

image Spotted in the forest: the Quetzal bird of Central American lore. These birds are talked about everywhere (Guatemala’s names its currency after them), but Costa Rica is one of their few homes. Above is the male…

image And the female.

image Also these guys. The tentacles are a parasitic fungus that killed the beetle and are now using the nutrients from the body to grow. Life is crazy.

image Hanging out in the nest.

image These ain’t your stunted little Alaskan trees from the far north anymore.

image Outside the forest itself, back to blue skies.

image And then time to move on. Our next destination was Lake Arenal, less than a day’s ride away. Eager to ride out of the mountains, Michael and Mario took some of my gear with them by bus, and I met them later that day.

image Formed by the Arenal volcano, the trip from Monteverde to Arenal requires a bus to the edge of the lake, a boat ride across it, then another bus to La Fortuna or one of the other towns at the base of the volcano. By bike, there’s a great dirt road ringing the lake.

image Rideable, with a few streams to ford. These are very effective at keeping down traffic.

image Together again, we trekked to the La Fortuna waterfall.

image Whose small collecting pool provided quite the workout to swim in.

image Afterwards, we set out on the hike up to Cerro Chato, a crater lake in there inactive volcano next to Arenal. Inactive volcano, good for hiking. Active, less so.

image Though billed as only a 7km hike, it’s a brutal test of your legs and knees as you heave yourself up rough hewn steps, slowly clambering up the side of the volcano. For hours.

image Peaking with a view of Arenal.

image And then a 100m climb/slide down to the lake, by which point you’re probably just as soaked with sweat as if you had already gone swimming.

image Green is a pretty reoccuring theme here.

image The next day a good day for body recovery and some bike maintenance. Time for an oil change.

image Oil, clean on the left, dirty on right.

image And finally saying goodbye to an old cycling cap. Anne and Kamil brought down this guy’s replacement back in Guatemala, and I’ve been carrying this one just as a spare since. Its sees its final use as an oil and chain cleaning rag.

Next up, to the beach!

Day 309. Nicaragua-Costa Rica: border crossing on the Pan American.

13 May 2014

Approach late in the afternoon, was going to stop at the last town but decided just to cross and spend the night in Costa Rica. Nicaraguan side massively disorganized, long line of semi trucks waiting, for customs or to be sprayed by DDT and pronounced clean. Money changers appear out of nowhere, this the same as every other border crossing. This time too, a man appears with the exit paperwork form, can buy it from him or get it free at the window, your choice. But the Nicaraguan office to stamp out nowhere to be found. Don’t go to the window with the sign “Leaving Nicaragua”, that would make too much sense, the women there wave you away. Hunt around some more and eventually receive permission to leave.

On the Costa Rican side, everything suddenly becomes distinctly American. Roped off lanes organize us all into lines- lines!- and metal detectors await us. Would have taken a picture, but, you know, too much an American border feel. The un-American part is that smiling at the guards frees you from suspicion and clears you to go. The guys chilling outside welcome you to Costa Rica and then you’re off riding, 1 hour left before official twilight. 1 hour left before camp, food, sleep.

Nicaragua

imageThe last segment with Sebastiaan. We leave Honduras, reputably the most dangerous country in Central America, for Nicaragua, reputedly the safest. Yet in Honduras we were overwhelmingly welcomed into peoples’ homes, and 10km into Nicaragua a teenager spat at my shirt, which probably only helped clean the sweat and salt encrusted thing. Safety is funny sometimes.

imageWe crossed the border at Las Manos, at the peak of the mountain pass. Either there or the last few days in Honduras we crossed over the Continental Divide, returning to the Pacific. The Divide is easily noticeable throughout Central America as the Caribbean side is characterized by hot and humid weather, and the Pacific side lies hot and dry. Parched, especially now, since we’re coming through in the hottest part of the year, just before the start of the rainy season.

image Beating the heat.

image First stop in Nicaragua: Somoto, just across the border. Resting a few days there, reading and watching football and taking a hike through the canyon.

image Following the track down to the river.

image To walk a bit, then cool off in the water and float downriver a ways. The current strong enough to pull us along, weak enough to be able to just sit back and relax.

image Sheer walls, rocky bluffs.

image Back on the road, aiming to beat the heat by heading back into the mountains. We’ve been avoiding as much as possible the Pan American highway, the main traffic route through Central and South America that stretches all the way down into Peru and Bolivia from Mexico, with only a few interruptions. After riding the PanAm for 40 miles from Somoto, we turned onto the stone-paved road to Jinotega, coffee country.

image A quiet road, past farms and not much else. All would have been well, except both Sebastiaan and I started getting flat tires, and since Honduras our tube patches have not been holding up. Maybe we each had a bad batch of glue, or bad patches, but we would fix a puncture only to roll out and flat a few minutes later, when the puncture invariably blew a hole in the side of the patch. Patching over the patches inevitably just wasted patches. Replacing the punctured tube with a new tube was the best strategy, until we ran out of spare tubes. In any town down here though, it’s always possible to find 26″ inner tubes, so as long as we could limp to the next town, we could keep moving forward. Sebastian was riding on 700c tires, and while most small towns won’t have that sized tubes, it’s possible to fit in a 26″ inner tube, carefully, despite the larger sized wheel. Rubber stretches.

image But up we went, to the permaculture retreat of La Biosfera. Suzanne welcomes in traveling cyclists, so we spent a few days there, resting and recuperating from a bout of intestinal parasites.

image Parasite symptoms include: stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, some combination of the above. Parasite medicine costs: $3US for the name brand meds, $1US for the generic ones. Espresso costs $1-2US. From bad water or food, parasites have been explained to us as a routine matter since Guatemala, with most people saying they just get the test done once a year and take the corresponding medicine to knock out the little buggers.

image Parasites cured, our final days riding together took us to Granada, the first city the Spaniards founded in the Americas. Beautifully colonial, and in the summer heat all foot traffic gravitates to whichever side of the street offers some shade from the surrounding buildings.

image Not even the heat can stop a baseball game, either the children playing or the old men standing about watching.

image Many sports going on; the city was built on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, and was being used as the arena for the Paddle Board World Championships.

image City built from stone, swathed in colors.

image Also, more bug problems. This round: bedbugs! They bite, they itch, and there’s no easy medicine. One pharmacy suggested smoking ourselves. We didn’t know what that meant. A few days of riding and sweating under the sun seems to have cured them now.

image And then our final goodbye. Time for me to continue to Costa Rica to meet some friends, and Sebastiaan to start returning to Mexico to catch a flight home in a few weeks. A great riding buddy, sad to say goodbye.

image Sebastiaan, between Granada and the border you missed out on some wind, windmills, and volcano views. Safe travels man.

Honduras.

image Honduran route. The map page is currently updated through Nicaragua.

Bananas and variants everywhere. Fresh ones eaten roadside. Fried plantains for breakfast, or sliced thin and fried and served with a meal instead of French* fries. Banana bread too a great snack, and easy to find in most tiny grocery stores.

image *Note: if traveling with a Belgian companion, refrain from calling them “French” fries.

image Headed into Honduras along the Caribbean coast. First stop: Omoa, jump into the Caribbean straight off the pier.

image Head farther down the coast to La Ceiba, Honduras’ party city. Ended up hoping up here for Easter week while Sebastiaan went to the nearby island of Utila to do a dive course.

image One of the busiest weeks of the year, and still one of the quietest beaches I’ve ever seen. Honduras is underrated.

image All recent camping has been urban camping. Generally this means asking whatever little restaurant we eat dinner at if we can camp there overnight. Usually we’re given a place under shelter, and just set the tents up for bug protection.

image Or we might ask at a police station. This station had a room and mattresses for people to sleep off a hard night out, which they immediately offered us. “To serve and to protect- this is our motto, this is our job”, one policeman told us proudly.

image Third option: church camping. The closer you hang your hammock to the altar, the better your night’s sleep.

image From the Caribbean coast, we turned back inland over the mountains.

image Nighttime looming.

image Dirt roads: found.

image One of the best parts of climbing mountains: pine forests always appear, so far all down the Americas. A little reminder of home.

image One evening, following a long day of near continuous tire punctures (bad glue? Bad patches? Too hot weather? Cause still unknown), we were asking around in a small village about possible places to eat and sleep. José and his sister offered us a place. On a beautiful farm, full of fruits, they gave us mattresses and a cabin for the night, used to sheltering people that their pastor father brings around. A fun meet-the-family evening.

image With some bike testing included. No one here worries much whether a bike is the right size for them; if the frame is too big, just pedal sitting on the top tube instead of the saddle.

image Memorable food moments: this “restaurant” in the side of a tire repair shop. Rice and beans and fried steak, with fresh salsa and fried plantains. $2. Because of food like this, Sebastiaan and I haven’t been using the camp stove all that much.

image Also roadside watermelon stops.

image Good places to make friends.

image Spotted just before leaving: hammocks are everywhere, and truckers know how to hang in a guaranteed shady spot.

Guatemala.

imageBit of a catch up post, Guatemala is now over and done. Left San Cristobal and Mexico with Sebastiaan, from Belgium, backpacking the last 6 months down from New York, now giving biking a try. Pretty sweet to be riding with company again.

image Sebastiaan.

image Relinquishing the relative coolness of the mountain heights of San Cristobal, descending to the jungle below.

image Where waterfalls make the perfect afternoon rest stop. The road from San Cristobal to the Mayan ruins at Palenque boasts two huge falls, where everyone goes. The road from Palenque along the Guatemalan border also hosts several waterfalls, a little smaller, but much less crowded and great places to relax.

image 7am river crossing to Guatemala.

image Where we’re welcomed and escorted through the village.

image The first two days across the border are spent crushing a hardpacked dirt road to Flores. Great riding, if a tad dusty.

image Ever present heat = frequent drink stops.

image At Flores, meet up with Stanford friends Anne and Kamil to explore the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Great choice for spring break, guys! Thanks for visiting!

image Tikal temple.

image Looming high, steps to the sky.

image Photo credit to Anne/Kamil.

image Credit again to Anne.

image After a few days rest, back on the road, heading into the mountains to Semuc Champey. First on asphalt…

image Then onto 24hrs of loose and rocky climbing, up, down, breathless, recover, struggle another few hundred meters, repeat. Practicing for the Andes again.

image Up high, at the end of the steepest section, Jorge and his family offer us a place to sleep for the night.

image Setting out the next day, after a few hours a forced rest stop waiting for the road to clear.

image And finally, the start of the descent.

image To the Semuc Champey pools. Time to swim!

image A short rest first.

image Water park playground.

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image From Semuc, we head back east to the Caribbean coast and into Honduras. The last stretch of road to the border is lined by some of the banana and pineapple plantation remnants of United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company. Proximity to which ensures plenty of cheap roadside fruit vendors.

image Next up: Honduras, country #5.

San Cristobal Snapshots.

Caught in that vortex. Traveling rule, the longer you stay the harder to leave. Looking at the map together, Peter says why go, just settle in, stay. But my time is coming soon. San Cristobal snapshots.

image Old-school VW bugs, integral Mexican identity.

image Street coloring.

image Locals and indigenous people selling goods.

image Fruit among them.

image Plentiful.

image To escape the city, head into the surrounding mountains. Various iOS and Android apps can supply GPS routes, though the backup option is just to get away from the highways and start on the network of back roads.

image Riding into the countryside.

image To the church at San Juan Chamula, a Catholic church that the local people reclaimed.

image Back in town, past the unmistakable smell and sound of a tortilleria, the machinery within pressing and shaping masa dough into those small discs.

image Bean vendor in the market.

image Lookout onto the city.

image Meet the parents.

image Who bring some gear and clothes, some to swap out, some to use just for the week.

image Travel to ruins, these at Toniná.

image Atop a pyramid.

image To Palenque, massive Mayan site farther east in Mexico.

image Greenery and vegetation, in abundance.

image Alternative transportation.

image Some bike maintenance and tuning.

image Family shot.

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Border hopping, Mexico to Guatemala to Mexico.

imageA friend from Iowa City, some time in Germany, lived in Mexico City for a while, in Chile currently- we met in California- has Guatemalan roots and says she’ll be visiting there for a few days. I’m some muddled mix of European gringo roots, am in Mexico, and that’s close enough to arrange meeting up. Slightly too far to bike in time, which is maybe a blessing after seeing the mountains between San Cristobal and Guatemala City. So instead Ace gets stashed in a hostel in Mexico, and I jump on a few buses. There and back in a few days- fast transit! Ximena, good to see you!

imageThat border crossing. Full of money changers and street vendors selling every type of clothing or knick-knack you might want.

imageThat bus- first class! I.e. what only tourists take.

imageAnd back to Mexico!

To San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Pros: hit a reasonably good wind gap through the Isthmus, buffeted only a little by sidewinds that died down in the afternoon. Lucky. And that same day was flagged down on the road by a WarmShowers host (warmshowers.org, CouchSurfing for touring cyclists), then welcomed into a home for the night. Anyone passing through Zanatepec should look up Rodrigo’s and Lupita’s house, just follow the signs literally painted onto the highway or ask anyone in town.

Cons: struck by first bout of sickness just before crossing the isthmus, but luckily only spent one day emptying my guts everywhere. After witnessing one such episode, a kind woman, Margarita, at a comedor taught me the local word for soup (caldo) and let me crash there for the afternoon and night. Thankful.

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The Oaxaca to San Cristobal route is bounded on both sides by mountains. First, descend from Oaxaca City down to the coast, exiting the Sierra Madre Sur mountain range. Cue heat and hammock country.

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Standing water- long time no see.

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Mountainous treetops to dry lowlands, where shade has even higher value. Note background windmills- a cautionary sign for cyclists, and even drivers here. Winds sometimes blow strongly enough to toss over tractor-trailers.

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Though the grazing cattle seem to pay the wind no mind.

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And once the stomach had recovered…

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Scenery changes.

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Entering Chiapas sees an immediate shift in road graffiti, nearly all taking on a religious message. San Cristobal de las Casas sits up at 7200′, so getting there involves a roughly 7000′ climb from the lowlands to the surrounding mountains. There are two routes to choose from, the new toll road that does the climb in ~40km, or the old highway that winds through small indigenous villages for a slightly longer 65km. I took the old highway, and even starting early in the morning, didn’t get to San Cristobal until late afternoon. A good climb, great for the appetite!

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From one set of mountains to the next: welcome the Sierra Madre de Chiapas!