It’s a difficult thing to cycle through a country and resist the urge to explore the hell out of it. Look at Honduras on a map and you’ll see just how big and inviting a land it is. Check out the Mosquito coast in the north-east and try resisting the opportunities that is presents to bicycle travellers. For the first time on this tour I’ve managed to do just that, resist, and would you believe it, have started moving south. That said, it wasn’t really even a decision as despite the general lack of rain it is rainy season and that generally rules out a fair amount of the more involving Honduran routes. Still cycling in convoy (generally about 20 yards behind and sweating profusely) with Sarah and James, we devised a route through Honduras and El Salvador that we hoped would give us a representative take on countries too easily sped through yet also deliver us into Nicaragua in good time. What followed was a great mix of riding that opened up both topography and society, whilst reaffirming why we like to ride the way we do.
Arriving in Copan and Honduras just over two weeks ago, the increase in temperature on the Guatemalan highlands we’d just begrudgingly left behind was quite startling. We had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting some other traveller types in our hostel in Copan who managed to take time out of their bizarre story battles (you haven’t really travelled unless you’ve seen a dead body) to inform us that things were only going to get hotter as we moved south. They were right, it’s bloody hot and muggy here in Leon, Nicaragua, but I think I’m adapting. Anyhow, we hung onto cooler climes as long as we could by opting for a mountainous course through Honduras that dropped us into the far eastern corner of El Salvador via the Guerilla stronghold of Perquin. Then there was no escaping the heat as we dove down to join the more conventional and rapid route in the lowlands. A little over 26 hours in El Salvador and we were again in Honduras before a couple of days later crossing into Nicaragua and the land of majestic volcanoes.
One of the major factors in cementing my successful alliance with Sarah and James has been our mutual love of riding our bikes and the value we place on the access bike travel affords us to less journeyed roads and seldom visited parts of countries. Although not gnarly rough riders to the extent of tourists such as Tom and Sarah (Banff to the Bottom) or Cass Gilbert, we do enjoy getting on dirt roads and don’t mind a bit of punishment so long as it offers just reward. This last couple of weeks has therefore fitted us perfectly, balancing some great lesser travelled dirt tracks with a steady progress and rewarding window into the worlds we’ve been moving through.
Although our daily climbing stats continued to spill over 4,000 feet gained a day, the humps and bumps of Honduras proved to be markedly less severe than those of Guatemala. There is much more of a roll to the Honduran landscape, something that immediately struck us as we opted to take the main road from Copan Ruinas up through La Entrada and then down into Gracias. Although definitely home to more traffic than is preferable, these roads were still beautiful and laid the beauty of the Honduran landscape before us. Honduras at this time of year is so amazingly green and lush, offering up some stark contrasts with familiar old Guatemala. In Honduras there are swathes and swathes of forest punctuated with agriculture, a massive change from Guatemala where deforestation is a well publicised problem.
Once we’d moved away from the border region the Honduran people opened themselves up to being just as kind and respectful as we’d become accustomed to in Guatemala. Although not quite as reserved as their western neighbours and definitely more prone to the anger swelling cries of ‘Gringo, hey Gringo‘ (grrrrrrr) we met with some genuine kindness. And, despite reportedly having the highest murder rate in the world (just above El Salvador), and an obvious and very visible penchant for carrying firearms, it felt quite relaxed and friendly. Three times on this fleeting visit we were afforded kind hospitality by Hondurans: First in the village of Miguel Guandapla between Gracias and La Esperanza where Jose allowed us to sleep in his workshop, gave us coffee, food and a great insight into how his country works and why nearly every male in the region has spent at least some time working in the USA. Then by the soldiers at a small military outpost just under a mile from Sabanetas on the way to the Perquin border crossing into El Salvador. Thirdly, in the lowlands of Valle province where a family allowed us camping space in their yard and a valued look behind the scenes of rural Honduran family life (every household has children, old folks and dogs). Much kindness and once again (after Guatemala) plentiful evidence of the overwhelming lack of opportunities and wealth amongst the general populace of these places.
Coming hot on the heals of a blissfully cool day-off in La Esperanza, the highest town in Honduras, the day and a bit of dirt road through Marcala, across the border into El Salvador and on to Perquin, was definitely the jewel in the crown of the entire stretch from Copan to Leon. Generally of well graded dirt, the road did in places up the gnarly factor with large and loose rocks but was generally very fair. The road less travelled, it took us up and down through some beautiful pine forest and wild lands unlike anything I expected to find in Central America. The landscape was largely unspoilt and absolutely gorgeous as we dropped down into a very noisy Sunday lunch time in Marcala and then changed to markedly more agricultural as we passed through regular small hamlets on the climb back up to the border. As mentioned, we had an interesting stop over in a military outpost near Sabanetas. This time it wasn’t the staring kids that caught our attention, more the two giant bulls who shared our field. That experience has taught me that pitching up between two randy bulls and a field of cows with their own stud is not always the best idea. There was a lot of snorting and hoof scraping intermingled with a generous amount of slobbering on Sarah’s bike. Thankfully our two fieldmates got shut away for the night and our heads weren’t crushed like watermelons in the night.
Having congratulated ourselves on taking the time to explore a bit of Honduras and not just sprinting the easier but hotter transit route south through the El Salvdorian lowlands, we were slightly hypocritically in El Salvador for just one night and little over a day in total. The original intention was to sleep in Perquin itself and take half a day off. There was no obvious and affordable place to stay so we forged on to the town of Osicala to sleep. Perquin is famed for being the guerilla stronghold during the 1980-1992 Salvadorian Civil War. We took the time to visit one of the museums and were shocked to learn details of the massacre at El Mozote just down the road where the military walked in and slayed over 750 men, women and children in 1981. All a bit frightening and really not so long ago. It was interesting to rock up in Osicala though, a thriving little town where people were out on the streets and seemingly having fun. The place was quite reminiscent of Cuba, something that crossed our minds frequently over the coming couple of days.
Once out of the mountains and on the main roads of the lowlands things took a distinctly utilitarian turn. Time on the busy, flat and bloody hot Pan American highway was valuable only in that it reminded us (if we needed any reminding) just why we try to avoid it like the plague. Truth be told, it was a very very uninspiring experience; I’ve no idea how or why people follow this road all the way through to Panama. Our best experience on this stretch before we ventured back onto unpaved business in Nicaragua was James negotiating us out of paying a hefty fine at the Honduran border for not stamping out when we entered El Slavador (there were no Honduran immigration services at our crossing). But like I say, once in Nicaragua we left the highway and hit the dirt in an attempt to find a small track between Volcans Santa Clara and Telica through to Leon. We found the road but it was too sandy to warrant the effort. Still, the excursion gave us a beautiful moonlit night camped up in a friendly finca and a window into the poverty ordinary rural Nicaraguan people live with. A stark contrast to the very North American influences in central Leon.
On the way into Leon we enjoyed the rare experience of meeting a couple of other cycle tourists coming the other way. Ernest and Liana hail from South Africa and have been travelling by bike for over five years. It’s always a treat to meet folks who have been going so long, they usually and did in this case, lack any ego. They offered a welcome interlude from our ride into Leon where our first stop was the Nicaraguan branch of Quetzaltrekkers, for whom I worked in Xela, Guatemala. It’s been interesting to witness the differences between how things are run down here to what I experienced up north but more on that later. Now I’m about to take a bit more time off the bike but again, more on that later…