First experiences: Hiking an ultra-peak, camping under a truck, diving, getting a hotel with Paul since we began riding, talking on a radio show, cycling with Canadians, and seeing a sloth in the wild.
After nearly six months in Mexico, and four months in Belize, crossing the rest of Central America was fast, even though we were purposely taking our time. It’s near the end of rainy season and the October winds kept the temperatures slightly cooler.
Border territories are known to be rough. Although we never had any problems, our first day crossing into El Salvador was memorably uncomfortable. No longer were there smiling indigenous Guatemalans. From the border to the next village, all the northern Salvadorians scowled at us. The first town we arrived to, Cara Sucia (coincidentally means Dirty Face) did not feature a friendly community. We arrived at the local police station to ask for camping, as we usually do at town fire stations. But the police ignored our request. Their suggestions to camp elsewhere were lame and the message basically told us to take off. This signaled red flags that here in Cara Sucia, we were on our own. We gave in to renting our first hotel room together.
Besides the Cara Sucia, the rest of El Salvador was more welcoming. It’s a small country, so it was only day two to reach San Salvador. Paul had anticipated meeting Alejandro. He was a student of Paul’s brother, in France, in the Samba drumming school, Batook. Alejandro met us at a gas station and we spent the first night at his parents. After a warm welcoming breakfast, the family invited us to stay at their newly renovated flat for rent. It was luxury! A 3 bedroom flat, on the fourth floor, had a balcony overlooking a lovely park, and located in a pleasant neighborhood near the university and cafe. Spending our weeks with Alejandro was full of laughs and intellectual conversation. He works hard supporting the awareness about the human and environmental damages from El Salvador mining industry. We hung out with his awesome friends like Irene, Carlos, Olivia, and his two brothers. We went out together to check out the nightlife at the beach and many other nights, we shared dinner on the balcony of our flat.
On the uphill highway to San Salvador, a guy pulled over on the side of the road stopped me to ask where I was cycling from. His name is Herbert, and it turns out he loves biking and has a plan to bike tour through Europe with his buddy, Lovo. We met Herbert and Lovo for lunch eating pupusas and shared advice about long distance bike touring.
Herbert is full of energy, loves to bike, and loves to help others. He cleared his schedule to take us around the city. Herbert and Lovo took us to every bike shop in the city so we could stock up on gear we needed. He helped me search for materials so I could make my bici-liquadora prototype (inspired by Maya Pedal). Paul went a couple times with the guys to their exclusive “gym” which is really the nearby volcano where all the competitive dirt-bikers charge the downhill.
They spoiled us a bit more when they took us to dive in a lake. Paul is certified to dive. I’m not, but the guys wanted to include me in, too. Lovo arranged with his friend, Mitchell, a dive-master, to take me out for a “discovery dive”. Usually a discovery dive is done in a pool, or strictly in shallow water. I took a practice course with Herbert’s friend Jessica, in the shallow waters of the lake. The restriction of breathing underwater had me nerve wreaked! I cried when I had to perform the drill of filling my mask with water and blowing it out with my nose. I feared that I could accidentally drown myself. The time came for everyone to get on the boat and go out for the dive. I wasn’t sure if the dive-master was seriously taking me out for the dive because I has only rehearsed drills for 15 minutes! The fins were on, the air-tank secured to my vest, and I rolled back-first into the lake with everyone; Paul, Herbert, Lovo, Jessica and Mitchel. I panicked when we descended for the first meter. For the second submersion, I swallowed my fears and committed to dive down to the floor. Paul held my hand as we floated through this exciting new world of breathing underwater. My anxiety was replaced by my full concentration to dive according to the rules.
If you never dived before, here’s the quick rundown; there are two tube tentacles on your left. One controls the air in your vest and with this you can either deflate the air to have less buoyancy or inflate it for more buoyancy. The other is for checking how many feet you are underwater. One of the right tentacles has a mouthpiece that allows one to breath oxygen from the tank. Since speaking underwater is not advisable, communicating with hand signals like “I’m A-OK” or “I need to go up because I am in the red for air” is crucial. If the visibility is crap, like it was for us, it is imperative that the group stays together. At a depth of sixty feet underwater, I feared that if I even accidentally spit out my mouthpiece, I’ll be screwed! Good thing there is an option to manually blow water out the piece or flush the excess water with a press of the button.
The two dive experience was AMAZING. It wasn’t a dive in the Caribbean with sea turtles, but we hovered about fumaroles and perfectly rounded lava rocks on the floor. We also made crabs dance. Sometimes they scream, which only could be heard underwater, if they are really annoyed by the silly dance they were coerced into. (Only Alejandro can understand this joke.)
We attended a Thursday night gathering with the cycling community of San Salvador, for a night ride in the city. It was canceled because it began to rain, but we still had a chance to meet the local bike enthusiast and the two guys who started this weekly event.
We made our debut when Herbert got us invited to speak on a national morning radio-show, Pencho y Aida. We showed up early morning before eight to a super official building in downtown. We were nervous in the waiting room looking at Pencho and Aida through the glass wall speaking to all of El Salvador through giant studio mikes. I think we handled the interview better than we anticipated. I tried to answer all questions in my best Spanish, but I had to nudge Paul to the rescue many times. Their questions opened up the conversation reaching the heart of the messages that we wanted to deliver in this grand opportunity. Pencho amazed us with his smooth ways of cuing and keeping the flow of the conversation natural. Cute and witty Aida, livened the conversation. We shared breakfast on air with them, courtesy on behalf of the show and a local hotel. They gift us with Chilean wine and a El Salvadorian flag, and after the show wished us farewell. The next day, Paul and I went out to pick up the newspaper to read about our interview over breakfast.
Cycling the western territory of Honduras was a very short stretch. It was a 2 day ride through the countryside. The people were sweet and there were pointy hills everywhere that looked like a landscape in a Dr. Seuss book. In the big city, Cholutecla, it appeared to be another dirty old town. A sweet old man on a bike was our magical connection. We followed him to the hidden side of town where it was charming and colonial. He led us to a cafe which was to our standards, was perfect (if it has WIFI). It turned out the cafe owners, Frances and Emil, hosted cyclist before. We were invited to sleep in the cafe and the next morning Frances invited us to prepare whatever we wanted in the kitchen.
Next day we were 11 kilometers away when we stopped for lunch in a tiny rural village, which was more like a bus stop junction. After our taco lunch, Paul noticed his glasses were missing from his bike. At first everyone waiting around for the car pick-ups (camionetas) shrugged saying they didn’t see the theft, until one piped up about it. The observer said the thief had already hopped a camioneta. Paul got a Tuk-tuk driver to catch up to the sunglass-snatcher. It was quite amusing that this event provoked a high speed chase down a unknown dirt road in rural Honduras, for a pair of 2 dollar aviators. The Tuk-tuk driver stepped on the pedal full acceleration to catch up to the camioneta. The driver pulled-over and the perpetrator was pointed out. He handed the glassed back to Paul, but not without asking him to buy a soda in return… the nerve of this guy! Paul said it was just ridiculous to buy the guy who stole his possession a drink, which sent all the passengers in the camionate laughing.
We crossed the border of Nicaragua late in the day. We asked for camping in a trucker stop. The owner, Oscar a Nicaraguan expressed his appreciation for the United States. The time he was allowed to work there gave him the chance to improve his business in Nicaragua. He ordered our dinner at the restaurant “on the house” and we didn’t have to pay for camping. Instead of setting up the tent, we tried out a new way to camp the way we saw the truckers were doing; hanging hammocks under the trucks. A diver lent us his truck for the night. We had a whole cargo truck to hang our hammocks and our neighbors woke us up in the morning before they had to drive out.
It was a return visit for me in Tipitapa. I stayed with a Couchsurfing host, Martin, back in March ’12 when I was busing back North from Costa Rica to Mexico. This time, I returned with Paul to stay for a few days. A package was waiting for me at Matins home. It was a care package of wool clothing (for the future cold terrains) from my friend Will Adams who has recently began his Thirsty Bike tour in North America. We hung out with Martin’s friends who are a group of Germans volunteering at a library in Tipitapa.
We arrived to the port of Granada on the northern shore of Lago Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua) to catch a ferry to the famous Isla, Ometepe (Ometepe Island). Two Canadians arrived to the port just minutes after us. They, too, are touring the Americas and the rest of the world on bikes! So we joined our new cycling friends, Karen and Mike, on the ferry crossing the gigantic lake and for a few days on the island.
The day after arriving to the island, the team of four cyclists hiked up the volcano, Conception.
It took 3 hours to hike to the summit at 1610 meters. There trail was covered in rocks and most of the climb was steep. It had rained on us somewhere around the last quarter of the climb. At the top we scrambled over loose rocks to get to the crater opening. We sat for a couple hours with 3 more hikers at the summit. It was very cloudy, but there were many windows where we could see down of all the island, lake and the Volcano Merida across the island.
Despite the sore legs, the next day we cycled with Karen and Mike to the south side of the island. It was the first time we joined forces with more cyclist since Chris! And speaking of Chris… we met a swiss couple, Monica and Robbie. Both had been cycling EIGHT years around the world.. and are still rolling! They are going to continue for a couple more years until they settle down. Amazing! Their positive outlook and story inspired all of us that day to continue cycling.
We set up our tents in the yard of Hacienda Merida. We had an excellent day celebrating Paul’s birthday. We sent the day relaxing on the dock looking over the grand lake and the Volcan de Conception. Later we rented kayaks. Karen, Mike Paul, I and our new friend, Esteban kayaked the lake to a river that meandered through the wetlands. Karen and Mike were pointing out bird species. Between the orange sunset and the rising full moon, we kayaked back home under the biggest beautiful sky I had seen in a long time. We arrived in time for the dinner buffet. I stealthily arranged a birthday cake to be presented to Paul and we all sang him the “Happy Birthday” song.
The next morning, Karen, Mike and I made a short kayak trip out to Monkey Island. The owners of Hacienda Merida keep their moneys on these two nearby islands. As a clever adventure feature they suggest to kayak out to the islands to feed their monkeys the hostel kitchen scraps. Like the Lord of the Flies children, these chimps went nuts when we chucked them watermelon rinds. They were shoving each other, falling into the water, and greedily grabbed all the food scraps they could possibly hold. On these islands, it’s every monkey for themselves.
It was hard to leave this perfect paradise, but we cycled out to ride the overnight ferry to the south of the lake back on the mainland. The adventures with Karen and Mike continued. We boarded a small boat and rode down on the San Juan River Rio to a surprising touristy El Castillo. It riverside village 7O kilometers downriver in center of Nicaragua, just minutes north the border of Costa Rica. It may look remote on the map, but it’s a wonderland for tour is to explore the jungle wildlife reserves (and it cost less than half compared to the cost of tours in neighboring Costa Rica.)
Next day we took a canoe tour down the San Juan River. Our guides, Alvarado and Cesar, lead us down small riverbanks, deeper into the jungle. Our canoes quietly sailed down the rivers in a tropical jungle. We saw many birds and monkeys in the trees. Our most exciting finds of the day were a Cayman passing under our kayaks and a sloth way up in a tree.
The day out on the canoes was my 2012 Halloween. Different than how I usually celebrate it. I hope all my loved ones had a happy Halloween!
What’s more to come? We’ll find out.. next time…