Monthly Archive for April, 2012

Nicaraguan adventures

Kilometers this post: 654 biking, 12.4 hitching in 10 days of riding.


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The reason we liked Nicaragua so much didn’t have much to do with successes in tourism, but rather with making our own strange and winding path through the country and with the characters we met on our way. Actually, some of our finest moments were born directly from fantastically memorable failures in tourism. After spending a lazy Easter Sunday afternoon in the northern city of Estelí, we set off up a very steep, very loose gravel road in search of the Miraflor reserve, home to Nicaragua’s most celebrated cloud forest. We got a late start, and a couple of hours into our slog (some parts were too steep to ride and the loose rocks took their toll on our patience at times), when a couple of nice guys in a giant, empty truck encouraged us to hop in or we’d never make it to the top by dark, we took them up on their offer. It was a good move. While we didn’t end up hitching for many kilometers, especially since they took us down a wrong turn and we had to backtrack a bit, the ride did save us a few painful hours of up. The Miraflor is an interesting place, because while it is a protected area, lots of farmers live there and are allowed to grow coffee and a few other crops. We even saw some folks burning the hillside to clear it for farming! Apparently, we didn’t make it far enough into the heart of the reserve to see the orchids and birds we were hoping to see, but it was a beautiful landscape nonetheless. Also, if we had made it, we probably would have needed to stay in an eco-tourism cabin of some kind instead of with a fantastically kind family who put us up in the earthen store room of their house when we asked to camp. They even brought us a table and chairs and the very smiley wheelchair-bound son shooed the dogs away with a whip while we cooked our pasta.

From the reserve, we rolled around through the northern countryside to the city of Jinotega, and while it was late in the afternoon when we pulled in, we decided to brave a late-day climb up to 1500m where we camped in the blissfully cool air beside a comedor. This energized us enough to bike our longest day yet (also, it was quite a lot of downhill) – 105km! Yes, many bike tourists log this on a daily basis, but not us, so we were pretty proud of ourselves. This MEGA-long day put us within a measly 60 flat kms from Leon, our next stop, so the next day we decided we had time for a detour to some “hervideros,” boiling volcanic pools of mud at the base of the active volcano Telica. We were chuckling a bit at how loosely guarded the area was compared with what liability would dictate was necessary in the good ol’ US of A, when a Nicaraguan kiddo ran up to us and put a small clay figure in each of our hands, telling us they were made from the hot clay around the pools. Sure that he’d ask for some dinero, Andrew tried to give his back, but the kid turned out to be incredibly awesome and not interested in hustling us at all, just in following us around and offering us interesting and helpful tips about the mud, the volcano, the trees, and whatever else came to mind. He was soon joined by an adorable muchacha, and we invited them both to have a soda with us. When we explained that we needed to find some internet to make a reservation in León, they happily took us on a walk through town to a café, where they watched the speed of our typing with some fascination. Goodbye hugs, and we were on our way to the colonial city of León, where as superb luck would have it, we had reserved two nights in a hostel where our buddy Luis from Mexico City, whom we had met back in Guatemala, was swinging in a hammock. We didn’t muster the energy for much sightseeing in León, since it was unbearably hot. We visited the art museum and the large, air-conditioned supermarket, chatted with Luis, and Andrew spent many hours in concentration making (drum roll, please) alcohol stoves out of tin cans! It turns out, it is hard to find clean fuel (white gas) to burn in our MSR Dragonfly in Nicaragua. So we had been burning diesel. Which smells like diesel. Andrew’s project has yielded a much faster, much cleaner way to prepare our ever-growing repertoire of one-pot meals.

From León, we were off to Granada, which was a trip the headwinds prevented us from completing in one day, so we picked a town in between that seemed like it would be big enough to find an hospedaje at the end of a long day of riding. Well, we were wrong about that, and found ourselves in a pleasant town square around sunset with nowhere to spend the night, too tired to continue out the other side of town. We were about to go ask for permission to put up our tent in the churchyard, when a bold 8-year-old boy ventured to invite us to spend the night at his house. That sounded great to us, and he explained that since his mom wasn’t around and he lived with only his grandmother, there was plenty of room for us to stay inside. We thanked him, and he encouraged us to grab some dinner before we headed home, because, he explained, home was a ways down the road. We tucked into some carne asada that a lady on the street heaped onto a plate with gallo pinto and plantains, and then started onward with our young friend. Soon, he suggested that he ride on Andrew’s top tube and we could all ride to the house because it would be quicker. OK, this was getting interesting, because it was dark, and we hadn’t really thought we’d be going far, but all of a sudden we were zipping down the highway three kilometers to a dark dirt road where our young guide told us to turn left. Then, we were wandering through a dimly lit community of tin shacks, and when we arrived at one, found it boarded up, locked, and abandoned. Over the next few minutes we prodded our friend for more explanation, and gleaned that this shack had at some point belonged to his mother, his grandma’s house was back in town, and he planned to leave us there and head back on the bus. Nervous, but brave enough to try setting up camp, we took out our headlamps. He told us that wasn’t a good idea here. It would be bad to attract too much attention. At this point, tired and frustrated, but under the impression that staying the night could well result in waking up to find our bikes gone, we decided to bike back to the town and try the church after all. Making our way through some not-so-pleasant leering and jeering by local dudes, another kid on a bike came up beside us. Something about his manner was the most confidence-inspiring part of our day, and he encouraged us brightly, but not without some urgency, to follow him to his house where we’d be safe. He explained that his mom had sent him to retrieve us. We took him up on his offer, and were soon welcomed, bikes and all, into a large, one-room ramshackle cabin with lots of beds where the whole family slept. We were told we’d take the double bed and the mom would climb in with her sister for the night. That settled, we all sat around drinking soda and chatting until bedtime. The incredible kindness, care, and generosity at the end of a fairly unpleasant day and unsettling evening transformed the whole thing into one of the top ten most memorable days of our trip. Sometimes, we are just plain floored by the loveliness of people. Though, lessons learned include: get all the information from the 8-year-old before you follow him home.

We made it to Granada on Lake Nicaragua safe and sound, and spent another day off the bikes enjoying perhaps the most charming-looking colonial city of our trip so far. We made friends with a guy in our hostel who reported that when he was a bike tourist, he ate mainly raw meat and raw eggs. Huh. Like we say, lots of different ways to do bike touring. We hear that lots of folks either ride the west side of Lake Nicaragua (about 160km long) to a land crossing into Costa Rica, and others take a boat the length of the lake, stopping on the island Ometepe which sits with its two awesome volcanoes in the middle of the lake. We chose for the third option, which involved 60km of unpaved road (parts of it very unpleasant) and plenty of river crossings, some of them sans ferry or bridge. Then there was 200ish km of beautifully paved rolling road through cowboy country. We are really happy to have seen this part of Nicaragua, though our days were long and hot. We used lots of bus stops for snack breaks, and when we were lucky, an old, bowlegged Nicaraguan cowboy would be hangin’ out in the shade with us, dropping all his “s”s and chatting up a storm. After our final stretch rife with steep little hills, we pulled into San Carlos, ready for another watery border crossing into Costa Rica, country #7.

Border crossings and lots of new pals

Kilometers this post: 541

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We’ve crossed three borders since last we posted, and have lots of stories and impressions to share. We spent our last days in Guatemala back down in banana-growing country, riding through the south-eastern corner at a lower, hotter altitude. During our last few days, we had the good fortune to run into several bike tourists. At the same time! Luis from Mexico City is taking a year to ride South (see his blog at vapalsur.com), and we hope to meet up with him again down the road, since we got along like peanut butter and bananas. Barbara and Achim from Germany arrived on the scene as we were hanging out with Luis, and we all rode together for a very little while. Chatting with these folks in the shade, though, inspired some ongoing musings about how many bike tourists there are around us at any given point, and how many different ways there are to do a trip like this. Some riders stay on dirt roads 100% of the time, some stick to pavement. Some ride only mountains, others only flats, and still others take a bus any time there’s a climb. There are those who ride over 100km every day, and those who average more like 40km, and everything in between. We may still be in the process of trying out different styles to find one that fits, or maybe our style is simply to change it up a lot. In any case, we’ve been through a lot of phases.

El Salvador was our HOT phase. We stayed along the coast road almost the whole way through, which meant lots of mangoes collected by the side of the road, ocean views and swims, and plenty of breaks in the shade to escape the 100 degree afternoons. So many people, (bikers, backpackers, locals, friends of all kinds) had told us to avoid El Salvador altogether, but we’re very glad we didn’t. The people we met were enthusiastic and friendly, and never shy to say exactly what they wanted to us. This made for some pretty fun interactions. One guy asked us how to report a crime in the US. Another told us a story about how he almost got a ticket for peeing against a building in the US but got off with a warning when he explained that he didn’t know because in El Salvador, cops don’t pay attention to that! A woman munching a delicious corn fritter-like thing broke off pieces and handed them to us when we asked what it was she was eating. When we were eating a (giant) watermelon in the shade, a man pulled over in his car and handed us a book that turned out to be about the philosophy of the gnostics and said it was “for our journey.” We left that one behind. But still, it was given with such kindness. Of course, some of the young dudes who felt they could say whatever they wanted to Aran grew extremely tiresome, but they were generally quickly forgotten.

Seven days of riding later we were at the Honduran border, which was the most hectic we’ve experienced, but we hit it early in the day, so we weren’t too tired to deal with the crowds, lines, money changers, folks who wanted to fill out our forms for us, etc. We then had our hottest and longest day yet, making our way along the Bay of Fonseca to Choluteca, where there is a terrific French-Canadian named Simon, who is a former bike tourist working for an NGO, and has opened his house to cyclists passing through. We overlapped at Simon’s house with Sarah and Geoff from England, who are great fun, and we spent an extra day resting in Choluteca, swapping notes and stories, cooking, patching tubes and planning our next leg. We headed out of Choluteca, ready and eager for Nicaragua, but needed to make one last stop at a store for some sun block. It was one of those lucky stops. While Aran was inside the store, Andrew struck up a conversation with a Honduran who was very curious about our bikes and our trip. We told him we were heading to the northern border crossing, and he told us he had a vacation home along our road, and explained exactly how to find his house. We had gotten a late start and it was a long climb, so when we arrived at Ramón’s house it was late enough to call it a day, and of course he was thrilled to invite us to camp! We spent an excellent evening walking around to look at the sunset, drinking some wine, and talking and talking until bedtime. It felt great to speak so much Spanish at once, when so many of our recent interactions had been a bit short and superficial. In the morning, after playing on his swingset, Ramón sent us on our way with a good breakfast and a recommendation for a bakery to try down the road.

If the Honduran border was overwhelming, the Nicaraguan border was the opposite. The border officials were relaxed and patient, and glad to have some people to talk to. There were no truckers, no lines of impatient people, and only one very helpful guy who took us to someone who could change our money at a reasonable rate. We are enjoying the hills of Nicaragua, as well as the approachable, relaxed culture. No one is working this week because of Semana Santa (holy week), which means tons of people are sitting on their porches or down by the rivers in large (often drunk) gatherings, so we get lots of loud, collective hellos. One of these groups, a family, yelled to us to come join them by the river. We did, of course. We swam with the kids, and the adults offered us a fermented corn drink that tasted a lot like salad dressing and burned a little. As we were getting back on our bikes, the police pulled up and piled out of a pickup truck with billy-clubs and submachine guns and told us we needed to be careful of people who wanted to rob us. They were far more intimidating than anyone else we’ve met so far. Don’t worry, friends and family, we are not cavalier. We are careful to read people’s faces and sometimes we do indeed move along quickly to avoid something uncomfortable. It is just that, those aren’t the fun stories, and they take up far less of our time. So we don’t dwell on them. We are now in the charming northern city of Estelí, where everything is closed because it is Easter. Tomorrow we’ll go a bit further north to a cloud forest called Miraflor with 200 kinds of orchid and more than 200 species of birds. Then we’ll return to the heat of the Pacific coast once again.

Roadkill highlights: