Panama - A little bit of everything
The last one in the pile of all these little Central American countries was of course Panama. This long stretch of land offers it all: the Caribbean, the Pacific, a beautiful mountain range, the huge controversial and cosmopolitan capital Panama City as well as little indegenous communities living their traditions as good as they can.
We knew we would have about a month of time to explore Panama before going over to South America. We would wait for Aaron to come back from a short trip home to the US and bringing stuff for us as well. So, we went nearly everywhere :-)
One tough cycle day through the first hills after the Costa Rican border and a lancha ride the next morning and we arrived in Bocas del Toro, a beautiful archipel of differently sized islands in the Caribbean. We stayed for five days and unfortunately only enjoyed exactly one of these: our „half-a-year-on-the-road-day“ on Bastimentos island with our cycle friends Aaron and Nick was sunny and great! The other days we have been sick and the weather was grey and rainy – but perfect for blog and bike working…
When we felt better we started slowly climbing into the mountains heading to the Pacific side again. It was hot, the slope partly extremely tough and we were not really fit. But the route was beautiful and we did not want to give up. Sitting at a gas station one morning drinking some coke to get sugar, we met Marcia, a Panamanian lady, who directly started chatting to us in English: „Are you crazy or what? You want to cross these mountains with your bikes?“ She offered us a ride with one of her truck drivers of her wood business. When we refused she gave us her number just in case, she really wanted to help somehow… This night we slept in a basement of a house up in the mountains, enjoying the fresh cool air before it would be hot again at the Pacific side. But then at midday we both had a really bad diarrhea attack again, on top of the mountain range –not nice! Over the last hills we went on the back of a pickup and then called Marcia who said we should directly come to her and her German boy-friend Will’s house. Luckily, we just had to roll down to David. And now she could really help us: we stayed in their house and she drove us and our little puh samples to the laboratory. The result: Amoeba, some of the bad ones, probably from bad water. Marcia and Willi were so cool, we could stay until we got better and in the third day we already climbed up the volcano Barú near Boquete together. At least Hardy and me made it to the top through amazing and quickly changing vegetation, walking through enchanting farytale forest, through the clouds up to a space-stationlike top. But the 28 km with 1,200 m of climbing (up to 3,400 m) was definitely too much for our poor cycling legs. Just not used to walking that much any more!
Happy that we could use the other muscle groups again we cycled on to Las Lajas, a very laid back village and beach community at the Pacific. Once more we were lucky and could camp at Peter and Astrid’s Dive Center – playing pool, sharing nice food and stories before heading on to Panama City…
Costa Rica – feel the difference
We saw, we smelled, we felt the difference as soon as we entered Costa Rica – like we never did before moving ourselves from one country into the other…
First of all: this country is sooo clean! No rubbish and junk in the streets, tidy little gardens and an obviously well working waste separation. We can drink the tab water without worrying, people on motorcycles wear helmets and reflecting stripes, pickups do not drive with bunches of people on the back and we even found a little bicycle path out of the first town!
The only thing that diminished our joy was the fact that streets in Costa Rica are generally narrow and do not have side shoulders for us to cycle on, the drivers often behave like asholes. But anyway, we enjoyed our first day in this country so much, cycling up and down and up through beautiful hills, aromatic orange and pineapple plantations…
The first night we ended up camping next to a (very clean!) cowshed. Orlando, the owner, directly offered us fresh coconuts (actually a really good natural electrolyte source for us) and was so happy to help us as he never saw cyclists like us before. This night was a very nice and quiet one – a beautiful start into a beautiful country!
We headed east to the Caribbean coast again and were lucky meeting the nice family Aguilar in Aguas Zarcas who let us camp on their land and even invited us for breakfast the next morning. It has been some time that this happened to us – Costa Rica is different! Of course, it is really rich in contrast to other Central American countries and accordingly more expensive. Costa Rica always had good relations to the US and realized very early how to benefit from tourism. This is what it is all about in the country, but in a very positive way. We were just not used to such an touristic infrastructure any more.
The scenery was overwhelming for us with the rainforest on endless hills, but very humid, too. Aaron said it reminded him very much on Hawaii. But as we have never been to Hawaii we were really impressed.
It was the fist time after months that we saw professional cyclists on the streets again and people reacted differently on us. Cars stopped to take pictures or videos, a Chiquita manager desperately wanted to help us with whatever (and bananas are always welcome, of course!) and there were no more „Gringooo“-yelings on the streets.
But people started warning us – Limón (the first Caribbean town on our way) is dangerous, don’t go there! Well, we did, but just for a lunch stop. And they were right: the city and people are just not nice and you want to get yourself out of there as soon as you can! So we stopped at Cahuita that day and stayed to see the small but beautiful National Park in which the rainforest directly hits the water, slightly interrupted by some heavenly white sand beaches. We walked the 8km trail, full of hope to point a sloth for the first time. And yes, there it was! Hanging in between some palm tree leaves it choose a comfy place to do just one thing: being lazy! It moved sooo slow, taking its time for every toe, arm, leg… Supposedly sloths need one month to digest after eating!
The way to the Panamanian border took us through banana land for hours. Plantation after plantation, in between some poor worker settlements. This is where our bananas come from, Chiquita, Dole, del Monte, they all are all there. It only takes about two weeks that these brightly green bananas arrive in the German supermarkets, 10 to 11 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, that’s fast, isn’t it?
Off the beaten track through Nicaragua
As we try to avoid the Panamerican Highway as much as we can we decided to take a route around the Eastern side of Lago Nicaragua down to Costa Rica. This decision was against Ometepe, the little Volcano island in Lago de Nicaragua, against the beautiful beaches at the Pacific but for a route with a very different beauty. A beauty of loneliness, rawness and realness. Dusty roads through kilometers of rice fields neither shown on our maps nor on the GPS, the real friendliness of the poor, children being so happy to see us strange cyclists that they followed us for kilometers with their little bicis. We camped in between the rice fields next to the workers’ shacks, being bothered by millions of moscitos and in beautiful seemingly endless hilly landscapes.
We welcomed every day with the sunrise (got up at 5.30 am!!!) and a coffee in front of the tent, being so happy about our decision to realize this trip, just to go and enjoy every single day of our great lifes! Thanks to our friend Aaron even Hardy gets up for the sunrise now! We are so proud of him, nearly every morning :-) !
The route first took us to Managua where we had to stay for a night. We met the English touring cyclist Dr. Steve Fabes and had a nice chat on the street exchanging information. We also had an interesting stop at an (in our eyes) oldschool brickworks. This guy produces 200 bricks in one day by his own hands! But there is not one single reason why a cyclist should go to Managua, it is ugly and dangerous and does not look like a capital at all. So we just tried to get out as soon as we could the next morning. After a few days on back roads at the Northern end of the lake we turned onto the brandnew road from Juigalpa to San Carlos. Again, it was the friendliness of the people that made it such a beautiful experience, we met huge families, the poorest of the poor, proud gauchos and learned about horse harness traditions. We had very little traffic, perfect asphalt, beautiful untouched nature as far as we could see, but a strong headwind! For days!
After a tough day of 116 hilly kilometers we finally arrived in San Carlos, it rained and we took a rest for two days, saw Niko again and got prepared to leave Nicaragua by boat on Rio Frio to Los Chiles in Costa Rica – one of the most relaxed border crossings… up to the moment when a fat Tica guy wanted to fumigate our bikes and Aaron got into such an agressive discussion with him that finally Police showed up… Well, just a question of power…
Faces of Nicaragua
We are really impressed by the open-minded and solidly mentality of the Nicas. Thank you for all the help and great moments on our way…
First days in Nicaragua – Leon
Shacks made of plastic sacks
Children in frazzled hammocks
Nothing to buy, no street stalls, no tiendas…
On our first 50 km in Nicaragua this country seemed to be even poorer than Honduras. People had just nothing, a sad welcome to be honest. It was hot and dry… and then suddenly turned into a lush green when we came to the delta of Estero Real, rich in colors and agriculture. It was like a release! A little wind came up and we enjoyed it so much to cycle towards the volcanoes!
When we asked for camping at a cotton factory site that night we directly learned about the hospitality of the so called Nicas. „Si claro“, he answered before we even could explain about what we are doing etc. He told us very proudly „we are very solidly in Nicaragua, you won’t have any problems here in my country!“ The international soldarity movement against the Somoza dictatorship especially in the 1980’s left its positive marks… Of course, we were happy to hear that!
The next day on the road to Leon we experienced the wind from the other side – what a horrible headwind! This was really tough cycling on a packed road with loads of junk flying around everywhere. We will always associate Nicaragua with strong winds. In the relaxed and cultural rich colonial town of León we recovered and stayed a couple of days to meet our friend Niko. So good to see him on this side of earth – but far too short! He came with a filming team to work in Nicaragua for a couple of weeks and unfortunately was quite busy… Again we got some supplies from Germany – thanks, Niko!
Nicaragua is full of Cathedrals, it was not always that poor as it is today, in the 1960’s even the Costa Ricans came over to work here. For decades the country controlled the only warm-water-route between the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea and had lots of money to spend for churches. León has the biggest Cathedral in whole Central America: Basilica de la Asunción. We spent one fun morning on top with Aaron…
Quick and dirty through Honduras
Still in El Salvador, we met the Dutch cyclist Albert who immediately decided to ride with us through Honduras as this is not supposed to be the safest road. So, the group kept on growing…
Some 50 km before the border to Honduras we cycled into a strike that caused a traffic jam for nearly 10 km. Workers were demonstrating against work conditions and blocked the whole street burning wood and tires. At least they got quite some media attraction – and they wanted to get even better pictures of the riot when we were coming through (unfortunately without any problems, so no dramatic pictures for them!). We had to tell them in a little interview that we had no problems coming through… talking about our project was finally more interesting.
On this road we saw many people selling iguanas, a speciality in El Salvador. You probably won’t find it as a dish in a restaurant but people prepare these poor things at home for a nice Sunday lunch. They are probably presented tied up like this for days until somebody releases them from suffering in his cooking pot.
The border into Honduras was not nice but without any problems for us in the group. Actually, we cycled through the country in only four days. A busy and hot road through very poor vegetation as well as little poor settlements in between the few cities. In Choluteca we stayed with the bomberos (firemen) again. They even offered us beds in the dorm this time as well as an own bathroom for the only lady in the group – very friendly and helpful guys!
On the border to Nicaragua we finally said goodbye to Harco and Albert who couldn’t wait to go fast again! Rushing through is just not our thing, we want to take time to get to know about a country and its people… So, we went on into Nicaragua in a threesome with Aaron.
El Salvador: four days in Nueva Esperanza
A special community with an interesting history. In the quiet village Nueva Esperanza in the middle of El Salvador, everything seems to be alright. Although the people are obviously poor from our point of view, they consider themselves to be rich. They survived the Civil War, they hold together and help ech other. Everybody here owns some animals, has enough to eat, most people live in stone houses, they ride horses or bicycles, some even have cars… We stayed at Soledad’s Guest House and she told us a lot about Nueva Esperanza’s history:
During the Civil War in El Salvador from 1980 – 1991 the community left Nueva Esperanza little by little and escaped to Nicaragua until nobody was left. Soledad told us cruel stories about the death squads of the military regime and their living conditions in Nicaragua. It is terrifying how much the US government under Reagan was involved in this war and how they supported the right military dictatorship with arms and trainings. The special thing about Nueva Esperanza is that nearly all the survivors came back to the village as soon as war was over and worked together to build up everything again. The national trauma of the war is still very obvious, says Soledad. But at the same time the Salvadorians are happy and proud that the opposition was able to overturn dictatorship and establish a democracy. Although the ownership of land and ressources not really changed after the war… This is still one of the greatest problems in the country: The whole land is in the hands of a few families who even control which seeds the little farmers can buy on the markets…
In the end, we actually stayed longer than we wanted because Lena got ill again with a bacterial infection, but everybody was really helpful, she felt better quickly. And the people were so happy that we came to visit that they even organized a dance presentation of the traditional youth dance group!
One eyed dude on the road
We met this dude on the way to Nueva Esperanza – him sitting at the side of the street, reading his book in front of a tree was such an impressive picture that we had to stop and talk to him. Only at the second glance we recognized in which poor condition he was – really deeply moving for us. We gave him some food (he didn’t even ask for money) and took these pictures…
Who knows if he was really reading a book or writing down the story of his life.
El Salvador: New Year in El Zonte and camping at the firemen
With Harco the Velosophics group had a new member for about two weeks. But Lisa was missing! We had to find her again for New Year – and so we did in El Zonte, a friendly little village and surfing spot at the Costa del Balsamo.
The first night there was horrible. We stayed in a small half private house half Hospedaje. At four a clock in the morning a drunk couple, maybe also on drugs, came back and started beating against our room wall. When Hardy asked them to be quiet they came out shouting „What’s your problem, he?“ „My problem? Shut the fuck up! It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and we want to sleep!“ Hardy was just too upset being woke up in the middle of the night like this. It made this crazy monkey even more aggressive, he grabbed with his arms through the window, spit at us and tried to break into our room while yelling at us: “You wanna fuck with me – I kill you – open the door or I’ll kick it in!!!“. A rush of adrenalin through our bodies… When Aaron came out with his bear spray in his hands they were luckily disappeared into their room again. But still, they kept on beating the wall from time to time which kept us awake…
We directly changed the hotel next morning, which was the best decision anyway: We had a great New Year with the people in Costa Brava Hotel and stayed there for four days with Lisa.
Our days in El Zonte were all about swimming, eating, relaxing and enjoying the sunsets and sunrises at the sea… At New Years Eve something happened what unfotunately belongs to every day life in El Salvador: Two young and probably drunk boys drove with their car into a power pole. Electricity broke off for the whole night in the village, the fiesta at the beach as well as the fireworks were canceled… A sad moment in the community – but we still had a great start into the New Year. A yummy candle light dinner, singing and drinking rum in a nice group of Salvadorians and six other nationalities, a big bonfire on the beach and some of us even went for a night swim.
We left on the 2nd January, Lisa by bus, Harco with race bike speed, Aaron and us in our normal touring cycling habit. We wanted to meet again two days later in Nueva Esperanza, a small community in the middle of nowhere that the Costa Brava people highly recommended to visit. They directly told their friends there that we were coming…
While Harco and Lisa arrived that day, we stopped after 80km in Zacatecoluca and asked at the Bomberos to stay for a night. They were supernice, directly integrated us in their soccer match (that Hardy and Aaron gave up after 10 minutes while Lena had great fun playing with the firemen guys!) and let us camp safely in between the fire trucks… They even drove us to have dinner in town in the evening!
Leaving Guatemala – Entering El Salvador
It was time to leave Lago de Atitlan, we couldn’t wait to be on our bikes again. Too much sitting and eating, too big bellies…
Now we were a trio: We left San Pedro la Laguna together with Aaron in the early morning on a beautiful lancha (little boat) ride. On the way out of this mountanious region we had lots downhill cruising – what can be nicer than that??? We went back to camping as much as possible in these days and it felt great!
In the small town Brito we accidently met Harco, a Swiss cyclist we knew from earlier in San Pedro as well, again. We thought we could maybe meet in El Salvador for New Year but there he was! Unfortunately, Lena got ill that day. And down at the costal line the heat nearly melt us. So we made only short day stages after entering El Salvador.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and has the highest population density at the same time. It is also supposed to be one of the most dangerous places in Central America, but the tiny country surprised us with its superfriendly and helpful people from the very beginning. No more GRINGOOOO shoutings but nice greetings, often even in English: „Heyyy, where are you going?“ „Thank you for visiting our country!“ It seemed like every third Salvadorian tried to jump the fence at least once in his life, worked in the US, came back… and is proud to speak some words in American. Paul, a cyclist from Belgium who we met on the street cycling the opposite direction, said the same. He is already on the road for three years and nine months – impressive and enviable!
The second night in El Salvador we reached the Pacific Ocean, black Volcanoe sand and a wild sea. For us, it was the first time swimming in the Pacific – and we nearly forgot about how amazing a bath in the ocean is after a hot cycling day!