04.07.2003-05.06.2003 Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica|
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|Like many other large Latin American cities I'd cycled through, Tegucigalpa sits at the bottom of a large bowl. I therefore wasn't too excited about leaving that city, a sentiment that wasn't helped by the expectation that I would most likely take many wrong turns before finding my desired exit route. My solution to this situation usually involved dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. In doing this the worst of ride was usually over by the time I properly woke up. This was true of the ride out of Tegucigalpa and by late morning I was back in the pine trees of the surrounding hills. Some long descents and a few ascents brought me to Danli, where I spent my last night in Honduras. The next day I cycled up to the border and crossed into Nicaragua. Most of the backpackers I'd met who had traveled through Nicaragua praised it for its friendly inhabitants. Apart from Tegucigalpa I'd found the people of Honduras very friendly, in an unobtrusive sort of way. And so I was expecting the people of Nicaragua to be no less friendly, and hopefully even more so. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere but as I set off from the border I noticed a paradox I'd encountered in other poor countries: excellent roads with very little traffic. After Hurricane Mitch many foreign countries had stepped in to rebuild the country's devistated infrastructure. The result was excellent highways(complete with bike lanes!) in a country with few cars.
Soon I was back down near sea level again and the heat was more stifling than it had been on the entire trip. Despite the road conditions I didn't enjoy the riding. It was hot, windy and dusty. My guidebook said that April, the last month of the dry searson, was the only bad time of the year to be in Nicaragua. The landscape was parched and almost painful to look at. To worsen matters I had developed an annoying cold. And despite reports from those backpackers I didn't find the people especially friendly in my first few days. I wondered if it was in some part due to the region's history. It had suffered badly during the U.S.-backed Contra offensive in the eighties. Several towns had incurred heavy casualties and had fallen into rebel hands during that period. As a white person I was assumed(in my case correctly) to be an American. I had planned a few detours off the Pan-Am but I just didn't have the energy or the interest to scurry off into the hills. I proceeded directly to Granada, Nicaragua's version of Antigua. Its buildings have yet to be restored to the state of those in Antigua but perhaps the main reason it is inferior to its Guatemalan counterpart is its climate. Sitting not much higher than sea level it is a smouldering city, especially in April. Again my energy was sapped and I didn't bother to explore the city to the extent it deserved. Instead, I spent much time sitting in the pool at the aptly named Hostal Oasis.
Two days after I arrived in Granada I ran into Blair, who I had last seen in La Paz at the end of November. The next day we went down to the tourist center along the shores of Lake Nicaragua and did as the Nicaraguans did--passed the day with a bottle of rum, a bucket of ice and a bottle of coke. In the afternoon I noticed two other Westerners walking down the beach. They looked somewhat familiar and I soon recognized them as Dominique and Marian, our Swiss cyclist friends. We all went out that night and shared our experiences from the months we had been apart. The next day they remained in Granada and I cycled down to San Jorge, the jumping off point for the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Holy Week is probably the most frenzied vacation period in Latin America so I hoped to pass the worst of it on the island. I arrived on Holy Thursday and over the next few days stayed at several different locations on the island. The island is formed by two volcanos--Concepcion and Maderas, the isthmus between them created by their lava flows. Located along the isthmus and therefore affording views of both volcanos, Santo Domingo provided the nicest beach from which to enjoy the warm waters of Lake Nicaragua. Normally, the climb up Maderas would have proven irrestible but heat won out again and I either stayed in the water or sought refuge from the sun in a shaded hammock. On my last night on the island, and in Nicaragua, I finally experienced some of the Nicaraguan hospitality of which I had heard so much. I was camping on the grounds of a small guesthouse and at night decided to do some journaling. The family running the guesthouse and their friends were warming up for a trip to a rare disco in the nearby village. Upon seeing me alone near the lake they thought I was bored/lonely and decided to bring their little party(rum/ice/coke) to me. After several drinks and the usual inane conversation they departed for the disco and I retired to my tent, hoping to get some sleep before catching the early morning ferry back to the mainland.
I decided to leave Nicaragua on Easter Sunday. At the Nicaraguan border only a single window was open at immigrations and therefore a long wait ensued. After taking care of business on the Nicaraguan side I continued on to Costa Rica. There I found a line a half-mile long. If this were immigrations, I thought, it'd be dark by the time I received my visa and I'd be stranded for the night. It turned out I would not be the one getting stranded. The line was for those, Nicaraguan workers returning to Costa Rica after the holidays I suspect, waiting for onward transport into Costa Rica. Far fewer buses were running in Costa Rica than had been in Nicaragua. Costa Rica immigrations was quick and painless and with another stamp in my passport I had passed from the poorest to the richest country in Central America. I knew not to expect a drastic change in scenery but I did expect to see a few more, if not less brown, trees on the hillsides. This I did see and at day's end I entered Santa Rosa National Park, a vast stretch of tropical dry forest that continued down to the coast. Given the season everything was brown but this made game viewing easier and I saw my first Toucan as I cycled down the access road. When I arrived at the campground I was surprised to find a large number of tents. I was even more surprised to find a tour bus. However, after seeing Tortuga Verde on the side of the bus it all made sense. I was familiar enough with Green Tortoise(and their alternative tours) from my time in San Francisco. Had they not been there I would have been all alone so I was grateful for their company, as well as the fine food they gave me.
After Liberia the scenery finally started to green up. However, by then traffic was back to Mexico levels and I began to understand why there were only a handful of places in Mexico where I had actually enjoyed riding. In stark contrast to Nicaragua the Pan-Am in Costa Rica was potholed and uneven. I cursed it but I needed to arrive in San Jose to meet up with my sister in a few days so I didn't deviate. This route involved a long climb from the hot coast up into the temperate highlands. Perhaps what I hate most about the heat is that it prevents my body from settling into a nice rhythm. As I climbed out of Esparza my body struggled, its only answer to the heat being more sweat. I had to stop often for cold drinks and when I stepped off my bike my shoes sloshed from all the sweat that had run down my legs. Before entering any establishment I wrung out my shirt so as to minimize the size of the puddles I left behind. During one of these stops a trucker began chatting with me. He had found my ringing process quite amusing and asked me where I'd come from. I gave him the short description of my trip, the heat and hour of the day having left me capable of only the most basic Spanish. Most of the time, either from lack of education(a fair number of people have no idea where Alaska is, let alone Tierra del Fuego) or my Spanish these conversations usually don't go very far. Yet the trucker grasped exactly what I'd said and went on to make some fairly enlightened observations. He said someone doing a trip such as mine had to get all his gratification from within. He said there was no one cheering me on as I went up the climb. There would be no one at the top to congratulate me. There would be no one waiting for me in Tierra del Fuego. He said he wouldn't last 10k in that fashion and said he admired me for that. This was praise I could appreciate and it made me recall a day on the Icefields Parkway last summer. I had been on my way up one of the two passes on the Parkway, moving along steadily, comfortably, and enjoying the scenery. A woman cycling downhill from the opposite direction had shouted, "Way to go! Keep it up!" She was part of one of the van-supported tours that one encounters on the Parkway. Although well-intentioned, this remark came across as patronizing and irked me. It may have been appropriate on a day ride or directed at one of her fellow tourists but to me it was an invasion. I angrily thought to myself, I wonder where she'll be when I'm toiling up 4000m passes in the Andes a year from now. Will she be there to cheer me on again? Probably not. Most likely she'll be gathering with her friends in a cozy cafe to reminesce about the "adventure" they'd had on the Parkway the year before.
Cycling into San Jose was not as I had expected. I've cycled into a good many large Latin American cities and thought San Jose would be no different from all those others. I soon discovered that San Jose more closely resembled metropolitan areas in the States. It lacked the compactness of most Latin American cities and instead was surrounded by a suburban sprawl, complete with shopping centers and fast food chains. The ride from the outskirts to the center was therefore much more prolonged and not particularly enjoyable, much of it on a freeway.
In San Jose I traded in my bike for a rental car. My sister Kelly had flown in from San Francisco and we planned to spend a week or so touring part of the country by car. My birthday was the day before Kelly arrived and she came bearing gifts--new shorts, shirts, trousers, socks, tires, parts. I happily discarded my old clothing and eventually made my bike healthy again. Our first stop was the Volcano Arenal region. I've seen plenty of volcanos on this trip but Arenal is the classic Central American volcano, always active, spewing lava, ash and occasionally bolders. A sidetrip to the falls of La Fortuna provided a refreshing break from the heat and humidity. From La Fortuna we endured the rugged roads around Lake Arenal to visit Monteverde, home of the famed cloud forest. Monteverde presented the best chance of sighting a quetzal but we left without seeing that elusive bird. From Monteverde we drove down to the Nicoya Penninsula to do some beach time at Tamarindo. There we met Marty and Jo, my Australian friends I had last seen in Palenque. Kelly had couriered some gear for them as well and in exchange they gave Kelly some free surf lessons. The water was warm and the surf mellow, perfect conditions for beginners. This applied to me as well, for I had not mounted a board for nearly three years. Several days of coastal heat was sufficient for us so we moved into the hills of the Central Valley. Another volcano excursion, this time to the crater of Poas, followed. Our final nature outing took us to the falls of La Paz. No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to a butterfly garden and the park also satisfied this requirement, while adding a hummingbird garden as a bonus. Our trip concluded back in San Jose. From there I brought Kelly to the airport and wished her well on her return trip. The next day she would return to her office and I would return to my bicycle.
From San Jose I headed towards the port city of Puerto Limon. I had never been to the Carribean so I was eager to experience something new, as well as to get off the Pan-Am for a spell. After nearly ten days off the bike I experienced some expected discomfort making my way over the continental divide for what seemed like the up-teenth time on this trip. My route took me through Braulio Carrillo National Park, home to a sizeable rain forest. I was looking forward to this stretch but rain and dense fog obscurred all but a few views. After descending from the highlands I saw for the first time the type of landscape I'd always expected to see in Central America--dense vegetation and sprawling banana plantations. After a relatively short day I spent the night in Guapiles. After being on the tourist trail for some time it was nice to be somewhere where I was again the lone Westerner. The rainy season was starting to kick in and the veranda at my hotel was the perfect spot to enjoy the afternoon torrential downpour. The next day I arrived in Puerto Limon, a somewhat unkept town with a diverse population of Latinos, Afro-Carribeans and Chinese. I remarked on how at odds it seemed to be with the image of Costa Rica portrayed in all the tourist brochures. From Limon I looked forward to the lightly-traveled route along the coast into Panama.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||655 mi/1054 km||34550 ft/11335 m||1|
|Trip||11286 mi/18163 km||123 mi/199 km||14||