Location: Granada, Nicaragua
Wherever you are in the world, people love to tell you about the grizzly fate that awaits you in the next country along. In Canada, we heard about the gun toting hillbillies of backcountry America, destabilised by generations of incest and homemade corn liquor. In America, people literally prayed for us when they heard we were going into the narco-infested badlands of northern Mexico. And in Mexico, sure enough, the outlook for a pair of ‘gringos’ merrily cycling through crime ridden Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, was bleak.
So far, none of these prophesies of doom have ever come to pass, not in the Americas or anywhere else. But, Central America – with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world – did objectively seem like quite a dangerous place, so we decided the best thing to do was to cycle across them as fast as possible. On paper, this made the statistics look a lot more comforting. For instance, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, but if we cycled across it at its thinnest point in two days, we would statistically only be exposed to the same murder risk as we would in England over a six month period!
So, with mathematics on our side (sort of) we crossed over from Mexico into Guatemala feeling optimistic. Being near to sea level it was oppressively hot and humid, even at 7.30am, so after a furtive ATM visit in the border town we set out across country to make as much distance as possible before it got even hotter. In keeping with our government’s security advice, we obediently avoided minor roads and instead stuck to the low lying Panamerican Highway as it snaked through ramshackle towns and overgrown patches of jungly farmland on its way to El Salvador.
After four months in the enormity of Mexico and the States it was good to be back in small countries again and it felt absurdly satisfying to whip out the map every couple of hours and marvel at how fast we were moving across its surface. The road itself was full of trucks and not nearly as inspiring as the map, but rising up far away to our left were the country’s central highlands looking like a CGI backdrop from Jurassic Park – impossibly green, with misty forested mountains, and the occasional smouldering volcano.
After two days staring up at them we could resist no longer and decided to risk a remote road that went up through the mountains to Lake Atitlan: A well known tourist destination from which we could take stock, then rejoin a main road. After a couple of hours cycling uphill away from the highway we stopped on the edge of a small town at a roadside food stall for a second (and very delicious) breakfast of prawn and egg tacos, and to quiz the locals about the road ahead. Manning the stall was a posse of industrious no-nonsense women who I felt sure would confirm the safety of our chosen route. And sure enough, after a short debate amongst themselves, the eldest turned to us and said something about a ‘salto‘ further up the road which I knew meant waterfall. Excellent, I thought, she’s recommending a local beauty spot, I knew there was nothing to worry about. But when I asked for clarification she shook her head sternly. ‘ASALTA‘ she said slowly, …’Hay LADRONES aqui‘…. The penny dropped. She was telling us we were going to be assaulted by robbers. It was a very quiet road she told us, so very dangerous. We should go back. Another lady added that even the town we were standing in was full of ‘bad men’ and become very dangerous after dark. It was incredibly frustrating. It didn’t look or feel dangerous, and everyone we’d met so far in Guatamala had been as nice as pie. And we really didn’t want to waste our hours of uphill slog and go back to the main road, but in the end we didn’t have much choice. It’s one thing to ignore traveller horror stories and stuff on the internet but when a gang of streetwise locals tell you that you’re going to be trailed and then mugged by men on motorbikes you have to take it seriously.
So on we went for another day on the Panamerican Highway toward the town of Mazatenango. The ride was horribly sweaty and the only thing sweatier than cycling was not cycling (no air flow whatsoever), so there really was no escape. Even Emily who is normally impervious to the heat was beginning to melt. The only encouragement to be found was on the map, where everything always looks easy.
Mazatenango was the first place we’d been all trip that genuinely felt threatening. Anywhere with significant amounts of money had a guard with shotgun at the door: Bingo halls, petrol stations, Pizza Hut, ATMs, you name it. There was also a conspicuous physical segregation of rich and poor. On one side of town was a big clean American-style outdoor mall with lots of private security where the middle classes could safely eat frozen yogurt, shop and relax. The rest of town felt like it was under military occupation and certainly not a place to go for a relaxing evening stroll. So we ate pizza, couped up in the mall, then took a motor-rickshaw back to our budget hotel, and left early the next morning.
We were now only a day’s ride from the end of Guatemala and feeling like we really ought to see some of the country other than Panamerican highway, we headed up into the mountains again (this time on a main road) to the 16th century colonial town of Antigua Guatemala. After a long day of climbing with only a short stop for avocado sandwiches, we arrived at a cool 1500 metres. Like most famous colonial towns in Central America, Antigua had apparently enjoyed a couple of centuries of independence and then been recolonised by Europeans, and filled with boutique coffee shops, expensive restaurants and tourist hotels, which I’m ashamed to say, was fine by us. After a couple of regenerative days of light tourism and heavy eating, we shot back down to the Panamerican Highway and in one monster 146km day, made it all the way to the El Salvador border.
As with Guatemala, the murderers were nowhere to be seen, just lots of smiling waving locals welcoming us to their country. As we sat at a roadside eatery having lunch and fizzy drinks, a pair of fellow cycle tourers rode by. They were going in our direction so in accordance with cycle touring etiquette, we made friends and agreed to ride together for at least the rest of the day. Alba and Gerard were a Spanish couple, also riding from Canada to South America, and we got on so well that we ended up spending the next two weeks together.
The best thing about Alba and Gerard was that Gerard got up every morning at about six and made coffee and oatmeal for everyone. The second best thing was that they could speak Spanish. Whilst this didn’t help our own efforts to learn Spanish, it was incredibly useful when it came to sweet talking our way into people’s gardens, wedding venues, beaches, and restaurant courtyards to camp for the night. Alba and Gerard would do the talking. We would stand there politely and occasionally chip in to explain that we were English and not Americans. This always went down well as Americans seem to be rather unpopular in much of Central America. We never asked why but I presume it has something to do with their government’s longstanding interference in the region (CIA backed military coups, crippling economic reforms, etc).
So anyway, with Alba and Gerard on board, El Salvador was a lot of fun. Over the course of about a week we dawdled along the coast, avoiding the gang ridden urban parts of the country, and spent lots of time hanging out on the beach. It was way too hot to sleep in a tent so when we stayed outdoors, we just slept under our mosquito nets.
When we finally got to the Honduran border, we got ourselves back into business mode for the two day cycle through to the next country – Nicaragua – where we would more or less be out of Central America’s ‘danger zone’.
As usual we were sticking to the main road and on day one, after a speedy morning’s cycle we stopped for lunch at Pollo Landia, a fried chicken fast food chain. Alba was chatting away to the staff as usual and by the end of our meal a guy called Daniel had arranged for us to sleep in his father’s church 40km down the road in the next town. Later, over dinner in the church kitchen, Daniel described how his family’s home town in the north of the country had been overrun by organised crime, forcing them to move here, to the safer southern part of the country. It sounded worse than I had even imagined. As Daniel told it, the gangs didn’t just run criminal enterprises, they controlled every aspect of daily life, usurping government roles like law enforcement and even social welfare. The punishment for theft or mugging was death so street crime was almost unheard of, and crime bosses often made generous donations to community groups and charities to keep everyone ‘happy’. In return, people had to accept the new authoritarian regime, and do as they were told. After dark, no one could leave home, because this was when guns and drugs were moved around by truck and light aircraft on their way between South America and the USA. Listening to Daniel (through Alba and Gerard’s translation) was a reality check, and confirmed once again that away from the glossy tourist industry picture of coffee farms, volcano hikes, and Mayan ruins, this part of the world is in a desperately bad state.
We made good time the following day and after a painfully long border crossing, set off into Nicaragua by mid afternoon. By this point I was really growing to hate the heat and humidity more than I have anywhere else in the world. When we had access to a cold shower, I would wade in fully clothed in sweat soaked clothes. I longed to be in the Andes and South America where I could feel cold again.
Halfway through Nicaragua I finally cracked. We had arrived in another recolonised colonial tourist town called Granada and checked into a hostel with Alba and Gerard. After enjoying a home cooked pasta dinner, we spent the evening trying to coax a light breeze out of the broken fan in our dorm whilst German teenagers partied in the hostel’s courtyard. In the morning, I had a small tantrum (“I’m too old for this shit, etc, etc“) then – abandoning all solidarity with our fellow cyclists – I marched out of the hostel and checked me and Emily into a proper hotel with air conditioning. Then I got a haircut and had a shave.
Feeling a bit more human, I later returned to the hostel for a game of table tennis with Gerard, but of course this triggered another full on meltdown and sent me scampering back to the air conditioning. It all felt a little pathetic, but I didn’t care, and ‘after all‘, I told myself, ‘complaining about and failing to cope with difficult weather is what Brits do best‘.