Sitting in Australia in 2015, I could hardly imagine that I would be joined by Ben in Bolivia and that we would cycle together for thousands of kilometres into North America.
Nor could I imagine that the peloton would double in size again when Alex and Marta flew over from the UK to share the adventure in Central America.
Having a group of four was a welcome chance for fresh conversations, new riding partners and a new dynamic. Marta’s Spanish certainly opened up more experiences with locals than Ben’s or my own mediocre skills could manage.
So happy was I for this new arrival, that I immediately left them behind and headed into Costa Rica alone.
After crossing the border, I cycled to the coast and took a small lancha to the Osa peninsula. Waiting at the dock were dozens of men with cages, boxes and bags filled with fighting roosters. They loaded into two lanchas and headed off for some remote chicken fighting tournament.
The reason for my rapid departure from the others was that I had yet another reunion. After not seeing them for a year and a half, my parents flew into Costa Rica and spoiled me for several days in a beach side hotel (and delivered much needed Vegemite).
Also staying at the hotel was a group of Americans, on some sort of self-exploratory masturbation retreat. Each morning, we were woken by the resident family of howler monkeys screeching in chorus with the bellows of very satisfied Americans.
The gang caught up, my parents departed and it was time for us to work our way up the coast. Alex and I took a ‘short-cut’ and found ourselves on the steepest grades of dirt roads that I have found anywhere in the Americas.
At the end of the day, we crossed a river in a canoe and asked our pilot about bathing conditions.
“Good for Swimming?”
In town, we found the local police officer shirtless, drunk and only wearing one sock. He let us camp next to the station and even treated us (unprompted) to hours of singing his own interpretations of classic rock ballads.
The beaches on the Pacific Coast are spectacular and it was fantastic to finish a hot day’s riding with a quenching swim. Costa Rica has the strictest rules on development and protection of biodiversity in Central America, the result of which is nearly pristine landscapes and wild animals everywhere.
Monkeys, colourful birdlife, weird little mammals and many more appeared daily. The national catchphrase is ‘pura vida’ and it is possibly said more frequently than ‘hello’.
Another boat ride and we landed on the Nicoya Peninsula, staying in a fire station so shiny and new that it looked like a hotel. It was certainly much nicer than many places I have paid for during the trip.
The peninsula is crossed by rough dirt roads, which in turn are crossed by sometimes-fordable creeks. In times of rain, the creeks turn into rivers, the crocodiles move in and no vehicles can pass.
We bought coconuts from a weathered old US hippie who told us this little business funded his recreational drug use. He said it was more or less lawless country down on the peninsula and that he would never go back to the USA, which has too much authority. Then he complained about a speeding motorbike.
I navigated to a road (river) less travelled, and accidentally caused us to get up to our calves in mud before following an abandoned track.
Returning to the mainland required the crossing of the Taiwan Friendship Bridge, which was built and paid for by Taiwan. After Costa Rica cut ties with Taiwan in favour of China, the bridge became known as the ‘Back-stab Bridge’.
It was time for fresh air and the squad turned inland, up towards higher ground around Lake Arenal. We wanted a breeze but we found a gale and when you’re on the wrong side of wind turbines, it’s going to be tough.
Luckily, the views made up for it.
From the town of La Fortuna, under Volcan Arenal, it was two days cycling until we crossed into Nicaragua.
A sign just after the border proudly boasted that we were in the country of the Gran Canal. Although construction on the Nicaraguan canal was meant to begin last year, it looks like a pie in the sky type scenario.
A ferry took us across Lake Cocibolca and onto the twin-peaked island of Ometepe. In the lead up to Santa Semana, there were parades every Friday and crosses decorated the sides of the road.
We backtracked down to San Juan del Sur on the coast and it was time to say goodbye to Alex and Marta. A month together had flown by but I felt very privileged to have been able to share the journey with friends.
Ben and I picked up the pace for what would be a quick crossing of North Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
I stayed at a police station one night, and chatted with an officer while sunset passed and Ben continued to catch up after dark. The policeman said there were bandits in the area and Ben and I agreed to not do any more night riding.
On the TV at the police station and later at dinner, the news broadcast extremely explicit footage of death. Uncensored close-ups of a murder victim, dead kids, a drowned man and CCTV of a man being assassinated in the street.
It was overwhelming but everyone else watching seemed unfazed.
We crossed the border into Honduras and were surprised to meet our cycling doppelgangers. Kieran from Australia with his short shorts and identical shirt, Ian with his long hair and cap. Minutes later, a fifth cyclist joined the impromptu meeting.
There is little that I can say for a two-day crossing of a country. Everyone waved and smiled at us, a car stopped and gave me a Gatorade, we stayed with Bomberos who were friendly and chatted with us until we retired to our tents.
At a gas station, a man enthusiastically chatted with us and reached over to give my thigh an equally enthusiastic squeeze (“fuerte!”). The road was pot-holed and there was clearly a lot of poverty, though not noticeably more than other areas of Central America.
We passed through El Salvador more slowly, but still there isn’t much you can learn about a place in a week.
From the border, we made a bee-line to Warmshowers host, Jose, who had lived for years in Montreal before cycling all the way back to El Salvador. He welcomed us into his home (which was like a hotel) and handed over the keys to his car so that we could explore the nearby beaches.
While feasting on fish and oysters at a beachside restaurant, we watched as a Mariachi group approached a table and began to play for them. Shortly thereafter, a middle-aged woman at the table began vomiting uncontrollably, spilling her seafood at the feet of the Mariachis.
Consummate professionals, the band played on.
We shared a second night with Jose and swapped stories with another cycling couple who were staying. When I asked about troubles in El Salvador, Jose said that further inland and in the cities, there definitely are big problems with gangs. A few years earlier, several gang members had moved to the nearby town to establish a presence. The locals murdered some of them and the rest fled.
In a gringo town up the coast, we met a strange mix of expats and locals. A heavily tattooed man told us that he had spent time in a LA prison before trying to give us a bag of weed. An American recounted how on the previous evening, one of the men currently drinking near us had run down the street waving a pistol at people before throwing it over a fence.
The burned-out expat is not something I witnessed much in South America, but like the camper-vans on the Pan-American, their presence seems to have increased since crossing into Central America. In Bocas del Toro, here in El Salvador and certainly in Mexico, we witnessed gringos, usually older and usually from the US, who were a little frayed around the edges.
Maybe this is the future for someone who spends too long on the road.
Then it was time for Guatemala, the last of the C4 countries. We left the coast and climbed up towards Antigua between Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Agua. As often happens, Ben and I were separated as we rode at different speeds and I continually stopped to take photos of the volcano erupting on my left.
I caught up with Ben in the early afternoon, but it was several hours before he mentioned that he had been robbed on that climb up to Antigua.
I don’t know whether he was just playing it cool, but I know that I’d tell people immediately if two men with machetes had stopped me in the road and stolen my phone and wallet.
We took a night bus north to Tikal and checked out the temples and ruins there, before returning to climb Volcan Acatenango and watch the eruptions of Fuego up close.
We were in Antigua for Holy Week, which saw nearly daily processions and large decorations of flowers and coloured sand laid on the cobblestones.
For me, two big features of Central America are its volcanoes and its guns.
The volcanoes rise up from landscape, huge conical pimples that demand your attention. Often smoking, sometimes erupting they are visible for kilometres in every direction and were an unfamiliar sight for this Australian.
Much more common than the volcanoes were armed guards absolutely everywhere. Although their presence was for security, the complete lack of training that some of them displayed made me extremely uncomfortable. On multiple occasions, the guard at a petrol station walked up to me for a chat, with a shotgun lazily slung over his shoulder, barrel pointed directly at my head.
We descended back to the coast and it was time for Mexico.
Along with Colombia, Mexico seems to be the country that many cyclists regard as their favourite in the Americas. In anticipation of the culture, food and landscapes, I was grinning from ear to ear as I cycled past banana plantations and canals.
On my first day, I headed towards what looked like a surf camp on my map, thinking that I could spend my first night chilling by the beach.
I passed along a dirt road through a very impoverished village until I arrived at a huge villa. It was clearly under construction, but one of the workers let me in and said that the owner would be back soon.
Alan arrived and explained that the place would be a kind of surf school/hotel but that they were still building. He went on to explain that he and his wife Pam had been volunteering here since 2000, running refuge houses for kids in nearby Tapachula.
They take in kids in really terrible situations, care for them and try to give them better lives. Some have been off to university, many have received good educations and some of the guys working on the surf school had originally been foster kids. The school itself was a new project to try and bring up the quality of life in the village by bringing in tourism and creating job opportunities for the locals.
I took a few of the kids out to dinner (a taco stand in front of someone’s house) and Pam warned me that the food might upset my stomach. I waved her off with a smile, citing my year and a half of generally trouble free eating in the Americas. She was right of course, and my insides were a mess for days.
I had asked to camp, but they very kindly let me use one of their brand new rooms, complete with shower and bed.
Despite the luxury lodgings, sleep did not come easily as once again started to question what I was doing with this trip. Passing through regions of extreme poverty, I can’t help but ask myself what the hell am I doing on a bicycle, cycling about like some overgrown man-child.
I try to rationalise that the end of the trip will come soon enough, and then I will miss it.
The Mission is always looking for volunteers, and if anyone reading this has ever considered spending some time volunteering overseas, maybe you could consider this amazing project (click for more info).
For my Aussie friends, you may have actually seen some photos of the Mission in Guzman and Gomez restaurants, as they are a sponsor (click for more info).
Ben and I moved through Chiapas state quickly, the road not close enough to the coast to allow regular visits.
Convoys of wrecked vehicles from the US moved south, waiting to be repaired and repurposed. Police patrolled the highway with high performance cars and huge machine guns.
I saw an open-topped truck full of hand cuffed prisoners in orange jumpsuits and my tyre began bubbling in the heat and then exploded.
We passed an enormous wind farm, then broke a blockade and we were on the coast of Oaxaca.
The beaches of Oaxaca are some of the most beautiful of anywhere I have been in the trip so far. Pristine coastline devoid of people, small restaurants offering seafood or tacos and maybe a Palapa for shade.
The playas look like they came directly from a Corona ad; from where you’d rather be.
We progressed slowly, hopping from beach to beach, cooling off with micheladas made with clamato juice and tucking into fresh seafood.
In Playa Cangrejo, a drunk hassled has for rum and claimed he was waiting for his fishing boat to come back to pick him up.
In Tangolunda, we chatted with locals while eating tacos on the beach. They told us that they had met some other gringos passing through, travelling on jet-skis rather than bicycles.
A burned-out gringa joined us for a chat on a street in Zipolite, promptly lost her mind and threatened to run us out of town.
We left the coast at Puerto Escondido and began the ascent towards Oaxaca de Juarez. Winding our way along tangled dirt roads, the heat was oppressive and the hills so steep that we were walking the bikes a lot of the time.
In the town of Santa Martha, a town drunk immediately came up to me to shake my hand and tell me soy un hombre que puedes confiar. The abrasions covering his face indicated otherwise.
He sat next to me and repeatedly poked me with a finger Don, Don… 20 pesos… Don… 15 pesos…. poco mezcal… Don.
We camped next to a family store and although another drunk came by and asked for money, much more troubling was the grandmother of the family asking us how we could live like this, how could we afford to travel around on bicycles and not work.
She quietly sobbed for a moment and I asked myself again what the hell I was doing.
The next day was more of the same climbing, but the air became cooler and the arid cactus land turned to pines as we crossed 2000masl.
Young kids walked along the road back to their farms, beaming at the two gringos. I stopped for a chat with a boy of 8 or 10, carrying a machete half his height and a stick for herding the goats he was guiding home.
He was stoked to hang out and I thought of the upset grandma from the night before and I suppose these things are a balance.
A hospedaje let us stay for free, but they had no water and we had to bathe in the river before they’d let us use the bed. In the morning, a Senora leaned out her shop window and handed me a bunch of piping hot tamales, filled with chicken.
Then we arrived in the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca and I felt like Central America was really behind us.