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0051: So, Central America

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EL Salvador

For the past 3 months or so, I have been travelling through the Maya territory.
It’s an odd thing to think I have read about the Maya, (and Aztecs and Incas) in various history books, but never really imagined that these ancient people still existed today.
Well they certainly do, and are wonderful people.
Despite 500 years of assimilation they still maintain a strong identity, culture, languages clothing and traditions. And of course their very distinct coffee skin tone, jet black hair and rounded facial shape.
Crossing the border into El Salvador, I left “El Mundo Maya” and crossed back into Nahuatl territory.
More commonly known as the Aztec.
The change in people was stark and surprising.
Originally concentrated around Mexico city region and the central highlands of Mexico, small communities existed in other locations. Either from natural trade, resources or forced relocation by the church, state or conquistadors.
They have much paler skin than the Maya.
Imagine cutting a large kidney bean shaped chunk out of somewhere on the Mediterranean coastline and shipping it across the globe to what we now know as El Salvador.
The people here look like they might be from Greece, Lebanon or North Africa.
Perhaps even southern Italy.
It’s was quite a shocking and sudden change to see pale skin, grey, and hazel eyes and tall slender Caucasian body shapes.
Of course there has been a lot of integration with the European settlers that crossed the world to start a new life, but even 500 years later the original identity of the people of the region is still retained.
I arrived in the middle of the dry season, and the temperature shot up from a pleasant 20C in Antigua, up to and above 35C. I am getting into the tropic zone of the planet now, so the sun climbs very rapidly and stays higher for longer.
By 9 am it is almost at it’s highest and stays there till after 4 pm.
The road has been good, but between towns there have been fewer resources, restaurants even places to shade from the sun in some spots.

I arrived in Cara Sucia and asking for a hotel in a local fried chicken spot, I was given a free mini meal and drink as the guys couldn't believe my journey.

I went back later for seconds as it was actually some of the best food I had had for days.
El Salvador uses US dollars, having adopted the currency in 2001.
An unpopular choice with the locals from what I can tell.
Of course the prices match up too so hotel rooms suddenly doubled in price for the same standard as Guatemala.

Sonsonante was my next evening stop and continuing Semana Santa festivities meant the first two hotels were booked up and the third had “cheap rooms” at $40 per night!
Fortunately I was only there for 1 night and I spent the following couple of days with my first Warmshowers host since Chetumal, Mexico.
Juan Francisco hosted me in his flat in the northern part of San Salvador. The capital of El Salvador.
His wife and two daughters also made me feel very welcome and shared their home with me as I relaxed away from the heat and was treated to a night in a local Pupusa restaurant.

A local speciality.
Pupsas are thick tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese, Frijoles and grilled to hot, toasty delicious perfection.
Then served with Curtido. A lightly fermented Cabbage, onion and chilli salad. All in all delicious and I ate 5!

After two nights of pleasant family bliss, I descended towards Zacatecoluca.
Leaving San Salvador, I was passed by 3 police pick ups. Each carrying around 10-15 fully armed SWAT teams.
Dressed in sinister black, face masks on with helmets and all carrying M-16 assault rifles. They sped past me on a descent.
I caught up with them after a few minutes as they were fencing off a side road and were preparing to launch an offensive on what seemed to be a farmhouse at the road side.
I accelerated and passed quickly knowing something was about to happen.
A few kilometres later I stopped in a village drinking a cold Coca Cola listening to machine gun fire somewhere in the distance.
“hmm, sounds like the police again” said the old woman selling the drinks. She casually put her head back into her magazine and I continued nervously to Zacatecoluca.

I sat in the main square and a local guy stopped to chat.
The standard questions.
I asked about the heat.
“It’s normal,” he said. Then reached into his pocket and gave me a dollar. “Buy some cold water, you look thirsty” he told me. The heat on the road had made me dizzy on a couple of occasions and I had been drinking very warm water from my bottles
He left and advised I stay indoors at night.
“ Don't walk on the streets after dark” he said with all seriousness Not good. I stopped at the next shop and bought ice and cold water.
The lady also gave me a free Coca Cola to go with it.
I was amazed!.
Back to the main plaza and the Police came for a chat.
Very informal, curious and friendly, they pointed out a cheap hotel. A few minutes walk behind the church.
“They also advised staying inside after dark. The hotel was very cheap compared with others recently.
For that price saving, I didn't get a lock on my door!
The Host insisted that nobody had ever been robbed but it didn't make me feel any more comfortable as I left all my things and rushed round the town looking for food and water for my evening meal and the following day.
The room was very hot even with the ventilator on full speed, but given the warnings, I just took another cold shower and tried to sleep.
Which I did, solidly.

The ride to San Miguel was even hotter.
This section of the continent is low rolling hills. The road is good and mostly flat, but inland you can see the famous volcanoes. Some recently active, others eroded piles of rock and ash from millennia gone by. The thick tropical vegetation has disappeared again, now replaced by savannah parkland, more skinny cows, goats, horses and lots and lots of litter.
It’s sad to see so much dirt and filth in a country which has a lot of natural beauty.

After riding almost 110 kilometres in very high temperatures, I decided to find a good hotel with a pool!
I did find a pool, but there was a huge noisy party happening, so I didn't jump in, but turned on the air conditioning to full in my room then fell asleep for an hour.
Later, I ate an extra large Dominos pizza because of their offer that day.

“Without cheese? What no cheese at all?! Can we even do that?” She went to check with the manager, who came back, stared at me oddly, then pointed to the very dusty ‘no cheese’ button on their computer.
I switched on the TV for the first time to watch a news report on gang violence the past few nights in El Salvador.
Graphic images, shot out cars and buildings. Then bloody corpses and quickly spoken journalists, detailed police raids on gangs in Sonsonante, San Salvador Zacatecoluca and San Miguel.
My last 3 towns and the one I was in right now!
I didn't sleep well that night.

Honduras

From San Miguel the road flattened out. The litter increased as I approached El Amarillo border crossing with Honduras.
This country is one of a few I have had real nerves about entering.
The chaotic, frantic border checks, fees and people pushing and jostling to the one service window made me more nervous.
Too many people trying to “help me” then begging for dollars.
I had already changed them, but wouldn't give any anyway. I tried to keep one eye on my bike and the other on the woman stamping my passport to make sure she did actually stamp it.
The last thing I wanted was some visa issue as I exited this country.
My original plan had always been to pass through central America quite quickly.
No doubt, there are plenty of interesting things to see, but with the heat and having seen the news reports I was not too keen on being a tourist at that time.

Nacaome was another hot, dusty dirty town.
The hotel here was equally hot and with a strong stench of mould and geckos running inside the room. The surly owner oblivious or uncaring to the smell. The second room the same.
It was this or the expensive looking international hotel on the edge of town.

I looked for food at the half closed local market. Ordered a grilled steak, chips and salad in a local restaurant and received a fatty bone with some rice. "We have run out of steak" I was told.
This country was not impressing me so far.

The elegant slim pale skinned Salvadoreños now suddenly transformed to darker skinned, rotund Hondurans.
Bigger and more aggressive looking, but still just as many smiles, waves and calls as I cycle past.
The younger culture here, like many has adopted some elements from the USA.
Local and US Rap music is popular on the TV and their sometimes very offensive and graphic lyrics are transcribed over the videos so people can “understand American”
Baseball is very popular and it’s odd to see little stores selling bread, biscuits and drinks alongside expensive looking baseball gloves.
Boys on the street wearing USA Baseball team logos on their hats or shirts and walking around with solid looking bats as they walk to or from a local game.
They don't realise how intimidating they are as they grin, shout and wave their bats as I pass by.
The first time shocked me, but when it became common, I realised it was just a friendly greeting.
Though I still steered a little further away from them!

Another hot day and another tough day along the Panamerican highway to Choluteca.
I had spotted a hotel sign some kilometres before and headed to the Hotel Real.
The armed security guard opened the gate for me, then went back to his telenovelas in the shade.
The hotel was clean and well presented, but on the edge of town.
I was given a room opposite the pool and though their restaurant was closed during the day I was nervously pointed down the road to a Mexican Taco restaurant.
“Don’t worry, nothing usually happens down there” said the guard, closing the gate behind me. And it didn’t, as walked the 3 blocks to the restaurant.
I took a detour on the way back to try to find my usual groceries, but there appeared to be no shops without going down some very dodgy looking side roads.
Even in bright sunshine, they didn't look appealing.
That evening I ate at the restaurant in the hotel, and fell asleep to gunfire somewhere in the town.
I also woke to it the following day.

I had an equally frantic and chaotic border crossing at El Guasaule into Nicaragua and a big push that day as I arrived in Chinandega and the very friendly Hotel San José in the centre.
Even though I had no problems at all, I was glad to be out go Honduras.

Nicaragua

A few weeks ago I received a message from Anna. One of my hosts from Saskatoon in Canada.
She was on vacation, and would be in Nicaragua for about 10 days or so.
After some discussion it turned out we wouldn't be able to meet unless one of us jumped on a bus.
Though I was tempted, to beat the heat it wasn't realistic so we both resigned to hopefully meet another time.
Unfortunate timing.

After 10 days of pushing through the heat, I decided I needed to rest.
Chinandega was not the most exciting of towns. Even though it has a strong history in sugar cane farming and extraction and along with that, Rum distilling.
I met my first traveller since Mexico here too.
Ignacio is walking round the world to promote ecological causes and awareness of damage being caused to the planet.

Visit his blog site here.

Since the terrible civil war in Nicaragua during the 1980’s the many industries in the country had suffered and in this town had markedly declined.
Even some 35 years later passing through this and other towns, there is still evidence of the previous troubles in derelict buildings, shot out windows and political graffiti on the ruins of once elegant and noble colonial buildings.
I desperately needed to rest and spent 2 nights in Leon. A former cotton town and one of the old capitals of Nicaragua.

Still a strong Sandinista stronghold, the population here now is very young as there are a couple of big universities in the area.
Its also popular with international travellers so there are a quite a few hostels, and plenty of bars selling cheap alcohol and sadly familiar food.
Again, I struggled to find a local restaurant.
I slept most of the first day and wandered around on the second.

Being a tourist town, it wasn't cheap so I had already appealed for a host in Managua.
I didn't actually plan on visiting having heard many negative things about the nations capital.
Couchsurfing let me down again even after sending 15 requests.
Zero responses.

I pedalled in the direction of El Crucero trying to avoid the city.
Reaching a junction and a cold Coca cola stop, I got chatting to a local.
He had always wanted to travel and was somewhat envious of my journey.
I turned off and kept cycling into the hot headwind.
After an hour or so of this torture, I decided for some reason to check my map.
It was then I realised I was on the wrong road.
Heading for Managua.
I was very surprised. Considering the distance I have already travelled, this is the first time ever I had made a navigational error!
It was minor, but only emphasised how tired I was.
I found a little hostel in Managua close to the scruffy University of Central America.
Again not cheap, but my original plan was to find a host.
Other appeals on Facebook forums and Google forums, actually managed to get me a response.
One from a girl directing me to a cycling group within the city and the other from, I assume, a cyclist telling me to not be so stingy and actually just spend some money on a hotel??!!

Well...read for yourself;

Jorge Biciviajero : Apr 16 02:42AM -0700

Hi Matthew!
if you want to rest, probably Managua is not the best place, I would
recommend you Masaya or Granada, they are much more quiet et interesting.

The other thing I would like to tell you (for de good of all people that
travels by bike) is that WARMSHOWERS is not a way to safe money, but to
exchange experiences, to invite your host to a diner traditional of your
country or to invite him to the cinema or theatre.... If not is better to
spend the 5-6 US$ of an young hostel that if you come from the US or Europe
is nothing.... unless you're in competition with someone to see who spends
less de money..... (I think there are people that see the bike-travel like
that...).

Sorry Matthew for telling all that only to you, there are many other people that try to safe money (instead of spend their money) in the very poors countries of America Latina....
The most of the times is not necessary to be so stingy... is one of the
reasons why I accept the less on less petitions to host people from
Warmshower....

Good Luck!
Jorge

Really?!
In the mean time I had actually received a reply from a host and had already agreed to stay at his place for a couple of nights.

So I responded;

Hi Jorge,
Thanks for your comments.
I managed to find a place in Managua for a couple of nights.
I am not planning on being a tourist here, as you point out, there are
nicer places to spend my time in that sense and in fact I will be
travelling to Granada next before heading to Costa Rica and south to
Patagonia.

I do agree with your comment about using the hospitality networks as a
contact and experience.
And I fully support that.
Like many before me, and will pass after me, I am cycling from Prudhoe Bay,
Alaska, to (I hope) Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego.
A very long trip as you are no doubt aware. I have travelled 25,000 kms so far.
I have to use every possibility to try to save my limited budget, for as
long as possible.
Whether that be wild camping in Canada, staying in Fire stations in the
USA, Red cross offices in Mexico.
Personal invitations to peoples homes, Asking at farms or restaurants. Or
any other suitably safe options that I may encounter along the way.

I am not the kind of traveller who feels comfortable sleeping under a bush
or sneaking illegally onto someone's property to sleep or use their
resources for free. (The two cyclists I met so far who did do this, sadly
have both been robbed)
Safety is my number one priority ALWAYS. And I will never stay in a place
which I feel may compromise my security for an hour, let alone a night or
several days rest.
For this, generally a hostel or hotel is an almost sure fire, but expensive bet.
I have stayed in more hotels and hostels along my journey so far than any
other option. And this has been the biggest expense, apart from food of my journey so
far.
And they are not cheap!

You comment that "If not is better to spend the 5-6 US$ of an young hostel that if you come from the US or Europe is nothing"

To me it is. It is a lot and everything.
I am not wealthy.
I wish I was, like most.
Not everyone is a credit card tourist or has an unlimited funds.
I have been working hard and saving for several years.
Sold virtually ALL my personal possessions to fund this adventure and when
I return I will be financially VERY poor but rich in spirit and experience.
This was my choice and I will never regret it.
While I have sufficient budget to last my journey. I don't want to spend it all on hotels. Even if it does help the local economy.
I would much prefer interaction with other people via Warmshowers,
Couchsurfing, or any other social contact.
If you read my profiles, I am not just looking for a free bed, shower and
food. I do offer to assist in any way required to contribute to the
household.
I have moved Gravel, I have repaired computers, I have cooked for two and
for a family of six. I have helped in a study of Hummingbirds and walked
dogs!
I am professional bicycle mechanic. Therefore repaired or looked over many of my hosts bicycles, and many other odd tasks along the way.
I have even voluntarily paid some hosts, when I can see it was appropriate.
My feedback is all positive and I have shared some fantastic experiences
with my hosts. I hope this will continue.
I am tremendously grateful for the "free beds" but more grateful for the company it brings.
The friendships and companionships I have made in the past 11 months of
travelling are far more rewarding.
As many do, I will also be offering my own home for hospitality when I have finished my journey.

Hotels and hostels are anonymous. I don't remember most of them.
Personally, I avoid hostels. Specifically dorm rooms. They are my last
resort.
I appreciate they are the cheapest option, but I have had too many bad
experiences over the past 20 years of travelling and touring. Everything
from disrespectful people coming in late and making excessive noise,
tampering with my bike, through to theft of my personal things.
Backpackers have a different ethos of travelling, which is not always
compatible with cycle touring.
Not everyone is bad. I have met some great people here too. But my choice
is my own.
I always choose a private room, Small dorm or a hotel room if it is cheap
enough.
I have spent anywhere between $5 and $50 so far in Central America alone.
More in the USA.
Often, at the end of a days ride, you don't have a choice of hotel.
In a small desert town there is one option with hotels. And it is either
very cheap or not at all.
But safety first.

My reason for posting this thread is not only to save money.
It is, that is a fact.
But to try to contact other cyclist in this (and other) towns.
Even though there are not many people registered on Warmshowers in many
parts of central America, there are a lot of cyclists and some of those
have possibly toured their region, their country or even the world.
It is these people I am trying to contact, as they will likely sympathise
with a long distance cyclists needs.
I have no problem paying if necessary, but I gain far more from the contact and resources of 1 hour with a fellow cyclist or traveller than I ever would from a night in a hotel.
Best wishes, etc...
I signed off.

You can call me stingy if you like, but I call it common sense to try to limit my spending.
I will admit at times I am not great at it, but I am always conscious of it.
And I always try to give something back to my hosts when I am there.

Rodrigo invited me to his home on the south side of Managua.
Conveniently in the direction I would be travelling. So it will save me a couple of kilometres of cycling when I leave.
His house is on the top of a big hill and breezy so its much cooler too.
Rodrigo is a work from home journalist involved in many local cultural events projects.

On arriving at his home I receive a message from Anna.
She was in Managua too about to get on a flight home.
An hour or so later, I received another saying her flight had been cancelled due to technical problems.

Great. So I made my way over to her hotel, and we spend several hours chatting about our adventures over the last few months
A very pleasant end to a couple of difficult weeks of cycling.

From Managua, I moved on to Granada and spent a further couple of days relaxing in Nicaraguas second old capital.
The similarity between this city and Leon a week or so before was noticeable, except that Granada got to the DIY store first.
Much cleaner and better presented than Leon but given a few more years and a bit of Polyfilla and Dulux will make the two indistinguishable.

And so I moved toward the Costa Rica Border.
I spent a final night in Rivas. Close to the crossing with Ometepe Island and its famous twin Volcanos.

A strong headwind blowing from the east over the lake was captured by kilometre after kilometre of wind turbines as I headed towards the Peñas Blancas frontier.
However it seems a strong wind was a bit too much for a couple of the turbines.

As this video shows them made of laminated glass fibre.

And so I leave the C-4 countries.
I saw a lot, but missed plenty more.
Despite all the negative rumours and the nasty TV news reports, I luckily, had no problems again.
I hope this remains the case.
The Panamerican highway now lead me through more low hills and a noticeably greener and cooler Costa Rica.

Onwards.....

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Post by Matthew Hopkins

An avid cycle tourer and Bicycle Mechanic, I also enjoy cycling, cooking, camping, cinema, computers, internet and tech.

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