I’ve traveled so fast through Central America that my usual day-by-day account of the journey doesn’t seem appropriate to me. I knew I was going be to traveling fast. I had been in South America for much more time that I had planned and my time in Central America was going to be cut short so that I could still enjoy Mexico and North America and have time to ride home through Asia in summer. Enough people had told me to take my time traveling through Central but after the awesomeness of everything in the Andes I really didn’t think that I’d find much to interest me in Central. Most of the people I met coming the other way only really spoke of beaches and jungle and riders said that the roads are nothing compared to those of the South. Obviously this was a stupid way for me to be thinking and I found myself being enthralled just as much as I had been anywhere else. Every country has something to offer, places can’t really be categorised simply as ‘beach’ or ‘mountain’ and I felt bad every time I left for the next country wishing that I had had more time to explore. Besides, Central America has enough mountains and volcanoes to keep anyone amused for a lifetime.
Central did seem to me to be much more popular place for tourism. I mainly say this because I saw more foreigners around. In some cases it could simply be that the countries are so much smaller so foreigners stand out more. In other places it was much more obvious, with all of Costa Rica, Panama City, and Antigua in Guatemala being full of foreigners from all walks of life, from ex-pats and older tourists, to organised school trips, backpackers and everything in between.
Surprisingly, I never experienced the rampant corruption that most riders told me they had seen at Central’s borders and I was only stopped by the Police a couple of times only to be sent on my way with a smile. There was certainly nothing like the madness of borders in Africa. I can see how Central’s borders could be more of a shock to riders heading south as they are the first developing countries that they encounter on their trips, possibly when they don’t speak Spanish so well, but then again the exact same could be said about my experiences of African borders which were also in the beginning of my trip too when I wasn’t so savvy and didn’t speak any French. I guess comparisons are kind of pointless and a lot of it depends on the luck of the day, but I certainly didn’t see anyone getting whacked around the head with a plank of wood like Laas did at the Mauritania-Sengal border.
I was in Panama for three days before riding on to see my parents in Costa Rica. I hadn’t seen my mum for a year and a half since Rio de Janeiro and my dad for almost two years since I saw the two of them together in Cape Town. I left my bike with Rolbin, a Tico (Costa Rican) mechanic friend of a friend and I drove my parents around Costa Rica in a rented car. After they left, I stayed in Quepos with more new friends, where I serviced my bike with parts brought out to me by my parents (oil change, brake pads and springs, new chain and sprockets, new speedo drive and cable and new rear shock spring). Carter, a friend of John from Carlos Paz kindly put me up for the week and I got to be a fly on the wall as the marina he manages prepared itself to host the most prestigious sport fishing tournament in the world, the Offshore World Championship, which mainly involved me drinking with loads of fisherman, unable to follow their conversations and asking questions like ‘whats a billfish?’.
Laeticia had offered to come and see me and we arranged to meet in Guatemala. The date of her arrival made the most of the UK Easter holiday and also helped me to stick to my schedule by racing through Nicaragua and Honduras in only 6 days. This was a real shame however as everything I saw in Nicaragua just made me want to stay for longer. I crossed the border and spent two nights on the volcanic island of Ometepe, a place that some travelers stay for months before moving to a town near the border and having a fun night out with random new Nica (Nicaraguan) friends that I met in the street while I was buying something to eat. Honduras had intimidated me a bit, with the principal cities having an awful reputation for gang violence and crime in general. I spent my first night in the capital, Tegucigalpa with Eldin, a contact from couchsurfing before riding across the country towards the border with Guatemala. Although Honduras’ bad reputation is totally deserved in the cities, outside I found the countryside to be just as friendly and welcoming as anywhere in Latin America leading me to feel bad again when I left the county so early.
I spent my first night in Guatemala in the town of Esquipulas. The place was full of religious pilgrims from all over Central America who had come to see the Cathedral. With a loads of cheap hotels housing whole families from El Salvador and a huge market selling religious tat and cheap street food.
I stayed in Guatemala City with Daniel, a couchsurfing contact who made me incredibly welcome and helped me immensely, taking me to out on the town, taking me to pick up Laeticia from the airport and generally giving us fantastic hospitality. Daniel is also into paragliding and I have him to thank for encouraging me to learn to fly, making another one of my dreams come true.
Laeticia arrived from UK prepared to travel by bike. She had brought a helmet, jacket and gloves and I offloaded all my non-essential luggage at Daniel’s place to make space for her on the bike. We had made plans to go and see loads of places. Guatemala really doesn’t look that big on the map and I honestly thought that we wouldn’t need to be on the road for more than 4 hours a day to get around. I was of course, completely wrong and the list of places had to get cut short after we spent the majority of her holiday time riding from Guatemala City through Antigua, Cobán, Semuc Champey, Flores and Tikal and Lago Atitlán.
The days were longer than expected but the riding was great as my GPS had decided to send us through twisty mountain dirt roads giving us the kind of adventure and insights to a country that can only be obtained by taking the road less traveled. Guatemala has a very indigenous population and many times I thought that we could have been in Bolivia or Peru. Lago Atitlán is a paradise on earth and it was the perfect place to relax in our last week before Laeticia was to fly home. We had found the Maya Moon lodge run by a British couple along with legendary Twatrick (boooop) and I would find myself going back there many times during the rest of my time in Guatemala.
Laeticia went home and instead of making for the border as I had originally planned, I decided to learn to paraglide. I’d wanted to learn it for years and Daniel had put me in contact with Yankell, an instructor of paragliding and paramotor (paragliding with an engine and prop strapped to your back) and besides his very good value tuition he also arranged for me to stay at the finca where I would be practicing so that I could keep my costs down and make the most of the time to practice. The finca is in Chimaltenango, a small town with practically no foreigners about 15 minutes from Antigua and I camped out there for a few weeks while I was learning to take off. My plans of doing a ten-day course were pretty stupid though, as Guatemala was entering its rainy season and the conditions were frequently unsuitable for flying. It wasn’t so much the rain but winds from the north that kept me grounded and after 3 weeks of little progress, I was thinking that I wouldn’t be able to finish the course but I’m glad I persisted. My graduation flight at Lago Atitlán made it all worth while.
So despite rushing through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras I have still ended up way behind schedule and there is no way that I’ll be riding home through Asia this year. If I’m being honest, there was never really any chance that I would. You’ve all seen how I get stuck in places and I still haven’t sorted out any of the visas I’ll need. I can’t really rush myself and besides whats the point? On the plus side though I now have loads more time to enjoy Mexico and North America although we shall have to see how my money will last once I am back paying first world prices for things. I may need to get a job! Wow that was hard to write after almost 3 years of not working!
I don’t regret spending so much time in Guatemala. Two months is nothing compared to how long some people I’ve met have been here and besides big expenses like paragliding courses, tyres, and candlelit dinners, I’ve been able to live very cheaply here. Its the kind of place people don’t want to leave. Its the only country in Central America where I’ve had enough time to find out a bit of what its all about and I’ve made a whole bunch of new friends that I look forward to seeing again.
Its not always easy to write a blog. Sometimes the adventures are so intense that they write themselves, other times I’m half writing-half reminding myself what it is I’ve actual done (I’m assuming that anyone reads it!). I’d love to be able write about the my observations of the different places and people but for such a short time, I really don’t think I could do these countries any justice. I’ve been in Latin America for almost two years now and sometimes the differences between countries can be very subtle and it takes time to truly appreciate them. My apologies go to all the people I’ve met along this section of my trip who deserve more mention for helping to make my Central American experience a good one.
I’m still at Lago Atitlán now. I’ve been staying with a Andrés, a chapin (guatemalan) paragliding friend and we’ve been waiting to fly for a week without any luck. I was all excited to be flying over the lake again and to practice soaring but with bad weather I could be here for weeks before an opportunity arises. Of course its not all about paragliding, and the place itself is difficult to leave, but the time has come to pull myself away from this place and continue my trip into Mexico. See you soon in the land of tacos, tequila and Salma Hayek (and loads of other things too).