El Salvador to Honduras to Nicaragua: Putting in miles
I received an email yesterday from our cycling friend Carlos who, after reading our last blog entry, noted that we’ve been traveling fast. He doesn’t know the half of it. In the past two days, we have cycled in 3 countries. We went from El Salvador to Honduras, and then in just over 24 hours, we crossed into Nicaragua, where we are now. We’re not really trying to cover a lot of miles but that’s definitely what we’ve accomplished since my last blog post.
It was pretty early on New Year’s Day when we packed up our tent and rode away from the Canague Hostel in El Zonte, El Salvador. As our friends had stayed up celebrating far later than us, they were still in bed when we left and so sadly, we didn’t get to say goodbye in person. As much as I wanted to, we didn’t dare wake them up. In fact, when Rebecca woke me up at 7:00 AM, the last thing I wanted to do was get up and get on the bike and start riding.
How did we deal with that dilemma? We came up with three options for the day:
- Stay put. Given how beautiful the area is, and how tired I was, that plan had a lot of merit.
- Ride the 20 km to La Libertad where, hopefully, we could find a hotel with Wi-Fi so that we could update the blog and plan our route through Honduras.
- Put in a full day on the bike.
As appealing as Option 1 sounded, we began the day with Option 2 in mind. The only thing is, after we made it to La Libertad, and stopped at the fishing pier to have some fresh conch salad, we were feeling pretty good and thus decided to keep riding.
The fishing pier at La Libertad.
Moral of the story: Just start! Don’t worry about where you’re going or that you don’t have it all figured out (we didn’t even have a GPS track plotted for that day). Whatever it is that you’re waiting to begin, just start and let the magic happen. The rest will take care of itself.
Our Facebook friend Dhruv, a cyclist who we first heard about from the owners of the cool pizza place in Tapanatepec, told me that the road would be flat after La Libertad. Boy, was he right. It was, in fact, the flattest bit of riding that we have experienced thus far in our trip. Because of that, we were able to cover a fair bit of ground before stopping for the day at a cheap auto hotel along the highway.
Glamour. Cooking our evening meal on the garage floor of our auto hotel.
The next day presented us with more flat riding. We were on a less-than-major highway with a nice wide shoulder. I noted during this stretch that El Salvadoran drivers, and thinking back, the Guatemalan drivers too, do not have the same affinity for driving on the shoulder of the road that the Mexicans do, something that I very much appreciated.
At one point in the ride, about mid-morning, we looked across the road and were surprised to see two other touring cyclists heading in the opposite direction. Seeing touring cyclists on any type of bike is a surprise to us but these two were riding plus-sized mountain bikes decked out with bikepacking bags much like to ours. Of course, we stopped to talk and found out that Ken and Marie are heading to Alaska and that they started riding north from Ushuaia almost one year ago. Cool, eh? We spent as much time talking as the hot sun would allow before snapping pics, exchanging Facebook info, and pedaling away from each other. It was unfortunate that we were heading in opposite directions as I think it would have been fun to spend more time with them.
Ken and Marie are on their way from Ushuaia to Alaska.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I had actually read this article about Ken and Marie when it was first published. Check it out. There’s some great photography of their bikes and setup.
Rebecca and I stopped in Usulatan that afternoon and splurged on a room in a fairly modern hotel. How modern was it? It had a pool and an elevator, an elevator that we inadvertently put tire tracks on the wall of when we shuttled our bikes up to the third floor. The hotel was nice and for once, since we arrived there during the heat of the day instead of as the sun was setting, we actually took advantage of the pool to cool off.
Tire prints on the elevator wall. Sorry about that.
The next morning, just as we were relaxing in our room before setting off on the day’s ride, the bed began to shake. Was it an overly amorous couple in the room next door, or people getting a little carried away with their fireworks? No, it was an earthquake! What are the odds of an earthquake occurring at the only time we’re in a room higher than the second floor? That can’t be good, right? Fortunately, the quake was a small one and to the best of my knowledge, no damage occurred.
The view from our hotel room.
Was it really an earthquake or just Rebecca doing burpees?
The plan for the next day was to ride to San Miguel and we were fortunate to have received a tip from Ken and Marie about a dirt road section that would get us off the highway. As nice as pavement is for covering miles, we love the silence that comes from riding on back roads. In this case, we also had a beautiful volcano to look at the entire time.
We skirted halfway around Volcán de San Miguel (also known as Chaparrastique) that day. We’re a bit unsure whether we covered the exact track that our new friends had suggested because faced with a couple of forks in the road near the beginning, our path was a bit unclear. We actually stopped to ask for directions twice at one of the junctions. Both groups of people that we spoke to tried to send us back to the highway, a common problem for cyclists looking to find lesser-used routes.
Are you sure we’re going the right way?
Now, this is a trail!
After explaining that we were looking for a dirt track, not pavement, we were directed to ride ahead through what appeared to be one of the family’s yards. The portion that followed that was rocky, steep, and overgrown, making us question the directions we had been given. It’s worth pointing out that due to our extremely basic Spanish language skills, these conversations that we have are often filled with holes. Ultimately, we did find a real track which gradually, over time, led us to a well-traveled gravel road. We were heading in the right direction.
It’s hard to beat this scenery.
Tumbleweed Prospector photo shoot.
At one point during this back-road adventure, we passed a farmer who was eager to talk to us, in English. His name was Omar and his excellent command of the English language was no doubt due to the fact that he had lived in the US for 30 years, or so he shared with us. His property was virtually right at the bottom of the volcano.
The ground was covered with black volcanic rock.
Rebecca’s bike wanted in on the photo shoot too.
A very enjoyable ride!
Later that day, shortly after arriving in San Miguel, Rebecca struck up a conversation with another friendly local. He, too, had lived in the US and although his English was not as good as Omar’s, he could still speak quite well. Selling shaved ice drinks from a bicycle cart in the town center — we bought some and they were good — he said that he could earn $7-10 per day. It was a big contrast from the $13.00/hour he told us that used to make in the States working at a Walmart distribution center. Sadly, he also shared that after 15 years in the States, he was deported because he was charged with drinking and driving, his first offense.
After a night in San Miguel, we pointed our bikes towards the Honduras border. As we had the day earlier, we planned to ride some dirt that day, plotted from a Google Maps walking route. Just as we had on the way to San Miguel, we figured that the 50 km we had plotted would be easy and that we’d have it done by noon and keep going. On both days we were reminded how tough the dirt roads, and I use the term “roads” extremely loosely, can be. It was true as we road by the volcano the day before and it was doubly true as we rode towards the border. The roads were so rough and steep that some warranted walking the bikes down the hills, let alone up them.
Beginning a ridiculously steep descent.
The descent was worse than the climb!
At one point on the way to the border, we came to a fork in the road. Our Google route said that we should go straight up the steep hill but when we started pushing our bikes up it (we had already been pushing our bikes for some time by that point), a man on the adjacent property shouted, “Wrong Way, Wrong Way.” He told us that the other route would be easier and after taking his advice, I think he was right. The alternate route was newer and included some switchbacks instead of driving straight up the mountain, allowing us to pedal instead of push. Much better!
Needless to say, we did not finish by noon either day nor did we make it to the Honduras border. Instead, we holed up in an auto hotel 10 km from the border in Santa Rosa de Lima, staged to cross the following day.
I had a race with this little guy. Can you guess who won?
Stay away mosquitos!
The next morning presented us with a very strong headwind, one that made the 10 km ride to the border much more tiring than it should have been. Crossing into Honduras involved very little drama although it was a bit more time consuming than crossing into El Salvador. Our bikes allowed us to breeze past the long line of trucks waiting to cross the border but we still had to wait in line to have our passports inspected, on both sides of the border.
Our plan was to ride across Honduras in two days so that required putting in some miles. The highway was reasonably flat and if it weren’t for the strong wind that stayed in our face the entire day, it would have been pretty easy. In spite of the headwind, we knocked off 100 km that day, making our way to Choluteca where we staged for the run to Nicaragua.
My hope that the wind would abate by the morning was not granted. We were, however, not always riding with it directly in our face. A strong crosswind presents its own set of challenges though. Both of us were, at times, struggling to not get blown off the road, and I swear that it felt as if I was riding with the bike leaned over at an angle to counteract the wind’s strong sideways push.
With our time boating, I think we’re pretty comfortable with border crossings. The first time across a border is always a bit of an unknown though. You don’t know exactly what to expect or where to go, especially when it’s in a country with a language that you don’t speak.
Making it out of Honduras involved waiting in a long line, but nothing too surprising. Getting into Nicaragua was an entirely different story though. The first mistake we made was completely bypassing the Nicaraguan immigration office. When we arrived at the final border crossing and we didn’t have the required receipt, we were promptly sent back to retrieve it. That’s when the fun started.
Nicaraguan checkpoint number 1.
A couple of English-speaking guys outside the office told us where to go but also said that we couldn’t bring our bikes into the office with us. As we have walked our bikes through every customs and immigration line so far, we were not going to leave them unattended. We conceded that we wouldn’t bring them inside but told them that we’d go in one at a time. I asked Rebecca to stay with the bikes while I went inside to clear in, the plan being that she’d go through after me. It went downhill after this!
For reasons still unclear to me, after the first immigration officer brought me over to the cashier to pay my $12.00 US entry fee, the woman in the booth said something to him and instead of paying, I was brought over to a different office and told to wait. Another officer then gave me back my passport and told me to go across the street to get a photocopy of the main page and the page with the original Guatemalan entry stamps (it’s a shared visa between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua). When I explained that my wife was with me, they told me to do the same for her passport.
What followed was a lengthy question and answer period.
- How long were you in each country?
- How long will you be here?
- What do you do for a living?
- How much money do you have?
I was even sent back across the street to obtain additional photocopies! Eventually, I was told to fill out a form, take a photo of it, and then email it to two addresses that were written on the form. When I told them I couldn’t read and write Spanish, the officer wrote it out for me, most of the info being obtained from our passports. I also had to get the cash that I said I had with me and allowed the officer to count it so that he could record that on the form (it was all done in front of a camera so presumably, there couldn’t be any funny business). And yes, after all this, I had to pay $12.00 US each, for which they would not take quarters. 🙂
Sticker on the immigration officer’s desk, in the office where I spent well over an hour.
Why did I have to do all this? It was for our safety, I was ultimately told. In case a bandit attacks us, or something similar, our details and travel plans are now in the system. Hilarious! If we hadn’t been so hungry – neither of us had eaten any breakfast – it wouldn’t have been such a pain. As it was, we were ravenous when we were finally sent on our way.
Finally on our way. Time to enjoy Nicaragua.
We stopped for the night in Somotillo, just 6 km or so from the border. We still have no firm plans about where we’ll be heading during our time in Nicaragua but we have no intention to rush through the country as we did Honduras. Given our last border experience, I’m also not too eager to do another crossing for a while either.
- El Zonte to hotel – 67
- Hotel to Usulutan – 66
- Usulutan to San Miguel – 40
- San Miguel to Santa Rosa de Lima – 59
- San Miguel to Santa Rosa de Lima, El Salvador to Choluteca, Honduras – 100
- Choluteca, Honduras to Somotillo, Nicaragua – 57