Monday, March 21, 2011

Guatemala again, Honduras briefly, El Salvador and Honduras again... you keeping up?( March 4th - 14th '11)

Central America is a real ego-booster for cycle-tourists. The countries are small and you feel like superman, zooming through them while the rest of the world goes blurry. After spending three and a half months peddling our way through only one country (Mexico) we entered Guatemala and then a few days later found ourselves at the border with Belize. “Where did Guatemala go” we asked ourselves as we plowed through into Belize. We chilled in Belize but when we left and arrived back in Guatemala we quickly got back into the rhythm of cycling and accidentally rode across the country in four days! After Guatemala we entered Honduras, and I didn't even really comprehend that we had passed through it.... I don't know what happened, I think Jules was telling me a story and by the time she finally got to her punchline we were at the border of El Salvador. In El Salvador we managed to slow down Norma and Betty's relentless progress across Central America and take around a week to enjoy it. But the bikes then got the sniff of the open road again and zoomed across Honduras for the second time. This time we took two days to cross the country and I managed to see a little more than the first time (including finding the world's best strawberry licuados. Oh soooo tasty) ...
Besides the limited time that we spent in these countries, we did really enjoy them – and we got to see some interesting areas. One of our favourite parts of Guatemala was where we arrived from Belize (by boat) on the Caribbean coast at Livingston, which is permeated with the vibe of the Caribbean, rich in Garifuna culture and great music. There are no roads to Livingston so we caught a boat up the river to Rio Dulce. The boat trip itself was lovely, canyons dripping in rainforest plants and abundant birdlife . It was also fantastic as we met a lovely Dutch couple on the boat who were travelling the Americas in their camper. When we arrived at Rio Dulce they took us with them to camp at the local marina, which was a very pleasant spot on the lake... if not a little random as we spent the night in our little tent surrounded by huge and impressive-looking yachts!
The next few days we criss-crossed paths with the lovely Dutchies . They would drive past us around morning teatime as we were riding along and lean out the window yelling “coffee-time” . A few kilometres down the road we would catch up with them where they had parked and set up a picnic tea, with iced coffee and snacks. They would then send us on our way with handfuls of biscuits and lollies! We were very spoilt for a few days with coffeetime and great conversations. Unfortunately near the El Salvadorean border we went different directions but we will try and meet up again further down the road. Another meeting with wonderful people...and another highlight of our trip.
It was the people that we met riding through these northern countries in Central America that really made this part of the trip for us. We met some lovely locals: one who bought us dinner at a street stall, a tradie that stopped his truck near us on a hot section of the El Salvadorean freeway and magicked some icy-cold Gatorades out of his esky to present to us, and the elderly owner of a little guesthouse who went out of his way to make sure we had everything we could possibly need – though this worked out less well for us the next morning when he was wandering around in his underwear drinking his coffee and helping us pack the bikes (while we tried hard to look at something far off in the distance). He then (still in his underwear) came out to see us off and give us hugs.. luckily he took more of a shine to Jules and I escaped with a handshake and a squeeze around the shoulders. .
The Salvadoreans were particularly friendly, lots of smiling and waving. One guy actually stopped to see if we needed any money – you know you are looking particularly bedraggled and have reached new heights of hobo-ness when random people stop to see if you need money!
We had some lovely riding through the area where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador meet. It was a little mountainous, so we had some climbing to do but the landscape was very pretty and in some strange, unexpected way the downhills actually felt longer than the uphills. We loved the little towns in the hills of El Salvador, including La Palma, filled with the cheerful artwork of Fernando Llort, and Suchitoto, where we wallowed in the delicious Salvadorean street foods and wonderful views of the lake from our hostel.
We thoroughly enjoyed the street food of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and made sure we stopped for a second breaky every day, some sort of fatty fried thing, such as the delicious cheese and bean papusas. Jules has become obsessed with “licuados”, which are milkshakes made with fresh fruit (our favourites being strawberry and banana), and at least twice a day she will demand her fix. At one spot we found licuados that were brought out in giant jugs, it was like drinking out of the blender! And even though we were so full of milk that our stomachs sloshed as we walked away from the table they were the best we have had so far. Ever since this one Jules is disappointed if her licuado is smaller than her head.
Our biggest issue for the last few weeks has been the intense heat of the lowlands. Trying to beat the heat we get up at Stupid o'clock and aim to be on the road at first light. The first few hours of riding are always thoroughly enjoyable: the pretty dawn light is doing its thing, the birds are all doing their thing, people are doing their early morning thing (having breaky, heading to school, taking their pigs for a walk....) but after about 9.30 it starts to get warm and we start to sweat by the bucketloads. However, by starting so early we are usually at our destination by late morning so we can hide in the shade, eat whole watermelons, drink massive licuados and prostate ourselves in front of the fan.
Now we are newly arrived in Nicaragua... and heading out to suss out the quality of the Nicaraguan licuados...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You have to see it to Belize it: Mexico/Guatemala border to Belize/Guatemala border (13th Feb - 3rd March '11)

(apologies for the terrible pun but it had to be done....)

After almost three and half months our trip through Mexico came to an end. We loved our time in the friendly, chaotic, fascinating, historical and beautiful country, and of course we thoroughly enjoyed its culinary delights. But while we were sad to leave, we knew that someday we will return for a visit and we were also excited about exploring Central America.
We headed into Guatemala by crossing the Usumacinta River at Frontera Corazol, after loading the bikes on the boat, getting stamped out of Mexico and most importantly stocking up on some Mexican essentials, like Bimbo Cake. The boat took us downstream about 15kms to the border town of Bethel. Not that there was any sign of a border – once we had been unloaded, and some local kids had helped us push our bikes up the steep river banks, we found ourselves on a sandy, rocky road on the outskirts of a small village.

We went searching for the immigration (always a good sign) which we found a few kilometres down a very rough and rocky road. The smiling official welcomed us to Guatemala and assured us that yes the road was like this for the next 60kms.. 60 bone-shaking kilometres of rocks and dirt. I was still sick with diarrhoea and stomach cramps and was in a bit of a daze, so by the time we clambered off the bikes at the end of the day my poor body felt like it had spent the last few hours in a washer and dryer.
The next day we cycled into the village of Flores, on an island in Lago de Peten Itza, which was a lovely place to spend a few days trying to get over my stomach bug and heading off on a day trip to the very beautiful ruins of Tikal, set in the jungle and starring spider monkeys, coatis (kind of like raccoons) and cool jungle birds.
In Flores we had to sadly say goodbye to our companions of the last three and a half months, Team Lusty. Russ and Lorely were heading south in Guatemala while we were off to the beaches of Belize. It had been a wicked few months of travelling with them, we managed to survive some tough days of cycling and a terrible Ashes series (and thus a lot of taunts from the Poms) but we always had some great laughs. We'll miss them, but I'm sure we'll see them down the track somewhere.
Jules and I headed off to some lovely relaxing on the shores of the lake at El Remate and then to find the sun and beaches of Belize, where the motto is “go slow”, just how we like it!
Belize was a fascinating place to visit, so very different from anywhere that we have been. It is very Caribbean and laidback, even the dogs were too chilled out to chase us, occasionally one would lazily lift its head to bark as we rode past but that was about as bothered as they got.
Belize has an eclectic blend of cultures: Creol, Spanish, Indigenous, Garifuna, Chinese etc. It was interesting to be back in a country where they spoke English, and people loved to yell out at us as we rode past “hey beautiful ladies”, “where you going so fast” “hey respect to you, man!”. One policeman chilling on the side of the road, called out “hey man, i love your rear view mirror, yeah awesome man”.
We spent most of our time in Belize either in, or lazing next to, the ocean. We spent four days in chilled out Caye Caulker, where we snorkeled with sharks and rays, swam in the turquoise waters and became addicted to coconut rum drinks. We also spent four days on the tiny island of Tobacco Caye, which was one of the highlights of our trip so far. We stayed with a lovely couple, who let us use their kitchen and helped us to buy fresh fish and seafood off the local fisherman. Our host taught us how to make some Caribbean seafood dishes, but was horrified when I planned to use powdered coconut milk in my spicy coconut fish stew. He went off to get us a fresh coconut from the palms outside and taught us how to make fresh coconut milk . Yum! So we spent our time out at the island snorkeling off the beach, lying in the hammock overlooking the ocean, eating delicious fresh seafood and occasionally visiting the beach bar for some sunset cocktails. Bliss.
We did do some riding around the country, we rode across the Belize west to east and then south from Belize City to the southern border. But it didn't require too much effort when the country is only 500km long! The whole country was a dream for cycle tourists, all the roads we took were almost completely flat and there were some great campsites along the way. The hardest day was taking the Coastal “Highway” which was actually just a dirt road through the middle of nowhere. However, while it was tough riding at least it wasn't boring as we got the full range of rocks, gravel, sand, corrugations - it had it all.
Belize is a tiny country, with a small population, so a lot of our time was spent riding along open roads with occasional farms and wooden houses on stilts next to the road. Most Belizeans don't have a lot, so it was a bit of a shock to ride into Placencia (which was another lovely beachside town where we swam and drank more coconut rum) and see evidence of an influx of expat retirees building huge houses right on the beach. The show of wealth really stood out after the small Garifuna towns and banana plantations that we had come through.
Our final morning in Belize, in the border town of Punta Gorda, was a nice summary of our time in the country, everyone waving and smiling as we rode past and then chatting to us at the local cafe. We had our coffee bought for us by a friendly travel writer, Joshua, that we had a great yarn to about travels ( Someone then came to find us and tell us that our boat was leaving early, this town was pretty small! So we headed through immigration, loaded up Betty and Norma on the boat (“too many boat trips in the last couple of weeks” they protested) and headed across the beautiful turquoise waters, bound for Guatemala once more.