Central America Part One: Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua

The last piece I wrote ended with a perilous lancha ride over almost 3 days to cross into Central America and Panamá.

Lazy sunsets and tropical Islands in the Guna Yala waters

Jonas and I were dropped off a Puerto Cartí, which is the southern most point in the country which has road access back to the panamerican highway, which runs like a spine through Panamá. Most other access to the coastline in Panamá comes off of this central spine, and most cyclists had told us it was probably best just to shoot through the country quickly since it was such a hassle to be darting to and from the highway the whole time, and because there were more beautiful places to spend time further North.

It felt a bit strange that these islands were some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and had some of the clearest water, and still people threw trash everywhere you looked

The first challenge however was 40km of pavement to take us to the highway, which we’d heard took some cyclists 2 days of pushing because the roads were so steep. We set off in blazing midday sun figuring we’d get as far as we could before dark, and we ended up coming so close to the highway in one afternoon that we decided to strap the headlights on and go for broke so we could start on the main road the next day. Jonas was legging it fast North to meet some friends for a few weeks in Costa Rica, so we needed to clear 1000km or so in 13 days, which suited us well.

Truth be told, my opinion of Panamá was tainted pretty early on, a number of military stops that threatened to empty our bags in search of something illicit they figured we might have, combined with a really horrible interaction with a motorist in Panamá City which made me feel completely unwelcome, and then a 3 hour long argument with the post office about their bureaucracy and the fact that no-one who worked there seemed at all interested in helping me figure out a pretty complex system to mail a box to Australia.

When I finally rode out of the city I was expected some sort of pleasant gut feeling crossing the Panamá Canal, instead I was greeted by abusive horn honks and people yelling to use the pathway, which had no identifiable entryway and which was blocked halfway by a work crew. Anyhow, after all of that the idea of pushing out 100km days felt pretty great.

After clearing the city proper the highway opened right up, and it turned out that a few hundred kilometre’s of the road was closed to cars, effectively making a 3 lane cycle way for most of the North of the country. In addition the work crews were dotted every 10km or so and always had 30L coolers with ice cold water and were more than happy to let us top up the water bottles, which was very much welcome as we acclimatised to the Central American heat.

Panamá riding day feels

Throughout Panamá we camped pretty much anywhere we could, at schools, health centres, parks, hotels and on private properties. The goal was always sleep long, ride early, get to Costa Rica.

 

When we finally got to Costa Rica we were on the home stretch in terms of making it to meet Jonas’ friends, and we spent a few more days riding through the heat and camping on beaches each night. The relative cost of living in Costa Rica was a real shock to the system, and we found ourselves pretty much living off soda crackers and cheap peanut butter we’d brought from Panamá. The camping was pretty spectacular however, and we even crossed over with a few friends from back home for a few hours on the road, which took our riding peloton to 6 for an afternoon. Ultimately the guys from back home were pushing out a pretty rapid pace and Jonas and I were both in agreement we’d get up early and leave them behind to run ahead and meet his friends.

Costa Rican sunsets, they go ok.

It was nice feeling to finally reach Puntarenas where we’d meet up together, and we found ourselves a room that would fit us all and settled in. Later in the evening Jonas’ friends turned up and we got ourselves together and set off the next morning to get a boat across to the the Nicoya Peninsula.

Puente de Cocodrilos, for some reason the river under this bridge alone had about 50 Crocodiles. I guess they liked the shade?

I felt a bit sorry for the new recruits joining us from Germany, the riding was spectacular but hot and the hills were pretty steep. I think when you settle into a good touring routine you eventually realise that it’s not really about the distance you cover per day and just about being happy with whatever pace you make. I have the benefit of 18 months on the bike at this point to realise that, and Jonas’ friends were thrown in the deep end with uncomfortable riding conditions. They battled punctures, dehydration and plenty of pushing the bike uphill but I think they enjoyed themselves at the end.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Beach Odyssey in Costa Rica

We spent 7 or 8 nights riding around the peninsula, camping on the sand every night and looking for nesting turtles. The whole peninsula felt incredibly touristed despite not many paved roads, and because of the amount of vacationing American’s it felt safe. One night halfway around the peninsula however I was woken by Jonas’ friend Eli, who had just scared off someone she saw rifling through my bags outside my tent. I of course take anything valuable inside my tent, but I’d been leaving a good winter sleeping bag outside the tent because I hadn’t been using it. I quickly woke up, grabbed everything inside my tent, noticed a leatherman multitool missing and fell asleep after securing my bike. In the morning I assessed the damage and found out he’d managed to steal the multitool as well as a good bicycle patch kit; Jonas’ friend Jan had his shoes stolen which is much more inconvenient.

Moral of the story is that for all the thousands of good, kind generous people I’ve met along the way, there still exists some bad eggs.

I think when we finally got to Tamarindo we were all happy to be off the dirt roads for a while and happy to relax for a few nights and stuff our faces to rebuild energy levels. We settled down in La Bruja Verde, which we supposed was a hostal but I think was something close to a squat, it was full of an international poi troupe and a bunch of musician’s living cheaply in the area and busking for the tourists at night to make money.

 

After a few days rest we legged it North Nicaragua and prepared to head out to Isla Ometepe to ride and chase volcanoes.

Arriving on the island we wasted little time finding a place to sleep, eating and exploring everything within range of ourselves, and preparing to scale Volcán Concepcion. The four of us got up at 1.30am for an alpine start and trekked out of town by the glow of headlamps to the trailhead. The going was steep and rocky, and we didn’t make it up to the summit before sunrise, myself and Eli turned back 300m from the summit, which was shrouded in fog and clouds, and cautiously made our way back down while Jonas and Jan pushed on for the top.

Afterwards we spent a few more nights on the island, camping on more beaches and swimming in a few overpriced, tourist centric pools which were spruiked as a ‘must do’ while we were there. It seemed that you had to pay for everything, admittedly not much, but I was a bit peeved when we had to pay a few dollars just to go to a beach on our last night on the island.

After returning to the mainland we moved further on to the beautiful colonial town of Granada, where we rested a bit more and headed up to the top of Volcán Masaya, which is open and shows a flowing river of lava when you peer down into it. We were only allowed to stay up there for 15 minutes, apparently because of the sulphur fumes, but I suspect also so they can push as many tourists through as possible in a night. I really got the feeling that central america was a bit of a money sink for the most part, but I can’t deny the beauty of a lot of the places I camped.

 

After Jan and Eli left to go back to Europe, Jonas and I set off North on a mainly dirt route to take us through to the border with Honduras, and on the way exhausted the last of the Nicaraguan hospitality by staying with the police a few nights and camping in small villages also.

When we finally crossed the border into Honduras we both knew the plan was to ride pretty quickly through to Guatemala, since we’d heard that Honduras and El Salvador were a little bit sketchy. We didn’t expect the hospitality we’d receive in El Salvador, which forced us to stay perhaps twice as long as we thought we would.

 

…Read more in Central America Part 2: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala.

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