Central America Part Two: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala

Blogs I guess are very fickle, heavily curated chunks of content. Usually when I read them I can’t help but think to myself that I’m only ever getting half of the story. The only photos I’m seeing are the best of the best (which I’m happy with, I don’t really care about seeing photos of people standing in front of buildings or in squares that I don’t feel any connection to).

I’m more interested in human experience I guess, I like hearing about inner conflicts and the hard times – isn’t this what most people travel for? To push themselves past what’s comfortable and normal, to challenge their normal lines of thought? To share those experiences with other people and realise that although all experience is unique, it’s also relatable – we’re not doing this all alone.

Central America was a challenge for me. I looked back on South America as a highlight reel, even if there was potential for mental struggle along the way, it was easily blown away by enormous landscapes and people. Central America felt different, it was congested. The countries were smaller and for the most part it felt like I was just jumping between tourist traps. By contrast for example were the months of riding in Peru to get between Arequipa and Cusco and Huaraz where night after night I was invited into local’s properties to bed down. The nighttime robbery in Costa Rica had me feeling bitter against the locals, and I began to realise, or at least think, that everyone was trying to take advantage of me when I paid for things. Of course this is a completely toxic thought and there’s no way I can attribute blame to these people who obviously experience the world in a very different way to me.

The last night in Nicaragua was spent camped in the muddy courtyard of a police station, with a group of cops which kind of just ignored us the whole time. It was a very different experience to most other places I’ve been and overall didn’t feel like the most welcoming. After Nicaragua the intention was to make a fast dash through Honduras and El Salvador en route to Guatemala where I hoped to find a different experience. We took a fast route through Honduras owing to the fact that it has a reputation for being a bit of a dangerous place. One and a half days of hot riding put us at the border with El Salvador, but Jonas and I spent two nights in between with a Warm Showers host in Choluteca to rest a little bit.

Choluteca, Honduras. Jaime welcomed us in for a few nights and made sure we left with full bellies.

El Salvador ended up being a surprising favourite. Again there’s a reputation for danger but we took a route along the Pacific coast and squeezed through the country in 9 or 10 days without paying for accommodation. Along the way we spent 4 nights at the house of Jose, another Warm Showers host who was one of the kindest people I’ve met. He helped me fix some problems with my bike and Jonas and I helped him out on his daily run into the city to pick up supplies for his supermarkets. He even gave us his car one day to head out exploring the local beaches. After four nights there I left with a more certain idea of the sort of person I wanted to be. The rest of the country wound along the coast and up and over the first climbing we’d seen since Costa Rica. We camped out in restaurants and alongside gas stations, and at no point did anyone ever say to us that the area was a bit sketchy or that we should be careful.

Francisco. El Salvador.

The only real exception to this was when we asked at a local police station to camp and they turned us down and said that if the local gangs found out they would cause a lot of problems for the local law enforcement. When you notice that the police don’t really know how to police it makes you realise the extent of the local problems.

Creative camping in El Salvador featured this abandoned restaurant overlooking the Pacific.

El Salvador

When we finally crossed into Guatemala it felt for the first time in Central America that I was making some progress. Culturally Guatemala seemed to have a bit more to offer and the familiar local faces with colourful garb popped back onto the scene. We climbed up the hill to Antigua and slept on local basketball courts and churches along the way.

Seeking the Mexican border. Skirting Lago Atitlan en route.

When we arrived in Antigua we headed straight for a hostel which we’d read was friendly to bike travellers, and upon entry noticed a few familiar bike hanging in the hallway. We’d crossed over with Ben and Tom, who I know from University. It was nice to cross over briefly with people I knew, but it sent me into a bit of a missing home funk.

This lifestyle is a bit of a strange one, and anyone who has spent so long away from home has probably similarly realised how exhausting it can be. Mainly it’s exhausting because you’re so far removed from any sort of consistency or familiarity. Throw in the fact that for almost 2 years now I’ve been moving through places where I need to speak a second language and it can become overwhelming.

I decided to take some time off the bike for a week, rest and eat lots of good food, and head out to scale Volcán Acatenango nearby – I hoped the combination would clear my head.

So after a few days Jonas and I packed our rucksacks and navigated a series of local busses to get out to the trailhead for Acatenango. It’s the fourth volcano I’ve been on on this trip and was the easiest going by far, slowly snaking upwards to a high camp a few hundred metres from the summit.

High camp on Acatenango

Volcán de Fuego

From the high camp we got stunning views over Volcán de Fuego erupting with regularity every 15 minutes or so. Not long after making it to camp an electrical storm rolled through and dumped about a foot and a half of hail on us. We frantically set up tent and jumped inside to escape the worst of it. One other group of hikers made it up to the camp and we learned later that a large group had headed down in the storm because it was too dangerous. Apparently in January two english tourists had died of exposure overnight when a cold snap rolled through – they were part of a tour group and the local mountain guides were obviously a bit shaken.

When we made it down the next morning we were like local celebrities amongst the mountain guides in our hostal because there were so few people on the volcano and there hadn’t been any ice up there for 7 years. Everyone was anxious to see our photos and hear about the experience.

Shortly afterwards Jonas and I parted ways as he headed towards Lago Atitlan to study Spanish and I put my feet up for a few more evenings before heading off myself.

Almost 6 months of riding together made for a fond farewell

In my motivational funk I’d decided that rather than heading off towards the East of Guatemala, instead I would stay in the mountains and move North quickly into Mexico. I’d been thinking a lot about the end of Latin America and I’d become anxious to explore the National Parks of North America and perhaps forge some more meaningful relationships along the way when I could use my first language.

So I spent a few more nights in Guatemala, camping out behind churches and in town squares before finally making the cross to Mexico and heading off into the high, dry mountains of Oaxaca. I’ve found some more motivation again and the food and people in Mexico have rejuvenated me again. I’ve got big ideas to head off to find some really high altitude riding for the first time since Peru and the USA feels pretty accessible for the first time – I think I’ll be making that crossing sometime before my 30th birthday at the end of August.

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