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On the road . May 2009 . Central America

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Internet cafe, León, Nicaragua, 26-05-09
Mexican moments
While we are glad that we cycled through to Palenque and gave ourselves the chance to experience a bit of the jungle greenery and traditional rural life Mexico has to offer, we are more than happy to leave the country. It has been a long arduous journey touring down the Pacific Coast and although there are a few interesting towns and quaint beach villages to visit, they are few and far between. Tourism has distorted much of Mexico and without a doubt, its growth will continue to destroy any cultural and bio-diversity currently present. Furthermore, the rubbish levels are something all Mexicans should be utterly ashamed of.

Northern Americans have had their effect on the country as well. Puerto Escondido is as perfect example as any yuppy beach retreat. As we cycle into town, two scantily clad Americans in bikinis tops and cut-off jeans ride their voluptuous flesh and loud mouths past on their just as conspicuous Harley. I mean, you only have to look around you to see that the local women don't dress like this; most Mexican girls swim fully clothed for goodness sake. In the heart of gringo-village, I bump into Denis and Dianne; young American retirees in their mid fifties proudly showing off their ankle bands, hippy beads and sun-dried skin. They still own their house in the US, but the kids use that now. They can afford to live here and have done so for the past five years, though they speak not a word of Spanish. They like the store down the road because they can get the brand of cereal they used to eat back in the States. This same story can be heard from Martin and Mary in Zihuatanejo; Jack and Joanne in Melaque; or Nat and Nancy in Sayulita. These townships exemplify what a strong manipulative force the west has had and will remain having on the Mexican way of life.

By far the most interesting place for us was Chiapas with its cool mountain landscapes and prominent Zapatista influence. It is a shame that the epidemic swine flu closed the ruins at Palenque the day before we arrived, because that too could have been a highlight of our trip. On reflection, most of our treasured moments in Mexico came from when we stayed somewhere for any length of time: San Blas; San Cristóbal. And that stands to reason seeing as much of the road travel was chaotic, fight-for-your-life, nightmare cycling with stress levels reaching maximum output. In the same breath, it has to be said that this time around the maniacs were not the truck drivers. Egotistic bus drivers; taxi chauffeurs and machos in their fancy V-8 4x4's which are way too big for the itsy bitsy roads were the cause of most of our cycling grief. However, as soon as they step out of their vehicles and away from the prominent tourist spots, Mexicans are wonderfully friendly, heart-warming and impeccably trustworthy people. This is the image I will try to go away with and good enough reason for anyone to put Mexico on their cycling itinerary. Time over again: more back road routes and maybe a couple of bus trips to cut out the long stretches of sameness.

New frontiers: 3 countries; 4 borders; 3 boat trips; plenty of breakdowns; and a whole pile of rubble
Palenque to Santa Ana (11 cycle days; 3 boat trips; 3 rest days; 1060km; 7659m)
Palenque to Nuevo Guerrero (103 km; 790 m)
Nuevo Guerrero to Bethania (Guatemala) (72 km; 576 m)
Bethania to Flores (131 km; 414 m)
Flores to San Ignacio (Belize) (110 km; 888 m)
San Ignacio to Dangriga (125 km; 877 m)
Dangriga to Mango Creek (87 km; 143 m)
Mango Creek to Punte Gorda (107 km; 342 m)
Punte Gorda to Puerto Barrios (Guatemala) (3 km; 4 m)
Puerto Barrios to Quirigua (95 km; 586 m)
Quirigua to Chiquimula (102 km; 1259 m)
Chiquimula to Metapan (El Salvador) (77 km; 1165 m)
Metapan to Santa Ana (49 km; 615 m)

Central America has the worst reputation for security and safety and we leave Palenque mentally alert and physically refreshed after a rest day of stuffing our bodies with as many carbohydrates, fruit and fluids as we can. It makes the expected 5% average, 120m ascent along the same road we entered a little easier. From the turnoff we continue to escalate to 360m, then drop to 250m and hang around this level for most of the day. The pedalling is not too demanding, but as the sun climbs to its position in the clear blue sky, the road undulates more as the day goes on. The villages become poorer and poorer.

At 6.30pm, the temperature is still 31°C and we are sitting under the palapa of a newly constructed shop frontage. Francesca has pulled out a plastic table and some chairs while we choose several cans of cooling drink from her Coca-Cola fridge. Nuevo Guerrero (103km; 790m) is much smaller than we anticipated but our host is more than pleased to let us stay the night. She sits crocheting baby dresses, chatting away while we welcome the chance to put the feet up after a hot innings.

Another eco-tourism trap
Rolling paths cut through fog covered mountains; overcast skies echo the blood thirsty cries of the howler monkeys; and the climb begins on one very isolated but stunningly jungle-green road. Sometimes 15 minutes passes before we hear the engine of another vehicle. After 30 kilometres, San Javier is our first stop and we have to cover the same distance again before we reach the border town. A military checkpoint 12.5km down the road marks the turnoff onto a bumpy country lane that shoots us up and down some steep gradients. Frontera Corozal has a few shops to spend the last of your Mexican money. We stock up with fruit, vegetables, drinks and dry goods as who know's what to expect of the other side.

Cycling towards the end of town, we stop and ask where we need to arrange the boat ride. Unfortunately, we ask the wrong people; they are involved with yet another "Eco-tourism" trap and naturally point us to their office. In actual fact we were heading in the right direction and should have continued on towards the beach. Negotiating directly with a boat man will save you 100 pesos on the 400 peso charge from the tourist-office. We miss the inconspicuous immigration office on our right altogether and have to backtrack, only to find it closed. Wait is all we can do.

Officials turn up eventually and the passports are stamped promptly. It is not too much trouble getting the bikes on the boat and we settle in for the supposed 40 minute upstream cruise on the Rio Usumacinta. Turns out to be a 25 minute journey and getting up the embankment at Bethel is rather more difficult than boarding. Rocky, unpaved roads lead us to a crossing. Uncertain of which direction to follow Ali asks "¿Donde esta la Officina de Immigracion?". "It's over there", comes the reply.

In a land far, far away
We spend more time chatting with officials and the badly lisping money-exchange lady than the immigration procedure. There is no entry fee as is rumoured in guidebooks and other's blogs, though we do have to purchase goods from our peso-trader's shop since she doesn't have enough change for the complete transaction. Rather lucrative business. We learn that Bethania-Guatemala (72km; 576m) is 8 kilometres down the road and has a posada. It's a sweaty slog in the mid afternoon sun on these unpaved limestone back roads, though it is nice to be so far away from it all. Traffic is slow and big hellos and waves come thick and fast.

Hotel posada Don Maco is our only paid accommodation option for the night, otherwise we need to venture on and find somewhere to camp. Neither Ali nor I really want that, though I get the impression Ron would like to. While the rooms are very, very basic and just as grotty, there is the cooling thought of that bucket shower out the back. Besides that, most of the land surrounding the housing here seems to be damp red clay and I don't much fancy pitching the tent up in that. Camping wild is not really an advisable alternative.

After each forking out 25 quetzales (10 GTQ = 1 EUR) for the room, the initial shock of 6 GTQ's for a small bottle of drink turns into a worrying thought when we realise that there is no running water for us to filter. After a lengthy conversation with the family and them still not fully understanding that we need around 15 litres between us, we at least ascertain that early tomorrow morning, the water pressure will be turned on. Other lodgers stay overnight and use the facilities of this humble hotel just like the chicks following their clucking mum through the hotel's corridor. The local school across the road doubles as a church and at 8pm a preacher man begins his holy rant. Pigs, dogs, cats, slushy mud and grubby kids.... all a bit too much.... time to go to bed.

Morning ablutions
Waking early at Posada Don Maco is not a difficult task: pigs are snorting; dogs are barking and roosters are crowing as the light pours into the room through the gap between the cement wall and the tin roof. Peering out from sleepy eyes, I notice the cobwebs are still dangling in pendulum form the fluoro light above and the dust hasn't budged from the bedhead even though the Super Crown fan has been blowing strong all night long. As I step outside, carefully around the worst of the mud holes and up the steps of the toilet block, grandma beckons me over to see with my own eyes that just as our hosts had promised, the water is trickling out of the tap. The morning chores begin with filtering.

it's a beautifully cool start to the day as we take off through small villages: roads buzzing with children on their way to school and the odd vehicle on an early morning chore. Everyone is excited to see us and runs out to greet us with cheerful hellos. What a wonderful way to wake up in this world.

The track is none other than rocky, but suits my bike really well. This is probably the one place where a mountain bike wins out over a touring bike, so long as you have good wheels. You can't really get above 12km per hour in this terrain and it is straining on the legs, but I much prefer it to long boring bitumen stretches any day. After 52 kilometres, we hit asphalt and its a further 6 kilometres into Las Cruces where we pitstop for lunch in a colourfully bustling park.

Roughly twelve kilometres more pedalling before we reach the petrol station just past the turnoff to Flores, which we discover is still 51 kilometres away. And it would have been if we had taken the lefthand side of the first fork in the road after the lively little township of La Libertad. We don't and consequently add an unwanted 10 kilometres to today's journey. Following the trucks and buses into San Francisco we bear course with an afternoon thunderstorm.

All roads lead to Rome
I have been in two minds about whether I should include some of the following text, but in the end decided that it should be part of our blog since many of the observations and reflective thoughts affected a significant part of our travelling time, be it on the bicycle or not. Before I set out on this tour, I vowed I would tell the truth as objectively as one can from their own experiences. I had read so many "happy, happy, smiley people" exerts from other cycle touring websites that I thought, this just can't be reality. I have endeavoured to include the facts in the most unbiased way I can. It is by no means a judgement on Ron or his way of cycle touring. He appears very content with his touring rituals and rhythms and that is great for him. The fact that individuals can travel so completely differently is more at the core of the tale and certainly a couple of lessons to be learnt when choosing cycle touring partners.

Difference of opinions
Santa Elena can't come soon enough for me; I'm completely frazzled. The guys want to head towards Flores (131km; 414m) and I end up agreeing even though I saw a cute posada on the main drag entering town. The rooms at Hotel Casablanca seem reasonable enough for 90/70 GTQ for a double/single with private bathroom. I think we are all pretty happy just to lean the bikes against the wall and call it quits for the day. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work like that. According to the guy at reception, we need to arrange the bus trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal tonight; Ali and I desperately need to buy some food; take money out, as well as organise something for dinner. It is 7.00pm by the time we get started. We all agree that finding a pizzeria is our best option for the evening meal.

After a semi-dazed unpacking of the bikes, a shower, and paying 60 GTQ each for the bus trip to and from the ruins, Ali then heads into town to find an ATM. In my exhausted state, I wander quite aimlessly with Ron in the back streets of Flores unsuccessfully sourcing any decent supermarket whatsoever. We end up taking the bridge back into Santa Elena to meet up with Ali, who also comes back after fruitless efforts of trying every ATM in town. He ends up exchanging our stash of American dollars instead. We still need to shop, but Ron says he desperately needs to eat first. Both Ali and I see the shopping as a much more important chore, but Ron is adamant that he wants to order and eat pizza first and shop second.

Only problem I see with that plan is that the supermarkets will more likely be closed by that time. Ron then suggests we need to choose as to whether we will shop for dinner at the supermarket or not. I'm hardly going to answer that until I see what the shop has on offer. For both Ali and myself, the decision to eat, whatever or wherever usually comes after we have made sure that everything is in order for the following day and seeing as we have booked a bus for 7am in the morning, stocking up on breakfast and lunch is the priority at the moment. Besides, if I were in Ron's situation, I would have grabbed a biscuit or snack from my room or in one of the supermarkets we had ventured into in Flores.

He gets extremely stressed and remarks that he is going to shop for his evening meal at the supermarket and then take it back to his room to eat. There are also implications that if it weren't for us looking for something vegetarian, then he could be eating at Burger King by now and further adds that he may still well do so on the way back.

The shop is big enough to purchase everything we need for a quick meal back at the room. Both parties walk back pretty much in silence. At the hotel, we try to get Ron to tell us whether he has enough money to pay the outrageous 150 GTQ park fee tomorrow. His answer is a non-informative "I hope so". So to be on the safe side, I tell him to keep the 60 GTQ he owes us for the bus ride, expectant that he has enough. We retire to our individual quarters.

Time makes no difference?
We had booked the bus for 7am and are prompt according to our watches. Buses pass, but they are all full. At 7.45am, we start really hassling the manager, who eventually wakes up Mario, the tour organiser. He arrives with a shower of Spanish flying about and the numbers six and seven keep coming up. It is then that Ali notices the reception clock is one hour behind our time: a minor detail we had missed when crossing at Bethel. So, apologies all round and he promises that our bus will be here in a few minutes. It is of course 20 minutes late and our intentions of a cool early start with the best photo opportunities are dashed. The one hour ride takes much longer and at 8.40am when we enter the park, the sun is intensely gleaming down upon us.

Ron has said little to either of us the whole morning and I start the conversation by asking him which route he is going to take. We part ways at the gate and arrange to meet back at the parking lot for the 2pm bus trip back. His air is somewhat cool and I decide that if nothing is said, I'll have to broach the problem tonight. You'll almost certainly choke if you cycle in thick air.

Can't fool a cyclist
We arrive back after a really great day at Tikal. The ruins, though much later in history than I imagined (550-800AD), were quite breathtaking. The forest surroundings where you could wander undercover for hours were also peaceful and relaxing and a perfect change of speed from the usual sun heated pedal-pace. Unfortunately all the tranquility disappears from our being when we step back into our hotel room at hotel Casablanca. Immediately, we both sense that someone has been in our room. A quick check of our panniers and we know for sure. What these amateur thieves don't know is that every touring cyclist has their own unique way of packing, something that a non-touring cyclist couldn't even begin to fathom.

Firstly, you can't fit everything in unless you pack your gear with meticulous order and secondly while it might look like all the clothing is shoved in at random, the socks are wedged down the side to protect the video tapes and the warm weather gear sits on the bottom when you are unlikely to use it. Thirdly, a touring cyclist would never fold the top roller the wrong way around. Ali discovers that a US$100 travellers cheque has gone missing. Everything else is intact.

I approach the oversized woman at reception and she plays ever so dumb, enough to give the distinct feeling that she is the thief. Denying that there is even a second key for our room, she rings the boss. Meanwhile Ron is checking his bags and comes back saying that his too have been tampered with, though nothing has been stolen. Ron's fan which he purposefully left running has also been unplugged. When he questions how that could have happened if there was only one key, the story changes that his room miraculously has two keys. The manager also backs his employees story up, but at the mention of calling the police he gets a little nervous and offers to pay Ali back what was stolen. Ali just asks him to ring the police. He makes out an attempt to phone them but says they are not answering. All a little too suspicious.

An hour on the phone with Amex and everything is sorted. The cheque is cancelled and the money will be deposited into our bank account. Mary is extremely thorough, professional and very helpful. Thumbs up Amex!

We sound the alarm to others staying at Hotel Casablanca formerly known as Los Peches in Flores, Guatemala. Those that also visited Tikal today report they too have had money and small affects stolen. It appears that this petty crime has been going on for a long time and the inside thieves (employees of Hotel Casablanca in Flores) only take small amounts, while their guests are visiting the Mayan ruins. Many travellers won't notice, but they picked the wrong group this time: you can't fool a cyclist.

Broken the ice?
An entirely new picture of Central America has come to light and it is obvious that you can't let your guard down for even a minute. Though a painful waste of time, all the excitement has broken the ice between Ron and ourselves and we decide to take up where we left off last night and go for a pizza this evening. Just before it arrives on our table, Ali makes a joke in light of the afternoon's events about whether Ron still wants to cycle with us. Before the words have barely left Ali's lips, a whole pile of stuff that had obviously been bottled up inside over the last few days comes flooding out.

Apparently, our riding pattern and more specifically our regular stops are conflicting with his riding rhythm and that is stressing him out big time. Seeing as we are cycling travellers and not travelling cyclists, that is highly likely, but Ali has asked him on several occasions whether everything was okay and Ron never mentioned anything. We figured he didn't mind the stops, so we kept taking them. He then goes on to say that he feels like he is tagging along, not knowing what he is doing next. In all fairness Ali and I have been together for so long now that we don't always have to verbally mention things to each other. We just know. Still, we have managed to have open communications with other touring cyclists prior to this and on more than one occasion. Besides, if this was such a concern, Ron really should have said something.

And his vexation with our style of road touring doesn't stop there: we also start too early in the morning for him as he needs to do yoga before he leaves. Furthermore, I have a bad habit of making comments that places him in the situation where he feels he needs to constantly defend himself. He also believes that it takes more effort and time to solo-tour than it does to cycle-travel with someone else. One of his thoughts regarding this is that he needs to take better care of himself than we do, because there would be no-one to look after him if he gets sick. Other more personal issues come up that he says are a constant worry for him too.

Now, while Ali and I can hardly take full responsibility for all the above problems and added stress that Ron says he now has, I personally believe that if everyone compromises a little, you can work out just about any situation. So, gradually over the next couple of days, our starting time is increased from 7am to 8am (almost 2 hours later than we normally would leave); we take shorter stops, though probably still not short enough for a trained cyclist who enjoys eating on the run. However, within the week due to some harder cycling terrain, I really need to set off an hour earlier again or I simply won't make the journey. Ron leaves after us, passes us along the way and then cycles on ahead, by himself for the basically the entire trip, unless the road turns to dirt. Then somehow, we end up pedalling together. I'm not sure I see the purpose of touring like this, but we did say to him that he should cycle at his own pace. I suppose I wasn't quite expecting him to take that as being for the whole day. Still, Ron appears to be very happy with the new arrangements and we let it roll on like this for the interim.

No Frenos? [No Brakes?]
We leave Hotel Casablanca with our message about 'thieves at work' firmly written on the rules and regulations on the back of our door. One of the signs at the front of the building also gets graffitied and we hope it remains long enough to turn a few customers away. When he gets the chance a few days later, Ali posts plenty of bad advertising on travel forums as well as contacting every travel guide editor he can think of.

The road out is busy enough to notice the whiz of traffic but only for about 10 kilometres and then it suddenly dies off. Scenery is of farmland and slashed and burnt jungleland. It is not quite the view we had been expecting. Still the rural people are amazing. The turnoff to Ixla takes us through some of the nicest little villages and in one we stop for lunch near a roadside stall. The owner asks her son to bring a bench out so we can sit at the table in the shade. They sell the best oranges for 1 quetzales each. That's one and a half to two times the price in Mexico: this runs pretty well true for most products in Guatemala: package tortillas, bread, fruit and vegetables and soft drinks.

The road winds up and down continuously but nothing too dramatic. We motor on while hardly any traffic bothers us. If a vehicle comes in sight, the driver generally slows down to wave. The reasonable bitumen surface in the beginning of the day turns to a dusty unpaved gravel rock path for the last 25 kilometres. Just before we hit the border my front derailleur cable breaks. There is no way I can cycle these roads or hills in one gear, so I fix it while also amusing an audience of four local kids. One little girl questions "No frenos?". Considering this a very intelligent observation from such a young onlooker, I answer "Si, no frenos". Besides, I don't know the word for 'gears' in Spanish yet.

Guatemalan officials try and extort 20 quetzales from us for crossing the border but a firm 'No' from Ali has them retreating from their scam-proposition. Security are also damned annoying, wanting us to leave our bikes unattended and well off the concrete area at immigration. One guy whistles us to go to one place while another has a different spot in mind. Due to their arrogant manner, we choose to ignore them.

Brixton in the tropics
On the Belize side we are confronted with posters about hygiene; unwanted abortions; AIDS; help line numbers; English pleases and thank-yous and one very warm welcome, except from the grumpy customs worker, who won't let us bring our recently purchased oranges into the country. He won't even let us eat them up then and there. So far though, Belize seems so much more civilized. The road leading into San Ignacio-Belize (110km; 888m) is not: it's a full-on roller coaster ride and adds quite a few more metres of climbing to our day's accomplishment. The surrounding land is ever so clean and neat and definitely a culture change after months of Mexico followed by Guatemala. Is this one of the examples of what a higher education and a non-corrupt government can facilitate?

Like the Belizean countryside, Tropicool Hotel is also clean and neat, though more akin to a hostel with its doctrinaire list of do's and don't attached to the pin-up board. A room with share bathroom goes for 28 and 23 BZD per double and single respectively. Maxim's, the Chinese restaurant opposite Elvira's Guesthouse serves up some of the best Chinese nosh we have ever tasted. We all eat for two. First impressions of Belize: like the hotel name suggests, I feel like I've landed myself in a tropical downtown Brixton. Evra boadies coohl maahn en yeah I meheen id brover en sister: jus coohl. Shopping, on the other hand is not cool: the cost of living in Belize is high.

Hummingbird Highway: following a trail of oranges all the way to the Caribbean
We leave before Ron at 7.15am: says he'll catch up. The overcast morning makes for a pleasant ride out of town. Such a difference to cycle through a clean, green country with quaint ranches. The presence of Mennonites adds to the quirkiness and I secretly keep looking around for Harrison Ford to come riding by in his horse driven cart. He doesn't. Though, Ron does on his bike a few hours later as I am yet again repairing a broken derailleur cable: the back one this time.

People aren't quite as spontaneous as in Guatemala, but everyone is still friendly. The fact that they nearly all speak English is a bonus as far as conversations are concerned. The Hummingbird highway is renowned for its hilly disposition and while the ride is really good winding through orange scented jungle air, there are a few difficult climbs involved towards the end of the day. Traffic is reasonable and reduced to a few local voyagers and semi's loaded with oranges. Their presence means an abundance of fallen roadside fruit. You won't go short of a vitamin C rich citrus snack along this stretch.

Almost to the end of the hills, my back rack snaps off at the frame eyelet proving that breakdowns also come in threes. Still, it is nothing that a few brackets can't hold together to get me into town. We continue passed wooden slat houses on stilts with varying colour blends and degrees of disrepair while one lane bridges intersperse the route lined with banana palm and orange tree jungles. There have been a few opportunities to camp along this stretch at National Parks and even a few resorts and hotels in the beginning and towards the end of the day have also offered camping facilities. Asking at one of the local Ranches is also an option and we were assured by a local man in San Ignacio that Belizeans would be more than happy to let you do this.

The same man also told us that once we are clear of the massive orange juice factory, we'll encounter flat road. While this is true, there is still a further 20 kilomteres to navigate and with an uncooperative coastal headwind trying to send us back the way we came, its a killer last hour of pedalling. Feeling really sore and very tired when we finally arrive in Dangriga (125km; 877m)

Expecting to see something similar to San Ignacio, but instead end up in an equally "cool" and friendly, but contrastingly run-down little town on a blustery Caribbean coast. An overabundance of Chinese grocery stores line the side streets with shelves stocked with plenty of dry goods, cleaning and economy sized hair care products. The budget accommodation in Dangriga is not plentiful and we end up staying at Chaleanor Hotel which is nothing more than tiny sweatbox rooms in a poorly converted transportable. Ron is waiting in reception when we arrive. Ali ends up enquiring about the accommodation and there is little choice than to accept the not only dirty premises, but the crappy bed and share toilets and showers of very dubious standard. For this privilege we pay 36BZD, which is about 18 US$. We later find out there is the added bonuses of free wifi and cold drinking water which does numb the price-tag sting just a little.

Happy Birthday to me...
The next day is a rest day and my birthday. I am adorned with several little packages full of fun new stickers for my Ortlieb panniers; a decent set of pointy nose pliers; and a cake of venus soap that Ali brought along with him from one of the hotel rooms in Mexico. Ron gives me a pack of delicious chocolate chip cookies. We all eat out in a local Chinese restaurant with Marc and Ilse, a Dutch couple staying in the same hotel. The part I'm not so pleased about is spending most of the day in sweaty weather conditions fixing the gearing on my bike. While I'm very grateful that Ron partakes in sharing some of his mechanical knowledge with me, it is still not quite what I had in mind for my birthday.

We leave late at 8am the next day and the sun is already high. The birds aren't singing as much at this time of day, I really miss the cool of the early morning and also regret arriving in townships so late in the afternoon too. Overcast patches stop the body from overheating too much today and the flat nature of the ride makes the first half relatively easy. The turn-off to Placencia shunts us onto dirt road for 31 kilometres and our pace slows right down. For nearly four hours we cycling this dusty thirsty stretch in soaring midday temperatures.

It is a relief to fly into Placencia but the plans to spend the night here are looking slim when we discover a totally different atmosphere than what the guidebook suggests. Looking back, we should have interpreted the fancy condo villages with bitumen frontages leading up to this tourist town in a different way. Instead of being a cool relaxed beach hangout, Placencia is yuppyville at its worst and the price of accommodation is as snobby as most of the guesthouse owners we encounter. In fact, the majority are downright rude to either Aaldrik or myself when we enquire at their lodgings. Most places are asking around 90 BZD for a double: that's 45 US dollars thank you very much!

We push our bikes past peddling basket weavers, jewellery salesmen and trinket shops offering cheap goods at exuberant rates until we reach our last budget option. Omar's Guesthouse has a ramshackle triple with share bathroom facilities for 38 BZD. Though Ron doesn't exactly say so, it is obvious that he is adverse to sharing with us and goes to check out the camping situation on the beachfront. It turns out to be almost as expensive at 10 BZD per person and besides the showers and toilets are well and trully bolted up. Ali and I suggest taking the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi across the inlet to Mango Creek. Ron agrees and we are assured by the boat operators that there is accommodation enough on the other side.

Hey whiteboy!
Ten Belize dollars each plus 3 for each bicycle later and we are heading for the other side. If we had known this before, we wouldn't have needed to tour the off-road conditions. Finding somewhere to stay in Mango Creek (87km; 143m) proves more difficult than we thought. Our first and obvious choice is Ursala's guesthouse. It is shockingly blatant that she doesn't want us to stay because before Ali has even got the words out, she says there is no room, disappears ever so quickly upstairs and closes the door. It is also apparent that her lodgings are not at all full. Unlike the young guy who jokingly calls out "Hey whiteboy" to Ali, Ursala's prejudice actions are most unneighbourly indeed.

Ali tries at another hotel who unbelievably ask 82 BZD for a double. It is not only a disgraceful dump but a raucous bar is attached to the premises. We are further told to head towards the lagoon. There is nothing here except a house with the sign 'rooms for rent': the owner says she only has one single bed available. I'm beginning to not feel very welcome in this town at all. At last, someone tell us to go and plead with Miss Clandettes at Waterside Takeout just up the road. Ali does just that, and finally, we hit the jackpot and have somewhere to rest after our host firmly makes sure that Ali and myself are married. I knew that formal piece of paper would come in handy one day! Normally it costs 25 BZD per room, but Miss Clandettes gives us a 10 dollar discount for the fact that one room doesn't have a mattress on the pallet like bed base. Ron offers to take that room but we split the bill three ways.

The rooms don't have fans so it is sweltering hot, but the attached lounge and kitchen area are an added bonus Not so sure about the purposefully displayed array of Watchtower magazines on the table though. We hang out in the cool of this open room until sleep is absolutely necessary. Awoken in the middle of the night to one of the loudest thunderstorms I have ever heard. It is raining hard and still coming down when we rise the next day.

Not training; travelling
It is basically flat out of Mango Creek with pine tree forests looking much like the region close to Bordeaux in France. Bright pink and red sandy rocks line the roadside too, but apart from this striking colour combination, there is nothing particularly special about the first half of the ride. We have completed 65 km well before 1pm when we stop for lunch. This is the first time we see Ron since the morning offset. The road has turned to slippery lashings of red clay mud and the terrain has either slowed him down incredibly, he has taken a few breaks along the way or been waiting here for a while.

We are in close range for the 9 kilometres of slush, but as soon as the asphalt appears, we loose sight of Ron again. Even though there is only 10 kilometres to go before we reach our destination, I'm growing a little fatigued and in need of some energy: we've been riding almost solidly for 2½ hours. By Aaldrik's reaction it appears as if he is getting caught up in Ron's style of non-stop cycle touring too. I admit, I really like the breaks throughout the day and this heightens the resentment of feeling like I'm in training for some pedalling event at the moment. My travelling day is now all about the cycling and no matter how tired I feel, Ali wants me to continue on. I refuse point blank which doesn't go down well at all, but be darned if I'm going to shove a couple of biscuits down my throat and take off before the last morsels are digested. This is not my style of cycle touring nor my preferred way of travelling for that matter.

Energy regained after less than a fifteen minute break and I am able to fly into Punte Gorda (107km; 342m). Ron is waiting on the outskirts of town for us. We meet with yet another completely different township. This time everything is shut: its like a ghost town. As one local puts it: it is traditional Sunday. I think I last experienced that concept in Australia in the late 70's. Downside of this is, some of the guesthouses are closed and only a handful of shops and eateries are open. Ali enquires at Nature's Way Guesthouse: a poorly maintained place asking the jaw-dropping price of 36 BZD for the shed they call a room. Electrical wires are running randomly over the walls and ceiling, rawly connected and insulated with black tape. Floors are filthy and the built up grime in anything that can habour it would have my Mother in a nose-turned fit of disgust. A bathroom with a basin and toilet bowl that both move a few inches when you put pressure on them; a shower without a nozzle and resembling a space shuttle like transportable clearly reminding all who wash there that it is Cabin Model no 68. The sides are falling out of the metal brackets and the thing looks like it was last scrubbed in 1980. Everything about the place is so totally dodgy and yet the owner has the audacity to brag about his 20 year long ownership. The one and only good point is the breakfast, but then again you pay 8 BDZ per person for that.

Bee careful
It is impossible to cook at the guesthouse, so we eat Chinese for dinner yet again. It is pretty good though nothing compares to Maxim's in San Ignacio. On our way to the restaurant we take a stroll round the town. Just a few metres short of the immigration office, we are attacked by bees. And they are persistently ferocious. I get stung on my neck, Ali on his hand, Ron a few times on his back and one gets stuck in my hair and I just can't buzz the thing out. Each time he gets free he attacks me again. I totally freak out, scream like a loony and run as hard and long as I can. All the locals around know exactly what is happening, so it has obviously happened before. Why don't they relocate the blinking hive then! According to one lady, I should have dived under a bush or low tree. Nice of her to tell me afterwards. She also adds that I could have jumped in the ocean as well. Not quite sure that would be the right way out of the onslaught considering I was carrying my computer, camera and hard drive in my day pack.

Boat ride across the Gulf of Honduras and into our 30th country cost 40 BZD each plus a further 5 for each bike. Immigration is in a barn-like building with enough bureaucratic pungency to convey its official status. Conservation taxes upon leaving Belize are 7.50 BZD each. I certainly hope it goes back into cleaning up Punta Gorda a little bit. Boat is completely crowded and I close my eyes and press each pulse for the one hour ferry across the ocean.

The worst hotel on earth
Immigration is easy and takes just a few minutes on the other side at Puerto Barrios - Guatemala (3km; 4m) No arrival/departure cards this time round which was initially very confusing. Hotel Europa which the LP guide book recommends has doubled its price: probably due to its world wide publicity, though it is reasonably clean. Rooms cost 150/105 quetzales for a double/single. Next door at Hotel Miami the price is much lower at 70/50 for a double/single, but so is the standard. Still, Ali accepts. Ron follows suit, though I don't think he is too happy about it. During the course of the next hour or so we discover that the toilet doesn't flush; there is no water in the sink, no nozzle on the shower: which isn't such a problem but the fact that the light globe has blown is. I don't want to be doing everything in the dark from 7pm onwards. The woman in charge promises they'll fix it around 4pm. Still waiting at 5pm, when I leave to go and do some shopping.

Of course nothing is rectified when I get back and Ali has already removed a fluoro tube from another room and tried that out: as soon as he turned it on it blew. He decides that we are going to spend the night in the dark, but I'm not settling for that at all. While we might have only paid 70 quetzales, it is still way too much for these drab dirty surroundings and I'm going to have light. I go and approach the woman, who offers me nothing in return for all my ranting. Ali then gets on the bandwagon and we end up moving everything upstairs.

Just short of finishing doing the dishes and cleaning up after dinner, a thunderstorm bursts in of the blue and buckets down more rain than I thought possible in one go. I hear lots of swearing and yelling from downstairs. At first I ignore the commotion, but later curiosity gets the better of me and I pop my head out to see what is going on. I catch a glimpse of Ron is wheeling his fully loaded bike out of the premises. I gather he has been flooded out and few minutes later it is confirmed when he knocks on the door and says he is now staying next door. I go down with him to see how bad it is and sure enough his room is under at least three inches of water. The woman very reluctantly gives him his money back.

An hour later the electricity cuts out altogether and then the water shuts off too. Ali who is in the bed next to me is bitten by something really nasty in his mattress and ends up with large white welts all over his body. He ends up crawling into my bed and we sweat it out for the rest of night until the electricity comes back on a few hours before we have to rise. There is still no water, but at least the bite marks Ali had have disappeared.

A different kind of Guatemala
Leaving nice and early at 7am means we arrive nice and early too despite my gears seizing up and Ali getting a flat tyre. Ron disappears after we have finished our first climb of the day. The cycle along the CA-9 highway leading into Guatemala City is frightfully busy. I thank everyone and anyone that has anything to do with building the shoulder along this stretch because the trucks make it clear they are stopping for no-one. While the shoulder is half decent for most of the way, it does tend to randomly disintegrate without warning, and vanishes altogether on bridges, which makes navigating the 10cm ridge back up onto the road at top speed a very dangerous manoeuvre indeed.

The scenery is greener and much more beautiful here than the other section of Guatemala we travelled through (Bethel to Melchior de Mencos), but the cycling is way much more stressful. This is also reflected in the way of life here and even though the people are friendly enough, the warmth of the smiles and hellos isn't a patch on our more rural experiences. We push past farms with toros for sales and their female counterparts grazing on the grassy slopes not yet maintained by the machete wielding road worker.

Quirigua (95km; 586m) has two accommodation choices: Hotel Royal and Hotel Paraiso. I check out both and we end up opting for the first since it has mosquito screens and a private bathroom. Both lodgings charge 50 Quetzales per person. A platos tipicos costs 30 Quetzales per person, but seeing as the menu on offer tonight is a choice of chicken or beef, we decline with a polite "No, gracias". Unfortunately, this message was misconstrued, probably when Ron accepted the dinner invitation for himself to an entirely different person, who more than likely communicated it wrongly. Apparently, our host became so angry that Ron was intimidated enough to eat and pay for two dinners. I heard Ali's conversation with the woman and know full well that he said "No", so I feel no guilt whatsoever. We are hardly going to say "Yes" to a chicken or beef dinner when we are vegetarians now are we?

Apart from a grumpy host, the rest of the town is all smiles and big hellos. Ali walks the main street and finds it necessary to say hi to everyone twice: initially on the way to the internet cafe where he doesn't have to pay for the 20 minutes of use and then on the return trip as well.

Cycle touring torture
Initial climb out through green pastures and views of mountains all around. Overcast skies threaten rain but never come through with it. There are so many trucks and heavy vehicles on the road today that the journey can only be described as complete touring torture. I hope it dies off when we take the turn off to Chiquimula after 70 kilometres of the CA-9 highway.

Unfortunately the only thing that dies off is the quality of shoulder, which up until now was almost acceptable. Trucks roar past unnervingly: they are not prepared to stop and little by little I become even more of a nervous wreck. The sweet woman who hands me a big juicy mango on an uphill battle is the sole pleasure of the afternoons ride. With 30 odd kilometres still left to traverse, we have already done 700m and know that we are in store for some more climbing.

Not only does the shoulder teeter between being virtually non-existent or completely unusable with a loaded bicycle, but the road is in really poor condition too. And although it means we really have to climb, the extra slow moving vehicle lane is pure good fortune. Not only do my legs and back ache, not only am I tired and thirsty, but the roar of traffic is driving me insane: I really mean insane! Fourty five minutes of climbing later and we reach the top. Downhill is a relief though the patchworked roads don't make for smooth sailing. On the corner at the turnoff into town we stop in front of the gates at a major supermarket debating whether to shop here or not. Lucky we don't continue riding past, because otherwise the overly timid gatekeeper would not have given us the little bit of paper Ron had handed to him. His message is that has gone to Hotel Hermanos in the city centre of Chiquimula (102km; 1259m).

The town is quite a vibrantly, bustling place with the local market area outside our hotel. Women in colourful frilly aprons and men sit shaded under their vegetable stands while a never ending line of vehicles spew exhaust into the air. It's noisy and chaotic and all I can think about is a cool shower in our reasonably neat and clean room for 100 quetzales per night. I'm so weary from the days efforts that I in fact fall asleep fully clothed and don't arise again until the next morning. Even then my legs are still sore and my mind is drained.

Almost wiped out
We embark on another day of much the same cycling terrain and before Ron, as he is not ready to leave at 7.15am. We briefly meet up at a service station as we are about to start off again from our lunch break and he is stopping to repair three broken spokes.

The day begins almost immediately with a reasonably long climb and even though there are a few small descents, the uphill pushing doesn't really let up until we stop. The journey is again thwarted with a million trucks and the ambience of the route's potential scenic stroll destroyed. Turnoff to El Salvador after 41 kilometres is dubiously signposted, though the direction to Honduras made clear enough that we take the other fork in the road. Another split a bit further on turns us onto a narrow winding country lane. Our hopes that we will encounter less heavy traffic are in vain. The trucks hurtle past in both directions with little regard for anything else on the road. A motorcycle tries to overtake me at one stage, but the semi coming in the other direction has other ideas and takes up nearly the whole road. The two wheeled companion behind swerves inward, hits a gravel patch and he and his motor cycle are sent skidding towards me. He just touches my back wheel enough to give me the wobbles but I manage to stay upright. Two inches closer and I would have been a wipeout as well. He is okay, gets up and blasts past without a word of sorry.

Welcome to the Hotel California
Immigration is incredibly easy: though we admit to ignoring all the whistles and beckons from the health-customs lady who wants to give us a thorough going over. Ron, who is almost an hour behind us, gets the full interrogation instead. There's no stamping procedure just a good look through the passport. We continue on up a very steep hill and while slowly pushing up, it is noticeable that the majority of the people here speak a little English. Ali is asked if he wants to have sex with one very overweight woman sitting at one of the posts. He reneges and keeps ascending to the top where we ready ourselves for the glorious downhill bomb into Metapan-El Salvador (77km; 1165m). The road with a massive wide shoulder is immaculate even though it is made out of concrete blocks. Less glorious are the prices of the accommodation.

We have already done the rounds of all the lodgings in town before Ron rocks up and even though Hotel California is very primitive, we opt for its cheapness ($15 US). We could have forked out $24 or even $41 had our budget allowed it, though the standard was not at all depictive of what you got. The one thing going for our room is that the bed is firm enough to feel suitable for the well earned rest that I in particular need. It is a hive of activity as I venture downtown for some fruit and vege at the local market, though on the way back at 5pm everything is closing up for the day. Everything, that is except the large supermarket on the main road leading around Metapan.

Bike touring burn-out
While it might only be 50km ride today it has its fair share of hills. Sadly enough, I'm exhausted before we even take off. I just can't seem to recouperate each night and it leaves me feeling irritable before I have even started. At 7.15am I am taking the last video shots of our hotel room. The battery runs out and as I change it over, Ron dashes off. We leave a couple of minutes later. We pass him taking photos on a bridge a few kilometres out of town and then he stops a kilometre or so further on to see what we are up to after Ali has snapped his front brake cable. We don't see him again on today's roller coaster ride until a shaded monument a few kilometres before Santa Ana (49km; 615m).

I can only imagine this arrangement, where even though we are not cycling together, we are still considering the other party when it comes to choosing accommodation, to be a total inconvenience for everyone concerned. I mean Ron could have been in a hotel room by now, long settled. I know, that I for one, am only thinking about that at this point in time. Instead we stand under this tree for 15 minutes or more, while Ron practices his Spanish with a young boy initially curious about how much a bike helmet costs. The lad actually leads us into town and to the central plaza where we pause yet again in the midday sun mind you, while he gives Ron commentary on the history of the towns central church. While it is admirable that Ron can speak the level of Spanish that he does, it means that once locals learn this, they very rarely direct any conversation our way. Not that I am really in any mood at the moment to even try. My tiredness boils over and I take off to find some accommodation I just want a hotel room, a shower and to fall asleep for a few hours.

Room to move on
The two nearest accommodations are both are $12 US per room no matter if there are one or two persons occupying them. Hotel Libertad has ample space for the bikes, the other one down the road absolutely none. I choose for space and Ron follows suit without looking at the room. When the reception guys see the bikes, they offer Ali and myself the chance to just wheel our bikes into what could only be termed as the grand ballroom downstairs. We of course offer to assist Ron up the stairs with his bags, but he declines the help. I do it anyway, before embarking on the other two priorities of my day: shower and sleep. Oh yeah and not to forget before a quick waltz around the room with Ali.

I awake 3 hours later completely lost as to where I am. Takes a while to come to from such a deep slumber and I venture into the town for some fresh air. Santa Ana has a nice feel about it: bustling, but not too big; friendly vendors and talkative people; amazingly ornate and grandiose architecture. They also have a municipal museo, which I venture into. Unfortunately the exhibit on the mammoth fossils found at Rio Tomuyata is all in Spanish, but the pictures help tell the story. The small permanent display about Salvadoran money was really interesting to see. since the Colon is no longer in circulation. El Salvador adopted the US dollar as its currency in the late 90's. I have a lovely Spanglish conversation with Douglas at the reception, who so desperately wants to practice his English.

Shallow goodbyes
Lumbering back towards the hotel, shopping bags in hand and pretty much in my own world, I don't see Ron as I near the edge of the plaza. Hence, I'm a bit startled when I hear the English question regarding the direction of the supermarket. We chat for a few minutes about where everything is and that is the last time I will speak to him. Next morning after a glorious sleep in, I rise and potter around our enormous room a bit before going to the window and peering out onto the street. Ron surprises me for the second time in less than 24 hours as there he is, fully loaded and about to take off.

Now, I mean the guy certainly doesn't owe us anything, but I still find it quite bizarre that he couldn't have come and told us in person about his plans. Ron is meticulous to the nth degree about everything, so I am almost positive in assuming that his plans to do the loop to the south were not fashioned on a morning whim. I also have no doubt in my mind that there is a little note somewhere in this hotel meant for us and sure enough I open the door to find a rolled up receipt with his message stuck in the ring meant for a padlock.

We both agree it is for the better that he does his own thing, especially seeing as we travel so differently and our compatibility as cycle-touring companions is like chalk and cheese. (mine, way more so than Ali's). We were intending to go on our own path from here anyway, but we had also anticipated the chance to talk face to face with Ron about it. Maybe he sensed it? Maybe he thought he'd do us the favour of leaving us first? Maybe he didn't want to hear our views? Maybe he is just used to doing everything by and for himself? Who knows? We certainly never will. All I can say is, after two weeks of being together, I am a little disappointed at such a shallow goodbye.

Volcano Country
Santa Ana - El Salvador to Choluteca - Honduras (4 cycle days; 244km; 2702m)
Santa Ana Cojutepeque (101 km; 1167 m)
Cojutepeque El Triunfo (72 km; 865 m)
El Triunfo Santa Rosa de Lima (70 km; 670 m)
Santa Rosa de Lima Choluteca (Honduras) (105 km; 608 m)

We enjoy our massively oversized space of our grand ballroom for two whole days before taking off towards Honduras and like the general trend of the next three days, we pedal up gradual inclines that last for a long hot 4 or 5 kilometres and then down them again in what seems like an unfair split second. If you think you are in for an easy cycle in El Salvador, then think again. This is volcano country. There is more often than not, a decent sized shoulder where you can safely manuoevre your way up and down the undulating countryside. And the surface is pretty good too. When you do happen to meet with a flat valley, enjoy it while you can because the microwave tower over yonder on that mountain is where you'll next be ascending to. I can't remember exactly how many of those red and white masts I sweat towards today, but twenty would be a good estimate. I still don't feel my usual self and unlike our hilly 100km trip I am flat and lifeless the entire way.

We pass several quite stunning volcanoes. In fact the skyline is constantly filled with them. Soyapango Delgado district shows a different side of El Salvador and lets the perfect score as far as road conditions is concerned down. Bad surfaces, crumbling shoulders and plenty of rubbish. San Martin, where we intend to stay is so slummy on the outskirts and we decide to move on the next 16 km to Cojutepeque (101km; 1167m). We have to traverse a monster hill before we reach the town and meet with Rey who directs us to Hotel La Roca. The room, though tiny, is impeccably clean and not only has a great bed, but a complimentary condom as well. There is little desire in that department as I fall asleep, fully clothed after barely managing to traipse into town for shopping and preparing a simple dinner of soup and hamburger buns. I wake at midnight, tv still blaring, air-conditioner freezing and Ali snoring next to me.

Hardly triumphant
My lack lustre along with the seemingly repetitive scenery; same cycling conditions and stinking hot days result in the next two days being pretty much a blur. Riding to today's destination might be a shorter kilometre day, but it takes double the effort from me. Consequently, El Triunfo (72km; 865m) is a long time coming and hardly a triumph, as its name suggests. In fact, it comes in a very close second to our current worst hotel ever in Puerto Barrios. I make the resolute decision not to step foot into the shower and wash at the equally revolting sink, but at least I can keep my distance from it. We do our best to confine our movements to the bed area, not that there is anything sanitary about it. Leaving as quickly as possible the following morning takes precedence.

Putting up with more and more crap
The ride into Santa Rosa de Lima (70km; 670m) is a little easier and once again we stick out like a sore thumb when entering another out of the way place. This also means we often tend to attract the local loony. John the Baptist spies us immediately and latches on, offering to help us find a hotel to our liking. At first we decline his help, but insists there is no ulterior motive, which of course means there is and sure enough, once we settle for the best of the very slim pickings in town, he asks for money. Ali politely says no. We have chosen the room at the hotel of no name opposite the police station. Our little box comes with a tv, fan and bathroom for 10 dollars, but other combinations proposed were fan, tv and no bathroom; air conditioning, bathroom but no tv; bathroom, tv but no fan or bathroom, tv and no cooling at all. We choose well as the room itself is quite okay: my standards have decreased ten-fold these days, but the next catch is, we have to ask when we want water because they need to turn on the pump to get it up to the first floor. Man, we just can't win and I'm going insane with only a choice between hovels for overnight accommodation

Conversely, the town has a large community area with water cascading over a layered rocky waterfall running the length of the park. I look on enviously while women with buckets of tamales, corn tortillas and bakery products mob me with their beckons: "Aki señora; Señora, aki" [Here Mrs; Mrs here!]

A day of many surprises
Its a very quick 18kms to the border and we are there by 8.10am. Half expecting the corruption to start today, we are pleasantly surprised by the official explaining in well spoken English the need to pay $3 US for immigration services tax. They hand over an official receipt and genuinely welcome us to Honduras. Ingeborg, the overbearing German woman we met in San Blas, Mexico had tainted my thoughts on this country. She was robbed while walking alone on a secluded beach and even though you try hard not to take other's impressions on board, I had half expected to meet with barbarians ready to dupe with at a moments notice.

Instead we are greeted with the loveliest of smiles and happy hellos and even in English no matter what the age. The landscape is a gorgeously green, farmland atmosphere with families running from their houses to welcome us to their country. I am taken quite aback: we haven't had anything like this, apart from the rural areas in Guatemala, since Nepal. The road leading to Jicaro Galan has a wonderfully wide smooth shoulder, but the turn off towards marks a definite change in the road conditions and the path busies with more traffic. The 4 kilometre bike path lining both sides of the road of San Lorenzo is something else.

Another steamy day as we make our way into Choluteca (105km; 608m) and wander a bit round the town trying to find a hotel. Just a two blocks back from the main shopping area we discover Hotel Colonial los Castaños. A room costs 200 Lempiras (25 HNL = 1 EUR). Its incredibly dirty but quite spacious and the owners seem friendly and trustworthy which enters into your equation when choosing accommodation these days.

Have arranged to meet up with FamilyOnBikes : Nancy, John and their two kids are travelling from Alaska to the southernmost tip of the Americas. Pizza Hut is the rendezvous and we are totally shocked to see the place packed with customers. It is a happening scene and also pretty expensive considering the standard of living here. If it wasn't for Nancy's insight into the "specials menu of the day, we could have been in for a small fortune. Dinner ends up costing one and a half time the cost of our room for a medium sized pizza and a few soft drinks.

Making it pay
It is interesting meeting yet another group of touring cyclists and hearing how they go about their on-the-road way of life. Being a family, they of course have a completely different approach than us. But, we talk mostly about ways of trying to stay on the road, which seems to dominate most touring cyclists thoughts these days. The more I discuss this issue with those also battling to do the same, the less convinced I am that anything will pay off for quite a number of years and definitely not without hours and hours of hard work. I think the biggest concern now is how do you balance both. Making a successful website is a full time job and the on the road experience; the basic content of your website, is also a full-time job. Making it pay: catch 22.

Internet Café , Quepos, Costa Rica, 04-06-09
Outta here!

Choluteca - Honduras to Liberia - Costa Rica via Nicaragua (5 cycle days; 1 rest day; 473km; 3017m)

Choluteca Somotillo (Nicaragua) (54 km; 325 m)
Somotillo León (111 km; 394 m)
León El Crucero (104 km; 1450 m)
El Crucero Peňas Blancas (123 km; 224 m)
Peňas Blancas Liberia (Costa Rica) (81 km; 624 m)

Recently, stormy black skies with cracking claps of thunder have been entertaining us late each afternoon and we are reminded that the heart of monsoon is about to hit. So far, we have been really lucky with the weather, but there are no doubts that we are in for some wet and wooly riding conditions. Our headway to Panama is now paramount and as quick as possible is also preferable. We are not at all convinced about the virtues of Central America. Nothing has struck us as profound and the dirt and grime is simply depressing. The lack of privacy from only being able to afford accommodation with share bathrooms or cringingly unbearable standards of some back town lodgings is wearing mighty thin. Our decision to take the fastest and easiest possible course to Panama City is unanimous.

Hotel Colonial los Castaños has very friendly owners, though we are amazed that even with the all-day cleaning routine the two women carry out, the place is still grubby. To give you an idea, underneath our bed looks like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag before its ready to be emptied. Like our lodgings, Choluteca also has a nice vibe, and after two rest days in the township, we leave for the Nicaraguan border.

Drumming up a storm
While we may not have been hit with lashings of monsoon rains yet, as we cycle out past orderly green grassed paddocks and simple village huts we drum up our own storm with locals. The adults wave enthusiastically from their doorsteps or hammocks while the kids run like crazy to the roadside: jumping up and down with glee shouting "good-bye gringo; good-bye". It makes us laugh to see how much excitement we and our loaded bikes can generate. So far, Honduras has been our favourite of all Central American countries: far cleaner; neater; greener and with exceptionally lovely people.

We hit the border town just before 10.30am and are crossing the bridge into Nicaragua by 11.00am. It could have been earlier except for a bit of messing around from an official who doesn't want to explain what the $5 and $2 US fees are that we both have to pay. After some stern words regarding his uncooperative manner, we establish they are for a tourist card and immigration tax respectively. The next town is just 6 kilometres up the road, which is in the midst of being rebuilt. According to a blog written over a year ago, it was then in exactly the same state as well. The first hotel is fully booked according to a roadworker at the health inspection kiosk, so when we finally arrive in Somotillo - Nicaragua (54km;325m) we head straight for Hotel Nelson.

Drunken hosts
From the barred iron door opening we can see a shirtless young lad asleep in a wicker rocking chair. Three empty beer bottles and three cans of coke lay scattered on the ground next to him. No amount of whistling or oying will wake him. It is 11.30am: we gather he is drunk. His young brother comes to see what all the noise is about and tries to arouse him too. After no luck, he disappears and moments later one, just as overweight as she is happy, woman appears in the doorway. She swings open the door, laughs a lot, grabs Ali by the hand and leads him out the back to view the accommodation. I sit perusing the pigsty room in front of me, while the young lad tries to open his eyes. I wonder what news of our night's accommodation Ali will come back with once released from our hosts clutches.

As I expected his description is short and not very sweet: "It's a dump". We could move on to Chinandega, but that is at least 70 kilometres away and we are not sure of how much more of the highway is dirt. Besides, we really have our sights set on León for tomorrow: it is supposedly a decent sized town. We figure its our only option for the night, so we pay the 140 Cordoba to our also alcohol-high landlady while she babbles away to me in Spanish. It is all way too fast (and proabaly slurred) to understand everything, but the message I do get is that she would really like it if I could part with any cream or beauty products that I no longer want. What this woman doesn't know is, I hardly have any: a pot of Nivea body cream is about the extent of it.

A room with no fan
As we squash all twelve of our bags into our dirty little hovel and padlock our bikes to the post outside, we are deafened with random 80's hits like Endless Love and several tracks from the Bee Gee's Saturday Night Fever album. Hotel Nelson also doubles as the town's local bar and restaurant. I joke about ordering food from the kitchen, but Ali has actually been inside. He is seriously adamant that we'll get food poisoning. We cook a simple rice vegetables and tomato sauce meal on our Primus stove instead and as we are cleaning up and getting ready to go to bed the electricity goes off. Mmmm: a sweatbox with no fan.

It doesn't stop the local construction workers from having a whale of a time in the now candlelit pub. We are just dozing off an hour later when there are attempts to set the electricity back on. It doesn't actually eventuate but the electrical storm a few miles always keeps lighting up the evening skies. The fan starts whirring again when we have well and trully fallen asleep and thoughts of just how revolting it is to be damp with sweat and lying on a filthy smelly mattress are far from mind. We are both thankful for the cool relief.

Not a good vibe
Dead simple ride today. I feel better than I have in weeks and we fly along the incredibly flat 110km stretch leading to León. Leaving early at 6.30am to avoid the heat and after navigating just a few kilometres of unpaved roads, we hit smooth pavement, perfect for pedalling at top speed. There are some pretty cool cloud formations and it takes a while before I realise that they are actually coming out of the top of the active volcanoes. Cowboys, cattle and green pastures I have seen enough of in the past days, but this sight I have never seen before.

People need a definite push to wave or say hello, though we don't feel unsafe at this stage. The environment might radiate okay vibes, but the view is messy and unkept compared with their neighbour's garden. We have to admit that we didn't venture close to any tourist or extensively populated areas in Honduras, so maybe we are only getting part of the picture.

Our semi-safe disposition changes gradually over the course of the day and the strangely uncomforting vibration we are confronted with as we pedal through Chinandega is quite unnerving. I wait until we have ridden well out of the city, before commenting to Ali about my observations and he agrees wholeheartedly that it is one of those areas where you wouldn't want to wander around at night. We are glad of our decision to head for León today.

If I may generalise, older people are quite pleasant and welcoming, often raising a hand and occasionally smiling too. The little kids are also happy enough to see us ride past. It is the young to middle generation in Nicaragua that wear the frown. There is an untrustworthy, challenging glint in the eyes of the men; and the women are quite poe-faced. Furthermore, we receive our first road-abuse since the Oregon-Californian coast 'farmer-logging truck driver' mentality. Someone screams out: "F#%k you, gringos"; another person throws rubbish at us; and some pretty disconcerting gestures and noises are made roadside from youth just itching to cause a stir. Loads of bored gangs of boys with seemingly second agenda glowers by the way they check out our luggage more than us. This is not a good vibe and the first time in all of our travels that we have felt so ill at ease.

Reminiscent of India: skinny cows; sugar cane, tooting horns and tail-gating cyclists
Other to that, road travel is pretty good: surfaces well paved and a wide shoulder all the way to the towns where it can crumble somewhat, before getting better on the way out and leading into the skinny cow and sugar cane territory. There are plenty of other non-motorised transport users as well: oxen and donkey carts but mostly other cycling commuters. This is a good thing because the motorised vehicles are used to sharing the road. They do tend to honk their horns a bit too much, but other than the usual bus and taxi driver arrogance, traffic is fairly courteous. Nicaraguan cyclists, on the other hand, find it irritating when you overtake them and will push their little wheels around until their legs almost drop off to try and keep in front of you or stick dangerously on your rear wheel. So very reminiscent of India.

León (111km; 392m) is disappointingly dishevelled on the outskirts and after viewing a few totally unsuitable accommodations, we happen upon Hotel Casa Vieja by pure chance. It offers and eclectically ramshackle room with hot pink share-bathroom, a bit of dust; lots of stray electrical wires; and a double sided picture of Jesus attached to our padlock key, but hey the fan works; the sheets are fresh; the bed is firm; and perfect for a good nights sleep. It is only 40 Cordoba more than the 140 we paid last night at Hotel Nelson. Let's face it, anything halfway clean and decent is a hundred steps up from that.

Outside however, the streets are littered with packaging and plastic bottles; traffic is mayhem and drivers love to play chicken with pedestrians; young lads hang around in gangs and especially so outside ATM's and supermarkets; and the town flaunts a considerably high proportion of foreign tourists. The most we have seen since Flores in Guatemala and we don't need a repeat performance of what happened there. Either Ali or myself stay in our room at all times, though I have a feeling our hosts run a pretty honorable business.

Safe in Friesland?
We have a flying start this morning after managing to zigzag our way out of the exceptionally busy one-way streets of León. I decide not to wave first to anyone to see how long it takes for someone to acknowledge me. One hour later and well out of the city, a friendly smile and big wave breaks the grumpy ambience.

After 27 kilometres we stop to help a couple of men who have a flat tyre, but no pump. We are right in front of a small community who live in houses made of plastic and branches. While the guys fix the bike, I can't help but take in everything that is so incredibly poor about their existence. It is at this turnoff in the road where we have decided to leave the main highway and bypass Managua altogether. It is pretty well unpaved for 57 kilometres, but even in its poor condition the lack of traffic makes it bearable. The small village environment is also much warmer: people seem friendlier and happier in general.

We are passing a farm with 'Friesland' crafted in wrought iron on its gate and what with Ali being born in this part of the Netherlands, we can't give up the opportunity to take a snap shot. A woman, who turns out to be the owner of the property, comes over to us immediately and quite earnestly warns us of 'bad men' along this stretch of road. She says they'll see our bags, think we have money and want to steal them. We need to take great care and not travel past areas without farm houses. Not quite the sort of message you need to hear while riding out in the middle of the sticks and when it is impossible to not cycle the uninhabited sections. Still we understand perfectly what she is saying and we continue on our way, even more alert than before.

Polluted ascents towards hotel crapi
There is enough traffic to keep us company on this small road until the turnoff onto the Pan American: CA 1 after 84 kilometres. So, the journey turns out to be fine, apart from Ali falling off his bike with a thump when he gets his wheel caught in some gravel. A road sign says it is 13 kilometres to El Crucero, but it actually turns out to be 16 kilometres. An extra 3 clicks is not usually a problem, but when you consider that you have to climb continually from the start until the finish rising from 280m to 923m, you could really do without the extra mileage.

The road is okay when it is dual lanes, but there isn't always that luxoury. Black plumes of exhaust oozing from the trucks and buses battling their way up this hill is totally outrageous. It has been noticeable in the few days of riding here that Nicaragua certainly has its fair share of vehicles polluting the atmosphere and the lungs of anyone in their vicinity. The weather turns a bit nasty, clouds roll in and we push upwards into thick fog for the last part of the journey which adds to the rather unpleasant riding conditions.

We are directed out of El Crucero (104km; 1450m) when we ask where the nearest hotel is. Hotel Capri or Hotel Crapi as I would prefer to call it, is asking 400 Cordoba for a basic room with nothing more than a fan and cold shower. That is 25 US dollars for those of you who are little confused. I thought maybe I had misheard the grouchy woman at reception and she had actually said the price included a complimentary glass of Moët on arrival and full English breakfast in the morning. I'm afraid the only thing out of the ordinary included in this deal are the freshly laid mouse droppings neatly deposited over our dirty tiled floor.

On a roll
Even with the early departure, there is still a lot of traffic all the way through the next three towns: Diriamba (16km); Jinotepe (20km); and Nandaime (42km) where it is still only 8.15am when we reach the outskirts. Though the road is not in good shape, be it gradual we have been rolling downhill all the way.

While the people around this region are nonchalant and not overly friendly; the attitude does change somewhat as we near the border. So does the landscape: way more diverse and quite stunning. The highway's condition also improves and gains a shoulder, so the basically flat pedal into Rivas (87km) is super easy. Upmarket ranches intersperse the usual poorer farmland. Banana palms, sugar cane and gigantic mango trees colour the landscape outstandingly green; while cowboys herd cattle through grassy pastures.

According to signposts leading us into Rivas, it is a pretty decent sized town with around 160,000 inhabitants. Roadside stalls sell mangoes, bananas, coconuts and avocados and there are of course plenty of other shopping options as well as a bountiful choice of hotels. This is the last reasonable sized town to stock up on goodies until reaching Liberia in Costa Rica. As we eat our lunch on the outskirts of town, it has just turned 12 midday. Rain threatens but only spatters a little.

After 97km, we pass Playa La Virgen: a tranquil beach with two majestic volcanoes in the middle of the Lago (lake) de Nicaragua making up what is known as the Isle of Ometepe. A bit further on down the road, 71¼ million US dollars has gone into the construction of the 15 turbine windmills and the subsequent electrical infrastructure. The volcano backdrop provides double fascination for Ali, who is always intrigued by these big wind turning machines. We power on too.

Peñas Blancas (123km; 224m) is a typical border town with its shanty-like appearance, hoards of money changers and lingering groups of men beckoning you every which way but the direction you want. We are there by 2.30pm. Pleasantly enough the only place to stay, Hospedaje El Meson, has some of the cleanest rooms we have slept in, in Nicaragua. Furthering the surprise, is the inexpensive 120 Cordoba price tag. Only catch is there is no electricity or water at this time of day. Though we never really get water, the fan comes on at 4.30pm and miraculously stays on all night.

I wander down the little street lined with nothing more than comida rapidos (fast food stalls) and a couple of tacky souvenir huts. At the end I spy the only supply shop in in the town. It sells basic stuff and transactions are done through the opening of a iron grill. The extent of the vegetable range seems to go as far as chayotes and onions, but I ask in my stunted Spanish if there is anything else.

¿Mas verduras? [More vegetables?].
¿Como?[What?]. The young lad obviously doesn't understand me.
Pointing to the onion and chayote: ¿Cerebolla, chayote, elote, zanahoria...mas veduras aqui? [ Onion, chayote, corn, carrots...are there more vegetables here ?]
¿Tomate?[ Tomato ?], he answers
¿Si, tomate? [Yes, tomato?], I say hopefully
¡ No, no tomate aqui ! [No, we don't have tomatoes here?]

Getting out of Nicaragua is another of the countries money making enterprises. First a $1 US fee for council tax gets us though a makeshift gate. Then we need to get a stamp out of the country for which we have to line up in one of the three lengthy and very slow moving queues. Ali gets to the window only to find that a further $2 US each is required as departure tax. He doesn't have any money on him, since we figured we have already dished out enough cash to this country for one visit and has to rejoin the queue again. It takes forever.

Just as we are about to write it all off...
Contrastingly, the immigration experience on the Costa Rican side is simple, though there is a short wait in a long line-up. Everyone has forms and documents in their hands: Ali has just our two passports and he is dreading having a repeat performance of rejoining the queues after being handed a load of paperwork to be filled in. But nothing so untoward, a quick swipe of the electronic band, a stamp and its official: we are free to enter country number 34.

I'm waiting outside, keeping an eye on the bikes while the bureaucratic procedure goes on inside. Reflecting on the trip so far in Central America, Nicaragua has not only heightened our safety awareness ten-fold but confirmed our general feelings about the region. And judging by the amount of strewn polystyrene disposables, plastic bottles and wrappers around the immigration building here, I'm not getting my hopes up for any deviation from what we have already seen.

But just as I am about to write the whole of Central America off, we begin our cycling ascend into Costa Rica. All I can say is: what an astonishing transformation.

We can't believe our eyes
The landscape is quite hilly for the first 20 kilometres before flattening off in sections through one of the many national park environment's Costa Rica has on offer. More than 25% of the country is officially protected. To our left the majestic Cordillera de Guanacaste proudly shows off its string of volcanoes. We see just three of them: Vocán Orosí; Vocán Cacao; and Vocán Rincón de la Vieja. More varieties of butterflies join our airstream in the few hours of cycling today than I have seen in the last few months and I suppose it stands to reason seeing as there are more types of these spectacularly colourful winged insects in this little country than in the whole of Africa. The fields are brimming with green grass and the cows no longer look like they are suffering from anorexia. There's an orderly feel about the place and though the Pan American doesn't have a shoulder, the traffic is not too heavy. We have to stop at two police checkpoints and show our passports.

As we ride into Liberia - Costa Rica (81km; 624m), we can't believe our eyes: a modern, clean and neatly arranged city. This, we have not experienced for many months. A sign leads us down a side street to Hotel La Siesta. Seems like as good a place to start hunting for accommodation as any. It is too expensive for our budget and the woman is not too informative about the chance of finding anything cheaper around. We cycle no more than 20 metres to the intersection and Hospedaje Condega stands in front of us. It is 10,000 Colognes ($US18) for a no-frills room with private bathroom. The woman that comes to the gate is wonderfully jolly and welcomes us to her establishment wholeheartedly. The little township of Liberia has a great feel. We stick around for an extra day to enjoy the atmosphere.

A fabulous end to a topsy turvy month
Deviating from the Pan American, we venture south onto the Nicoya Peninsula. The road is a little smaller and still has no shoulder. There is quite a bit more traffic than we anticipated, however it is one of the most pleasant rides we have had since the US. I just can't get over how beautiful everything is: luscious pastures with cows calmly grazing; every variation of green running as long and far as the eye can see; volcanic silhouettes against magnificent cloud performances; small villages and quaint little townships; people are warm and gracious and we are in our hotel room by 12.30am.

As we near Nicoya (81km; 260m), it is a little hard to believe that the town harbours a Maxi Bodega, Super Compro, Pali Supermarket and Burger King considering the rural scene on the outskirts. Hotel Las Tinajas for 9,000 Colones is just fine for our overnight stay.

This month has been a strain mentally for both of us and physically for me. From Palenque to Santa Ana we averaged nearly 100 kilometres each day of which 120 of those were on severely unpaved terrain and we traversed an average of 700 altimetres each day as well. While there were three rest days during this two week stint, I just never seemed to recouperate from my efforts. And when I look back on it, it is no wonder: flying through 7 border crossings; in and out of 6 different countries all with unrelated currencies in searing heat and all extremes of road conditions is pretty hard work.

The added loathe for grubby confined spaces costing at least half our budget didn't help matters. Neither did the fact that the open bathrooms in these Central American countries provide no privacy from each other. I don't mind pissing in front of my husband, but having to complete all my ablutions is very irritating. Ron's different cycling rhythm and his constant concern (popped up 6 times in conversation within the first week) for meeting his flight deadline in Costa Rica kept us powering on, but in the end I had to say 'no more'. I felt completely burned out. Before both Ali and I had the chance to relay this message, he dashed out of our lives quite unexpectedly. The two full days break in Choluteca Honduras, allowed me to re-zest my disposition, which was perfect timing considering we felt Nicaragua to be a particularly unwelcoming country and zipped through it as quickly as possible.

Now in a wonderfully civilised Costa Rica, everything is looking so much more rosier and from the great pep-emails we have been receiving from friends, we only have to look forward to Panama and the incredible beauty of South America. Time over again in the countries we have visited so far in Central America? Sure, there were areas where people were wonderfully friendly, but we also experienced the absolute opposite of this as well. Besides, you can find friendly people all over the world, wherever you go, whatever country you visit. No, we would most definitely have to say: been there; done that and not in the slightest bit interested in going back. We are looking forward to moving on though!

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