The Central line
Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica via dog bites, mangoes and monkeys
Hello friends, family and those we've met on the road! Welcome to the fifteenth edition of our newsletter, this time penned from Bogotá, Colombia.
That’s right, we’ve finally made the leap across the Darién gap and onto the South American continent, just short of a year after setting out from Fairbanks, Alaska. This landmark in the trip has, unsurprisingly, prompted a fair amount of reflection. It’s a chance to start fresh, but with the benefit of all we’ve learned up until this point, and we are so excited about it.
But first, a summary of our movements since Antigua. In late March we pedalled out of the old city and towards El Salvador, not quite knowing what to expect of ourselves, after six weeks of lost fitness, and of the cluster of countries we were about to travel through. We were also confronted by overwhelming heat - often creeping into the low 40s - which prompted a new routine of dawn starts and early nights. Despite 7pm bedtimes, getting enough hours often proved difficult; Central America is a populated place, and our days of setting up the tent behind a hedge on the side of the road became a distant memory. Instead we found shelter at noisy roadside restaurants, paid-for campsites and, of course, at the bomberos.
Although the safety situation in El Salvador has improved considerably in the past year or so (due to a context that I will not explain here, but let’s just say, it’s a country experiencing big changes), it and its neighbour Honduras were the places we were most nervous of travelling through before the trip. We had always intended our route through these nations to track relatively straight, and we were confident we’d have allies in the local firefighters, who have a reputation for housing travelling cyclists. We leaned heavily on this infrastructure for a fortnight or so, being thankful for a secure place to camp and the extra dollars it afforded us for scoffing a ton of papusas - a Salvadoran invention of corn tortillas stuffed with molten hot beans and cheese.
While bountiful vegetarian snack foods will certainly endear us to a place, it was the people of El Salvador that proved the highlight of moving through the country. Many stopped us to have long, interested chats about their home and our journey, and we were greeted with kindness wherever we ventured. The beautiful Ruta de las Flores made for a stunning couple of days at mercifully cooler altitude, while the inferno of hot weather that met us at the coast, and the rather uninspiring riding on the highway, was rendered tolerable by plentiful stops for cold drinks at tiendas and restaurants run by generous locals. After taking a rest day at a beautiful beach in a calm cove by El Cuco, we sweated towards the border with Honduras.
Honduras does have ongoing issues with violent crime, so, taking all our usual precautions, we pedalled happily through the narrowest strip of the country, planning to straddle it in less than three days. Sadly, a pause for breakfast turned sour when I was bitten by a dog outside a truck stop restaurant.
Thankfully the wound itself was not too serious, but immediately my thoughts turned to rabies, and finding a vaccine. We are both prevaccinated, which buys a little more time after a bite before another dose is needed. We cycled 10km down the road to the city of Choluteca, where we were informed that the vaccine department at the hospital wasn’t open that day.
The next day was pretty terrifying - it was incredibly unclear whether I would receive a vaccine. Our Spanish is of course stunted, but we established that, contrary to WHO guidelines, vaccination is not standard practice after a bite - normally officials would ascertain if the dog was definitley rabid. Unable to confirm this, we spent many hours waiting in the hospital, being shunted around different doctors and departments discussing our fate. Eventually I was jabbed, but it was pretty clear it was because I was a foreigner and there were concerns about the optics of a tourist getting rabies in Honduras. It was one of the most emotionally challenging days of our lives, with the uncertainty being the worst part. It was also hard to accept that had the bite happened just a hundred kilometres before or after Choluteca in either El Salvador or Nicaragua, I would have likely received the care I needed without fuss. I left the hospital full of sadness for those that have to navigate the chaotic system we encountered on a regular basis, but also gratitude for the kindness shown by a number of volunteers, doctors and administrators during our day of hell. We left Honduras with a high opinion of its inhabitants, and a deep fury at their situation.
After taking some time to recover, and my second dose of the vaccine, we cycled onwards to Nicaragua, energised by mountains of roadside mangoes and cheap gallo pinto (rice and beans) at every turn. Here we managed to root out sections of unpaved road, including a 20km stretch of slippery volcanic ash that had us both grinning from ear to ear. Two colonial cities - León and Granada - along with some stunning lakeside camp spots and two days spent circumnavigating the volcanic island of Omepete, had this section feeling like a bit of a holiday. It helped that the strong winds kept the riding a little cooler, we had regular contact with new cyclist friends Kirsty and Ian, and that we could afford to regularly eat desayunos típicos at the roadside.
Crossing yet another border into Costa Rica, we were immediately struck by the relative wealth we saw, the lack of rubbish strewn about, the numerous expats, and abundant wildlife (a crocodile spotting somewhat changed our normally gung-ho attitude to river swims). It was a little strange to re-enter a more touristic world, and our wallets certainly felt the pinch, but the riding was fantastic - challenging yet rewarding, with numerous dirt roads and fantastic views over volcanoes, lakes and rainforests. A few days spent around Lake Arenal and the Monteverde Cloud Forest were especially fun, even considering the ridiculously steep gradients and staggering humidity.
And for our last few nights on the road in Central America we were welcomed into the homes of new friends: Nick, a Canadian who happened upon us by accident and offered us a room for the night; Ronnie, a member of a WhatsApp group offering help to cyclists in Central America; Isaac and Roxanna, prolific coachsurfing and Warmshowers hosts; and USers Al and Kinz, also Warmshowers hosts and general outdoorsy legends, who let us crash for a number of days in San José while we packed our bikes away in cardboard boxes, ready for our flight. The plane was thankfully totally uneventful, and we are now ensconced within a comfortable Airbnb in Colombia’s capital.
Some of you will have noticed that we have skipped Panama, which was originally in our plan for the trip. However, after our numerous delays (broken fingers, dog bites) and chats with riders ahead, we decided that we didn’t really fancy the extra thousand kilometres of riding on the notoriously uninspiring Panamerican highway. Although we’ve heard that Panama has lots to offer travellers, those sights are mostly many kilometres off the highway, and any exploration requires riders to go out and back, as there are very few roads that travel parallel to the autopista. Also, by flying straight to Bogotá rather than Cartagena on Colombia’s carribean coast, we save ourselves equally hot and dull riding from there into the mountains.
Although Ed has long been behind the plan to skip the cycling immediately north and south of the Darién gap, it took me quite a bit longer to accept it as a good one. Despite spending more than a year saying that we don’t need to ride every mile, and having taken a ferry and multiple buses, the completionist in me wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of skipping an entire country - it somehow felt like cheating. I spent our first fortnight from Antigua really struggling in the heat, and telling myself that when I built up some tolerance to it, things would be better and I would want to continue into Panama. In the end we DID build some tolerance to the heat… and I still did not fancy riding through Panama. When we booked our flight to Bogotá we were both surprisingly relieved, and immediately keen to plan the next section of the trip.
Now that we don’t have to spend a week grinding from the coast up into the Andes, we can instead take a well-liked bikepacking route north of Colombia’s capital - we’ll take a bus to the town of San Gil, then slowly make our way back to Bogotá via the mountains of the Boyacá region. We also plan to tackle this route with an old friend - Chris Williams from Derby, who we first met in Baja California and who has been exploring northern Colombia for more than a month now. We can’t wait to share plenty of cups of tea (and hills) together.
Because we’ve skipped a fair whack of the traditional route south, we’ve also found ourselves once again within touching distance of a clatter of cyclist friends. Greg is currently on the route we plan to start next week, and is feeding back solid-gold nuggets of information. Simon and Lizzie, who we last saw in Antigua, managed to squeeze in a dinner with us (and new friend Max) before they boarded a flight towards the border with Brazil, where they are on a hiking and paddling trip up the Amazon. And Jeanne, who we first met in Alaska and rode with for a couple of weeks in Baja California, made a surprise decision to get on a bus to spend a couple of days in the city, despite having been considerably south of here after two months pedalling around the country. Spending some proper time with her at museums and eating out together after having not seen each other since Guanajuato was really fun - even if we did have a cooking fail and made her a less-than-tasty dhal. She’s nearly at the end of her trip, and plans to return to Montreal from Quito next month. We’re excited to see her some day soon… but who knows what continent it’ll be on.
Among the fun there has also been hard times; my grandmother passed away while we were in Costa Rica. Although it’s been difficult not to be with my family during this time, I’m so thankful to them for their understanding of my decision not to return to Northern Ireland. Thankfully I got to see my granny a number of times in her final days via video call, and then was able to view the funeral from San José. I mention it here as, although it’s very personal, losing a loved one from a distance is something that all long-term bike tourists have in the back of their minds, and I think it’s important to mention the less-than-wonderful aspects of being on the road for so long. Thank you to all my friends and family who have offered a kind word during this time.
Please wish us well as we ready ourselves and our bikes for Colombia’s infamous hills. We plan to be fuelled almost exclusively by bocadillo and arepas. Until next time!
Toot or boot
Plentiful free mangoes at the side of the road TOOT
The price of food in Costa Rican supermarkets being astronomically high BOOT
Enjoying a rest day at the beach in El Salvador TOOT
Ed losing his prescription sunglasses in the sea BOOT
The wildlife at Monteverde Cloud Forest, including numerous monkeys TOOT
The wildlife in our hotel room… ants BOOT
Bogota feeling like London TOOT
… because it’s raining BOOT
Thanks and shoutouts
Fruake and Nils
The staff at Hospittalia Amatitlan
Kirsty and Ian
Nelson and the staff at Hospital General Sur
Oscar and William
Akis, Vula and Anastasia
Isaac and Roxanna
Al and Kinz
Pau and Meritxell
Simon and Lizzie
Oli and Laura
We are Edwin Foote and Suzie McCracken - thanks for signing up for our newsletter! Edwin is from England and Suzie is from Northern Ireland and normally we live together in Deptford, south-east London. We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2022 and are attempting to ride our bicycles the length of the Americas, hoping to finish in Argentina in 2024. If you have any recommendations of things we should do, people we should meet or places we should stay, we'd love to hear from you! Please reply to this email, or follow us on Instagram (ed_win or _suziemccracken).