Written by Evan
We left Colorado, with a goal to cycle to Panama (with some bus assistance through Mexico) during a string of nice fall weather. While the days were nice enough, the weather only allowed for a few hours of comfortable cycling, with freezing cold mornings, and chilly afternoons as the sun started to set. Our original route plan was to stick in the mountains through Colorado and New Mexico, but after our first night up high, with temperatures in the teens – we decided to follow a lower route through to the Mexican border.
We didn’t reach warm weather until southern NM – instead, we rode through very cold and windy conditions. Reaching west Texas felt great – and we had very comfortable conditions until crossing into Mexico.
Having traveled extensively through Mexico last year on motorcycles, we made the decision to bus portions of Mexico, so we could spend more time in Central America. We caught an overnight bus at the border in Ciudad Acuna to San Luis Potosi. A week of riding brought us through several Pueblo Magicos, hot and humid mountains, and finally to the Gulf of Mexico and the seaside city of Veracruz.
Palenque was our next destination, (with the aid of a short bus ride). Unfortunately, our plans and route changed quite a bit as my knee became quite painful. I had been neglecting stretching, and began to have sharp and sudden knee pains while riding to Veracruz. Leaving Palenque, I was not able to ride more than 20 miles out of the city, so we made the decision to take a bus to Playa Del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula, and take some time off and see if my knee would improve. Luckily it did, and we changed plans and headed into Belize. Mexico is such a great country to visit – we can not stress it enough! Endless beaches, mountains, deserts, colonial cities, extremely friendly locals, and great food make it a must visit country – and it is so close and easy for Americans to visit!
Aside from getting ripped off at the border by a border patrol agent, and another careless theft that the hotel staff was most likely part of, Mexico was again great. Just mind your belongings!
We entered Belize with little knowledge of the country – generally hearing mixed reviews from others – but we really like what we found. Empty low traffic roads, extremely friendly locals, and the ease of speaking English, as it is Belize’s official language. Locals were relaxed and incredibly welcoming, and it was not uncommon for them to say “You are welcome to stay in our country as long as you wish. Take it easy and enjoy it here!” Unfortunately, relative to other Latin American countries, Belize is quite expensive, so we did not stay too long.
Guatemala was next up – via an hour long boat ride from Punta Gorda, Belize to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. The stark difference between the two countries hit us hard – with loud, fast paced and crowded Guatemala waking us back up! The riding was bad to horrendous on the high traffic roads we were on, and we did not stay in the country long – but it was okay, as we spent three weeks there last year.
A nice climb, and friendly border officials, brought us into El Salvador, and one of the best hostels of all our Latin American travels, Casa Verde, in Santa Ana. The best ride of the trip took us up into the mountains above Santa Ana and down to the Pacific Coast of El Salvador, for a quiet, hot, and steep roller coaster ride though the coast line. One of the most spectacular beaches of the trip was a bonus, in El Zonte. El Salvador was a great country to visit, and we could easily spend more time there. Very friendly locals, busy and colorful markets, and very few tourists make for a true Central American experience.
Honduras – bad reputation, recent political protests with numerous road blocks – we weren’t sure what we would find. With only a quick night camping at a fire station on Christmas Eve, we found the best pavement of the trip, and very friendly locals. Our short stay fortunately gave us a positive experience in Honduras – aside from the last 15 miles of road to Nicaragua, which was the worst road surface of the trip, but it is under construction to be redone!.
Nicaragua was a bit of a change from the rest of the trip. Our other border crossings have been extremely short and painless, but for whatever reason Nicaragua was painfully slow by foot crossing standards. The friendly vibe that is so typical in Latin America was not felt, and at times, people were extremely rude. Luckily at least, the first part of the riding was on very smooth low traffic pavement, albeit, quite windy. In addition, the drivers seem to show very little courtesy to cyclists and pedestrians (unlike Mexico, in particular).
We first journeyed to Leon, Nicaragua. While Leon was supposed to be a nice colonial city, it doesn’t come close to comparing to other colonial cities elsewhere. Luckily, we stayed at a really nice and cheap guesthouse owned by an Italian expat. The guesthouse was complete with lush gardens, an oven we used to bake cookies, and comfortable hangout areas.
A couple more very hot and windy days of riding brought us to Playa Gigante – where we spent New Years – and many days on the generally secluded and beautiful Playa Amarillo. We then headed to the tourist town of San Juan del Sur, where we ended up spending 10 days, both in town and out at a small house in the jungle, complete with monkeys right out of our door. Great weather, a friendlier and more laid back location, and gorgeous beaches helped to end our time in Nicaragua on a more positive note than it began. While San Juan del Sur is quite touristy, it still retains some local character and is an easy place to spend some time.
Costa Rica greeted us with some extremely strong winds, at multiple times pushing us off the road and even down onto the ground! While the roads were of good quality, the drivers and lack of shoulders were not good. I found Costa Rica to be overall the worst riding of the trip – very crowded roads, no shoulders, and unwelcoming drivers which does not make for nice riding. After a very close call with a truck and Michelle heading towards San Jose, we decided to jump on a bus into the city. We wanted to secure some bike boxes early to avoid a last minute rush to find some before flying out of San Jose a week later. With boxes secured, we made our way out of the city on what we hoped would be better roads than the way in. Wrong we were, as we hit some extreme rain and low visibility. Endless trucks, buses, and cars, with zero shoulder or courtesy to us.
The silver lining of the ride was that we made it onto the Costa Rican news! It must have been a slow news day as they gave us over 4 minutes of air time! Ironically, the video and reporters were following us for the safest and most mellow part of the road – it was much worse higher up.
We reached the Caribbean coast and rode to the Panamanian border, where we settled into a tiny spot in the rainforest to spend our last few days in Central America. Lots of rain, mud, and wildlife (monkeys, sloths, wild parrots) were in store for us, and we were able to relax, make good meals, and visit some truly scenic spots before heading back to Colorado.
While we are very happy to have traveled through Central America, the riding left a lot to be desired. I would not hesitate to say that Central America is a pretty bad bicycle destination, as there is lots of traffic and relatively uninteresting terrain. Thankfully though, the beaches and climate of Central America are wonderful – and we were very lucky to be able to spend so much time on relatively deserted beaches – true tropical paradise! We are now excited to be back in the US to spend the rest of the winter and spring skiing!
Our approximate route: