Panama a country of contrast.

Crossing the boarder between Costa Rica and Panama wasn’t without a little drama and hassle. When leaving Costa Rica we had to pay an exit tax before receiving our exit stamp. Rather than conveniently locating the tax office next to the Migration office they located the tax office about 200m away down a small hill. To make matters even more confusing the tax office had no signage to say what it was. It was around 1pm and the temperature was getting hot and sticky. We paid our tax, got our exit stamp then spent our last remaining Colones on a coke and a couple of ice blocks. Outside the supermarket some of the locals were well on their way to drinking themselves into a stupor. We decided to take our refreshments a little further down the road away from this small group. When we passed back by the supermarket a brawl had broken out between the drunks. One had removed his shirt in that international sign of “I want to fight you”. With that last impression of Costa Rica we decided it was time to get going.

We entered Panama without any hassles. The smooth wide road we had been riding along in Costa Rica turned into a goat track which we didn’t mind at all. A couple of locals tried to tell us we were riding the wrong way, but the map said the road went through and we enjoyed the fact the only other road users were cyclists and pedestrians.

Our first Panamanian road….

…complete with tricky bridges to negotiate.

The road improved but was still not of the standard of the smooth roads in Costa Rica. This part of Panama was noticeably poorer. We really felt like we had stepped back in time. On the Caribbean side of the divide there weren’t many towns and the only thing between towns was plenty of jungle dispersed with the odd shack. It was very hot and humid too. We rode over the divide in a monster day of 122km and 4000m in climbing in what felt like 99 percent humidity. Every time we stopped I would take off my gloves and wring the moisture out of them. Once we crossed the divide it became much drier and a little less sticky. We finished riding in a city called David. From there we took a bus to Panama City. Already we could tell the Pacific side of the divide appeared to be more affluent than the Caribbean side.

For you horsey types out there. We saw this set up for transporting your horse around when we arrived in David. The horse was so chilled about the whole thing and we were both amazed by it.

We arrived in Panama City at night and were dazzled by its bright lights. The next day we got on our bikes and did a bit of a tiki tour around the waterfront and out to the Panama Canal. Panama City is very modern, and it is clear to us where all the money in Panama is as the photos below show:

And the Panama Canal was pretty cool too…

The original Panama Canal. The highest price tag for a ship to pass through is USD 450,000. The lowest price was 36 cents by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928.

Panama built a new canal alongside the old one. In this photo we saw a large container ship passing through with a likely passage fee of around USD 1.2 million!

Panama has set itself up as the ‘Switzerland’ of the Americas with many large international corporations locating their headquarters in Panama. This is the countries largest income earner followed by the Panama Canal, then tourism. This will be why Panama City is so affluent, but we were disappointed to not see that money filtered to the rest of the country.

After our day out on the bikes it was time for us to pack up and wait for a flight back to the States for Tony and home for me. During this time we had a bit of time to reflect on the last 11 months. We both agreed the biggest highlight of our journey was meeting really wonderful people from diverse backgrounds and experiencing new cultures. That was followed by seeing some amazing scenery, particularly in Canada (Rockies), Montana, Utah and Baja. Our favourite food was Mexican by far – mmmmmmmm.

As we continue to adventure at home and abroad the blogs here at will continue, so please keep following us…

Costa Rica – Stepping back to the future.

We passed through the border into Costa Rica smoothly. No official at the border wanted to know our occupation, nor even cared as it seemed. We were prepared – Tony was a baker and I an accountant – the least threatening occupations we could think of. Once safely through it was time to cash up. Tony withdrew the highest figure he had ever done from an ATM in Liberia – 400,000! Actually that was only worth around USD600.

Our first impressions of Costa Rican roads was good – wide roads with plenty of shoulder. That lasted for about 1km before the road narrowed and we lost our shoulder. One thing we soon learned about drivers down here is they drive aggressively and are impatient (a little similar to drivers in NZ). We headed straight for the Nicoya Peninsula for a circumnavigation around the Peninsula. It was Easter Weekend and we took our lives into our hands on those mad busy roads to get to the north end of the Peninsula. Once we hit the gravel the traffic dried up thank goodness!

We then hit the coast and it was well worth braving the madness. Our first night was wild camping on a beautiful beach with white sand and crystal blue water. The best part was as soon as it got dark we had the whole place to ourselves.

But it wasn’t all white sand beaches and crystal blue waters. On day two we hit some rough gravel roads and lots and lots of steep sharp climbs. Added to that was the constant traffic blasting by showering us in dust. Not only that, it was HOT! We were both suffering from the heat and felt like we couldn’t drink enough of our tepid tea like water to keep pace with what we were sweating out. In order to cool down we resorted to putting ice in our water bottles. People were zipping passed us on their ATV’s or SUV’s wearing bikini’s and boardies looking like they were having lots of fun as we were slogging along the hot dusty roads.

We decided it was time for a day off and time for us to enjoy some beach time. We parked up at Montezuma Beach and stayed in a hostel right on the beach for a couple of days.

We also did a short bush walk to a waterfall in the hills and swam in the fresh water at the bottom of the falls…

When it was time to leave I found a small hitchhiker on my bike.

We then headed back to the mainland and through San Jose toward the Carribean Coast. We left San Jose on a Sunday and there were heaps of other riders riding mostly mountain bikes. Many of them talked to us, wanting to know where we were going and where we were from. That’s when we met Mario who took a video of us for his club MTB Cartago Costa Rica Las Tuercas. Here is a link to what he put together. It pretty much sums up what people think of what we are doing.

We hit the hills and the rain hit us. We hadn’t had any rain since the 7th of February, but we were making up for it now since it rained in biblical portions for the next three days. We got soaked, but at least it cooled things off, but was warm enough not to get too cold.

On the way to the coast we rode through the Banana Plantations near a place called Zent. There we stayed at a Warmshowers with Rafa and Sonia who fed and watered us and taught us a new card game called ‘Mamot’. They also grow bananas in their small plantation and have great plans for eco tourism in their plantation in the future. It was really interesting talking to these two and hearing about their plans.

Sonia and Rafa.

Riding through the banana plantation.

We hit the Carribean Coast and it was very lush and wet. It was also my birthday (a big one this year – half a century old) so it was time for Tony to spoil me rotten at a swanky cabin in Cahuita.

Our first glimpse of the Carribean.

Surfs up.

Home made hamburgers for my birthday dinner.

In the days leading up to this I was aware my mum was having an operation on her leg back home. While in Cahuita we heard the operation didn’t work and now she faces losing a leg at the age of 82. This is devastating news for her and for my sister and I. I wanted to go home to support her. Tony and I talked about it and we decided to finish our journey together in Panama City. From there I would fly home and Tony would get in a months worth of quality training for the Tour Divide he is racing in June. (No excuses now Tony). So our plans to ride in Cuba have been postponed for now.

So now it was time to head to Panama – but first it pays to check our shoes before taking more hitchhikers with us.

So why ‘Back to the future’? Costa Rica is very much a first world country from our point of view. It appears very affluent, and as a reflection of that, expensive. We almost felt like we had stepped into a tropical part of the US (there were enough McDonalds and KFC stores to think that). We would totally recommend Costa Rica as a great place to go for a holiday. The nature and the beaches are ideal.

Here’s where we’ve been:

Nicaragua – Forgotten Already

That seems a bit unfair but we only left a few days ago and it seems like a distant memory. Although when we talk about it I always comment that I quite enjoyed it and would have liked to explore more and Karen always comments that she was a bit disappointed. Given it’s the poorest country in Central America and has currently got a bit of political strife going on the expectations weren’t that high to begin with. So what did Nicaragua serve up that has given such mixed feelings.

It didn’t serve up good first impressions. After a long hot climb through the final 60km of Honduras we arrive at Immigration. Every border crossing up to this point has been a five minute affair…but not Nicaragua. Our first mistake was to be honest about our occupations. That set off a long winded half assed interview, a demand for our work id’s (which we don’t have), a very half assed search of our bikes by a Police Office who clearly thought Immigration were wasting their time (although he didn’t find our undeclared mace which was in clear view). Two hours later they decide we are not a risk to national security, stamp our passports and advise us to lie about our occupations. By this stage the thunder storm has arrived and we head down the road getting a little wet.

Luckily we only had 10km to roll down the hill to Somoto Canyon, our first Nicaraguan must see attraction. And it was also time for a day off the bikes so there was no rush exploring the area. Still after finding a great camp and catching up on some sleep we were itching to go. There are any number of tour operators willing to take you through the canyon but that’s not our way so we head off up the road in search of the mystery track that will drop us into the river at the head of the canyon. After a couple of wrong turns and some bush bashing through very prickly desert plants we hit the river and head downstream. Soon the river is getting narrower and deeper and before you know it the only way is to swim, which is great given it’s 30+ deg at 11am. A couple of hours later and we popped out the end of the canyon. We were both buzzing. It was just a surreal atmosphere to be immersed in. And to top it off the afternoon was spent lounging in a hammock enjoying a cold beer. Yes Nicaragua was delivering.

The truely stunning Somoto Canyon.

It went downhill a bit after that though. We’d heard Esteli was quite a nice place so bombed down the highway to get there. It was good going at first but got busier with no shoulder as we moved south. One noticeable thing was the increase in ox carts on the roads. It was a clear sign that the economy still has a ways to go to catch up to its neighbours.

It’s like stepping back in time.

Anyway I digress, we were happy to arrive in Esteli but after a bit of exploring were disappointed with what it had to offer. Essentially it’s a highway town that’s been talked up into something it’s not so we’re happy to leave the following day and head for some dirt roads. The loose plan, that kept changing, was to get to Laguna de Apoyo, Granada and Ometepe Island.

Dirt roads and a town to far makes for some great sunset riding.

So two days later we arrive at Laguna de Apoyo. We weren’t going to get there that day but the Volcano that we wanted to ride up to see the lava lake had some rule that no bikes were allowed. So you could drive your car up and park on the crater rim amongst the sulphur gas cloud but doing it on a bike was way too dangerous. But again I digress. Laguna de Apoyo is another volcanic crater. The water is clear(ish) and cool(ish) with an infusion of natural minerals. Just what our weary hot bodies needed.

Laguna de Apoyo. By far our best camp spot in Nicaragua.

But our bodies weren’t all that well. Earlier in the day we’d had a roadside buffet that was delicious and an absolute bargain. Clearly the bargain comes with an associated risk and before the nights done Karen’s guts is feeling decidedly delicate. In the morning she’s not much better and there might have been a tear or two as we tackle the 2km climb out of the crater up a 20% grade. To top things off we’ve decided to skip Granada, surely it’s just another city, and head straight to Ometepe. That doesn’t sound to bad, after all it’s only 65km to the ferry, but there’s a stinking head wind, the road is super narrow and super busy, especially with mad chicken bus drivers. Unfortunately my guts follows suit later that day and by the time we get to the ferry we’ve well had enough and just want to get to the Island, find a bed and crash. But first there’s the ferry crossing. It’s rough and it nearly puts Karen over the edge. But she manages to hang onto her lunch, luckily because the only outside area was facing the wind so she, and all the other people standing around her would have copped it. Not sure that would have made her to popular.

One of the Ometepe volcanoes.

And to moor the ferry the crewman jumps over the side to tie off the mooring line.

So we find a hostel and park up. The following day is slept away and the stomachs finally settle down after a few antibiotics. We’re both a bit lighter, like we had weight to loose, but just completely flogged out. It’s not a crash diet I’d recommend.

So we got to explore Ometepe Island. The island is made up of a couple of volcanos rising out of the massive Lake Nicaragua. It’s been some time since they were active but the steep ash and scoria cones are scarred with washouts. It reminded us of a bigger version of Rarotonga, just not as pristine.

We managed to score ourselves a camp at a fresh water spring. Had the place to ourselves once the day users are kicked out.

The main road on Ometepe crosses the main runway. Not to much in the way of traffic control through.

Easter Friday and all the locals are flocking to the lake for a swim. We were warned not to go to the coast. Apparently it’s just mad.

Turns out it was easy riding and we got around the Island in a day and were ready to say goodby to Nicaragua and make a run for the border the following day. Luckily this time they let us out without any hassles. Probably pleased to see the back of us.

So where have we been.

El Salvador and Honduras

El Salvador 🇸🇻

‘We’ll be right’ Tony said. ‘The hills in El Salvador are small in comparison to the ones in Guatemala’. I took some comfort from these words until we got to our first hill in El Salvador that turned into a 5km ‘hike a bike’ on a steep cobbled road! It was hot and the sweat was dripping from every pour. I was thinking to myself ‘At least I could ride the hills in Guatemala’!

The good thing about El Salvador was we could camp more. We discovered we could camp for free at water parks. The bonus to this was we could also enjoy all the facilities including the pools and restaurants.

Our camp at San Pablo Tacachico

El Salvador appeared to be more affluent than its Guatemalan cousin with more National Parks, better infrastructure and less rubbish thrown around the place. It made a nice change. We found some really nice remote roads to ride in the coffee growing region around Juayùa.

We also found a nice swimming hole.

Then it was onward and eastbound toward the border with Honduras. That’s where Tony’s comment about hills came back to haunt us. We travelled the CA3 which is one of the main highways, but it was so quiet traffic wise that we decided to stick to it most of the way to the border. Our last day in El Salvador saw us climb 3453m in elevation over 100kms in 30 plus degree heat with about 100 percent humidity. We both couldn’t drink enough water and each consumed around 7 litres on the way. No wonder when we got to our hotel that night we were both a bit poked (that’s Kiwi for tired).

Honduras 🇭🇳

We’d heard through the media and from some other riders Honduras was a dangerous place so we decided to pass through as quickly as we could. We passed through the border smoothly and took the CA1 across country to Nicaragua. We only spent one night in Honduras in a dodgy hotel in a town called Choluteca. The hotel cost us USD20 for the night which included the usual amenities, however the shower fell a little short of our expectations – even for Central America.

The other thing that shocked us about Honduras was the amount of rubbish discarded everywhere as this video shows.

Having said that the people were very friendly and appeared genuinely so. The countryside was also pretty, making the riding very pleasant. I think if we had more time Honduras would be a good country to explore further and it’s bad reputation is not deserved.

The great thing about three countries in three days (now we are in Nicaragua) is we get to sample new flavours of beer in each new country.

The other thing we noticed in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is how big the security industry is. According to the Lonely Planet Guatemala employs 30,000 police while 120,000 private security guards are employed. We saw uniformed men (and one or two women in Mexico) armed with anything from pistols to shotguns and semi-automatic weapons guarding anything from ATM’s, Service Stations, fashion stores and even fried chicken restaurants. This became more prevalent the further south we went with Security riding shotgun (literally) in trucks delivering everything from coke to cornchips. Both water parks we stayed at were guarded by armed security or even military (young looking fresh faces carrying enough firepower to make any gun nut excited). We also noticed increasingly the dairies (that’s Kiwi speak for corner stores) had grills on their doors and windows and you couldn’t even enter them. You stood at the window and asked the shop keeper to bring you what you want.

Our night security at the town pool.

Where have we been:

Guatemala Finally Delivers – Violently

Sitting at 3700mt, 300mt from the summit of Volcan Acatenango. Two km across a saddle is the summit of Volcan De Fuego…and it’s going off like a frog in a sock. When I say going off I mean every few minutes there’s an explosion and molten rock and ash is thrown hundreds of meters in the air. It’s amazing how much time difference there is between seeing the explosion and then about five seconds later hearing it.

At the moment it’s daylight and the molten rock doesn’t really stand out too much. We’re waiting for dark to see the real spectacle. But are we going to be foiled by the weather. Just as the sun starts going down the cloud rolls in and blocks the view. Being at this altitude in the wind and cloud means it’s cold, even in the tropics, so we retreat to the tent to read, do our Spanish lessons and rest our weary bodies. Every time we hear an explosion we’re poking our noses out to look into the gloomy clouds….But our patience is rewarded. After an impressively loud explosion late in the evening the clouds have finally cleared so we’re heading outside to our deck chairs (yes we hauled these up here as well) for front row seats. It’s freezing, we’re wrapped up in everything we’ve carried up this hill, and our sleeping bags over that. Don’t let anything go though because the wind will grab it and it will be the last you see of it.

So was it worth the 1600mt climb over the summit, the camp without a cooker and freezing our asses off. HELL YES. This is by far one of the most unique experiences we’ve had in our lives, let alone this trip. De Fuego delivered big time. In the dark molten rock could be seen being thrown all over the show. The experience made us realise how small and insignificant we really are when Mother Nature wants to have her way.

Nearing the summit of Volcán Acatenango.

And the decent to the camping area.

A room with a view and front row seats. Yes we took our chairs up there too.

And for the action shot…

Nighttime photos just don’t do it justice but you get the idea.

So how did we end up here. This hike was suggested by a couple we met in Mexico. After some perving at the map and study of the Lonely Planet we came up with a route that we thought would run through some of the best of what Guatemala had to offer. It has to be said that our sole knowledge of Guatemala was one line, “You’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata.” (The only famous line from a NZ soap opera circa 1990s). So off we set.

From Tziscao we rode a dirt track around a lake and into Guatemala. No offical in sight, no control whatsoever.

Thinking it would probably be in our interest to get an exit stamp for Mexico and entry stamp for Guatemala we headed to the nearest controlled border. Turns out controlled is a loose term. We had to leave Guatemala again to find the Mexican immigration office tucked away off the road about a km down the hill. No checkpoint, no roadblock, nothing. The offical didn’t even know which way we were going, but we got our stamp and headed back up the hill to repeat the process by interrupting the Guatemalan offical from reading his paper and getting our entry stamp. It was all so easy it just seemed wrong, but oh so right.

So day one saw us riding some really nice rural roads but they were steep, like 20% grades, and our total climbing was over 2000mt, and we were only half way up a 1900mt climb. There were no wild camping opportunities so when we passed through a town that had hotels up the gunga we took the opportunity to stop. Hotels a loose term but for $8NZ dollars we got a bed, cold shower and shared toilets….not sure what they were thinking.

Big steep hills are the order of the day.

After day one the roads got busier, the hills didn’t get any smaller, camping opportunities were non existent and everything seems to get more expensive. On the expense front it felt like we were being overcharged at every opportunity. This trend continued for the duration of our time in Guatemala so after nine days we just wanted to get out of the country and move on with our adventure. We were sitting in Antigua at this stage enjoying a day off on legs that just didn’t want to work after running down Volcan Acatenango the day before.

Our original plan was to go north into Belize then up to Cancun. But it just didn’t appeal now so we changed plans again and decided to head to El Salvador, a meet 180km to the east. So two days later we crossed the boarder…and straight into another 1200mt climb with some hike a bike…Is this a sign of things to come maybe?

So by the numbers…Eleven days in Guatemala. Two rest days, two days hiking up and down a volcano, and eight days on the bike (we rode the day we came down Volcan Acatenango). 610km with 20900mt of climbing, or an average of 2322mt a day… I must start looking at the profile more closely before I say, “let’s go this way, it looks cool.”

So the general impression of Guatemala wasn’t that good, but there was some pretty cool stuff.

The mountain villages that are still clinging to their traditional Mayan roots through their dress and culture is cool to see. They have progressed though, it wasn’t that unusual to see a woman in traditional dress carrying a water jar on her head talking on her smart phone. And there’s money to be made, the markets were bustling with all sorts of traditional wear, textiles and food. Oh that delicious food…

The market at Chichihualtepec.

But it has to be said that the Guatemalan people are hard doers. Those in the mountains scratch out a subsistence living by working the land collectively as a community. Others were in groups making mud blocks for the next village house. Then there were those in the quarries. In the mountains this meant chipping the limestone off the bluffs by hand, in the low lands there were in the streams digging out the gravel and shovelling it through a grading screen. The bigger rocks got carted up the bank in a bucket and dumped. A hard days work by anyone’s standards.

These guys are waist deep in water shovelling rocks all day.

Antigua was a pretty cool little city to visit. Very colonial but with a very hip modern vibe. It felt like the place that all the well to do Guatemalans gravitate to with hip bars and cafes on every corner.

Check out Mike Kings brother from another mother in this 70s and 80s rock band we found in Antigua. They were pretty good to.

Antigua is clearly a tourist hub too and there were a lot of stiff looking Gringos getting around after a day on nearby Volcan Acatenango. This place has seen its heartache though. Many of the really old mission and colonial buildings had been reduced to rubble by historic earthquakes and eruptions. They are working on the restoration of these, though. It seems a mammoth task, especially when they are cutting bricks by hand.

On our last night in Guatemala we got to experience an auto-hotel. Thinking this was just a hotel that had secure parking under each unit we were a bit surprised by the setup. Money was passed through a slot in a steal door. Once the right payment was made that door was opened to reveal the door to our room, complete with a cold water ( what are they thinking) jacuzzi. The room service menu had beer, meals, protection and lubricant…we just stuck to the beer. So we get the bikes in the garage, shut the garage door and get into our room, ring to order a couple of beers and settle down. The beers are passed through a slider in the steal door once payment has been made through the other slot. In the morning we are rung saying it’s time to go or pay more money, so we rush to pack up, but we can’t get out of the garage. Karen heads upstairs to use the phone but the steal door is closed, blocking our access. I guess once they have checked that we haven’t stolen or stained the jacuzzi they unlock the garage door because next minute it’s opening and we are free to leave this place…and this bloody country.

But there’s still the boarder to cross. As it turns out this border is quite organised and controlled, unlike when we came into the country. But first there is the circling vultures to get through. When we arrive at the border we’re flagged down by a very large man waving a very large wad of US dollars. Along with him are a gaggle of other shifty looking characters trying to entice us with their equally large bundles of cash. We were wondering where we were going to get rid of our Guatemala Quetzal so this seemed the perfect opportunity. The rate they quoted was surprisingly as good but that lucky large man must have been mightily disappointed when I handed over all of our our remaining cash and relieved him of 24 of those US dollars.

So Guatemala is done and dusted. We did some really cool things, but the riding didn’t really spin our wheels as we were hoping.

From here we’ve decided to head south through El Salvador, Honduras ect and try and get to Panama City by the 8th May to fly to Cuba.

After Cuba Karen is going to head home and I’m heading back to Canada to race the Tour Divide. It’s probably a very silly idea, it won’t be fun and it will hurt, but we’re here and I figure a 28000km training ride probably isn’t to bad a way to get ready for it.

Our journey through Guatemala

Goodbye Mexico – Hola Guatemala

Leaving Oaxaca and arriving in Chiapas meant one thing – we were back in the hills again. The best thing about being in the hills was that it was cooler and there was always a view – something you don’t always get on the flat. That makes the sweat and energy spent getting to the top of the hill all the more worth it.

We stayed a couple of days in Tuxtla Gutierrez – a seething mass of humanity which didn’t have much to offer other than really cheap street food. Our hotel had a lovely garden and we used our time there to catch up on some rest. Right on the fringe of Tuxtla is Cańon Del Sumidero a 900m deep canyon. First we biked to the view-points on the top of the rim – an 850m climb. At the top we ran into a group of what looked like ‘bad ass’ motor bikers. They impressed me with their shiny Harley ‘Hogs’ and I offered to swap my bike for one of theirs which they politely declined (I wonder why)?? They looked like a really rough bunch, but were friendly and in awe at how far we had come on our ‘one human’ powered bikes.

The views from the top of the canyon were awesome, but I’d heard the boat ride up the canyon was well worth doing. Tony was a bit more skeptical, but we decided to go anyway. It turned out to be one of the best ‘touristy’ things we have ever done. We saw a lot of wild life including crocodiles, monkeys, many different birds and lots of cool rocks (not quite wildlife but still cool). The commentary from our driver was entirely in Spanish, but we picked up enough to have an idea what was being talked about and he appeared to be very enthusiastic.

After the gorge there was a big hill climbing day to San Christobel de las Casas – all in all 2300m of altitude gain. The road was a really good gradient and the metres clicked by relatively easily. The biggest thing we noticed along the route was the women from the villages collecting wood and going about their daily business still wore traditional Maya dress. They appeared to be hard doers up here, cropping on the sides of steep hills, growing what looked like passion fruit and chopping and carting lots of wood. Everything is done by hand and there were no fatties to be seen up here.

San Christobel was touristy, but had a really nice laid back feel to it – or maybe that was the hostel we stayed at? Each time we walked in the door our nostrils were assaulted by the strong smell of dope being smoked just outside our room. We spent a couple of days here and got out on our unloaded bikes to have a look around the area.

First we went to a town called San Juan Chamula where we had heard there was a really cool church to visit. The interesting thing about the church was that it combined Christianity with some local Maya traditions like sacrificing chickens. We were in luck (or not depending on your point of view). We paid our MX25 each to enter and were greeted by thousands of candles lit around the edges of the church. The floor was covered in pine needles and there were lots of statues of various saints aligning the sides of the church. This is a busy tourist destination which created a really strange contrast – tourists walking through the church looking around and locals deep in worship sharing the same space. The locals didn’t seem to mind and I witnessed one local family bless some members of the family by waiving a live chicken through the candle smoke then over them, before the chicken was deftly dispatched by another family member who broke its neck. I guess they will be having blessed chicken for dinner that night. This all made me feel a little uncomfortable. I felt like I was intruding in their private worship and for me it was time to leave.

We then biked to Acrotete which is where a river runs through a limestone cave. This was more like the type of attraction that we like. It was a beautiful area and the walk through the cave was very cool. We spent a good couple of hours there exploring.

After leaving San Christobel we travelled to Cascada El Chiflon. The ride to the falls involved an 1800m descent which made for a relatively easy day. The falls were spectacular and we got to camp right next to this beautiful river.

In Central America – what goes down must go back up and the next day we had a 1000m climb back up into the hills. We rode the MEX226 which I dubbed the ‘Road of discarded dirty nappies’ due to the filthy rubbish that was discarded on the side of the road (including bags and bags of soiled nappies). To add insult to injury we also battled a stinking head wind. We didn’t reach our destination of Lagunas De Montebello until 7.30pm when it was well dark. Fortunately we arranged to camp near the Maya ruins of Chinkultic at a really nice location next to a lake. The next day we checked out the ruins, then did a ride around the lakes in Laguna De Montebello before spending our last night in Mexico camped by a lake in the town of Tziscao. There we had a small celebration (any excuse to drink beer) before venturing into Guatemala the following day.

So we’ve spent a total of 3 1/2 months in Mexico and it’s been really good to us. The people have been great and the scenery amazing and diverse. We’d highly recommend it as a destination.

Where have we been:

Descending into the Furnace of Hell…Or is that Paradise

As we sit here on the stunning beach of Zipolite with the temperature hovering around 35C (for you North American folk that’s 95F) we wonder if it’s paradise or hell. Certainly all the naked over bronzed bodies walking past think it’s paradise. It turns out that the only place on the map that showed camping is also the only legal nudist beach in Mexico. But it was a nice place so we stayed and enjoyed the chilled atmosphere, naked hippies aside. And before you ask, we didn’t feel the urge to ditch our kit and join the frisbee fun on the beach.

Playa Zipolite. Nudists and hippies galore. But a very relaxing place for a day off.

So it turns out that riding on the blacktop in 35deg and high humidity over rolling hills just isn’t much fun. By 11am our water resembles warm tea, our sweat is pooling on the ground at every stop. By 3pm we’ve well and truely had enough but it’s another hour or two before we will likely find a campsite so onward we go. And then to make matters worse a beer on arrival just isn’t satisfying as the body just wants cold water. Then you try and sleep but because it’s so bloody hot the dogs have been sleeping all day so stay up all night barking….grrrh.

Are there any advantages to riding in these conditions? Surprisingly there are. The cold showers are actually running about the right temperature. The rivers and ocean is sitting at about 28deg so that’s pretty easy to get into. If we’re lucky enough to find a pool that’s also just the right temperature to frolic in for more than five minutes.

But it’s all come to an end. We don’t have the willpower to carry on so we’re now sitting in a bus station waiting on a bus back into the mountains. This is our first public land based transport of the trip. It feels slightly like we’ve been defeated, but another two days of these temperatures and the hot head wind to get across the flatlands before we start climbing into the mountains, which aren’t actually that high, just doesn’t seem worth the effort. We did try though, riding from Salina Cruz this morning, but stopped at Juchitan de Zaragoza after overheating once again.

But I get ahead of myself. This week started with a few days off in Oaxaca. Apparently this city was a must visit but aside from the stunning cathedral and some nice plaza’s it didn’t seam to have to much to offer. It was a good recovery from the never ending climbing to get here. Plus we got to meet up with Sophie and Chris again. They are another couple of cyclists we first met in St George, Utah. Funny how you keep bumping into the same people.

Oaxaca Cathedral. The most ornate one we’ve seen so far.

Actually I’m probably being a bit unfair. There were the nightly concerts in the plaza and the odd street parade to keep things interesting.

Outside the city was a different story. The surrounding villages are famous for their crafts and culture. Plus there’s a stunning area of silica terraces and petrified waterfalls which we just had to go and see. Camping there was definitely a highlight, especially when you have the place to yourself as the sun rises.

Silica terraces, pools and waterfalls of Hierve el Agua.

The bikes are getting tired though and on the way to these pools my hydraulic brake hose fails. 38000km of rubbing and it finally rubbed a hole through it so we returned to Oaxaca the following day to get this sorted. But that’s not all bad because it meant we could go to the coast and enjoy some beach time. Little did we know it was going to be so bloody hot.

Sugar cane crops outside Oaxaca.

Mechanical’s sorted and we head for the coast. Along the way we discovered a major road being build through the mountains. It looked like the job had been abandoned and left to crumble and be reclaimed by nature. But strangely their was still work being done on some of the planned bridges.

The post apocalyptic highway

Two days of hills with a final 1800mt decent sees us camping next to the biggest river we’ve seen in months. It was just bliss washing off a couple of days worth of grime in its tepid waters.

Rio Colotepec. So welcome after a hot day in the hills.

Colotepec village. This old mission building is definitely being held up by the trees.

The next day we were intending on camping on the beach and watching the turtles nesting the following day. But we didn’t quite get our timing right and the turtles had done their thing and left already. Hence we got to enjoy Zipolite instead.

The only turtle we saw. Some just don’t make it.

This coast has some amazing surf beaches which seem to attract their fair share of backpackers. There’s a feel that if you arrive and surfings your thing your going to find it hard to leave. We saw this when we stopped at Barra de la Cruz. This little village just off the highway has a great point break and has embraced the backpacker market with cabins and camping areas popping up in people’s banana plantations. The camp we stayed in had a few young backpackers who arrived, decided to hired surfboards and learn to surf and a month later they are still there. What a great lifestyle. Kind of similar to ours really.

There’s probably a bit of negativity in this update but it’s a bit hard to be to positive and happy after seeing the news from back home. It feels like New Zealand has been betrayed and has lost its innocence. So we’re both feeling a bit down today after trying to process these events. It certainly makes you reflect on what’s going on in the world and how some people’s minds are just so unhinged. Kia Kaha NZ.

Where we’ve been this week.

The ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaka).

I think everyone has been thinking about something or someone and next thing you know that thing happens or you bump into that person. I was riding along thinking that in more than 20,000 kms of riding we had not come across a road accident. That was about to change around 200 kms south of Mexico City. I had pulled off the road on a hill under a tree to get a decent drink as it was bloody hot (around 35-36 degrees and I was really feeling the heat). Next thing I hear the squealing of tyres and look to my left to see the rear side of a van (one of the Micro buses they use here to ferry people from one town to another) miss my back wheel by about a metre. I watched as if in slow motion wondering if the driver was going to recover the skid. He didn’t and the van crashed into the bank on the opposite side of the road 20m from where I was standing.

There were three men in the van including the driver and I would bet that none of them were wearing seatbelts. They all managed to walk out of the van, only one of them was complaining of bumping his head. I worried for a moment that the driver would somehow blame me for the crash but he didn’t. Other vehicles arrived and the driver quickly asked for other people to help him push the van back out onto the road. This signalled my time to make a discreet exit and I quietly cycled up the road to meet Tony. I did a little research and surprisingly found out that Mexico’s death rate on the road is 12.3 per 100,000 people (compared to New Zealand’s 8.5 and USA 10.9). This surprises me because hardly anyone wears safety belts / helmets here, the roads aren’t as good (some are downright rough) and some (most) of the vehicles are falling apart. Still, my limited observation of driving habits have shown Mexican drivers drive slower than in other countries and are generally very patient and courteous. This may be the mitigating factor for their road toll. Interesting enough Mexico’s murder rate is higher – but I digress.

The absence of cars is why we ride roads like this…

The route we picked involved plenty of big hills along its 738km length – this was not going to be a walk in the park! The closer we got to Oaxaca the more prevalent and steep the hills became. Our estimate of arriving in 7 days averaging about 100kms a day was ambitious and in reality it took us 10 days to ride the entire route. But the route delivered great scenery, interesting people and a challenge for both of us. Of the several challenges (apart from the terrain) was the heat. It got seriously hot – riding in the mid 30’s during the day. It became a relief to get above 2400m in height and get some reprieve from the heat. Out of the 9 nights on the road we camped for 8 of them staying in some of the nicest camp spots we had so far in Mexico.

The pick of our camp spots a spectacular gorge near the town of Santo Domingo Tonalta.

View down the gorge from our camp site Santo Domingo Tonalta.

San Jorge Nuchita cathedral.

One of the road hazards over here. A bull with his harem of cows. Luckily these bulls are really placid and don’t pose any problems for passing cyclists.

Locals moving their stock to new grazing.

And here’s some of the roads we travelled…

There were some areas where locals weren’t as friendly as usual. Over a period of two days we were approached by locals warning us of the dangers of passing through these parts. They warned us to be careful. One lovely young lady warned us about wild wolf / dogs that lived in the forest and that we needed to be careful when camping. She further stated she had never been camping before in her life and this was a story she had heard. For a couple of days we felt a little uneasy, but was this our skewed perception, or was there any real danger (other than normal danger when travelling)?? Were these people warning us because they were good natured, or did they want to scare us so we would leave? However the good far outweighed the bad and we met some really wonderful people who helped us on the way…

Spot the Giant!

Hugo and his Father-in-law in Yutanduchi de Guerrero.

And to top it all off we met a great group of Mountain Bikers just outside of Oaxaca who were out for a Sunday club ride. They were a great bunch of guys and one girl (who was tiny, but could ride a bike). They brought us all the way into the city. One of them, Rudolfo offered us his house to stay in and we readily accepted. They also gave us good advice about where to get some work done on my bike and where the good bike shops are. Rudolfo spoke very little English and our Spanish is still pretty basic, so our conversations revolved around the words we knew, sign language and a little Google Translate.

Where we have been…

The Contradiction that is Mexico City

Mexico City. The place we never planned on visiting…but are so glad we did.

But before we get into this sprawling mass of humanity that is Mexico City there were some big hills to climb and some very nice smaller towns to explore.

The week started with a 1300mt climb into the cloud and ever increasing cold rain to cross the Sierra Gorda Range. Of course what goes up must come down so down we went for what seemed like hours. Dropping out of the clouds we left behind the forest and fertile farmland and made a sudden return to a desert environment. The contrast was stunningly sudden.

Despite the countryside becoming more intensively occupied and worked we did manage to get off the highway and find a wild camp on a backroad under a bridge. This was to be our last camping opportunity before Mexico City.

The following day we expected dirt roads but instead found ourselves on very quiet pavement, like two cars an hour quiet. That was the first half of the day anyway before being dropped into a fertile basin that just got busier and busier until we reached the tourist town of Bernal. This place was a bit too busy for us but was also a bit of a treat, with all the street vendors selling a whole variety of tasty snacks. We settled for a salad served up on a plate size chip (crisp for you northern hemisphere folk) covered in the obligatory hot sauce.

Bernal has a bit to explore so after hiking our bikes through a goat track to a very expensive (by Mexican standards) eco-camp we set ourselves up for a day off the bikes. Bernal is a rock climbing mecca in these parts and being the weekend the camp was full of young climbers pitting themselves against boulder problems or multi-pitch climbs to the monoliths summit.

The other side of Bernal is the tourist side where weekend tourists flock to see the historic quarter and walk half way up the monolith. Tourism here is helped by Bernal being named one of Mexico’s ‘Pueblo Magico’s’. Literally translated to Magic Town it means Mexicans from all over converge on these places to experience there natural, cultural or historic beauty. Not ideal for a couple of smelly bikepackers that like the quiet side of life but it meant we got to share their beauty.

After a day off and a commitment to get into Mexico City in three days time I was looking forward to a solid day on the bike. The route looked like we could escape the highways for a while at least. But off the highways still went through intensive cropping, grazing and residential areas. Karen didn’t quiet see things the same way and 35km into the day we arrived in Tequisquiapan, another Pueblo Magico that is well known for its wine and cheese culture. Combine that with a relaxed atmosphere around the Plaza and Karen didn’t want to leave. She won and we ended up finding a hotel near the plaza and sampling some of the local cheeses, and maybe a bottle of wine to wash it down.

So this now left us two days to get into the city, still some 215km away. This seems well achievable but there is always the unknown, and city riding tends to be a bit slow so we pushed through until dusk on the first day to leave just 80km on day two. The riding was unremarkable but becoming increasing busy with it feeling like we were in the suburbs about 150km from the city. We managed to avoid the worst of the traffic until we hit the edge of the city proper, some 60km from our destination in the city centre. Being the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere this wasn’t entirely unexpected but the intensity and bustle was still a shock to the system.

For the most part the traffic was orderly and the riding relatively straightforward. The first exception to this rule are the swarms of suburban buses. These are minivans that are on the clock and pay little regard to any other road users, especially a couple of gringos on bikes, stopping wherever and whenever they liked. Once we got past the range of these the city busses took over and cut us, and everyone else off at every opportunity.

One disappointing factor of getting closer to the city was the increase in pollution levels, especially the waterways and waste management. One canal we passed was literally covered in a foot of plastic bottles and rubbish. You couldn’t see what colour the water was but the black water flowing from a nearby factory straight into the canal gave a pretty good indication that it wasn’t pretty. It’s fair to say Mexico has got some way to go to sort their environmental impact.

Our Warmshowers hosts live in the middle of the city, an area known as Centro Histórico, so we took the opportunity to cut off the main road and dive into the back alleys to visit the central plaza before heading to their house. As soon as we left the main road we were surrounded by a teaming mass of humanity who were either selling or buying literally anything and everything. Then there was the street art. Every spare wall was covered in organised graffiti and murals. More were being painted as we passed by. Although our senses were already fizzing from the ride in this was an amazing sight, and one we were going to experience every day for the next week, albeit an unplanned week.

The contrast when entering the plaza was amazing. This central plaza is massive and surrounded by equally historic stone buildings and the Cathedral. The space is so big it actually felt empty…and incredibly impressive.

So we’d organised to stay with Warmshowers hosts Elian and Firman, who had an apartment 500mt from the plaza so off we went to find them. Turns out Elien is Australian but has been in Mexico for 13 years and Firman is born and bred Mexico City. We all immediately got on like old mates and were soon heading out for a beer and a five o’clock lunch. It seems this is the normal time to eat lunch here. Anyway I digress, these two have been amazing to us, especially with what planned on being a two night stay turns into nine, but that’s another story.

So we arrive on Wednesday with plans to leave Friday, which quickly gets moved to Saturday because the city is so intriguing. Elien and Firman are heading off to the Baja on their own biking adventure on Sunday. But things in the bikepacking world never seem to go to plan. On Friday I’m doing some maintenance on Karen’s bike to convert it from a belt drive to a chain drive. This is when I discover the new rear sprocket doesn’t fit the hub. Without getting all technical it turns out the sprocket carrier is now fubar (fucked beyond all recognition) and won’t take the new sprocket. So the belt goes back on but on a ride to a bike shop to replace the bottom bracket Karen discovers that with the slighted pressure this sprocket now just spins on the hub…so she’s going nowhere. And of course this all happens on a Friday afternoon so there’s no chance to get parts in the post until at least Monday. So after some phone calls and emails the parts get in the post from San Francisco Tuesday morning and are here Wednesday afternoon. It’s amazing that same journey, albeit slightly more scenic, took us 91 days.

In the whole scheme of things it could be a lot worse. The bikes ticked over 20,000km on the ride into the city. Some of this 20,000km has been incredibly rough on them. We’re stuck in an amazing city full of diversity, culture and history that only two days just wouldn’t have done justice. And to top it all off Elien and Firman are happy for us to stay on at their apartment while they are away, plus we get to hang out with their dog and cat.

Plus we got an early, or is that late, Christmas present. On the way down from San Diego we’d ordered yet more bike parts and had them delivered to Chayo, a friend of some new friends in San Diego. We met up with Chayo and her daughter for breakfast, more of a lunch for us, and picked up our package. Again it was a measure of the people here as we tried to buy them breakfast as a sign of our appreciation for their help but they wouldn’t have it. Instead they brought us breakfast as a welcome to the city.

So what does Mexico City have to offer…

Pretty much everything and anything you want. When I say it is a seething mass of humanity I’m not exaggerating. This place is massive and with a population of 21 million it’s not surprising that there are literally swarms of people everywhere.

This just adds to the colour and character of the place. It’s not like an Asia city or any other metropolitan area that I’ve experienced. The people are engaging, friendly and actually talk to each other. Say good morning, or in this case ‘Buenos Diaz’ and they don’t look at you like you’ve gone completely mad like most Western city folk. They actually answer and wish you a good day.

There’s a degree of organisation but it seems chaotic at the same time. The larger roads are generally free of food stalls and hawkers but step into a side street and you’re surrounded by people buying and selling just about anything. It seems to be organised into groups of stores selling similar stuff, like the dress street, then into the stationary street then around the corner to the hardware street. Just up the road there’s the unlikely combination of the bike shop and prostitute street. This area has over 30 bike shops, most of which have one or two very bored looking ladies of leisure standing just outside the doors. Not really sure how that combination works.

Since we had a few days to fill in we did manage to do some exploring, visiting a massive city park that’s about seven km2 and full of museums, castles and lakes. Another day was spent at the ancient Mayan city of Teotihuacán. This place was a bit of a surprise being over 2000 years old and having the 3rd largest pyramid in the world, and you can climb it.

Exploring the central city with all its street art and entertainment took up a bit of time. It never stopped amazing us how the Mexican people entertain themselves. Busking is a way to make relatively good money, and the crowds just love it, literally dancing in the streets, while the city heaves around them.

We took the opportunity to do a bit of socialising as well. While walking to the Plaza on the second day we were here I commented that it would be funny to run into someone we knew, after all there’s only 21 million people here. Well about 30 seconds later we do just that, bumping into Chris and Sophie, a couple we’d met in St George, Utah and also ridden with a week earlier. Maybe the city ain’t so big after all.

I also took the opportunity to get my saddle modified since the leather had stretched to the point where I’d run out of tensioning bolt. After finding a leather works online I jump on the subway and head over. On arrival I’m met by Carlos Senior and Carlos Junior of Diablo Custom Leather. Carlos Senior was a master saddle (horse) maker before moving to Mexico City and Carlos Junior has done a bit of cycling in his time with various trophies on the walls of the workshop. They set to work on my saddle which turns out to be quite a fiddly job. All the while we’re talking in my very bad Spanish and their broken English about our trip and life in the city. After a couple of hours it’s done and it’s time to leave them. Despite my protests they refuse any payment and on top of that Carlos Junior comes with me for a few stops on the subway to show me where I can buy an o-ring for the cooker. Just amazing people. And then Karen decides they’ve done such a good job that she will get hers done as well. Again they refuse payment but she does reward them with the universal payment of beer.

And they make some pretty practical bike accessories too.

Not all is rosie for Mexico City though. I’m not sure what the original Spanish settlers were thinking but filling in a lake to build these massive stone buildings on probably wasn’t the smartest move. The place is literally sinking. Some of the buildings have a distinct lean on them. I’m not sure how stone buildings bend and warp but they do and still manage to stand up, just a bizarre sight.

It’s with a bit of sadness that we leave Mexico City but there’s more exploring to do. Sometimes taking the scenic route doesn’t get you far. We’ve realised there’s only four more months so getting to Chile isn’t going to happen this time around. So from here we’re heading south towards the Guatemala border then we’ve decided to cross over to Cancun then fly to Cuba for a month.

Our route into Mexico City.

Budgeting for bike touring

As we approach cycling 20,000 kms we have been reflecting on our budgeting. Leaving our jobs for 12 months with no income was fairly daunting for us. We worked out our daily budget for 12 months was around NZD109 (approx USD77 depending on the exchange rate). That was to include all our expenses after we started riding on June 16th 2018 – accommodation, food, flights and public transport; entertainment and replacing worn out bike parts. We quickly found that travelling through Alaska and northern Canada our budget wasn’t quite sufficient. Having said that we met other solo cyclists existing on only USD20 per day! In comparison to them our budget was lavish! As we travelled we started to save more money in what is termed by Americans as ‘the lower 48’ (lower 48 states) and after travelling in Mexico for just over two months we finally worked out we were living below our budget – yay 😀!

So where did the money go? Mostly it goes on food. Eating well and keeping our ‘one human powered engines’ healthy and well fed is a big priority for us. Add into that the ‘beer’ and ‘coffee’ budgets (both of which are unlimited due to their mental benefits) a fair chunk of our money happily goes into those. Accommodation is the next cost. So far we have been pretty good in this department. We soon realised that this is an area where we can make the biggest savings by camping as much as possible. When travelling in North America we only paid for five hotel stays. The rest of our accommodation was made up of camping (either free or paid for) or staying at homes opened up to us by fellow cycle tourists (or people who think we are totally mad and take pity on us). As far as flights and buses go – they don’t apply as yet as we have cycled almost every kilometre of our journey so far.

Dinner on the road – our Mexican version of Mac ‘n Cheese (with refried beans replacing the cheese).

The biggest surprise in our budget was how much replacement spares and equipment we needed. Prior to San Diego we made a list of all the gear we had replaced or brought and the cost was in excess of USD2,700! Since then we have spent a further USD1100 on spares – just over twenty percent of our budget! You may ask why I know this, but we have lots of spare time at night when camping to work this stuff out. Our bikes have taken a beating, particularly in the mud. Comfort for our bodies is also important and this has meant anything contacting the bike (ie our butts) have demanded several replacement shorts, saddles and gloves. At the end of the day our bikes and comfort are priceless (within reason) and blowing the budget a little is worth it. However, it has dawned on us that no matter how much you prepare and how good your gear is, it will start wearing out after months of daily use and it pays to be aware of this when you budget for a long bike packing trip.

Mud is one of the worst things for wearing out gear on the bike.

Since our last blog post we have travelled through sugar cane country to beautiful waterfalls and sights. We met up with Sophie and Chris, fellow bike tourers (road mostly) and hung out with them for several days. The highlight of our travels was Tumal Falls – a 100m waterfall from a beautiful green river.

A refreshing dip in the river above Tumel Falls – far enough away from the falls to not be a concern.

Tumel Falls

After that we headed for the ‘Cave of Swallows’ which is a 370m deep limestone cave where Swifts roost at night, then leave at dawn to go and find food in the forest at dawn and return to the cave at dusk. The camping for this sight was down one kilometre of steps – not ideal when you’re carrying a fully loaded bike down them. Luckily the locals let us camp in their back yard a short way down the steps saving us a lot of hard work.

Cave of Swallows – a VERY big hole in the ground.

View of dawn from our camp at Cave of Swallows.

We then went to Xilitla to visit the Edward James’ Las Pozas (gardens). Edward James was an eccentric Englishman who loved Orchids and lived in Xilitla. When one year all his orchids died from the frost he decided to re-create them in concrete. He hired 30 locals to help him in this project until he died in 1984.

Las Pozas

So what do you do when you’re in a town and you’ve visited all the parks, shops and churches you can stomach, and it’s only 4pm?? You go to a Cervesaria and drink with the locals! Cervesaria’s are a little like the public bars at home. Over here they are male dominated, although there were a couple of other women in this bar. It was one of those places your mother tells you not to go to. When we did walk in we felt pretty out of place and everyone was looking at us. They were smoking weed out in the smoking area and no one cared. We sat and ordered a Corona ‘mega’ bottle (1.2 litres of beer for a cost of USD1.50). The beer tasted good and after four of these almost everyone in the bar was our friends and the local music on the juke box sounded pretty good. To go to the bathroom I had to get toilet paper from the bar man and the toilet had no seat on it. I was careful not to touch anything in there as there was no hand basin to wash my hands in. It turned out to be a good way to spend a few hours for us.

Notice the classy decor in the background.

Tony making friends.

Today 7th of Feb we travelled from Jalpan to Puente de Dios over some very big hills…

We arrived at Puente de Dios and camped in a lovely camping area by the river. Puente de Dios is a natural limestone arch that has the river running through it. We paid our money to enter and started walking down the trail to the arch. There was a local woman walking in front of us, who we thought was just heading in the same direction as us. After a while we realised she was guiding us. We hadn’t signed up for this and asked if we could be alone, but she told us no. She stayed with us the entire time.

Tony walking up the trail with our impromptu guide.

The arch. A good place to have a shower.

We are now heading south toward Mexico City hoping to take in some interesting sights on the way. Here is our current location.