Central America is a region that offers cyclists diverse experiences, from thick jungle to beautiful coastlines, both paved and dirt roads, and of course many vibrant cultures and countries to learn about.
In this week’s 10 Questions, Olivia of Crazy On Bikes tells us about her experience bike touring in Central America with her partner Bhinti. As she reveals, some of their toughest days were when they got off the beaten track but these days were also the most rewarding.
1. Can you describe some of the sights, sounds and sensations that go along with cycling in Central America?
A remarkable experience for me was the volcanos in the flats of Nicaragua. They were still smoking and colored the sky into a more gray color. What I also found amazing is that as soon we crossed the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica we heard some really loud and weird sounds. It was like a mixture of dogs howling and pig noises. We looked up into the tall trees and saw some monkeys, the so called howler monkeys. Totally different was the dry and hot Nicoya peninsula with its wilderness. Slowly, almost meter by meter, we made our way up and down deep hills on a rocky gravel road. Many times we pushed our bikes up and also walked them down as they were so steep. The reward was breathtaking. I guess the harder it is to get to places the more beautiful and untouched they are.
2. For people who haven’t been to Central America, the image of the region is often negative. There are concerns about safety, bad traffic and overwhelming poverty. How do you think Central America compares to these impressions?
The traffic wasn’t too bad. Lots of times we had shoulders, especially in Nicaragua and Panama. The trucks made room for us and we experienced many welcome toots and thumbs ups, even the police welcomed us by blaring some words through their microphone. One road is crazy, which I would not ride on: It is the Panamericana in Costa Rica. To avoid it we left the Panamericana in the city of Liberia and turned towards the ocean, riding along the Nicoya peninsula. As for the poverty… on a materialistic level they don’t have much, but I find that they have lots of richness in their loving hearts. They seem to be happy with what they have. They approached us with smiles and they loved to share with us what they have. The less people have, the more generous they are, this is my personal impression. It is quite overwhelming. Safety wise, we haven’t had any bad experiences. Once, a police pickup truck with 4 armed police men in the back followed us for about one hour to make sure we were alright.
3. Food is always important for a cyclist. Is the food good and widely available?
Most of the times we ate in restaurants or in cheap ‘comedores’ where they don’t have a menu, just 1-3 simple meals. Most of the time they had rice, beans, tortillas, eggs with either chicken, beef, or pork. The meals don’t vary too much, they are all similar no matter where we went. We also enjoyed the fruit juices and fresh coco milk which was often offered on the side of the roads. For breakfast we cooked sometimes porridge with coco oil, stevia and raisins.
4. What about lodging? Is it possible to wild camp or is it better to take hotels?
Generally speaking I would not do wild camping in Central America. The only place where we camped wild was on the beaches on the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica. Otherwise we found it safer to stay in cheap hotels, the so called ‘hospedajes’ or to camp in people’s backyards. They never rejected us.
5. Is bureaucracy much of an issue? And can you get visas at the border or do you need to plan ahead?
To get visas, you don’t need to plan ahead (I only know this for Canadians, Americans and Europeans). When we crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala we got a 3 month visa, but what we didn’t know is that these 3 months also count for El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. As we spent a lot of time in Guatemala, we were told at the border of El Salvador that our visa is about to expire. So, we took the bus to San Salvador to get a new stamp. They seemed to be suspicious and took their job very seriously asking lots of questions and they even took fingerprints of both thumbs. Visas for Central America are not expensive. They cost between $2-10 U.S. per person.
6. How much of a budget is needed to cycle through Central America?
I think we spent more money than we wanted to by staying in hospedajes and eating out in restaurants. A room in a hospedaje costs between $4-25 U.S. and a meal in a restaurant costs between $3-9 U.S. Of course it is cheaper when you camp in backyards and do your own cooking. I find that El Salvador and Nicaragua were the cheapest countries and Costa Rica was the most expensive country.
7. What was your favourite day on the road on Central America?
This is a tough one as I really enjoy what we do. Hmmm… my favorite day. Well, I ill never forget this incredible view when we left Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, heading towards the coast, and we experienced this long, long downhill. We were just flying down for more than one hour, dropping from about 4800 feet to 400 feet. We could feel the air getting warmer and warmer and the scenery changed completely, riding into the hot humidity.
8. And how about your most challenging moment?
For me the most challenging day was riding on these steep gravel roads on the Nicoya Peninsula fighting exhaustion and the heat. We crossed a big river at low tide. As we followed a wrong track, where other drivers got lost before, we crossed the same river two more times. A vehicle followed us and got stuck in the river mud. We tried to help them out, but we couldn’t. A local couple came along on a boat telling us we had to turn around. We were lost. We had to go back and cross the river two more times. We had to leave as quickly as possible because the river was rising and would rise even more. As quickly as we could, we crossed the muddy river, the water up to our waists. Our bikes with our waterproof bags became floating devices. And, when the tide is really high up, it might get filled with crocodiles. I was so scared but we had no choice. The last bit of that day we were riding along the beach on the sand. Sometimes we had to push our bikes. Finally, the village that we were looking for was in front of us and I crashed, shaking and cold.
9. Is there one piece of gear that has come in very handy in Central America and that you would recommend all cyclists bring with them?
It isn’t so much gear. It is more something alive: a loving partner, that you are crazy about, that you can share and laugh with.
10. What’s the best reason you can give for why cyclists reading this should go to Central America for their next trip?
Central America is so alive! I was really amazed by the simplicity, generosity and hospitability of the people. I loved the crazy and noisy markets where people sat on the floor and selling all sorts of stuff. Central America has also a diversity of the scenery to offer. And not to forget are these sweet and juicy exotic fruits.
Thanks to Olivia for answering 10 Questions on bike touring in Central America and providing the photos. You can learn more about Olivia & Bhinti through their website, Crazy On Bikes, and also by watching this video interview with Olivia.
Need more information on Cycling In Central America?
- Cycle Central America – A guidebook to cycling in the region, which you can download for free.
- Cycling Central America – A blog that talks about just what it says in the title.