Guatemala, or rather Livingston, received me kindly. I spent 3 days in a great hostel overlooking the sea right from my hostel bed. Really relaxing and comfortable. The whole tourist bustle here was not really my thing – although of course I ate Nutella pancakes with a lot of pleasure and entertained myself talking with other travelers, even though unfortunately most often there were only the usual 20-year-old backpackers.
Supposedly the boat trip through the canal to Rio Dulce is great, but I did not want to support the tourist hub and did not want to pay the much too high amount they asked for taking my bike on board and so I ended up on another boat that took me close to the border with Honduras – Puerto Barrios.
In retrospect, I think that was a mistake, because I was back on a busy road and had to think of a new route and chose a little road in the mountains of Honduras. I had researched nothing and as so often, just picked a route on the map and off I went.
So, I hadn’t seen much of Guatemala by the time I was at the border to Honduras, which was a bit of a pity and in hindsight I guess Guatemala is really the most diversified country in Central America.
A slightly older Mexican waited together with me in the small border area where our passports were checked and was blown away hearing of my bike trip. He cordially thanked me for confirming to all those present that nothing had happened to me in Mexico and that, according to him, Central America was in the end a much more dangerous place than his country. He was so welcoming and hugged me a few times and even gave me some money.
Inwardly, it felt a bit like the Mexicans had intentionally sent me along this guy to make up for it in the end. Anyway, I thought to myself silently, pity, if all the Mexicans had been like him, I would have certainly had a brilliant time there.
A man sat at the roadside and spoke to me in fluent English and asked where I wanted to go. I explained my planned way to get from the main road directly into the remote mountains, because it was finally time for me to be on lonely roads again.
“I don’t want to advise you to cycle there, but I cannot guarantee you that you might not get in trouble. Last year, an American drove there with his motorcycle – they killed him. The problem in Honduras is that they do not just rob you, no, if it gets serious, they’ll kill you as well. You’re also a woman and all alone – think twice.”
“Often the police are looking for criminals and gangs hiding out in the mountains. You never know where the bad guys are. Nothing can happen to you here on the main road. There is always someone around, so you’re never alone, that’s the safest. But be sure to have a safe place for the night, before dark. Never ride when it’s dark. This is Honduras, not the US!” He added.
Shoot, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Honduras, along with El Salvador, is said to have one of the highest murder rates in the world. Such numbers usually refer to the cities and not to the lonesome corners of a country. I was therefore very surprised at his statement, but wouldn’t want to play the hero and would rather wait to see how the country and its inhabitants would act towards me before taking risk. Many travelers make a huge detour around Honduras, because they are simply afraid of the country.
However, we long-term travelers know that “the neighbor is always the bad guy”. We often hear that the neighboring country is allegedly so dangerous. But when someone says it can be dangerous not far from his house, that is rather rare.
The fact is that for safety’s sake I had to cycle on the main road and came through exactly the city, namely San Pedro Sula, which is supposedly one of the most dangerous in the world. I really did not feel like going there. In addition, I am always convinced that the traffic is much more dangerous than staying in the back country, but as always, I am a stranger here and certainly cannot figure out the present situation of a country on the first day.
When beginning to explore a new country it is always important to take some time to get a feel for things, before risking too much too soon.
Nothing much happened on the main highway. It was hot, the people were friendly and greeted me nicely. I noticed right away that there is almost no tourism here. Some people spoke English because they had worked in the US for a long time.
Here, too, there were a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ buildings – all of them surrounded by giant fences and thick barbed wire. It was obvious that there was a lot of money in those buildings.
The food was the usual. Rice and beans. Chicken and fries or beans and rice and fries with chicken. So much variation!
The traffic was also getting heavier. The shoulder was very wide but unfortunately, there was often tons of chaos on the roadside. Garbage, sand hills, vender stalls, parked cars, huge stones, etc. which blocked the roadside time and again. So, I had to cycle around obstacles almost all day.
I was not more than 20 KM from San Pedro Sula and it was almost dark, but unfortunately, I was still on the road. And I was increasingly nervous about finding a place to stay for the night.
But a man assured me that it was no more than 10 minutes to a Love Hotel, but I had heard those statements already for a few hours, I had been asking for a place to stay as it had been raining cats and dogs for quite some time. But this time the guy knew what he was talking about, exactly 10 minutes later I was in front of a Love Hotel. Forty dollars for the night!
I explained my situation to one of the hotel employee and asked if I could possibly get a little cheaper rate. I told him I had no choice but to take it, since it is already dark. He nodded and said that I should definitely not continue any further.
But he talked to his boss who was an avid cyclist and gave me the room for $ 20 and also brought me some fruit since I had eaten almost nothing that day and the nearest shop was way too far away. Soothed and thankful, I hung up my soaking wet clothes and went to sleep.
San Pedro Sula was crossed quickly. The outskirts had slums that were visible from the main highway. I watched children as they searched for things in the trash. Really not a nice sight and was probably the poorest area I have seen in a long time.
Garbage on the roadside was unbelievable. Trash was piled up in front of the little shacks; it seemed to have been thrown down the embankment out of the windows. One thing was clear, I didn’t want to stop here for long.
The city center instead was shiny and full with all kinds of American fast food restaurants where I searched for WIFI and met again people who had lived in the USA for a long time. I asked what their opinion was about safety in the mountains. They fully agreed with the other gentleman and his statement. The mountains are an uncertain area.
But that still didn’t convince me. I suspected the mountain people would tell me I should not go to the cities, because it is too dangerous.
This time I wanted at least try to go on a minor road to finally get away from the noisy traffic, diesel exhaust and dirty main highway. But the minor road had no shoulder and was extremely curvy, so I turned back after 5 KM, because I was simply afraid for my life. The trucks thundered past me and I definitely did not want to be buried in Honduras, although the people were not really bad drivers, but with these tight curves you simply have no chance to be seen as a cyclist.
So back to the main road and further south. The wide shoulder was still much safer.
The surrounding rivers were also full of trash. Everywhere plastic and dirt and because of the many rain storms everything looked chaotic and just simply uncomfortable. But the hilly mountain landscape was lush green and radiated adventure and fascination for me.
Unfortunately, the cars continued to roar past and the next heavy rain started.
This time, I ended up staying with the Bomberos. The fire fighters. Extremely nice people who gave me shelter at their station and let me use their kitchen. My cookware + gas and wood stove were a sensation for the crew. My fire sticks, which I always carry with me to light up a campfire should the wood be wet, aroused great interest.
The boss of the team was keenly interested in what material it consisted of and began to take one of them apart.
They warned me about El Salvador and joked that El Salvador had now overtaken them in the negative statistics of last year. El Salvador had a higher homicide rate in 2016 than they had, so they wanted to emphasize again that I should not go there.
Such statements are heard again and again. As said before the neighbor country seems often the enemy – in a lot of places. They were also surprised that I was spared in Mexico and said Nicaragua was completely harmless.
The rain did not stop and therefore I took shelter for 3 days in a small village and waited until the worst was over. Despite the heavy rain, the heat continued to be intense. The owner of the small hotel said to me I should leave my bike in front of the hotel in the parking lot, the village was safe. But I wouldn’t hear of it, my bike always stays with me in the room. Always.
At a fruit stand, I was addressed in fluent English and was surprised again at how many people spoke English here. We chatted and the frustrated guy just said to me, “Oh, you know, if you know one country in Central America you know them all. You do not need to go to El Salvador, it looks just like Honduras. The people are the same, they all eat the same, the landscape is the same, everything is the same. Nowhere is it as beautiful as in the USA. ”
On the same evening I asked again in a small hotel how the little roads in the mountains might be and showed the people on the map the route I had in mind this time, however I was not so sure whether this was a good idea, because the huge amount of rain that had fallen had surely turned the slopes into pure mud.
Again, everyone was in agreement. I was told “as a woman alone and on a pushbike, you shouldn’t ride in the mountains”.
“Everyone has a cell phone these days. People see you and somebody tells the bad guys about you and they wait for you at a lonely point. Then you are at their mercy. Don’t do that. Stay on the main road.”
The next question was, should I still go to El Salvador? Just passing by the country somehow went against my grain and so I followed a brand-new road that went straight to El Salvador. The landscape was okay, nothing earth shattering but not ugly. I also enjoyed the peace, as there was almost no traffic.
The tarmac ended and turned into gravel. At a small house I had lunch and a man began to interrogate me. I didn’t trust him. Something was wrong with him and after a while he started to scare me.
“The next 10 km there are no villages anymore, I should take care” he said to me. He would drive me to the next village for $ 20, from there everything is okay again.
“No thanks” and I rode my way, but asked several people near the house for their opinion and everyone said, oh there’s no problem, the area here is safe.
As expected, I met only really nice people. The landscape became more beautiful and the people more and more interested in me as I passed. The whole track was unfortunately a huge construction site, but the nice road workers who greeted me happily helped make-up for the mess. I was also pleasantly surprised at how dry the track was.
It was not far to El Salvador and the border crossing was completely easy going.
El Salvador – the 90th country of my life.
The heat was still just brutal. I rode about 25 km from the extreme south of the country in a northwest direction. Then I found, I had no desire to go further and returned the same way I had come. The noise level along the roads was intense and began to get on my nerves. Not only the traffic noise but also the music blaring from the various shops along the roads, added together to create a nerve racking cacophony.
Basically, people in El Salvador pretty much ate the same chicken with the same fries as elsewhere and the houses, streets and people didn’t look any different from those in the neighboring countries, just as the frustrated fruit stall guy in Honduras had told me. So, I didn’t feel like I missed a lot by turning around – but wouldn’t want to judge it all from my small glimpse.
My own country collection scheme is to spend at least one night in a country outside of the airport, then it counts as a traveled country. Which of course is silly, because you can’t claim to have seen a country within a day, but I started with this scheme a long time ago and have stuck with it. So, I had not really seen anything of El Salvador, but ticked it off the list, so to speak. Sometimes, such small goals and games help me to maintain motivation.
Back in Honduras, I tried to stay the night at the border. At first, I asked the police, then at a church, then I asked at various houses if I could camp on their property and was unfortunately only rejected. At another church I was allowed to camp in an open house, but no one else would be sleeping there and the house had no wall on one side and was right next to the Pan-American Highway – the main road through Central America.
People were convinced that this was not a problem, but I didn’t like the idea. At the end I camped on the balcony of a hotel. The rooms were totally dirty. Even the used condoms from the previous guests were still in bed and a half-chewed pizza lay next to it. The mattress looked like 10 trucks had rolled over it and they still wanted $15 a night. I bargained camping on the balcony down to a still pricey $5. But it was a safe place for the night, that was what mattered in the end.
The Pan-American Highway was different. Here one noticed right away that there were too many tourists driving the road. The local people were suddenly not as friendly as before in other parts of Honduras.
Again, and again I heard the calls: “Gringa and Dolares.”
Fortunately, it was only about 150 km then I was at the border to Nicaragua. Also, I was surprised at how little traffic there was on the Pan-American, I had expected much more.
But now off to the next new country!
As I been told, Nicaragua is supposedly very pretty and also very safe. Let’s see – I am excited to find out myself.