HONDURAS, NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA, 6th-18th April
The alarm on Dea’s phone woke us, but I didn’t want to get up. Surely it couldn’t be 5:15 already, I thought, as I dragged my weary body up. Dea and I got ourselves ready to go, tiptoeing past the tents and hammock of our still sleeping companions on our way to the fire station bathrooms. We were slower at cycling than everybody else, and in order to keep up with them we’d decided we’d better start before them, plus it was so much nicer to cycle before the heat of the day struck. The only odd thing was that it didn’t seem to be getting light. We delayed a little, had some breakfast, waited some more, but even at six the sun still wasn’t up. It was very odd, because it really should have been up by this time. Fifteen minutes later, with it only just beginning to get light, I checked the time on my bike computer. “Dea, it’s 5:15 now!”
What had happened was that Dea’s phone was still set to Mexican time, and in Mexico this was apparently the night when the clocks went forward an hour, and her ever-so-smart phone had therefore woken us up an hour early, insisting that it really was time to get up, at least in Mexico. “I couldn’t believe you were getting up at 4:15,” Woody said to us. “I thought, wow, these guys are hardcore!” It was nice that Woody was awake, as we got to say goodbye to him. He planned a different route onwards through Nicaragua, and it was likely to be the last time we’d see him, at least for a while.
It turned out not to be the end of the world that we’d got up so early, as by half five it was light enough to cycle, and we were soon on our way towards Nicaragua. The only problem was that the screw holding my seat post up had broken – well, it had come loose and I couldn’t tighten it anymore as the Allen key hole had circled out. As a result I was forced to sit comically low on my saddle, which also kept swivelling around. Fun for a few minutes, but not for longer than that. And it was a Sunday, so all the hardware stores were closed, and sourcing a replacement screw wasn’t possible.
45 kilometres later and we were at another border, the end of our very brief Honduran crossing already. Getting out of Honduras was no problem, but there was a long wait on the Nicaraguan side. We were prepared for this, and actually the hour and a half it took us to get processed was faster than many other travellers who come this way. But the delay gave Ciaran and Anni time to catch us up, and Kazuhiro was now also with them, and we ended up all getting through the border together. Once again we posed with the welcome sign for a group photo, although this time a very fat man on a motorbike drove past us with his middle finger raised at us. Welcome to Nicaragua!
But after that things got better. The road was still good, not at all busy and there was still a good shoulder, and the scenery was nice as we rode on towards and around yet more volcanoes. We stuck together and for once iOverlander wasn’t directing us to any fire stations for camping, and we were going to have to do things the old fashioned way. Wild camping was difficult in this populated part of the world, so we decided to ask at a rural property if they would be kind enough to let us camp for the night. We stopped next to such a property which looked ideal – plenty of flat space, not many people around to disturb us – and Anni, the best Spanish speaker, volunteered to go down and ask. She approached the gate and a man came over to meet with her. To our surprise he had a shotgun slung over his shoulder. “Abort! Abort!” Ciaran and I cried out, but it was too late. We watched as Anni conversed with the man, now also backed up by a fearsome pack of dogs. “At least if he is a good man, we should be safe here!” I said.
Thankfully, Hulio was a good man, and he let us all come in and set up camp. It seemed he was guarding the finca, and it was probably part of the job description that he had to have his shotgun on him at all times. Certainly we never saw him without it until the following morning when another man took over for the day shift.
We were on the road early again, hoping to make it to Leon. The road grew busy and much less pleasant. It was just too hot in this part of the world to be cycling like this all day. Our reward was in getting to Leon and going to a hotel with a swimming pool. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of jumping in a pool of cold water after a sweaty day on the Pan-American.
The following day I was feeling unwell and Dea and I decided to take a rest day. Everyone else went ahead, but that was okay, we wanted to have some time to ourselves, for it wouldn’t be long before we would be separating as I headed for the Caribbean. We would be apart for an unknown amount of time, perhaps three or four months, and I could tell Dea was anxious about being apart for that long.
The next day we continued south, absolutely not excited about cycling in the Nicaraguan heat again. At least on the way out of town we found a little workshop that had the right screw for my seatpost, so I could sit properly on my bike again. And the road was at least a bit quieter and a bit more remote, but the day felt like a complete slog for me. We made the next gas station our target, hoping it would have air con, but Nicaraguan gas stations just aren’t in the same league as El Salvadoran or Honduran gas stations. There was no air con, and it was hotter inside than out, but we stubbornly sat in it anyway and complained to one another about the heat.
From there the road got more remote as it climbed into some hills, and we even managed to find somewhere to wild camp. But the next day was even more of a test, with a 700 metre climb, before we had to navigate around the edge of the capital, Managua. The roads were busy, the cycling demanding, but there was a bit of respite that evening when we camped with a local family. As with most of Central America it had proved difficult to get close to the people as we passed through, but this evening provided us a brief reminder of why we travel.
Knowing that we would soon be parting from one another for quite a while, Dea and I wanted to spend a last bit of time together by visiting Omotepe Island for a couple of days. This island is made up of two volcanoes in a huge lake. To get to it we caught a ferry from a place called San Jorge. But we weren’t the only ones heading for the island, the ferry was absolutely packed. It wasn’t a very big one, with space for only a handful of cars, but they were determined to squeeze as much on as they possibly could. The cause wasn’t helped by an American motorcyclist whose motorbike not only had big panniers on the sides, but also an entire mountain bike sticking out of the back. When the ferry operators insisted on squeezing yet one more car on it really didn’t seem possible, but somehow they managed to manoeuvre all of the bikes and cars so that we all fitted, and off we went. Unfortunately the inside of the ferry was so rammed with people that I was stuck standing outside in the sun, listening to the American man who enjoyed very much to talk, and trying not to be sick from the intense heat and rocking of the boat.
Omotepe Island wasn’t everything we hoped it would be. We spent the first night in Moyogalpa, then cycled halfway around one of the volcanoes to Santa Cruz, where we spent a couple of nights in some basic, fly-infested accommodation. The room there was sufficiently unappealing that we spent our nights on the roof in our tent instead, but the sunsets were nice, and it was great to see Ciaran, Anni, and Kazuhiro again, for they were also staying here the first night. It had been great cycling with them, but their route through Costa Rica was different from either of ours, so as we waved them off the next day it really was goodbye this time.
After our rest day, we continued onwards until we had completely encircled the volcano and returned back to Moyogalpa, and then took a thankfully less busy ferry back to the mainland. It was evening by the time we left behind the urban area of San Jorge and Rivas, and we were unsure of where we might camp, when we spotted another touring cyclist up ahead of us. He was wearing the most fantastically bright tie-dye T-shirt and big sunglasses, and when we approached him he laughed absolutely like a maniac. This was Takahiro, yet another Japanese cyclist, a young guy of outrageous enthusiasm, on his way from Canada south through the Americas and eventually around the world.
Of course we rolled along with this madman, and ended up camping together in a spot suggested to us by iOverlander. It was rather more public than we would prefer, being essentially in a village, but it was also on the shores of the lake and a beautiful spot. The only problem was the wind, which was blowing angrily off the lake, but it was getting dark and we had little choice but to stay. We sat and talked with Taka, great good kid that he was. He worked as a chef, but had had enough. “I like cooking, for me,” he said, “I don’t want to cook for everybody!!!” And so he’d decided to buy a bike and see the world, and what a jolly good idea that is, by the way.
We cycled together for a while the next day, until Taka got a flat tyre. We figured he’d catch us up pretty easily, so we rode on. But there was still no sign of him by the time we reached the Costa Rica border. Central America was not our favourite place in the world, but it sure was good for the country count, and I was soon celebrating country number 70 with some delightfully cheap bananas. But where was Taka? When we saw a pair of travelling motorcyclists pass us and then stop at a restaurant, I decided to stop and ask them if they’d seen him behind us. Sure enough they informed us that he was not very far behind us now. We got talking to them, and found out they were riding down from their home country of Canada. They were interested in our trip, and asked us many questions, including how we cooked our food. When we told them that we used a stove that connected to butane cannisters but that we hadn’t found any such cannisters for months, one of the men, an absolute legend named Mike, offered us his MSR gas-burning stove, as he was flying home in a week and they weren’t using the stove anyway. Thanks, Mike!
Taka caught up to us and we chatted a bit more, but it was at this point that our routes diverged. He was following the Pan-American south, while we were turning more east. I wanted to get over to the Caribbean coast to start looking for boats, and Dea would ride with me for a little bit before taking a quieter route south through the mountains, to get away from the Pan-American which we’d heard didn’t have a shoulder in the north of Costa Rica. But it wasn’t the only road that didn’t have a shoulder in Costa Rica. The road we were taking east didn’t have one either, and once we got into some busier areas this made for some very unpleasant riding.
It was sufficiently dangerous that we looked for alternatives, and rode instead on some back roads. Unfortunately, these were made up primarily of hard rocks, and it was a very tough, bone-jarring ride. Costa Rica seemed like a pretty nice place with friendly people, but it also seemed to be absolutely the worst place in the world to ride a bike, and not exactly what we wanted on our last full day together.
Late in the day we stopped to take a break beside this awful rocky back road. We talked about what was going to happen the next day, and the fact that we were going to part, that I would be going on without Dea, hit me pretty hard. We both cried a bit. This wasn’t really what I wanted, but going to the Caribbean was my only chance to get to my goal of 100 countries. “I know how important the challenges are to you,” Dea said, “but what if you don’t make it to the Caribbean, could you change the rules a bit?” I looked up at her. “Maybe our Africa trip as a family could count for the rest of the countries.” She was talking about our dream of cycling the length of Africa with our kids one day in the future. In fifteen years or so. “I really don’t want to stretch this out though Dea, I want it to be done, and then move on. I don’t want this to be going on another fifteen years.” “I know, but wouldn’t our kids look so cute doing the country sign photos, their little hands all twisting like this.” And as she said that I knew that I loved Dea so much, that I wanted to have a family with her so much. Was she right? Did I need to go to the Caribbean now? I left the conversation with a lot more questions than answers in my head.
The next morning we awoke next to a little football pitch that we had camped by. We made use of the simple stick goalposts and played a game of penalty kicks, which Dea won. “Yes!” she cried out as her winning kick inexplicably bounced over my foot, “I thought as I ran up that if that ball went in everything would be okay these months!” She ran up and hugged me.
After a couple of hours of struggling on the horrible bumpy road we stopped and took a break at a little shop. The man who owned it spoke to us and was very excited to meet Dea, for his cousin lives in Denmark. It was a nice shop, and we sat and watched the local people coming and buying things as we sat outside, and it all just felt like a normal day. But it wasn’t a normal day, and in the next town it was time for us to say goodbye.
The town was a crossroads, the end of our back road, the start of a climb for Dea, the flat main road east for me, all dissecting one another at a big, empty park, where we sat down to say our farewells. We both cried. I really didn’t want to go. It felt all wrong. I wanted to stay with Dea. This was our trip. We were meant to be doing this together. I wanted to tell her I’d changed my mind. I wanted to cycle off into the mountains with her. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted to tell Dea I only wanted to be with her, that she was all that mattered.
But I didn’t.
To not go was to quit on the 100 countries challenge. It was to give up on something, and I knew I’d regret that. This whole project, now in its sixth year, is surely the defining challenge of my life, the biggest project I’ll ever take on. I felt like I’d worked too long and too hard to give up on it now. I had to go. I had to at least try, otherwise I would never know.
I got on my bike and I cycled away, looking back through the tears at the waving Dea, looking back, until she was gone.