Careening to the Caribbean: Lanquin to Utila

After a restful and recharging day soaking in the brilliant waters of Semuc Champey, I was ready to continue toward the Caribbean coast. An early morning breakfast and a leisurely goodbye to some old friends and new ones, I loaded up and set out on the bumpy dirt road headed East.

 

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I paralleled the Lanquin River for quite a while, listening to the cacophonous roar of its raging rapids. After a particularly dry season in Central America, this valley had finally gotten some significant rains, and the water level was the proof. Stopping at every peak-a-boo view I could get, I was salivating, wishing I had the packraft still, feeling stupid for letting it go. Definitely a love/hate relationship with carrying that vessel. The rapids were big. But without super sketchy rock features I could see, they looked sooooooooo fun. Sigh.

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 A few miles down the road, I saw a sign for guided rafting adventures, and of course had to stop in for more information…  The owner was there doing some cleaning, and we chatted for a while. He told me he was the only dedicated rafting company on the Cahabon, and there were indeed some big big rapids around there, like class V+. Way too big for my pack rafting skills anyway as it turned out. I considered hiring him for a ride down the river, but doing it solo would have cost a fortune, one that I don’t have. No other group trips on the books for another 4 days. Sigh. Letting go and just enjoying the beauty and power.

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 The road passed by some really cool old suspension foot bridges to link communities across the the big river. Some of them seemed in better repair than others…

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Lots of steep up and downs, as usual. Coming around a corner on a fast descent I got a glimpse of a dam project in current construction. I didn’t get the chance to ask how the locals feel about dam building around here, but I assume it’s as complicated politically as it was back in Mexico. Land rights, possibly more limited water access and paying for that access, etc.

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Down to another river valley, up another long steep climb. Rinse and repeat. The windy rocky road passed through countless little hamlets, men giving me the thumb’s up, women offering me their gaping stares, little boys running after me asking to give them my bike, little girls running for cover from the big scary gringo (I think). The last thing I want to do in those moments of being so intensely perceived as an outsider is to pull out my camera. So here’s a random shot of a house in one of these little communities!

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Ninja camping in Guatemala is no easy feat. I thought people were everywhere in Mexico but it’s even more the case here. Every time I thought I’d found a quiet place where I wouldn’t be found, someone, if not an entire family, would walk by moments later. Mostly they’ve been incredibly nice, but I just worry that someone tells someone else and then I wake up to a missing bike. In these steep hills, the other problem is that the only place with any assemblance of flat ground had already been built upon. I found a tiny rock quarry off of the road just before dusk and a perfect tent-sized flat spot hidden from the road by piles of rock. I quickly dragged my bike up the loose rocky hill and laid quiet and low until full darkness set in so as not to be seen or heard. Watching the fading light over the distant peaks made the waiting game worthwhile.

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 Rolling by first light the next day, I watch the brightening clouds creep up the mountain valleys from their cool evening slumbers.

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Finally, the ups and downs should be over. Just one long 2000’ descent down to Lake Izabal and a lakeside ride out to the day’s goal of Rio Dulce. This guy was super excited to talk to me as I rode by, showed me his house and wanted me to take a photo of him with the family. It’s by no random chance that the ladies are under the shadow of that roof. Gender differences in terms of interacting with foreigners are quite stark. I so wish I could have given him a copy of the photo, but he didn’t have electricity never mind electronic mail. I showed them their picture and some others I’d taken of the area which they seemed to really enjoy.

The road did indeed flatten out at Lake Izabal. I thought that meant I’d just fly the rest of the way to Rio Dulce, an easy day for a change.

So. Very. Wrong.

The continuous rains over recent days had created a muddy shit show the likes of which I’d not seen in a while. Throw in a constant exhaust-filled train of trucks entering and exiting the nearby copper mine and you’ve got yourself a great time! I arrived in the large town of El Estor completely caked in mud. Nothing to do about it, the rain was still coming down. I walked into a fried chicken shop to re-up on some protein and apologized to the poor clerk as I exited. His clean white tile floors were clean no longer.

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The road from El Estor is mostly paved to Rio Dulce. Lots of bike traffic in this section, usually carrying heavy and unwieldy loads of wood.

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Somewhere along that long empty ride to Rio Dulce, I came upon this. A large packing truck blocking the road, completely mangled from some sort of collision.

At first I couldn’t tell how recent it was. There were a few people crowded around the driver’s side door, one of whom had some blood on his shirt. My first aid training leapt out of the shadows of my memory and into action, to my great surprise! There was a passenger in the truck, still pinned against the seat by the caved in dashboard, screaming in pain. A few of us, the bloodied driver included, hopped up on the engine block and with our combined force were able to pry the dash back enough for him to free his leg. Helping him down onto the pavement, I started intake questions while someone called for paramedics. The driver was only mildly injured and was actually the most helpful person there. Calm and kind.

A quick examination clearly showed he’d likely broken his femur and perhaps cracked his pelvis. He’d bitten through a large part of his tongue and a lot of cuts on his head and neck. Concerned about a head injury I stabilized his head between my knees and asked him to stay calm while we waited for the paramedics. They took. Forever. Like over an hour, just from a town 15km away. Guatemala.

He asked me, “Que pasó?” (what happened)

“Ustedes tuvieron un accidente,” I said, “con una otra camion”. (You were in an accident with another truck)

Then about 30 seconds afterward, “Que pasó?”

“Ustedes tuvieron un accidente,” I said, “con una otra camion”.

And again, and again, and again. 

I remembered short term memory loss was a strong sign of head trauma, but it was so extreme, I thought it had to be a joke. Not a funny one at all however. Then I saw a little blood trickling from his ear. Not good. We continued our 2-line conversation for the next 45 minutes, each time I’d answer him the same as the last, because he was clearly in distress, and I couldn’t just ignore him. We all tried to keep him calm until the paramedics finally arrived.

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 They strapped him to a spine board and we all loaded him in. The ambulance sped away, leaving a quite large crowd, the driver, and myself behind. I snapped a couple of shots once I was no longer of use to the paramedics. It felt good to be able to help. I only wish I’d gotten the passenger’s name so I could check on his condition. After making sure the driver was cared for, I went on my way. I felt like a help-ninja — appearing out of nowhere on my black bike (the machete strapped to the fork added to my concept, unintentionally of course!), disappearing just as quietly as I arrived… I liked the idea of it. No need for pats on the back or acknowledgement. It was a gift to be able to offer myself and fade into the afternoon light. Some other experiences like this have happened since. I may choose to write about one or two, but I feel like the sanctity of the help-ninja is in not drawing attention to it. I’ll see how it goes…

 

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Rio Dulce. Had I kept the packraft, I’d have loaded up here for a 40 mile paddle out to the Caribbean past manatee sanctuaries and crocodiles. Sigh. I could still hire a small boat to carry me and the bike out to the Garifuna settlement of Livingston but then would have to take another one to get out. And really, I just wanted to keep riding. So I did.

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The long stretch of paved road to the Guatemala/Honduras border. This is real pineapple express territory from back in the day. But still fields upon endless fields of banana and pineapple trees lined the highway for miles on end.

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International border #5 for this trip!

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 Not sure how or why, but I got a good feeling from Honduras right off the bat. Lots of lush rivers flowing from distant high mountains.  

 

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After a long day beating the sun on hot pavement, I reached the Caribbean by way of the sweet fishing village called Omoa. I found a super cheap ($4.50) hotel room at a German-owned hostel called Roli’s. Roli greeted me and showed me the ropes of the town: where to get cheap food and my first Honduran beer.

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As the rays of light lowered, I raised my bottle, savoring a new taste from a new coast. I’d not yet touched salt water to the East of the intercontinental divide on this journey, so the triumph was twofold!

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Sunset on the pier, watching the fishing boats load up and take off.

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I headed out again super early. For today I had just over 100 miles to cover in order to leave a wide berth around San Pedro Sula, the “murder capital of the world.” Arriving at the city limits, I didn’t feel scared at all. It felt just like any other city I’d ridden through or near. Lots of cars, lots of people on the street. I think the real problems happen out in the colonies just outside of town. Luckily another rider advised me against taking a shortcut through one of these colonies which would have saved me 50 miles. All the locals I told about this decision said I’d likely not have made it through that way. Yikes… but yay!

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I blew through San Pedro at around 10am, right on schedule. I had to cross a huge valley between mountain ranges in order to make it to Tela by nightfall, and I’d heard the road into Tela had no shoulder for bikes. The valley was blistering hot. Many a glass coca cola bottle was enjoyed. More than one ice cream bar was inhaled. I made it into Tela with a few hours of light to spare, enough to find food, internet and a cheap place to crash.

The next day was a relatively short pull into the large city of La Ceiba. Known as a party town for the North Honduras coast, it’s also the gateway to take ferries to the coastal islands of Roatan and Utila. A quick tour through town held little interest, so I rolled directly to the ferry terminal to catch the next ferry to Utila where some friends were awaiting my arrival.

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Made it!

After 11 straight days of riding, I’d take a few restful ones with my new buddy John and his girlfriend Tempy, a native Utilan. Perhaps do a level 1 dive certification even. After all it’s said to be one of the cheapest and best places on earth in which to do it.

But that is another story…

 

Where I Rode: 

Day 1: Lanquin —> Santa Maria Cahabon —> Somewhere the mountains past Rio Cienaga

Day 2: Mountain campsite —> El Estor —> Rio Dulce

Day 3: Rio Dulce —> Cuyamel, Honduras —> Omoa

Day 4: Omoa —> San Pedro Sula —> El Progreso —> Tela

Day 5: Tela —> La Ceiba —ferry—> Utila Island

 

2 Responses

  1. Mom
    | Reply

    Fabulously Gorgeous and Thrilling.
    Thank you!

  2. John Fontanilles
    | Reply

    “help-ninja” 🙂 Seriously, what you did is truly exemplary, both in our travels and our everyday lives.

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