October 30th, 2015. With 10-12 days in which to cut across all of Honduras and Nicaragua from the Caribbean to the Pacific Coast, I had only marginal time to dilly dally. Especially with the route I’d planned… Luckily, 5 restful days on Utila Island got me sufficiently rested and my legs sufficiently stir crazy for a grand push South.
It all started with a chance encounter on Utilla. Walking down the street on my last day in town, I heard my name called. It was Jaguar, a wonderful and kind man I met on Lake Atitlan a few weeks back. He was on the island from his home in La Ceiba to buy a bit of property with grand plans to start a retreat center. He invited me up to the office of his friend Chris, who he said I would want to meet. Turns out Chris is an avid mountain biker and regularly takes trips back to the mainland to ride with a local group of racers there. Of course I had to take an extra day for an epic ride with the crew… Chris took the ferry back to La Ceiba with me the following afternoon and led me to the surprisingly well stocked and under advertised high-end bike shop in town, G-Bikes, owned by a great guy named Gerald. He stocked me up with a bunch of extra chain lube and would not take a cent.
One of Gerald’s employees then took us out for a night ride on a short local trail system, then kindly dropped us off at a hotel.
Knowling I was on a tight budget, Chris very kindly offered to let me crash in his room with him. Thanks again, Chris! 5am and the alarm clock buzzed. This ride would be an early one. We hopped in the back of a bike-filled pickup truck, coffees in hand, and flew down the highway to our starting point, just as the morning light began to break.
Most of the ride was on typical Central American mountain biking terrain: rough dirt roads. There is single track to be found, but it’s not all that common. Just a different definition of trail riding. Still a great route with some long climbs and screaming descents through rocky rutted roads.
Upon summiting one of the ridges, the Pico Bonito range came into view. Beautiful peaks, right on the edge of the Caribbean coast.
Gerald, owner of G-Bikes La Ceiba. We talked quite a bit about his experience of running a bike shop in the middle of Honduras. It’s not just about keeping bikes and gear in stock. You must take on a role of leading the community in bike advocacy. He organizes multiple weekly rides, trail building work parties, and a couple of races a year. Mountain biking culture in Central America is still nascent, but developing fast. People like Gerald are doing the good work to make that happen.
After a long day in the saddle with the G-Bikes crew, I loaded the Ogresa back up and headed for the hills. The Pico Bonita mountains that is. About 10km up a dirt road, I found my resting place for the night: Omega Tours. I’d contacted the owners a few months back to arrange a guide to accompany me in paddling the Cangrejal river with my pack raft, and finally made it here, a month late… and without my packraft. Luckily they had some inflatable kayaks for a cheap rate, so I planned a river ride for the next morning.
I decided to use the fading light to do a bit of jungle exploring. Udo and Sylvia at Omega tours have painstakingly converted a plot of fallow farm land into a lush paradise of native and foreign plants.
Steep windy trails through the replanted land eventually faded into natural and raw jungle. I followed Udo on a walk around the property upon return, scratching the surface of his deep botanical knowledge.
Hibiscus flower, ready to steep in water for fresh Jamaica!
I forget the name, but this leaf can be muddled into a paste then applied to the skin to rapidly assist in healing open wounds.
As it turned out, the water levels on the Cangrejal were quite low due to an unusually dry season. So we split the day into a river hike/swim for a bit followed by a section of kayaking the rideable section. Our guide reached into a small crevice on the water’s edge to pull out this enormous and scary arachnid. He spoke of the nasty and quite painful reaction to getting bitten as he calmly let it wander over his arm. Setting it onto the water surface, it’s name became clear: the spider skipped across the water back to it’s web. I was glad it wasn’t skipping over to me!
Climbing up an enormous boulder in the Cangrejal river, a hallmark feature that makes this place so special. The river winds continuously though grand rocks like these the whole way down, making for quite striking scenery.
It was now time to really hit the dirt. I’d spent two of my ride days with some great detours, but now really needed to push South. I followed a route up the Cangrejal Valley from Omega Tours known by locals as the Culebra (snake). The well-maintained dirt road quickly faded to a steep 2-track climb, winding through farms and forests, and eventually narrowed to some really beautiful single track.
Alongside the trail, I noticed a large yellow fruit on the ground, oddly similar to a lemon. A bit further, a large tree full of them. I picked up a freshly fallen fruit, a good 8” across.
Upon cutting it open, a lemon indeed! Things definitely grow extra large in the tropics. I squeezed some juice into my water bottle for flavor and rode on.
Atop a long climb, the trail steeply descended to the South toward the industrial town of Olanchito. Having spent the day alone in the high mountains, an arrival into a dirty, busy town was low on my wish list. But it was getting late and I wasn’t sure if I’d find a viable campsite on the road ahead. So goes the riding in Central America — short stints of quiet wilderness sandwiched by towns. Time for another $7 hotel room.
I awoke in my hot, stuffy, dark motel room at 6am. A bit after sunrise for this time of year here, but I’d never have known due to the lack of windows. In that moment my current trend of living had become very clear: I’m tired of sleeping inside. I’m tired of searching for hotel rooms every time I get to a new town. I’m tired of spending my money that way. It’s creating bad habits: arriving in a town late in the afternoon, get a room, and get online for a number of hours, maybe watch a movie, check Facebook, eventually fall asleep. It’s not how I want to be in this world. Antithetical to why I’m on this journey, but somehow the addiction has overtaken me since leaving Lake Atitlan a month ago. Time to retighten the belt, find some willpower and renounce the addictions once again. It’s going to be hard. I’m going to feel anxious, likely going through some version of withdrawal symptoms from the electronic addiction. But it’s necessary for my greater health. For a while the whole hotel thing came about because I felt uncomfortable trying to find a place to sleep in semi populated areas of Guatemala. But Honduras is seeming to have more space, at least my routes through it thus far lead me to believe it’s possible. The trick is going to be timing things so I end up in unpopulated areas near the end of the day. Not an easy task with low-detail maps.
I rode out of Olanchito this morning around 7:30am following the highway for a bit until I caught the 80km dirt road to La Union. I was surprised by how much open, uninhabited land I was riding through today. I definitely wouldn’t call it wilderness, as it was still fenced in with barbed wire, but it’s a step in the right direction!
Long, quiet stretches of time were spent on this dirt highway today. Luckily, my GPS and my music ran out of charge, so I had no ability to connect with electronic distractions for most of the day. “Remember when you used to do that kind of thing EVERY day??” It seems so long ago. Perhaps those days are coming around again soon. The road climbed up from a long river valley outside of Olanchito from 500’ to over 4000’ elevation. But then up, down, up down up up down down for the rest of the day. It was hard riding. Hot, humid, and not enough wind. But I was loving it.
The few trees developing red colors in the high country were the first natural reminder of season change I’ve seen in quite a while. Unfortunately I was later informed that these trees are dying due to a particular insect infestation. Large sections of native forest have died due to this invasive bug and are beginning to cause significant fires. Groups are trying to remove as many trees as possible but it’s not easy with the density and rough terrain.
New to me are these species of pine tree that have some sort of parasitic plant hanging from all the branches. Not sure if that is part of the problem…
The silence of this highway was increasingly broken by the brain-chattering sounds of compression brakes used by lumber truck drivers as I neared the next town of La Union. Great clouds pursued the large rigs, filling my lungs and teeth with fine gritty dust.
I arrived via the steep, rutted dirt road into La Union at around 4:30pm, tired, hungry and ready to relax. My non-hotel staying scheme would have to be postpones for one more day, as there were no good camping prospects for the previous 5 miles. Luckily I’d planned to take a partial detour the following day into La Muralla National Park where I’d be almost certain to find a quiet campsite.
A very steep 2000’ climb brought me up above the clouds once more to the lush jungle of La Muralla the following morning. Arriving at the park entrance around 11am, I was informed by the ranger that I could not hike any of the trails without his company as a guide. Again, hard to be alone in the wild in Central America.
At least I got to spend a couple hours with an interesting fellow! He and his wife have lived alone in the national park for the last 3 years, the only caretakers. They are brought supplies periodically and live a simple quiet life. Sounded great to me.
Given that the park was composed of extremely dense jungle, I needed to set up the tent near the visitor center on an open piece of flat land. Long after they had shut off their lights and went to sleep, I crawled out of my tent and looked up to brilliant night sky, breathed the air, relished the occasional howler monkey call. This is what I need. But even more. More often, further away from people. Noted.
From La Muralla I continued the momentum South for another long day on dirt roads to arrive in the lively town of Campamento, where I’d restock and prepare for a rough section of road toward the Southern town of Danli.
Right out of Campamento, the route was hard. While my topographical analysis showed only one major climb during this section, I did not note the endless impossibly steep ups and downs within it. Luckily the countryside was gorgeous. Winding rough 2-track roads careened through endless peaks and valleys, there was NO flat ground.
Basically the terrain resembled an enormous stretch of egg crate foam. I’d reach the peak of a climb like this only to descend steeply for 6-800’, ford a small river, then be forced to pedal grind or more often walk up the next climb.
Eventually, the egg crate ended, and I landed back on a stretch of pavement headed for the Nicaragua border. It was a short stay in Honduras, only a couple of weeks, but I got enough of a flavor to know I’d be interested in returning someday. For now I however I needed to continue on to meet friends on the Pacific Coast. 6th international border on this journey. Not actually all that many for riding about 20,000 miles, but North America is pretty huge!
Where I Rode:
Day 1: Day Ride around Trujillo, La Ceiba –> Rio Cangrejal (Omega Tours)
Day 2: Omega Tours –> Olanchito
Day 3: Olanchito –> La Union
Day 4: La Union –> Parque Nacional La Muralla
Day 5: La Muralla –> Campamento
Day 6: Campamento –> Teupasenti
Day 7: Teupasenti –> Ocotal, Nicaragua