Central America - SouthoftheBorder travel blog

Fw: from Colombia‏


From: salva rguez

Subject: from Colombia

I am in Colombia, happy, enjoying this lovely country of beautiful sceneries, rough roads, excellent coffee and no-tourism. Wonderful. Also I arrive in the Andes right at the beginning of the rainy season, so my expectations about the 'páramos' (highlands) are wet, wet, wet. Fortunately, Vaude, the german outdoor company, sent me here a very generous set of panniers and equipment to make myself waterproof again, and warmer. When cycling in the mountains, it is much better to camp with quality equipment, rather than miserable wet nights, I promise you. Thanks very much to Vaude friends for their help and their attitude. I let you know about these months in America.

It took me a while to leave Guadalajara (Mexico), where I spent almost 3 months. Girls are really beautiful there, my friends, and I fall in love with one of them, so I stayed in Mexico until the very last day of my permit stay, 6 months.

About Mexico I have to say that I did not like the scenery, only in the very south, where the jungle starts. Dry mountains and canyons are the common views, few forested areas and some places really hot (I got over 50 celsius crossing the road 51 to avoid Mexico DF), but there are in my opinion two highlights in this country: the beautiful colonial cities and the mexicans themselves.

The later are obviously everywhere, so to travel in Mexico is a pleasure. Among the cyclists who ride the Americas, mexican and colombians are both considered the most. No worries about where to sleep, easy people to start a conversation with and always trying to help. I never felt unsafe there, well, maybe eating this hot 'chile jalapeño'…

And the cities, they have a very relaxed atmosphere, good food, beautiful gardens, squares, old buildings. For long time I did not spend such a lovely time walking in a nice city, the majority of my memories is related to friendship and nature, not about the pleasure of a beautiful town where is nice to stop and enjoy a coffee. Anyway, the maya temples are really worth, but be ready, very touristic, all of us want to see these amazing pyramids. Nearby San Cristobal de las Casas is Agua Azul, a stunning blue river that I really liked.

The food is delicious (if you like hot chile or mole) but, to be honest, is not the best for cycling, plenty of sauces and lack of real gasoline (rice or pasta), so I ended up cooking a lot just to get enough calories for the ride.

Crossing to Guatemala was a relief about it. Market food is 1-2$ with enough rice to climb the mountains. And you need it. What a country!

I had a lot of expectations there, but reality is even more impressive, this country deserves its reputation. Narrow mountain roads with step gradients (very steep, for instances, 1000 meters of elevation in only 11 kilometers, which is not a normal climb in the world. To give you an idea, 1000 meters of elevation usually are climbed in 18-22 kilometers), sometimes there is tarmac and sometimes only stones, big stones. I had to make an extra in my budget to buy plenty of pads for the breaks, and then, a second problem because of the extremely steep downhills: if you break constantly (and you have to if you do not want to crash yourself) the rims get very hot, so much that they make the inner tube to explode. Funny, isn't it?

You can go from jungle to up 3000 meters high, but most likely you keep between 800 and 2200 meters high. Up and down. Very forested in places, and you feel like flying in places, luckily I have no vertigo disease. Wonderful country.

In one of those deep areas is Chemuc Champey. Many people go to lake Atitlan and Antigua, but not many to Chemuc. Atitlan is nice and that's it, another beautiful lake among mountains, but Chemuc… my friends, this is an unique place. Try to imagine a river in the jungle where the centuries have build a rocky bridge of 300 meters over it. And the centuries have made dozens of incredible emerald pools in this bridge, jumping one into another, like a dream. One of those nature wonders that you think they only exist in King Lion movies. Amazing.

The roads there… they make you pay a high price for the visit. Amazing too. Sometimes I thought that I was cycling on a river bed rather than a road, very very rocky roads.

Another place that impressed me was Tikal ruins. They are not as sophisticated as Chichen Itza or Uzkusmal, but they are still in the jungle. If you climb to temple IV you see this unforgettable view of the temples top raising over the jungle. Speachless. Without no dubts, the hour I spent there (alone!) enjoying this view will be in my top ten moments of America.

It is quite remote, so there is few buses going there, nothing like the big business in Mexico. Wonderful place, and full of toucans, other birds, snakes, lovely racoons…

Well, snakes are not lovely, and here I am starting to worry about it. Too many. One afternoon, walking in a river and looking for a beach to camp… I steped on a green one. Terrible. Luckily my foot felt something wrong and I jumped immediately like 3 meters away! I felt stupid, just for some seconds I did not pay attention and… she was there. Nothing happened, she run away too, but here, in Colombia jungle, the other day there was a coral snake unhappy with me and she stand up to fight me… later, neighbors told me she was not dangerous...

Well, I spent more than a month in Guatemala and despite the big effort of mountains and rough roads, I would say this is the greatest country in this area, from Mexico to Colombia. Small, full of interesting places, easy to travel, cheap as 1.5$ for a meal or 4$ for accommodation in the tourists spots, and the indigenous population is as exotic as friendly. Wonderful country for a month holiday.

From Guatemala, I crossed to Belize. I had curiosity about a country that most of independent travelers does not like. Me, neither. The hummingbird highway was beautiful, though.

So, back to Guatemala, to the latin culture, warm people again. More mountains and then two countries in a couple of weeks, Honduras and El Salvador.

The first one, Honduras, was the only country I have felt a bit unsafe, even nothing happened. People does not trust people, not mention strangers, and even they are kind and they help if you ask, I felt a strange air in this country.

Also, I was in the rainy season in Central America, so I did not try to cross wild Mosquitia coast, which I am sure it would have changed my opinion about Honduras.

El Salvador, which is usually in the top 5 of crime world list, was safer for me. I had friends to visit in San Salvador and I have to say that I liked this tiny country, people is totally different to Honduras fellows, very open and happy to see a foreigner, easy to talk.

What amazes me in those countries is the consumerism and the huge shopping malls. They are right besides streets with shacks, and when they have some money, they go there, to the air-conditioned malls, clean, fancy, to buy or just to look and dream of a day they will be able to buy.

Maybe because I have been living with little daily money for the last 6 and a half years I have experienced another reality, and therefore I know that wealth is not at all a target to reach, but I am still surprised of this crazy seeking for money, specially in countries where they have -in my opinion- the real treasure: time.

Any way, this is a constant in the world. People in developing countries is not trying to find their own way, they want to reach the movies dream, the wealth. And in America, after all the revolutions, all the communism dreams, blood and death, now they are trapped in the search of wealth. They should know that in wealthy Japan, where people works up to 16 hours a day to be rich, there is 35000 suicides a year…

And talking about revolutions… Nicaragua and his president, revolutionary Daniel Ortega, was an unexpected surprise. After communism fall, now, the country motto is: 'Nicaragua, christian, socialist and solidary'. They have built already the first big malls…

Nicaragua became a kind of my favorite country in this area, there is an african feeling here. No doubt, the poorest country of all here, but not as cheap as Guatemala. People, despite lack of material development, is the happiest of all here. I am starting to develop a weird theory about wealth and happiness…

This is a land of lakes and volcanoes, and many of its scenery looks like if 'le petit prince' had painted it. Beautiful. Ometepe island was by far my favorite one, two huge volcano-island raising from the lake, and life there goes with a path of the past, long time ago past. Few traffic, as usual in Nicaragua, and basic life in a tropical forest.

I climbed some of the volcanoes and yes, you get a good view, but not very much. Tourist spots in Nicaragua are nothing spectacular or unique. I think that the highlight here is the local life, as I said, similar to Africa. Times goes slower than in the rest of latin countries (try to imagine if you compare it to California rush!), they like to say 'one hour is a moment'. And when you cross into Costa Rica… what a change!

Cyclists, we use to sleep quite often in fire stations (though, for instances, I try first other options), and both countries are two different worlds. In Nicaragua, you see really old stations, you sleep in the floor and have a hose shower, and a warm welcome. In Costa Rica, there are warm showers, air-condition rooms, wifi, and the latest fire trucks model. But the welcome is more something about 'yes, you can sleep there' and not even a good night.

Costa Rica is kind of rich, my friends. And plenty of its land is owned by foreigners. Crazy. They protected their jungles from logging and massive agriculture, but they did not do it for the sake of humankind, they did it to make money with jungle, beach and colorful frogs. Fees for national parks are even higher than in Canada, as the bread is too, and even more, you need to pay a guide most of the time. It is, no doubt, a beautiful country and very clever, they invented the eco-capitalism.

So, I learnt why cyclists cross Costa Rica as fast as possible. Me too. Anyway, there are many jungle areas with no development, so I had good time there.

I understand that many retired people, o relaxed rich people, want to live there (even this option is gonna increase the prices of everything for the locals), is a really nice country, stable, with no army, charming. What I did not understand is the beach tourism. Ugly, ugly beaches, black sand, and despite this, the hot spots in the Pacific coast are full!!

But maybe… if in Spain the real state sharks made such a huge money with our ugly beaches, here it is easier, I guess, jungle and parrots are right at the corner. Anyway, my friend, take care with photoshop and beach publicity when you decide where to go for holidays…

Then, Panama, where jungle is the same, but prices drop down a lot. I went to visit my friend Anna, at the tip of Veraguas peninsula, and I crossed lovely farm areas, where there are more cowboys on the road than cars. It was a relief from Costa Rica. I found out panamanians pretty welcoming, easy to talk, nice people. One of those places in the world that people says: you can sleep here, the river for bathing is there, and later we will come to talk with you. Pretty nice.

Then, I spent a week almost in Panama city. Not only to enjoy the old town and get admired by the Canal (wonderful how these huge cargo-boats go up and down with the water), but to try to get a permit for crossing the Darien Gap.

In somehow I got it in the main office, but the reality was that when I reached Yaviza, the end of the road, the army did not let me go through. And this is a very long and complicated story to tell. I tried and tried for 3 days with no success. The area is dangerous because of colombian guerrillas and absolutely patrolled by the army, to avoid illegal colombians too. They do not want another story in the news about murdering or kidnapping in Darien jungles, so they did not let me cross the jungle path. Even I said I did not mind to be robbed, that money was not important for me… no way. I had to undo the road and go back.

So, I crossed a crazy road to the Caribbean coast (40 kilometers of the steepest hills I ever cycled before, not Guatemala, neither Lesotho can compare with San Blas range hills) and jump in a water-taxi to Colombia. Pretty sad, I have to say. I had the dream of crossing the Gap. Now, I will come back home, in the future, and along many adventurous places I have been, the Darien Gap will not be. I am not happy about it.

Well, if you are sad, Colombia is the country to go. Colombians have something special, a kind of romantic speech, sweet, more cultured (in average) than most of latin american countries. And women… my friends, they are forbidden to look at the grass because risk of fire!! Very sensual and lovely women here, one day my neck is gonna break looking back…

Coffee is another plus. Where in the world you can sit at a nice square, with trees, and enjoy a colombian coffee for 25 cents of dollar? I could live in this country.

I wanted a bit of fun, something to make me forget about Darien failure, so after a couple of 40 kilometers passes (I am in the Andes already!!) I turned to El Chocó, the western jungle of Colombia, a Farcs territory.

Luckily, I did not meet the Farcs soldiers. They were hidden after burning a bus and 3 army trucks a week before, so I was almost alone in this fantastic jungle. There is again a 40 kilometers climb and then, a long, long, descent to the jungle plains of Amutra river. Road is horrible, full of mud (it rains everyday here), rocks, pools, so there is almost not traffic, and it is hard, hard effort to move here. The reward is a lonely jungle full of clear rivers and waterfalls from the Andes. I really like it, despite I ended up pretty tired. And, finally, I have seen here one of those colorful tiny frogs (that I did not see in Costa Rica), look but do not touch them!!!

I climbed again towards the Andes and went to Cali, where I am having a rest with good friends.

So, from here I will turn northwards and cross the Central range of colombian Andes, heading to Venezuela and Brazil, from where I will come back to the Andes. But, in November I have an unexpected date. 'Un viaje de cuento - África', the book I wrote, is gonna be in a stand of the FIL-2012 (International Book Expo), and so do I! Interesting experience.

Please, do not think my book has become a best-seller, it is just a matter of luck. One of the FIL managers visited my website, she liked the stories, read the book, and I got this invitation. That´s it. To be honest, I do not expect to sell it more than for covering the expenses and maybe an extra to buy tequila for my friends. Who need more than this?

Well, my friends, I hope everything is fine with you and your family. I will write again for New Year, more or less.

You can see pictures of the journey at www.unviajedecuento.weebly.com, at the bottom of each country. Text is in spanish, though.



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