Monday, October 26, 2015

Nicaragua Bound!

Sometimes stumbling upon adventure is just as wonderful as planning it. After a couple days of relaxation at Lake Atitlan, we were ready to get moving again. Our morning couldn't have been much better, complete with a thick stack of pancakes and reading an email from a Luther student who has become inspired enough from our trip to study abroad in Costa Rica. Probably could have chosen better people to follow, but right on buddy.

Since we'd seen how ridiculously steep the roads were on our way in, we weren't all that excited to leave. That is until we realized we might have a chance. Instead of pedaling back away from the lake, we moved towards it and found a dock. Sometimes I really don't understand what we're doing so right, but just as we arrived a boat was ready to leave. Strapping the trolls to the top (very minimally strapping mind you), the driver said not to worry since he would just "drive slow."

We made it safely to the opposite side where the mountains were only half as tall, and Kai tipped the young dock boys that grabbed our bags with old pesos he found in the bottom of his pocket. Climbing back out was not nearly as crazy as what we came in on, except that decided to lie. For the entirety of our trip, we'd grown accustomed to amazingly accurate maps on our phones that can use GPS to show our location. However, apparently the middle of Guatemala is less maintained or updated than Mexico. Before long, we were on roads that supposedly don't exist and taking turns that shouldn't happen for a few kilometers. Going back to old faithful and asking around, we were able to continue on the journey.

A little confused with where we were and still convinced the road was about to climb into the heavens, we were pushing our bikes up an especially steep hill when a pickup drove by. Naturally, the bed of his truck was too empty so we graciously filled it with our bodies and bikes. Hitching through a canyon, we rolled up and down, past rivers where people were digging by hand for gravel to use in construction, and we ended up in the next town just as it was starting to rain. Sitting under the protection of some trees, we took the opportunity to make fresh guacamole while some middle school girls practiced their English on us. They were so incredibly sweet and returned a second time with a big signed card for each of us and a banana. Despite the rain, our rest days had us itching for more so we continued down the road.

Eventually we passed a couple boys on the road and asked if there was camping nearby. To our surprise, their answer was yes. Pretty skeptical as we followed the dirt road they told us about, we eventually reached the ultimate kid's summer play area. This place had it all: tiki huts, tire swings over the hillside, long ladders up a cliff, a makeshift zipline swing with a soda case as the seat, a moat with a swinging bridge, plank, or monkey bars (turns out they spin which makes them way harder) to cross it, a small pool, a teeter-totter and homemade wooden wagons you can race down the hill. After stringing up our hammocks, I think it's safe to say we had a good time.

The next morning, our ride to Antigua may have been our easiest day of riding yet. It was much closer than we realized, and almost entirely downhill. Along the way, we ran into our first other touring cyclists from Spain. We've been having an amazing time in Central America so were thrilled to hear they felt the countries only were going to get better as we enter South America (they were coming from the south, up). Sharing stories and eventually parting ways with some great tips, we finished the ride in the most rain we'd encountered. Literal streams were running down the cobblestone streets of Antigua and we were happy to accept the help of a man who led us to the cheaper hotels. Drenched, we took a warm shower and luckily the rain decided to cease a bit. Grabbing a pizza and sitting at the park, some university students came up to us with their teacher because they had to take an English test with native speakers. Kind of a different world where you can just assume some crazy Americans will be hanging out with some pizza with really nothing better to do.

Taking advantage of our short day, we climbed over the city to get a great view of it in it's entirety. As far as cities go, Antigua is pretty impressive. Many of the buildings are super old and the square is surrounded by a number of arches. Cobblestone fills the streets (terrible for biking though) giving the place an older, yet exciting feel. Surrounded by 3 main volcanoes and some other little mountains, the whole scene is pretty enjoyable. That night we took in the night life, making sure to thoroughly test the quality of Guatemalan beer from a variety of bars. The night ended up being later than what we're used to (I think we made it past midnight) so the next day we were trashed. Without much motivation to do too much, we were walking through another rainy day when we heard cheering. We entered a bar at 10 in the morning to find the rugby world cup on, and quickly made ourselves at home with breakfast and the game.

After talking with some travel agents, we decided to save money we would go to Guatemala City and cut out the middle man. Most of the busses went there first anyway, and it would be a pain to reload the bikes. We made it a few miles outside of the city (still raining) when Jon got a flat. Looking at the clock, we only had a bit more daylight and another flat would probably mean we would have to bike in the dark. Not wanting to take the risk, we painfully retraced our steps back toward Antigua. If we needed any justification for the decision, we got it immediately. On the way back down, we collectively had 6 more flats (meaning 7 total) in under an hour. There was shattered glass all over the side of the road, and with traffic we didn't have much of an option to avoid everything. At least at one point, we all could sit on the curb together and work on keeping our tires inflated. Yay bonding.
Back in Antigua for yet another day, it decided to do none other but continue raining. Making the day productive, we found a bike shop to replace some parts, mailed a package of pants and other odds and ends (we've become obsessive about saving weight so mailing unused gear is the ultimate treat), bought a bus ticket for Leon, got groceries, and found Jon new shoes at the market since his old ones were "too heavy" and got sent home. If you're wondering, yes they do make off brand crocs that smell like fermenting plastic or do what Jonathan likes to refer to as "off-gassing."

The next "morning," our bus picked us up at the hotel. We finished packing our gear at 11:30 pm and got picked up at 2 am. Not the best night of sleep. Opting for the cheaper ride, we had a minibus coming. With a roof-rack for gear, we synched down all three bike on top of each other, hoped for the best, and crawled into a 15 passenger van with 16 passengers in it for the next 15 hours. Since we were last to get picked up, the free seats were in the back corner and next to the door. Jon gets car sick, so Kai and I climbed to an inescapable area of sadness and lack of legroom. Luckily the people riding shotgun were only on the first few hours, so I was able to upgrade and Kai was able to stretch out for almost all of the ride. I'm not a dramimine fan personally, but I've never seen Kai and Jon sleep for so many hours.

Riding a minibus is a funny experience. Personally, with bikes, it is not something I would ever do again. My bike was on the bottom of the three, and every pothole we weren't able to swerve around made me cringe. For $30-40 more, I would be happy to experience leg room, snacks, but most importantly my bike not on the roof with two others on top of it. From what I can remember, it seems like there are 6 stages of minibus travel (when you have a bike).

1. Indifference - simply too tired to care at 2 am, outside the hotel, wondering if we got ripped off or if the bus will actually show up
2. Disbelief - when the bus shows up, already full of people and gear on the roof, and you simply can't think of anything to say besides "there's no way 3 bikes are fitting up there"
3. Concern - after you pass up your bike, watch the driver strap it down, and realize he's really going for it
4. Hysteria - Jon and Kai mastered this one. When you're already exhausted, it looks like a crazy situation, and essentially you can only think "well, here we go!"
5. Annoyance - when your hysteria wares off first
6. Acceptance - the moment when it's simply too late, it's already happening, and whatever happens happens

All 6 stages complete, we made it safe and sound to Leon, Nicaragua. After staying awake for too many hours, I was glad we skipped Honduras (not a lot going on and a ton of potholes) the only strange feeling was giving our driver all the passports to check us into countries. Apparently he has access to the express lane for the ride, so we all waited in the van while he held on to the one document that allowed us to travel freely between countries. Great. Happy not to be held in any sort of border custody, we found a nearby hostal and crashed for the night.

The next morning, we assessed the damage from the rooftop ride. Kai and I each had a flat tire, some paint was chipped, and my cable housing was a little chewed up but nothing too major was broken. Finding the most complete,  open-air bike shop of all time in a hub of bike shops, we fully restocked our tubes (we figured it couldn't hurt since all of ours have multiple patches on them) and the guy snipped my cable housing for me. Riding off for the first time in Nicaragua and after a long rest in Antigua, we weren't sure how the riding would go.

Essentially flawless. Nicaragua may be the most bike friendly land in the entire world if it continues. to be like our first day. A slight downhill a majority of the time, well maintained roads with a shoulder, low traffic, beautiful green pastures for farming and grazing, a culture of people so relaxed and content they are the 2nd safest (despite 2nd poorest) country in the western hemisphere, and an ocean view. Take away the 95 degree afternoon and it's almost unbeatable. Dropping off the main road, we had a beautiful ride. Eventually the road turned to dirt, but we were able to continue onward towards the ocean town of Transito. Unable to believe our luck, a local man led us to a hotelish area called Greensurf. Complete with hammocks, a turtle shell on the wall, surf boards laying around, a palm tree grove for coconuts, and the beach within sight of the porch, we decided it was good enough and caught the setting sun.

And by good enough, I mean I think I'm in love with Nicaragua. It's only been one day, but the relaxed vibe, the scenery, the excitement of seeing what I studied for my senior project, and the amazing feeling of not biking up a mountain have me so content. Sitting in my hammock with Jon reading on my right and Kai on my left with the waves stedily crashing in front, I was so blissfully calm. Perfection of any kind may be an impossibility, but it's inspiring to know realities like this exist. Nicaragua, you know how to make a first impression.

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