Roughstuff staggers thru ten days of rain, landslides, roadblocks brought on by hurricane Mitch.
November 9, 1998..This will be one of my longest submissions as in the last two weeks my trip has taken on characteristics of an epic, rather than just a mere bike tour. In fact I will include verbatim one of my diary/journal entries below, written after the ten day battle with hurricane Mitch had come to an end. To put it briefly, I came as close as many others to being one of the dead and/or missing as the PanAm highway was broken by floods, landslides, downed bridges, and thieves brought out by the stranded and desperate travellers along the route.
But first the happy news. After riding in central america from Guatemala to San Jose Costa Rica, so far, I can definitely say itis one of the trips most beautiful regions. Here is a guideline for each country, you may find it useful.
GUATEMALA...definitely enter at the Mexico town of Ciudad Cuahtemoc. The climb along the river Selegua is spectacular series ofgorges and smalltowns. People applaud as you work your way up hill, little children shout ciclista!!!!and smile boradly. If you are going to wild camp anywhere in Central America do it in the highlands above Totonicapan, where the road is over 10,000 feet high. Roads very from poor to excellent with much construction and landslides, even without Hurricane Mitch, so watch out where you happen to camp. I do not recommend taking the shortcut into El Salvador that leads to Ahuachapan...the road is poor, the crossing a zoo, and somewhat dangerous.
EL SALVADOR...Roads vary widely in quality but generally poor. Traffic heavy on the PanAm highway as there are few alternatives except the Carretera Littoral. This may be an attractive alternative since hurricane Mitch did alot of damage to the PanAm in this region. [see below]. Some maps show the PanAm going thru New San Salvador. DO NOT TAKE THIS ROAD AS IT LEADS YOU INTO THE CITY where the PanAm is six lanes of maniacal traffic. Instead turn off the CP as you approach San Salvador from the north at a small road for Quetzaltepeque. The left is just past a military facility and railroad crossing and has a few small restaurants. Go to Apopa. If you turn right here traffic becomes heavy as you approach San Salvador but at least you leave many miles of the city behind you. If you want to bypass the capital entirely, take the road at Apopa LEFT and go to Tonacatepeque and then south. East of San Salvador quality of the PanAm varies widely. At San Miguel bear left and take the military highway to the border, you can cutoff a big loop in the PanAm that way. This route [also called route 7 on some maps, and the PanAm on still others] is not paved but pavement in El Salvador is no bargain.
HONDURAS...PanAm highway is a short portion of only a few days. Extensive damage from hurricane Mitch. Excellent road, great shoulder, wonderful people. I cannot comment on the scenery as the entire time I was there Mitch was pouring rain on me and the clouds were at ground level. But some very sharp, abrupt hills caught my attention. Stay on PanAM and cross into Esteli Nicaragua, as the 'shortcut' to El Triunfo leads to low lying areas and probably was even more damaged by the Hurricane.
NICARAGUA...I was on the PanAM the whole time except for a short cutoff past the town of Tipitapa so that I didn't have to ride thru Managua, the capital. This is where i was when the worst of Mitch hit, and the storm stopped me for 5 days. In Nicaragua bridges are down and the road has been damaged in the vicinity of Esteli, Sebaco, and Tipitapa. Some of these bridges will not be fully replaced for a long time. However, CYCLISTS AND PEDESTRIANS can ford many of the swollen rivers and can get boat/ferry rides across the others. I am sure conditions will improve substantially in the next few weeks, although for cars and trucks the PanAm highway may not be fully operational for many many months, as the level of corruption and incompetence in this region will stymie rebuilding efforts. ExPat engineers tell me that Mitch was a '100 year' storm. Tegucigalpa received 1 meter of rain in 24 hours, and many mountain regions are isolated and cut off.
Personal Security Central America is notorious for petty crime and theft. As cyclists we are especially vulnerable as our equipment can easily be snatched. However, there were only a few widely scattered incidents where I felt my stuff was at risk. There were two cases where kids followed me on THEIR bikes and, it appeared to me, were going to try and snatch something off my racks and make a run for it. Nothing happened in either case..sometimes I outrode them, other times I stopped riding and let them pass, or else make it OBVIOUS what their intentions were. Most snatch and grab is from behind, anyway, and I kept a sharp eye on these little buttheads in my rear view mirror. The other way you can get ripped off is at roadblocks. Sometimes people will stretch a rope across the road and pull it taut when you try to pass. The point is to try and get you to stop, in which case you may be rushed and stuff snatches away. Other times it is just an innocent prank. I ran into several of these in Nicaragua on the PanAm, and it was cat and mouse to get by, but I succeeded in all cases. The most successful approach is just to wait for a car to come by, and sneak thru as they lower the rope for the automobile or truck to pass. If you do stop, stop a fair distance away. I was approached twice but the sight of my swinging a horse whip [which i bought for this purpose] convinced them to back off. The horse whip can also be used to lift the rope over your head if you need to, or depress the rope so your wheels roll over it.
But do not get freaked out by the stories you hear about Central America. The place and people are wonderful...volcanoes, waterfalls, bird life. In Guatemala women sit by the roadside and weave incredibly colorful garments, rugs and sashes. The food is excellent, especially if ya like rice and beans. I just suggest you stay out of the larger cities and capitals, which are crowded, filthy, congested shitholes out of place for a bike.
The following is my journal entry from November 4, 1998, when I ahd at last reached safety in Misaya, Nicaragua after seven tense days of riding thru hurricane Mitch and the damage that the storm did. Read it and enjoy.
Greetings from Misaya. Roughstuff's week in hell appears to be over. It was last Wednesday that I first pushed, after days of steadily increasing rain, to La Trinidad on the other side of a steep hill from Esteli, which in the dense fog appeared only to be a few buildings along the PanAm. I fought my way thru and scrambled over numerous landslides. That night amidst soaking rain I talked in my hotel to several Danish and British U.N. people about the weather conditions. It was clear serious problems were afoot amidst the heavy rains and that the road was closing fast behind us. And, given the lowlands that lie ahead, probably closing in that direction as well. That night the lights flickered and went out for good in Trinidad and much of Nicaragua.
The next day, amidst heavy rain and swollen streams, I set out down the road, hoping that I might cross those lowlands before the bridges closed. It was too late. Several were already submerged. My U.N. friends brought me back to Trinidad, where my old hotel was under water. We found a new one...more airy and safer, but the damp conditions still allowed none of my equipment to dry. This problem would become serious in a day or two as the bottom of my feet began to swell and blister due to constant soaking. Anyway, a restful day passed at the hotel saw me hit the sack at dark. I was awakened not long after by the staff..they had panicked in the night rains and noise, and were deciding to go into shelters in the town of Trinidad on higher ground. Off I rode with some friends in the back of a truck in the dark, soaking spooky night. Their fears did seem justified..the roar of the swollen river, the pounding of the waves of heavy rain, and rolling, thunderous grumble of landslides from nearby hills was ever present. They slept on the floor of the church, we slep on the floor of the phone company...both were packed with tired, weary, dirty and soaked people, some whose homes had already been washed away or destroyed.
The next day dawned bright overcast amidst hope the worst was over, and we headed back to our hotel. We sat around all day and that night, hearing no real news, just that bridges were out and that Mitch was soaking the region with phenomenal amounts of water...Tegucigalpa got one meter in 24 hours! Earlier hopes of rain stopping were dashed as deluges continued thru the day. In the afternoon my new group of friends decided to head back up the hill all the way to Esteli, where more information and facilities were available. I decided to follow, hopped in the back of their truck, and in the drenching rain road back to Esteli over the same hill I had done by bike days before. But the move was a wise one. I soon met other folks who lay out the grim details...4 bridges out in the direction of Managua, none fordable at this time, closed to vehicles for an indefinite period. The big problem was a 400 meter bridge at Sebaco, completely gone. We did hear about people getting across in rowboats and rafts, but they were or dubious quality. The worst, stormwise, however, was over, and the sun came out. It was time to wait. Two days passed...i was getting a bit stir crazy, and reports came back about fording rivers and safer foot/boat crossings. Tuesday dawned bright and warm, and off I went. UP over the hill to Trinidad again. I swigged down a liter of Coca Cola at the hilltop in less than six minutes in front of some stunned folks waiting for a bus at a local store. Down I went to to the lowlands. Bridge #1 was open. Bridge #2 was forded, at considerable effort amongst muck and a few sections of swift current. A long ride to Sebaco brought me to the bridge where a gaping whole of 300 meters was there for all to see. But you could ford the river on foot and take a rowboat across the deepest part. My plan was a motel at a twon, San Jacinto, up the road another 30K...but there was not motel, so I stayed in a farmers field. But not before running the gauntlet of a few 'roadblocks' set up by local kids who figured they could use the stalled traffic as a chance to snatch stuff off the abck of trucks, cars, and in 2 cases my bicycle. But I must have looked threating and mean enough that they backed off when I yelled at them and whirled a buggy whip in their faces. It rained more that night but not bad, and I woke up to a misty dawn. After a nice breakfast came the big gap at Tipitapa. The current over submerged road still looked a bit too strong, so I hopped in the back of a truck with a buch of others. But the wait for crossing was endless, and after SIX hours [I am patient, eh...] I just took one of the rowboats across. The place looked like Venice with all the boats. Finally made it here to Misaya , under the puffs of one of Nicaragua's many volcanoes. On top of all of Nicaraguas recent problems with Mitch a volcano blew its top and killed another three thousand people. When will it all end?? For me the trials are over, for from here the PanAm is free and clear to Panama City. After that comes Colombia...which makes Centroamerica problems pale by comparison.
October 18, 1998:This is a short entry as I am just here for a short day, on Lake Atitlan, a spectacular lake in Guatamala ringed by volcanoes that I occasionally see thru the mist. I am here during 'rainy' season, much fog and mist, and often COLD in the mountains, which is where I spend most of my time. Roads are better, traffic less in Guatamala. People dress in bright red clothing, and women often sit on the side of the road with huge looms making the brightly colored cloth. Often groups of people will applaud you as you ride along, especially if you are churning up a hill. Guatamala is a poorer country than Mexico, from my initial impression, but a slightly more expensive one. Fewer choices in the stores and stalls, foodwise. I have taken to wild camping when I can as security problems seem to be fading into the distance. Better bicycles, riders, and equipment available here than in Mexico; will try and replace my tires and tubes completely in the next few days. Also need new brake pads. Thats about as SERIOUS as my problems have been so far! Will add more to this entry (and keep same date) when I get to Guatamala city, only a few days ride away.
October 1 1998: A short start to this entry...more coming tomorrow as this cafe closes soon. I am sure ya all want to hear about the bees first. Well, it was late afternoon and I was climbing a fairly steep mountain forested road south of Guadalajara. I had no warning anything was about to go wrong; suddenly, I felt a crawling in my helmet. It annoyed me enough that I stopped the bike-- critical error-- and took my helmet off to get the presumed booger out. By then there were several bees in my hair and when I saw them on my arms, i broke into a minor panic. I have this thing about creepy crawlies! Well, soon they were on my arms, legs, and worst of all, in my eyes behind my glasses. I Started to run with the bike, but soon needed both hands to swat the growing swarm...apparently the few bees that stung me or were swatted called out the Marines and before long i was buzzing, running, and screaming in what clearly wasnīt a very macho display. They followed me for several hundred feet. I had a big problem since the bike was now down, in the middle of the road, still surrounded by an angry swarm. I could see people roll there windows up in haste as they wiggled by the bike. I had a few tnese moments, worried that a truck would be unable to stop and crush the whole shabang to bits, but luck was with me. I tried to go back, but must have been covered with smell of angry bees, as I was soon re-attacked. An attempt to sneak me in on the back of a truck, also ended in failure and more stings. Finally some folks in a pickup truck put me in the cab and one of THEM reached out, grabbed the bike and helmet, and we sped off for two kilometers.
I was quite shook up, and pretty badly stung on the head, face, neck and jawbone. The bony area behind each ear had been stung repeatedly; but on balance I felt Ok. Ok enough, in fact, to get back on the bike, ride nearly twenty kilometers uphill, and hop into the shower of a very nice hotel. I was a bit wortried about whether the bee venom might cause later symptoms, and i had a restless night jumping at every itch and buzz, but i was OK the next day and headed on.
My main concern is what might happen in the future if there really IS a killer bee attack. My Spanish is not good but some people offered advice, suggesting nylons or somesuch to put over my face and head and neck. I had my own private brainstorm and thought that perhaps it would be a good idea to carry a signal flare, as they generate dense red smoke and smoke pacifies bees....at least, normal bees, anyway.
Enough of this bee business. I reentered the Sierra Madre for two reasons. One was to get rid of the stifling coastal heat. I sure succeded in that...in fact, one night by volcan de Tolcan i was very very cold and was lucky to find refuge in a forest service fired prevention building. There were even coals left in the small stove!! But along with the cool comes the rain, and those of of you who get weather channel or CNN may have sen all the rain we have been getting in these parts. The amount of water that falls out of the sky in mexico in a short time is just staggering. I have had some rain every day for at least the last 3 weeks. I give tremendous credit to my Columbia raingear, which allows me to saunter along wert but happy and comfortable. Plastic bags protect my camping gear and stuff in my panniers. YES VIRGINIA...YOU STILL NEED PLASTIC BAGS WITH ORTLIEBS!!!
The bike continues in great shape. I am able to buy tubes with presta valves, after all, and i even managed to find the tires that fit my rims. The rough roads loosened my headset..that took all of 15 seconds for a small bike shop to correct.
Amidst the hills, chills and thrills i have had a few more bouts of diarrhea. Lomotil, Pewpto Bismol, and various other remedies jujst did not doi any good....my only effective treatment is antibiotics. Along with my malaria medicine, pain pills, and other sundries, my bicycle is now almost a two wheeled pharmacy.
I have learned not to trusdt Mexican milk as well as its water, and yesterday celebrated my seventh day without diarrhea.
I must again return to the subject of traffic and bike safety. YOU MUST HAVE A ERAR VIEW MIRROR TO RIDE SAFELY HERE. Here is the typical scenario that comes up behind you. You are coming over the crest of a hill and start down. Behind you a truck, grinding in its lowerst gear and spewing smoke like 1940s Pittsburgh, also starts to gain speed and tries to edge over to the left a bit so you can pass safely. BUT WAIT!!! Behind the truck is a line of cars, sometimes even a bus, that decides here is there chance to get by this truck and haul some ass. BANG...nowhere for the truck to go, the passing vehicles can't see you till there almost past the truck anyway, and you have almost no shoulder to ditch out on. You MUST have a rear view mirror to see this...you cannot hear it accurately and its dsangerous to turn your head at a time like that. Equally dangerous are the cars that pass trucks in coming in the opposite dircetion, or toward you. They get right in your lane in many cases and yhou find yourself riding into speeding oncoming traffic.
For all that, I have enjoyed my riding in mexico and will continue to do so. I have a few more days here in Puebla, to relax and do some other web work, and then I amn back on my way. I may be lucky and gradually work my way SOUTH of this relentless series of cyclonic storms that swirl across Mexico from the Gulf.
As usual, where my next internet cafe will be I do not know. I will say that this stretch from Southern Mexico to the Panama Canal will be my most dangerous of the trip so far, and I'll be on the tip of my toes. Write to you again, soon. By the way sory for the typos but this is a Spanish keyboard and control characters are all out of whack.
A few tidbits here and there. With heavy floods, had to get ferried across a swollen river near the coast. People kept saying there were cockindrill in the water, which I believe is Spanish for Crocodile. I was obviously a bit nervous....have found presta valve tubes and 37x622 mm tires in many local shops, making life alot easier....while i have been crossing the "volcanic axis" from Guadalajara to Veracruz, I have seen very few volcanoes since the low clouds obscure the high peaks. I did manage to see Paricutin, famous for its 1943 eruption, up close...the surge in the value of the dollar against the peso cut 20% off the cost of my trip in mexico...typical motel room is between 5 and 10 dollars, or 50 to 100 pesos...with antibiotics, antimalarial medicine, aspirin, and various other drugs, my front panniers are sort of a two wheeled pharmacy...have not seen any other touring cyclists since Durango, Colorado, thousands of miles ago. There are quite a few Mexican cyclists out on fancy racing bikes, though....thinking/hoping that my travels further south will take me below the belt of stormy weather that has been ever present for the last few weeks....thunderstorms here stagger the imagination, with lightning flashes continuous for sometimes several hours...events in Yugoslavia may force re-routing of that part of my trip next year, unless things calm down. I was planning to visit friends in Lubljana...as far as cycling into North Korea is concerned, its as big a pipe dream as ever, as even relief agencies are giving up hope...the latest song to get into my head and bug me no end??? ITCHYGOO PARK, the 1960s psychedelic melody. Where it came from I donīt know...best radio station award so far goes to Morelia, which entertained me on my walkman for hours with songs by Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Carole King and others...i killed a tarantula in the road with my front tire not far from the point where the bees attacked me; perhaps it was insect karma....despite the silly advice of those who tell ya to increase your security by īblending inī with the locals, I am a dead-ringer for a gringo with my helmet, rear view mirror, and cycling clothing...and desipte my comments about roads, trucks, and traffic, the fact remains that trucks here have given me every inch they possibly can in many cases. I believe they talk on their CBīs about my location, as many trucks honk their horns and wave as they go by, in either direction..Mexican road signage leaves a bit to be desired. It is not unusual to come to a major fork in the road with indication as to which way to go...PEMEX, or Petroleos de Mexico gas stations, are a refuge of cleanliness and order in an otherwise pretty messy country. I often stop at them for coffee, soda, and just rest from the ordeals of the road...the dogs are starting to increase in number and get annoying. Have had a few close calls already and view getting bit somewhere along the line as inevitable...equally dangerous are the younger kids on bikes who decide to ride along with you for a while; weaving in and out of traffic they drive me nuts. I am starting to think King Herod had the right idea--kill all the motherfuckers under the age of 10 or 12 years of age....
September 12, 1998 Howdy all and greetings to the first entry from part ii of my trip. Santa Fe to San Jose Costa Rica. This has been one of the longest gaps in writing to my website on this trip so far, and there are many reasons for it. Most of them are terrain related. As soon as you leave Santa Fe going south you enter the Chihuahua desert--after the Mexican city and state of the same name. Now, this is not so much a cactus/and sand desert as it is a sagebrush, grassland type of countryside. it IS true, however, that there is no water at the surface. No rivers, streams, lakes, even trickles. Perhaps from time to time the occasional mudhole trampled by cattle and sheep. Needless to say this was a tough area to cross on a bike. My longest stretch was 109 miles in New Mexico to the town of Roswell; on two water bottles i barely made it! I started drinking water pre-emptively the evening before at my campsite, and drank till i was bloated the morning I left. Even so i rolled into Roswell one tired and thirsty hombre. I spent a day resting, recuperating, and reading about aliens. Roswell, like countless western towns and cities, is one of these remarkably artless and tasteless collections of downtown streets with nobody walking on them, and people driving their cars/trucks to go any distance beyond a city block. But there was a helpful bike shop there, and I got some parts i needed. Continued south to Carlsbad CAverns, definitely worth a visit. Another long stretch of no services to Van Horn in Texas. The Guadalupe mountains and the terrain of west texas was very Tolkienish: i was reminded of the great precipices of Gorgoroth that JRR wrote about in the Silmarillion, and had visions of awakening the descendents of Ungoliant before I reached safety. But the only threat was the occasional truck or dead animal in the road.
I crossed into Mexico at Presidio/Ojinaga, and proceeded almost due South on a small road to Ciudad Camargo. It was a long road, and I wild camped about two thirds of the way down my first night. I did not feel there were any security problems to worry about; in fact most people were helpful and my site was prowled by so many dogs I doubt a cockroach could have snuck up on me unnoticed. Following comments about roads/riding in Mexico, so far:
***the roads are very narrow and bumpy. In the towns and cities they are even worse; chewed up, potholed, with speed bumps and vibradores making riding worse. The roadsides are littered with garbage in many places. You will need at least hybrid tires to really feel comfortable on these roads, and mountain tires might be the best unless you are willing, as I am, to slow down and pick a route thru the devastation. For all that i must admit I have had few wheel problems that are road related: no flats, no broken spokes, etc.
***the people are very friendly and helpful. NOw be careful by what i mean here. I think folks in Spanish cultures are more outgoing, more boisterous than we gringos are. When i ride into a town or past a truck stops there are whistles and cries of "hello my Friend!!" Generally i ignore all this until i am ready to actually stop. Then I tend to go directly up to the folks or shop involved, say 'hello' in Spanish, smile, and proceed to buy what I want as if I belonged there as much as anyone else. If there are younger kids around I keep an extra eye on the bike.
***The food is good. I was hoping my experience with so-so food and water in Korea, Russia and elsewhere would help me fight off Montezuma's revenge, but it has not been effective. Diarrhea has been an off again/on again problem, and is a real pain-in-the-ass when you suddenly have to shit your brains out while riding along somewhere. You tend to get the warning almost at the last second; and keeping your sphincter shut while lifting up your leg to dismount the bike can be an olympic task.
***Ten pesos to the dollar makes prices easy to figure out. Typical motel room, about 100 pesos; sometimes as low as 50 pesos. Breakfast 30-40 pesos. AS the world economy impodes the dollar should get stronger, so this trip is getting a bit of a boost that way.
NOW...about those VALVE problems. I have already mentioned one valve, my sphincter valve, which with the help of local farmacias is under control. More annoying are problems with the presta valves on my tubes. Damn, for all the miles from Anchorage to the US/Mexico border i had no trouble at all. But here, Murphy's law-like, the valves start giving me trouble. On one the small doohickey that you loosen to inflate the valve bent and finally blew out...one spare tube gone. Then on two other tubes, the rubber cracked right by the valve stem, and is 'impossible' to patch! So I got here to Puerta VAllarta with no spare tubes; just the two in my tires. Arf! well, of course one thing I did is have a mchine shop tap the hole in my rim a bit wider so that I could take a Shrader valve, or the Mexican "Hall" valve. So now I have a back wheel that is a Mavic rim with a mexican tube; and a front wheel that is a Suntour rim and a presta tube. I have two Zefal pumps, one set up to fit the Schrader, the other the presta. (readers will recall from my Part One discussion that i already ruined one Zefal by cracking it over a dogs head in Idaho). My tires are holding up OK but the tropical air and humidity are seeming to get to them; the area around the bead is looking a bit skeevy on both of them.
Entrance into Mexico has really given this tour its first 'world tour" flavor. One reason is that I feel so isolated and individual here; i have not seen another touring cyclist since Durango, Colorado several weeks ago. That is partly because of my route: most cyclists go down Baja CAlifornia, whereas I concentrated on a route due south from Ojinaga to Durango (MExico) and then west to the coast. The Sierra Madre occidental are very savage mountains; in many cases more like smashed up ridges; and they are heavily forested. This greenery was a sight for sore eyes; for the terrain from Santa Fe south to near Hidalgo del Parral was open, sere, and dry. I did not see a river between Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and Hidalgo del Parral, that had water in it! Now of course, at Vallarta and the west coast, it rains every day and water is everywhere. Many of the roads become rivers when it rains, which it does like clockwork every afternoon/evening. The humidity is so great that i am going to jettison all but one cotton shirt; they never dry out and are heavy, clammy and mildewy. Generally the rain is very easy to ride thru; its so warm i don't even bother to put on raingear. Only the spray from trucks and buses is annoying. MAke sure you have a rear view mirror as you will need it to allow you to see situations coming up where trucks, buses, and convoys leave you with no room to ride. MAny roads are not wide enough to have a white line near the edge, let alone an actual shoulder. However, if they see you in advance and there is room, trucks and buses in MExico have given me every imagineable bit of available road space, swerving into the other lane often several hundred feet behind me. I usually give them a hand signal to wave them by; it blows them away that I can see them, as very few people here have ever seen the cyclist's rear-view mirror.