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When you fall ill with symptoms you don’t fully recognise, the worst thing you can do is search for those symptoms on the internet. Within five minutes, you’ll be seriously sick. Within ten, you’ll have developed a rare and lethal form of cancer. And within a quarter of an hour, you’ll have convinced yourself that you’ll be dead before dinner.

A similar paranoia can be triggered by using the internet to conduct advance research for a bicycle ride through parts of Central America. Stick, for example, the phrase ‘El Salvador murder rate‘ into Google, or perhaps ‘Honduras safety‘, and you’ll bring up a string of frightening articles about the world’s most dangerous places. Most cyclists worry. Some, including Ruth, take the bus.

The majority of cycle tourists riding through Latin America give little advance thought to this stretch. These are small countries with few iconic features and (Costa Rica excepted) comparatively little tourism, and many riders set out on their journeys thinking of them as mere stepping stones between the epic vastness of Mexico and the incomparable Andes. Put your foot down, and you can get through Central America in not much more than a month. But is there any need to hurry – or worry?

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The three Central American countries with the worst reputations – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – sit next to each other in a block south-east of Mexico. (We’ve written previously about our impressions of three of the other four countries in Central America: Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The fourth is Belize, which we’re skipping.) Each has endured serious troubles in their recent history: Honduras lived through a military coup as recently as 2009; El Salvador suffered a devastating civil war throughout the 1980s and early ’90s; and Guatemala had to deal with four decades of internal conflict that ended only in 1996. (The US influence in some of these events, incidentally, was at best malign and at worst disgraceful. That’s another story.) All three remain troubled places. But what’s it like on the road?

 


 

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As a cycle tourist, there are two ways to approach Honduras. You can throw yourself into the country, taking time to explore the dirt roads in the north (and possibly bypassing El Salvador in the process). Or you can hammer through it as quickly as possible. Slightly pushed for time and arriving in the rainy season, which can lay waste to unpaved roads in this part of the world, I chose option two.

Between Honduras’s borders with Nicaragua (at El Guasaule) and El Salvador (at El Amatillo), the country’s southernmost east-west highway covers a mere 130km, rideable in a day if you like a challenge and catch a break at border control. Attracted by an air-conditioned hotel room on a filthy, sweltering afternoon, I stopped at around 2.30pm in Nacaome, 96km into the country. However, the next day, I’d crossed into El Salvador long before lunchtime. Total time in Honduras: 27 hours. (By comparison, total time in Argentina: 100 days.)

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You don’t – can’t – get a real sense of a country from a journey like that, but some impressions linger. Leaving aside the sapping heat, the riding is easy and not terribly interesting. The few towns along the road appear reasonably safe and, likewise, not terribly interesting. Certainly, the danger areas flagged by everything from government travel advice pages to asinine webzine clickbait all seem to be much further north.

The greatest hazards for the touring cyclist on this route are the endless, wearying shouts of ‘¡Gringo!‘ from easily amused locals at the roadside. We’ve run into this before, most tiresomely in parts of Peru, but Honduras quickly delivered the highest GPK (‘¡Gringo!‘ per kilometre) count of any country thus far. Some of these shouts seemed to come with something of an edge. But perhaps such impressions are Google’s fault.

 


 

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The guidebooks to El Salvador – and yes, such things do exist – are littered with reasons not to visit the country. La Libertad is ‘a grimy and decaying port town’ with ‘a serious drug problem’ (Lonely Planet). San Miguel is ‘not a place you’re likely to want to linger’ (Footprint). Sonsonate is ‘depressing’, its streets ‘chaotic and not a little dangerous’ (Lonely Planet again). And so on. The first impressions drawn from such advance reading are hardly helped by the presence of ostentatiously armed guards at gas stations, supermarkets and even modest corner stores.

Roughly the size of Wales, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. Most cyclists find their way through it in one of two ways: sticking south and hewing to the Pacific coast road, or picking a path through the hillier but hardly hilly north. Both routes have their advantages, one of which is that they avoid San Salvador. The country’s capital is almost certainly safer than its reputation suggests, but it has enough unsavoury neighbourhoods to make even the most resilient cyclist nervous about crossing it.

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As parts of Costa Rica reminded us, coast roads can be monotonous. Happily, the highway along the Costa del Bálsamo between La Libertad and Acajutla, and especially a 40km stretch in the middle, is emphatically no such thing. You have to graft a little for your views; the road dips and soars constantly, and it can be hard going in the fierce heat. But views there are, and with little traffic to get in the way. The few beach towns along here are relaxed and, at this time of year, not very busy; weekending San Salvadoreans and mellow surfers, mostly. It’s a lovely morning’s work.

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Either side of this oceanside stretch, a couple of unnecessary but agreeable 1,500m climbs provide a little relief from the baking, sea-level heat. The first winds its way up from noisy San Miguel to Alegría, a sweet hilltop village in El Salvador’s coffee country that welcomes the few international visitors it receives with a mix of friendliness and curiosity. Its charms are slightly oversold by guidebook writers with pages to fill; so are those of the nearby volcanic crater lake, something of a puddle compared to those back in Nicaragua. Even so, it’s a nice climb to reach the town. And, of course, it’s an even nicer and considerably faster descent back down to earth, past baffled villagers unused to seeing gringo cyclists putting gravity through its paces.

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Starting just past Sonsonate near the border with Guatemala, the Ruta de las Flores makes for another steady climb, thick city heat replaced by a soggy humidity as the altitude increases. The flowers that lend the road its name don’t need watering during rainy season; along the way, I had to pause for two hours in a gas-station forecourt, first for a thunderstorm to flood the road and then for the water to start draining away. The villages along the route are fairly plain, with one exception: Concepción de Ataco, which has found a lovely balance between its cosy tourist industry (this is the low season, and I saw only two other visitors) and the inbuilt charisma of its local life.

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El Salvador has a strong mural culture, partly but not exclusively tied to political and social activism, and Ataco is soaked in street art: entire walls of restaurants, shops and private houses are given over to paintings depicting various aspects of community life. The murals haven’t come without controversies; three murals created by US artists were whitewashed a few years ago, allegedly because the right-wing mayor found their themes (environmentalism, women’s rights, indigenous culture) too radical. But those that remain brighten the place no end, and help lend it a character quite distinct from any other town we’ve visited. The climb was worth the effort.

 


 

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Although not without serious problems, the most consistent of which is a shocking level of poverty in rural areas, most of the Latino countries through which we’ve cycled have felt as though they’re on the rise (Colombia, Ecuador, Panama), or at least seem to have found some measure of stability after unstable pasts (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay). Blighted by economic mismanagement and bumbling governance, Argentina is one exception. Consumed by poverty, Nicaragua is another. And then there’s Guatemala.

Despite its reputation, and perhaps thanks to a carefully chosen route, El Salvador felt safe. The people were lovely, the roads well maintained and the culture inviting. (The policemen pictured at the top of this post were patrolling the highway near La Libertad, and were much friendlier than they look in the photo.) By contrast, south-eastern Guatemala has a distinct edge. Concerned by reports of violence in a couple of Guatemalan towns along the direct route between Ataco and Guatemala City, I’d dropped back down to the coast from Ataco to cross the border, but the atmosphere was still a little heavy on the Guatemalan side. The shouts of ‘¡Gringo!‘ that had vanished in El Salvador returned, and these were not friendly greetings. (Apparently, the general assumption is that any gringo is an American, and Americans are not the most popular people around here.)

Many murders in Honduras and El Salvador are tied to gang culture. Such a culture exists in Guatemala, and especially in Guatemala City, but the violence here extends beyond it. Without exception, I soon discovered, the first few pages of the Nuestro Diario newspaper are filled each day with stories of murder and assault, often accompanied for good measure by a shock-horror photograph of the corpse under discussion. Before I was fully aware of the extent of the problem, curiosity led me to cycle straight through the centre of Escuintla, the first big town I encountered. Mistake. The centre of Escuintla, it turns out, is a seedy, unpleasant place, and I was relieved when I finally reached the highway on the other side.

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Things improve dramatically the higher you get. From Escuintla, there’s a massive climb past some bleak, unfriendly towns, but Antigua Guatemala makes for a nice reward at the end. Antigua is yet another UNESCO-approved Spanish colonial town awash with backpackers, though it’s the nicest we’ve visited in some time: beautiful enough to support repeated wandering, large enough that the local culture hasn’t been overwhelmed by the extranjeros who’ve opened hotels, restaurants and other businesses here. (Ruth arrived by bus from Nicaragua a couple of days before me. We ended up staying for five days.)

Short of returning to the dull coast road, there isn’t an easy way to reach the Mexican border from Antigua. Central Guatemala is hilly, and its hills are not for the faint of heart. Double-digit gradients are common, especially away from the truck-choked Panamerican Highway, and it’s not just the climbs that are problematic. Between Los Encuentros, a scruffy junction town, and Chichicastenango, a coach-party magnet for its twice-weekly crafts market, the road plummets to a river before bouncing back up to the other side of the canyon. On an erratic surface, with gradients topping 20% and buses careening past, going down on a loaded bicycle is treacherous. Cycling back up is next to impossible.

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Yet it’s lovely up here in this heartland of Mayan culture, and safer too. The road between the largeish towns of Santa Cruz del Quiché (a friendly mess) and Huehuetenango (lively, likeable) isn’t much travelled by touring cyclists – unusually, I couldn’t find any ride reports on other cyclists’ blogs – but it turns out to be a beauty. Hard work, mind: there are hardly any flat stretches on its 77km extent, the archetypal roller coaster profile. But the climbs and dips yield soaring views over the surrounding hills, with precious little traffic on the road’s freshly paved surface to get in the way of the ride. As with El Salvador, Guatemala had saved the best until last.

 


 

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And for Central America, that’s that. Two days after reaching Huehuetenango, we crawled over the border into Mexico, through which we’ll be riding for the next three or four months. It’s a country with some fairly well-documented problems of its own. Hopefully, though, they won’t be making too many appearances on this site. ¡Arriba!

 


 

Route notes: the ride through Honduras is simple and seemed safe, but it’s important to check your entry stamp at immigration. A fellow cyclist I met going the other way was later asked to pay a (possibly illegitimate) fine when leaving the country for allegedly not having the correct entry stamp in his passport. Along the route, there are hotels in Choluteca, San Lorenzo and Nacaome (where I stayed, at the decent, friendly Hotel Sunset).

In El Salvador, I rode via Santa Rosa de Lima to San Miguel, continued on the main road west and then turned left towards Santiago de María, from where it’s about 7km to Alegría. From Alegría, you could continue along this road to Berlín and then drop down to the coast from there, but the road south from Berlín is unpaved and had suffered in the rainy season. Instead, I backtracked to Santiago de María and headed south from there on a lovely paved road to join the coastal highway. Just outside Zacatecoluca, at a roundabout, there’s a choice of roads towards La Libertad. On police advice, I took the southernmost of the two, signed to San Salvador and the airport – it’s apparently safer and has a better shoulder. Note that El Salvador doesn’t give entry or exit stamps for travellers crossing into and out of the country on land.

The road between Santa Cruz del Quiché and Huehuetenango wasn’t marked on our maps of Guatemala or Central America; both maps suggested that to travel between the two cities, you needed to go via Sacapulas. Google Maps has the road, though, and it’s also clearly marked off the main highway – the turning is just after a big gas station, about 25km north of Santa Cruz del Quiché.

 


 

from Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas, Mexico