Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Panama

My total distance from Vancouver, Canada to the Panama Canal.
Crossing the border into Panama
Crossing from Costa Rica into Panama with Herbie and Laura.
A pic like this will never capture the heat. It was over 40°C here.
And so the Vancouver to the Panama Canal bike ride comes to an end. I could never have imagined how doable it actually was. All it took was 217 days and 2997.56 euros to cover the 8994 kms. And yes of course I should have cycled around the block a few times to bring the total count up to the 9000km mark. I actually didn't realise just how close I was until I was packing the bike away and remembered to check the speedometer.

With about 3 weeks to go I knew there was a chance I could come in under the 3000 euro price tag so I made it my mission to try. And it wasn't difficult. Herbie (above) did pay for a couple of beers for me during the last week, but that was about all. If you don't pay often for accommodation, actually travelling by bicycle is really inexpensive. A lot cheaper than living in Dublin for 217 days - that's for sure.

When I set off from Dublin in September 2016 I had a budget of 5000 euros. But within a couple of weeks I knew I wouldn't spend that much so in my head I brought my budget down to 4000 euros. And still I managed to come in way below my revised budget. All the hours spent planning and managing Sony/Guinness budgets must have paid off.

Cycling along the coastal highway into the city centre.
Some stats:
Total kms cycled = 8994
Total days = 217
Weeks = 24.5 weeks
Days on the bike = 131
That as a percentage of total days = 60%
Total cost = 2997.56 euros.
Average daily spend = 13.81 euros
Days I went swimming = 34
Punctures = 6 (all in the USA, none since the US/Mexico border)
Nights I paid for accommodation = 71
As a percentage of total nights = 33%
Nights spent in Warm Showers houses = 45
Nights spent camping in fire stations = don't know yet, but I'll work it out
Number of countries visited = 10
Things I lost = 1 quick dry towel, 1 head torch, 1 black sock, a 2L flat pack bottle
Falls off the bike = 2
Most useful apps = Maps.me, Warm Showers, iOverlander
Blog posts including this one = 25
New friends made = loads

Humans of Panama
Mateo from Valencia, Spain but now living in Panama City had no sooner joined the Warm Showers network than he received an email from me asking could I stay. He lives with his wife and 5 year old son in what I can only describe as a matchbox sized apartment. He will be reading this so I hope he doesn't take offence. His apartment is tiny. But what I want to say by mentioning that is that he and his wife were happy to share this space with a smelly, sweaty, stranger. Within half an hour of arriving he had popped out to the corner shop to buy me a cold fresh coconut so I could have some ice cold coconut water. A couple of hours after that he was serving me up a dish of paella valenciana.

Waking up on my last day in Panama City in Mateo's back garden.
Mateo is a PE teacher at a local international school but also a keen photographer. He snapped this shot at sunrise, 6am and then posted it on the popular Humans of Panama Facebook page which he created and manages. Panama City acts like a funnel for cyclists. Anyone crossing continents to and from South America need to pass through which means that on a daily basis there are tired sweaty cyclists looking for somewhere to stay. Unfortunately there are very few Warm Showers hosts in Panama City. Fingers crossed that this Facebook posting might inspire a few to get involved.

River swimming in Panama

I just love to jump off the bike and into a cold river on a hot day.
Floating downstream without a care in the world.

High up in the hills


Eleven'ses on a motorway in Panama. For mangos of course.
First time camping at a petrol station

And what a petrol station. Decent coffee. Free wifi.
Free showers. Laundrette. AND some grass to pitch the tent on. 
Never knew petrol station camping could be so pleasant.
Eye mask very handy when you have a parking lot light overhead.
Waking on my very last morning. Day 216.
10 hours sleep at a noisy, busy, brightly lit petrol station. Great.
Crossing the Panama Canal
I have to confess that I was totally excited crossing over the Panama Canal. It had been my aim since leaving Vancouver on Sept 21st, 2016. I had no idea what to expect but I thought that it sounded like a cool place to aim for.

It opened in 1914, is 77kms long and takes roughly 8 hours to sail from one side to the other (Pacific/ Atlantic). My mum had told me that her dad Grandad Sweeny, had sailed through it in 1921. An extension, which I didn't have time to see, opened a few years ago. And rumour has it that the Chinese are going to build their very own canal in Nicaragua. We'll watch this space.
This was the largest container ship I had ever seen.
A bunch of looney tunes cycling over the Panama Canal together.
The Panama Canal was smaller than I had imagined.
But this bridge over it was massive.
All good things must come to an end
And so on my very last day in Panama City I headed off on Sherpa to find her a box. The bicycle shops must be absolutely sick of cyclist requesting boxes. Panama acts as a type of funnel for cyclists going up and down the American continents. There are loads of routes through Canada, through the US, through Mexico etc but the more south you ride the skinnier the countries get. So every Alaska to Ushuaia rider comes through the little skinny country of Panama whether he/she is travelling north or south.

It's difficult to get off the Central American landmass and onto South America. You either pay $500 and take a small bouncy boat out onto the San Blas islands which takes 3 days or you fly. It's cheaper to fly but more hassle as you need to find a box, dismantle your bike and pack and unpack it.

Putting Sherpa in a box in a very fancy bike shop in Panama City.
I've taken my bike apart and built it up many times at this stage. But what I learned from this time was that I should always take the wheels off last. In the photo above I still need to take off the pedals and the handlebars which is very difficult with no leverage. Note to self: pedals, then handlebars and lastly wheels!
I flew from Panama to Melbourne with Copa airlines. Easy peasy.
I had planned to hitch a lift with Sherpa on a boat up to Cuba and spend May cycling through Cuba before heading to Europe. But out of the blue I received an email from my sister in Melbourne who asked if I wouldn't mind popping into Melbourne, Australia for May to look after her 4 kids. So here I am in the most liveable city in the world as I type. It's a cool quiet winter's day. Perhaps 15°C outside and I have access to a bed, a kitchen, a fridge, a washing machine and wifi. Oh how quickly you get used to life's little luxuries. 





Sunday, 7 May 2017

Costa Rica

I fell asleep one day for 20 minutes like this. Using my little
purse as a pillow. It was 3pm in the afternoon, 42°C.
Costa Rica has a reputation amongst cycle tourers as being SOO expensive that you need to cycle through AS FAST AS YOU CAN.

It's kind of hard to imagine having hauled yourself through the never ending Guatemala, the heat of El Salvador, the empty mountains of Honduras and the endless sugar cane fields of poor poor cheap cheap Nicaragua that suddenly I'd come across this lush, first world, expensive-as-London Central American country. But actually, that's kind of how it was.

I had been told that you can pay for everything in US dollars in Costa Rica, which actually isn't at all true. They have their own currency called the Colon. To give you a brief example a 330ml bottle of beer in Mexico costs .50c. The same bottle in Costa Rica costs 2USD. Ok, it's not exactly London prices but you feel like you are being totally robbed.

Growing in the fields
So this is where pineapples grow. A baby one here.
A butterfly landed on Laura's front handlebar bag.
Costa Rica is safe, has been politically stable for ever, has a tropical climate with loads of rain and good infrastructure. Put all this together and you get a very successful and productive agricultural sector. Bananas and pineapples rank no. 2 and 3 in the list of Costa Rican exports. It easy to see why. For days we cycled through fields of 'Piñeras' (pineapple farms), this was followed by days of cycling through banana fields. The big bunches of bananas high up in the trees were often wrapped in blue plastic bags. See photo below. We wondered if this was to keep the bananas from ripening too soon, or to help them to ripen faster or to keep them free from bugs and insects. Who knows?
Cycling along surrounded by banana trees.
2 rivers merging in the mountains in Costa Rica. One brown. One blue.
Herbie and Laura
I had bumped into Herbie (Irish) and Laura (English) in California, 6 months previously. You may remember the photo from the California blog, when I was so excited to meet another Irish cyclist. We had kept in touch since then. Herbie had sent me lots of 'hey Shell, how are you, where are you, please tell us you are still alive' Whats App messages since California. I think as an Irish male he felt in some way responsible for my safety. It was really sweet but I was always fine. When I got to know him better I learned that this is typical Herbie, taking care of the world.

The pair, who live in London, are pretty hardcore athletes. He used to row for Ireland, she was a personal trainer and both were marathon and ultra marathon runners. When we met again on Ometepe island in Nicaragua they invited me to cycle with them for a couple of days. They were planning two easy flat'ish 60km days so I said why not. I thought I might enjoy not being billy-no-mates for a couple of days.

Never in a million months of Sundays did I think I'd be able to keep up with them for a longer period of time. But what do you know, almost 3 weeks later we were still pedalling and camping together. We were a good little team. It was fun. We spoke a lot of Spanish, eat a lot of porridge and myself and Herbie had quite a few beers in the late afternoon sitting on random benches outside Chinese-owned supermarkets, sweaty and grumpy and moaning about the 40 degree temperatures. Good memories.

Herbie and Laura with me in Costa Rica.
The pair of them cleverly wrapped their high viz jackets around their back panniers.
Love is...

Myself and Laura throw our bikes on the side of the road while we climb a
tree for fruit.
River crossings and dirt road adventures
After crossing the border into Costa Rica from Nicaragua I had some vague notion of heading over the mountains to the Caribbean coast as opposed to doing what most cyclist do and continuing along the Pan American Highway into Panama. Where I got this notion from I have no idea. The road less travelled springs to mind. But sure that's just a book. After a 50km day mainly on dirt roads including 5 river crossings which took us 8 hours in the saddle and ended with a rain storm and me getting lost after night fall in the village we intended to stay in... I questioned the idea. After the most intense and tough day in the saddle since leaving Vancouver, we found ourselves 1000m above sea level and heading toward the northern shores of Costa Rica having passed by Monteverde and Lake Arenal.

The advantages were that the truck traffic stopped, the scenery was spectacular, the roads were smaller and much quieter. It was gloriously cool at night so we could slept much better. But the terrain was tough and rough and steep.

Myself and Laura kept each other company as we
got on and off the bikes all day long.
I think this was river crossing 3 out of 5.
It's so steep even Herbie is struggling. But only a little. He's still smiling of course.
Monteverde is one of Costa Rica's most visited National Parks. Costa Rica is full of lush stunning jungle and rain forest. However it costs about $45 per day to visit these National Parks. Even if I could afford that price this trip really isn't about visiting fee-charging National Parks. It's more about following the road and finding some beautiful quiet spots of my own to camp and admire the scenery.

The roads in Costa Rica were full of little white mini buses taking tourists from one tourist attraction to the next. I hadn't seen this type of developed tourism in any other country in Central America. I guess Costa Rica can cash in on it's reputation for being a 'safe' country amongst it's poor, seemingly crime-ridden neighbours. But if Costa Rica can manage to charge such high park entrance fees to tourists - fair play. Or as they say in Spanish - Juego Limpio! (learned while watching Sing Street with Spanish subtitles)!
Both myself and Laura HATE descending on loose gravel. We slip and slide.
I have never spent so long on a loaded bike on gravel roads.
Empty Motorways
After a couple of days of climbing we came across a 30km stretch of brand new closed motorway. It was such a treat to cycle 3 abreast and chat and laugh at the randomness of it. The 3 of us and a horse of course.
Us and a horse enjoying 30kms of empty motorway.
I remember once being allowed to cycle on the M3 in Co. Meath before it was
opened. Such a great feeling.
Camping in Costa Rica
Unfortunately the Bomberos didn't let us camp at the fire stations in Costa Rica. Boo hoo. When I was first told 'no, you can't camp here' I felt almost personally offended. I stated that I had been camping at Central American fire stations since Tijuana in Northern Mexico. I have to admit I had developed a feeling of entitlement and suddenly I was being turned away. They were of course the nicest, cleanest, best equipped stations but it was not to be. In busy towns when wild camping wasn't an option we headed instead of the police stations or better still the Red Cross.

Great to swim in the warm Caribbean after a hot sticky day on the bikes. This is
Puerto Viejo.
Sherpa waits while I take a dip at sunset.
An $8 campsite in Costa Rica gets you your very own plastic tarpaulin and table and chair.
On this particular night poor Herbie didn't sleep a wink. Some locals had come down
to the river to drink some cans and do some drugs. With my magic wax ear plugs, I slept through it all.
Sometimes Herbie and Laura opted for a hotel. On this occasion the local police
allowed me camp in their garden and fed me breakfast of scrambled egg sambos and coffee the next morning.
The troops are getting porridge served by a trowel.
The best light-weight pot stirrer known to man.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Nicaragua

Shell and Sherpa and a big yellow ex-US school bus in the background.
Central America is where all the old American buses come to die.
I had intended to stay for 2-3 weeks in Nicaragua and was looking forward to what all the cyclists refer to as a super cheap and super friendly country. However I had spent a little bit longer than expected in Honduras so in the end cycled right through Nicaragua in less than a week. Here are some impressions from the road.

The roads in Nicaragua were largely good. And interestingly there was no litter on the roadside, a problem which plaques Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Each day in Nicaragua I saw men in orange uniforms picking up rubbish along the roadside. 

Workers in the tobacco fields carrying large crates on their shoulders.
I have visited many countries in my life time but none where I saw tobacco growing in the fields. Suddenly this lush green healthy looking crop appeared on the roadside all around me and I didn't know what it was. That was until I saw some huge processing facilities. All US owned. All spanking new. This photo above reminded me of ants coming in and out of their ant hole carrying loads way beyond their own weight.
We are now at the end of the dry season. In May the rains will come.
Una maravilla. A big plate of tasty cooked food costs .75c in Nicaragua.
Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) mixed, salad, an empanada and some fried chicken.
The first time I tasted Gallo Pinto (mixed beans and rice) the national dish, was
from this street vendor.
In the blogpost I wrote about El Salvador I mentioned how strange it was to have come across so many individuals with kidney disease. If I remember correctly I had met 3 individuals during a short 2 week stay in El Salvador who were all on kidney dialyses. Leafing through the Guardian newspaper online recently I found this article. It's exactly the same story I heard from the locals. 
The most close-up picture I got of sugar cane being cut in the fields.
Roads were largely good until they weren't. When the shoulder
disappeared and became a big sandy hole. 
I laugh when I look at this photo below. As good friends of mine will know neither my bike nor my saddle are good friends of mine. My cross bar on my bike is too long which pushes my butt too far back and makes me have to stretch forward with my hands. And the nails on my leather Brooks B17 saddle stick into me and give me lovely red rashes which have now turned into hard calluses on my butt. And then these calluses peel and get all flaky. Lovely.

During this whole trip I have been wondering how I could smooth some nails into my leather saddle. So when I saw this shop on the roadside in Nicaragua I thought to myself that this might just be the perfect place. A shop selling leather saddles will surely be able to convert my bum-hurting-seat into some sort of a comfy armchair. Surely. And what do I do? Well I rode on by and thought well sure I'll stop in the next leather saddle shop. Except there was no next saddle shop. Doh.
I love this photo. It makes me feel like I'm living in a different century. 
Saskia
Crossing over the border from Honduras to Nicaragua I headed straight to the bomberos. And low and behold there tucked away in the corner behind a mighty big fire engine was a lovely little Mexican solo female cyclists. What a treat. We both jumped up and down for a bit and squealed in high pitched voices while working out that we both spoke English and both spoke Spanish and most importantly were both riding south. And so it was. A 4 day friendship made in a fire station. Her name was Saskia Vargas. She was from Mexico city and was none other than a traditional Mexican home-birthing midwife. She was cycling to Argentina to deliver a baby. As you do.

Saskia. A great Mexican gal. Prior to this trip she never owned a bicycle. 
Myself and herself having the craic with the bomberos in Nicaragua.
Messing around with the firemen's uniforms.
So Saskia the non-cyclist cyclists taught me a few very handy tricks. Trick 1 was to get a bed in the bomberos (fire station). Up until this point I had always rocked up and asked if I could kindly camp but her approach was more 'could we stay'. She had worked out that each fire station has a small room for the female fire fighters. And voila, so it was, staying with Saskia in the Nicaraguan fire stations actually resulted in us both getting beds to sleep on. No air conditioning just yet, but beds.
 
A little thirsty after a long sweaty day on the bikes.
Nicaraguan bike shop

We went to a bike shop to get new brake pads for Saskia's bike.
The dad chatted to us while his 8 year old sun repaired the brakes. 
Quite liked this sign in the bike shop.
Smoking is suicide. So go and commit suicide somewhere else please.

Along the roadside
I cycled through Nicaragua on Palm Sunday. There were all sorts of celebrations going on. One particularly interesting one was the Penata. A paper mache man containing lots of sweets in his tummy is hung from the roof and blindfolded kids lash out trying to smash it with a baton. It's a tradition I have seen in lots of Spanish speaking countries. 

The Penata is hoisted up to the roof by a rope. 
Some Palm Sunday parades took up the whole of one side of the Panamerican highway. Cars queued for miles. No one seems to mind waiting.

Reeds carried over the shoulder at a Palm Sunday parade.
Everything on the roads came to a standstill on Palm Sunday.
A horse back rider passes some kids playing on hay bales while taking his
cows to be milked.
As in so many developing countries everything is donated by somebody.
This bridge was donated by the People of Japan.
And everywhere fires burn along the roadside.
Maybe the remnants of sugar cane plants. I'm not sure.
And just like home, the cherry blossoms were out in full bloom.
In the hard shoulder a man on a horse trotting along. The man is chatting
on his mobile phone.
Even though I feel like I have known the name Daniel Ortega since my
childhood he has only been the president of Nicaragua for 7 years.
Some colourful handmade chair hammocks selling at a roadside stand.
Always very cool when a cycling club catches up and cycles along with you.
These guys were cycling from Managua to Granada. Only 40kms. And they had ALL the gear.
Bomberos have no funding in Nicaragua

Looking up Nicaragua on the Human Development Index (HDI) I see that it sits at 124 in world development rankings. This means that both Honduras and Guatemala, both of which I have cycled through, are poorer than Nicaragua. How come than that Nicaragua is by far the cheapest of all the Central American countries? I don't know.

By looking at the facilities of the Nicaraguan fire stations I can safely say that they are beyond doubt the shabbiest in all of Central America. The following 3 pictures are from one particularly poor station. 
Saskia sits in a plastic chair on the dirt floor of a tin shack
fire station in Nicaragua.
The poor fire fighters who sleep here mustn't sleep too well.
Myself and Saskia had to clean out the rubbish
from this fire station shower before we used it.
And yet in the same shabby tin shack of a station, within minutes of arriving one of that lads had popped out to the local street stall and brought us back a treat. A ball of popcorn glued together with sugar cane honey. Is that called molases? First bite was tasty, after that it was just a bit tooooo sweet.
A big ball of popcorn and sugar cane honey.
Ometepe island
My final destination in Nicaragua was the island of Ometepe. The island has 2 big volcanos. Perhaps an 8 hour hike said some of the backpackers on my boat. They were all excited about getting up in the middle of the night to start the long hike. I was looking forward to some quiet relaxed off-the-saddle time. 

Chatting with backpackers on the boat on the way to the volcano island
of Ometepe. I cycled 120kms that day trying to make the boat. Phew. Made it.
After 6 months of chasing each other I finally met up with Herbie (from Galway)
and Laura (from the UK) on Ometepe island. I had previously met them in a campsite in California, USA.
They invited me to cycle with them for a day or 2.