How to Bicycle Tour Central America

By Joseph Ricken & Elin on June 22nd, 2016
BootsnAll

From the second I saw those bikes I fell in love. Nothing we had seen at any of the previous bike shops could even compare. Not only were they made specifically for bike touring, they also looked totally bad-ass and it took me all of about seven milliseconds to make up my mind that I wanted them.

We slept on it for a few nights to make sure we were ready to make the plunge, and decided that it was meant to be. So, we bought the bikes, bought the rest of the gear that we thought we needed, and started to make plans of where we wanted to bike. We decided that Mexico City to Panama City would be a cool stretch and that we would figure out the route along the way.

For our first day of riding we picked a spot in the mountains about 35 km from where we were going to start that supposedly had camping, a nice waterfall and beautiful scenery. We imagined it would be a good amount of biking for our first day and a perfect spot for our first night. As it turned out, we hadn’t really done our research.


“We only had 35 km to our destination and we were positive that we would make it.”

The scenery was better than we could have hoped for, but the route to get there was not at all what we had expected. Our first day of biking we got up at 8.00 am but before we were done preparing and eating breakfast, taking down the tent and getting everything repacked it was already 10.00 am.

We only had 35 km to our destination and we were positive that we would make it. On Google maps it looked like any other good road on the map, and that was also how the day started. But it didn’t take more than 3 kilometers before that comfortable asphalt road switched to a rough dirt road, scattered with big rocks and potholes.

When the road changed to dirt, we asked a few people that we passed how the roads were to Santiago Apoala, and if they thought that it would be doable with our bikes and packs. Strangely, we received a different answer from every person we asked.


“And the last few laughed and said that we should take a car because it would be impossible and looked at us like we were idiots for even trying.”

The first one said it would be easy, and that we would be there in three hours. The next few said that it would be doable but very tough. And the last few laughed and said that we should take a car because it would be impossible and looked at us like we were idiots for even trying.

We decided to go for it but as we started to climb into the mountains, the hills became so steep that we were forced to walk our bikes for kilometers at a time, and at this point, the sun had become so hot that we felt like we were fighting for every inch of progress. Eventually, after several hours of slow progress we sat down under a tree to eat lunch, only for our camping kitchen to refuse to work and for a thunderstorm to start rolling in. With that luck, we decided to call it and instead hope for better progress in the morning.


“That first day we only made it 15 km.”

That first day we only made it 15 km. All because of the late start that made us bike through the worst of heat in the middle of the day, the rough dirt roads that had us biking in zigzags, the steep and endless climbing that made the day more of a hike than a bike ride, and the fact that it was our first day so our physical shape was not great after weeks of no exercise and eating tons of ridiculously good food in Mexico City.

We slept pretty well that night, exhausted from the day’s workout and, having learned from our mistake the day before, we woke up and got off to an early start. Excited with new energy and positive that we would make it to our destination no matter what, we got back on the road, and we did make it. We had done the worst of the climbing the day before and though it was still hard work, after 5 hours we had done the remaining 25 km and arrived where we wanted to be. A small village surrounded by great mountain walls, beautiful streams and waterfalls, a perfect campsite and friendly people. Worth the struggle to get there!


“In a similar style of trial and error, we have been biking and learning every day on the road.”

In a similar style of trial and error, we have been biking and learning every day on the road. Taking a route from the mountains above Oaxaca to the pacific coast of Mexico, then back into the mountains of Chiapas, before cycling down and over the Guatemalan border, where we currently find ourselves at the famous backpacker hangout, Lake Atitlan, which lands us about halfway on our planned journey from Mexico to Panama.

It has been a blast.

Want to take an extended trip?

Our Story

bikes Joe

Joseph


For me, it all started about 5 years ago. I was 21 years old and decided to take a summer off and travel to India, alone, with no cellphone or computer, and stay away from all forms of communication with the outside world for the duration of my trip. In the course of those two months I climbed mountains, learned about yoga and meditation, and came to a lot of personal insights.

Coming home from that trip, I was changed in a way that so many other travelers are changed. Not only did I come home with insights, a new way of being and a subtle high that stayed with me for months, I also had gotten the travel bug, and couldn’t wait to take off on another long-term adventure to see more of the world.

Two years later, I walked into a men’s clothing store to buy a suite for my first job after grad school, and that’s where I met Elin.

bikes Elin

Elin


When Joseph and I met, one of our first conversations was about traveling and we connected quickly. I had done a few trips of about two months each with friends and I told him about my wish to make a longer journey, to wherever the road may lead me, for however long I wanted to go. He seemed to have the same idea so after only dating for a couple of months, we decided to start saving money and if we were still on the same page when the time came, we would do the trip together.

On January 1st 2016, about three years later, the time was right, so we quit our jobs and got on a plane from Stockholm, Sweden to Puerto Rico, USA with no home ticket and no idea where we would go from there.

As things turned out, we ended up in Mexico with the idea of traveling down through Central America. On our first day in Cancun we discussed how we wanted to travel and, as we saw it, we had three options.

  • Travel by bus, typical backpacker style.
  • Buy a car and road trip our way down.
  • Or, do something that neither of us had much experience doing, buying bikes and pedaling.

We were both intrigued by the idea of biking and decided to see if we could make it happen.

Though I didn’t know anything about bike touring and Joseph had only done a weekend tour in the Unites States a few years back, we knew, from doing some reading on the internet, that we at a bare minimum needed to find bikes that were suitable for touring, front and back bike racks to carry panniers (bike bags), and also bike panniers for our stuff.

We went looking in different cities as we traveled through them, going from one bike shop to another to try to find a place that had the right equipment, and we found bike shops all over Mexico, but we didn’t find a single one that had the gear that we were looking for. So we started to feel like maybe it will be hard to it in this part of the world.

But, in Mexico City, while walking around the upscale area of Polanco we unexpectedly stumbled upon a small bike shop and like a revelation, there they were: two bikes specifically made for bike touring, already kitted with front and back racks and panniers that could be fitted to the bikes.

Bike Touring is a Great Way to Travel


bikes couple
Though it hasn’t all been roses, our experience of bike touring has been amazing. What having bikes has enabled us to do is string together our trip, both experiencing the classic backpacker hangouts and destinations, but between each of them, also experiencing the local essence of each region, by stopping at small roadside cafés, asking people for directions, and slowly watching the landscape change before our eyes.

“Having bikes has also brought the element of freedom that is often associated with travel to a whole new level.”

Having bikes has also brought the element of freedom that is often associated with travel to a whole new level. Though any form of travel is a huge liberation, as a “normal” backpacker there is a certain level of restriction in getting around, because of the need to depend on trains, buses, taxis, and tuk-tuks to get from one place to another. In our case, our only restriction is time and energy, and we are otherwise free to go anywhere, anytime, all under our own motor power.

A possibly more personal aspect, but that has also been huge, is the great feeling of keeping up with regular exercise. On bikes, the exercise is automatic, and the accompanying endorphin rush, great appetite and general feeling of well being is as good as if we were going to the gym twice a day.


Downsides

If we had to speak of downsides of biking we might highlight that sometimes we get tired and wish that those last 10 kilometers would go by in a flash instead of an hour, though our feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day is then even more tangible. And maybe also that we have been moving slowly, an otherwise four hour bus ride becoming a two day adventure, but of course that same aspect is one of the reasons why we are doing it in the first place.

bikes friends

The Best Part

Possibly our favorite part of biking though, is that our experiences with the local people has changed significantly. During our two months on the road, we have been in more situations than we can recall where local people have come to our assistance without any motive of personal gain, but instead only out of desire to help a fellow human being.

  • We have been picked up and brought to shade by a dump truck driver who could see us struggling in the sun in the middle of the day
  • We have been helped by a taxi driver who went to the next town, 20 minutes away, to pick up water for us without asking for a cent when he returned
  • We have been asked to come inside to a families home when a thunder storm rolled in over a small mountain town
  • We have been treated to dinner and spirits
  • We have been requested to stay the night in a locals household instead of our “little house” (tent) because they thought that we would be more comfortable with them.

The most amazing thing is that all of those acts of kindness took place on our very first day on the road. And even if not all days have been like that, the local people have been so consistently helpful and kind that we now have the confidence that almost regardless of what situation we end up in, someone will happily come to our rescue. And for those reasons, we are hooked.

Planning a Bike Adventure


bikes fun

Bike touring is a lot less complicated than you might think

Before making the final decision to buy the bikes, we did some research to get an idea of what we would be getting ourselves into and if we actually could do it. On one blog we came across, there was an article called “How To Plan a Bike Tour” and the first paragraph read:

Need advice on planning a bike tour? OK:

  1. Pick a date. Start saving.
  2. Get a bike, tent & sleeping bag.
  3. Choose a direction and start pedaling.

That’s all there is to it. (Length, location and budget make no difference.)

And that is actually the best advice we could give anyone considering to do a tour. Yes, there are a lot of other things that may be nice to have, but it really doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. If you have a bike, free time, some money and camping gear there is nothing stopping you.


“…it really doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. “

In the case of a backpacker wanting to become a bike-packer, another consideration might be where to find the right gear. And for that, your best bet would probably be in a big capital city. That being said, we have seen pictures of two guys who bought used bikes, rigged milk crates as panniers, strapped their backpacks the their back racks, and where doing a similar tour through Central America. So if that is the level of equipment you feel comfortable with (which will certainly be more friendly to your wallet) then you could probably get started almost anywhere.

Ready for a career break like Elin & Joe?

Advice From Two Months On The Road


bikes camp

Take it One Destination at a Time

Though we have kept a general sense of direction, we have found that there is no point in making plans several days in advance of where we want to be and when. Plans change depending on the circumstances of each day and we have found it more enjoyable when we just take each day and destination as it comes.

Find Out About Road Conditions Before Choosing a Route



We have found that a lot more important than distance, is actually road conditions and climbing. A short ride, on a rough road, going uphill will be a lot more challenging than a longer ride, on a flat asphalt road. Therefor, if you have the option, pick a route where the roads are good and as flat as possible. It will make a huge difference.

Camping Gear is Great to Have



We imagine that you can do a tour through this part of the world without camping gear, because so far there have been places almost everywhere to eat and sleep. But we have found that having camping gear has taken the pressure off of us to reach a destination on a particular day and has given us the freedom to stop anywhere we have wanted.

Eat Something Every Hour

Even if you´re not hungry, your body is burning a huge amount of energy when biking, so going for too long without eating can lead to a serious crash in energy and to negative emotions taking over. Therefore, make a point to stop and eat often. It will help keep you in a positive state of mind and enjoying our day.

Keep the Right Attitude

Remember that we all have good days and bad days. Some moments will suck and be tough and some will feel like a piece of cake even though you’ve biked twice as far as the day before. The days that have been the toughest for us are the days when our heads haven’t been with us. So even when the going gets tough, don’t give up, and if you are biking with a partner, try to keep one another in a good state of mind.

Don’t Make it a Mission

Something that we are happy that we decided from day one was that we were not going to make it a mission to bike every kilometer of the way to Panama. Just because we are on bikes doesn’t mean that we want to miss destinations because they are out of the way. Therefore we haven’t felt bad about throwing our bikes on a bus for a few hours to help our forward progress or to bring us to the place we want to be. Your journey is for you, nobody else is keeping track.

Have Fun Along the Way

The most important thing to remember is that the only reason to bike in the first place is to enjoy your trip even more. So don’t forget to still live the lifestyle you want to live, do the cool tours, the hikes, the partying and the hanging out with other backpackers that makes traveling so much fun.

And lastly, just enjoy it.

Read More About Cycle Touring: