How to Bicycle Tour Central America
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. 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.
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.
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!
It has been a blast.
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.
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
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.
The Best Part
- 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
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:
- Pick a date. Start saving.
- Get a bike, tent & sleeping bag.
- 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.
Advice From Two Months On The Road
Take it One Destination at a Time
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
Keep the Right Attitude
Don’t Make it a Mission
Have Fun Along the Way
And lastly, just enjoy it.
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