Thursday, February 21, 2013

Epic travel: Cycling Honduras and "the world´s most dangerous city"


I was slightly nervous about traversing Honduras on bicycle after hearing recent reports that it was the most murderous country in the world and I knew my route brought me through the two most dangerous urban areas. In 2005 I had three weeks of very enjoyable travel experience in Honduras. This was a fun mix of hiking through pristine cloud forests, partying on a Caribbean Island (Utila), navigating dangerous cities, and traveling remote distinctively cowboy countrysides where every man packs a gun and machete (eg. Olancho). It was a rewarding trip with no sketchy incidences and I saw first hand that it is a country exceptionaly well endowed with natural beauty, but was cycling through it a reasonable idea? To heighten concern, the country had recently been through a major political crisis in 2009. This put the country in a precarious and somewhat dysfunctional state at the worst possible timing as the US recesion deepend and  remittances being sent from Hondurans working abroad were greatly reduced.

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On bicycle I am very much alone on sometimes isolated stretches of road and my relatively rich possessions are dificult to conceal. My inertia provides a surprising sense of security and my traveling experience gives me a solid foundation to judge situations and keep focus if things get dicey. But really, its just me on my bike exposed to all that goes on around. Honduras, here I come.

An early morning 40km ride from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, brings me through extensive palm and banana plantations of the Montagua Valley and then I arrive at the border where I have a genuinely good time entering the country. The Guatemalan border guards were very friendly and one insisted that I tell him stories of my adventure so I hang out for about 30 minutes sharing some of  my challenges regarding dog attacks, crazy winds and endless hills. The Honduran immigration officer was very professional and gave me a proper receipt for my 3$ entrance as well as a much appreciated map of the country.

On the Honduran side there are no more plantations and the road traverses below a steep mountain range. The mountains rise quite high towards mist shrouded summits and their ravine-creviced sides are covered in luxurious, thriving vegetation. Out of thick undergrowth grow immense Ceibas and other hardwoods that have branch-less boles over two meters thick and as straight as a sugar pine to over 20m up before their wide-spreading sympodial crowns. I had never seen hardwoods with such straight thick trunks and I imagined the wood quality must be superb. Indeed, the hardwoods of the Honduran Coast were a highly valued resource sought by Spainish colonizers and later the British navy and pirates who fought battles for these productive lands.  

After about two hours of riding along the beautiful and mostly intact mountain side I arrive in Omoa where I found a large and clean hotel room for 6$ a night. Omoa had a nice beach area with lots of restraunts and stunning views of the jungle-covered mountains but I decide to dine at a cheaper spot along the highway. While eating in the rustic diner I notice and reflect on some extreme differences in this new country. During my ride I had been greeted by a few uncomfortable stares and my friendly salutations towards the locals received much less response than they had in Belize and Mexico. This is a major downer since friendly interaction with the locals always makes riding solo a little less lonely. Also, in Omoa garbage fires were lit in several places around the highway and thick blue plastic smoke fills the streets. 
Plastic and other garbage a flame off the highway in Omoa

I certainly chose the wrong restaurant too, because soon after ordering I noticed a bad aroma of over-used oil and when my dinner arrives it is a gross looking slab of pork 3/4 fat and grizzle with just two tasty bites of meat. I still eat the chewy fat because I am very hungry. The plantains tasted like near-spoiled oil and to make matters much worse a young man who I noticed sitting on the ground outside the diner decided to approach and watch me intently while I eat my dinner. I felt sorry for him. He was obviously hungry and looked somehow disturbed but I did not want to give him reward for his poorly mannered begging. He made my crappy dinner quite uncomfortable but I just took it for what it was. It was a hardlined introduction to Honduras, as if to say things are different here and that I that should be expected.

The next day I started well before sunrise and was hoping to cycle 140km to an American-owned beer brewery at Honduras´ largest lake: Lago de Yojoa. The thought of sampling craft-brewed ales during the post-ride relax gave me tremendous motivation to ride hard and accomplish the distance. However, to get there I had to overcome a daughting, somewhat terrifying urban obstacle. Riding through any large city is an exciting challenge but on this day I had to cross San Pedro Sula, the most dangerous city in the world.

The murder rate in San Pedro Sula for the last few years has hovered around 160 people per 100,000 residents. That is very high, and suggests there is a significant probability of being murdered if you live there. My friend James who I started this trip with, cautioned me that while he was near there for New Years Eve in 2005, over 100 people were murdered during that single evening.

I approach the city fast feeling energized and confident. I pull over to chat with an armoured security squad guarding a gas station about what I should expect in the city. They tell me its not so bad and it will be safe during daytime and my route, provided I don´t get lost in the city of over 700,000, will avoid the sketchiest neighborhoods. Before I leave the gas station I have to ask them if such a large security force armed with shotguns is really neccessary to protect the gas station. They look at me like I am stupid and assure me that yes, such a degree of protection is definitely needed here. Gu-ulp.

The city was an epic, challenging and thrilling ride. Traffic was intense on the highway into town and riding was a mix of mountain biking down the rough shoulder and cycling hard in the stream of unstructured traffic. Once in the center I found quieter streets through neighborhoods that appeared relatively safe but I did not stop aside from a needed cash withdrawal where security officers guarded my bike. I tried about 12 bank machines before succeeding in getting cash and this added a lot to the challenge and stress of the ride. I saw great riches and extreme poverty, real life workings of the infamous city, which locals claim is quite safe outside certain areas and away from cartel dealings. I cleared the center and then several more edgy suburbs before finally being clear of the zone into calm countryside with a wide valleys and plantations of rapid growing trees that look a little like poplars but are in the Bixaceae family. 

Once well away from the city I slow down for lunch and rehydrate out of the hot sun. I was fairly exhausted from the fast urban section of stressful fast riding but grateful for the moderate cloud cover of the day. San Pedro Sula is normally steaming hot and 30-40 degrees C with great humidity is common. It was not even 30 C this day.

Summit of Santa Barbara 2744m
Just when I think the day is fainlly over, the final 10 km of riding turns into a huge hill climb. Along the hill some incredible trees start appearing all clad in immense amounts of epiphytes, many of which are cactus, but the riding is tough on my tired legsa. The first 4km maintains a 15% grade and is followed by another 6km of moderate grade to the hostel situated at 1200m in the cloud forest of Lago de Yojoa. The beer is outstanding and the next day I receive an email that the forest conservation project I am hoping to join in Colombia that not all is going well and that there is no rush for me to get there. This is unfortunate but also means I can take my time so I decide to stay another day at the comfortable brewery hostle and take a guided hike up Santa Barbara, 2744m, the second highest peak in Honduras and the home to a plethora of endemic species and stunning vegetation zones. 

My guide is extremely knowledgable and points out interesting things everywhere including endemic woodpeckers, the howls of distant monkeys, rare orchids, and some seriously large trees. Near the top is a cloud forest zone with a number of conifers which I easily recognize as belonging to Taxus, Abies, Pinus and Cuppressaceaae. We make it to the mist shrouded summit where there is no view but I am overall delighted by the botanical exploration and tough muddy climbing.

The next day I depart after an unexpected flat tire repair and have a fairly enjoyable days ride along a busy but smooth highway with safe cycling shoulder to the pretty city of Comayagua, former capital of Honduras (until 1880). About 45km into that day I was met with a 10km long hill but coconut vendors along route make for great rest stops. Coconut vendors are so far everywhere and the going price is about .30$  US for a refreshing fruit with up to 1L of water inside. The landscape is surprisingly familiar to me. I can recall from my trip eight years ago seeing this steep pine covered countryside from a speeding bus and remember feeling frustrated to see it fly by so fast. Cycling at slow pace in total exposure to the surrounding countryside is thus extra gratifying.  

The next day I meet a local mountain biker named Christian on the road and he joins me as we start up a very long 20km hill. At one point a young kid joins us and we are suddenly three until the kid gets to his aunts house and a few km later Christian hits his goal for the day and then cycles back downhill.
Now at 13 km up a 20km hill south of Comayagua, Honduras

In the afternoon I approach the capital, Tegucicalpa, which just so happens to be the fourth most dangerous city in the world and is perhaps slightly more risky than San Pedro Sula for tourists. When I was there in 2005 I didnt think it was too bad and hiked advenurously to many parts of the city but since then gang violence has escalated and tourist kidnappings have been reported.  

During my visit in 2005 I actually quite liked the city, mainly because of its stunning location in a massive valley with rolling complex terrain and dry pine-covered hills all around. As I begin the long descent into town the spectacular urban zone comes into view. It looks like a sprawling labyrinth of concrete mazes and I pull over to gazer in wonder at which parts might be friendly and which are completely unsafe for me. When seen from above it reminds me a lot of La Paz, Bolivia or even Quito, Ecuador but I know that at ground level it does not compare in beauty or interest to those fascinating South American capitals and I desire to cross it and find lodging somewhere well away from its outskirts on the other side. 

I continue downhill along a rough road that is under construction. I pass black smoke spewing busses and careen past hordes of fast moving people, crews of labouring constuction workers and greasy mechanic shops. The energy of the city and all thats going around me starts to feel a bit overwhelming and the deeper I get into the urban maze the more I realize that my mental map of the city only covers the very center and I actually have little idea where I am going. Its fun and exciting but perhaps its going towards a degree of challenge and sketchiness beyond my comfort zone. To make matters a little more precarious, in 30 min a big soccer match is about to begin: Honduras vs. United States. This means that people will be drinking and I am aware that the vast majority of Hondurans think I am American. In my mind I wonder if this is a risk for me, soccer is a big deal here and the outcome of this game will have a big effect on people´s phyche.

I make a sudden decision and pull over to negotiate a price with a taxi driver to bring me across the city. Deciding on a price is difficult because I dont really know where I am going and I end up paying $15US, which is probably double what I should pay. But that feels like small change compared to the rest of my possessions and now I rest easy as the taxi flies through the bustling chaotic urban zone and drops me on the other side, to my glee, 7km up a steep hill. I am very happy to be through and passed, very happy.

I continue cycling along rolling hills. The road is traversing the side of steep pine covered hills and views all around are glorious. The air is very fresh and its hard to beleive that I am only 30km outside the capital when I pull over to buy some bags of water. I am glad the cheap purified water tastes good because some of the bag-water I have bought in Honduras has a terrible, greasy taste. 
Fairly typical scenery in central Honduras at mid to higher elevations.

As I cycle further away from the capital the people are suddenly very nice as if they are delighted, like I am, that I have made it through the worst challenges of Honduras. They all greet me with smiles, heartful "buenas tardes," and then wish me a safe trip as I cycle on. It makes sense to me that the people here are so nice since they are living on the side of pine covered hills with a fresh climate and stunning views. A long winding descent begins and I get the idea to look for somewhere to stay. I would rather sleep up in the fresh scenic hills than in the hot valley below so I find a hotel for the night and even catch the final 30 min of the Honduras vs. US soccer match, which ends in victory for Honduras: Honduras 2, USA 1. Go Honduras!
Danli, Western Honduras. I did not see any other foriegn tourists while in this beautiful city

The next day is a short but scenic ride to Danli, a lovely colonial city completly void of tourists surrounded by tobacco farms and steep mountains. I hike up to the cross being constructed on a scenic viewpoint over town. As I hike down from the enormous cross the sun is setting and the world is cast in brilliant evening glow. As I walk down the steep staircase, the cross glowing behind me, a man talking on his cell phone looks up at me in disbelief nealry dropping his phone. "Jesus Christ?" he says gesturing towards me. "Sorry amigo, I am not him," I say in spanish and then resolve that my beard could probably could use a trim. 

 The next day I start early and cycle 15km towards the Nicaragua border before stopping in the coffee producing village of El Paraiso for breakfast. No restraunts are open yet so I eat traditional Honduran tortilla with beans and drink coffee with the locals in the main plaza. Its a chilly morning and everybody in the dirty basic plaza is focussed on their coffee. We all stand around content and mindful of our warm drinks and it seems we all know that there is a tough uncertain day ahead. The moment is harmonious and nobody seems to notice that I do not fit the scene. Its a perfect end to Honduras and in a sense it feels like I have finally discovered what the country is really about. I finish breakfast and silently roll away from the plaza and out of town. From there I climb a long hill through coffee fincas and lines of coffee beans drying on the shoulder of the road and then arrive at a slighlty hectic border post. I enter Nicaragua and everything, once again, is totally new, totally different. 


Spanish Fort in Omoa to to defend against raiding British pirates
Large tree near Lago de Yojoa with a variety of epiphytes including cactus, bromeliads and philodendron
fun tree climbing on Santa Barbara
The cloud forest around 2400m on Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara seen from village of Los Naranjos
View from low slopes of Santa Barbara. Honduras largest lake Lago de Yojoa seen partially on right
Danli, Western Honduras

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jan 2013, After 3 months cycling in Mexico I enter Belize with the goal of continuing all the way to Panama


After three months of cycling over 4200 km across Mexico I ride out the final km to Belize. What a glorious moment!... Unfortunate├▒y, I received a wicked terrible fire ant sting while this shot was beig taken. The sting swelled my ankle to baseball size and lasted a week.
Greetings! My name is Ira Sutherland, I left my home in Vancouver, Canada on Sept 7th to cycle the west coast of the United States in search of the world´s largest and tallest trees and then cycled across Mexico giving me a total mileage of 7500 km as I entered Belize on Jan 22nd, 2013. This is the continuation of my blogging that covered most of Mexico´s mainland (biketouringmexico.blogspot.com).

An important development in the days prior to entering Belize was that it looked promising that I had secured an enticing job in northern Colombia working on a forest conservation project. Because of this I was suddenly in a rush to make ground south. This sudden rush left me with mixed feelings as I weighed the benefits of the job to the sacrifice of rushing through this fascinating part of the world.  

After a full three months of cycling through Mexico, Belize was a tremendous change and I experienced a solid dose of culture shock. I had to resist greeting people in Spanish as I encounter diverse peoples including Criolles who speak a distinct and very laid back sounding dialect of English, Mennonites dressed in 19th century attire, traditional Mayans who speak fluent english in addition to their native tongue, asian immigrnts who for some reason own every single grocery store and Garrifuna villages founded by escaped or marooned African slaves. Also a big change is that I see a clear emphasis on ecotourism and recognition of the services provided by intact ecosystems. Belize has the lowest population density in Central America (15.11 persons per sq. km) and tourism and ecotourism accounts for about a third of GDP and employment, thus large tracts of the country are undeveloped and many have been designated as conservation areas. For myself, this is fantastic to see and a big change from what I have so far witnessed through the US and Mexico.
if you are looking for a good read I highly recomend "Secrets of the Talking Jaguar"

Unfortunately, the road quality is worse as they are paved roughly with coarse asphalt and in the northern portion of the country debris fallen from haphazardouly loaded sugar cane trucks litter the road. The sugar cane trucks themsleves are a real danger as well becase they often pass with sugar canes dangling from their side, sometimes at head height or pitched forwards as if to joust me from the road. Here I am hit with big storms too. After two wet days riding south I decide to take a rest day camping under a palapa at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and make a visit to the Belize Zoo, which provides habitat and rehabilitation for injured animals. There I see jaguars, crocodiles, tapires, ocelots, black jaguars, otters, macaws, toucans, a harpi eagle and dozens of other interesting animals. Even though I was aware that the zoo was helping injured animals Its still tough seeing such noble wild animals locked in cages.


 For the rest of the day I relax in the wildlife sanctuary´s extensive library. I find a text on tropical forest ecology by T.C. Whitmore and study the first three chapters carefully. This may sound boring but I am delighted to read about the amazing ecosystems and endless diversity within these forests. I have so much to learn. Science in general still has so much to discover about these complex systems.

My route is from Chetumal, Mexico to Punta Gorda in the south
From there I decide not to head west into Guatemala via San Ignacio but instead to ride into southern Belize, which currently has no outflow road (it will by 2015 or so) but can be exited via ferry to Guatemala or Honduras. This turns out to be a fantastic desicion since the country becomes exponentially more beautiful only a few kilometers after the fork to the two respective routes. Infact, the highlight of my whole Belize experiece was this first day cycling south from there. The hummingbird highway, as this portion is called, is a stunning 70 km road through mayan villages and precipitous karst mountains rising above citrus plantations and verdant bird-filled jungle. I had set the goal to arrive that day 130km in distance at the town of Hopkins, a very chill garifuna village on the caribbean coast, so my trip through the scenic hills of the Hummingbird highway is done rapidly with only a single short break and I then continue riding another 40km down the Southern Highway. Before getting to Hopkins I stop at roadside bar, which are all labeled as "cool spots" for a delicious Belikin stout, the national beer, and am offered a smoke by the local creole owner. The stout goes down smooth and the owner insists I have time for one more strong ale. My final 15km into Hopkins are fun and blissful as a fresh Caribbean breeze replaces the heat of the afternoon and my shadow stretches out in front of me on the dirt track. I arrive to the small village and bounce down the potholed road passing locals that appear too chilled out to even raise a curious brow at me. I arrive at a beach front budget accomodation listed in my guide book. Its $11 US a night and so far Belize is easily as affordable as Mexico, despite what many travelers had told me.

Hopkins
I could have stayed in Hopkins a week, it was that chilled out, but I had to keep going after the single night and a relaxing morning. I leave just before noon and its about 33 degrees C without humidex under the scolding hot sun. The fresh rain clouds of the past week had passed. I ride short distances between shady bus stops where I pull over for a short respite from the sun. While I am stopped at one, a cheerful solo female cyclist named Hannah suddenly pulls in. We ride together for the next three days and are stoked to have each others company. Its been more than a month for me without a riding companion and I adapt my plans a little to take advantage of the opportunity. We spend a night in Independence where we have several Belikin beers and cook a big soup. After dinner I become exceedingly exhausted, almost falling asleep outside. Riding through this heat is really draining.

A remote Mayan village undergoing a massive transition as a new trans-border highway is built through the heart of it.
A final outstanding experience in Belize is a visit to the traditional Mayan villages of sothern Toledo district. Again the heat is outrageous and after a short visit to a Mayan ruin site we pull over exhausted where a lady is selling watermelon slices. She invites us into the shade of her farm away from the road. We sit on the grass delighted with the refreshing snack and the lady and her daughter sit across from us. Colourful birds dart about and a thatcheted traditional home is up the slope from us. The old women speaks perfect english and begins to tell us about her farm as she directs her grandson to fetch us bananas and roasted pumpkin seeds. She speaks of her land with love and contentment as she explains that she has everything she needs. Corn is planted in the hills above alongside beans and squash, medicinal plants grow wild in the forest around. She has bananas, coffee, chocolate, coconuts and valuable mahogany trees planted. "Do you like coconuts?" she asks. I tell her they are my favourite and then she shows me a tree with massive green coconuts ready to harvest. She passes me a big stick to knock them off and it takes me a while but I eventually loosen a heavy coconut which crashes to the ground. I share the replenishing fruit with Hannah and its difficult for us to leave. Her farm is so pleasant and the lady so sweet; the heat of the road is still very intense. 

a rough path lead to the village of San Jose
We arrive late in the village of San Antonio and camp in the yard of a local Mayan women who we approach after seeing her smile at us from within her property. Her neighbor drops by offering bananas for sale. We buy 16 for 1$ US and they have a distinctive spicy taste of clove and other aromatic flavours. We are absolutly delighted by the exotic, almost somehow magical tasting bananas. The next day we visit two other beautiful traditional villages and I hope we can hike to a 200 foot deep limestone sinkhole but it turns out to be a full day trek from San Jose. Visiting the hidden traditional villages is enough of an adventure and then we return to San Antonio, saddle up our gear that we left with the lady where we camped and ride to Punta Gorda on the coast.

 In the morning I get my passport stamped and jump into a speed boat bound for Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. A complete traverse of Belize highway from north to south in only 8 days. I can really appreciate this feeling of accomplishment after spending 3 months to get across Mexico! Overall it was a very easy flat ride with low traffic volume, rough paved but not trecherous roads and a pretty good feeling of safety, though, slightly less than I felt in Yucatan, Mexico. A few days of rain lowered my spirit a bit but under the incredible heat a few days later I could then appreciate the rain. The worst part of my traverse was the terrible fire ant bite I got just before entering Belize and the many more I got at Crooked Tree. Fire ants leave long lasting very itchy welts on me. Not fun at all! The best part was definitely seeing the successful efforts to preserve their natural wealth and the crazy cultural mosaic of Belize. I liked all the groups I encountered and it was a refreshing dynamic from Mexico.


25$ US for the speed boat trip to Guate. it was beautiful, I was stoked!
The sea is calm and the boat zooms smoothly towards open water and the the mountains of Guatemala appear ahead. My bike is positioned upright at the front of the boat in a rather noble way. We make a quick stop in the Garrifuna town of Livingston where hostel hawkers and other locals looking for a few bucks bombard the boat in a rather intimidating way. "Welcome to Africa," yells one man above all the others and I am glad to not be getting off there. When I was there eight years ago someone in my hostel was stabbed by a late night burglar and a bank machine ripped me off nearly $300, leaving me a somewhat bitter impression of the otherwise pretty town. In contrast, the Puerto Barrios dock was calm and lazy. I visited immigration for an entrance stamp and then found a great hotel room for the night. This was my single night in Guatemala, which I had developed a strong liking for when I travelled the nation for two months in 2005. Tomorrow I would enter Honduras and I had a keen suspicion that solo bike touring Honduras was going to be a serious challenge and that the adventure level was about to go way up, likely to a level higher than I had yet experienced.

A very large and likely very old Ceiba just south of Corozal along main highway
 
Same tree, another view. This was probably the most impressive tree I saw in Belize, for size
Crocs

enormous puma
keel-billed toucan
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. I received another 5 or 6 fire ant stings well here.
A cooperative vireo poses for a shot
the village of Crooked Tree


The Hummingbird Highway just south of Belmopan
Karst rock on the Hummingbird Highway
The Maya Mountains as seen from Hummingird Highway

A beautiful and large Ceiba near southern end of the Hummingbird Highway
Hopkins Beach
6.5 km dirt trck into Hopkins
Independance
km 44 on the recently paved Southern Highway

Looking west towards a huge no-access wilderness area where rumour has it that there is a pair of nesting harpi eagles
Hannah from England starting a hill bomb
Nice swimming hole near San Antonio. We saw a river otter and an agouti here.
Punta Gorda on Caribbean coast
Punta Gorda
Punta Gorda
Arrival in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala
sunset at Puerto Barrios, Guatemala