My bike is all packed, ready to roll but I’m trying to think of a reason to stay another day in Texas. I’ve drunk about 5 cups of coffee and my anxiety is really getting up there. The legs feel strong from 2 days rest so I put my bike on the road and they’re now pushing me at a quick pace toward the Mexican border. I’m over the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande and I’m now standing in immigration, getting an entrance stamp onto a page of my passport.
I make a left turn, find the road I had planned to take me south and start peddling. It’s a lot warmer than I had expected, perhaps I’m more aware of what’s going on now that I’m in a different country. I’m stopped by a red light and my eyes are darting around, taking in all the details. A few dogs on the corner, some guys hanging around a parked car, nice colours painted on the walls of city buildings. Border towns get a bad wrap and I’m here under the pre-conception that I should be weary.
The first night I spend camping in a town next to a river. I have a quick wash and a few guys walk past and smile. “What a fantastic first day in Mexico,” I say to myself as I lie down to rest with a growing confidence inside me and a beaming smile across my face. I feel safe and I feel happy.
30 minutes later, just outside of town, a car passes me very slowly, then stops on the side of the road 50 metres ahead. As I cautiously approach, the two front doors open and out jump two figures. ‘What’s this gonna be?’ I say to myself, immediately thinking the worst. Turns out this young couple are interested in where I’m traveling to and are eager to have a picture taken with me. Within the space of a minute they are back in their car, cruising off into the distance, smiling and waving.
Another positive interaction follows with a cycling team passing by and donating bars and well wishes. I feel embarrassed to have had my guard up and we pose for photos, together, under the hot sun. The first night I spend camping in a town next to a river. I have a quick wash and a few guys walk past and smile. “What a fantastic first day in Mexico,” I say to myself as I lie down to rest with a growing confidence inside me and a beaming smile across my face. I feel safe and I feel happy.
Monterey is the first major city I cycle through and it’s huge. Navigating is intense and I’m caught up in the flow of traffic and unable to change lanes, so I miss certain streets on a handful of occasions. It’s getting late. I’m in and out of a large grocery store quick-smart to pick up supplies. I find a small river in the outer suburbs and pitch my tent on the bank. Camouflaged 15 metres away from me on the other side of river is a homeless gentleman, watching me. It’s too late to move to another location so I wave at him and he returns to his cave-like structure among the trees. I wade into the river, lay on my back while holding onto two boulders and relax into the flow.
I haven’t been able to sleep next to a river every night. It’s definitely a luxury when it happens. Now I’m cycling along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the humidity is out of control. I find an entrance to a field and start setting up camp in the high grass. I’ve seen snakes on the side of the road but this is a secondary threat to the insane level of mosquitos that have congregated around me.
The hour is 6pm and it’s still about 30 degrees Celsius. The tents up but there is no creek in sight for a wash, I haven’t crossed one all day. Time to improvise.
If I remain still, I’ll be eaten by mosquitos so I’m in this field at dusk, briskly walking around in circles and figure eights, completely nude with my drink bottle in one hand and a wash cloth in the other.
If I remain still, I’ll be eaten by mosquitos so I’m in this field at dusk, briskly walking around in circles and figure eights, completely nude with my drink bottle in one hand and a wash cloth in the other. In an attempt to clean myself without getting bitten. The whole frantic ordeal really gets my heart going so when I return to my tent to rest, I’ve worked up a little sweat. Laying in the completely still atmosphere with high humidity takes tremendous discipline to suppress the rage or perhaps hopelessness inside of me. There is no way to win. The heat, mosquitoes and overall deflation I have been feeling over the past few days has taxed me. I lie back on my matt, staring at the night sky through the mesh of the tent, there is an equal amount of stars to mosquitoes, I’m sure.
I’m riding along a federal highway, on my way to San Cristobal when I’m suddenly stopped by the highway police. Apparently, for a reason I’m unable to understand, I’m not allowed to be on this section on a bicycle. The police load my bike and luggage into the back of their vehicle and I jump into the tray as well and we take off. I’ve ridden along many federal highways in Mexico and wonder why this one is different. It feels like we are going 150km an hour. I’m so used to seeing the white line disappear under me at walking pace as I’ve been climbing these mountains that to see that familiar view as a blur is exciting. I gain about 20km in their car and they let me out at the foot of a monster climb. We shake hands and I ascend through the clouds to a pass and then enjoy a relaxing downhill into San Cristobal.
I’ve been eating avocados, refried beans, capsicums and tortillas for a couple of days now so I’m beginning to feel a little bit weak. I start buying more and more sugar snacks, washing it down with fruit nectar. Occasionally I eat at a small vendor on the side of the road, a few tacos or eggs and beans in the morning is a cheap way to refuel and after a few days of struggling, I make the realisation that it’s time to carry more food with me. I’m burning through my energy a lot faster in the tropics.
My rear tire is getting very low, I’ve sewed it together in 2 places and the wear indicator is worn through in a continuous band. This tire is about to fall to pieces, the bulging areas that I stitched together are making the bike wobble uncontrollably above 50km an hour. I coast along the cobble stone streets of Antigua and check into a hostel. I take a weeks worth of Spanish language lessons, search the town for a tire and end up ordering one online. Antigua is incredibly touristic. The farmacia is set up perfectly to cater too, with Pepto Bismol, condoms and boxes of Valium on prominent display. A backpackers one stop shelf, right here. The restaurants have bilingual menus and the prices have that little bit of dazzle on them. A stark contrast to where I’ve come from. The bonus is I’m around young travellers who speak English and I flex the conversation muscle whilst throwing down a few hard-earned beers.
On the second night I get permission to sleep in a church. I have a shower and am given clean clothes to wear. Then I’m given a hymn book and a bible and I’m ushered into the mass. We are a congregation of about 15, the ceiling fans are working overtime and the music is very loud.
El Salvador is a really nice place and I find it incredibly hospitable. On the second night I get permission to sleep in a church. I have a shower and am given clean clothes to wear. Then I’m given a hymn book and a bible and I’m ushered into the mass. We are a congregation of about 15, the ceiling fans are working overtime and the music is very loud. The young man to my side shows me the hymn number in my book and up starts the introduction to a song over the blasting speakers. I dive in head first, singing words I’ve never seen before, to a melody I have never heard. Fortunately, most hymns are like nursery rhymes so by the time the chorus comes back around, I’m really giving it my best. The pastor is to follow and that’s when the 120km through the humidity begins to take its toll. I’m front and centre, pinching my leg to stay awake. I understand about 1 out of 10 words and by the end I’m so sleepy I have to hold myself in the chair with both hands.
I’ve witnessed some wild things so far along these Central American roads, including my bike being struck by a car. The surface conditions have been all over the spectrum. Some days I’m cycling along brand new tarmac before the lane paint has gone down, and later that afternoon I don’t have the luxury of taking my eyes off the road because if I do, my front wheel may enter a gigantic crevasse and I’ll be railroaded over over a cliff. The chicken busses seem to have the highway wired. It’s an incredible vision seeing those huge school busses hang it around the corners. They are brightly decorated and have some of the loudest horns know to human kind. I’ve ridden with drivers who like to demonstrate how loud that horn is during the split-second we are both parallel on the road. Never mind the crevasse in the road in this circumstance. If you’re not prepared and braced, you might just turn your handlebars 90 degrees in fright.
Nicaragua is a really great place to cycle. Mainly due to the fact that it’s reasonably flat in comparison to Guatemala and El Salvador and the highway I chose showcased some beautiful volcanoes as it snaked around their base. I detour a small amount to Popoyo, hire a surfboard and get a couple of good barrels at Colorados. I feel refreshed again, although the humidity is still way beyond my comfort zone.
Each afternoon brings torrential rain and I’m soaked to the bone as motorists shower me in walls of water as they speed past. “At least it’s warm,” I say to myself and cruise up to a restaurant to ask if I can camp in the back tonight.
Once I reach Costa Rica I start getting excited. I’m pretty close to the Darien Gap. Each afternoon brings torrential rain and I’m soaked to the bone as motorists shower me in walls of water as they speed past. “At least it’s warm,” I say to myself and cruise up to a restaurant to ask if I can camp in the back tonight. I set my camp in their carport, do some stretches and fall asleep to the sound of pounding rain on the tin roof. It’s probably one of the most relaxing noises I know, from a simple time growing up on Maturin Avenue.
I like the border crossings on a bike, there’s so much going on that I like to take a little rest to observe this place in limbo. I’m sipping on a plastic bag of Coca Cola that costs me an American quarter, watching the busy bee hive of activity. It’s late afternoon and the glow of the setting sun adds a particular beauty. People are becoming more wide eyed as they up the tempo of their sales pitch for whatever they are peddling. There’s smoke in the air from all the small vendors cooking pollo asado, beer bottle caps are being popped and the street dogs are licking their lips as plastic plates are discarded to the ground.
I’m five months on the road now and am able to sleep through almost anything. This is the last country of Central America. It all starts to sink in as I slip away into slumber.
I reassess the immigration line; it’s empty and just as well because I feel tired. I’m stamped out of Costa, walk back to my bike and ride over to Panama. I’m stamped in and see a sign for the bomberos. I ask if I can camp in the fire station and they kindly show me a place to sleep. There’s a thumping discotheque next door and a floodlight that stays on all night above me. I’m five months on the road now and am able to sleep through almost anything. This is the last country of Central America. It all starts to sink in as I slip away into slumber.
It’s raining cats and dogs. I can feel the water doing damage to my cassette, derailers and chain. I snap a shifting cable close to Panama City and take a day to fix it and dry out. I build up the strength for one last push, a 100 miler to the city and I’m powering along with the most determination I’ve felt in months. I reflect on the Mexican and Central American journey and thank the stars it’s almost over, I’ve never felt such perpetual hopelessness. The climate has been really hard to endure. Something I completely underestimated.
Fortunately, the generosity of people along this route has been humbling and uplifting. There is a great feeling of community in the majority of the places I experienced.
Fortunately, the generosity of people along this route has been humbling and uplifting. There is a great feeling of community in the majority of the places I experienced. Each person beaming a large smile at the sight of my waving hand. I’ll never forget the night sleeping in someone’s yard and in the morning waking up to their young son holding out a cooked breakfast and coffee. A family of helping hands making sure I, as a traveler, am treated the same as the rest of the community. A valuable lesson in fairness which has greatly changed the way I think about my treatment towards others. The language barrier is slowly being overcome too, and it’s nice to see the smile on peoples’ faces when I finally put together a sentence. As long as the topic stays on me then we’re in business. Kind of like most of my conversations in English
I’m currently in Columbia and I made it around the Darien Gap by going the cheap way. But that’s a lengthy story in itself. Keep your eyes peeled for another update on the AHB and lookout for videos of my crying in the Andes at Gone Full Circle.
To rewind to the start of Josh’s trip, check out Part 1 of Gone Full Circle.
Words and images by Josh Bergemann | Stay in tune with his tour on his Facebook page Gone Full Circle.