That First Jolt
Days 101-109 – Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua – 16,837 km
The Route: A) Coban, B) Antigua, C) Guatemala City, D) Juayua, E) La Libertad, F) San Salvador, G) Quezaltepeque, H) El Boquerón, I) Playas Negras, J) Tegucigalpa, K) León, L) La Paz Centro
From León, Nicaragua, Jess took Ruta 12 going southeast while I set out on an unnamed dirt road going east toward Lake Managua and Momotombo Volcano beside it. When I first left the tarmac the earth was hard-packed with scattered rocks and gravel. It was fast going as I skipped passed the rural houses, overtaking a few trucks carrying farming supplies and produce. Further out a light-weight, off-road motorbike overtook me and this pricked at my pride. I tugged on the accelerator and shifted up a gear and continued accelerating until I remembered that my bike was at least twice the weight and then heavier again for the loaded panniers and duffle.
Volcán Momotombo from dirt road
Further out I rode passed planted farms and fields of grazing cows. Here the road began to change. The hard-packed earth petered out and the dirt became like powder and was lighter than sand. Suddenly the powder was very deep and carved into channels from heavy trucks and tractors that had recently passed. I had to fight against my instinct not to brake and slow into and through the worst of these stretches, and also to relax my grip on the handlebars and let the front tire glide lightly ahead of me. Are you sure you really enjoy this? I asked myself. I didn’t know how to answer myself for a half-kilometer or so until I had passed through several difficult stretches and I began to breathe normally and remember my riding skills. As I relaxed, I gained in confidence and I could feel the improved traction from the new Heidenau K60 tires that we had put on in Guatemala City. Yes, I really do enjoy this and I want more of it – a lot more than I’ve gotten so far in the trip, I finally answered myself.
Not more than 30 seconds after reaffirming my enjoyment of off-roading, a deep rut of powder caught me by surprise. It twisted my front tire out from under me and sent Penny and me crashing to the ground.
After spending New Years Eve in Cobán, Guatemala, on New Years Day we made a full day’s ride into Antigua and then the next morning a short hop into Guatemala City. We went to the BMW and had new tires put on the bikes. We had wanted to change to more aggressive dual sport tires as far back as Mexico City but, when we couldn’t find a set that we liked and when we were told that in Guatemala the prices wouldn’t be quite so startling, we opted to push on and get a little more life out of what we had. In Guatemala City we decided on the Heidenau K60s, which are rather aggressive dual sport tires, especially as we do most of our riding on the tarmac. Normally this would result in a very short lifespan for off-road tires but the Heidenaus are made from a particularly stiff rubber compound, which allows for good, long wear on the road. Unfortunately, as we read, it also makes them a bit slippery when pushing hard in the rain and completely rubbish in any kind of mud.
Jess in Guatemala City main plaza
From Guatemala City we made straight for the border riding easy until we had acclimated to the new sound and feel of the tires. We determined that the deep, chevron pattern of the tread makes the bikes vibrate at low speed but this goes away upwards of 40 km/h and they felt plenty stable at our level of aggressiveness in the curves. We crossed into El Salvador at the Valle Nuevo-Las Chinamas border where we traversed a long, narrow bridge that was damaged so that Guatemalan national police were only letting one vehicle proceed at a time. In El Salvador we quickly picked up the Ruta de las Flores at Ahuachapan and took it south for about 30 km until Juayua. The Ruta de las Flores (‘Flowers Route’) is a stretch of highway in northeastern El Salvador where there are supposed to be wild flowers in bloom along the highway.
View from Ruta de las Flores
‘This must not be the right month for the flowers,’ Jess said when we stopped at one of the lookout points.
‘It wasn’t when I passed here last time either and that was in March,’ I said.
Juayua, which is along the Flowers Route, is famed to be the gastronomic heart of El Salvador and we were lucky to arrive on a Saturday because the town plaza bustles with visitors and enticing food stalls on the weekends.
During dinner we met a young couple who had come from one of the nearby villages for a night out away from their children.
Me under Chorro de la Calera waterfall
‘We are very good for making babies in El Salvador,’ the husband explained.
‘It is very good for making twins,’ the wife quickly added.
‘Maybe you will make one while you are visiting,’ the husband said.
‘No, we will be sleeping in separate beds until we reach Honduras,’ I said.
The next morning we hiked down the mountain slope upon which the town lies to the Chorro de la Calera waterfall. It was Sunday and we went early so that we missed the large crowd of visitors that would arrive after a good sleep-in or a mid-morning mass. As we dipped into the shallow pools and sat under the massaging rush of the waterfall, we only saw a few sporadic tourists and an evangelical preacher who had brought his flock to be baptized in the clear, cool water.
Riding through tunnel along El Salvador coast
That afternoon we continued the ride south on the Ruta de las Flores and then from Sonsonate we went to the Pacific coast and followed the coastal highway as it snakes along the cliffs above the sea. At La Libertad we went north again and rode through the city center of the capitol, making a stop to see the cathedral and main plaza. In the early evening we left San Salvador going north on a winding, narrow highway to Parque Nacional El Boquerón where there is a scenic volcano with a deep crater at its extinct center. We had hoped to find accommodations near the park to make a visit first thing the next morning, but we found only restaurants and too much traffic to warrant doubling back into the capitol to find accommodations. Instead we continued going north passed the volcano and descending into Quetzaltepeque, which we reached in the full darkness of night. There we found only an auto-hotel outside of the town and, despite my reservations, we decided it was time to give up the search.
Jess impresses herself with her new riding muscles
The older couple who owned the auto-hotel were a bit surprised by us because their usual clientele are mostly men and their mistresses from the nearby town who drive in, deposit money in the sliding cupboard, and then carry on in private for a couple hours before leaving just as anonymously as they came.
‘Love, you look quite ill at ease,’ Jess said when we were installed in one of the stand-alone cinderblock units at the auto-hotel.
San Salvador main plaza
‘I don’t have a problem with going to a hotel to have sex,’ I said, ‘It just irks me that one would go to a hotel that exists solely for having sex. It feels to me somehow less sleazy if you just go to a regular hotel even if you don’t intend to stay the night. Also, don’t you think that, after that first jolt of excitement when you get in and start going at it, when you stop a moment and think, “what kind of a sleazy dump am I doing this in?”’
‘Well, it seems clean enough,’ she said, ‘and much better than that place we stayed at when we crossed into Guatemala and we decided to sleep inside our sleeping bag liners.’
View from highway through El Boquerón
‘Yeah, it’s not necessarily physically dirty because you can imagine how much bleach they use on these sheets,’ I said. ‘But look around. There are no windows. There’s a cupboard so that you never have to see anyone to pay for the room or get room service. The room service menu that’s posted on the wall includes condoms, lube, and feminine hygiene products. The bed frame is built into the ground so that it can’t make noise or buckle during sex. There’s a toilet paper dispenser beside the bed, for god’s sake! And there’s this.’
I flipped a switch on the wall above the bed and a terrible, deafening music came piping in to fill the room.
Me beside 'El Gigante' crater at El Boquerón
‘Obviously to cover whatever noises are being made inside,’ I said.
I felt claustrophobic in the cinderblock room with no windows and I slept uneasily breathing in the air that smelled faintly of cheap bleach, old linens, and stale sex.
The next morning we returned south on the same narrow, winding highway so that we could make a visit to El Boquerón and see the view into the volcano. From the parking lot it was a brief ascent on foot and then a short skirting along the rim before descending along a different path back to the parking lot. We rode further south back into San Salvador then east along the Pan-American for long stretches through mostly flat, dull country occasionally broken up by fine views of Volcán San Vincente and Volcán Chaparrastique. Finally, at San Miguel we went south and hit the Pacific coast again at Playas Negras where we found an empty but not abandoned hotel where we got a room with a sea view. Here we swam alone in the sea as if on our own private beach. Then we showered and we watched the sunset and then we ate an enormous seafood dinner of lobster and shellfish apparently caught fresh off the beach that morning. After dinner I smoked a cigar and we drank wine and listened to the waves crash on the shore.
View of Volcán San Vincente from Pan-American
The next morning we crossed into Honduras and we quickly entered a beautiful countryside of dry, rolling hills. Further onwards we began to ascend into the mountains and the landscape became more lush and verdant. At the height of the ascent we encountered thick fog and light rain so that we rode slowly with our emergency lights flashing. Then the wind began to pick up where there were breaks in the mountain ridges that had shielded us. At one point, the ridge fell away on both side and the narrow highway seemed like a bridge connecting one mountain ridge to another. Just here the wind picked up very suddenly and very sharply so that what I saw was like the wind tearing long rends in the thick veil of mist and those rends struck Jessica hard and lurched her sideways.
Jess and enormous seafood dinner
It is sometimes worse to see first how difficult terrain or conditions affect your riding partner because this can make you tense up in anticipation and even overcompensate when your turn comes. If you are riding at some distance behind, then you will have time to get over this momentary reflex and regain your composure. But if you are following close behind as I like to follow Jessica to capture photos and enjoy her figure, then you will probably hit the difficult bit at the apex of that first jolt of anticipation.
Playas Negras at sunrise before a run and a dip
This is how I was when I hit the bridge of highway between the two ridges where the sharp gusts up the valley tore rends in the mist and threw it against Jessica. When my turn came, my grip was stiff on the handlebars and, in a moment of terror, I felt as if the wind lurched the bike sideways against the direction of travel. It was over as quickly as it began and then we were both back within the shelter of the mountain ridge. When my heartbeat had finally slowed back to normal, I thought, I’ll be damned if I’m going back again for a photo!
View of CA-6 through Honduras highlands
We spent the night in Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras, while it rained outside so that, once warm and dry, we opted to order pizza rather than venture out again.
There is a lot to see in the north of Honduras. The vast Mayan remains at Copan Ruinas is the main attraction but I had seen that during my first motorcycle trip in 2010 and Jess is not much for ‘old places that have mostly fallen apart and don’t really do anything.’ I also visited the four main cities along the Caribbean coast – Puerto Cortes, Tela, La Ceiba, and Trujillo – and I didn’t think much of them except that from La Ceiba you can reach the Bay Islands where there is excellent scuba diving and there is – or at least was – a quaint hostel on a secluded stretch of beach east of where the highway ends at Trujillo. But I had been to these places before and we decided that it was quite the roundabout tour with so much distance left to cover before we would lose the favorable conditions of summer when we finally get to the Southern Hemisphere.
I enjoy local chocolate drink in Nicaragua
So the next morning we left Tegucigalpa going east to Danli and from there we entered Nicaragua at the Las Manos border crossing. After the border we went south past Estelí, skirted along the flatlands beside Volcán Momotombo, and finally reached León close on sunset.
After the fall on the dirt road between León and La Paz Centro, I was quick to regain my feet and determine that I was without injury. After another moment I was struggling to get the bike upright. After several feeble tries I realized that either my adrenaline had abandoned me to exhaustion or that I never had the strength I thought I had to begin with. I looked around and discovered that there was no one as far as the eye could see in any direction. This gave me a mixed emotion because at first I was glad that no one had seen my fall but then I realized there was no one to help me up again. I thought how I wished that Jess had been riding with me to help me get the bike up even if I probably would have stopped many more times to help her up as well. Well, that’s why it’s better with a partner, I told myself. But anyone someone will surely come along eventually, I thought. But you aren’t going to sit on your ass waiting while your bike lays in a heap, are you? I scolded myself.
Sky, field, and Volcán Momotombo
Then my mind must have cleared from that first jolt of excitation because I remembered how easy it always was to right my bike when I went off-roading without the luggage. So I unstrapped the duffle bag that sat atop the passenger seat. Now, with the center of gravity so much lower and a critical 30-40 pounds lighter, I went at it again and this time I managed. It was ten minutes or so while I looked the bike over, brushed myself off, and replaced the duffle, before I set off again.
Penny on Leon-La Paz Centro dirt road
As I continued on the remaining 15 kilometers, there were plenty more powdery stretches and with these came a few close calls. Are you sure you really enjoy this? I asked myself again before I met up with the tarmac just outside La Paz Centro. Are you really sure? There was a last patch of deep powder that gave me a scare before my accelerating rear tire regained traction and then I was onto hard-packed earth and light gravel again.
Yes, I’m sure, I told myself and I knew that I would not have to ask again.