BY PHIL CUSTODIO
Clarkston News Editor
A year into their two-continent bike trip, Clarkston grad Chris Haag and his wife Sophie George have traversed North and Central America.
“Central America was amazingly diverse for as small of an area as it was,” Haag said in an email from the road. “It was much more densely populated than I expected and it was hard to camp and hard to get away from towns and into nature. We’re just starting to climb into the Andes. I’m really excited to start moving through some bigger countries again with open spaces where we can escape civilization. It’s not that hard to find motivation to keep going. We wake up every day to an amazing view and then ride through unimaginably spectacular landscapes.”
People are always the same in the sense they’re just looking to put food on the table for their families and have a safe place to sleep at night. The way they get to this can vary wildly, though, he said.
“Generally people are much more communal and self reliant down here,” he said. “They build their own houses with the help of friends and family and tend to share cars, motorcycles, tools, etc. They also have multiple generations living in their homes (children up to great grand parents) and I think there is much greater focus and importance placed on family in general.”
Border crossings into Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, then into Colombia in South America were mostly simple and uneventful.
“Although in Nicaragua I was questioned for being an escaped convict from the states,” Haag said. “I couldn’t help but laugh when they showed me a picture of an overweight guy with long blonde hair and a beard. They did seem to think it was funny, but they let me go.”
Highlights of Guatemala included Antigua, a beautiful colonial city, Lake Atitlan, a crater lake in a volcano, and Vulcan Acatenango.
“The volcano was by far the highlight of the country and easily one of the most memorable parts of the trip. You spend 4-6 hours climbing the volcano and camp near the top. Three km away you can watch Volcan Fuego erupt every 20 minutes or so. During a large blast you can feel the ground shake and a shockwave actually hits your body. The colors in the evening are amazing,” he said.
“We were nervous about crossing into El Salvador. You hear a lot of bad things about the country and even though we’d already had so many great experiences in places that most Americans would tell you never to go to, it is hard not to shake some of the bad stories from your head. Within 15 minutes though we were given a great welcome. At the border we actually had to wake the guard up. After this we were picking mangoes on the side of the road and a man stopped to give us a bag of cookies and welcomed us to the country. We decided to ride the coast line and it was one of the most beautiful stretches of riding so far.”
One morning they met a man at an overlook and chatted for a few.
“He handed me a knife. I was confused and asked if it was for protection and he said ‘no, it’s mango season and you want a good knife to peel them,’” Haag said. “Some of the best seafood that we had was in El Salvador as well. It only took us a week to get through, but I think we went to fast, I hope to return one day and explore the mountains as well.”
Because of the route they took through Ecuador, they ended up only riding a small chunk of Honduras for two days.
“The people were friendly and the landscape was beautiful. I’m also very curious to go and ride some of the more obscure parts of the mountains here one day,” he said.
“Nicaragua is one of my favorite countries. It is amazingly cheap and the people are among the most genuine and friendly you will find. There are beautiful colonial cities such as Granada and Leon, massive inland islands with volcanoes on them, and a relatively unexplored Caribbean coast. The highlight for me was taking a small boat down the Rio San Juan de Nicaragua to a town called El Castille. There is an old castle there that the Spanish built to defend from pirates coming up the river. You can’t get to any of the towns along its shores by car, the river is the only road. Most people live a relatively primitive and subsistence based life here. It was one of the most peaceful places we’ve been to.”
Costa Rica was a bit of a whirlwind, he said.
“It is a bit like Disneyland in a tropical paradise. Sort of shocking to see so many Americans and Europeans after the last five countries,” Haag said. “It is incredibly beautiful and they do an amazing job of protecting their natural resources, but it doesn’t have the authenticity or the culture that I think you find in other places. The riding really was spectacular though. Some of the hardest mountains we’ve come across. One day we had to push our bikes for five hours to go five miles up a mountain. Some roadworkers saw us and actually helped for the last half mile.”
Panama starts out flat and relatively desolate compared to the other countries.
“The flat roads were a breath of fresh air though,” he said. “It’s hot! It is also quite poor in the outskirts. It always felt safe though. Then you hit Panama city. Its like Miami, but more dense with more pedestrians and cyclists. The wealth and the architecture are incredible and the Panama Canal, albeit touristy, is a marvel of engineering that is worth the ten dollar tour.”
Getting from Panama to Colombia was a challenge they didn’t figure out until the last minute, he said.
“The countries a separated by the Darien Gap. It is close to 100 miles of swamp,” he said. “I’ve heard that there is a network of foot paths and river boats, but I couldn’t convince Soph to give it a try. We decided to take a boat through the Caribbean. We found a captain who had a small boat but he sort of flaked out on us and we ended up having to sit at this little marina for five days trying to find another boat going to Colombia.”
One offered the couple a lift, but they ended up having mechanical problems, he said.
“We were getting low on cash and the closest ATM was a day’s ride so we ended up just booking a lift on a really nice Catamaran and spent six days sailing through the San Blas Islands, which are basically made for people to take the best Facebook profile picture of their life,” he said. “Imagine hundreds of mostly uninhabited desert islands, some only 100 feet wide with palm trees and the occasional indigenous person rowing a fishing boat.”
Keep up on their travels by visiting their blog at www.ThePlacesipee.com.
BY PHIL CUSTODIO