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Cycling across El Salvador

One man, two wheels.

On a whim, with no previous training, I decide to ride a bicycle across El Salvador. Heck, when I look at a world map El Salvador is only about the size of my pinkie fingernail. It’ll be a piece of cake.

Mamacita Rita, my newly purchased, heavily used mountain bike has eighteen available gears but, even with serious effort, I can only make use of five. The front brakes don´t work, there are extra wires that enjoy poking me in the calf and most of the seat cover is torn, revealing pink plastic my ass can´t stand.

The fact that Mamacita Rita’s job is to move forty pounds of packs and me from the Guatemalan border to Honduran border through El Salvador makes me more nervous than the time in third grade when Mrs. Edwards said it was desk cleaning day, which meant I’d have to flip my desk and expose the six months worth of boogers I’d been storing.

A chicken bus drops me off at the border and the intimidating black cloud that’d been looming above decides to open.

I have three hours before dark and my goal is to ride to Parque Nacional El Imposible, fifteen miles and a mountain from the border. I decide to begin my journey in the pouring rain after successfully strapping my pack to my bike rack with the cord I bought in Guatemala. I think it was meant for an electrician. It was all I could find.

After forty-five minutes of riding in the storm and various thoughts about what the hell I was doing, I came to a small town named Cara Sucia (Dirty Face). I’d like to meet the person who was in charge of giving that town its name.

A man under a canopy shouts, in English, Come here. I do. He tells me he knows English. He doesn’t know much. He says he’ll help me find a place to stay. We cross the street. We’re drenched. We switch to Spanish when we realize my Spanish is better than his English. He’s drunk. He tells me he lived in Los Angeles and George Bush sent him home.

“Deportes,” he says. I think he’s switching the subject to sports (the Spanish word for sports is deportes). I ask who his favorite soccer team is. He tells me he likes beer. I ask how much the hotel will be. He says George Bush deported him. I understand now. I thank him for helping me. With that, he cracks a wide smile, looks me in the eye, and says:

“You said that in Spanish.” We’d been speaking in Spanish for over five minutes.

And Parque Nacional El Impossible lived up to its name.

The next morning I’m pedaling along, la-di-da, when the pedaling becomes more strenuous. I downshift. Click….click. Thud. Thud. I look down.

My rear tyre is flat.

I have no tools or spare parts. I can’t waste any time – I know I have at least fifty more miles to my day’s destination – so I start walking. I realize that if my goal would’ve been to walk across El Salvador, I should’ve bought a bike for that trip too because it’s serving as quite a nice cart for my packs.

After a mile I come upon a small tin home near the road. An elderly woman is picking vegetables in the garden and her husband walks out of a nearby cornfield when I approach the barbed-wire fence that separates their home from the road.

Apparently, the region of my brain that accepts and delivers sentences in Spanish called in sick to work and didn’t tell me. All I understand from the sunken-faced, no-teethed, overall-wearing farmer after at least three attempts are the words school, tyre, and walk.

We walk for about a mile in silence – he with his bike, me with mine, make a few turns and we see a bam, no school but a real bike shop…and a Doritos store.

Four teenage boys come into the sunlight and look my farmer friend and I up and down. I do the same to them, as I note they all have interesting choices of apparel: the obese one decided to go shirtless, the second one wears a shirt that says, in Spanish, “Jesus Is My Friend,” the third a shirt in English with a picture of a hand that says, “Talk To The Hand,” and the fourth, a shirt that says, again in English, “I Got Hammered At Victor’s Graduation Party – 1994”. I note that he was likely in diapers when Victor graduated.

Some rapid Spanish is exchanged, farmer to boys, boys to farmer, then those four boys, straight from the Formula One pit crew training circuit as if they’ve been waiting their entire lives for this moment, disassemble, repair and reassemble my bike tire with a series of shouts, Frisbee throws, and tube squeezing in a total time of two minutes.

They charge me one US dollar and I continue my journey forty-five minutes after getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.

The first mountain that shows up forces my pedals to stop moving, even with my easiest available gear and all the power I can muster pressing down on those damn pedals. So I walk up the mountain.

Then, finally, the payoff. Although I figure it’s completely unfair that I would walk my butt off for fifteen minutes only to be rewarded with two minutes of downhill fun – fun that’s limited because once I reach speeds in the thirty-five miles per hour range, I begin to tap my half-working rear brakes because it’s a perfectly real possibility that a wheel could decide it no longer wants to be a part of the rest of the bike.

More mountains appear. I start taking many breaks. I’m miserable. Seventy miles comes and goes.

Like a man emerging from a month in the desert, I ride into the town of El Zonte, my destination for day two, eighty miles after I began. I find a hotel within spitting distance of the Pacific for $5 and fall into a deep sleep.

I dream about the woman who served me lunch that day. In the dream I’m even more parched than I had been earlier in the day and every time I ask for a gallon of water, she sticks out her hand and says, “Talk to the hand!”

The hours and days pass. I pedal.

If all goes according to plan, I pee thrice a day, sometimes more, usually roadside. Today, after peeing for an impressive amount of seconds with my neck rolled back, gargling, my ankle tingles. Tingles turn to pains. Ankle pain becomes calf pain. Within seconds, I’m rolling on the ground, pants partially down, desperately untying my shoes, yelping like a distressed circus animal.

Turns out, I choose a fire ant hill to stand on while I peed.

The next day I approach the border, the one that says Honduras. I rejoice.

On the Honduran side, I put Mamacita Rita for sale by offering a man whose t-shirt is rolled halfway up his gut five dollars if he could help me sell her. Within a few minutes ten Honduran men are hovering over her, hands at hips, speaking speedy Spanish, touching, discussing. Men leave. Men come. An hour passes. I make friends.

Eventually, I settle on $10 and the front seat in a minivan to the Nicaraguan border. My buyer Pedro and I hustle through Honduras, arriving at the Nicaraguan border just before dark.

As we pull up to immigration, about thirty shouting men are banging the windows of the minivan when they see me inside, all clamoring to take me with their bike-with-big-ass-seat-in-front through no man’s land, almost a mile, to the Nicaraguan border. It’s chaos. I bracingly step out and my pack is immediately snatched.

One guy yells in my face that he was the first to offer his bike service. Then someone else has my bag. More yelling. Pushing. Suddenly, a guy who wants my pack punches the guy with my pack in the head. They fall to the ground in a full-out brawl, only my pack separating them.

I shuffle around them like a wrestling referee, eyes on my pack, when a punch lands somewhere near an eye, blood squirts, and the men cheer. The guy on bottom has a few gashes on his face that leave him looking like he should apply for a job at a haunted house.

Suddenly he has no more interest in my pack.

I swipe it back and run like hell to Nicaragua.

Joe Reynolds

Joe has an affection for llamas, above average chopstick skills, and a rash, two of which have since disappeared.