Honduras Highway Hag

Choosing the route we do (mountain dirt roads in the middle of nowhere) we usually manage to stay away from cars, but sometimes roads are unavoidable. Starting at the Artic Sea, we have been constantly and consistently warned about the drivers with whom we will have to share the road further south.  First were the “extreme truckers� on the haul road, whose loads are double long and oversize, and who literally own the road.  Then the “crazy cannucks� whose country is so sparsely populated the mere idea of traffic paralyzes them, and therefore don’t worry about little things like lanes and turn signals.  Next, “those Americans� who drive too much and too fast, “and they all have guns….�  Followed by “the Mexicans� who “have no laws down there� and so on until we learned to tune it out, as we do a large percentage of the advice we receive: “don’t go that way – the road is terrible – you’ll never make it� etc.


            Sure, drunk driving is a national past time in Mexico, and first time RVers up in Alaska, tend to leave their steps down (blocking/sweeping the shoulder), but the vast majority of drivers we have encountered have been competent, and courteous.  “South of the border,� drivers, forced into awareness by the condition of the roads, and used to sharing them with non-cars, are in general good drivers. And thanks to the cost and relative novelty of cars, drivers are much more likely to be professionals.  People who drive for a living, tend to be good/safe behind the wheel. In general, our pavement experiences have been much mellower than the advice-givers would have us fear.  Safer that is, until we hit Honduras, and the Pan-American Highway.


            Forced onto the ‘carretera’ by a tropical storm that flooded us out of the Caribbean coast, we were initially optimistic; the main roads in Mexico (the last place we had ridden highways) were nicely paved and equipped with generous shoulders, a little boring perhaps, but at least safe…no reason to assume Honduras would be much different.  The Pan-Am was nicely paved and provided reasonable shoulders. Unfortunately however, these factors didn’t add up in our favor.  The smoothness and width of the road just seemed to encourage recklessness. Drivers clearly didn’t feel constrained by the two lanes the engineers and road painters had provided for – thanks to the shoulders, there was plenty of room for a center (shared) lane or two if you didn’t mind squeezing, which they clearly didn’t.


            Multiple car passes at high speed on blind corners (sheer cliffs on either side) was standard practice – cars coming the “other way� are expected to swerve, and make full use of the shoulder.  Of course, sometimes trucks were passing both directions around the same blind corner, and the instant 2-lane to 4-lane conversion gets really terrifying (especially for cyclists).  Worst of all, the drivers guilty of these insane maneuvers, were quite frequently the professionals.  Truckers and bus drivers, who we had learned to trust as models of responsible driving, were now racing each other,  some times even ‘double passing’ – a truck passing, a buss passing, a line of cars. 


Words don’t really do justice to the sheer enormity of the recklessness, but humans are very adaptable creatures – for better or worse, we soon get used to any thing.  Constant scanning of the drainage ditches for escape routes, and split-second/corner-of-the-eye triggered evasive maneuvers became a way of life.  And soon enough – about the time we started dropping into the sprawling cancer of Tegucigalpa (the capital city) the madness had infected us.  We were bombing past tractor-trailers on the shoulder, taking possession of the “middle lane� to pass whole strings of cars unable to corner as rapidly.  Squeezing between rows of stopped or slowly moving cars (on real multi lane roads) bags and shoulders scraping on both sides – narrowly dodging rearview mirrors, and casually running red lights.


            Fortunately Russ and a few days of rest/bike maintenance were waiting – hidden at a couch surfer’s house in the city – to help us regain our sanity.  He brought with him a mountain of replacement parts, and a newly created steed; so clean and shiny that next to our trail-burned mounts it seemed a different species all together.  We couldn’t wait to christen it with some real dirt riding, but map-less and in the middle of a sprawling city that didn’t seem likely.


            Inspired nonetheless, we dug into the pile of parts, and took over the yard and sidewalk in front of the house, deep in the heart of gated community/trophy-home down town Tegucigalpa, for the better part of two days, re-building and overhauling our bikes.  Our presence was a trifle incongruous, to say the least.  Our hosts were missionaries from Austin Texas, and the house was filled with their boisterous and non-Spanish speaking offspring, the requisite maids (and their children) and various dogs. Chaotic to be sure, but standard fare compared to trail scarred and strangely attired gringos banging purposefully on their intriguingly bizarre bicycles, amid piles of strange bike parts, tools and specialized camping gear (and in the front yard no less!!).


When fixing machines, nothing ever goes quite as expected; despite careful planning and ordering, l had to take to the streets to find a bike shop.  The up-scale city center was largely devoid of that sort establishment, but eventually l asked the right person, and was directed to Bike Zone.


            When l arrived Daniel, the proprietor was hand filing a replacement derailleur-hanger from a piece of scrap aluminum, while an assistant repacked the bearings on a bike so old it sported rod-brakes, and Daniel’s multi thousand dollar Turner mtn bike stood out like a sore thumb from the bedraggled bike rack outside. Between the bikes that they were working on, and the tools they were working with, there was hardly room inside the shack like premises, so l stood out side answering questions about �my� bike (l was riding Russ’s, the chupacabra dismantled for repair) until Daniel took a brake from making chips fly, and came out to talk to me.  He was fascinated by the Xtracycle, and our trip, told me that if l didn’t mind waiting, he would help me any way he could.


            I hung out, and he picked my brain about our bikes, mtn touring, running a bike shop in the US, the relative quality of different parts. Eventually he finished his various tasks, we found solutions to my problems, and l returned to my companions to implement said solutions, but not before l promised come back to show him the Chupacabra. I made good on my promise, and in the midst of geeking out on bikes, I remembered to ask him about dirt routes to Nicaragua.


            He thought a while, and said, well l have this friend – he’s a dreamer, a little bit crazy, but he use to have a TV show called biking in Honduras and knows all about the back roads – should l call him?


Por favor…


So it was that when we left town the next day, it was in the company of a portly, out of shape, and very enthusiastic Jorge.  We were unclear on his plans, or level of fitness, so we hardly noticed he wasn’t carrying anything. On the way out of town we had to climb the counterpart of the mammoth hill we had descended into Tegucigalpa. The hill was long and punishing, and we took turns riding behind with Jorge, chatting in a mixture of Spanish and English, and smiling at his jokes about his pot belly, and sedentary profession (electrical engineer). Eventually we crested the hill and were rewarded with and epic down hill. As we blasted down hill into the afternoon, we had to wonder what Jorge’s plan was – surely he wasn’t going to ride back tonight…


When he caught up, he explained that he was in fact planning on riding with us for a couple days, and on sleeping at a ‘hospeadje’ in one of the small towns coming up. Adding that we would have no trouble reaching the closer one before dark. We rode on, the dirt road turning rougher, and starting to climb. It continued to climb… Some time after sunset, we gave up on reaching Jorge’s town.  Jorge, still up beat, made a cursory effort to obtain ‘posada’ for the evening, but all the houses around were small and brimful with their customary occupants.


We ended up camping in the front yard of a friendly ‘campesino’ family (the ‘dueno’ of the field next door lived in the city, and thus couldn’t give us ‘permiso’ to use his (much more suitable to our camping needs) land.  In any case we have an aversion to refusing hospitality.  So we got creative with our hammocks – Jacob managed to attach both ends of his to the same long overhanging branch of the mango tree that was the centerpiece of the yard area.  We were high enough in the mountains, that we could expect dew and substantial temperature drop, so we rounded up our spare clothes, sleeping pads, and tarps and set up a cozy shelter for Jorge. Meanwhile Sean had our MSR stove out, water boiling, getting ready for our standard dinner of oatmeal.  All these outlandish preparations made for a fascinating evenings entertainment for our hosts.


The whole family, or neighborhood, (it was hard to tell) had turned out for the spectacle: 20+ pairs of eye glued to our every move.  But alas it was soon pitch black, and gringo TV flickered out of view – leaving only our headlamps to dance like sluggish and over sized fireflies. Interesting for a moment, but lacking detail.  Fortunately mother saved the day – appearing with a handful of kindling, which turned out to be ‘lena de jacaranda’: heartwood so resinated that it burned like a torch.  Light a couple and wa-la: instant campfire, light heat, and no mess.  Thanks to the ‘lena’ our audience had the pleasure of watching us finish cooking dinner, eating (out of our space age folding bowls) and putting the stove away. Exciting stuff. About the time we were ready to retire for the night, Jorge reappeared; he had found what passed for the local store and supped on coca-cola and chips.  He refused the portion of oatmeal we had saved, saying he was trying to lose weight and went off to sleep under a cactus.  We eventually convinced him to accept a jacket and a tarp, but he would have none of the warm dry bed we had prepared – he didn’t want to disturb us with his snoring, he explained.


We awoke half an hour after sunrise or so, to find the whole family and Jorge waiting silently for us to appear out of our cocoons.  Jorge had hardly slept a wink, cold damp and uncomfortable under his cactus. As we set about breaking camp, preparing breakfast (our big meal of the day) and otherwise entertaining the locals, Jorge set out ahead of us saying he wanted to warm up, and would meet us in the next town, leaving us to our audience. Exposed by the light of day they didn’t crowd as close, but watched just as intently.


The women of the house were especially fascinated – men cooking: unheard of, could they really do it?!  Rice and beans in the same pot?! Etc.  When our food was ready they sent the smallest child over with a cup for a taste of our strange (and luxurious – cheese, meat, vegetables, rice and beans – in prodigious quantities too) meal. We filled it to overflowing, figuring there would be plenty of interested samplers.  Finally nourished and dressed for the day, we had to turn off the TV and take our leave.


In about an hour we reached Jorge sitting in town outside of the lone ‘pulperia,’ coke in hand. He brought us all drinks (Russ and l refused soda, and were treated to liquid sugar labeled orange juice), and taking a deep breath broke the news: “I´m really sorry, but…..� unfortunately he was called back to Tegucigalpa on business, and couldn’t ride with us to the Nicaragua border as planned, in fact he was heading back immediately.  A little relieved, we left him beaming and waving in front of the ‘pulperia’ and headed down the road.


Almost immediately the nicely maintained gravel road we had been following ceased and a challenging 4wheel drive track began.  We ground up hill, turned off the rough road we were following for a truly rustic track, and clawed our way to the top of a flinty ridge, pouring sweat and struggling in our lowest gear. Abruptly the track plunged down the other side – tight turns and steep grades complicated by the size and quantity of the loose rocks which surrounded the ruts.


At the bottom of the hill we collapsed in the shade next to a creek, and thanked our lucky stars Jorge had turned back. By the time (two days later), we popped out on smooth roads, and rejoined the Pan-Americana to cross the border; Russ’s bike was thoroughly christened by “the hardest biking [Russ] ha[d] ever done�, and cloaked with a heavy coat of dust to prove it. We could only hope the drivers in Nicaragua were a little more sane (and that we would be able to get off the pavement and into the mountains quickly).