Riding the Dream in Central America

Words, Photos & Video: Otto Helberg

I recently returned from an amazing 10 week bike tour through Central America, a unique place with a whole lot of diversity. Although each country has its own identity, they share a central theme: a stranger in their land is always welcome. All the people I met along the way were always friendly, open and warm. This journey reminded me of home and how proud I am to be South African, because when you spend lots of time away from your country, you realise just how much you miss and love it.

Riding the Dream in Central America

I’ve been based outside South Africa for the last five years and for most of that time I worked on yachts, sailing around the Mediterranean, Caribbean and other parts of the globe. My love for creation, nature and the outdoors was what motivated me to go on a solo adventure into the unknown. That and my desire to make a difference and change the world we live in. So I quit my job in France, flew to Los Angeles, got my gear together and headed to Mexico City to explore this incredible country by bike. I was finally riding the dream, and living life!


With more than 20 million people living in its metropolitan area (the third largest city in the world), I knew it was going to be exciting from the first turn of my wheel.


I got on my bike at 6 a.m. and was greeted by traffic that surrounded me all the way out. I noticed that the bus lane was quiet; it was the place to be, until one bus chased me from behind. Like a fan on a formula one track, I did not belong. Alonso wanted me out of there! So I moved over to the sidewalk and carried on. My first fork in the road came when I had to make a decision between the toll road and national road. Remembering advice from other bikers I opted for the toll road, with a big shoulder and less traffic. Leaving metropolitan Mexico behind, I climbed 50 km to reach an altitude of more than 3,000 m, and after cycling 90 km I reached Cuernavaca.


Next up was Guatemala and my first day was one of the toughest of my entire journey. Starting off at an altitude of 150 m, I climbed to well over 3,000 m. After 13 tough hours I reached the town of San Marco Sacatepéquez, nestled high up in the mountains. The views were spectacular and the weather very pleasant; it's not called 'the country of eternal spring' for nothing. While fixing a flat tyre, I met an American who originally came here on vacation and loved it so much that he decided to stay on and live out his remaining days learning the languages of the local tribes and giving back to the community. He rides his mountain bike to the village everyday and gave me some great advice: “You should go tubeless,” he cried out. Volcanoes towered over me throughout most of Guatemala, and the cooler weather was a warm welcome as Mexico was one of the hottest places I've experienced in my life.


My next destination was El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. It was also the least expensive, and for US$5 I could get a room, and sometimes breakfast too. Friendly people, black sandy beaches, a rich inheritance and stunning landscapes made this visit well worth it.


Cutting through the south side of Honduras, I only spent two nights there as it had recently experienced political unrest, although there was not much evidence to the traveller.


Arriving in Nicaragua, referred to as ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes’, I was welcomed by a riot. Protesters had blocked the road and I was unable to get through. I started to get really nervous about the situation when one guy stopped and grabbed me by the shoulder. During our struggle I heard an explosive sound and knew it was time to leave, so I pushed him out of the way and high tailed it out of there through a gap.


Nicaragua was turning out to be quite the challenge because soon after that incident, I was involved in an accident. It happened while I was talking to two Germans, who were on their way to Patagonia. A loud noise changed the atmosphere and one of the German’s went down. I managed to avoid the crash by jumping off my bike before it hit the ground. In the ensuing chaos, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Nicaraguan commuters lecturing us on how to cycle; the blame game was being played. Thankfully, my new German friend was ok, even though the back of his head was bleeding and he had bruises down his side. We established that a money collector had been hanging out the open door of a passing bus and his arm had collided with my friend’s helmet, causing him to crash into the bus. The police took him to a hospital, and once stitched up the Germans were back on the road that same day.


Not far from the capital lies one of my favorite Central America towns, Granada. It's a typical colonial town rich in history, but has a rough feel to it. Although it's flooded with travellers, you can still enjoy authentic street markets, good food, restaurants and cafés, as well as experience Latino chaos in the heart of Nicaragua. Ex-pats are plentiful too, and it wasn't hard to understand why they chose to stay behind and settle down here.


Cycling to Costa Rica was like entering a scene from Jurassic Park, but without the dinosaurs. The rainforest was full of life and the birds were singing a welcoming song in harmony with the trees. The country is more expensive than the others and is called the ‘Switzerland of Central America’ by backpackers. The beaches are beautiful, with plenty to choose from, and surfing seems to be the favorite sport. So I joined the fun and enjoyed a few good waves to cool me down. Feeling recharged and refreshed, I was ready to move on.


Leaving Costa Rica, I headed to Panama, hugging the Caribbean Coast as I prepared myself for the climb back over the mountains to reach Panama City. There is no road that leads to the capital in the north side, and the only road that does exists lies to the south. However, just before this climb the rear wheel of my bike gave way. Replacing it in the small border town of Sixaola was no easy task, but I managed to replace it with a children’s bicycle wheel, and was now pedalling on grace.


With only a week or so left before I reached my final destination, I made my way to the top of Reserva Forestal De Fortuna. The views over Costa Rica on the one side and Panama on the other were spectacular.


The closer I got to Panama City, the tougher the challenge became. I had five flat tyres in one day and cycled through terrible thunderous storms and heavy rain. I continued to meet wonderful people along the way, all with an interesting story and their own unique dreams and desires for their time on earth. It reminded me how short our time was and that we should make every second count.


Rolling into Panama City was a blessing. Although it was sad to finish the page and close a chapter, I was filled with joy knowing that I'd accomplished my goal. Some 4,700 km and 72 days later I had reached the end of my trip. I had cycled on highways, byways, national roads, toll roads, dirt roads and no roads. I had embarked on a journey to change the world and in the process I had changed. My heart opened up and I saw Love, Peace and Joy alongside Suffering, Poverty and Sadness. My message to everyone is DO SOMETHING. Anything. Doing something is better than doing nothing. If all of us do something we CAN change the world. My life will continue to bring Hope to the Hopeless, and that is why I am alive. I will do more adventures in the future, such as a long run, a local bike ride and maybe even climb a few mountains. Everyone has a dream and if we don’t live the dream, it will remain a dream. There will always be an excuse to not go on a life-changing adventure. There is no better time than now. Go. DO IT NOW! •



Total distances and places travelled through:


1. Mexico (1,720 km - a total of 25 days, six rest days)
2. Guatemala (490 km - a total of 11 days, four rest days)
3. El Salvador (495 km - a total of 10 days, two rest days)
4. Honduras (160 km - a total of two days, no rest days)
5. Nicaragua (430 km - a total of seven days, two rest days)
6. Costa Rica (725 km - a total of nine days, two rest days)
7. Panama (685 km - a total of eight days, no rest days)


For more information visit Otto’s Facebook page: Onecycle


Issue 22 Feb'13