Four Brits and a Dane Walk Into a Chocolate Museum…

And that’s the group I found myself with yesterday afternoon, killing time after Spanish class. The ChocoMuseo in Antigua is an interesting place, and entertaining if nothing else. I spent a few hours learning the history of chocolate, from the ancient Mayan uses of the cacao bean and its’ husk for drinks and for trade, to the later Spanish acquisition and recipe change in 1521, to the English transformation into candy bars.

Various stages of the cacao bean, from it’s origin in the pod (top) to its’ dried and roasted form (bottom), the nib removed from the husk (left) and ground to powder, separated into butter and chocolate.


The Mayans used cacao beans for currency. This chart shows the value of various items in cacao beans. For example, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans.


Cacao beans being roasted in a comal. Comals are large flat pans that are used throughout Latin America. I saw many large comals being used in Mexico to cook tortillas.


Of course it wasn’t just a history lesson…we actually got to make our own cacao tea, hot chocolate, and chocolate candies.

After roasting, the beans are peeled. The nibs are ground into paste to make chocolate; the husks are steeped into a tea that was enjoyed by Mayan royalty. It’s actually quite good.


Using a pestle and mortar to grind the beans into a chocolate paste.


Finished product

The ChocoMuseo is kind of like a Build-A-Bear place for adults, although kids are welcome to participate as well. It was a blast, and Edwin, our guide/instructor kept it entertaining.

Multicultural group photo (after cleaning up the mess): L-R: Trine, Me, Ellen, James, Edwin, “Mamacita” and “Papachulo”.

Volcan de Pacaya

September 6, 2015

My last weekend in Antigua. It’s been raining every afternoon, but the mornings have been gorgeous, with temperatures in the 60s and low 70s. On Saturday I walked to the mercado again and bought some fruit: two limes, an onion, two avocados, and six rambutans. Grand total: Fifty two cents.

I think I mentioned rambutans before, but if not, they look like big, hairy strawberries:


BUT…they are not hairy strawberries. Not even close. You don’t just bite down on one of these. First you have to slice it open and peel the rind off of the fruit inside.

Sliced open with the white fruit inside showing.

NOW you can pop the white fruit out and pop it in your mouth.

Looks kind of like a giant white grape.

BUT be careful, because there’s a pit inside the fruit. Its all worth it, though. A rambutan tastes and feels (the texture of the fruit itself) a lot like a green table grape, although it’s much larger and thicker than that.

After a little bike maintenance Saturday afternoon, dinner was a great Sopa (soup) place. Because it was election weekend (the Presidential elections were Sunday), alcohol was not allowed to be sold after noon on Saturday. But, as with many things in Guatemala, rules are made to be broken, and the waitress delivered the Brahva beer with a napkin wrapped around the mug to “disguise” it. The Italian meatball soup was fantastic. Probably will have to go back there before leaving Antigua.

Sunday morning came early, as the tour bus left at 6am, with the driver, our guide and three of us aboard. This time of year it’s important to take the early morning tour rather than the afternoon tour, since it rains every afternoon.

It took about an hour and a half to get to the beginning of the trail to Volcan de Pacaya. Along the way, we were stopped by a blockade that was making sure that nobody in a van or bus was transporting masses of people to vote. Apparently this is a no-no. Wouldn’t want to make it easier for all of the poor people without transportation to actually vote. But enough politics for now…more of that later.

The trek up the volcano is fairly short and not too steep for the most part. The entire loop is a little over four miles, with only a slight elevation gain from around 6,000 feet to around 7,500 feet.

Volcan de Pacaya. You can clearly see where the cone collapsed during the 2010 eruption and lava poured down this side.


Yes, that is steam coming from the volcano. Pacaya is still active, with the most recent eruption in 2014.


There are small vents along the trail where you can roast marshmallows. Couldn’t pass that up.


Panoramic view of Pacaya. This is actually the third vent or cone for this volcano; it has erupted in different places over the years. This one is actually named MacKenney, for one of the geologists who has been studying the volcano for a long time.


Another multicultural group photo. L-R: Our Guatemalteco tour guide David, me, Judith from Switzerland and Katrina from New Zealand. Why am I always the old guy??


Being the “old guy” has its’ advantages. No one expects the old guy to be first up the mountain. Everyone cuts the old guy a little extra slack. They all think the old guy might have trouble doing this stuff. I’m still too competitive to give in that easy, and typically I’m eager to prove them wrong. At Semuc Champey, I was the first to jump off the rope swing into the river, after everyone else declined. Was that smart? Of course not, but occasionally you have to prove that just because you’re the old guy doesn’t mean you can’t do things. Maybe the wrong tactic when climbing a steep trail at 7,000 feet. On the way up the volcano, our other tour guide Manuel asked me a couple of times how I was doing. “Como estas?” “Bien” (wheeze, gasp). A little later: “Como estas?” “No hay problema. Es pan comido.” (No problem. It’s a piece of cake.) (Gasp, wheeze.) I was glad this was a short hike with a long downhill. I’ve definitely had more exercise on this trip than I’ve had in the last couple of years.


Unfortunately this photo didn’t turn out well. Behind the big tree in the center, you could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about 20-25 miles away.

Volcano day for me was also Election Day for Guatemaltecos. In Guatemala, if no one presidential candidate receives 50% or more of the vote, then the two candidates with the most votes move to a run-off election in late October. With twelve candidates on Sunday’s ballot, it was clear that there would be a run-off. It appears that the October election will be between Jimmy Morales, a comedian (yes, that’s right) with no prior political experience and who has the highest vote count at 24%, and either Manuel Baldizon or former first lady Sandra Torres, who as of now, with 97% of the votes counted, are within 1,000 votes of each other.

My current plan is to leave Wednesday for El Salvador. Unless I suddenly change my mind and stay for more Spanish lessons. Or head for Lake Atitlan. Or, who knows.



Final Thoughts on Antigua

September 10, 2015

Before leaving Guatemala, I wanted to add a few historic tidbits about Antigua that I found interesting. 

Antigua was the third capitol of Guatemala. The previous capitol was just south of Antigua in Ciudad Viejo. When a huge mudslide buried the city in the mid 1700s the capitol was moved to Antigua, which was then called Santiago de los Caballeros. 

Several large earthquakes struck Antigua between 1753 and 1773, and the last one did major damage to Antigua and the capitol was moved to Guatemala City, which continues to be the capitol of Guatemala today. Some time after Guatemala City was established as the new capitol, Santiago de los Caballeros began to be called the “Old Guatemala” or Antigua Guatemala. 

When the King of Spain proclaimed that the capitol would move to a new Guatemala City, he also insisted in 1776 that all of the residents of Antigua relocate. Many of these people had spent their entire lives in Antigua and refused to move. Some of them hid in the valley and river areas outside of Antigua when the troops came to force everyone to move. The Spaniards employed an embargo against food into Antigua in an attempt to force people to move. Those hiding in the country were left with nothing to eat except the native plants, After a while, the plant diet began to turn their skin green. The people became known as “Green Belly”, a term which is still used in Antigua today.

After the embargo failed to remove many people from Antigua, the Spaniards tried another tactic. Since there are more than thirty churches and monasteries in Antigua, the Spaniards began removing many of the images and other religious items from inside the churches and moved them to Guatemala City (where they remain today). But the people continued to go to the churches and worshipped outside, where there were many large stone statues on the facades that were too large to be moved. When the Spaniards realized this, they cut off the hands and heads of the statues. This is what I saw when I photographed these churches. I mistakenly assumed that this was the result of earthquake damage, but these statues have been headless and handless since the mid 1770s due to Spanish rule, not due to natural disasters.

Adding Another Country: El Salvador

September 10, 2015

After completing my two weeks of Spanish school, and feeling fully fluent in garbled two-word sentences, it was time to head south again. My instructor for the past two weeks, Alvaro Morales, is another example of the people I keep meeting on this trip. Alvaro is nearly my age. He has four children, three of which have a genetic problem which has left them in a condition similar to MS. They require wheelchairs and constant assistance. The youngest son helps Alvaro and his wife care for the older two sons and daughter. Alvaro also is in need of gall bladder surgery, which because of Guatemala’s health care system, has been met with multiple delays, and there is no insurance to cover any of this, nor are there schools in Guatemala for children with special needs. Yet Alvaro showed up every day at school with an incredibly positive attitude, never complained about his situation while explaining it to me, and never seemed to be sad or down or in any way upset about the cards he has been dealt. He often would end the discussion simply by saying “es la vida” (that’s life).

My teacher at La Union Spanish School, and an all-around great guy, Alvaro Morales.

Loading the bike and saying goodbye to my new friends at La Union Spanish School, I joined up with Judith, who I had met while hiking the Pacaya Volcano. Judith is from Switzerland, and is riding a Suzuki DR-Z 400 (which she shipped from Switzerland to Anchorage) solo from Alaska to South America. It turns out we are on a similar path through Central America so we decided to ride together for part of the way at least. This makes the border crossings much easier and more secure, as one person can watch the bikes while the other goes inside to do the paperwork.

Out of Antigua, we headed to Escuintla, then turned southeast toward the border of El Salvador. I was not prepared for what awaited there….several miles of parked 18-wheelers, many of which had the drivers sleeping in a hammock under the trailer. This was the line for the border crossing. Fortunately we were on motorcycles, and didn’t have to wait in that line. Another bike with El Salvador plates and two guys on it passed us, and the passenger motioned for us to follow them. Like Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, we spent a good twenty minutes threading between oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road, sometimes moving all the way to the opposite shoulder or off the opposite side of the road to pass traffic. Eventually we arrived at the border, and we immediately were approached by another guy on a small dirt bike who offered to help guide us through the border crossing logistics — for a price, of course. The fee seemed reasonable to avoid the added time involved in tracking down each of the proper windows and in the correct order.

After breezing through the Guatemalan side fairly quickly, we headed to the El Salvador side, which took considerably longer. At one point I asked our helper where he had lived in the United States, since it was apparent he must have spent time there based on the quality of his english.

“California”, he replied.

“Where?” I asked.


“I lived in Corona”, I mentioned.

He said that he worked in the orange groves in Riverside. I mentioned that at one time I had owned a small grove in Riverside. It turns out he worked for the guy that managed my grove, and probably even worked in my grove at one point. Unfortunately the real estate debacle of 2007-2008 caught up with him, and he lost his house and ended up returning to El Salvador, although he said he had a lot of good memories of California.

It took a bit over two hours to get through the border process, but I felt fortunate even at that considering that I heard the truck drivers were expected to wait at least five hours at the border.

Not the most welcoming sight, but it got better further into the country.

I noticed three things right away in El Salvador. The first is that the official currency is the U.S. dollar, which makes things easy. The second is that gas is sold by the gallon (it was in Guatemala also, actually), so the gas prices in U.S. dollars per gallon look familiar, although cheaper than in the U.S.; a gallon of gas here is around $2.80. Diesel is $2.40. The third thing is that, finally and thankfully, the topes or speed bumps are gone. It was so nice to ride for miles and miles and not have to suddenly slow for a random speed bump in the highway.

No speed bumps, but these will slow you down. Notice the woman on the other side with the red flag acting as Crossing Guard for the cows.

The ride from the border down to El Tunco is worth the trip. About thirty miles before El Tunco, the road emerges onto the Pacific Coast and the views are incredible. Both the road and the views reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway up around Big Sur in California, but without all of the traffic and RVs. Okay, there was one or two chicken buses, but literally only one or two, and they were actually headed in the opposite direction. There were also about four tunnels, which were a bit frightening, as you suddenly plunge into total darkness and it is very hard to determine where the center line of the road is. And if there happened to be a pothole in the tunnel, you would never see it until it was too late. Luckily, the road was in great shape and the twists and turns along with the ocean views made for one of the best rides of the trip so far.

“Reduce Speed: Surfers in the road”. First time I’ve seen the word “surfistas”, and on a proper highway sign no less.

El Tunco is a major surf location. The surfer-tourist part is a very small area, similar to Zipolite in Mexico, with only a couple of streets, but loaded with hostels, surf shops, and surfers. The crowd here seems to be international, but shares the same surfer style, and the day-to-day activities revolve around surfing during the day and partying at night. The beach itself is nothing great; in fact, it’s mostly just rocks, but it’s not the beach people come here for. It’s the surf.


Tomorrow will require a trip into San Salvador to visit the local Yamaha dealer to buy a couple of spares, and perhaps shop for tires. I’m hoping I can make it further before buying tires, but if I find the right set at the right price, I may just pick them up here. Then it’s back down the coast for another night in El Salvador to set up for two border crossings in one day.


A Day Makes a Big Difference in Beaches

September 11, 2015

After some light bike maintenance and a lot of sweating (the sun here is strong and it’s fairly humid as well, and the bikes were not in the shade), we headed out late toward San Salvador. I hadn’t planned to go through the largest city in El Salvador, but I was able to locate a spare air filter at a Yamaha dealer there, and it was only 50 kilometers or so out of the way. 

As usual, Garmin took me to the wrong location even with the actual street address entered. After about 30 minutes of running around in circles, we finally found the dealership — a beautiful gleaming store with a spotless service center behind a full glass wall where customers can watch their bikes being serviced. Ten minutes later we were back on the road out of San Salvador and headed south. For the first time I was on the PanAmerican Highway (CA-1), and glad I didn’t have to ride it the entire time, as it is just a highway, with plenty of traffic. 

The scenery was nothing spectacular, so I didn’t even bother to stop to take photos along the way. Although there was one moment in San Miguel when I wished I had the camera handy. After 6 weeks on the road and three countries, I had become used to seeing jugglers in the crosswalks in larger cities. Usually either a guy in a clown costume, or a couple of young guys with a large assortment of bowling pins. Until today I had not seen a guy on a unicycle juggling three large machetes in a crosswalk. Now I have. 

We arrived at our destination — La Tortuga Verde in El Cuco — just before dark. The last two miles were down a dirt road parallel to the beach, with hostel after hostel, many of them either closed for the season or with very few guests. 

The beach here is completely different from El Tunco. Not a rock to be found. Miles of  beautiful sandy beach, with virtually no one on it.

Hammocks hang from the palm trees and from the covered porches everywhere. While the hammocks are the cheapest alternative for overnighting at La Tortuga Verde, I’m strongly considering taking my tent a little further down the beach and staying in it…the lack of expense for a night or two will quickly help to balance out the nights I’ve gone over my budget on a room. Regardless, this place is muy tranquilo.I could definitely stay here a few days or more.

It would be nice if they actually had wifi though…

This is very misleading….No Skype, No YouTube, No Google, No Internet, No Nada. You can connect to their router, but that’s as far as you’re going. So shut off the computer and go sit on the beach.

The food is good, though a bit more expensive than I would like (of course). Six bucks for a fajita dinner, two dollars for a beer. That’s still budget level, so I’m okay for now. The three dollar lunch yesterday at the roadside comedor was more my style, and was tasty and filling. 

Tomorrow is looking to be a long day, with two border crossings in one day, and both likely to be extended ordeals. Then again, if that’s the sign of a “bad day”, then life could be a lot worse…

Honduras: Fleecing, Flooding, and Fumbling

September 13, 2015

I will apologize in advance for the lack of photos and the somewhat negative tone. I hope you get the same entertainment reading this post that I get looking back on it now.

The plan was to cross two borders in one day: From El Salvador through Honduras to Nicaragua. I knew it could be done. But I had no idea how frustrating it could be. I was about to find out.

Leaving El Cuco early, it was only an hour and a half to the border with Honduras at El Amatillo. At the previous border crossing into El Salvador, we had hired a “helper”. Not really intentionally…he just happened to lead us to the border and we were suckered right in. But in the end it proved to be a small investment and worth it. Nice guy, easy process, cheap. During that border crossing, he pulled out his phone and called a friend at the border between El Salvador and Honduras, then handed the phone to me. I spoke with Ronnie Garcia, and he said he would be happy to help with the crossing into Honduras.

So when we rolled up to the El Amatillo crossing, there was Ronnie, friendly and ready to help. And that was the beginning of the nightmare. After agreeing on a price, we started the process. Within the first 30 minutes, the scam started. First, he needed more money for his brother Jose who would actually do the paperwork running. The next scam was that my Texas license plate would expire within six months, and Honduras would not allow anyone in with a plate that would expire within six months, but for a “fee” they could fix this. This was the beginning of my irritation. I was only getting a three day transit visa. Honduras could care less when my plate expired, especially if it was after the three days. And I was going to be out of the country later that afternoon.

Then they wanted more money for the bikes to enter the country. More than what we had read on the internet was the official fee. With “helpers” it’s hard but not impossible to argue. You are standing in a parking lot. It’s not the DMV or Burger King. There is no posted pricing. What you say you read on the internet isn’t what they say. The smart thing would have been to go inside and talk to the officials personally. But in all honesty, this border crossing was so sketchy that I was uncomfortable stepping more than about three feet away from my motorcycle.

We literally stood in a dirt lot for almost four hours. Next to us were some of the seediest people I’ve personally been around. I had my first introduction to a real crack whore. She approached me asking for food, money, or cigarettes. I was afraid she was going to touch me. She was barely conscious, and she looked like she could spread numerous diseases within six feet of her. After I refused to give her anything, she walked over to a hammock about twenty feet away, laid down, began eating something I couldn’t identify, then began urinating while laying in the hammock.

And we still had another couple of hours to stand there.

I was told that the system was slow, that it was Sunday and there were less workers on duty, that the computers kept going down.

Eventually, Jose returned with the paperwork. And then they wanted more money for fumigation. I was overheated, tired, hungry, and fed up. We argued for a while, and another crackhead showed up when he heard money being discussed. I refused to pull any money out with him present. Eventually Ronnie asked him to leave, which upset him and he asked me what my problem was. It was definitely past time to go.

We eventually settled on a final payment, and got on the bikes and left, bitter and frustrated. By the way, there was no fumigation process.

In the future, I can definitely advise anyone crossing this border to avoid Ronnie Garcia from Houston, Texas at all costs. This border is no different from the others, and a helper is not necessary.

That brings us to the next border crossing and a whole new situation.

It’s only about two and a half hours across Honduras to the Nicaraguan border. I was heading for Somoto, a smaller crossing and near Cañon de Somoto. We rode faster than I had ridden the entire trip. It began to rain. Then it began to pour. Then the wind started. It got a bit exciting for a while (including passing the guy on the 125 with the guitar bag on his back, wearing a nice white shirt and dress slacks, in torrential rain).

The rain let up before we got to the Nicaraguan border, but I was still fuming from the previous scamming. I had already decided that I would immediately tell any helper “NO!” and we would proceed without help.

Sure enough, as soon as we rolled up, a guy walked up all cheerful and ready to help.

“No necessito ayudar. Gracias, no”, I told him.

He continued to stand there. The immigration official walked up and took my passport and documents. He told me I needed a copy of the document and that I needed to have the helper go make the copy. SERIOUSLY??

Yep. The immigration official and the “helper” were in on the scam together, and the immigration officer essentially refused to help me unless I hired his buddy the helper. Here we go again…

Aduana leaving Honduras at the Nicaraguan border.

The guy on the Honduran side wanted money to exit the country, and tried to give me a Guatemalan quetzale instead of a US dollar coin. It went fairly quickly exiting Honduras but I was still irritated by the scamming.

We were then handed off to a new “helper” to take us through the Nicaraguan entry process. Finally, this guy was honest, straightforward, and helpful. No scamming, no inflated prices.

Aduana entering Nicaragua. Note that it is still daylight at this point, and not yet raining again.

Beyond his control, or anyone else’s at that point, we encountered a new problem: it was raining again, and the power was out at the border. They were unable to process our paperwork until the power returned. We sat for about two hours. Finally, at a few minutes before six o’clock (closing time), we were asked to buy a gallon of diesel for Nicaragua’s official generator, and after another twenty minutes or so, we had backup power and documents in hand. There were definitely moments of concern: we were in no-man’s land, between borders with no admission to either country; it was closing time, there was no power, and the next two days were official national holidays in Nicaragua (Independence Day). If not for the willing officials and the gallon of diesel, we could have been camped at the border for three days.

Documents in hand, we rode the final twenty kilometers to Somoto in the dark. I swore I would not ride in the dark, but tonight there was no choice. The rain had stopped, and there were people walking along the shoulder of the road, and on bicycles and horses. Very hard to see.

The Nicaraguan border guard saw me looking at hotel offerings on my GPS, and recommended a hotel from the list. Nice guy. Upon arrival, we met two Germans who were in the process of booking a tour of the Cañon de Somoto. That’s why I came here. So at 8am the next morning, six of us were piling into a Honda Civic to head for the canyon.

Cañon de Somoto

September 14, 2015

It was a sleepless night. My room is nice enough, but between all of the events of yesterday’s Honduran border scams, and riding the last 20km in the dark, I was still wired. So when my alarm went off this morning, I was not ready to get up. I was just starting to relax.

Nonetheless, it was time to see the canyon. Six of us piled into a very tired Honda Civic, and drove 10km back toward the Honduran border to Cañon de Somoto. Ricardo, our tour guide, took us first to his house, where we were provided life jackets, then back into the Civic for the hike to the entrance to the canyon.

At Ricardo’s house. His wife is a seamstress, and there were two young girls there trying on their new dresses. Adorable.


The trek through the canyon is about five miles total. Much of it involves swimming through sections. Another large part is climbing over rocks and hiking between sections. And then there is about 1km in a rowboat. The scenery is very nice. The extremely slick moss-covered river stones, less so.

Hiking to the river: First row: Nicaraguan tour guide speaking Spanish with Swiss tourist. Second row: German tourist speaking Spanish with Nicaraguan tourist. Third row: German tourist speaking English with me. I gotta work on my Spanish.



Interesting large spider.

Once again, some people jump off of tall canyon walls into the water. SOME people.

The rowboats take people back and forth at the lower part of the canyon. Much easier access than hiking and swimming the longer route that we did. We took the rowboat about 1km downstream.


At the lower portion of the canyon, guides act like mules and pull these long tube trains of tourists up the canyon. I’m sure these people were looking at us as we swam by in the opposite direction and thinking “Those poor people can’t afford tubes”.


Looking back at the river on our hike back up to Ricardo’s house at the end of our tour. Canon de Somoto is upstream to the left of the photo.

Somoto to Jinotega, The Back Way, and on to Leon.

September 15, 2015

I had breakfast at the hotel in Somoto before packing up the bike and moving on.

The kitchen at the hotel in Somoto. Great people. Great food.

With some time to kill before moving south toward Panama, I decided to slow down a bit and stay in the mountains of Nicaragua. The day was spent riding dirt roads between Somoto and Jinotega. Garmin got a bit confused, as usual, but eventually the right dirt road off the highway was located and some beautiful scenery presented itself along the way.



Um, yeah…..the water’s not THAT deep. I’ll just ride through the creek…

Monday was Independence Day in Nicaragua, and Tuesday was also a holiday, so there were a lot of parades in the small towns. While stopping for a slice of pizza in Jinotega (all of the comedors were closed for the day), a parade formed in the street next to the bike, and I found myself suddenly needing to get out of town.

About 15 kilometers up the road was another steep dirt road turnoff to La Bastilla Ecolodge. This place is absolutely beautiful, with lots of natural foliage, coffee plantation, and more. It is run as a foundation with the intention of teaching local farmers sustainable responsible environmental farming.

Cool table. Those are coffee beans filling in the routered name in the table.

The lodge offers cabanas, dormitories, and wooden platforms for tent camping. The elevation made for much cooler weather, and an afternoon rainstorm cooled things off even more.

View from the tent deck at La Bastille.

The next day was spent on pavement again, riding from Jinotega to Leon. The first part of the ride between Jinotega and Matagalpa is beautiful. Lush, green scenery everywhere and a first-class paved twisty highway with not a single pothole. Nothing but great fun.

After Matagalpa, the road flattens out and the heat returns. It was warm the rest of the way into Leon. Unfortunately, about three miles before entering Leon, my Garmin’s screen froze. Removing it from the cradle, pushing the power button, nothing would turn it off. And somehow I managed not to pack the 2.5mm allen wrench necessary to remove the battery. So without GPS (and it gets worse….my phone was dead and the power outlet on the bike had just failed also), I rode around Leon for a half hour until I stumbled on the hostel.

Lesson learned: I now have a 2.5mm allen wrench from the local hardware store in Leon, and although I have yet to fix the power outlet on the bike (on my list for a couple of days from now), I will be sure to charge my phone each night.

Tomorrow;s agenda: Volcano Boarding. What’s that, you ask? Stay tuned…

Volcano Boarding: Not exactly what you think….

September 17, 2015

Up early for breakfast, and then across the street to the other hostel: Bigfoot, which offers volcano boarding down the side of Cerro Negro, a local active volcano. As usual, I’m “the old guy” among the twenty-something backpacker crowd, and Heath, our Aussie tour guide, has taken to calling me “Legend” (it sounds better than just calling the client “old man”).

There are eleven of us this morning along with two guides and a few porters who will haul your board to the top of the volcano for an extra $5. At first that sounds like an extra expense that I can avoid. Then I see the volcano an realize the hike up is enough without a 25 pound awkward toboggan in my hands.

We pile into the back of a large Mercedes truck for the one hour drive to the volcano.

Our transportation to the volcano.

Fitting slogan on the side door.

Just outside of Leon we turn down a one-lane dirt road to Cerro Negro National Park. As we get closer, the volcano comes into view.


Look closely and you can see a few people running/sliding down the hill.

As with anything involving gravity, you have to go up before you can go down. The hike up the volcano is not that long, but it is loose and somewhat steep in places.

First leg of the hike up.


Second leg: a little bigger rocks, a little steeper.


Looking out from the final rest stop on the way up.


Looking into the crater.


Suited up and ready to go.


And away we go….



We are on purpose-built toboggan-style sleds, for good reason. They have a metal bottom, with a slick formica surface to help slide. They were originally developed by a guy who came here trying to set a speed record on a snowboard, after Eric Barone set a speed record down this same volcano on a bicycle (I should mention that at the point where Barone hit 176 kph, his bicycle broke in half, and he spent quite a while in the hospital in Leon. He later went on to set a record of 220 kph on a bicycle down a glacier).

There was one guy that wanted to try using a snowboard rather than the sled. It turns out volcanic rock doesn’t behave like snow. He tumbled hard a few times, and by the time he got to the bottom he had a black eye and a bloody nose and said his head really hurt. This is what he looked like as he walked away from the hill:


And again as we returned to the hostel:


Various shots of sledding down an active volcano at speeds of around 50kmh:



Overall, it was a lot of fun and I’d do it again. There’s definitely a lot more to it than just sliding down the hill. The ride out, the hike up, the interaction with the volcano, and then after the slide down, the ride back, the scenery, and the bar stories afterwards all add up to a fun day.

At the end of the day, I met Stan. He is one of the owners of the ViaVia Hostel in Leon where I stayed. Stan came here from a civil engineering job in Belgium several years ago, and seems very happy with the lifestyle change.

I highly recommend this place to anyone riding a motorcycle through Nicaragua. They are very supportive of motorcyclists, and made room in the main atrium area to park the bikes. Sure you have to ride through the lobby and the restaurant, but that just adds to the fun of staying here.

Motorcycles in Latin America

As I spent the last 7 weeks or so riding through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at all the other bikes. There is no question that in these countries people have less money to spend on transportation. In the rural areas, it is very noticeable that most people don’t have driveways from the road to their house. There is no need. It makes things more simple, as you can build further from the road, or up a hill that would be too steep to drive. As long as you can walk up it or your burro can walk up it, you can get home.

The transportation needs and abilities go from foot, to burro, to ox cart, to horse, to bicycle (it is amazing how much firewood, chickens, propane tanks, etc one can carry on a bicycle when it is your only method of transportation), to scooter, to motorcycle, to eventually car or small pickup. The far majority of families never graduate past bicycle. The next group is able to purchase a 125cc motorcycle. This serves as the family car, pickup truck, horse, etc, shuttling as many as five family members at once, or one or two and a large load of supplies. I saw more scooters in Mexico and Guatemala than I have seen since. Most all scooters and motorcycles tend to be between 125cc and 200cc. In Mexico, it almost seems like there is a law against having two people on a scooter; it’s always either one or four people. Typically Dad is driving, with a young child four to six years old standing on the footboard in front of him. Mom is on the back with a six-month-old to two year old child in between Mom and Dad.

Typical urban transportation scene: horse-drawn cart, 125cc bikes, bicycle, pickup, walking. All on the same block of the same street.


Typical 125cc family station wagon.

In Mexico, by far the most popular brand is Italika. While the name sounds like it might be Italian, it turns out these are designed and manufactured in Toluca, Mexico near Mexico City. Italika holds over 50 percent of the motorcycle share in Mexico, with over 400,000 bikes sold last year alone. As with everywhere else I’ve been, the most popular models are 125 and 150cc. They tend to be sold in Elektra department stores and similar places.

Leaving Mexico, the Italikas begin to fade and literally dozens of other brands show up. Just today I saw Genesis, Raybar, Dayun, Jialing, KYK, Platina, Yumbo, Sepento, and Haojue brands, along with a few Suzukis (the 100cc 2-stroke model is still quite popular) and a few Hondas. The venerable Yamaha YBR125 is still the high-end choice for reliability, and you see a lot of them, but price is a big concern in these markets. Because of this, the Chinese and Indian brands sell more. Styles range from what we used to call a “UJM” or Universal Japanese Motorcycle — the standard style bike — to sport models with large mufflers that resemble the 600cc and 1000cc supersport bikes in the U.S. and small headlight fairings, to what appears to be the most popular model these days: the 125cc dual sport bike. All of these have single cylinder air-cooled engines but with large radiator shrouds like a motocross bike, drum rear brakes and front disc brakes, and few frills. You tend to see more of the YBR125 street-style bikes in the cities, and more of the dual sport bikes in the rural areas. No surprise there.

The “Mercedes” of bikes in Latin America: the Yamaha YBR125.


A 200cc Raybar.


My favorite feature of the Raybars: cast into the side cover it says “Japan Technology”. I’m amused that a Chinese motorcycle manufacturer basically copies a Japanese design, produces it in China, and has the audacity to include as a feature the words “Japan Technology” on the side of the engine.


I stopped in the local Toyota/Yamaha dealer in Granada today, and among the YBR125s was this DT175 two stroke. Brand new. Virtually identical to the model that was sold in the US around 1980. I didn’t ask, but it appears to be a current model for sale here.

It’s also a bit odd to see so many motorcycles everywhere, but yet my XT250 is the only one with the headlight on during the day. People are often flashing their headlight at me to let me know I have it on, as if I have a choice.

My XT250 is a big bike for Latin America, but because so many bikes here are 125cc dual sports, it still tends to blend in. While I hear stories of all of the other riders who travel through on 650, 800, and 1200cc bikes who are constantly approached and asked the same three questions — How big? How much does it cost? How fast does it go? — I get none of that. Those who ride still tend to examine the XT closely, as it is different than what they see every day, but aside from the aluminum panniers, it doesn’t stand out from their own bikes. On the other hand, Judith’s water-cooled DR-Z400 draws attention (or it could be just that there’s a small woman on a loaded motorcycle with Swiss plate). The local police in San Salvador, riding air-cooled Yamaha YBR125s, asked her how many hours a day she could ride on her water-cooled bike.

Makes me consider how hard my poor little XT250 is working. But it hasn’t complained yet, and just keeps chugging along. It has definitely been a good choice for the trip so far.