Omar´s Outlook - Feb 2016

A Change of Pace

Occasionally, by watching the news and reading newspapers, any Australian could be forgiven for thinking that things are fast falling apart. Here is a very small sample just from the last few days:

Obviously all of these, and many others, are very real problems, with no ready solutions in sight. Australia is too small to exercise much influence over global markets, and unfortunately it now also shares with the rest of the developed world an ineffectual class of politicians (in both major parties) who prefer the “easy solutions” (i.e. higher taxes) to meaningful reform.

So rather than getting depressed over it and write about economics and markets, as I usually do, I thought this time the topic could be something entirely different.

As some of our clients know, every once in a while my wife Trish and I tend to have rather active holidays – like riding our bikes through various countries of the world. This allows us to get fit, experience different places from a very close perspective and achieve a total change in the mindset.

Thus we have in the past cycled thousands of kilometres through many parts of South America, Africa and the Pacific. This time we decided to travel through Central America, where we had not visited before.

Our trip was to cover 7 countries, starting in Cancun (Mexico) and finishing in Panama City. The overall distance was around 3,000 kilometres in total. Here’s a map of the trip:

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Cancun, as many people will know, is a highly popular winter destination for American and Canadian tourists, who use it to get away from the cold weather at home. Consequently the city is fringed by many expensive hotels and resorts, which extend a couple of hundred kilometres south.

We are not particularly fond of large cities with traffic that tends to be rather unfriendly to bike riders, so we were happy to get going after a couple of days.

It was around 400 kilometres to the Belize border, and in hindsight, we probably could have skipped this bit, as the Yucatan peninsula is very flat in this area and there is absolutely nothing to see apart from the long, straight road.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are interesting and worth visiting:

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Unfortunately the place was totally overrun with tourists and because of this, one can expect to pay over USD100 for a dinner for two in the nearby restaurants!

In contrast, at our next night stop some 120 kilometres further down the road, we were out of the tourist area and able to eat enough food for four non-cyclists for around $25! The town, Felipe Carillo Puerto, also had a lot more “Mexican” look to it:

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Being early in the trip, we were not very fit, and consequently after sitting on the bikes for 5 hours a day, our nether parts were not liking it very much. Here’s Trish checking how far to go before a stop for the night, and an end to the pain, could be had:

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One of the natural attractions of this area are so-called “cenotes”, or natural sink holes filled with fresh water. They offer opportunities for a refreshing swim in crystal clear fresh water:

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Arriving in Chetumal, a city on the border with Belize, from where we wanted to catch a boat to one of Belize’s attractions, Caye Caulker, we were greeted by this sign:

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Apparently these local alligators are not quite the size of our salt water crocs, but can still be aggressive! Not really a swimming place then!

The crossing to Caye Caulker takes around 2 hours and can be rather rough. It was therefore interesting to see just how small the boat that was to take us there was in the context of how many people were about to get on it!

Unfortunately it was difficult to take too many photos due to the presence of several very serious-looking Army people with big guns! They eventually brought a dog to sniff everyone’s bags as well as the passengers themselves.

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In the end, everyone somehow got on board, although our bikes ended up tied with a rope on the sides of the boat, hanging over the water surface!

Against all odds, they were still there when we finally arrived!

Caye Caulker itself is a small island, which predominantly serves as a base for people wanting to go diving in Belize’s coral reef, which is the second biggest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier one. It is also overrun with tourists and to us, spoilt by Australian beaches, it did not really appeal all that much.

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After another, less hair-raising boat trip a couple of days later, we found ourselves in Belize City, which has a reputation for being rather an unsafe place. Be it as it may, the city itself is not particularly attractive, so we were happy to just get on the bikes and ride the 90 or so kilometres to Belmopan, the capital of the country.

It just so happened that we were about to spend New Year’s eve in Belmopan, so being big party people (not!), here’s our celebratory dinner at the little hotel we were staying:

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Belize used to be under British rule, and was then called British Honduras. Consequently English is still the official language, which makes travelling a lot easier for the likes of us, whose Spanish is sufficient to get by, but not to have an in-depth conversation. That, and the relatively low cost of living compared to the USA/Canada is also why it’s increasingly favoured by American and Canadian retirees, in a similar way to that of Australians moving to Thailand or Bali for their golden years.

The central parts of the country have some rainforest and rolling hills, and the so-called Hummingbird Highway traverses some of that scenery, also providing a chance to meet some local wildlife:

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The hilly road took its toll on the intrepid travellers, resulting in a few rest stops:

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However most of the country is rather flat, so it was a nice change when we crossed over, via another bumpy boat trip, to Guatemala, and then shortly after on to Honduras.

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Honduras is hilly, green and wet. Water everywhere, so our first morning there started in what appears to be a common weather condition:

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Not that a little rain could hamper our enthusiasm; it’s not like it was cold:

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We ended up spending over a week in Honduras and despite its reputation as being “very dangerous”, the country is quite pretty and we never encountered any unfriendly people. The most “dangerous” thing were occasionally rather bumpy, hilly roads:

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It’s also the poorest country in Central America, and seeing how the locals live in the “off-the-track” highlands provides a sharp contrast to the lifestyles Australians take for granted:

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And the road rules are somewhat different, too:

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By this stage, we were starting to realise that if we were to ride the entire distance to Panama City, we would have to ride our usual 100 or so kilometres every day without any rest days. Apart from being a bit overly ambitious, it would also preclude doing any sightseeing.

Consequently we decided to catch a bus from the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, to its Nicaraguan counterpart, Managua. This would also save us riding some 400 kilometres on a road busy with big trucks – never a pleasurable place for a cyclist!

Nicaragua is well known for its volcanos, and there was no shortage of those. The island Omotepe, located in the middle of Lago (Lake) Nicaragua, happens to have two of them (although only one can be seen in the photo):

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There are also some nice beaches – at least on the Pacific coast; the Caribbean one is sparsely populated and much more difficult to get to:

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The country seems to be doing well economically, and is now also getting “on the radar” for tourism, and is actively trying to attract the American retiree crowd. The cost of living is still amongst the lowest in Central America, comparable to Honduras.

The next country on our trip was Costa Rica. For quite some time, it’s been the favourite destination for US expats, due to its political stability and relatively good infrastructure.

The mountain range running through the middle of the country allows one to essentially pick the climate zone one likes. The coastal regions are tropical and humid, but the higher the altitude, the less humidity and cooler nights. So essentially it is possible to have “endless spring”.

It therefore came as a surprise when as an introduction to the place, we were forced to stand in a queue, in the sun, for more than four hours, before we were able to get the entry stamps in our passports:

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Bureaucracy rules! Compared to these guys, the Australian public service are the very model of efficiency!

Mind you, it was apparently possible to bribe someone to jump the queue, but unless you know who to approach & speak good Spanish, doing so may result in getting arrested instead, so being law-abiding people, we just waited…and waited.

After this initial hiccup, the country did live up to its reputation as being quite beautiful. A couple of days later we started climbing over the central range. It was a ride of more than 40 kilometres uphill that day, but the scenery was spectacular.

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Apparently the area is very popular with birdwatchers (typically American or European), and we saw several of them, equipped with massive telephoto lenses, at one of our stops. One of them was kind enough to take a break from photographing the birds and instead took a photo of us:

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Before we knew it, we were about to cross into Panama. This time there was no great queue at the border, but the customs obviously did not feel like working, because the 20 or so people waiting there were standing around for more than an hour and a half with nothing happening, before someone decided it was time to start stamping passports again.

They then instructed everyone to take their baggage to be inspected; only to stand around some more before being told to pack up again. Nobody did actually look in the bags!

One of the guys there wins the award for being the most obnoxious little Nazi we've encountered yet. He made Trish fill in some local form 3 times for apparently having made some mistakes. Subsequently nobody else asked for the forms or looked it, and it seems it was not really needed for anything!

Good old Latin American bureaucracy....!

Being pressed for time by this stage, we decided to take a bus for the last 380 or so kilometres to Panama City. On our last day of riding, we thought we’d ride up from the city of David, where we had spent the night after crossing the border from Costa Rica, to a small town called Boquete, which apparently is very scenic and was “only” about 40 kilometres away.

We did know much of the ride would be uphill, but after Costa Rica we did not think much of it. Alas, we did not anticipate the screaming headwind that managed to make what should have been a short trip to an ordeal of some 4 hours.

My dearest wife was rather unimpressed:

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It took a bribe of some beer and chips, plus a promise of accommodation in a rather expensive hotel, to get her going again:

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The town of Boquete is indeed in a pretty location and due to its altitude its climate is apparently very agreeable all year round, so it’s easy to see why apparently some 14% of its population are expat Americans:

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The ride downhill the next day, with tail wind behind us, was a blast. My speedo showed maximum speed of almost 85 kilometres; not bad on a mountain bike!

After that, all that was left was the bus to Panama City. That was another experience in itself, as the trip – some 380 kilometres - took over 9 hours! Bad roads, traffic jams, road works…you name it, Panama has it.

At least we did finally get there…

Panama uses the US dollar as its official currency, which has made its economy more stable than most of the rest of Latin America. Apparently this is one of the reasons why in recent years, a large number of wealthy Venezuelans, escaping the Marxist “paradise” of their country of origin, have made Panama City their new home. To cater for the demand for upmarket housing, the city has built so many skyscrapers that it can rival any major metropolis anywhere:

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Of course, most local residents do not quite have the means to live in multi-million dollar apartments, and the areas they live in look decidedly more Latin American:

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We did visit the famous Panama Canal, which is quite an engineering feat and makes one wonder whether it would be possible to build something like that these days. No doubt all the usual suspects would strenuously object because there may be a frog or something that could be inconvenienced by all those big freight ships going by!

And so, before we knew it, it was time to go home again. We pulled the bikes to pieces so as to pack them as small as possible, in order to avoid having United Airlines charge us USD200 each. Unbeknownst to us, in contrast to Qantas, this is apparently normal with all US airlines and we did have to pay on the way from Los Angeles to Cancun; regardless of the fact that our bikes are comfortably within the allowable weight limit:

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So here we are, another trip behind us. We ended up actually cycling a little over 2,000 kilometres and came back reasonably fit. Unfortunately it’s not likely to last, now that it’s back to spending most of the day sitting in an office!

I do hope all of you out there had a similarly interesting holiday season!