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Cycling Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama

Added 01 Sep 2014
Cycling Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama

He's always been one of the regulars on Explore cycling adventures and retirement hasn't stopped him. Former Explore Finance Director Mike Tyler recently travelled on Cycle Nicaragua to the Panama Canal and shares his experiences and top tips for the tour.


"This is one of the iconic tours that every cyclist should do. Afterwards, you will be surprised at how many times you will find yourself starting a sentence with, “When I was cycling from Nicaragua to the Panama Canal…” And somewhere in the conversation you will recount how you crossed borders with a bike, changed oceans from the Caribbean to the Pacific, cycled around a live volcano on an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, stood on the edge and looked into the boiling abyss of another active volcano and possibly (if you opt for it as I did) zip-wire down the side of yet another volcano and then abseil the last 150 feet to the valley floor. (I have to admit that most on the tour chose the relaxing afternoon in the hot pools instead.)

Before setting out on this journey I thought Central America was formed by the two land masses of North and South America pulling apart and forming a thin strip of land between like a stretched piece of rubber. Clearly it therefore had to be flat!  And clearly I was absent from school the day this was taught in geography, not realising that Central America is mostly formed by volcanic activity. The term 'Central America flat' was used by the excellent Explore Tour Leader to refer to the days when sections of the terrain were merely undulating.


The tour grade is described as moderate to challenging and will satisfy most keen cyclists. There are some steep climbs, a few rising to just over 1,000m above sea level. Of course there is always the support bus as an alternative. But for every up there’s a down, and there are some exceptionally long, superb downs that leave you with a smile on your face. The advantage of the ascents is that there is a welcome cooling in the temperature as you climb. An added bonus to this tour is the addition of several off-road sections, for which the mountain bikes provided are highly suited.


Starting in Managua, the itinerary continues south until, into the latter half of the second week, you are 9° from the equator at Santiago in Panama, when the direction swings northwards towards Panama City, because Panama (the country) is the shape of a lazy “S” laid on its back.  The scenery throughout is spectacular and lush. Costa Rica boasts a huge range of micro-climates, but both Nicaragua and Panama can undoubtedly match it. The coffee is to savour in all three countries, while bananas grow in massive plantations everywhere and the neatly arranged trees in geometric patterns can be mesmerising as you cycle for mile after mile past such an estate. Strangely many of the little shops in the villages we passed through told us they had none for sale and were awaiting a delivery. I assume they had all been shipped to ASDA.  


There is a break part way through the holiday when bikes are abandoned and the group spends a day on an island in the Bocas del Toro region in the Caribbean. Here you can take a boat trip to the surrounding islands, maybe spotting dolphins or just lay on the beach, tanning the parts that the sun doesn’t normally reach for cyclists.

The tour ends in Panama City and it would be unthinkable to come all this way and not visit the Panama Canal. Watching the massive tankers and cruise ships passing through the Miraflores Lock was utterly fascinating. The city itself was totally different to the places experienced in the previous two weeks. This is a major world trading city, exuding affluence and US influence. Not denying the existence of slums, it is nevertheless impressive and the short cycle ride on the last day along the long Amador Causeway to Isla Flamenco provides an excellent view of it and an opportunity to finally dip the bike wheels in the Pacific.  


On the last evening we counted up the ride statistics for the fortnight from Strava: we rode 437km and the total height ascended was 5,988m. All in all very satisfying performance.

Top tips:
• Take US dollars. They are accepted by everyone in all three countries with virtually fixed exchange rates. Don’t be tempted to exchange money at the airport in Managua!
• Your own pedals will be useful – but not essential.
• Take a suitcase or holdall with wheels. I didn’t and spent a lot of time and effort lugging my holdall along jetties, through no man’s land between borders etc.
• There is free Wi-Fi in most of the hotels.
• Don’t forget your swimming costume. There are a lot of opportunities to swim."

Mike travelled on Cycle Nicaragua to the Panama Canal.