SALT LAKE CITY — Time again to check in on Chris Haag and Sophie George and see how things are going for the couple who last July left their steady jobs in St. George to make their way to Alaska and ride their bicycles to Argentina.
They rolled out of Homer, Alaska, on July 2, 2018, crossed through Canada and the western U.S. by November and spent the winter biking through Mexico. A couple of weeks ago they were in Panama, about to finish off Central America and ride into South America.
That’s right on schedule, by the way. Their plan is to take two years to cover the 20,000-mile distance.
They were at a little Panamanian roadside bed and breakfast taking a rest day when I called. Chris answered the phone. Soph was in a hammock.
After spending the past eight months traveling through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, they reported the following statistics:
- Zero times: kidnapped, held at gunpoint, assaulted, robbed, bribed by the police, asked to carry drugs in their panniers, or forced to join a cartel.
- Too many times to count: asked if they need some food, a place to pitch their tent, and “How do you like my country?”
“It’s really incredible. People are happy you’re traveling through their country and they want you to have a good experience,” said Soph. “We’ve not had a single problem, nothing bad has happened, haven’t had a thing stolen, our bikes are outside most nights, no scary encounters with anyone. If you needed any convincing about the humanity of people, go on a bike tour.”
Although they did have a knife pulled on them in El Salvador.
They’d stopped their bikes and were looking out at the Pacific when a man they were chatting with suddenly took out his knife and handed it to Chris.
“I looked at it, confused,” said Chris. “I asked, ‘Is it for protection?’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘It’s mango season, you’re going to want it to peel mangos.’
“I’m pretty sure most of the people saying horrible things about countries in Central America have never been to the countries they’re talking about,” said Chris. “I mean, regardless of what we experienced, it would be naive to say something’s not happening in El Salvador, where something like 20 percent of the country’s population doesn’t live there anymore. But I think 99 percent of the people you’re going to meet if you go to El Salvador are going to be nice people who worry about having a roof over their head and food on the table. Unfortunately it’s not newsworthy to say most people in the country went to work today and nothing happened.”
In Mexico, Chris spent a week riding his bike through the heart of notorious drug cartel country in the Sierra Madre. (Soph was on a side trip to Guadalajara.)
“If you’re in the U.S. they tell you not to go to Mexico,” Chris said. “If you’re in Mexico they tell you not to go to Sinaloa. If you’re in Sinaloa they tell you not to go to the Sierra Madre … so I rode through the Sierra Madre."
And what did he find there?
“Nothing but kindness the whole way. Another cyclist gave me the phone number of a friend and he gave me a free hotel room for three nights so I could explore a national park. You could see some of the narco activity going on in some of the little towns. If you ask people how they make their money they say they’re farmers. ‘What do you farm?’ ‘We farm marijuana.’ But if you didn’t ask what was happening you wouldn’t be able to tell, honestly.”
The biggest danger they encountered south of the border was putting on weight.
“We were looking pretty lean when we left the U.S.,” said Soph. “And then we hit Mexico. The food is so great and so available. We’d have breakfast and then we’d ride for five minutes and Chris would say, ‘Maybe we should stop for some tacos.’”
“As far as natural beauty goes, it’s pretty tough to beat North America,” said Chris. “But when you talk about culture I think Mexico is almost impossible to beat. The type of towns you go through, the architecture, the cities and villages with 500 years of history in them, the types of foods that you find and the way people treat you, it’s remarkable.”
In Central America, where the countries are about as close as counties back home, “It’s amazing how different they all are,” Chris said. “Costa Rica was maybe the most shocking because in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala you just don’t see much tourism, then all of a sudden you to get to Costa Rica and it’s like everywhere there’s a waterfall there’s somebody waiting to take 20 bucks from you.”
Over the next year or so, Chris and Soph will wind their way south through South America until they bottom out at Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina.
One more trip statistic: After 10,000 miles Chris has had nine flat tires. Soph has had none.
“I don’t know why; maybe it’s because I’m usually in front and taking the brunt,” said Chris. “But I told her, if we’re within 50 miles of the bottom of Argentina and she still hasn’t flatted, I’m going to puncture her tire.”
You can follow Chris and Soph on their blog at theplacesipee.com.