Peak Experiences in El Salvador
By David Cogswell
I learned a lot about mountain biking in a few hours. It was a crash course in forces and impacts. When you spill out in the mud a few times, as I did early on the ride, your motivation to get it right shoots up fast. I thought I knew how to ride a bike, but mountain biking is different than riding on city streets. There are hazards you don’t encounter on smooth asphalt or concrete. There are rocks, branches, mud, wet leaves, bumps, holes, downward slopes, ruts, ridges, curves and drop-offs, all of which present their own particular set of properties and potential problems. You have to balance the forces of gravity and momentum. The overall arc of the trip was downhill in various gradients, with many uphill portions as well, and some overpoweringly steep climbs. It was nice to coasts downhill, but your momentum could rapidly get out of control and if you’re going too fast and squeezed the brakes, you may skid in the mud or onto a bump and go flying.
I learned that one of the biggest dangers was from braking. Braking is of course the biker’s best friend, the ultimate safety device. The ability to stop or slow down is essential. Without it, biking would be suicidal. But sometimes braking creates danger, especially if the wheels lock. When I would hit a bump or a slippery spot, I might squeeze the brakes as a reflex reaction to danger. But if I locked the wheels, I no longer had the control you have when the tire grips the road or the ground. The bike might slide sideways, or I may be hurled over the top. You achieve the greatest stability when you are accelerating, when your foot is pushing the pedal and creating a solid connection through the chain drive and the wheel and to the ground. But you can’t accelerate all the time, especially when you are going downhill. You have to apply the brakes constantly anyway just to keep from building up too much downward momentum and flying too fast to control.
Things happen fast. Many forces are acting on each other, sometimes against each other at the same time. You have to flow with it. If you try too hard to be safe, you end up putting yourself in more danger.
Once when I was heading down a steep slope – it was only about eight feet long, but about a 60-degree angle plane with mud, rocks and branches, I put my foot out to the side to try to catch myself in case I slipped. But then my tire slipped into a hole deep enough that my extended foot bumped on the ground and knocked me upward, off the bike. I squeezed the brakes as a danger reaction, and it just made it worse. It locked the tires and they slid sideways in the mud and the bike just slipped out from under me. That was one of my spills.
The spills I took were more embarrassing than painful. I had hard plastic guards on my knees and elbows and a hard plastic, padded helmet on my head, provided by the tour operator, Cadejo Adventures of El Salvador. I may have taken a bump on my hip during one or two of the falls, but the spills were all very minor. It was mostly about getting muddy, and feeling foolish. I thought I had been through learning how to ride a bike when I was a kindergartner. But it was challenging.
We started our multi-sport day with a horseback ride. There were four of us, the tour operator, Roy Beers, the founder of Cadejo Adventures, and three guests counting me. I am convinced I got the best horse. I was really lucky. Roy told me the horse I got was his favorite. When we first arrived at the ranch [CHECK] we were hanging around the corral waiting to get started, suddenly a few horses came bursting through a gate and galloping toward us. They had been brought in from the pasture for riding. Roy said they were Peruvian horses. The first one to appear was a smoky white one, very spirited, exploding with energy. He was all muscle and raw force, snorting and heaving, his powerful legs pounding the earth. He was a beautiful animal. Roy told me, “You have to watch that one, he always wants to run.” You could see that his joy, his very essence was to run. But he was beautifully trained. He responded to my commands perfectly. There weren’t many commands to give. It was just the four of us just riding in a line up a mountain trail, and I wasn’t leading, so there wasn’t much to do but ride and enjoy it. But whenever I wanted him to stop, turn, go, speed up or slow down, he responded. It was thrilling to ride such a spirited and well-trained horse.
We rode up into the cloud forest. The sky was gray. The mountain tops were deep green. Everything was moist. Clouds hung low, caressing the tops of the mountains. We rode a trail up the side of the mountain and my respect for my horse continued to grow as he mastered the steep inclines with my weight on his back. Before we reached the top he was drenched with sweat.
We rode through sublime, verdant forests, idyllic pastoral scenes, winding around ridges and looking out over riveting views that extended over miles. When we reached our high point, we could see where we were headed. Cadejo’s team had brought the mountain bikes and gear to that spot in their truck, our support vehicle. There is where we would pick up the bikes, don our protective gear and ride back down the mountain.
I must admit I did underestimate it. I assumed that when I rode a bike I would be totally in control, as opposed to when you ride a horse, and the horse may decide to do something you know nothing about. But in fact controlling the bike was a much bigger challenge than I expected.
After my minor spills at the beginning, I got the hang of it and had no more falls. First it was just fun; then it was about mastering the dangers; and finally it was about endurance. It was a tough ride to finish. Anyone who wanted to stop could just say so and Roy would call the support vehicle to come pick you up with your bike. One of the guests in my group decided to pack it in about half way. He had fallen a few times and was not hurt, but was getting psyched out, so it wasn’t fun anymore. He had had enough.
So then we were down to three and before we were finished there were two major upward climbs that none of us, not even the prodigious Roy Beers, could do without getting off the bike and walking. Even walking became a labor. I was drenched with sweat and breathing hard. But surmounting it was a tremendous feeling. It made you feel like you had done a good day’s work, really accomplished something.
Roy Beers started Cadejo Adventures in 2001. It wasn’t such a good year for it, he said. There were three earthquakes that year. But since then he’s built up the business and Central America is becoming known as a tourist destination, so his prospects are looking good. He offers a variety of sporting activities arranged throughout a very active few days. We did the surfing, surfboard riding from the back of a power boat, horseback riding, mountain biking and falconing. While you are d oing these things, you are touring and experiencing some of the most beautiful country imaginable, with fascinating wildlife and encounters with the local people of El Salvador.
For more information about Cadejo Adventures, call 011 (503) 2208 3115 or see www.cadejoadventures.com. -- David Cogswell