Hey everybody, we’re still writing! Our silence has been because we’ve been back home in Nevada since April 1st. This diversion was always a pre-planned break in our travels to take care of business and household needs at home – and to race a car in Baja in May (more on that later). Today is April 26th however, and as I feared, once we got caught up in the “reality,” of being home, our blog would suffer, and we would get behind. Hence our month long silence since Kat’s last post of March 31st which left us leaving Guatemala on March 15th and heading into El Salvador. During the last half of March we hurried through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and into Costa Rica. Since the end of March, Charlotte has been resting peacefully in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, awaiting our return on May 28th. So, let’s go back to March 15th and pick up with the border crossing into El Salvador…
After our hassles at the border crossing into Guatemala with my passport copies, we opted to try the help of a “fixer” for the crossing into El Salvador. These guys are thick as proverbial thieves at all border crossings, hanging around and offering to help travelers cut through the red tape and expedite the whole affair for an undisclosed fee, to be agreed upon at the end of the process. They are considered crooks by most Overlanders and the rule of thumb is to avoid them. However, we got lucky with Antony shown here on the right. He was just a young kid with no questionable government credentials hanging from his neck like most of his brethren. He had us through the whole border nonsense in under an hour and a half and we paid him ten bucks. We drove into El Salvador thinking, “Heck, that was easy, we’ll get a fixer every time!” In fact, when we left Antony he offered to call his buddy “Ronnie” who worked the border with Honduras at the other end of El Salvador, assuring us our next border experience would be just as smooth. We agreed. Bad move as we were to find out the real meaning of “smooth” – the fixers, not the process!
A FOODIE PARADISE
Meanwhile, we enjoyed one small piece of heaven in rural El Salvador. Unfortunately by this point in the trip we were starting to push towards Costa Rica quickly. We had made a pre-plan to head home the first of April from Costa Rica and still had three countries to get through. Hanging in Mexico for two months was catching up with us (but totally worth it). In 2012 we spent 10 days in El Salvador delivering wheelchairs to the poor with our favorite charity, Free Wheelchair Mission (visit their website and read our story from the link on our home page). We pretty much crisscrossed this tiny country from every angle during that visit, so this time we planned to pass through it in just two days in an effort to make up time. Fortunately we followed a tip given to us by a fellow traveler to check out a camping area on a coffee plantation up in the mountains in the western part of the country.
We arrived in the tiny village of Juayúa after dark. Having no idea how to find the campground we stopped at the R&R restaurant to ask directions. We had recently run across an online excerpt from the Lonely Planet guide recommending the R&R as a great place. As a rule, we have found anything recommended by LP is to be avoided, but not this time. Unfortunately we had already eaten dinner at a horrible chain chicken joint, but that didn’t deter R&R owner, Carlos from dropping everything, leaving his restaurant and his dining patrons, hopping on his dirt bike and personally escorting us ten miles up a rough road to the camp ground. As I followed him in Charlotte, watching him jump the water bars in the road on his bike as he used our headlights to see, I realized this guy just wanted an excuse to get out of the kitchen and ride his Husky. He winked when I pointed this out to him when we arrived at the campground. Ah, a guy after my own heart. We were instant friends.
We promised to return to the R&R for breakfast the next morning. The mountain campground provided not only a reprieve from the sweltering heat and humidity, but also a quite, safe place to spend the night, which is something that’s hard to find in the heavily populated countries of Central America. But, we were off early the next morning for breakie at the R&R. And WOW was it worth it! Check out the photos of this beautiful place. Carlos is a true artist, both with his food presentation and the restaurant’s decoration. This place would be a jewel to find anywhere in the world. If you are ever in El Salvador this is a must do.
Our beautifully hand painted table with our coffee service; individually hand pressed java with fresh cream and homemade biscotti biscuits for dipping.
In the kitchen.
Scrambled eggs, beans, fried plantains, homemade tortillas and fresh fruit. The presentation was almost too beautiful to dive into.
While we waited for our food, I spotted this poor old guy (yeah, the one on the left!) trying to get down the street with his walker, but its wheels kept falling off. I dug some new bolts and nuts out of Charlotte’s stash and soon had the guy motoring down the road.
Carlos is a mountain of a man. A gentle giant with a heart of gold.
After breakfast Carlos showed us his house and gardens (attached to the restaurant). The home has been in his family for four generations.
Finding the R&R was reason enough to travel to Juayúa, but there was more… It turns out the town becomes a gastronomical paradise every Sunday… and has been for the last 19 years! By fate, it was Sunday! We wandered out into the streets, gorged from our wonderful breakfast, only to find the downtown area crammed with food stalls! Each one was producing plates of food, hell bent to outdo all the others! Again, the presentations were all works of art. Unbeknownst to us, Juayúa was a foodie’s mecca. The place was teaming with hundreds of people from all over the country who make weekend pilgrimages to the town to indulge in the pleasures of eating amazingly prepared dishes.
This lovely lady turned out to be Carlos’ mom!
Besides all the food courts, there was a carnival atmosphere to the town with lots of side shows going on. This albino boa and its handler were visiting from a reptile rescue center nearby…
…and cuddling with the tourists.
Alas we were too full to eat any more and had vowed to get to the Honduras border, so we bid Juayúa goodbye and headed across the 168 miles that make up El Salvador from west to east. Passing through the snarled traffic of the capital, San Salvador, we followed this truck with this grandma-aged lady casually riding with the onions. Reminds me how we’ve just gone overboard with self-protection back home. Remember how fun it was to ride in the back of a pickup? Now it is just so “unsafe.” Maybe it would do us all good to be as agile and confident in our abilities as this “old” lady.
THE LONGEST DAY
After an uneventful night in a motel in the town of San Miguel we arrived at the border early the next morning. Despite being a day later than expected, “Ronnie” met us at a gas station five kms before we even got to the border, greeting us with a friendly, “You’re late!” He was driving a fairly new, fancy SUV and had two accomplices, Orlando and Jose with him. All three couldn’t wait to “help” us across the border. We were about to learn our lesson about slick and smooth fixers. These guys were pros. They couldn’t have been nicer, which didn’t help my wallet any in the long run. It became apparent early on that Ronnie was a ring-leader, kind of a fixer-pimp. We never saw him again after the initial introduction. Orlando and Jose were the worker bees, and the kid Antony, back at the Guatemalan border probably got a referral kickback for sending us (or maybe just got to pretend to be a legit fixer for another day). Orlando spoke perfect English and claimed he had lived in Florida (well duh, with a name like that). He did most of the communicating with us, while Jose, who supposedly had been a guerilla fighter somewhere (and looked it), did all the running around, dealing with the supposedly difficult border officials. Everything went smoothly exiting El Salvador. Next came the drive through no-man’s land, with Orlando riding with us in Charlotte, drinking his second of our beers. He claimed to have a hangover from his birthday party the day before. We sympathized with him since it was only 9am, giving him hair-of-the-dog fortification for his long day ahead, getting rich off of ( and drunk from, yeah, what birthday party?) gullible, foolish Americans in VW buses. Arriving at the Honduras entrance border the boys soon discovered a (profitable?) problem. We did not have Charlotte’s real title. Of course we didn’t. Nobody carries the original title to their car around IN the car, right. Despite all our research prior to the trip, we had read nothing about carrying the original vehicle title with us. We had dozens of copies of it, but not the real thing. We had had a taste of this problem crossing into Guatemala from Belize. Officials there had asked for the original title after tossing aside the copy, but settled happily for the real registration paper for Charlotte’s Nevada license plate as proof that I own her. Go figure? Anyway, now Jose and Orlando looked quite perplexed with this major problem and announced more than once that we could not proceed. With much drama and wiping of brow, Jose put forth that he knew the guys “inside” and he would risk his reputation and try to “talk” to them. There were three honchos apparently that he would have to bribe. This was going to be tough he huffed, but he assured us he was the man for the job, and no, he didn’t want any money now, we would settle everything once we got through. Both guys were adamant that neither Kat nor I should go with him on this dangerous mission to try and plead our case. So we sat and waited… and gave Orlando another beer. Half an hour passed while I plotted driving back to San Salvador, flying home, getting the cursed title out of the safe and flying back with it so I could present the damned thing to Tom, Dick and Harry and proceed south. Finally a triumphant Jose appeared waving official papers and joyfully announcing it had been tough (and expensive) but he truly was the man for the job! With much back slapping, bones and high fives all around, and another beer for Orlando, we followed our boys down the road, away from the official border buildings. They had now acquired a new member who was driving them in a brand new Tuk-Tuk. We all pulled off the road just inside Honduras to “settle up.” Our boys presented us with a verbal bill, recalling all the events that had just taken place and all the extra work they had had to do jumping through hoops of X, Y and Z and paying off Manny, Moe and Jack. In the end they got away with $230 of our US dollars in exchange for their slick efforts. We drove off scratching our heads and still wondering exactly what they did. One thing is for sure, they almost deserved that much dinero just for the clever way they extorted it from us. Wonder if they sit around at birthday parties scheming up new ways to get money from our fellow travelers, all the while appearing like they are doing us the biggest favors and all with great risk to their personal livelihood?
An interesting study in the contrast between trucks while driving through Honduras… and wondering how to get around them!
As if our adventures in border crossings at the El Salvador/Honduras border weren’t enough for one day, the day was far from over with much more border fun to come. In our quest to make our April deadline and return home from Costa Rica, we made the decision to blow through Honduras and spend time in Nicaragua instead. To that end, we crossed the 80 miles of southern Honduras the same day and hit the Nicaraguan border crossing that afternoon. Our two hour drive through Honduras looked pretty much like this the whole way. The road was good and the scenery was dry with scraggly trees. We passed through a few uninspiring towns, didn’t buy anything, didn’t eat anything, didn’t engage in anything. You could say we’ve really never been to Honduras. From what we read, the Caribbean side of the country to the north is the place to be, but it was much too far a drive for our schedule. I hate to start forgoing seeing places just because of a deadline (something we vowed not to do when we started this trip) but truth be told, Central America was getting a little long in the tooth, what with the everyday lives of the peoples of each country much the same. Since that is what we are interested in, not the glitzy tourist attractions, we don’t feel we missed much by skipping Honduras. Perhaps it is somewhere to visit another time.
After our education with fixers in the morning we were determined to make the Honduras/Nicaraguan crossing on our own. Everything went smoothly getting out of Honduras. We entered no-man’s land with our passports stamped with exit stamps saying we wouldn’t be back. We drove Charlotte through another mandatory chemical bath ensuring the Nicaraguans that we would not be importing any of the bad Honduran juju we had picked up in the last two hours into their pristine country. Upon attempting to enter Nicaragua though, the fun began… We got ourselves in ok, passports stamped, copies of copies stamped, official seals all in place. But when we moved on to get Charlotte imported, the old title problem reared its ugly head for the second time that day. The guy at the counter absolutely refused to allow our bus into his country without seeing her real title, all the copies of it in the world be damned, AND the real registration paper be damned too. What were we to do? We were stuck in no-man’s land. We couldn’t go back into Honduras, a country we had just that morning bribed our way into and had just exited out of, with fresh passport stamps saying we wouldn’t be back. Hmmm. We went back to the official, pleading. Nothing. He said we had to talk to the police and get their permission. Ok. Where were they? We found one policeman, Raul, holed up in a tiny air-conditioned room, down a hallway, behind an unmarked door. Figuring the last thing he wanted to do was leave that AC to deal with a couple of smelly, unprepared Gringos in a dirty VW, I patted Kat and told her to sweet talk him with the best flirtatious Spanish she could muster! Ah, that girl can work miracles. She managed to get ol’ Raul to smile, listen to our plight and then even get up out of his chair, leave his AC and go out into the sweltering world, teeming with the masses and look at Charlotte! We showed her off with great pride, assuring him we would never want to leave her in his country and continue our trip to South America on foot. He almost looked convinced, but then he studied our license plate which is simply “NB”, a personal plate I’ve had for 35 years, and something that hasn’t fazed any other border official – yet. Old Raul just couldn’t get past a license plate without numbers, and scratching his shaking head, he conceded that there was just no way that this car could come into his country. More purring and eye batting from Kat ensued while I showed him the years of stacked stickers on the plate and the correlation between them and the registration papers. Finally, either feeling guilty about his wife, sick of listening to my pathetic Spanish or just missing his air conditioning, he motioned us back to his office. Once secure back in his chair, he proceeded to take a piece of copy paper, fold it in half, lick it, tear it in half, place a worn carbon paper (remember those?) between the two sheets, and with great fanfare, hand wrote our Letter of Acceptance, our Document of Compliance, our OFFICIAL POLICE APPROVAL DOCUMENT. He finished it with a big signature and lots of stamps. Handing us the original, he filed away the all important copy and wished us good luck on our trip! After another half hour of waiting back in the first line, we presented the OFFICAL POLICE APPROVAL DOCUMENT along with stacks of copies of copies of other VERY IMPORTANT papers. A few more stamps and signatures later we were waved into Nicaragua. It occurred to us as we drove away that the whole process hadn’t cost us a dime!
Ugg. You sure hope your windows seal tight when the guy spraying God-Knows-What at you looks like this.
Our trials with “government officials” were still not over for the day. We had not gone 10 kms into Nicaragua when we came around a curve to find an orange cone in the middle of the road and a police officer flagging us down. Figuring it was just a routine check like many we have passed through on this trip, I pulled up and stupidly handed over my passport and driver’s license to the guy in the blue shirt and ball cap with a Nicaraguan Police emblem affixed to it. After giving up those all important documents way to quickly and then taking in the whole scene, I began to get suspicious. We asked him if he was official as there was no police car around, no radio or gun on his belt, no badge or other insignias on his shirt. At the side of the road were several civilian motorcycles with several civilian people hanging around them. He pointed to his hat and said “yes, very official.” I asked why he stopped us, and he said we had passed on a curve. How in the hell did he know that? There are super slow trucks, carts, donkeys, bicycles, etc. all over these roads and I’d been passing them for three months on curves, in towns, over double lines, on shoulders and sidewalks, whatever. Everybody does it… when in Rome… Now this guy wants to give me a ticket for driving normally? He went over to his cronies at the bikes and they discussed things for a minute. He came back and handed me my passport (good) but kept my driver’s license saying he was going to give me a ticket and we must go to the local police station. Sh**, here we go again. He knew we didn’t want to do that and almost put the words in my mouth as I asked him what the fine was and could I pay him directly. He told us $30US. We told him we didn’t have 30 US (which was true) but we did have a 20 and waved it at him. He put up a hand in disgust and wouldn’t take the bill, insisting on 30. Then one of his sidekicks started yelling “Roja, Roja.” We had just picked up Nicaraguan Cordobas at the border and hadn’t had time to figure out the exchange rate. Looking at the Cordobas we noticed that the 500 is Red – a Roja. Quickly doing the math we realized 500 Cordobas converts to $20US! We handed him a red bill and he gave me my license back and sent us on our way. Huh? Wanted 30, wouldn’t take 20 but then took 20 in his currency? Whatever. As we rolled along we wondered if he was even a real cop or had we just been robbed. Not having seen a “real” Nicaraguan police officer yet we weren’t sure. Then we saw another cone in the road… oh no, not again. I’d already made up my mind to run it as I heard Kat echo my thoughts with a disgusted “Just run it!” I stomped on the gas, and we blew on past, swerving to miss the stupid cone. No sirens wailed, and no bikes chased us. If they had a radio I supposed we’d be pulled over soon enough and then get a free place to spend the night – or maybe forever. As we approached the city of Leon we saw cops in police cars with well marked blue shirts, guns, radios and yes, baseball caps with police insignias. They didn’t even notice us. Later, throughout the country, we saw cops without cars and riding civilian-looking motorcycles. We still don’t know who was who!
All we know is we rolled into the colonial city of Leon at dusk, absolutely spent in more ways than one. We followed Mr. Garmin directly to the center of town to the Plaza de Armas. The road the damned thing led us down ended at a dead end right at the Plaza in heavy traffic and no place to turn around. Looking out from our gridlock we saw a sign: Las Mercedes Best Western. I sent Kat in. $50, free breakfast, Wi-Fi, locked parking, AC in room. DONE! We walked to the Plaza and ordered beer, a lot of beer, and gazed at the lit up church. What a day!
After dinner we strolled the Plaza and watched the street dancers. Was that guy moving that fast or was it the beer?
Feeling much refreshed the next day, we headed out of Leon towards the capital city of Managua. The countryside looked much like Honduras as we vied for highway space with interesting other modes of transportation.
Our goal in Managua was to visit the guys at Magma 4X4. Rafael Huncal and Bernardo Ortega run the biggest 4X4 shop in Nicaragua and specialize in repairs and installations/sales of off road accessories and tires. They were great to take time out of there busy day to visit with us and give us some cool tips on things to do in their country, Fortunately, Charlotte has been running like a top and needed no medical attention during our visit.
From Managua we continued south to the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. This is a National Park with a live volcano that you can drive right to the edge of and peer down into.
Warnings. Do you think we could ever be allowed to be this responsible for ourselves in the States again? Nah. Big brother would never let us this close to real danger on our own.
There was so much steam and ash coming out of the hole that you couldn’t get a good look inside.
After the live volcano we descended down into another extinct volcano crater nearby that is now filled with water and forms the large Lake Apoyo. We camped on this lake that night, swam, ate at a hostel and took their kayaks out for a paddle the next morning.
Our next city stop was the cool colonial town of Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. This is a bustling city with wonderful old colorful buildings, churches, markets and exciting street life at night.
We got a room in this 150 year old hotel, La Bocona, in the heart of town. It had this beautiful court-yard where we were served an included breakfast right outside our room.
Our room was huge with this enormous canopy bed complete with mosquito netting.
There is always a sad side to these Central American cities and you are always reminded these are impoverished countries despite the sometimes shiny veneer. An example is this street child who was begging in an ice cream shop. She plopped tiredly into a chair, and Kat managed a slight smile from her as she snapped this shot at ten o’clock at night. Where did this little girl sleep that night while we snuggled in our fancy hotel?
This little pig went to market… We always marvel at all the strange sights we continue to see through Charlotte’s windshield while stuck in traffic.
From Granada we pushed ever southward, but then took a detour northeast to the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Our goal was to take Charlotte on the ferry out to Ometepe Island and explore it for a day or two. This 3-D model shows a good view of the island which consists of two volcanoes joined together. There are rough roads around the base of each one which we just had to drive on.
Shades of Cuba. The Revolutionary Che Guevara’s famous mug adorns our ferry to the island, and the boat was named after him. It is rumored that Isla Ometepe was one of the last holdouts of the Commie Sandinista Army and there are still reported sympathizers living there. While waiting for the boat to load we had a beer in a nearby café and checked emails. The Wi-Fi passcode was “Leningrad.” Go figure. Obviously people around here, including the boat owner, have some affection for the cause. We just hoped the good capitán hadn’t read our blog and decide to dump us in the lake instead of taking us to the island!
Charlotte is squished between big trucks and large waves on the trip to the island. She even got a partial bath.
We camped on this beach the first night on the island. The thatched hut is a good vegetarian restaurant where we had breakfast, but the night before we opted for a meatier place down the road. “Good” is a relative term when speaking of Nicaraguan food. Bland chicken, rice and beans are pretty much the norm everywhere we go.
Driving around the island we spotted numerous poles like these, hand painted with opposing political party slogans. This one is the P.L.I. or Partido Liberal Independiente, translated to the Independent Liberal Party.
They are still around. This is a pole for the F.S.L.N. or Frente Sandinista de Liberacion or Sandinista National Liberation Front which is still an active political party and has candidates in current elections but they never win.
Kids make cute photos pretty much everywhere we go, especially when we hand out candy. What struck us, though, was the lack of joy we saw on many of the faces of Central American children.
It took us three hours to drive the 40 miles of rough dirt road around the southern volcano named Volcán Maderas. About half way around we came across this guy lugging a huge suitcase and rather nicely dressed in slacks and dress shoes. It was really hot and humid, and he didn’t have any water. We had to give him a ride. Turns out he was a door to door salesman for Herbalife! What the hell? The people out here didn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in, they didn’t even have a door on their huts for him to knock on! How was he selling a nutritional supplement to folks who barely knew where their next meal was coming from? He only rode with us a few miles and then asked to be let out at the next clump of shacks we came to. Off he went, dragging his huge case, calling out a greeting to a group of women sitting around in front of a mud hut.
Kids on horses with kid horses in tow make pretty cute photos too.
How would you like to lay all those pavers to make this road? Wonder how long it took them? Volcán Concepción in the distance is the volcano that forms the northwestern part of the island. It is live and that is a little plume coming from its top, not a cloud.
On the boat heading back to the mainland we stayed in Charlotte and had cocktail hour. This is Bus Livin’ at its finest! Nice waterfront view, cool sea breeze, cold beer from the fridge. Ahh.
Arriving on shore we helped this family get unstuck from the beach. Charlotte felt like a big shot pulling out a pickup. Of course it was a little pickup!
The next day we crossed the border into Costa Rica. We had no hassles with titles or anything else. Our only delay was waiting for a police officer to inspect Charlotte and deem her VIN matched the one I had written on the official form after looking at the same VIN tag! This is very important stuff it seems. But not as important as finding drugs on large tour busses. We waited 45min for a cop to sign off our VIN because they were all busy going through a huge tour bus with a fine tooth comb while 60 or 70 passengers stood outside waiting. We found out from Joe, pictured here, that the day before they had found $6,000,000 worth of cocaine on a tour bus. Not a good week to be riding around in tour busses and crossing borders it seemed. Our new friend Joe filled us in on all the latest border gossip and sold us some of his handmade trinkets to adorn Charlotte with. Joe also shared a bit of his story. He was Garifuna, raised on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, but war had killed and torn his family apart. He had been selling his crafts to tourists at this seedy border for many years. Joe’s story was heartbreaking, but his smile and attitude were inspiring.
Due to our time crunch we headed straight down the Pan-American Highway from the border to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. We plan to “do” Costa Rica when we return in June. We got a room at a hotel near the airport and started making plans to store Charlotte. Our VW friend Roy, whom we met via a friend of his we picked up hitchhiking in Guatemala, offered to store her and invited us to an all VW car show he was attending that Sunday. She was quite popular as most Costa Rican VW freaks have never seen a Syncro, let alone a filthy dirty one that just came 9700 miles from the States overland.
After the show we were invited to lunch with a bunch of the VW club members.
Later we went to Roy’s house to check out the space he had for Charlotte. I tried to get his ’73 Super Beatle running, but it appeared to need a coil. Roy lived with his parents and although his offer to store Charlotte was very kind, after checking out the space they had, we felt she would become a hindrance very quickly.
Back at our hotel we were approached by the bell captain, Wilson, asking us if we needed a place to store her. It turned out his family had a large unused carport next to his parent’s house. Better yet it is very near the airport and the hotel. His parents are retired, don’t drive and are there 24-7. We feel she is in great hands until we return. Hope she is having a good rest and will be rearin’ to head for South America when we return.