Galapagos – A Darwin Moment

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The turquoise water sparkled with the last rays of the setting sun while tiny waves lapped gently on the warm, black lava. I released a breath that I hadn’t realized I had been holding for…eight months? This was Galapagos, and it was magic.

Our trip south has been amazing and wonderful, but it hasn’t necessarily been relaxing. There is an element of survival in our daily search for routes, food and safe places to sleep that keeps us on our toes at all times. Stepping onto the shores of these desolate and well protected islands brought a sense of peace that was like a balm to my spirit, and I knew instantly that this would be a very special week.

The Galapagos Islands had never been on our agenda (not that we have one), and for me, meant only vague memories of National Geographic episodes on TV and reel to reel films shown to us fidgety Jr. High Schoolers. Wasn’t there some connection to Darwin, natural selection and blue footed boobies?

Besides the tranquility, what Ned and I loved were the close encounters with the animals. Although the Islands have a brutal past of being ravished by explorers and pirates, they have been protected since 1970. The strict protection, coupled with a lack of natural predators has left the animals unafraid of humans. This offers a unique opportunity to interact with vast quantities of amazing critters.

While being on the quiet islands, surrounded by muted desert colors and rare species was remarkable, snorkeling brought us into an underwater wonderland of such magical beauty that it brought tears to my eyes. With no waterproof camera to distract, we were left to simply enjoy. The water itself was brilliant shades of crystal clear blues and although cold, was marvelous. The sea life was abundant, and we saw many types of fish and plants that we had never seen because they only exist here. To my delight, the tranquil desert colors that I love so much, were reflected in this watery landscape. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous pastels danced and shimmered. Every shade of the rainbow was paraded before me in muted, iridescent splendor. A sea anemone in lemon sherbet, a giant parrot fish in glistening melon green and pink topaz, microscopic amoeba, like mystical fairies, visible only through intermittent flashes of sapphire blue. Incredible. But the parade did not end there.

Imagine jumping into the water with your snorkel gear, putting your face down and seeing a huge dark blur approach quickly. Oh! A sea lion! No, three sea lions! It was a bit startling at first, as they, one at a time, swam straight for our faces, veering off only at the last minute. These were truly wild animals that wanted to play with us. The giant sea turtles, while singularly un-playful, were equally as unafraid. At one point I enjoyed drifting quietly next to my own private, meter and a half long turtle for over 15 minutes.

While we can’t share our underwater experiences, we are glad to be able to offer a few glimpses into the enchanting world of Galapagos. Enjoy…

Our last minute decision to book an eight day cruise in the Galapagos Islands included a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to the primitive airport on Santa Cruz Island.  Being part of Ecuador meant that there was no complicated immigration to arrive on the islands.  We had already imported ourselves!

Our last minute decision to book an eight day cruise in the Galapagos Islands included a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador to the primitive airport on Santa Cruz Island. Being part of Ecuador meant that there was no complicated immigration to arrive on the islands. We had already imported ourselves!

The first animal we saw was this food sniffing dog, padding eagerly all over our bags looking for illegally imported snacks.  Part of the way the Islands are protected is by strict controls of any biological materials.

The first animal we saw was this food sniffing dog, padding eagerly all over our bags looking for illegally imported snacks. Part of the way the Islands are protected is by strict controls of any biological materials.

Our boat, the Estrella del Mar, carried only 16 passengers (all wonderful), and we enjoyed a private (but tiny) berth and bathroom.

Our boat, the Estrella del Mar, carried only 16 passengers (all wonderful), and we enjoyed a private (but tiny) berth and bathroom.

The official welcome to The Galapagos Islands was given by these stoic marine iguanas…

The official welcome to The Galapagos Islands was given by these stoic marine iguanas…

…and this giant, 150 year old, 400lb land tortoise…

…and this giant, 150 year old, 400lb land tortoise…

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…and this huge, meter long land iguana…

…and this huge, meter long land iguana…

…not such a big welcome from this lazy fellow.

…not such a big welcome from this lazy fellow.

The sea lions were completely un-alarmed by our presence.  This cute little guy just kept on nursing.

The sea lions were completely un-alarmed by our presence. This cute little guy just kept on nursing.

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Charles Darwin really was inspired to come up with his theory of natural selection after a visit to the Galapagos.  The marine iguanas, being the only iguanas that actually dive for food and can stay underwater for up to an hour, stimulated ‘ol Charles’ brain into wondering how and why these former land critters adapted to the sea.

Charles Darwin really was inspired to come up with his theory of natural selection after a visit to the Galapagos. The marine iguanas, being the only iguanas that actually dive for food and can stay underwater for up to an hour, stimulated ‘ol Charles’ brain into wondering how and why these former land critters adapted to the sea.

We were stimulated to merely have fun taking their pictures.

We were stimulated to merely have fun taking their pictures.

A flock of frigates flew with our ship for an hour, sometimes soaring within two meters of us.  A lazy close encounter enjoyed from the top deck of the boat.

A flock of frigates flew with our ship for an hour, sometimes soaring within two meters of us. A lazy close encounter enjoyed from the top deck of the boat.

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The male frigates have red throats that balloon out to manly proportions while attempting to attract a mate.  This one is obviously not on the prowl.

The male frigates have red throats that balloon out to manly proportions while attempting to attract a mate. This one is obviously not on the prowl.

Another way the Galapagos National Park protects the islands is by limiting traffic to popular viewing areas.  We 16 plus our guide were, at all times, the only people around, and it added greatly to the magic of the experience.

Another way the Galapagos National Park protects the islands is by limiting traffic to popular viewing areas. We 16 plus our guide were, at all times, the only people around, and it added greatly to the magic of the experience.

Our guide told us that he hadn’t seen this rare little beauty in five years. Finches (I’m pretty sure this is a finch?) provided further insight for Darwin’s work.  Apparently the size and shape of their beaks vary greatly between isolated islands and dramatically demonstrate adaptation to vastly different food sources.

Our guide told us that he hadn’t seen this rare little beauty in five years.
Finches (I’m pretty sure this is a finch?) provided further insight for Darwin’s work. Apparently the size and shape of their beaks vary greatly between isolated islands and dramatically demonstrate adaptation to vastly different food sources.

What I learned on my Galapagos vacation:  1) Tails aren’t the problem I always wondered about; 2) You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned to be a female lizard.

What I learned on my Galapagos vacation: 1) Tails aren’t the problem I always wondered about; 2) You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned to be a female lizard.

Up close with a stunning hawk.  This guy was a mere ten feet away and unconcerned.

Up close with a stunning hawk. This guy was a mere ten feet away and unconcerned.

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He may look like Godzilla about to eat New York, but he’s really just trying to get warm.  The marine iguanas may have adapted to diving for long periods of time, but they are still cold blooded.  The black coloring is not for camouflage, but to absorb warmth from the sun.  After diving, the marine iguanas are so cold they can barely move.  Seeing thousands of them (literally) frozen on the rocks is quite a spectacle as they raise their little reptilian temperatures to where they can move again.

He may look like Godzilla about to eat New York, but he’s really just trying to get warm. The marine iguanas may have adapted to diving for long periods of time, but they are still cold blooded. The black coloring is not for camouflage, but to absorb warmth from the sun. After diving, the marine iguanas are so cold they can barely move. Seeing thousands of them (literally) frozen on the rocks is quite a spectacle as they raise their little reptilian temperatures to where they can move again.

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Crown of horns.

Crown of horns.

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These were the only fur seals we saw. They are rare because they were hunted to near extinction before the inception of the National Park.

These were the only fur seals we saw. They are rare because they were hunted to near extinction before the inception of the National Park.

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Loving these close encounters of the wild kind.

Loving these close encounters of the wild kind.

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Look closely…those aren’t rocks, they are heaps of marine iguanas warming in the bright equatorial sun.

Look closely…those aren’t rocks, they are heaps of marine iguanas warming in the bright equatorial sun.

Great heron.

Great heron.

Join us as Ned and I watch this little domestic drama unfold between a flightless cormorant and her mate…

Join us as Ned and I watch this little domestic drama unfold between a flightless cormorant and her mate…

“Herbert!!!!”

“Herbert!!!!”

“Quit flapping those useless wings and bring me more nesting materials!”

“Quit flapping those useless wings and bring me more nesting materials!”

“Is this what you wanted, Francine?”

“Is this what you wanted, Francine?”

“Oh, Herbert, I love you so much.  You are the best bird on this rock!” On a serious note, the abundance of food here has rendered flight unnecessary for Galapagos’ flightless cormorants, and their wings really have shrunk to useless stubs.  Another stunning example of adaptation and natural selection.

“Oh, Herbert, I love you so much. You are the best bird on this rock!”
On a serious note, the abundance of food here has rendered flight unnecessary for Galapagos’ flightless cormorants, and their wings really have shrunk to useless stubs. Another stunning example of adaptation and natural selection.

Each day we went out in the ship’s two Zodiacs.  On this early morning foray, we did all of our viewing from the boats and were encouraged to be very quiet.  This was an extremely protected island where only 20 of the 150 operating tour boats are allowed to visit. It was fantastic and felt as if time stood still.

Each day we went out in the ship’s two Zodiacs. On this early morning foray, we did all of our viewing from the boats and were encouraged to be very quiet. This was an extremely protected island where only 20 of the 150 operating tour boats are allowed to visit. It was fantastic and felt as if time stood still.

This was our first view of the tiny penguins that are unique to the Galapagos.

This was our first view of the tiny penguins that are unique to the Galapagos.

The march of the mini penguins got a laugh out of this sea lion.

The march of the mini penguins got a laugh out of this sea lion.

An actual booby!  They really do exist outside of those old, scratchy reel to reels films, and they really do have pretty blue feet.

An actual booby! They really do exist outside of those old, scratchy reel to reels films, and they really do have pretty blue feet.

Two boobies.

Two boobies.

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Diving boobies.

Diving boobies.

This was a show we could have watched all day.  These guys are the most incredible divers, hitting the water at 60mph to reach deep into the ocean for those yummy fish.

This was a show we could have watched all day. These guys are the most incredible divers, hitting the water at 60mph to reach deep into the ocean for those yummy fish.

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Streamlining those wings and blue feet for maximum speed.

Streamlining those wings and blue feet for maximum speed.

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The penguins dive for food too, but go about it more sedately than the boobies.

The penguins dive for food too, but go about it more sedately than the boobies.

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It appeared as if they like to have a little fun, though…ready…

It appeared as if they like to have a little fun, though…ready…

…set…

…set…

…jump!

…jump!

A huge, majestic pelican.

A huge, majestic pelican.

After the boobies and penguins, we slowly and quietly motored into these mangrove covered lava channels where we were treated to the sight of hundreds of sea turtles.  After entering, we cut the motors and paddled in silence.

After the boobies and penguins, we slowly and quietly motored into these mangrove covered lava channels where we were treated to the sight of hundreds of sea turtles. After entering, we cut the motors and paddled in silence.

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Upon exiting our secret, sacred realm, our guide fired up the motor and we whooped and hollered our way back to the ship.

Upon exiting our secret, sacred realm, our guide fired up the motor and we whooped and hollered our way back to the ship.

On yet another island, we walked these lava fields in search of funny pink birds.

On yet another island, we walked these lava fields in search of funny pink birds.

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Flamingos!  But not pink, rather an orange sherbet.  Evidently they get their dramatic color from eating shrimp.

Flamingos! But not pink, rather an orange sherbet. Evidently they get their dramatic color from eating shrimp.

This flamingo feeding ground was a tidal marsh tucked away deep in the lava fields.

This flamingo feeding ground was a tidal marsh tucked away deep in the lava fields.

Whatever color, they sure were fun to photograph.

Whatever color, they sure were fun to photograph.

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As cute and comic as these guys are, I learned that reptiles have absolutely no individual personality.  Neither the iguanas nor the turtles form friendships or family ties.  All hatch from eggs without the presence of a parent and struggle their way into adulthood completely on their own.

As cute and comic as these guys are, I learned that reptiles have absolutely no individual personality. Neither the iguanas nor the turtles form friendships or family ties. All hatch from eggs without the presence of a parent and struggle their way into adulthood completely on their own.

Mammals definitely get all the points for personality.

Mammals definitely get all the points for personality.

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I don’t know, any personality here?

I don’t know, any personality here?

Giant tortoise front.

Giant tortoise front.

Giant tortoise rear.

Giant tortoise rear.

What comes out of a giant tortoise’s rear.  Those plops were about eight inches long!

What comes out of a giant tortoise’s rear. Those plops were about eight inches long!

This young twenty year old took a liking to my running shoe.

This young twenty year old took a liking to my running shoe.

Still not sure.  Any personality now?  She just appears to be hiding from the whole thing.

Still not sure. Any personality now? She just appears to be hiding from the whole thing.

Overall, we found our Galapagos adventure relaxing, enlightening, and richly satisfying.  Delighted to have made the hasty decision to book the cruise, we highly recommend visiting this unique and enchanting archipelago.    Next up:  Wrapping up Ecuador and driving on to our twelfth country, Peru!

Overall, we found our Galapagos adventure relaxing, enlightening, and richly satisfying. Delighted to have made the hasty decision to book the cruise, we highly recommend visiting this unique and enchanting archipelago.
Next up: Wrapping up Ecuador and driving on to our twelfth country, Peru!

Ecuador – Straddling the Globe on the Avenue of the Volcanoes

When Ned and I first embarked on our adventure south, we hadn’t given Ecuador a moment’s thought. We had enjoyed a wonderful visit to Peru in 2008, so Mexico, Chile and Argentina were the highlights on our list. But Ecuador? Wasn’t that just a small, third world country to pass through on our way to the exciting ones? Ironically, today is August 18, exactly one month since we crossed the border into this captivating little nation. And we are still here. We do plan to head into Peru in the next few days, but our visit to Ecuador, the “middle of the world,” has been amazing.

From ancient cities and glacier topped volcanoes, to old haciendas and historic train routes, Ecuador has been a country of surprises for us. Add in a very special “Darwin Moment” (see next blog post) and more new global friendships, and I would have to say that this month has seen its share of journey highlights. Read on to share in the adventure…

Our first delightful surprise was the price of gas!  Please note that Ecuador uses, as its national currency, the US dollar.  Yippeee!  Haven’t seen these prices since we were youngsters.

Our first delightful surprise was the price of gas! Please note that Ecuador uses, as its national currency, the US dollar. Yippeee! Haven’t seen these prices since we were youngsters.

We had absolutely no plans in Ecuador, so simply headed south on the Pan American Highway to see what we might.  But, as in Colombia, we gravitated toward, and spent most of our time in mountainous, high elevations.  We began to feel as though 9,000ft. (pictured here) were the lowlands!

We had absolutely no plans in Ecuador, so simply headed south on the Pan American Highway to see what we might. But, as in Colombia, we gravitated toward, and spent most of our time in mountainous, high elevations. We began to feel as though 9,000ft. (pictured here) were the lowlands!

Unlike in Colombia, we began to see some native attire mixed in with the modern.

Unlike in Colombia, we began to see some native attire mixed in with the modern.

This big piggy went to market – in this little truck.  We bet he wished he’d stayed home.

This big piggy went to market – in this little truck. We bet he wished he’d stayed home.

This popular brand of condiments seems rather proud of itself.

This popular brand of condiments seems rather proud of itself.


Several hours south of the border, it suddenly occurred to us that we were about to cross the Equator.  Oh yeah, this is Ecuador!  We screeched to a halt at this monument to memorialize the moment.  We had driven all the way to the southern hemisphere, over 13,000 miles!

Several hours south of the border, it suddenly occurred to us that we were about to cross the Equator. Oh yeah, this is Ecuador! We screeched to a halt at this monument to memorialize the moment. We had driven all the way to the southern hemisphere, over 13,000 miles!

We even broadened our knowledge base with a little presentation from an earnest young scholar named Josué.  Josué explained how this sun dial and tower align at sunrise and sunset on March 21 and September 23.  He also explained many other fascinating astrological snippets, including why the global map should really be oriented vertically, but our knowledge base seems to have been only temporarily broadened, so we can’t share much more than that.  What I do remember, is that Josué told us that it was ok to spend the night in the monument parking lot.  We enjoyed the flattest, driest, most perfect temperature camp since Mexico, and didn’t get out of there until noon the next day.

We even broadened our knowledge base with a little presentation from an earnest young scholar named Josué. Josué explained how this sun dial and tower align at sunrise and sunset on March 21 and September 23. He also explained many other fascinating astrological snippets, including why the global map should really be oriented vertically, but our knowledge base seems to have been only temporarily broadened, so we can’t share much more than that.
What I do remember, is that Josué told us that it was ok to spend the night in the monument parking lot. We enjoyed the flattest, driest, most perfect temperature camp since Mexico, and didn’t get out of there until noon the next day.

Straddling the globe…literally!   Okay, I know that some of you are wondering about that toilet bowl thing.  Does the water swirl clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the Southern when you flush?  Well, Ned and I wondered too, and actually had a moment of delight, peering anxiously over the nearest toilet, to see that it did flush counter clockwise!  Then we got to wondering…had we really noticed what direction it goes at home?  No, not really…time for Google.  What a disappointment.  While something as critical as the earth’s rotation will affect the direction a huge tornado will spin, the puny twirling of a drain or toilet bowl is influenced only by the size and shape of mundane forces like…plumbing.

Straddling the globe…literally!
Okay, I know that some of you are wondering about that toilet bowl thing. Does the water swirl clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the Southern when you flush? Well, Ned and I wondered too, and actually had a moment of delight, peering anxiously over the nearest toilet, to see that it did flush counter clockwise! Then we got to wondering…had we really noticed what direction it goes at home? No, not really…time for Google. What a disappointment. While something as critical as the earth’s rotation will affect the direction a huge tornado will spin, the puny twirling of a drain or toilet bowl is influenced only by the size and shape of mundane forces like…plumbing.

After the equator, we were ready to get off the Pan Am.  We found a tiny road on our cool (and accurate) new navigation App, maps.me (farewell Mr. Garmin!), and headed southeast through Cangahua; our goal, the hot springs at Papallacta.  We had no idea what we would find on this road, but it turned out to be yet another amazing “blind corner.” Incredibly, the first eight miles were cobblestone!  Built over 100 years ago, we wondered who the poor souls were who carried and laid all those stones.  As lovely and novel as it was, Charlotte was happy to get to merely rough dirt after miles of metal jarring rocks.

After the equator, we were ready to get off the Pan Am. We found a tiny road on our cool (and accurate) new navigation App, maps.me (farewell Mr. Garmin!), and headed southeast through Cangahua; our goal, the hot springs at Papallacta. We had no idea what we would find on this road, but it turned out to be yet another amazing “blind corner.”
Incredibly, the first eight miles were cobblestone! Built over 100 years ago, we wondered who the poor souls were who carried and laid all those stones. As lovely and novel as it was, Charlotte was happy to get to merely rough dirt after miles of metal jarring rocks.

The reality of daily life for most people in the world always shines a light of gratitude on my own relatively plush existence.

The reality of daily life for most people in the world always shines a light of gratitude on my own relatively plush existence.

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The road became remote and the scenery stunning.  We went about 50 miles at 8-10 mph, climbing to 13,000ft., and we never saw another soul.  I began to feel that we were in a land before time.  The landscape looked prehistoric, lacking only dinosaurs roaming the misty hills.

The road became remote and the scenery stunning. We went about 50 miles at 8-10 mph, climbing to 13,000ft., and we never saw another soul. I began to feel that we were in a land before time. The landscape looked prehistoric, lacking only dinosaurs roaming the misty hills.

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The pools at Papallacta were more jarring than the cobblestones.  We were back on the beaten path.  It was Saturday, and the pools were literally swamped with Ecuadorian weekenders out for a soak.  We were in need of a wash anyway, so we took the plunge, enjoying the hot water and unique surroundings.  We also partook of another quiet camping night, stealthily lurking in the back parking lot.

The pools at Papallacta were more jarring than the cobblestones. We were back on the beaten path. It was Saturday, and the pools were literally swamped with Ecuadorian weekenders out for a soak. We were in need of a wash anyway, so we took the plunge, enjoying the hot water and unique surroundings. We also partook of another quiet camping night, stealthily lurking in the back parking lot.

Unable to avoid it, we found ourselves back on the Pan American Highway, in order to visit the Capital city of Quito.  We found the large colonial town to be beautiful, ancient and lovingly preserved.

Unable to avoid it, we found ourselves back on the Pan American Highway, in order to visit the Capital city of Quito. We found the large colonial town to be beautiful, ancient and lovingly preserved.

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Quito has more than its share of gorgeous churches, cathedrals and basilicas.  This one, the  Basilica de San Francisco was built in the 1500’s.

Quito has more than its share of gorgeous churches, cathedrals and basilicas. This one, the
Basilica de San Francisco was built in the 1500’s.

A palpable hush of centuries of worshipers hung in the air as we gazed in wonder at the ornate interior.

A palpable hush of centuries of worshipers hung in the air as we gazed in wonder at the ornate interior.

An interesting depiction of the influenza brought by the Spanish which decimated local populations.  Literal translation:  “1890 The influenza finally ends because we look upon your eyes with love.”

An interesting depiction of the influenza brought by the Spanish which decimated local populations. Literal translation: “1890 The influenza finally ends because we look upon your eyes with love.”

This Basilica is a mere 100 years old, and is made of concrete rather than the more ancient stone construction.  As beautiful as it was, we jokingly called it “skin deep” by comparison.

This Basilica is a mere 100 years old, and is made of concrete rather than the more ancient stone construction. As beautiful as it was, we jokingly called it “skin deep” by comparison.

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We were allowed to climb several of these steep ladders that would be deemed too treacherous by United States standards.

We were allowed to climb several of these steep ladders that would be deemed too treacherous by United States standards.

The view from the top was gorgeous.

The view from the top was gorgeous.

Just another little mountain town at 8,500ft elevation.

Just another little mountain town at 8,500ft elevation.

Having done a bit of research for once, we found this little haven south of Quito where we stayed and relaxed for a few days.

Having done a bit of research for once, we found this little haven south of Quito where we stayed and relaxed for a few days.

Hacienda de Alegria (Joy) is a 100 year old, family owned working ranch with beautiful grounds, a dairy…

Hacienda de Alegria (Joy) is a 100 year old, family owned working ranch with beautiful grounds, a dairy…

Ancient rose gardens…

Ancient rose gardens…

And cool old trees.  This is an Araucaria araucana (commonly called the monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén), and it is the national tree of Chile.  The plants growing out of the trunk are Bromeliads, commonly found in the Amazon…yes, we are nearing the outskirts of the Amazon Jungle!

And cool old trees. This is an Araucaria araucana (commonly called the monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén), and it is the national tree of Chile. The plants growing out of the trunk are Bromeliads, commonly found in the Amazon…yes, we are nearing the outskirts of the Amazon Jungle!

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Our room was incredibly comfortable and offered us the first good shower (real hot water AND pressure) of the whole trip.

Our room was incredibly comfortable and offered us the first good shower (real hot water AND pressure) of the whole trip.
[caption id="attachment_1392" align="alignleft" width="800"]But the real attraction was the horses.  The price of “full board” at Hacienda de Alegria included room, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and horseback riding.  Not having ridden much in the last 10 years, I can still account for having spent more time riding and working with horses than any other activity in my life.  I have ridden and owned some amazing, trail and dressage horses, and I can truly say that these simple little “Caballos Criollos” have become especially dear to me.  They are kind, hearty, surefooted, responsive and eager to move.  We first experienced them on our ride in Colombia.  This one, Caramelo, was only half Criollo, but, at 18 years old, still exhibited all of those wonderful traits.  I had a blast, galloping a lot, and feeling like I was riding a cloud.  The young man in the background, Jean Carlos, was the 11 year old nephew of the owners.  He accompanied us on our three hour ride, and, in true Latino style, shyly presented me with a lovely white flower along the trail. But the real attraction was the horses. The price of “full board” at Hacienda de Alegria included room, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and horseback riding. Not having ridden much in the last 10 years, I can still account for having spent more time riding and working with horses than any other activity in my life. I have ridden and owned some amazing, trail and dressage horses, and I can truly say that these simple little “Caballos Criollos” have become especially dear to me. They are kind, hearty, surefooted, responsive and eager to move. We first experienced them on our ride in Colombia. This one, Caramelo, was only half Criollo, but, at 18 years old, still exhibited all of those wonderful traits. I had a blast, galloping a lot, and feeling like I was riding a cloud.
The young man in the background, Jean Carlos, was the 11 year old nephew of the owners. He accompanied us on our three hour ride, and, in true Latino style, shyly presented me with a lovely white flower along the trail.

Ned, ever the car guy, grudgingly agreed to another horseback ride.  He was a trooper and a good rider despite it being more torture than pleasure for him.  Dante, a half Percheron was his trusty mount.

Ned, ever the car guy, grudgingly agreed to another horseback ride. He was a trooper and a good rider despite it being more torture than pleasure for him. Dante, a half Percheron was his trusty mount.

I’m pretty sure the Border Collie enjoyed riding Dante more than Ned did.

I’m pretty sure the Border Collie enjoyed riding Dante more than Ned did.

The Hacienda sat in the heart of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a 325 km. long valley in the Ecuadorian Andes, boasting 28 massive, snow-covered volcanoes.  After horsing around a few days, we set out to explore some of these high altitude beauties.

The Hacienda sat in the heart of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a 325 km. long valley in the Ecuadorian Andes, boasting 28 massive, snow-covered volcanoes. After horsing around a few days, we set out to explore some of these high altitude beauties.

Our first visit was to Volcán Cayambe.  At 18,996 ft., it is the highest point in the world crossed by the Equator and the only point on the Equator with snow cover.

Our first visit was to Volcán Cayambe. At 18,996 ft., it is the highest point in the world crossed by the Equator and the only point on the Equator with snow cover.

The road to Volcán Cayambe.

The road to Volcán Cayambe.

As we gained elevation, the road got rougher and was one of only a few times on the trip we needed to use 4 wheel drive.

As we gained elevation, the road got rougher and was one of only a few times on the trip we needed to use 4 wheel drive.

Our highest point yet, at15, 240ft. and 0.00 degrees latitude!

Our highest point yet, at15, 240ft. and 0.00 degrees latitude!

Rough terrain on foot too.  Couldn’t quite make it to the rock before the 10 second timer went off on the camera.

Rough terrain on foot too. Couldn’t quite make it to the rock before the 10 second timer went off on the camera.

At sundown, we tucked into this bit of shelter from the bitter cold wind to camp.

At sundown, we tucked into this bit of shelter from the bitter cold wind to camp.

It was too cold to cook outside, so I sat on the bed and prepared a tasty salad of red cabbage, tomatoes, avocado, hearts of palm, olive oil and vinegar, while Ned heated up some beans on our tiny “countertop.”

It was too cold to cook outside, so I sat on the bed and prepared a tasty salad of red cabbage, tomatoes, avocado, hearts of palm, olive oil and vinegar, while Ned heated up some beans on our tiny “countertop.”

The drive down the mountain in the morning was spectacular

The drive down the mountain in the morning was spectacular

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Our next stop along the Avenue of the Volcanoes was the famous Cotopaxi, the second highest active volcano in the world at19,342 ft.

Our next stop along the Avenue of the Volcanoes was the famous Cotopaxi, the second highest active volcano in the world at 19,342 ft.

The road up was gorgeous but not nearly as remote.  Cotopaxi is a much more popular tourist attraction, with cars and busloads of people arriving daily.

The road up was gorgeous but not nearly as remote. Cotopaxi is a much more popular tourist attraction, with cars and busloads of people arriving daily.

The glacier’s edge.

The glacier’s edge.

We parked (along with the throngs of tourists) at 15,300ft, then slogged up steep, loose gravel to 15,995.

We parked (along with the throngs of tourists) at 15,300ft, then slogged up steep, loose gravel to 15,995.

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Ned and I then continued up to the base of the glacier at 16,500.  We were a bit breathless and had to stop a few times to slow our speedy heart rates, but we both recovered quickly and felt perfect. In fact, we were so pumped up that we fantasized (for two and a half minutes) about actually doing the climb to the peak.  We went so far as to inquire into guides and equipment rental, but fell short of actually strapping on those crampons and wielding the ice axes.

Ned and I then continued up to the base of the glacier at 16,500. We were a bit breathless and had to stop a few times to slow our speedy heart rates, but we both recovered quickly and felt perfect. In fact, we were so pumped up that we fantasized (for two and a half minutes) about actually doing the climb to the peak. We went so far as to inquire into guides and equipment rental, but fell short of actually strapping on those crampons and wielding the ice axes.

A drive out into the tundra and off the main road led us to another beautiful night of solitude, this time in the shadow of Cotopaxi.  Cooking here, away from bad weather, bugs and prying eyes was a pleasure.  Here is what I had ingredients to whip up (in case you want to try it!): Brown diced onion in olive oil Add and brown ground beef Add liquid: 1 beer 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar Add spices: Basil Tandoori spice Salt  Pepper Cumin Hot curry powder Add chopped veggies: Red bell pepper Carrot Celery Mushrooms Zucchini Tomato Red cabbage Broccoli Simmer till veggies done Yumm!!

A drive out into the tundra and off the main road led us to another beautiful night of solitude, this time in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Cooking here, away from bad weather, bugs and prying eyes was a pleasure. Here is what I had ingredients to whip up (in case you want to try it!):
Brown diced onion in olive oil
Add and brown ground beef
Add liquid:
1 beer
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Add spices:
Basil
Tandoori spice
Salt
Pepper
Cumin
Hot curry powder
Add chopped veggies:
Red bell pepper
Carrot
Celery
Mushrooms
Zucchini
Tomato
Red cabbage
Broccoli
Simmer till veggies done
Yumm!!

In the morning, the high, open tundra provided a beautiful, lonely setting for a long run and some much needed quiet time.

In the morning, the high, open tundra provided a beautiful, lonely setting for a long run and some much needed quiet time.

From all accounts, Quilotoa, a crater Lake at around 12,000ft elevation was supposed to be fantastic and worth the out of the way drive.  We had even met a Swiss woman who said it was the most beautiful lake she had ever seen.  So off we went, continuing on our Volcanoes tour.  First south to the town of Latacunga to stock up on groceries for all of that camping and hiking we were looking forward to. Unfortunately, it was dark before we reached the lake, so we had to find a hiding place to camp off of the main road.  It was difficult, and we were both crabby by the time we wheeled our way up a steep farm track and onto a presumably deserted soccer field.  Sleep was just about upon us when we were visited by a pack of broomstick and hoe wielding villagers.  We couldn’t understand a word of their local dialect, and it felt like we were in a bad medieval movie.  I chickened out, staying in the back, while Ned addressed them, playing the “No comprendo” role yet again.  They eventually trundled away harmlessly.  An hour later, having just fallen asleep, we were visited by the police, sirens blaring and lights flashing.  Evidently the medieval villagers have cell phones.  The cops were actually very polite and apologetic.  The village was worried that we were the robbers!  We were left in peace the rest of the night, but pent up adrenaline kept us awake.  Ditching our camp spot at 7am, we had visions of a nice breakfast and coffee at the lake.  What we found instead was that the town was a dump.  No eggs, no coffee, no restaurants at all.   We went to the lookout to see this wondrous crater lake, but the freezing wind was so strong I had to hold on to the railing to keep from being blown away.  The lake was pretty cool, but the whole vibe of the place was down-trodden and inhospitable.  We shot this poor photo taken directly into the rising sun and abandoned the plot.

From all accounts, Quilotoa, a crater Lake at around 12,000ft elevation was supposed to be fantastic and worth the out of the way drive. We had even met a Swiss woman who said it was the most beautiful lake she had ever seen. So off we went, continuing on our Volcanoes tour. First south to the town of Latacunga to stock up on groceries for all of that camping and hiking we were looking forward to.
Unfortunately, it was dark before we reached the lake, so we had to find a hiding place to camp off of the main road. It was difficult, and we were both crabby by the time we wheeled our way up a steep farm track and onto a presumably deserted soccer field. Sleep was just about upon us when we were visited by a pack of broomstick and hoe wielding villagers. We couldn’t understand a word of their local dialect, and it felt like we were in a bad medieval movie. I chickened out, staying in the back, while Ned addressed them, playing the “No comprendo” role yet again. They eventually trundled away harmlessly. An hour later, having just fallen asleep, we were visited by the police, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Evidently the medieval villagers have cell phones. The cops were actually very polite and apologetic. The village was worried that we were the robbers! We were left in peace the rest of the night, but pent up adrenaline kept us awake.
Ditching our camp spot at 7am, we had visions of a nice breakfast and coffee at the lake. What we found instead was that the town was a dump. No eggs, no coffee, no restaurants at all. We went to the lookout to see this wondrous crater lake, but the freezing wind was so strong I had to hold on to the railing to keep from being blown away. The lake was pretty cool, but the whole vibe of the place was down-trodden and inhospitable. We shot this poor photo taken directly into the rising sun and abandoned the plot.

The beautiful way we took back to the PanAm was dirt and offered more spectacular views of huge river canyons and patchwork crops.  Our next stop was Baños, a resort town where we could clean up and get some blogging done.

The beautiful way we took back to the PanAm was dirt and offered more spectacular views of huge river canyons and patchwork crops. Our next stop was Baños, a resort town where we could clean up and get some blogging done.

Baños, being a touristy town, was where we finally succumbed to zip-line fever (having forsaken the opportunity in normal places like Costa Rica).

Baños, being a touristy town, was where we finally succumbed to zip-line fever (having forsaken the opportunity in normal places like Costa Rica).

Flying like a bird over converging waterfalls was an unusual treat.   We stayed in Baños for a couple of days, regrouping, but the Crater Lake doldrums followed us here, too.  Underwhelmed by the town and tired of the rain forest, we moved on to dryer climes.

Flying like a bird over converging waterfalls was an unusual treat.
We stayed in Baños for a couple of days, regrouping, but the Crater Lake doldrums followed us here, too. Underwhelmed by the town and tired of the rain forest, we moved on to dryer climes.

Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and landslides keep Ecuadorians on their toes.  This highly unstable dirt road led us to the town of Alausi where we planned our next touristy activity.

Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and landslides keep Ecuadorians on their toes. This highly unstable dirt road led us to the town of Alausi where we planned our next touristy activity.

Alausi was a cute little mountain town where we found a nice hostel that let us camp on their property.  The shortcut into town was an adventure all on its own!

Alausi was a cute little mountain town where we found a nice hostel that let us camp on their property. The shortcut into town was an adventure all on its own!

Looks like Little Bow Peep and her siblings just couldn’t leave the sheep alone.

Looks like Little Bow Peep and her siblings just couldn’t leave the sheep alone.

Alausi is the starting point for the train ride called Nariz de Diablo.  Now a major tourist destination, the route is famous for being one of the most difficult engineering feats to build and was originally constructed to unite Ecuador and facilitate trade in the late 1800’s.  The challenge was to drop the railway down a rocky promontory (Devil’s Nose), losing about 800 feet in elevation, onto the valley floor.  The treacherous deed was accomplished by constructing two dramatic switchbacks, costing the lives of numerous Jamaican slaves.

Alausi is the starting point for the train ride called Nariz de Diablo. Now a major tourist destination, the route is famous for being one of the most difficult engineering feats to build and was originally constructed to unite Ecuador and facilitate trade in the late 1800’s. The challenge was to drop the railway down a rocky promontory (Devil’s Nose), losing about 800 feet in elevation, onto the valley floor. The treacherous deed was accomplished by constructing two dramatic switchbacks, costing the lives of numerous Jamaican slaves.

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The steep drop offs were spooky fun as the first impressive switchback appeared below us.

The steep drop offs were spooky fun as the first impressive switchback appeared below us.

Nariz de Diablo, Devils Nose behind us.  Note the cuts in the rock where the tracks are laid.

Nariz de Diablo, Devils Nose behind us. Note the cuts in the rock where the tracks are laid.

Disembarking at the bottom of the Nose, we were greeted by cheerful, local villagers who do a wonderful job promoting tourism.  An excellent museum tour, a native snack and colorful dance show awaited us.

Disembarking at the bottom of the Nose, we were greeted by cheerful, local villagers who do a wonderful job promoting tourism. An excellent museum tour, a native snack and colorful dance show awaited us.

It occurred to us that we hadn’t been to the coast since arriving in South America in Cartagena, Colombia, so we took off west and landed in the little beach town of Montañita.   Watching these boys reminded us that the down-to-earth pleasures of simply playing have become overshadowed at home by video games, cell phones and iPads.  The challenge here is to wind a string around a top, fling it forward to start it spinning…

It occurred to us that we hadn’t been to the coast since arriving in South America in Cartagena, Colombia, so we took off west and landed in the little beach town of Montañita.
Watching these boys reminded us that the down-to-earth pleasures of simply playing have become overshadowed at home by video games, cell phones and iPads. The challenge here is to wind a string around a top, fling it forward to start it spinning…

…and then dexterously scoop it into your hand and allow it to victoriously spin itself out in the palm of your hand.

…and then dexterously scoop it into your hand and allow it to victoriously spin itself out in the palm of your hand.

Snooping around, checking out the town, we met this delightful Ecuadorian family who were vacationing from their home city of Cuenca.  We quickly became friends with Hans, Elizabeth and their twin boys, Stefan and Eric after Hans admired Charlotte as we drove by their place.  VW karma prevailed as it turned out Hans was the proud owner of a ’75 bay window Westy, family owned since new.  We ended up camping in the driveway of their vacation home, sharing meals and playing Rummikub late into the night.

Snooping around, checking out the town, we met this delightful Ecuadorian family who were vacationing from their home city of Cuenca. We quickly became friends with Hans, Elizabeth and their twin boys, Stefan and Eric after Hans admired Charlotte as we drove by their place. VW karma prevailed as it turned out Hans was the proud owner of a ’75 bay window Westy, family owned since new. We ended up camping in the driveway of their vacation home, sharing meals and playing Rummikub late into the night.

We even joined them for a day on the beach.  It is not our normal style to haunt popular, crowded beaches, but we had a wonderful day with our new friends.  The weather could not have been more perfect.  We swam, chatted with Hans and Elizabeth, watched the twins play and took in the sights.

We even joined them for a day on the beach. It is not our normal style to haunt popular, crowded beaches, but we had a wonderful day with our new friends. The weather could not have been more perfect. We swam, chatted with Hans and Elizabeth, watched the twins play and took in the sights.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…aka, another great use for your wife.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…aka, another great use for your wife.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…sans wife.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…sans wife.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…angry wife.

Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…angry wife.

Tempting surfside cuisine.

Tempting surfside cuisine.

The adorable Stefan and Eric happily sipping out of a coco.

The adorable Stefan and Eric happily sipping out of a coco.

But we held out for surfside Ceviche!

But we held out for surfside Ceviche!

Über fresh shellfish in lime and cilantro…absolutely delicious!

Über fresh shellfish in lime and cilantro…absolutely delicious!

Promising to visit our new friends when we passed through Cuenca, we drove off into the Ecuadorian sunset…and on to our next adventure, “A Darwin Moment.”  Can you guess where that was?  Stay tuned!

Promising to visit our new friends when we passed through Cuenca, we drove off into the Ecuadorian sunset…and on to our next adventure, “A Darwin Moment.” Can you guess where that was? Stay tuned!

Colombia: Bogota to Ecuador – New Friends, Old Stones and Discovering a Special Purpose

In this final blog on Colombia we spend some quality time with new-found friends in the capital of Bogota. (just off the map where the finger is pointing)  After Bogota we continued south along the eastern side of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that forms a spine north to south down the middle of the southern half of the country.  The Pan-American Highway runs down the western side of these mountains.  We’ve learned that we want to avoid the Pan-Am any time we can because of the hoards of slow trucks and subsequent backed up traffic.   Interestingly, the only time we seem to see other Overlanders is in the vicinity of the Pan-Am.  Hummm?  Just sayin’.  The drive down highway 45 through Neiva and Pitalito to Mocoa was pretty uneventful with heavy traffic and unexciting towns.  The exception was the side trip to San Agustín and the Parque Arqueologico with its mysterious “stone dudes” and, nearby, the second highest waterfall in South America.  After Mocoa we headed west to reach the border crossing into Ecuador at Ipiales.  This involved crossing the Cordillera Central via a pass with the catchy name of “The Trampoline of Death.”  With a name like that we just had to drive it!

In this final blog on Colombia we spend some quality time with new-found friends in the capital of Bogota. (just off the map where the finger is pointing) After Bogota we continued south along the eastern side of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that forms a spine north to south down the middle of the southern half of the country. The Pan-American Highway runs down the western side of these mountains. We’ve learned that we want to avoid the Pan-Am any time we can because of the hoards of slow trucks and subsequent backed up traffic. Interestingly, the only time we seem to see other Overlanders is in the vicinity of the Pan-Am. Hummm? Just sayin’. The drive down highway 45 through Neiva and Pitalito to Mocoa was pretty uneventful with heavy traffic and unexciting towns. The exception was the side trip to San Agustín and the Parque Arqueologico with its mysterious “stone dudes” and, nearby, the second highest waterfall in South America. After Mocoa we headed west to reach the border crossing into Ecuador at Ipiales. This involved crossing the Cordillera Central via a pass with the catchy name of “The Trampoline of Death.” With a name like that we just had to drive it!

Rolling into Bogota after eight hours of crazy, mountain driving, we encountered Bogota gridlock.  We knew from our previous brief visit (see Cartagena blog) that traffic in this city barely moves any time of day.  But we hit downtown right at 5pm and were treated to the best of it.  There are no such things as traffic lanes.  It is just a free-for-all with the most aggressive drivers getting ahead.

Rolling into Bogota after eight hours of crazy, mountain driving, we encountered Bogota gridlock. We knew from our previous brief visit (see Cartagena blog) that traffic in this city barely moves any time of day. But we hit downtown right at 5pm and were treated to the best of it. There are no such things as traffic lanes. It is just a free-for-all with the most aggressive drivers getting ahead.

Kat’s priority one in the big city was getting her hair done.  I’ll let her tell it… “Back in the small pueblo of Villa de Leyva, it seemed like a simple thing to get a little color touch up.  Asking around, I found that “Celia’s” was touted as the finest salon in the village.  Unfortunately, Celia’s was crowded with curious, gossiping locals and was a tiny, run-down house.  Celia herself was busy, so her daughter, Diane, did my color…kind of… First I had to wait 45 minutes past my appointment time. Then I had to wait while Diane ran to another store to buy the color that would supposedly match mine.  When we finally got going, I had to hold the bowl of goop while Diane applied it, the water in the (bathroom) sink was ice headache cold as she rinsed it out, and to top it off, the color did not take.  In fact, my hair was in danger of being slightly on the orange side of gray-brown.  I was on the verge of tears, when Celia told me to come back in the morning to have it re-done.  I politely declined, offering a few bucks to cover the cost of the color.  This job would have to wait for the more cosmopolitan city of Bogota!

Kat’s priority one in the big city was getting her hair done. I’ll let her tell it…
“Back in the small pueblo of Villa de Leyva, it seemed like a simple thing to get a little color touch up. Asking around, I found that “Celia’s” was touted as the finest salon in the village. Unfortunately, Celia’s was crowded with curious, gossiping locals and was a tiny, run-down house. Celia herself was busy, so her daughter, Diane, did my color…kind of…
First I had to wait 45 minutes past my appointment time. Then I had to wait while Diane ran to another store to buy the color that would supposedly match mine. When we finally got going, I had to hold the bowl of goop while Diane applied it, the water in the (bathroom) sink was ice headache cold as she rinsed it out, and to top it off, the color did not take. In fact, my hair was in danger of being slightly on the orange side of gray-brown. I was on the verge of tears, when Celia told me to come back in the morning to have it re-done. I politely declined, offering a few bucks to cover the cost of the color. This job would have to wait for the more cosmopolitan city of Bogota!

The contrast was stunning.  Once in Bogota, I did a little research and found this “little” salon near our hotel.  Walking into Norberto’s was a once in a lifetime experience.  It was an immense four stories of sheer elegance with over 200 employees, all bustling around, waiting on pampered patrons hand and foot.  I was whisked away to have a facial, was offered lemon ices, coffee and croissants, and then had my disastrous hair “repaired” by, not one, but two attentive men.  I almost had a heart attack when I received my final bill, but it was so worth it as there are few luxuries to be found living on the road.  I found out later that, ironically, while Celia’s was the finest salon in Villa de Leyva, Norberto’s was the finest (and most expensive) salon in Bogota!”

The contrast was stunning. Once in Bogota, I did a little research and found this “little” salon near our hotel. Walking into Norberto’s was a once in a lifetime experience. It was an immense four stories of sheer elegance with over 200 employees, all bustling around, waiting on pampered patrons hand and foot. I was whisked away to have a facial, was offered lemon ices, coffee and croissants, and then had my disastrous hair “repaired” by, not one, but two attentive men. I almost had a heart attack when I received my final bill, but it was so worth it as there are few luxuries to be found living on the road. I found out later that, ironically, while Celia’s was the finest salon in Villa de Leyva, Norberto’s was the finest (and most expensive) salon in Bogota!”

My priority one was getting some fuel line and spark plugs for Charlotte.  Spoiled at home by the ease of one-stop-shopping for auto parts at NAPA or AutoZone, I was amazed in Colombia to find every little item is offered in its own little shop.  There was a whole district devoted to car parts with shops for rubber things, shops for electric things, some for gauges, some for taillights, even some for used hubcaps.  Cooling systems, suspensions, brakes, etc. they all had their own stores, and there were plenty of each, all selling the same thing right next to each other.  The trick was finding the ones you wanted in the maze.  It took the better part of an hour and a hell of a lot of walking to get two items.

My priority one was getting some fuel line and spark plugs for Charlotte. Spoiled at home by the ease of one-stop-shopping for auto parts at NAPA or AutoZone, I was amazed in Colombia to find every little item is offered in its own little shop. There was a whole district devoted to car parts with shops for rubber things, shops for electric things, some for gauges, some for taillights, even some for used hubcaps. Cooling systems, suspensions, brakes, etc. they all had their own stores, and there were plenty of each, all selling the same thing right next to each other. The trick was finding the ones you wanted in the maze. It took the better part of an hour and a hell of a lot of walking to get two items.

The FIFA World Cup raged on.  Even though Colombia was out of the running, it didn’t keep everyone from stopping everything when a game was on.  We were riding in a taxi, listening to the match between Germany and Brazil on the car’s radio when the Germans scored three goals in five minutes.  Unheard of!  Everyone was going nuts in the streets since all of Colombia was for Germany after Brazil had beaten them out of the finals.  We passed this huge portable TV mounted on the back of a truck parked in a neighborhood park.  Being the temporary fútbol junkies we’d become, we yelled at our driver to stop.  We jumped out and joined the mob in the park, eager for the visual fix.

The FIFA World Cup raged on. Even though Colombia was out of the running, it didn’t keep everyone from stopping everything when a game was on. We were riding in a taxi, listening to the match between Germany and Brazil on the car’s radio when the Germans scored three goals in five minutes. Unheard of! Everyone was going nuts in the streets since all of Colombia was for Germany after Brazil had beaten them out of the finals. We passed this huge portable TV mounted on the back of a truck parked in a neighborhood park. Being the temporary fútbol junkies we’d become, we yelled at our driver to stop. We jumped out and joined the mob in the park, eager for the visual fix.

Our new best Colombian friends Honorato and Jeannette Espinosa in their beautiful home.  Honorato made quite a name for himself in his home country and in the States as a professional race car driver with a career that spanned three decades.  According to him, some of his best and favorite racing that he did in the States was in a car that I now own, a 1975 Porsche RSR.  We spent a wonderful afternoon at their home where Jeannette, the best of hostesses, made us an amazing dinner, and we all reminisced through Honorato’s awesome scrapbooks of his racing days.

Our new best Colombian friends Honorato and Jeannette Espinosa in their beautiful home. Honorato made quite a name for himself in his home country and in the States as a professional race car driver with a career that spanned three decades. According to him, some of his best and favorite racing that he did in the States was in a car that I now own, a 1975 Porsche RSR. We spent a wonderful afternoon at their home where Jeannette, the best of hostesses, made us an amazing dinner, and we all reminisced through Honorato’s awesome scrapbooks of his racing days.

We also were treated to a viewing of their car collection which included several very original examples of Porsches and Nissans.  But the highlight was this all original 1947 Lincoln Continental that Honorato’s father bought new.  It was an export model to Colombia when new and has been in the family ever since.  It just oozed wonderful patina and the love of ownership that’s been bestowed upon it over the years.

We also were treated to a viewing of their car collection which included several very original examples of Porsches and Nissans. But the highlight was this all original 1947 Lincoln Continental that Honorato’s father bought new. It was an export model to Colombia when new and has been in the family ever since. It just oozed wonderful patina and the love of ownership that’s been bestowed upon it over the years.

Our other new best friends in Bogota are Alvaro and Lilianna Pachon and their adorable daughter Marianna.  I actually met Alvaro at the SEMA show (Specialty Equipment Market Association) in Las Vegas last November. When I told him of our impending trip south, he promised me when we got the Bogota he’d take us 4 wheeling with his friends and offered any help we needed in the city.  We’ve kept in touch throughout our journey south and when we got to town, Alvaro found us a great hotel just down the street from his home.  On a Saturday, true to his word, we piled into his Land Cruiser and met up with six other rigs and a bunch of enthusiastic 4x4 friends, all eager to get out of the city and into the dirt for a day – just like my 4x4 friends at home.  Besides ‘wheeling, one evening Lilianna had us to their home for a wonderful dinner and we joined the family another night for dinner at their favorite burger joint.  The hospitality we received in Bogota has been the best of the entire trip.

Our other new best friends in Bogota are Alvaro and Lilianna Pachon and their adorable daughter Marianna. I actually met Alvaro at the SEMA show (Specialty Equipment Market Association) in Las Vegas last November. When I told him of our impending trip south, he promised me when we got the Bogota he’d take us 4 wheeling with his friends and offered any help we needed in the city. We’ve kept in touch throughout our journey south and when we got to town, Alvaro found us a great hotel just down the street from his home. On a Saturday, true to his word, we piled into his Land Cruiser and met up with six other rigs and a bunch of enthusiastic 4×4 friends, all eager to get out of the city and into the dirt for a day – just like my 4×4 friends at home. Besides ‘wheeling, one evening Lilianna had us to their home for a wonderful dinner and we joined the family another night for dinner at their favorite burger joint. The hospitality we received in Bogota has been the best of the entire trip.

We drove about an hour west out of the city to the Tablazo Trail outside the little town of Subachoque. The trail was short, maybe two kilometers long, but offered plenty of excitement with steep climbs and deep ruts.  It definitely wasn’t Charlotte country!  The views at the top, the table, (Tablazo) were amazing in every direction.  The clouds parted long enough to see a particular village below.  One guy told us it was the first time he’d seen that town in ten years of driving the trail, due to it always being cloudy at this altitude (about 11,000 feet).

We drove about an hour west out of the city to the Tablazo Trail outside the little town of Subachoque. The trail was short, maybe two kilometers long, but offered plenty of excitement with steep climbs and deep ruts. It definitely wasn’t Charlotte country! The views at the top, the table, (Tablazo) were amazing in every direction. The clouds parted long enough to see a particular village below. One guy told us it was the first time he’d seen that town in ten years of driving the trail, due to it always being cloudy at this altitude (about 11,000 feet).

Alvaro’s LC80, rolling on 40s, made short work of the trail, but the deep ruts still challenged his suspension and required pushing the ARB button more than once.

Alvaro’s LC80, rolling on 40s, made short work of the trail, but the deep ruts still challenged his suspension and required pushing the ARB button more than once.

Animal rights activism is alive and well in Colombia.  We saw this large, hand painted message on a wall in Subachoque.  “Torture is neither art nor Culture,” referring to bull fighting and cock fighting.

Animal rights activism is alive and well in Colombia. We saw this large, hand painted message on a wall in Subachoque. “Torture is neither art nor Culture,” referring to bull fighting and cock fighting.

Leaving Bogota after a week, we spotted this guy begging at a traffic light.  Despite his miserable situation in life, he wore a happy smile and chatted with the passers bye.

Leaving Bogota after a week, we spotted this guy begging at a traffic light. Despite his miserable situation in life, he wore a happy smile and chatted with the passers bye.

I gave him my Colombian Futból jersey I had proudly worn for every game we watched.  He seemed a bit overwhelmed, but grateful.  As we drove away I was glad to see a street hawker help him put the shirt into his bag of belongings lying on the sidewalk.  We were a bit concerned someone would take it from him.

I gave him my Colombian Futból jersey I had proudly worn for every game we watched. He seemed a bit overwhelmed, but grateful. As we drove away I was glad to see a street hawker help him put the shirt into his bag of belongings lying on the sidewalk. We were a bit concerned someone would take it from him.

Down the road a couple of hours from Bogota, we pulled over at this chicken joint to watch the final game of the World Cup.  When Germany beat Argentina and won the overall honors, the staff and patrons all went nuts.  We found it odd that the Colombians were rooting for a European team rather than fellow South Americans???

Down the road a couple of hours from Bogota, we pulled over at this chicken joint to watch the final game of the World Cup. When Germany beat Argentina and won the overall honors, the staff and patrons all went nuts. We found it odd that the Colombians were rooting for a European team rather than fellow South Americans???

Look Ma, no silverware!  My mother would cringe at these plastic gloves provided at every chicken joint, allowing the diner to tear the bird apart with his bare hands yet remain grease free!

Look Ma, no silverware! My mother would cringe at these plastic gloves provided at every chicken joint, allowing the diner to tear the bird apart with his bare hands yet remain grease free!

Post game revelers gave us a Colombian flag for Charlotte which I attached to her CB antenna.

Post game revelers gave us a Colombian flag for Charlotte which I attached to her CB antenna.

In turn, we gave out Charlottamiles stickers to everyone.

In turn, we gave out Charlottamiles stickers to everyone.

Things just keep improving since Central America.  We now have half -toilet seats instead of no-toilet seats!

Things just keep improving since Central America. We now have half -toilet seats instead of no-toilet seats!

This bizarre statue by Colombian sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt is found along the highway in the town of Neiva.  It is a bronze menagerie of tumbling horses and slain conquistadores saluting the 1539 rebellion of the indigenous Yalcon people which briefly slowed the Spanish invasion.

This bizarre statue by Colombian sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt is found along the highway in the town of Neiva. It is a bronze menagerie of tumbling horses and slain conquistadores saluting the 1539 rebellion of the indigenous Yalcon people which briefly slowed the Spanish invasion.

This huge Ceiba tree fills the entire town square in Gigante, Colombia.

This huge Ceiba tree fills the entire town square in Gigante, Colombia.

Sharing the farm with the cows.  We camped in this farmer’s front yard in San Agustín.

Sharing the farm with the cows. We camped in this farmer’s front yard in San Agustín.

We were pretty much over Colombian breakfasts long before we were over Colombia.  Don’t think one can kill an egg any more than this.  And the cold bread and rice ball didn’t add anything to the mix.

We were pretty much over Colombian breakfasts long before we were over Colombia. Don’t think one can kill an egg any more than this. And the cold bread and rice ball didn’t add anything to the mix.

The “Stone Dudes.”  Outside of the town of San Agustín is the Parque Arqueológico which is the site of dozens of these mysterious stone carvings.  They date pre-Inca ranging from 3000BC to around 900AD.  No known history of these people exists, not even a name, as they did not have a written language.  The only thing they left behind were these spooky tomb guardians, carved in stone and buried with their dead.

The “Stone Dudes.” Outside of the town of San Agustín is the Parque Arqueológico which is the site of dozens of these mysterious stone carvings. They date pre-Inca ranging from 3000BC to around 900AD. No known history of these people exists, not even a name, as they did not have a written language. The only thing they left behind were these spooky tomb guardians, carved in stone and buried with their dead.

We got Charlotte a key chain depicting this happy guy.

We got Charlotte a key chain depicting this happy guy.

Cool bamboo bridge built over a creek that features ancient carvings in the creek bed, made by the same mystery people that left the tomb guardians.

Cool bamboo bridge built over a creek that features ancient carvings in the creek bed, made by the same mystery people that left the tomb guardians.

Carvings in the creek.

Carvings in the creek.

This is how many of the figures were found buried, with a huge flat stone above them.

This is how many of the figures were found buried, with a huge flat stone above them.

Not just people but birds too.

Not just people but birds too.

Upside down babies.

Upside down babies.

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Sarcophagus

Sarcophagus

Tomb raider.

Tomb raider.

Charlotte finds a friend, and a GoWesty built one to boot!  Leaving San Agustín we passed this Syncro headed the other way.  We both waved and screeched to a halt to compare notes.  The owners, an Israeli couple, had come up from the south, having bought their VW from our friends at GoWesty in Los Osos, CA (see our first blog about Baja).  They then shipped the van from California to Argentina.  They were essentially doing our trip in reverse so we had much to share.  We ended up having lunch together comparing notes of what is to come for each of us.

Charlotte finds a friend, and a GoWesty built one to boot! Leaving San Agustín we passed this Syncro headed the other way. We both waved and screeched to a halt to compare notes. The owners, an Israeli couple, had come up from the south, having bought their VW from our friends at GoWesty in Los Osos, CA (see our first blog about Baja). They then shipped the van from California to Argentina. They were essentially doing our trip in reverse so we had much to share. We ended up having lunch together comparing notes of what is to come for each of us.

Onward…

Onward…

Biggest spider web ever.  Couldn’t find the owner.

Biggest spider web ever. Couldn’t find the owner.

Our next stop was to see the second highest waterfall in South America, Salto de Bordones.  We followed a muddy dirt road at 6 mph for about three hours until it ended at this really nice new hotel, Hotel Salto de Bordones, situated on a cliff side overlooking the falls.  After asking permission, we stayed in their parking lot for the night and went in for breakfast the next morning.  That’s when we found out they had only been open two weeks and had only had family for customers so far.  We felt pretty guilty.  It got worse when we were told the hotel had been a multi-year labor of love by the family patriarch, who died just four months before it was finished.  The son, Juan, an anthropologist, had temporarily quit studying for his PHD in order to help finish the place and get it open.  We sure hope they make it considering the road it takes to get there.

Our next stop was to see the second highest waterfall in South America, Salto de Bordones. We followed a muddy dirt road at 6 mph for about three hours until it ended at this really nice new hotel, Hotel Salto de Bordones, situated on a cliff side overlooking the falls. After asking permission, we stayed in their parking lot for the night and went in for breakfast the next morning. That’s when we found out they had only been open two weeks and had only had family for customers so far. We felt pretty guilty. It got worse when we were told the hotel had been a multi-year labor of love by the family patriarch, who died just four months before it was finished. The son, Juan, an anthropologist, had temporarily quit studying for his PHD in order to help finish the place and get it open. We sure hope they make it considering the road it takes to get there.

The inside of the hotel was beautiful and all made from recycled materials.

The inside of the hotel was beautiful and all made from recycled materials.

Co-owner Juan points out the waterfall from the best room in the house.

Co-owner Juan points out the waterfall from the best room in the house.

Salto de Bordones drops roughly 400 meters and is pretty spectacular, but pales in comparison to Angel Falls in Venezuela which is the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world at 979 meters (3,212 feet).

Salto de Bordones drops roughly 400 meters and is pretty spectacular, but pales in comparison to Angel Falls in Venezuela which is the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world at 979 meters (3,212 feet).

These two little gals couldn’t have been cuter.  Tatiana and Darli ran after us from the village of Bordones to where we stopped at the hotel.  They each wore shirts emblazed with official tourist assist logos and, looking at each other for reassurance, shyly explained in struggling English, the details about the waterfall they had obviously rehearsed for hours.  I think we were the first tourists they had had the courage to approach.

These two little gals couldn’t have been cuter. Tatiana and Darli ran after us from the village of Bordones to where we stopped at the hotel. They each wore shirts emblazed with official tourist assist logos and, looking at each other for reassurance, shyly explained in struggling English, the details about the waterfall they had obviously rehearsed for hours. I think we were the first tourists they had had the courage to approach.

We explained with maps on our ipads where we were from and how we were traveling and living in our car.  They seemed to think that was pretty cool.  Their brave interaction with us inspired us to interact ourselves the next morning.  Thanks to these two little girls, Kat and I have found a new way to give back a bit during this trip…

We explained with maps on our ipads where we were from and how we were traveling and living in our car. They seemed to think that was pretty cool. Their brave interaction with us inspired us to interact ourselves the next morning. Thanks to these two little girls, Kat and I have found a new way to give back a bit during this trip…

We decided to visit the girls’ school and tell their teacher how impressed we were with the girls’ English and their bravery in approaching us.  Here Kat meets their teacher and explains our feelings.

We decided to visit the girls’ school and tell their teacher how impressed we were with the girls’ English and their bravery in approaching us. Here Kat meets their teacher and explains our feelings.

The school’s reception to us was overwhelming.  All the teachers, the principal, and most of the student body, crowded around and begged us to enter their classrooms and explain the importance of learning English.  Here Kat poses with Tatiana and Darli and the teacher responsible for their English.

The school’s reception to us was overwhelming. All the teachers, the principal, and most of the student body, crowded around and begged us to enter their classrooms and explain the importance of learning English. Here Kat poses with Tatiana and Darli and the teacher responsible for their English.

Kat was amazing.  She took over the first classroom, captivating most of the students in Spanish by describing our trip and answering questions.   Andreas, the director of the school, explained to us how he was frustrated that he could only give the kids two hours a week towards English classes.  Kat offered alternatives to them like listening to songs and TV shows in English.  She also encouraged them to spend an hour a day only speaking English with their friends.  I wandered around taking photos and relating to the wisecrackers in the back who never pay attention.  I should have been explaining to them (if I could have) that, had I paid more attention in Spanish class, I might be standing in front of the class teaching!

Kat was amazing. She took over the first classroom, captivating most of the students in Spanish by describing our trip and answering questions. Andreas, the director of the school, explained to us how he was frustrated that he could only give the kids two hours a week towards English classes. Kat offered alternatives to them like listening to songs and TV shows in English. She also encouraged them to spend an hour a day only speaking English with their friends. I wandered around taking photos and relating to the wisecrackers in the back who never pay attention. I should have been explaining to them (if I could have) that, had I paid more attention in Spanish class, I might be standing in front of the class teaching!

Watching the kids in the classes, (we visited three) I was reminded how school atmosphere doesn’t change.  It was just like school was for me, forty something years ago.  There were the girls in the front who hung on every word and the guys in the back screwing around.

Watching the kids in the classes, (we visited three) I was reminded how school atmosphere doesn’t change. It was just like school was for me, forty something years ago. There were the girls in the front who hung on every word and the guys in the back screwing around.

The older kids were all riveted on teacher Kat and asked great questions, while lots of curious onlookers peered through the windows.

The older kids were all riveted on teacher Kat and asked great questions, while lots of curious onlookers peered through the windows.

Well, some things change… I don’t remember times tables like this in the 60’s.  The whole class laughed when I took this picture and when I praised the teacher for his clever way of getting those back row boys’ attention in math class.

Well, some things change… I don’t remember times tables like this in the 60’s. The whole class laughed when I took this picture and when I praised the teacher for his clever way of getting those back row boys’ attention in math class.

To cool for school.  Boys are the same everywhere.

To cool for school. Boys are the same everywhere.

Vaca made lots of new friends with the little ones.

Vaca made lots of new friends with the little ones.

It was tough to leave, and groups of kids ran after us.  Back on the road we talked about the experience and how good we felt.  We vowed to do this again as often as the opportunity presents itself.  We also decided it would be great to give giant world maps to the schools to show the kids where we come from.  We bought some great maps in Quito, Ecuador and hope to repeat our schooling experience soon.

It was tough to leave, and groups of kids ran after us. Back on the road we talked about the experience and how good we felt. We vowed to do this again as often as the opportunity presents itself. We also decided it would be great to give giant world maps to the schools to show the kids where we come from. We bought some great maps in Quito, Ecuador and hope to repeat our schooling experience soon.

After teaching school we headed south to Mocoa and then turned west to cross the Cordillera Central on the “Trampoline of Death.”  After some of the cliff-hanging remote roads we’ve been over, the Trampoline didn’t quite live up to its name.  We even drove the steepest first part at night for greater effect but… maybe it was the safety guardrail?

After teaching school we headed south to Mocoa and then turned west to cross the Cordillera Central on the “Trampoline of Death.” After some of the cliff-hanging remote roads we’ve been over, the Trampoline didn’t quite live up to its name. We even drove the steepest first part at night for greater effect but… maybe it was the safety guardrail?

It was kinda narrow in spots.

It was kinda narrow in spots.

After climbing for over three hours in first gear we called it a night at this illustrious spot – the only level one we’d come across during the entire climb.  The family that lived in the shack next to these radio towers was more afraid of us than we them when I knocked on their door at 10pm and asked if we could sleep in their yard.  “Sleep” was rare as their chickens woke us up around 4am, pecking and crowing under Charlotte.

After climbing for over three hours in first gear we called it a night at this illustrious spot – the only level one we’d come across during the entire climb. The family that lived in the shack next to these radio towers was more afraid of us than we them when I knocked on their door at 10pm and asked if we could sleep in their yard. “Sleep” was rare as their chickens woke us up around 4am, pecking and crowing under Charlotte.

Ah, but we had Tyler’s coffee.  I think he’d cringe if he saw the desecrating way we make it.  No precise measuring or perfect water temps around here!

Ah, but we had Tyler’s coffee. I think he’d cringe if he saw the desecrating way we make it. No precise measuring or perfect water temps around here!

Traffic was a little tight along the downhill side of the Trampoline the next morning.  Of course the pouring rain didn’t help.

Traffic was a little tight along the downhill side of the Trampoline the next morning. Of course the pouring rain didn’t help.

Amazing mud slides could be seen everywhere.  As the rain continued to fall in buckets, we wondered how any of this road stayed up on the mountain.

Amazing mud slides could be seen everywhere. As the rain continued to fall in buckets, we wondered how any of this road stayed up on the mountain.

Some of it didn’t!

Some of it didn’t!

After about ten hours, the Trampoline ride was over and we approached the border with Ecuador.   We had one last thing to see before leaving Colombia.  Way back in January my daughter Emily emailed us with a picture of this church and a plea to us to check it out.

After about ten hours, the Trampoline ride was over and we approached the border with Ecuador. We had one last thing to see before leaving Colombia. Way back in January my daughter Emily emailed us with a picture of this church and a plea to us to check it out.

Cathedral Las Lajas is just outside the seedy border town of Ipiales.  It affords an impressive sight, spanning a river gorge and looking like a medieval castle.  In reality, it was only built in 1949 so it’s got a ways to go to antiquity.

Cathedral Las Lajas is just outside the seedy border town of Ipiales. It affords an impressive sight, spanning a river gorge and looking like a medieval castle. In reality, it was only built in 1949 so it’s got a ways to go to antiquity.

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Still, Las Lajas left us with one more impressive site from a country that has delivered plenty in the month we’ve spent in it.  Colombia has been wonderful and a welcome change from Central America.  We look forward to the adventures that lie further south… Stay tuned.

Still, Las Lajas left us with one more impressive site from a country that has delivered plenty in the month we’ve spent in it. Colombia has been wonderful and a welcome change from Central America. We look forward to the adventures that lie further south… Stay tuned.

Colombian Coffee Break

In this blog, Kat and I start in Villa de Leyva where my finger is and, for two days, work our way northwest along multiple dirt and sort-of paved back roads.  Then we went west on highway 62 toward the city of Medellin.  We skirted around Medellin proper through the Lake District near Gutapé and the beautiful flower growing region to the southwest.  Finally we turned south all the way to Armenia in the heart of the coffee growing region were we spent several days learning more than we ever thought possible about coffee.  From Armenia we went east over a crazy pass (steep switchbacks and endless slow trucks) along the Pan-Am to the capital city of Colombia, Bogota.

In this blog, Kat and I start in Villa de Leyva where my finger is and, for two days, work our way northwest along multiple dirt and sort-of paved back roads. Then we went west on highway 62 toward the city of Medellin. We skirted around Medellin proper through the Lake District near Gutapé and the beautiful flower growing region to the southwest. Finally we turned south all the way to Armenia in the heart of the coffee growing region were we spent several days learning more than we ever thought possible about coffee. From Armenia we went east over a crazy pass (steep switchbacks and endless slow trucks) along the Pan-Am to the capital city of Colombia, Bogota.

As usual, we found the least used route out of Villa de Leyva.  This rough track led us past numerous little coffee and banana fincas (farms) with shy kids in doorways and scowling looks from landowners.

As usual, we found the least used route out of Villa de Leyva. This rough track led us past numerous little coffee and banana fincas (farms) with shy kids in doorways and scowling looks from landowners.

Other traffic along the road looked like these long distance haulers, stopped here at a filling station.

Other traffic along the road looked like these long distance haulers, stopped here at a filling station.

Our own filling station provided these huge carts to insure we bought lots of yummy packaged junk off their shelves.

Our own filling station provided these huge carts to insure we bought lots of yummy packaged junk off their shelves.

Most of the towns we passed through were dirty, mean and seedy.  All the food tasted the same (bad) and no one was very friendly.  Then we arrived in Guatepé and our mood instantly changed. This clean, happy town on the shores of a huge, man-made lake featured buildings with the most color we’d seen since Mexico.  We watched a bicycle race through the streets as we ate another so-so meal at a sidewalk café.

Most of the towns we passed through were dirty, mean and seedy. All the food tasted the same (bad) and no one was very friendly. Then we arrived in Guatepé and our mood instantly changed. This clean, happy town on the shores of a huge, man-made lake featured buildings with the most color we’d seen since Mexico. We watched a bicycle race through the streets as we ate another so-so meal at a sidewalk café.

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A few kilometers out of Guatepé we spotted this rock sticking up out of nowhere.  “Wow, are those stairs up the side of it?”

A few kilometers out of Guatepé we spotted this rock sticking up out of nowhere. “Wow, are those stairs up the side of it?”

Sure enough, 675 of ‘em to the top.  We challenged ourselves to see how many we could run up.  It is tough getting exercise living in a van, so when the opportunity presents itself… El Peñon (The Rock) offered some amazing views from its top of the surrounding countryside.

Sure enough, 675 of ‘em to the top. We challenged ourselves to see how many we could run up. It is tough getting exercise living in a van, so when the opportunity presents itself… El Peñon (The Rock) offered some amazing views from its top of the surrounding countryside.

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Fresh fish anyone?  Not sure I’d want to risk my bowels to this gourmet roadside attraction.  Wonder how long he’d been trying to sell them?

Fresh fish anyone? Not sure I’d want to risk my bowels to this gourmet roadside attraction. Wonder how long he’d been trying to sell them?

After El Peñon the scenery improved immensely with cute, clean houses, tidy farms and happy cows.

After El Peñon the scenery improved immensely with cute, clean houses, tidy farms and happy cows.

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After almost a week of wandering westward and southward we arrived in the small city of Armenia in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing region.  Tyler Youngblood is an American who, five years ago traveled via Subaru around South America until he landed in the Armenia area.  He never left.  Being an astute coffee aficionado and sharp business man, he literally smelled opportunity brewing and started a gourmet coffee company named Azahar (coffee bean flower).  We didn’t know coffee production could be so high tech (actually we didn’t know anything about coffee production!), but after a tour of Tyler’s factory and seeing his use of all the latest technology, both scientific and social media, we were blown away by what this young entrepreneur is accomplishing.  There is a LOT that goes into the production of that ground up brownish-black stuff that comes in that bag/can/whatever at the store.

After almost a week of wandering westward and southward we arrived in the small city of Armenia in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing region. Tyler Youngblood is an American who, five years ago traveled via Subaru around South America until he landed in the Armenia area. He never left. Being an astute coffee aficionado and sharp business man, he literally smelled opportunity brewing and started a gourmet coffee company named Azahar (coffee bean flower). We didn’t know coffee production could be so high tech (actually we didn’t know anything about coffee production!), but after a tour of Tyler’s factory and seeing his use of all the latest technology, both scientific and social media, we were blown away by what this young entrepreneur is accomplishing. There is a LOT that goes into the production of that ground up brownish-black stuff that comes in that bag/can/whatever at the store.

Raw coffee beans as they arrive from the select farms that Azahar deals with.

Raw coffee beans as they arrive from the select farms that Azahar deals with.

Raw coffee beans that have been shelled and washed and are now ready for roasting.

Raw coffee beans that have been shelled and washed and are now ready for roasting.

This gal sorts beans all day, picking out the bad ones by hand.

This gal sorts beans all day, picking out the bad ones by hand.

Tyler took us through a very thorough process of preparing the perfect cup of gourmet coffee, right down to weighing the amount of coffee grounds and making sure the water was the exact temperature.  Note the pre-wetted filters in the special cone-drip thingies.  No Mr. Coffee machine around here!

Tyler took us through a very thorough process of preparing the perfect cup of gourmet coffee, right down to weighing the amount of coffee grounds and making sure the water was the exact temperature. Note the pre-wetted filters in the special cone-drip thingies. No Mr. Coffee machine around here!

Even pouring the water required a special touch.

Even pouring the water required a special touch.

As you may have guessed, I’m not much of a coffee drinker.  In fact, until this day, I’d never touched the stuff without and (un)healthy dose of cream and at least three heaps of sugar!  How else is one to tolerate that vile taste?  Well, after watching Tyler’s masterful crafting of this cup, I wasn’t about to ask for the insulting milkshake stuff.  Not like there was any anywhere near his factory.  Yes, this was my first cup of black coffee ever.  And I liked it!  A lot!  I drank more black coffee in the few days we hung around Tyler than all the milkshake stuff I’ve consumed in my entire lifetime!  However, Tyler’s gourmet blends are VERY special, as I’ve since tried regular restaurant Joe black, and yuck, still gotta doctor that stuff!

As you may have guessed, I’m not much of a coffee drinker. In fact, until this day, I’d never touched the stuff without and (un)healthy dose of cream and at least three heaps of sugar! How else is one to tolerate that vile taste? Well, after watching Tyler’s masterful crafting of this cup, I wasn’t about to ask for the insulting milkshake stuff. Not like there was any anywhere near his factory. Yes, this was my first cup of black coffee ever. And I liked it! A lot! I drank more black coffee in the few days we hung around Tyler than all the milkshake stuff I’ve consumed in my entire lifetime! However, Tyler’s gourmet blends are VERY special, as I’ve since tried regular restaurant Joe black, and yuck, still gotta doctor that stuff!

Watching the company’s brand new, state-of-the-art CNC roaster at work.  Note all the scales and vials sitting around.  Looks more like a drug lab.  Well this IS Colombia after all.

Watching the company’s brand new, state-of-the-art CNC roaster at work. Note all the scales and vials sitting around. Looks more like a drug lab. Well this IS Colombia after all.

Every package of Azahar has a QR code on it.  Scan it with your smart phone and you can watch a video interview of the various Colombian farmers who grew the beans in the bag!

Every package of Azahar has a QR code on it. Scan it with your smart phone and you can watch a video interview of the various Colombian farmers who grew the beans in the bag!

We toured a coffee plantation belonging to a good friend of Tyler’s and learned more about the complex process that goes into making your morning wakeup juice.

We toured a coffee plantation belonging to a good friend of Tyler’s and learned more about the complex process that goes into making your morning wakeup juice.

Coffee beans on the vine.  The red ones are ready for picking while the green ones have a way to go.  Each bean is picked by hand as it ripens.

Coffee beans on the vine. The red ones are ready for picking while the green ones have a way to go. Each bean is picked by hand as it ripens.

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Cheap foreign labor.

Cheap foreign labor.

Ok.  We know what you’re thinking.  Snorting Colombia’s favorite export again, right?  Yes we were instructed to huff this stuff by our guide to experience the different blends.  But we were sniffing the country’s legit export, one Colombia is striving hard to make the new export image of this rehabilated country.  It’s a tough sell to the rural farmers as coffee is worth about $10 a pound on the docks while cocaine brings about $25,000/pound when it leaves the county.  Colombia has had a rough, civil war tainted past, and the FARC rebels still flex their muscles against the government in remote parts of the country, but it has come a long way from the days when Pablo Escobar called the shots.  We never felt unsafe anywhere, despite following our usual off-the-beaten-track routes.  Colombia is a beautiful, safe country well worth visiting.

Ok. We know what you’re thinking. Snorting Colombia’s favorite export again, right? Yes we were instructed to huff this stuff by our guide to experience the different blends. But we were sniffing the country’s legit export, one Colombia is striving hard to make the new export image of this rehabilated country. It’s a tough sell to the rural farmers as coffee is worth about $10 a pound on the docks while cocaine brings about $25,000/pound when it leaves the county. Colombia has had a rough, civil war tainted past, and the FARC rebels still flex their muscles against the government in remote parts of the country, but it has come a long way from the days when Pablo Escobar called the shots. We never felt unsafe anywhere, despite following our usual off-the-beaten-track routes. Colombia is a beautiful, safe country well worth visiting.

The battles for the FIFA World Cup Fútbol championship continued to rage with another match pitting Colombia against Brazil.  This was to be the final chapter for Colombia as Brazil trounced them in what, we were told, was a very unsportsmanlike game on the Brazilians and referees’ part.  Despite their now being out on the race for the finals, the Colombians still partied in the streets until the wee hours of the morning, celebrating that they got as far as they did.

The battles for the FIFA World Cup Fútbol championship continued to rage with another match pitting Colombia against Brazil. This was to be the final chapter for Colombia as Brazil trounced them in what, we were told, was a very unsportsmanlike game on the Brazilians and referees’ part. Despite their now being out on the race for the finals, the Colombians still partied in the streets until the wee hours of the morning, celebrating that they got as far as they did.

Watching the game in a bar in Salento, everyone’s enthusiasm was contagious.

Watching the game in a bar in Salento, everyone’s enthusiasm was contagious.

For all my Jeep buddies: “Real” Jeeps (i.e. Willys) are alive and well in Colombia, especially in the coffee growing region where some serve as taxis like these, while others are still beasts of burden on the farms.  Here is a little info we dug up: Willys in Armenia: The first Jeeps (M38 or CJ-2A models) arrived to Colombia in 1946 for military purposes.  They were imported by the Colombian Ministry of Defense and soon became very popular among Colombian coffee farmers who saw in this vehicle the needed qualities for the difficult roads in the mountainous region of the country.  Besides the transportation of coffee, Jeeps are used for transport of many other agricultural products, as well as to transport country workers to places previously accessible only to pack animals.  Due to this quality, the Jeeps are also known locally in Spanish: "mulitas mecánicas" (or mechanical mules).

For all my Jeep buddies: “Real” Jeeps (i.e. Willys) are alive and well in Colombia, especially in the coffee growing region where some serve as taxis like these, while others are still beasts of burden on the farms. Here is a little info we dug up:
Willys in Armenia:
The first Jeeps (M38 or CJ-2A models) arrived to Colombia in 1946 for military purposes. They were imported by the Colombian Ministry of Defense and soon became very popular among Colombian coffee farmers who saw in this vehicle the needed qualities for the difficult roads in the mountainous region of the country. Besides the transportation of coffee, Jeeps are used for transport of many other agricultural products, as well as to transport country workers to places previously accessible only to pack animals. Due to this quality, the Jeeps are also known locally in Spanish: “mulitas mecánicas” (or mechanical mules).

Kat managed to coerce me onto a horse for the first time in probably20 years.  After a two hour ride I remembered why I like Jeeps.  These South American mountain horses are called Caballos Criollos and are tough, surefooted little critters.  They hauled us over some horrible trails with the calmness of monks.  But, for me, their steering, brakes and rough ride still left something to be desired.

Kat managed to coerce me onto a horse for the first time in probably20 years. After a two hour ride I remembered why I like Jeeps. These South American mountain horses are called Caballos Criollos and are tough, surefooted little critters. They hauled us over some horrible trails with the calmness of monks. But, for me, their steering, brakes and rough ride still left something to be desired.

We had (black!) coffee at a sidewalk café in Filandia while we watched locals enjoy their weekend.

We had (black!) coffee at a sidewalk café in Filandia while we watched locals enjoy their weekend.

This ol’ boy charmed us with his toothless smile.  He couldn’t speak a word but his eyes said all when we bought him a cup of coffee to share with us.

This ol’ boy charmed us with his toothless smile. He couldn’t speak a word but his eyes said all when we bought him a cup of coffee to share with us.

Colombian cake shop.

Colombian cake shop.

More Jeeps.  This time in ½ scale and human powered.  Kids seemed to have a blast “driving” these beauties around the square, pushed by their owners for a few pesos.

More Jeeps. This time in ½ scale and human powered. Kids seemed to have a blast “driving” these beauties around the square, pushed by their owners for a few pesos.

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These Jeep builders spell as badly as I do!

These Jeep builders spell as badly as I do!

We met our friend Tyler at Helens’, his favorite restaurant in Filandia.  His epicurean tastes are as good as his coffee pallet.

We met our friend Tyler at Helens’, his favorite restaurant in Filandia. His epicurean tastes are as good as his coffee pallet.

Margaritas weren’t bad either.

Margaritas weren’t bad either.

Unbelievable meal.

Unbelievable meal.

Yep.  Can’t kill a good old Willys.  They just keep haulin’ the bananas.

Yep. Can’t kill a good old Willys. They just keep haulin’ the bananas.

Leaving the coffee country behind, we hit the highway east for the capital, Bogota.  Time for some city life and visiting with some special friends there.  We felt bad not giving these guys a lift.  I was waiting for a lightning bolt or something to zap Charlotte and stop us in our tracks but she kept on rolling.  Knock on wood.  13,000 miles and counting...

Leaving the coffee country behind, we hit the highway east for the capital, Bogota. Time for some city life and visiting with some special friends there. We felt bad not giving these guys a lift. I was waiting for a lightning bolt or something to zap Charlotte and stop us in our tracks but she kept on rolling. Knock on wood. 13,000 miles and counting…

High Times in Colombia

June 21, 2014: 5:00am, a dirt road outside of Valledupar, Colombia:

Hiding in the back of Charlotte, heart pounding, and still in my jammies, I could see the 5 police officers waving their guns at us…

…then the most unexpected thing happened. One of the officers actually walked up to Ned’s window, extended his hand, and politely introduced himself!

That was the good news. The bad news was that the cops could not figure out what to do with us. We later surmised that someone from the nearby rancho had called them to investigate this strange vehicle with a dead cow on the front. Ned gave the head honcho copies of all of our documents, but he and Ned started going around and around; the officer speaking in some high speed local dialect and Ned speaking in his Span-glish. I finally decided that it was safe to come out of hiding and leaned up to Ned’s window. I smiled and told them that we had been heading to the Parque Sierra Nevada last night, but it got late. We were too tired to keep driving and we just came here to sleep. Ned said, “Yes, we are just touristas!” It took another 15 minutes, but they finally accepted Ned’s offer to let them keep the copies of Charlotte’s registration and title, and a copy of Ned’s passports’ main page. They let us go, but Ned is probably on some Interpol list of potentially dangerous criminals! It was 5:30am…the earliest we’ve ever gotten back on the road.

We’re going to try the map thing again.  We hope it is helpful to some of you as a way to see where we are in the world. This is a view of the whole country of Colombia. The border with Venezuela can be seen to the east as a pink line. The country borders to the south with Ecuador and Peru. In this blog we only cover the country in the areas from Cartagena on the western coast to the high mountains just southeast of Bucaramanga and south to the town of Villa de Leyva. These parts of the country are still north of Bogotá, the Capital, which itself sits in the middle of the country. Colombia is by far the largest country we’ve visited since Mexico and contains just as much variety.

We’re going to try the map thing again. We hope it is helpful to some of you as a way to see where we are in the world. This is a view of the whole country of Colombia. The border with Venezuela can be seen to the east as a pink line. The country borders to the south with Ecuador and Peru. In this blog we only cover the country in the areas from Cartagena on the western coast to the high mountains just southeast of Bucaramanga and south to the town of Villa de Leyva. These parts of the country are still north of Bogotá, the Capital, which itself sits in the middle of the country. Colombia is by far the largest country we’ve visited since Mexico and contains just as much variety.


Kat and I spent six days in Cartagena waiting for Charlotte and enjoying the vibrant port city. However, after those six days we were tired of the stifling heat of the coast and chose to head southward and east toward the Sierra Nevada National Park in hopes of finding higher elevations and cooler temps. Our first camp site where we encountered the cops is to the right just below the park. Originally, our plan was to head to La Guajira desert which is a peninsula in the far north east of the country, but after a super hot, muggy night with no respite from the coastal humidity, mixed with the dirty looks from the locals, we caved in and decided to high tail it south for the 12,000+ foot high mountains in the Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy.

Kat and I spent six days in Cartagena waiting for Charlotte and enjoying the vibrant port city. However, after those six days we were tired of the stifling heat of the coast and chose to head southward and east toward the Sierra Nevada National Park in hopes of finding higher elevations and cooler temps. Our first camp site where we encountered the cops is to the right just below the park. Originally, our plan was to head to La Guajira desert which is a peninsula in the far north east of the country, but after a super hot, muggy night with no respite from the coastal humidity, mixed with the dirty looks from the locals, we caved in and decided to high tail it south for the 12,000+ foot high mountains in the Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy.

Our decision to head south required passing through the rough and ready town of Valledupar. Being very close to the Venezuelan border, this place felt like an outpost full of outlaws. As soon as we entered the main drag we were accosted by hawkers selling contraband gasoline, smuggled over the border from Venezuela where gas at the pump sells for pennies. There were literally thousands of gallons of the stuff lining the sidewalks in filthy 1 to 5 gallon containers. The going price seemed to be around 5000 pesos for 5 gallons or roughly US$2.50/5 gal or 50 cents a gallon! Not wanting to risk Charlotte’s fuel filter, we drove on, foolishly thinking we’d get gas at a legit Colombian gas station. It was over 100 miles before we found one that was still trying to do a legal business. We passed dozens of abandoned ones, all boarded up, their pumps stripped of hoses and weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. We felt sad for our gas jockey as we paid him over US$5.00/gallon for his legal Colombian gas.

Our decision to head south required passing through the rough and ready town of Valledupar. Being very close to the Venezuelan border, this place felt like an outpost full of outlaws. As soon as we entered the main drag we were accosted by hawkers selling contraband gasoline, smuggled over the border from Venezuela where gas at the pump sells for pennies. There were literally thousands of gallons of the stuff lining the sidewalks in filthy 1 to 5 gallon containers. The going price seemed to be around 5000 pesos for 5 gallons or roughly US$2.50/5 gal or 50 cents a gallon! Not wanting to risk Charlotte’s fuel filter, we drove on, foolishly thinking we’d get gas at a legit Colombian gas station. It was over 100 miles before we found one that was still trying to do a legal business. We passed dozens of abandoned ones, all boarded up, their pumps stripped of hoses and weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. We felt sad for our gas jockey as we paid him over US$5.00/gallon for his legal Colombian gas.

Heading south on the 49 we spotted a restaurant that looked fun. We had a típico (typical) breakfast of rice, beans, fried plantains, pork, egg, arepa (those corn things), queso (cheese) and coffee.

Heading south on the 49 we spotted a restaurant that looked fun. We had a típico (typical) breakfast of rice, beans, fried plantains, pork, egg, arepa (those corn things), queso (cheese) and coffee.

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Our southern progress ended in the town of Bucaramanga where we then headed northeast for a bit to Pamplona. Then it was south again into the mountains and windy dirt roads towards the mountain hamlets of Cocuy and Quicán and the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy range. For the next five days we wandered on remote dirt tracks through these magnificent mountains, our jaws dropping at the amazing views around every bend. Eventually we hit pavement again and somewhat reluctantly made our way to the touristy colonial town of Villa de Leyva for a shower, WiFi and yet another Colombian Fútol game.

Our southern progress ended in the town of Bucaramanga where we then headed northeast for a bit to Pamplona. Then it was south again into the mountains and windy dirt roads towards the mountain hamlets of Cocuy and Quicán and the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy range. For the next five days we wandered on remote dirt tracks through these magnificent mountains, our jaws dropping at the amazing views around every bend. Eventually we hit pavement again and somewhat reluctantly made our way to the touristy colonial town of Villa de Leyva for a shower, WiFi and yet another Colombian Fútol game.

The outskirts of Bucaramanga.

The outskirts of Bucaramanga.

We drove south for hours. The heat and humidity were relentless, and I was determined to get a wash somewhere before trying to sleep again. A sponge bath, a creek, I didn't care.  I was just feeling too sticky.   In the bustling city of Bucaramanga, we stumbled on a great restaurant where we had a good meal with a healthy salad and this delicious ball of chicken and rice!  The weather was encouraging too. It was much cooler eating dinner outside, and a fresh breeze was blowing. We were finally getting out of the same swamp lands that make up the Darian gap.

We drove south for hours. The heat and humidity were relentless, and I was determined to get a wash somewhere before trying to sleep again. A sponge bath, a creek, I didn’t care. I was just feeling too sticky.
In the bustling city of Bucaramanga, we stumbled on a great restaurant where we had a good meal with a healthy salad and this delicious ball of chicken and rice! The weather was encouraging too. It was much cooler eating dinner outside, and a fresh breeze was blowing. We were finally getting out of the same swamp lands that make up the Darian gap.

The road east into the mountains was twisty and choked with trucks, but it was getting cool enough to actually put on a fleece.  At about 11,000ft elevation I was asleep in my seat and crawled into bed in the back. We had been driving since 5:30am!  Ned was still into it though, passing the monstrous trucks on the treacherous windy road in the dark.  Sometimes it's easier to pass on the corners in the dark, because you can see the reflections of headlights on the cliffs from the oncoming trucks.

The road east into the mountains was twisty and choked with trucks, but it was getting cool enough to actually put on a fleece. At about 11,000ft elevation I was asleep in my seat and crawled into bed in the back. We had been driving since 5:30am! Ned was still into it though, passing the monstrous trucks on the treacherous windy road in the dark. Sometimes it’s easier to pass on the corners in the dark, because you can see the reflections of headlights on the cliffs from the oncoming trucks.

Around 9pm Ned finally found a dirt road to turn up and drove another 5 miles before pulling into a gravel pit to camp for the night.  We were at about 8,000ft and the temperature was perfect for sleeping. I never did get my wash, but I slept well anyway, happy to not be sweltering.  Having camped just off of the dirt track, we did wake to company again, but these local mountain folks reminded us of the Peruvian people. They were curious and shy, but not dangerous. The first two walked around and around Charlotte, trying to peek in the tinted glass.  Then one tried the sliding door but jumped away as soon as it wiggled. They moved on. We got up, made breakfast and did exercises. The weather was cool and misty and felt good. We had several other visitors who were all friendly and stopped to chat.

Around 9pm Ned finally found a dirt road to turn up and drove another 5 miles before pulling into a gravel pit to camp for the night. We were at about 8,000ft and the temperature was perfect for sleeping. I never did get my wash, but I slept well anyway, happy to not be sweltering.
Having camped just off of the dirt track, we did wake to company again, but these local mountain folks reminded us of the Peruvian people. They were curious and shy, but not dangerous. The first two walked around and around Charlotte, trying to peek in the tinted glass. Then one tried the sliding door but jumped away as soon as it wiggled. They moved on. We got up, made breakfast and did exercises. The weather was cool and misty and felt good. We had several other visitors who were all friendly and stopped to chat.

That morning we drove into the little town of Pamplona. It was beautiful with deep green valleys, patchwork crops, and red tile roofs. At around 10am we found a cheap motel and paid 15 bucks for a tiny room with a shower; not that we were going to sleep there, but it was a great way to get cleaned up. We walked around town and restocked on food and beer.

That morning we drove into the little town of Pamplona. It was beautiful with deep green valleys, patchwork crops, and red tile roofs. At around 10am we found a cheap motel and paid 15 bucks for a tiny room with a shower; not that we were going to sleep there, but it was a great way to get cleaned up. We walked around town and restocked on food and beer.

Ned buying beer at the local boys’ Sunday hangout…the liquor store...complete with slot machines

Ned buying beer at the local boys’ Sunday hangout…the liquor store…complete with slot machines

It was a bustling Sunday market day in Pamplona.

It was a bustling Sunday market day in Pamplona.

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There were few other tourists, and people were puzzled by Charlotte and Vaca Muerta.  We got very strange looks; some friendly, some decidedly unfriendly and some very long, blank stares.  As it became a reoccurring phenomenon, we decided to categorize the looks as Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye, respectively.

There were few other tourists, and people were puzzled by Charlotte and Vaca Muerta. We got very strange looks; some friendly, some decidedly unfriendly and some very long, blank stares. As it became a reoccurring phenomenon, we decided to categorize the looks as Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye, respectively.

We ate a wonderful late lunch across the street from where we parked Charlotte. When we came back outside a local family was admiring her. We had a great chat and gave the mom a hand painted bookmark from Oaxaca, Mexico. She loved it. They told us that it was very inexpensive to live in Pamplona and that tourists rarely visited.  It’s always great to be off the beaten path!

We ate a wonderful late lunch across the street from where we parked Charlotte. When we came back outside a local family was admiring her. We had a great chat and gave the mom a hand painted bookmark from Oaxaca, Mexico. She loved it. They told us that it was very inexpensive to live in Pamplona and that tourists rarely visited. It’s always great to be off the beaten path!

Our favorite Colombian sign…and the most prevalent!

Our favorite Colombian sign…and the most prevalent!

Definitely Wink Eye…these two loved Charlotte and were snapping their own photos on the older one’s phone.

Definitely Wink Eye…these two loved Charlotte and were snapping their own photos on the older one’s phone.

Some major Blink Eye going on here, even the dog…

Some major Blink Eye going on here, even the dog…

…still staring.  The dog seems to have lost interest, though.

…still staring. The dog seems to have lost interest, though.

Can you spot the Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye in these photos?

Can you spot the Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye in these photos?

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Driving on the 55 south of Pamplona was incredibly picturesque.  Although the overcast weather made it tough to get good shots, we still wanted to photograph everything.  We finally had to put the camera down and just enjoy the sights.

Driving on the 55 south of Pamplona was incredibly picturesque. Although the overcast weather made it tough to get good shots, we still wanted to photograph everything. We finally had to put the camera down and just enjoy the sights.

For once we found place to camp before dark.  At the top of a pass at 13,000ft, we discovered a road that required four wheel drive and led to some abandoned mines and houses. It was above timber line, and I’m pretty sure had perma-clouds; gorgeous but totally socked in.  It rained all night, but was otherwise wonderfully silent and relaxing.  It was so out of the way we knew there was no chance of visitors.

For once we found place to camp before dark. At the top of a pass at 13,000ft, we discovered a road that required four wheel drive and led to some abandoned mines and houses. It was above timber line, and I’m pretty sure had perma-clouds; gorgeous but totally socked in. It rained all night, but was otherwise wonderfully silent and relaxing. It was so out of the way we knew there was no chance of visitors.

We were warm and dry in our little casita, playing Dominoes until we fell peacefully asleep.

We were warm and dry in our little casita, playing Dominoes until we fell peacefully asleep.

It was still drizzling when we woke and too wet to get out and exercise or eat breakfast.  We got dressed, crawled up front and drove back to the main road which was still mostly dirt and still gorgeous.

It was still drizzling when we woke and too wet to get out and exercise or eat breakfast. We got dressed, crawled up front and drove back to the main road which was still mostly dirt and still gorgeous.

We thought these “broccoli trees” were rather interesting.

We thought these “broccoli trees” were rather interesting.

A memorial altar for the truckers.  There were even candles lit inside.

A memorial altar for the truckers. There were even candles lit inside.

Blink Eye or Stink Eye?  Poor wet thing.

Blink Eye or Stink Eye? Poor wet thing.

Every scruffy little town still features an inspiring church and steeple.

Every scruffy little town still features an inspiring church and steeple.

The road dropped down to 3500ft and it became hot again. We were driving along a river valley with beautiful canyons and terrain which turned to desert, complete with cactus.  It was beautiful, but we were back to sweating.

The road dropped down to 3500ft and it became hot again. We were driving along a river valley with beautiful canyons and terrain which turned to desert, complete with cactus. It was beautiful, but we were back to sweating.

Mr. Garmin has been 100% useless in Colombia, so we’ve been relying on our National Geographic paper map and the ATL system (Ask The Locals).   All in all, we’ve done pretty well, but we did miss our planned route to Cocuy and happily ended up on another very picturesque dirt road.

Mr. Garmin has been 100% useless in Colombia, so we’ve been relying on our National Geographic paper map and the ATL system (Ask The Locals). All in all, we’ve done pretty well, but we did miss our planned route to Cocuy and happily ended up on another very picturesque dirt road.

We climbed back up to cooler climes and into the charming pueblo of Cocuy.  Just like Izamal, the mono-colored yellow town in Mexico, Cocuy is uniformly painted in sea foam green and white.

We climbed back up to cooler climes and into the charming pueblo of Cocuy. Just like Izamal, the mono-colored yellow town in Mexico, Cocuy is uniformly painted in sea foam green and white.

Interesting parallel parking options on the streets of Cocuy.

Interesting parallel parking options on the streets of Cocuy.

Our goal that night was to get up into the Cocuy National Park to find a place to camp, but it was a long 15 miles away going 8 mph on the rough track. We climbed up to 11,000ft, and the scenery was stunning again.  We decided that this drive was one of our top five most beautiful ever. The only down side was that it was totally fenced and populated with little huts.  There was nowhere to drive off of the road, and it was nearly dark.  At almost 12,000ft we just pulled over at the first little inset we came to. It was not hidden, and we were sure we would have visitors early in the morning.  We had a great feeling about the area, though.  The people were all very friendly (Wink Eye only!) and we felt safe.  We woke to find we were in a little pool of water!  Poor Charlotte had wet feet all night, but it was a quiet, cool night.  Only two people walked by in the morning and they were very friendly.

Our goal that night was to get up into the Cocuy National Park to find a place to camp, but it was a long 15 miles away going 8 mph on the rough track. We climbed up to 11,000ft, and the scenery was stunning again. We decided that this drive was one of our top five most beautiful ever. The only down side was that it was totally fenced and populated with little huts. There was nowhere to drive off of the road, and it was nearly dark. At almost 12,000ft we just pulled over at the first little inset we came to. It was not hidden, and we were sure we would have visitors early in the morning. We had a great feeling about the area, though. The people were all very friendly (Wink Eye only!) and we felt safe.
We woke to find we were in a little pool of water! Poor Charlotte had wet feet all night, but it was a quiet, cool night. Only two people walked by in the morning and they were very friendly.

It rained constantly but was always beautiful.  At 12,000ft the road was rough and slow enough that I was able to get out and run ahead of Ned and Charlotte.  Exercise, combined with the crisp, fresh air felt wonderful.  I had to slow down here for this wooly checkpoint.

It rained constantly but was always beautiful. At 12,000ft the road was rough and slow enough that I was able to get out and run ahead of Ned and Charlotte. Exercise, combined with the crisp, fresh air felt wonderful. I had to slow down here for this wooly checkpoint.

We were curious about the many plastic containers and stainless steel milk jugs sitting on the side of the road.  It all became clear when we came upon this “milk truck.”  The driver would stop the truck while the other guys jumped out, picked up the jugs and poured them into bigger containers, leaving the smaller ones lying on the side of the road again.  Evidently, anyone who has milk cows participates in this high elevation "co-op."  No Stink-Eye here. All of the people we encountered in the mountains had smiling, welcoming faces.

We were curious about the many plastic containers and stainless steel milk jugs sitting on the side of the road. It all became clear when we came upon this “milk truck.” The driver would stop the truck while the other guys jumped out, picked up the jugs and poured them into bigger containers, leaving the smaller ones lying on the side of the road again. Evidently, anyone who has milk cows participates in this high elevation “co-op.”
No Stink-Eye here. All of the people we encountered in the mountains had smiling, welcoming faces.

Bon-Bons never fail to get smiles.

Bon-Bons never fail to get smiles.

Through the drizzly mist at nearly 13,000ft, we saw a sign for this little hostel/restaurant.  A young man named Juan Carlos greeted us at the gate.  He and his friend Fabian made us a delicious, wholesome breakfast.  The hostel was situated on a working finca (farm) which had been in his family for generations.  Several years ago, Juan Carlos, who is also a mountaineering guide, took up the reins, built this cozy little hostel and pursued the eco-tourism market.  Everything we had for breakfast was raised on the farm.  His parents still actively work the farm and we enjoyed chatting with Dad about the local culture.

Through the drizzly mist at nearly 13,000ft, we saw a sign for this little hostel/restaurant. A young man named Juan Carlos greeted us at the gate. He and his friend Fabian made us a delicious, wholesome breakfast. The hostel was situated on a working finca (farm) which had been in his family for generations. Several years ago, Juan Carlos, who is also a mountaineering guide, took up the reins, built this cozy little hostel and pursued the eco-tourism market. Everything we had for breakfast was raised on the farm. His parents still actively work the farm and we enjoyed chatting with Dad about the local culture.

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After breakfast we headed back out to more spectacular scenes.  I got out and ran some more…

After breakfast we headed back out to more spectacular scenes. I got out and ran some more…

…and ran into this friendly family.  I chatted with Edwardo, Estela and their sons Carlos and Chistian.  Ned eventually drove up, and they invited us to have a cup of tea.  Our first knee-jerk reaction was to decline, but as we continued to talk, we realized how silly it was to turn down an opportunity for a truly local close encounter.  We back pedaled sheepishly, telling them that we would love a cup of tea. Estela brought us our “aromaticas” in little Styrofoam cups.  We have discovered since that aromaticas are very popular here in Colombia, and are basically teas made by placing fresh, locally grown herbs and fruits in a cup and pouring in hot water; healthy and very refreshing.   Sitting outside on their tree stump table and stools, drinking tea with this family at 13,000ft felt amazing.  We loved hearing about the farm and how, it too, had been in the family for many generations.  We eventually moved into their simple, rustic home as the rain continued, and then got a tour of the farm. The entire family came with us, smiling and proudly showing off their cows, horses, geese (for eggs), sheep…

…and ran into this friendly family. I chatted with Edwardo, Estela and their sons Carlos and Chistian. Ned eventually drove up, and they invited us to have a cup of tea. Our first knee-jerk reaction was to decline, but as we continued to talk, we realized how silly it was to turn down an opportunity for a truly local close encounter. We back pedaled sheepishly, telling them that we would love a cup of tea. Estela brought us our “aromaticas” in little Styrofoam cups. We have discovered since that aromaticas are very popular here in Colombia, and are basically teas made by placing fresh, locally grown herbs and fruits in a cup and pouring in hot water; healthy and very refreshing.
Sitting outside on their tree stump table and stools, drinking tea with this family at 13,000ft felt amazing. We loved hearing about the farm and how, it too, had been in the family for many generations. We eventually moved into their simple, rustic home as the rain continued, and then got a tour of the farm. The entire family came with us, smiling and proudly showing off their cows, horses, geese (for eggs), sheep…

…and Guinea Pigs!  Just like we found on a previous trip to Peru, Guinea Pig is a delicacy saved for special occasions, and someday we will tell you our own special Guinea Pig story!

…and Guinea Pigs! Just like we found on a previous trip to Peru, Guinea Pig is a delicacy saved for special occasions, and someday we will tell you our own special Guinea Pig story!

And then there were the trucha (trout)… This was actually kind of gross. They had two ponds, each about three feet square, and three feet deep. Edwardo told us that together they contained 500 fish!  I can’t even imagine how contaminated that water must be. Note to self:  Do not eat the locally raised trucha.

And then there were the trucha (trout)… This was actually kind of gross. They had two ponds, each about three feet square, and three feet deep. Edwardo told us that together they contained 500 fish! I can’t even imagine how contaminated that water must be.
Note to self: Do not eat the locally raised trucha.

Continuing on my run, I saw these equally friendly guys towing a rather irate bull.  Ned told me later that they had smiles and warm greetings for him too, but the bull Stink Eyed Vaca and almost head-butted Charlotte.

Continuing on my run, I saw these equally friendly guys towing a rather irate bull. Ned told me later that they had smiles and warm greetings for him too, but the bull Stink Eyed Vaca and almost head-butted Charlotte.

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The scenery and the elevation continued to be breathtaking…literally!

The scenery and the elevation continued to be breathtaking…literally!

While following our plan to make a big loop back to Cocuy through the town of Quicán, a man and his daughter in a Land Cruiser flagged us down and asked if we needed a place to sleep. We said, “No, but maybe a place to camp.”  They told us that they owned a place called Kanwara which had cabinas and a restaurante.  Now temporary fans, we asked if they had satellite TV so we could watch Colombia play their next World Cup fútbol game.  To our surprise they answered, “Yes, of course!” “We’re there, we cried!” Kanwara, situated at just about 13,000ft, and several kilometers inside the park entrance, nonetheless, still featured a satellite dish.  Passing through the park guard house, the guards told us they would be up to watch the game with us.

While following our plan to make a big loop back to Cocuy through the town of Quicán, a man and his daughter in a Land Cruiser flagged us down and asked if we needed a place to sleep. We said, “No, but maybe a place to camp.” They told us that they owned a place called Kanwara which had cabinas and a restaurante. Now temporary fans, we asked if they had satellite TV so we could watch Colombia play their next World Cup fútbol game. To our surprise they answered, “Yes, of course!” “We’re there, we cried!”
Kanwara, situated at just about 13,000ft, and several kilometers inside the park entrance, nonetheless, still featured a satellite dish. Passing through the park guard house, the guards told us they would be up to watch the game with us.

It was game time and very cold when we arrived at Kanwara.  Two sweet young women, Mercedes and Lorena greeted us, led us into a rustic dining room and served us another “aromatic.”  Everyone gathered together, bundled up in winter woolies, to watch the game.  We never did figure out why the place was not heated, but we had a great time anyway.  Colombia played Japan and won, and these young mountain people, unlike people in Cartagena, stood with hands over their hearts for the Colombian national anthem. We stayed later for dinner and then camped on the property.  It rained endlessly and was very cold.  Amazingly, three days ago we were sweltering.  Now we were freezing and frustrated that the fancy gasoline heater that Ned installed especially for the trip would not fire up at this high altitude.  We eventually warmed up wearing many layers and slept well in the absolute silence of high mountains.

It was game time and very cold when we arrived at Kanwara. Two sweet young women, Mercedes and Lorena greeted us, led us into a rustic dining room and served us another “aromatic.” Everyone gathered together, bundled up in winter woolies, to watch the game. We never did figure out why the place was not heated, but we had a great time anyway. Colombia played Japan and won, and these young mountain people, unlike people in Cartagena, stood with hands over their hearts for the Colombian national anthem.
We stayed later for dinner and then camped on the property. It rained endlessly and was very cold. Amazingly, three days ago we were sweltering. Now we were freezing and frustrated that the fancy gasoline heater that Ned installed especially for the trip would not fire up at this high altitude. We eventually warmed up wearing many layers and slept well in the absolute silence of high mountains.

Mercedes and Lorena bundled up in their spotless kitchen. They are both in their mid 20's, both have 5yr old daughters, and neither are married.  Both kids stay with their grandmothers when their moms are working at the cabinas.   They were very shy and very sweet, gifting us with warm hugs when we left. Interestingly, the guest book at Kanwara showed that 90% of the visitors were Colombians, mostly from Bogota, and 10% were mixed international.  People come for backpacking or ice climbing on the glaciers at 17,000ft.

Mercedes and Lorena bundled up in their spotless kitchen. They are both in their mid 20’s, both have 5yr old daughters, and neither are married. Both kids stay with their grandmothers when their moms are working at the cabinas. They were very shy and very sweet, gifting us with warm hugs when we left.
Interestingly, the guest book at Kanwara showed that 90% of the visitors were Colombians, mostly from Bogota, and 10% were mixed international. People come for backpacking or ice climbing on the glaciers at 17,000ft.

After breakfast, we drove up into the park as far as we could.  The road ended after about 40 minutes, but the misty, desolate beauty was well worth the look.

After breakfast, we drove up into the park as far as we could. The road ended after about 40 minutes, but the misty, desolate beauty was well worth the look.

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Our loop almost complete, we arrived in Quicán.

Our loop almost complete, we arrived in Quicán.

In Quicán, we visited this beautiful and interesting cemetery.

In Quicán, we visited this beautiful and interesting cemetery.

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Quicán was surrounded by a fairy-like forest with emerald green glades, misty rain and babbling brooks tumbling over granite rocks.  We have absolutely no idea what this sculpture represented, but we thought the fairies frolicking on the giant woman’s head were quite appropriate.

Quicán was surrounded by a fairy-like forest with emerald green glades, misty rain and babbling brooks tumbling over granite rocks. We have absolutely no idea what this sculpture represented, but we thought the fairies frolicking on the giant woman’s head were quite appropriate.

Our highest point on the trip so far.  After completing the loop back to Cocuy we still hadn’t had enough of the tiny mountain dirt tracks or the interesting people and places they lead to. Instead of taking the nice paved road out of the mountains and down towards “civilization,” we picked another remote dirt route southwestward towards Chita.

Our highest point on the trip so far. After completing the loop back to Cocuy we still hadn’t had enough of the tiny mountain dirt tracks or the interesting people and places they lead to. Instead of taking the nice paved road out of the mountains and down towards “civilization,” we picked another remote dirt route southwestward towards Chita.

A muddy, deserted track at 13,328 ft., past the town of Chita.   A side note on Chita:  We did not get any photos, due to heavy rain, but we noticed that, unlike in other towns, the women all wore wool serapes, rode horses, dressed like the men and appeared to do all the work.

A muddy, deserted track at 13,328 ft., past the town of Chita.
A side note on Chita: We did not get any photos, due to heavy rain, but we noticed that, unlike in other towns, the women all wore wool serapes, rode horses, dressed like the men and appeared to do all the work.

South of Chita, we found immense canyons with at least 2,000 ft sheer drops. It was absolutely gorgeous and not written about anywhere we could find.  The roads were all muddy dirt tracks with scary rock falls and sheer drop offs.  It was a geologist’s dream, perhaps wasted on our unknowledgeable selves, but we still enjoyed the breathtaking beauty and challenging driving. These roads were not on the Garmin at all, and on our trusty, paper NatGeo map were either shown as dotted lines, or not listed at all. The area was dotted with farms, but there were no tourists in sight. We finally got past the not so cute town of Jerico at dusk and found a good place to hide off the road and camp.  It was only 10,000ft., and not as cold. We heated some beans, played Uno and went happily to sleep.  It turned out to be a good camp spot. The night was rainy, quiet and free of visitors until 8am when a guy rode by on a horse.  He appeared to be a bit puzzled by our presence, but did not stop.

South of Chita, we found immense canyons with at least 2,000 ft sheer drops. It was absolutely gorgeous and not written about anywhere we could find. The roads were all muddy dirt tracks with scary rock falls and sheer drop offs. It was a geologist’s dream, perhaps wasted on our unknowledgeable selves, but we still enjoyed the breathtaking beauty and challenging driving. These roads were not on the Garmin at all, and on our trusty, paper NatGeo map were either shown as dotted lines, or not listed at all. The area was dotted with farms, but there were no tourists in sight.
We finally got past the not so cute town of Jerico at dusk and found a good place to hide off the road and camp. It was only 10,000ft., and not as cold. We heated some beans, played Uno and went happily to sleep.
It turned out to be a good camp spot. The night was rainy, quiet and free of visitors until 8am when a guy rode by on a horse. He appeared to be a bit puzzled by our presence, but did not stop.

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Passing the towns of Socotá, Socha and Paz de Rio, we observed huge coal mining operations.  We found it interesting and Googled them later.  Evidently, Colombia is a country rich with mineral resources and has the largest coal reserves in Latin America.  One sad fact on Google was that the town of Socotá has been the site of many coal mining accidents over the years.

Passing the towns of Socotá, Socha and Paz de Rio, we observed huge coal mining operations. We found it interesting and Googled them later. Evidently, Colombia is a country rich with mineral resources and has the largest coal reserves in Latin America. One sad fact on Google was that the town of Socotá has been the site of many coal mining accidents over the years.

The mining operations were huge, featuring this immense gondola system to bring the coal from the mountainside mines, across huge canyons, to awaiting trucks.

The mining operations were huge, featuring this immense gondola system to bring the coal from the mountainside mines, across huge canyons, to awaiting trucks.

After the coal mine towns we were forced back onto pavement for the first time in 5 days.  Sad to be back on crowded roads, we drove west to Belén, then on to the cute, but touristy Colonial town of Villa de Leyva.  Colombia was due to play another soccer match in the World Cup the day we arrived, and everyone was out in the huge town square revving up for the game.

After the coal mine towns we were forced back onto pavement for the first time in 5 days. Sad to be back on crowded roads, we drove west to Belén, then on to the cute, but touristy Colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Colombia was due to play another soccer match in the World Cup the day we arrived, and everyone was out in the huge town square revving up for the game.

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Watching Colombia rack up another win!

Watching Colombia rack up another win!

As usual, the post game fiesta was infused with lots of alcohol.  These youngsters were quite drunk, but eager to have a long chat, practicing their English on us gringos. We ended up spending three nights in Villa de Leyva, where we did laundry, bought a Colombia phone and posted the Cartagena blog.   Next up…on the road toward the big cities of Medellin, the flower capitol, Armenia, the coffee capitol, and Bogotá, the Capitol capitol of Colombia…but wait, you weren’t thinking we took paved roads to get there, were you?…

As usual, the post game fiesta was infused with lots of alcohol. These youngsters were quite drunk, but eager to have a long chat, practicing their English on us gringos.
We ended up spending three nights in Villa de Leyva, where we did laundry, bought a Colombia phone and posted the Cartagena blog.
Next up…on the road toward the big cities of Medellin, the flower capitol, Armenia, the coffee capitol, and Bogotá, the Capitol capitol of Colombia…but wait, you weren’t thinking we took paved roads to get there, were you?…

Charlotte’s Late – But Wait, Cartagena’s Great!

Having spent a week in Panama City arranging to ship Charlotte to Colombia, Ned and I finally flew to Cartagena on Saturday June 14, 2014. The easy hour long flight found us excited to be on our first new continent of the trip, but we were still worried about Charlotte. Is she getting beat up in the container? Was she tied down correctly? Robbed? Lost amongst the hundreds of thousand containers that go through these ports daily? Or worse yet, fallen into the ocean!? Regrettably, we had watched those YouTube videos of cargo containers stacked hundreds high, suddenly collapsing and hurling themselves to a watery death….uhhhh! The thought of her loss was devastating. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to get to the port to begin the frustrating process of retrieving her until Monday, and this was still only Saturday! What would we do? I had a vision of Cartagena being a seedy port town and was not looking forward to being there. Happily, I could not have been more wrong!

Flying into Cartagena…South America, a new continent!

Flying into Cartagena…South America, a new continent!

We had found an inexpensive, but cute hotel on the internet near the "Walled City" in the old part of town. The taxi ride from the airport was short, and when we pulled into the ancient, tiny streets of the neighborhood we were delighted!  Hotel Pedregal turned out to be wonderful.  The owner, Patricia, was warm and welcoming, assuring us that this was our home while we were in Cartagena. Our room was charming, featuring a colonial style vaulted ceiling and windows (sans glass) with wooden shutters, which looked out on the street below where cheerful locals hung out, enjoying their Saturday.

We had found an inexpensive, but cute hotel on the internet near the “Walled City” in the old part of town. The taxi ride from the airport was short, and when we pulled into the ancient, tiny streets of the neighborhood we were delighted! Hotel Pedregal turned out to be wonderful. The owner, Patricia, was warm and welcoming, assuring us that this was our home while we were in Cartagena. Our room was charming, featuring a colonial style vaulted ceiling and windows (sans glass) with wooden shutters, which looked out on the street below where cheerful locals hung out, enjoying their Saturday.

Patricia’s adorable co-host, Luna (Moon) was good company during our visit.

Patricia’s adorable co-host, Luna (Moon) was good company during our visit.

Walking the streets that afternoon was delightful. We hadn't had such a good experience since Mexico.  The neighborhood around our hotel was charming and very local.  No tourists around here.

Walking the streets that afternoon was delightful. We hadn’t had such a good experience since Mexico. The neighborhood around our hotel was charming and very local. No tourists around here.

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We eventually wandered into the beautiful Walled City, which yes, does have an ancient wall around it.

We eventually wandered into the beautiful Walled City, which yes, does have an ancient wall around it.

We bought a cheesy arepa (corn muffin thing) from a street vendor.   It was hot and gooey and wonderful in a guilty-junk-food kind of way.

We bought a cheesy arepa (corn muffin thing) from a street vendor. It was hot and gooey and wonderful in a guilty-junk-food kind of way.

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Interestingly, the FIFA World Cup (soccer) games, being held in Brazil, had just begun.  Cartagena was alive with fútbol fever, proudly flaunting (and selling) the yellow, red and blue colors of Colombia.

Interestingly, the FIFA World Cup (soccer) games, being held in Brazil, had just begun. Cartagena was alive with fútbol fever, proudly flaunting (and selling) the yellow, red and blue colors of Colombia.

Our arrival in town coincided with a win for Colombia!  Cartagena was alive with ecstatic Colombians celebrating in their soccer jerseys, reveling and dancing, making a lot of noise....and just plain being happy. After Central America, the energy was refreshing, and, not normally soccer fans, we too were unexpectedly swept up in the passion South Americans have for the game.

Our arrival in town coincided with a win for Colombia! Cartagena was alive with ecstatic Colombians celebrating in their soccer jerseys, reveling and dancing, making a lot of noise….and just plain being happy. After Central America, the energy was refreshing, and, not normally soccer fans, we too were unexpectedly swept up in the passion South Americans have for the game.

Inside the Walled City we found lots of pricy, touristy restaurants.  We were hungry, so we decided on this less fancy sidewalk café in the church plaza. The food tasted ok and was fun to look at, but the celebratory atmosphere in the plaza was the best part.

Inside the Walled City we found lots of pricy, touristy restaurants. We were hungry, so we decided on this less fancy sidewalk café in the church plaza. The food tasted ok and was fun to look at, but the celebratory atmosphere in the plaza was the best part.

In the plaza, musicians were singing and playing cool instruments, and there were a lot of hawkers.  One guy, Luis, really wanted us to buy his jewelry, but ended up sharing Ned's ice cream instead.

In the plaza, musicians were singing and playing cool instruments, and there were a lot of hawkers. One guy, Luis, really wanted us to buy his jewelry, but ended up sharing Ned’s ice cream instead.

But this was the main attraction in the plaza!  Vendors were lined up selling little replicas of the lovely lady.

But this was the main attraction in the plaza! Vendors were lined up selling little replicas of the lovely lady.

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A resourceful mother and son team.  Mom was cutting little soccer ornaments out of wood, while the youngster painted them in bright colors.

A resourceful mother and son team. Mom was cutting little soccer ornaments out of wood, while the youngster painted them in bright colors.

Part of “The Wall”

Part of “The Wall”

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Back in our own neighborhood people were doing more ordinary things…like reading the paper…

Back in our own neighborhood people were doing more ordinary things…like reading the paper…

…and making homemade ink.  No, really!  We stopped to ask this guy what he was doing.  He explained that he was extracting a henna-like ink from these fruits to be used for temporary tattooing.  He wrings the ink out of the fruit using a cloth and discards the leftover brown fiber.  What covered his hands and forearms didn’t look very temporary to us!

…and making homemade ink. No, really! We stopped to ask this guy what he was doing. He explained that he was extracting a henna-like ink from these fruits to be used for temporary tattooing. He wrings the ink out of the fruit using a cloth and discards the leftover brown fiber. What covered his hands and forearms didn’t look very temporary to us!

As much as we were enjoying Cartagena, the weather was miserably hot with temperatures around 100 and 90% humidity.  We went back to the hotel to rest in our relatively cool room.  (the A/C could barely keep up).  Outside our shuttered windows, we could hear the vibrant sounds of a lively community...music played, a dog barked, church bells chimed, and the clippity clop of horse hooves faded off down the street.  A totally cool place to hang out.  All good.  Oh wait!  Ned just captured a cockroach the size of a small cat (ok, mouse) in a cup and threw it out our window.  Hope no one was hanging out directly below!

As much as we were enjoying Cartagena, the weather was miserably hot with temperatures around 100 and 90% humidity. We went back to the hotel to rest in our relatively cool room. (the A/C could barely keep up). Outside our shuttered windows, we could hear the vibrant sounds of a lively community…music played, a dog barked, church bells chimed, and the clippity clop of horse hooves faded off down the street. A totally cool place to hang out. All good. Oh wait! Ned just captured a cockroach the size of a small cat (ok, mouse) in a cup and threw it out our window. Hope no one was hanging out directly below!

Night time in our little local barrio was even more fun.  Everyone comes out to enjoy the balmy evenings after roasting all day.

Night time in our little local barrio was even more fun. Everyone comes out to enjoy the balmy evenings after roasting all day.

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The local church square was alive and vibrant.  It's a poorer area but did not have a scary, druggy feel.  Just good folks.  Street vendors selling spicy smelling food, kids playing soccer (oops, fútbol) and riding bikes, teenage boys showing off their horses, old women sitting, taking it all in.  We sat and enjoyed the vibe for over an hour.

The local church square was alive and vibrant. It’s a poorer area but did not have a scary, druggy feel. Just good folks. Street vendors selling spicy smelling food, kids playing soccer (oops, fútbol) and riding bikes, teenage boys showing off their horses, old women sitting, taking it all in. We sat and enjoyed the vibe for over an hour.

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We loved watching this artist create our delicious pizza out of fresh, local ingredients.

We loved watching this artist create our delicious pizza out of fresh, local ingredients.

A few nights later, our Swiss friends, Simone, Michael and Michele caught up with us after their not-so-wonderful boat ride from Panama City.  It was great to see them again, and they were happy to be in Cartagena.  We had another great meal in our local church plaza.  (Note, everyone but Michele and me in Colombia fútbol jerseys!)

A few nights later, our Swiss friends, Simone, Michael and Michele caught up with us after their not-so-wonderful boat ride from Panama City. It was great to see them again, and they were happy to be in Cartagena. We had another great meal in our local church plaza. (Note, everyone but Michele and me in Colombia fútbol jerseys!)

An Argentinean and a Swiss guy accompanied our meal with wonderful Argentinean music.

An Argentinean and a Swiss guy accompanied our meal with wonderful Argentinean music.

This was our favorite breakfast place in Cartagena. We ate there 5 times!  Dadiana and her daughter Laura are the owners of Locombia, where, for little money, you get lots of good food and cheerful service.

This was our favorite breakfast place in Cartagena. We ate there 5 times! Dadiana and her daughter Laura are the owners of Locombia, where, for little money, you get lots of good food and cheerful service.

Monday June 16. It’s port day! Get our game faces on…time to face the mother of all border crossing/bureaucratic nightmares. We got to our favorite brekky place at 7 am, then took our first taxi to Seaboard Marine (the shipping company) on the far side of the port. We stood in line to exchange our passports for a badge to enter the secure area. We were then directed to the offices of Seaboard Marine, the shipping company that brought Charlotte over, only to find out that the ship did not sail! Charlotte was still stuffed in a container in Panama! The boat was now not due to arrive in Cartagena until sometime Wednesday. Evidently the delay was due to heavy rain…blah blah blah. The very nice, helpful lady at Seaboard told us that Panama was notorious for unreliable shipping departures. Fortunately, we could still get the Aduana paper work done over at the DIAN offices (customs). We took our second taxi ride back to other side of the port. More badges to enter. It was a huge office building with masses of employees stuffed in cubicles. We were directed (by another very kind security officer) to the cubicle of a young man who asked us to fill out the all important import papers. Then, what do you think he asked for? Yes, copies! What a surprise. And of course we had to exit the compound, give back our badges, go to the copy place down the street, get the badges back, then back to cubicle. You mean nowhere in this gargantuan office complex is there a copier??!!! Next, we were able to set up an appointment with a customs inspector for Thursday at 8:00am to approve Charlotte into Colombia. In the mean time, what were to do until Thursday? These itchy feet of ours make it hard to stay in one place for very long.

So we decided to fly to Bogotá, the capitol of Colombia!  Ned and I have a car enthusiast friend based in Bogotá who knows many people involved with Colombian auto racing, past and present.  He had offered to get us together with two Colombian race car drivers who drove one of Ned’s Porsche race cars professionally back in the 70’s.  We were interested in obtaining more history on the car, and this was an amazing opportunity.  Unfortunately, our friend was leaving the country on Saturday and would not be in Bogotá when we planned to drive through in a few weeks.  We couldn’t miss this generous offer, so flying in to see him while we waited for Charlotte seemed like a great idea.   On Tuesday June 17, dressed in our wrinkled tropical wear and flip flops, we caught our 9:30am flight to chilly Bogotá. All our clothes and shoes were in Charlotte. We had only brought along small day packs to Colombia.  Bogotá’s climate is a consistent 50-60 degrees year round, and it was embarrassing to be meeting with our friends in our inappropriate, living-on-the-road-in-the-tropics-wear.  But heck, we were driving around the world!  Getting off the plane, a Bogotáean woman actually laughed at my sun dress and flip flops saying. "Hace frio!"  Meaning, “It's cold!” ‘Ya, I know it's cold, but we’re only here a few hours.  Surely we could endure the cold and ridicule!

So we decided to fly to Bogotá, the capitol of Colombia! Ned and I have a car enthusiast friend based in Bogotá who knows many people involved with Colombian auto racing, past and present. He had offered to get us together with two Colombian race car drivers who drove one of Ned’s Porsche race cars professionally back in the 70’s. We were interested in obtaining more history on the car, and this was an amazing opportunity. Unfortunately, our friend was leaving the country on Saturday and would not be in Bogotá when we planned to drive through in a few weeks. We couldn’t miss this generous offer, so flying in to see him while we waited for Charlotte seemed like a great idea.
On Tuesday June 17, dressed in our wrinkled tropical wear and flip flops, we caught our 9:30am flight to chilly Bogotá. All our clothes and shoes were in Charlotte. We had only brought along small day packs to Colombia. Bogotá’s climate is a consistent 50-60 degrees year round, and it was embarrassing to be meeting with our friends in our inappropriate, living-on-the-road-in-the-tropics-wear. But heck, we were driving around the world! Getting off the plane, a Bogotáean woman actually laughed at my sun dress and flip flops saying. “Hace frio!” Meaning, “It’s cold!” ‘Ya, I know it’s cold, but we’re only here a few hours. Surely we could endure the cold and ridicule!

Kat and I spent an amazing day in Bogotá with our wonderful host. He had a driver pick us up at the airport (in an armored Land Cruiser!) and take us through the city's dreadfully snarled traffic to his private "man cave/restoration shop." There we were served a wonderful lunch while we had a couple of private hours with two of Colombia's most famous (rival) race car drivers. They shared information and memories from their days together as teammates in the '70's, racing America's most famous long distance IMSA endurance races (Daytona, Sebring, etc.) in what is now my vintage race car. I came away with some new found history on the car, but better yet, two wonderful new found friends. Later in the afternoon we were driven to our host's home for wine and a viewing of his car collection, complete with beauties like these C Type and E Type Jags, an Allard, a Cobra and a dozen more great cars of similar caliper. The icing on the cake was sharing this time with a former mechanic (now a close neighbor) who worked on my car extensively during its heyday!  All too soon it was time for us to be driven back the 1½ grueling hours in bumper to bumper traffic to the airport. We arrived back in muggy, hot Cartagena at 9:30pm, knowing we had experienced a very special day.

Kat and I spent an amazing day in Bogotá with our wonderful host. He had a driver pick us up at the airport (in an armored Land Cruiser!) and take us through the city’s dreadfully snarled traffic to his private “man cave/restoration shop.” There we were served a wonderful lunch while we had a couple of private hours with two of Colombia’s most famous (rival) race car drivers. They shared information and memories from their days together as teammates in the ’70’s, racing America’s most famous long distance IMSA endurance races (Daytona, Sebring, etc.) in what is now my vintage race car. I came away with some new found history on the car, but better yet, two wonderful new found friends. Later in the afternoon we were driven to our host’s home for wine and a viewing of his car collection, complete with beauties like these C Type and E Type Jags, an Allard, a Cobra and a dozen more great cars of similar caliper. The icing on the cake was sharing this time with a former mechanic (now a close neighbor) who worked on my car extensively during its heyday! All too soon it was time for us to be driven back the 1½ grueling hours in bumper to bumper traffic to the airport. We arrived back in muggy, hot Cartagena at 9:30pm, knowing we had experienced a very special day.

Thursday June 19.  Port day, take two!  Our first glimpse that Charlotte was alive and well! Ned and I arrived early for our 8:00am appointment with the inspector.  We checked into the compound, got our badges and floundered around for a while before discovering where we were to meet him.

Thursday June 19. Port day, take two! Our first glimpse that Charlotte was alive and well!
Ned and I arrived early for our 8:00am appointment with the inspector. We checked into the compound, got our badges and floundered around for a while before discovering where we were to meet him.

We never did find our assigned inspector, but a different one took pity on us and, after a 30 minute wait, took the 2 minutes to check the VIN number and scribble something on our customs form.  We had been hoping that we could finish up here on this side of the port, but our new inspector friend, Federico, informed us that we would have to go back to the DIAN offices to get his boss’ signature.  Ughhh, another two taxi rides!  Federico then surprised us by kindly offering to drive us over in his company truck.

We never did find our assigned inspector, but a different one took pity on us and, after a 30 minute wait, took the 2 minutes to check the VIN number and scribble something on our customs form. We had been hoping that we could finish up here on this side of the port, but our new inspector friend, Federico, informed us that we would have to go back to the DIAN offices to get his boss’ signature. Ughhh, another two taxi rides! Federico then surprised us by kindly offering to drive us over in his company truck.

This is where poor Charlotte spent the last week.  Makes our little hotel seem like the Waldorf Astoria!

This is where poor Charlotte spent the last week. Makes our little hotel seem like the Waldorf Astoria!

A final taxi ride back to the other side of the port and another 45 minutes of fumbling rewarded us with the final step…getting the key back.

A final taxi ride back to the other side of the port and another 45 minutes of fumbling rewarded us with the final step…getting the key back.

Happy Ned drives Charlotte out of the compound…while I go turn in our badges.

Happy Ned drives Charlotte out of the compound…while I go turn in our badges.

Freedom at last! Looking back, the overall process of springing Charlotte wasn’t that bad here on the Colombian side.  All of the people involved were very nice and everything flowed smoothly.

Freedom at last!
Looking back, the overall process of springing Charlotte wasn’t that bad here on the Colombian side. All of the people involved were very nice and everything flowed smoothly.

We rushed back to our little village…Colombia was just starting another World Cup fútbol game, and we joined the locals in this bar to cheer on “our” team.  Ned had even bought a yellow jersey so we didn’t stick out too much.

We rushed back to our little village…Colombia was just starting another World Cup fútbol game, and we joined the locals in this bar to cheer on “our” team. Ned had even bought a yellow jersey so we didn’t stick out too much.

Another victory for Colombia resulted in a massive street party.

Another victory for Colombia resulted in a massive street party.

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Driving Charlotte from her (illegal) parking spot on the street took us through the heart of the reveling.

Driving Charlotte from her (illegal) parking spot on the street took us through the heart of the reveling.

The next day, Friday, we said goodbye to our comfy neighborhood, our hostess, Patricia and our Swiss friends and made our way through the teeming urban hell of the rest of Cartagena.  We were so happy to be back in Charlotte and we loved being on this new continent.

The next day, Friday, we said goodbye to our comfy neighborhood, our hostess, Patricia and our Swiss friends and made our way through the teeming urban hell of the rest of Cartagena. We were so happy to be back in Charlotte and we loved being on this new continent.

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How many lanes of traffic can fit on a two-lane highway? It took over an hour to get out of the huge city, but we finally headed southeast on the 90, then east on the 80.  The area was all swampland; hot and humid.  Even driving down the road with the windows open I was dripping sweat. Our goal was to get to a higher elevation with hopefully cooler temperatures at the Parque Sierra Nevada northeast of Cartagena.  We did not want to go the coastal route, thinking that it would be worse.  Now I couldn’t imagine it being worse.  It was miserably hot.  And loud.  The small towns along the 90 boasted numerous roadside places to eat....all blasting music...no, I mean REALLY blasting.  I'm not going to call them restaurants or cafés; they all had the colorful kindergarten chair thing going and most looked like food poisoning waiting to happen.  They also had pool tables in at least 4 or 5 different places. It was really weird. The roads were jammed with trucks, and the truck drivers were kamikazes, playing chicken with oncoming traffic to pass other trucks.  It was insane. And hot. Then the road construction started.  There was one-way controlled traffic all along the 90, but the roads were still rutted and potholed.  To make matters worse, they collected $3-4 tolls every 10 miles!

How many lanes of traffic can fit on a two-lane highway?
It took over an hour to get out of the huge city, but we finally headed southeast on the 90, then east on the 80. The area was all swampland; hot and humid. Even driving down the road with the windows open I was dripping sweat. Our goal was to get to a higher elevation with hopefully cooler temperatures at the Parque Sierra Nevada northeast of Cartagena. We did not want to go the coastal route, thinking that it would be worse. Now I couldn’t imagine it being worse. It was miserably hot. And loud. The small towns along the 90 boasted numerous roadside places to eat….all blasting music…no, I mean REALLY blasting. I’m not going to call them restaurants or cafés; they all had the colorful kindergarten chair thing going and most looked like food poisoning waiting to happen. They also had pool tables in at least 4 or 5 different places. It was really weird. The roads were jammed with trucks, and the truck drivers were kamikazes, playing chicken with oncoming traffic to pass other trucks. It was insane. And hot. Then the road construction started. There was one-way controlled traffic all along the 90, but the roads were still rutted and potholed. To make matters worse, they collected $3-4 tolls every 10 miles!

By dark we were hungry and nowhere near higher elevation, nor could we find anywhere we wanted to eat or camp.   One place looked like it had pretty good pollo asado (which we determined to be the safest thing to eat) so we stopped.

By dark we were hungry and nowhere near higher elevation, nor could we find anywhere we wanted to eat or camp. One place looked like it had pretty good pollo asado (which we determined to be the safest thing to eat) so we stopped.

The people were decidedly unfriendly, and the music from across the street was so loud we literally could not hear each other speak.  The taciturn young man brought our plates which looked good, but we didn't dare eat the lettuce, tomato or cheese. We ate the chicken (which actually was delicious) and the boiled potatoes.  And we fought the flies for our dinner.  We ate quickly while an exuberant teenager asked us about our car.  I asked him about the music, and he grinned, telling us that it played 24/7.  I then asked him how they sleep, and he said they just go inside their houses. ‘Ya, that would work!  The music was brain splitting, and we scarfed our food before the flies could.  After eating, I jumped up to use the baño and wash the chicken grease off my hands....no sink.  The still non speaking owner pointed to two big bowls...one with murky water, the other with soapy murky water.  Uhhhh, no thanks!  Oh god, is that where they wash the dishes?  We were so going to get sick tonight!  I opted for baby wipes.  Ironically, the town was called El Difícil (The Difficult).

The people were decidedly unfriendly, and the music from across the street was so loud we literally could not hear each other speak. The taciturn young man brought our plates which looked good, but we didn’t dare eat the lettuce, tomato or cheese. We ate the chicken (which actually was delicious) and the boiled potatoes. And we fought the flies for our dinner. We ate quickly while an exuberant teenager asked us about our car. I asked him about the music, and he grinned, telling us that it played 24/7. I then asked him how they sleep, and he said they just go inside their houses. ‘Ya, that would work! The music was brain splitting, and we scarfed our food before the flies could. After eating, I jumped up to use the baño and wash the chicken grease off my hands….no sink. The still non speaking owner pointed to two big bowls…one with murky water, the other with soapy murky water. Uhhhh, no thanks! Oh god, is that where they wash the dishes? We were so going to get sick tonight! I opted for baby wipes. Ironically, the town was called El Difícil (The Difficult).

It was now 7:30 and dark, and we were still in the boggy lowlands. Where were those damn mountains?? So far, we have really liked Colombia, but this area was not great. Around 9:00pm we pulled off the highway and went up a dirt road about 5 miles. It was still agonizingly hot, but looked quiet enough. We figured no one would bother us till morning…we would get up early and move on. Wrong on both counts. And what happened to our rule about hiding off the road? And the one about not trying to find camping in the dark?

The night was miserable. Dogs barked, cows mood, and donkeys brayed, letting us know we were close to a pueblo or rancho. Too close. Sweating, I lay on my towel dripping, even with the fan on. Ned seemed ok and fell asleep, which is good because he is the driver. It was taking massive concentration to not get squashed like a bug by the trucks on these roads. Oh, speaking of bugs…yes, there were lots inside our little hothouse. We spent the first hour hunting them down with the bug zapper. Sweet revenge! Around 1:00am Ned woke up to say we had to turn the fan off or it would draw down the battery. Really? I was dripping sweat WITH the fan! The air was perfectly still. No breeze. Just lightning flashing in the distance and no rain to cool things down. Wait, did I just say I wanted rain? Yup, it’s all about perspective again!
I read all night.

Around dawn, 4:30am, I was finally dozing off when a little motorcycle drove up…adrenaline rush, but it kept going. Trying to go back to sleep, I heard another motorcycle! Arggg. Then around 5:00 some guys came up on bicycles and on foot, uttering something loud and guttural. Shit! I grabbed my pepper spray and tried to stay hidden. Now Ned was awake. They kept saying something but we couldn’t understand them. It sounded like a native language (we had heard there were a lot of indigenous people up north). The men ended up just hanging around Charlotte for about 15 minutes, smoking cigarettes, while the smoke drifted in through our screens in the still dawn air. That was it. We were out of there. Just hope the battery lived through 4 hours of running the fan! Yes! Back down the dirt road toward the highway, with me still in my jammies.

Uh, oh…oncoming headlights stopped right in front of us, blocking our way. It was a big Chevy pickup…full of police. Jeez, what happened to our quiet little, out of the way camping spot? Five officers scrambled out, pointing their AK47’s at us…

Stay tuned next time to find out how we got out of this one!

Panama – Fairwell Banana Republics, and Fairwell Charlotte???

Last words of advice from Costa Rica at their exit border.  Maybe they were forewarning us of things to come in Panama…

Last words of advice from Costa Rica at their exit border. Maybe they were forewarning us of things to come in Panama…

Panama, our final Banana Republic before getting to the meat of this trip, South America.  Our main goal in Panama was to get Charlotte on a boat to Columbia.  For those of you who don’t know, there is no road that connects Central America with South America.  Between the two continents lies roughly 100 miles of jungle and swamp known as the Darren Gap.  Due to political and monetary issues, the Pan American highway has not been connected at this one spot along its entire run from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina.  For Overlanders like us it means a big pain in the ass.  One would think this simple passage would be a perfect place for a quick ferry ride, but noooo, it’s a perfect place for corruption to make a killing.  To get your car to South America you have to go through a lengthy and expensive process of hiring a shipping company, loading it into a container and shipping it the 100 mile overnight journey to Columbia.  The mountains of red tape are enormous and everyone gets a cut along the way. So, this was our goal for Panama, get the hell out of it!  Kat’s finger on the map shows where we entered to the west or left side on the Caribbean coast.  You think of the country running north to south but in fact, it runs west to east.  Her other finger points to the port of Colon, where Charlotte was last seen.  Just below her hand, on the Pacific coast, is Panama City where we spent the majority of our seven days in the country, mostly going to various government offices chasing down ludicrous amounts of paperwork, stamps, seals and the all important copies, copies, copies.   Oh yeah.  There is this canal in Panama, too.  Yes, we did take a minute to see it. Read on.

Panama, our final Banana Republic before getting to the meat of this trip, South America. Our main goal in Panama was to get Charlotte on a boat to Columbia. For those of you who don’t know, there is no road that connects Central America with South America. Between the two continents lies roughly 100 miles of jungle and swamp known as the Darren Gap. Due to political and monetary issues, the Pan American highway has not been connected at this one spot along its entire run from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. For Overlanders like us it means a big pain in the ass. One would think this simple passage would be a perfect place for a quick ferry ride, but noooo, it’s a perfect place for corruption to make a killing. To get your car to South America you have to go through a lengthy and expensive process of hiring a shipping company, loading it into a container and shipping it the 100 mile overnight journey to Columbia. The mountains of red tape are enormous and everyone gets a cut along the way.
So, this was our goal for Panama, get the hell out of it! Kat’s finger on the map shows where we entered to the west or left side on the Caribbean coast. You think of the country running north to south but in fact, it runs west to east. Her other finger points to the port of Colon, where Charlotte was last seen. Just below her hand, on the Pacific coast, is Panama City where we spent the majority of our seven days in the country, mostly going to various government offices chasing down ludicrous amounts of paperwork, stamps, seals and the all important copies, copies, copies.
Oh yeah. There is this canal in Panama, too. Yes, we did take a minute to see it. Read on.

A welcoming view into Panama, the all important fumigation hut where all the bad juju from the neighboring country is magically cleansed away so you can pick up new, but not so bad juju, during the first five miles into the new country.

A welcoming view into Panama, the all important fumigation hut where all the bad juju from the neighboring country is magically cleansed away so you can pick up new, but not so bad juju, during the first five miles into the new country.

We were told by a taxi driver in Panama City that the Panamanian Government makes up to 9 million dollars A DAY from the canal. But this is the best they can do for a welcome building into the country?  Note the nice rain drop on the camera lens, a sign of things to come.

We were told by a taxi driver in Panama City that the Panamanian Government makes up to 9 million dollars A DAY from the canal. But this is the best they can do for a welcome building into the country? Note the nice rain drop on the camera lens, a sign of things to come.

Would you hire these kids to watch your car?  These little urchins were pretty pushy but quite harmless.  Nevertheless, we watched Charlotte a lot more than they did during our four hour ordeal getting through the silly red tape to enter Panama. Here are Kat’s notes on this border crossing: Exhausting border crossing.  No real difficulties other than the usual lack of any signs or directions of where to go, and a lot of waiting.  Getting used to The Process:  Find Costa Rican Immigration and get our passports exit stamped.  Find Costa Rican Aduana (customs), get Charlotte’s permit canceled.  Cross border, change money, get Charlotte sprayed.  Find place to pay for spraying.  Find Panama Immigration and have passports stamped.  Pay fees.  Find copier to make appropriate copies.  Find insurance place to buy “seguros”.  Find Aduana to get Charlotte’s new permit.  Same system, different hassles and delays.  We brought Charlotte’s original title back with us, so no hassles with that any more.  We got stuck behind a group of 4 motorcyclists on brand new BMWs, complete with a factory provided guide.  The Panama bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace, so we waited at the insurance place and then the Aduana behind these guys forever.  Whole thing took over three hours, but we were finally out of there. Then, 20km into the country, we got stopped by the police at a roadblock.  They wanted a $10 car permit receipt and $3 stickers in our passports, both of which we failed to get (did not even know we had to get) in the confusion at the border.  We offered to pay them on the spot but they said no, we have to return to the Frontera to get them.  Maddening, why the hell can’t they put the checkpoint right out of town, or better yet, offer a list or have a sign explaining ALL the steps needed for entering the country.  We were tired and hot and it was getting late.  No choice but to go back. Make that a four hour crossing!

Would you hire these kids to watch your car? These little urchins were pretty pushy but quite harmless. Nevertheless, we watched Charlotte a lot more than they did during our four hour ordeal getting through the silly red tape to enter Panama. Here are Kat’s notes on this border crossing:
Exhausting border crossing. No real difficulties other than the usual lack of any signs or directions of where to go, and a lot of waiting. Getting used to The Process: Find Costa Rican Immigration and get our passports exit stamped. Find Costa Rican Aduana (customs), get Charlotte’s permit canceled. Cross border, change money, get Charlotte sprayed. Find place to pay for spraying. Find Panama Immigration and have passports stamped. Pay fees. Find copier to make appropriate copies. Find insurance place to buy “seguros”. Find Aduana to get Charlotte’s new permit. Same system, different hassles and delays. We brought Charlotte’s original title back with us, so no hassles with that any more. We got stuck behind a group of 4 motorcyclists on brand new BMWs, complete with a factory provided guide. The Panama bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace, so we waited at the insurance place and then the Aduana behind these guys forever. Whole thing took over three hours, but we were finally out of there. Then, 20km into the country, we got stopped by the police at a roadblock. They wanted a $10 car permit receipt and $3 stickers in our passports, both of which we failed to get (did not even know we had to get) in the confusion at the border. We offered to pay them on the spot but they said no, we have to return to the Frontera to get them. Maddening, why the hell can’t they put the checkpoint right out of town, or better yet, offer a list or have a sign explaining ALL the steps needed for entering the country. We were tired and hot and it was getting late. No choice but to go back. Make that a four hour crossing!

Get your mandatory insurance here from this quality company, the only game in town.

Get your mandatory insurance here from this quality company, the only game in town.

This little gal was the only insurance salesperson.  Despite the line waiting for her mandatory services, she found plenty of time to chatter away on her pink phone while enjoying her pink fan. Meanwhile we peons sweltered in the heat outside her tiny office.

This little gal was the only insurance salesperson. Despite the line waiting for her mandatory services, she found plenty of time to chatter away on her pink phone while enjoying her pink fan. Meanwhile we peons sweltered in the heat outside her tiny office.

Next up was this inviting building, the Aduana (customs) where we get Charlotte’s paperwork done.

Next up was this inviting building, the Aduana (customs) where we get Charlotte’s paperwork done.

No shortage of waiting at the Aduana. They provided a nice waiting area though while they did our paperwork twice.  We explained to three different officials that we HAD to have Charlotte’s engine number, not just her VIN, on the paperwork or we couldn’t ship her from the port of Colón.  They still screwed it up, and finally I barged into the office and stood over the girl while she typed it correctly.

No shortage of waiting at the Aduana. They provided a nice waiting area though while they did our paperwork twice. We explained to three different officials that we HAD to have Charlotte’s engine number, not just her VIN, on the paperwork or we couldn’t ship her from the port of Colón. They still screwed it up, and finally I barged into the office and stood over the girl while she typed it correctly.

Our main entertainment while we waited was watching these street kids toss a quarter back and forth.

Our main entertainment while we waited was watching these street kids toss a quarter back and forth.

Check out that concentration.  If only the government workers could have some of that.

Check out that concentration. If only the government workers could have some of that.

The all important copies and stamps.  Check out all those stamps!  What the hell do they do with all this paperwork?  We will be gone from this country in a week!

The all important copies and stamps. Check out all those stamps! What the hell do they do with all this paperwork? We will be gone from this country in a week!

Three plus hours on we were looking down the open road into Panama. It was beautiful until the cop roadblock. Then it was back to the border for more fees and stamps.

Three plus hours on we were looking down the open road into Panama. It was beautiful until the cop roadblock. Then it was back to the border for more fees and stamps.

Most of the rural houses looked like this; up on stilts and very open air with animals living below.  This one was extra colorful with political banners flying.  Perhaps the resident was a big local muckedy muck.

Most of the rural houses looked like this; up on stilts and very open air with animals living below. This one was extra colorful with political banners flying. Perhaps the resident was a big local muckedy muck.

They’ve got a bit of a problem with the trash service.

They’ve got a bit of a problem with the trash service.

Dinner on our first night in Panama.  I’ll let Kat’s journal notes explain this one: 6/6  Panama so far not endearing to us.  Bad drivers.  Bad border crossing.  Garbage and filth.  Very poor.  Cannot find a place to eat or spend night.  Drove into Chiriquí Grande on coast.  What a pit!  Went back to the crossroads of highway 4 and 11 at Rambala.  Had to settle for dinner at the bus stop.  Very bad cafeteria-style Asian ick.  Met Belgian guy on motorcycle heading north.  His riding partner had crashed his bike earlier that day and was in a hospital somewhere.  Wow, I wouldn’t even want to see a hospital in these parts! Weird how priorities change.  I'm always looking forward to camping away from civilization, but after sleeping in muggy, buggy, rain forests I'm looking for pavement!  Pavement means no mud and a few less bugs.  In the town of Rambala we asked at the police station if we could camp in their large parking lot and they let us.  Sergeant Juarez wrote down our passport info just to be official.  Safe, but hotter than hell.  SUPER muggy, sticky, buggy.  Its 11pm now.  Running fan so it’s tolerable but will have to turn it off soon or will run down battery.    6/7  Rained like hell all night.  Everything sopping wet in bus.  Humidity off the charts.  Managed to get some sleep, but not great.  Still raining when we got up, but lighter.  Did a couple of exercises, filled water jugs, waved Gracias to Sergeant Juarez and drove off on the 4 south toward the Pam Am highway and Panama City.

Dinner on our first night in Panama. I’ll let Kat’s journal notes explain this one:
6/6 Panama so far not endearing to us. Bad drivers. Bad border crossing. Garbage and filth. Very poor. Cannot find a place to eat or spend night. Drove into Chiriquí Grande on coast. What a pit! Went back to the crossroads of highway 4 and 11 at Rambala. Had to settle for dinner at the bus stop. Very bad cafeteria-style Asian ick. Met Belgian guy on motorcycle heading north. His riding partner had crashed his bike earlier that day and was in a hospital somewhere. Wow, I wouldn’t even want to see a hospital in these parts!
Weird how priorities change. I’m always looking forward to camping away from civilization, but after sleeping in muggy, buggy, rain forests I’m looking for pavement! Pavement means no mud and a few less bugs. In the town of Rambala we asked at the police station if we could camp in their large parking lot and they let us. Sergeant Juarez wrote down our passport info just to be official. Safe, but hotter than hell. SUPER muggy, sticky, buggy. Its 11pm now. Running fan so it’s tolerable but will have to turn it off soon or will run down battery.
6/7 Rained like hell all night. Everything sopping wet in bus. Humidity off the charts. Managed to get some sleep, but not great. Still raining when we got up, but lighter. Did a couple of exercises, filled water jugs, waved Gracias to Sergeant Juarez and drove off on the 4 south toward the Pam Am highway and Panama City.

Safe haven at the police station.

Safe haven at the police station.

Ah, our favorite. The Pan American highway isn’t any less crowded in Panama.

Ah, our favorite. The Pan American highway isn’t any less crowded in Panama.

Just when you think of something else to whine about, someone comes along and puts a whole different perspective on things.  We first saw this guy last week in Costa Rica on the Pacific side and a long way from the beach.  Now he was still a long way from the beach but a couple hundred miles further down the Pan Am.  How’s that surfboard workin’ for ya buddy?

Just when you think of something else to whine about, someone comes along and puts a whole different perspective on things. We first saw this guy last week in Costa Rica on the Pacific side and a long way from the beach. Now he was still a long way from the beach but a couple hundred miles further down the Pan Am. How’s that surfboard workin’ for ya buddy?

Approaching Panama City we screwed up and missed the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and dumps you right into the city. After we missed the exit there was no way to get off the freeway and turn around.  We were directed another ten miles inland with zero exits and then the road crossed the Canal over the Centennial Bridge which is much more modern and actually more spectacular visually.

Approaching Panama City we screwed up and missed the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and dumps you right into the city. After we missed the exit there was no way to get off the freeway and turn around. We were directed another ten miles inland with zero exits and then the road crossed the Canal over the Centennial Bridge which is much more modern and actually more spectacular visually.

Our first view of “The Big Ditch” from the Centennial Bridge.  This area is known as the Culebra Cut.  This is a 7.8 mile, man-made slice through a mountain range that also marks the continental divide.

Our first view of “The Big Ditch” from the Centennial Bridge. This area is known as the Culebra Cut. This is a 7.8 mile, man-made slice through a mountain range that also marks the continental divide.

Entering the city was spectacular with the skyline black with an impending thunderstorm.  We were treated to these massive rain storms every day. Interesting facts (?) gleaned from a taxi driver:  The government of Panama took over complete control of the Canal in 1999.  Up until then the United States paid Panama $250,000 a year for the lease of the lands the Canal encompasses.  Of course we build the thing, protected it and ran the infrastructure but… today the country takes in $6 to $9 million a day in revenue from its use!  Even more interesting is that every high rise building that makes up the modern, spectacular skyline has been built in the last 14 years, most in the last five!

Entering the city was spectacular with the skyline black with an impending thunderstorm. We were treated to these massive rain storms every day. Interesting facts (?) gleaned from a taxi driver: The government of Panama took over complete control of the Canal in 1999. Up until then the United States paid Panama $250,000 a year for the lease of the lands the Canal encompasses. Of course we build the thing, protected it and ran the infrastructure but… today the country takes in $6 to $9 million a day in revenue from its use! Even more interesting is that every high rise building that makes up the modern, spectacular skyline has been built in the last 14 years, most in the last five!

Of course, we immediately went looking for the old city.  It’s not looking quite so bright.

Of course, we immediately went looking for the old city. It’s not looking quite so bright.

Interesting contrast between the old and new Panama City.

Interesting contrast between the old and new Panama City.

And then there was the rain… this was with Charlotte’s wipers on max!

And then there was the rain… this was with Charlotte’s wipers on max!

This is the infamous Panama Canal as seen from the observation tower at the Miraflores Locks.   These are the first of three sets of locks that a boat must pass through when traveling from the Pacific to the Caribbean.  We are looking southeast (weird huh?) here, back towards Panama City.  In the distance is a red and blue natural gas freighter approaching the locks.  There are two shipping lanes in each lock.  This boat is going into the far lane where the gates are open.  Notice how low the water level is in the far lock, matching the level in the near lock and the level in the canal itself.

This is the infamous Panama Canal as seen from the observation tower at the Miraflores Locks. These are the first of three sets of locks that a boat must pass through when traveling from the Pacific to the Caribbean. We are looking southeast (weird huh?) here, back towards Panama City. In the distance is a red and blue natural gas freighter approaching the locks. There are two shipping lanes in each lock. This boat is going into the far lane where the gates are open. Notice how low the water level is in the far lock, matching the level in the near lock and the level in the canal itself.

Now the ship is in the lock, the gate is closed behind it, and the lock has filled with water, raising the ship 23 feet.

Now the ship is in the lock, the gate is closed behind it, and the lock has filled with water, raising the ship 23 feet.

Next these powerful electric tugs on both sides of the lock hook on to the ship and pull it ahead into the next lock.  Not only must they pull the boat, but they must also climb the 45% grade of their tracks to reach the height of the next lock.

Next these powerful electric tugs on both sides of the lock hook on to the ship and pull it ahead into the next lock. Not only must they pull the boat, but they must also climb the 45% grade of their tracks to reach the height of the next lock.

Now the tugs have just about pulled the huge freighter completely into the next lock.  Note the old control house in the foreground which says Miraflores Locks 1914 – 2014.  The canal was originally begun by the French in 1881.  After many setbacks with financial, engineering and medical struggles due to malaria and yellow fever, the French went broke, gave up and the USA took over the project in 1904.  Incorporating advances in medicine and cleanliness for the thousands of immigrant workers, as well as mechanical advances in digging technology, we managed to finish the project.  The first boat passed through “The Big Ditch” in 1914.  Some trivia:  By the end of the project, 60 million pounds of dynamite had been used and enough holes were drilled through the solid rock of the country to reach completely through the earth and 900kms beyond! A huge expansion project is underway to create new, much larger sets of locks for much larger ships.  You can just see the digging going on in this photo at the left where the reddish strip is.  Today, container ships carrying up to 4500 containers can fit through the existing locks.  In the future, ships carrying 12,000 containers will be able to traverse the canal.

Now the tugs have just about pulled the huge freighter completely into the next lock. Note the old control house in the foreground which says Miraflores Locks 1914 – 2014. The canal was originally begun by the French in 1881. After many setbacks with financial, engineering and medical struggles due to malaria and yellow fever, the French went broke, gave up and the USA took over the project in 1904. Incorporating advances in medicine and cleanliness for the thousands of immigrant workers, as well as mechanical advances in digging technology, we managed to finish the project. The first boat passed through “The Big Ditch” in 1914. Some trivia: By the end of the project, 60 million pounds of dynamite had been used and enough holes were drilled through the solid rock of the country to reach completely through the earth and 900kms beyond!
A huge expansion project is underway to create new, much larger sets of locks for much larger ships. You can just see the digging going on in this photo at the left where the reddish strip is. Today, container ships carrying up to 4500 containers can fit through the existing locks. In the future, ships carrying 12,000 containers will be able to traverse the canal.

The ship is now in the second lock and the water is beginning to rise.  All the water flow is done by gravity.  There are no pumps involved in the process.  In this stage of the lock it takes 5 minutes for 26 million gallons of water to raise a boat 31 feet!

The ship is now in the second lock and the water is beginning to rise. All the water flow is done by gravity. There are no pumps involved in the process. In this stage of the lock it takes 5 minutes for 26 million gallons of water to raise a boat 31 feet!

Up…

Up…

And up!  Now the freighter is 54 feet higher than sea level and is ready to continue on towards the Caribbean side of the continent, saving days in its travels around the globe.  It will pass through two more sets of locks, the first raising it still further and the second lowering it, before it reaches another ocean. The whole transfer will take between 20 and 30 hours.

And up! Now the freighter is 54 feet higher than sea level and is ready to continue on towards the Caribbean side of the continent, saving days in its travels around the globe. It will pass through two more sets of locks, the first raising it still further and the second lowering it, before it reaches another ocean. The whole transfer will take between 20 and 30 hours.

This was the next ship we watched arrive.  This one is using the nearside locks. Here you can see how modern ships just barely fit into the 1914 designed lock which is 110 feet wide.  There are just inches on each side of the boat.  If fact, much of modern cargo boat design is limited by the Panama Canal.

This was the next ship we watched arrive. This one is using the nearside locks. Here you can see how modern ships just barely fit into the 1914 designed lock which is 110 feet wide. There are just inches on each side of the boat. If fact, much of modern cargo boat design is limited by the Panama Canal.

Just one more… showing how the gates open between lock levels.

Just one more… showing how the gates open between lock levels.

The day after being tourists at the Canal, we got down to the business of shipping Charlotte. Looks like we’re pretty serious here doesn’t it?  Our shipping agent told us she assists 6 to 12 vehicles a week with the passage to Columbia.  Our group this week consisted of two Swiss in a Land Rover 110, a solo Swiss guy in a six-wheel Pinzgauer, a young couple from Argentina in an old VW bay window “Kombi” they picked up in Mexico, a Guatamalan couple with a Renault SUV going to the FIFA World Cup games in Brazil, and two American guys carrying 100 soccer balls to give away in a $1500 Dodge van.  Here we are all killing time in a filthy parking lot, waiting for a police inspector to check our VINs against our import papers already verified at the border. The inspector, who only inspects from 9am to 10am, was only 1 ½ hours late. This was was pretty good according to Amy, our agent.

The day after being tourists at the Canal, we got down to the business of shipping Charlotte. Looks like we’re pretty serious here doesn’t it? Our shipping agent told us she assists 6 to 12 vehicles a week with the passage to Columbia. Our group this week consisted of two Swiss in a Land Rover 110, a solo Swiss guy in a six-wheel Pinzgauer, a young couple from Argentina in an old VW bay window “Kombi” they picked up in Mexico, a Guatamalan couple with a Renault SUV going to the FIFA World Cup games in Brazil, and two American guys carrying 100 soccer balls to give away in a $1500 Dodge van. Here we are all killing time in a filthy parking lot, waiting for a police inspector to check our VINs against our import papers already verified at the border. The inspector, who only inspects from 9am to 10am, was only 1 ½ hours late. This was was pretty good according to Amy, our agent.

The actual inspection only took a couple of minutes after the stinky, sweaty wait. We were also required to provide him with a huge pile of copies of every piece of paper we have and a LONG list of everything we are carrying in Charlotte.  Fortunately, the rain held off because the inspectors don’t inspect if it is raining, and we would have waited in vain.  Later in the day we had to come back to another Government office to pick up our multi-stamped copies and the all important, police inspection approval paper – and its copies.

The actual inspection only took a couple of minutes after the stinky, sweaty wait. We were also required to provide him with a huge pile of copies of every piece of paper we have and a LONG list of everything we are carrying in Charlotte. Fortunately, the rain held off because the inspectors don’t inspect if it is raining, and we would have waited in vain. Later in the day we had to come back to another Government office to pick up our multi-stamped copies and the all important, police inspection approval paper – and its copies.

At 7am the next morning we all formed a caravan for the one hour drive to the port of Colón on the Caribbean side of the country.  2 ½ hours later we arrived in Colón.

At 7am the next morning we all formed a caravan for the one hour drive to the port of Colón on the Caribbean side of the country. 2 ½ hours later we arrived in Colón.

Our first stop was in a tiny, super crowded office to have copies of copies approved and stamped for some important reason, known only to the powers that be. Here Agent Amy sorts though our copies of copies.  She did this for all six of us, and does it week after week while still raising a family at home.

Our first stop was in a tiny, super crowded office to have copies of copies approved and stamped for some important reason, known only to the powers that be. Here Agent Amy sorts though our copies of copies. She did this for all six of us, and does it week after week while still raising a family at home.

Mostly we waited… and waited some more.

Mostly we waited… and waited some more.

Getting close to the port now.  This is where we get to voluntarily leave Charlotte in the hands of strangers.

Getting close to the port now. This is where we get to voluntarily leave Charlotte in the hands of strangers.

Hope they don’t put her in container number 45.  On second thought it might be better than the smashed brown one in front.

Hope they don’t put her in container number 45. On second thought it might be better than the smashed brown one in front.

Goodbye home.

Goodbye home.

This was reassuring.  Kat and the other non-drivers in our group had to wait in this outdoor cage for two hours while us drivers waited with the cars for more… no, not copies, inspections!

This was reassuring. Kat and the other non-drivers in our group had to wait in this outdoor cage for two hours while us drivers waited with the cars for more… no, not copies, inspections!

Three different sets of looky-loos went through everything quite thoroughly.  There was even the most unenthusiastic drug dog I have ever seen.  He was much more interested in peeing on our tires than sniffing our moldy carpet. In the end, one of them slapped a huge, bar-code sticker smack in the middle of the driver’s side of the windshield and Charlotte was deemed fit to travel – and I was kicked to the cage with the rest of our lot.

Three different sets of looky-loos went through everything quite thoroughly. There was even the most unenthusiastic drug dog I have ever seen. He was much more interested in peeing on our tires than sniffing our moldy carpet. In the end, one of them slapped a huge, bar-code sticker smack in the middle of the driver’s side of the windshield and Charlotte was deemed fit to travel – and I was kicked to the cage with the rest of our lot.

Point Last Seen.  Some mystery dock worker drove off with our life.  Wonder if we’ll ever see her again?

Point Last Seen. Some mystery dock worker drove off with our life. Wonder if we’ll ever see her again?

Back in the cage everyone was quite sad.

Back in the cage everyone was quite sad.

Ah, but buckets of yummy, ice cold Balboa beer back in Panama City with our new Swiss friends seemed to cheer us up.  We lost Charlotte on Wednesday. She is supposed to ship Saturday and arrive Sunday in Cartagena, Columbia, meaning we can’t start the process of getting her out of jail until Monday.  We signed up for a tour boat trip up the canal for Friday to get a feeling of the whole thing from the water.  Thursday night we got an email saying the trip was canceled for the first time in history.  Something about low water levels?  We ended up killing two days at the hotel in Panama getting our Costa Rica blog done, enjoying the air conditioning and eating too much.  The Swiss opted for a five day boat ride to Columbia via the San Blas islands.  We opted to fly on Saturday and check out Cartagena on Sunday.  We can’t wait to compare notes on the other side.

Ah, but buckets of yummy, ice cold Balboa beer back in Panama City with our new Swiss friends seemed to cheer us up. We lost Charlotte on Wednesday. She is supposed to ship Saturday and arrive Sunday in Cartagena, Columbia, meaning we can’t start the process of getting her out of jail until Monday. We signed up for a tour boat trip up the canal for Friday to get a feeling of the whole thing from the water. Thursday night we got an email saying the trip was canceled for the first time in history. Something about low water levels? We ended up killing two days at the hotel in Panama getting our Costa Rica blog done, enjoying the air conditioning and eating too much. The Swiss opted for a five day boat ride to Columbia via the San Blas islands. We opted to fly on Saturday and check out Cartagena on Sunday. We can’t wait to compare notes on the other side.

Friday night we ate at an awesome Lebanese restaurant and then hired a cab to drive us around the city at night.  Most of the impressive skyscrapers are apartment complexes.  What is really interesting is that nothing you see in these pictures existed 14 years ago and a lot of it is less than five years old - even the ground under it all!  Guess where all that canal revenue is going. Besides the canal, the Duty Free shops in Colón are the second largest Duty Free market in the world next to Hong Kong!  We found this interesting since Cólon is considered the most dangerous city in Central America.  According to our driver, 85% of the work force of Colón is bussed there every day from Panama City because the residents of Colón don’t want to work, just party and get into trouble!

Friday night we ate at an awesome Lebanese restaurant and then hired a cab to drive us around the city at night. Most of the impressive skyscrapers are apartment complexes. What is really interesting is that nothing you see in these pictures existed 14 years ago and a lot of it is less than five years old – even the ground under it all! Guess where all that canal revenue is going. Besides the canal, the Duty Free shops in Colón are the second largest Duty Free market in the world next to Hong Kong! We found this interesting since Cólon is considered the most dangerous city in Central America. According to our driver, 85% of the work force of Colón is bussed there every day from Panama City because the residents of Colón don’t want to work, just party and get into trouble!

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We still prefer the old stuff and in the end we had our cab driver take us through the San Felipe district, the oldest part of the city.  This is the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

We still prefer the old stuff and in the end we had our cab driver take us through the San Felipe district, the oldest part of the city. This is the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

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Just had to say, “Goodbye, Banana Republics!”

Just had to say, “Goodbye, Banana Republics!”

One final laugh was at the airport.  Was that mannequin really peeing in the corner?  It kinda summed up our whole experience with Panama!

One final laugh was at the airport. Was that mannequin really peeing in the corner? It kinda summed up our whole experience with Panama!

Costa Rica – Wet Wanderings and Vivid Views

Two months have passed since Ned and I left Charlotte safely ensconced in the family home of Wison, the bell hop at the Country Inn in San Jose, Costa Rica. We had lots to take care of at home, and the time passed quickly. Early on, though, I would wake in the morning feeling as if our journey had been a dream. Did we really do all of that? Reading our own blog felt surreal. Ned and I loved catching up with friends and family, and I loved catching up with my much missed solo time running in the mountains.

As many of you know, we spent part of the time home preparing for and participating in the Mexican 1000 off road race in Baja. Having successfully completed the 1200 mile race in Ned’s Willys Jeep rock crawler, “Killer Bee” in 2011 and 2012 (see the stories on our website), Ned decided to build a “Baja-911” for the 2013 race and did a fantastic job transforming a roached-out Porsche Targa into a functional off road machine. The result was the eye-catching, unique “Coco-latte.” Unfortunately, we had some catastrophic issues in 2013, including a carburetor fire and a broken oil line, but we were determined to try again this year. Ned fixed all of the problems from last year and we were ready.

It’s always exciting to be on the starting line. Nothing beats the feeling of taking off with a green flag and 1200 miles in front of you. The car was amazing; the motor strong, the suspension working great, soaking up as many bumps as a tiny 911 with 8 inches of suspension travel ever could. If the race course had been the same as in previous years, we probably wouldn’t have had any problems. But the course was changed this year and it was too rough for this valiant little car. We made nearly 430 miles the first day, but ran into not only deep ruts with big rocks that gouged at Coco’s belly, but also silt beds…really deep, Porsche burying silt beds! Countless times we were buried, unable to move and were rescued by fellow racers with 4×4’s (didn’t we wish we had the Bee this year!). In addition, we had lost the starter AND the ability to idle, so Ned had to keep his foot on the throttle while I got out and waved the tow strap, begging for a tug, buried to my thighs in nasty silt.

In the end, we made it to Bahia de Los Angeles at midnight the first day, (it’s a four day race) but Coco was too beat up to continue. It was an arduous day and a valiant effort for all three of us, but this year we felt like we brought a knife to a gun fight. We also felt the tickle of the travel bug. As fun as racing is, we were missing life on the road.

On May 28, wondering how we would enjoy Costa Rica after our so-so experiences in the rest of Central America, we flew back to San Jose. We were warmly welcomed back by the great staff at the Country Inn; Fabio at the front desk, Flory our waitress and of course, Wilson. It was also wonderful to see Charlotte again. It took us a day and a half to get her repacked with supplies and water and then off we went. Rusty, but finally on the road where we belong.

Our time in Costa Rica was wonderful. The scenery is gorgeous, and the people are friendly. Having avoided the vicious wars that have plagued the rest of Central America, Costa Rica has a much more relaxed feel. We had worried ahead of time how we desert rats would deal with the rainy season in the tropics, and I can’t say it was the most comfortable time I have spent. It was hot and humid, and I ended up with lots of bug bites. We have screens to put up to leave the windows open at night, but most of the time there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze. I spent many nights sweltering in Charlotte, lying on a towel to soak up the sweat, scratching at welts.

Ned wasn’t as bothered by the heat, and really, in spite of it, I had an amazing time. We even came to enjoy the daily thunder storms, listening to rain splattering on the tin roofs of open air restaurants, and watching lightning dance outside. Costa Rica’s national motto is “Pura Vida,” literally, pure, good or clean life, which I found appropriate. Costa Ricans use it in greeting, meaning all’s going great. The country also lends itself to fun, beautiful photos, so enjoy this trip through Costa Rica as Ned narrates our journey.

Our friend Wilson opens the gate to the driveway at his family’s home where Charlotte has been stored for the past two months.

Our friend Wilson opens the gate to the driveway at his family’s home where Charlotte has been stored for the past two months.


We brought some little gifts for the family. Wilson wears his new Lake Tahoe baseball cap while Kat explains a Lake Tahoe snow globe to him, his Mom, Marta and the family cat. Unfortunately, his Dad, Jesus was away that day.

We brought some little gifts for the family. Wilson wears his new Lake Tahoe baseball cap while Kat explains a Lake Tahoe snow globe to him, his Mom, Marta and the family cat. Unfortunately, his Dad, Jesus was away that day.

I felt bad that Charlotte had to leave her 90wt mark on their tile driveway. It’s a VW thing, I hope they understand. We also had a dead battery and a low tire to deal with. Our amazing Micro-Start Anti-Gravity Battery saved our butts yet again with a quick jump start from this pocket sized miracle black box. (Thanks again, Ricky and Micro-Start!)

I felt bad that Charlotte had to leave her 90wt mark on their tile driveway. It’s a VW thing, I hope they understand. We also had a dead battery and a low tire to deal with. Our amazing Micro-Start Anti-Gravity Battery saved our butts yet again with a quick jump start from this pocket sized miracle black box. (Thanks again, Ricky and Micro-Start!)

Wilson stops the never-ending San Jose traffic as I back a dusty Charlotte out into the mean streets. The adventure begins again…

Wilson stops the never-ending San Jose traffic as I back a dusty Charlotte out into the mean streets. The adventure begins again…

Like Wilson, another great employee who embraced us with kindness at the Country Inn (our adopted Command Center in CR) was Flory, our waitress.  We had enjoyed free breakfasts and Flory’s smiles and warm, friendly service on our previous visit, and it was great to see her again.  One morning she shared a bit of her story with us:  Flory grew up in a small fishing village on the Pacific coast. There was no electricity and no hotels yet. She had 12 brothers and sisters.  She got her first pair of shoes when she was 5 yrs old, and she loved them so much she went to bed with them on (with much teasing from her older siblings).   Flory loved to dance and drove her mother crazy. When she was a teenager she learned Salsa and other dances from the local prostitutes, which really made her mother nuts. Later, her husband would take her out but would not dance, so she danced by herself.  Now her husband has passed away and she has to work as a waitress. She does not go out but still loves to dance when she is alone at her house. Flory has 5 grand kids who all live in San Jose.

Like Wilson, another great employee who embraced us with kindness at the Country Inn (our adopted Command Center in CR) was Flory, our waitress. We had enjoyed free breakfasts and Flory’s smiles and warm, friendly service on our previous visit, and it was great to see her again. One morning she shared a bit of her story with us: Flory grew up in a small fishing village on the Pacific coast. There was no electricity and no hotels yet. She had 12 brothers and sisters. She got her first pair of shoes when she was 5 yrs old, and she loved them so much she went to bed with them on (with much teasing from her older siblings). Flory loved to dance and drove her mother crazy. When she was a teenager she learned Salsa and other dances from the local prostitutes, which really made her mother nuts. Later, her husband would take her out but would not dance, so she danced by herself. Now her husband has passed away and she has to work as a waitress. She does not go out but still loves to dance when she is alone at her house. Flory has 5 grand kids who all live in San Jose.

We’re going to try something new here; showing maps of where we’ve been. Let us know if this is helpful or confusing. We’ve drawn black Sharpee lines on all the roads we’ve driven.  Finally after two months down time we hit the road again. It felt like we had been home way too long and had lost our groove. I think we were both feeling a bit apprehensive about getting it back. We stayed the capital of San Jose, which is down in the right hand corner, only long enough to repack Charlotte, then quickly headed northwest to the area around the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. This was about a four hour drive.

We’re going to try something new here; showing maps of where we’ve been. Let us know if this is helpful or confusing. We’ve drawn black Sharpee lines on all the roads we’ve driven.
Finally after two months down time we hit the road again. It felt like we had been home way too long and had lost our groove. I think we were both feeling a bit apprehensive about getting it back. We stayed the capital of San Jose, which is down in the right hand corner, only long enough to repack Charlotte, then quickly headed northwest to the area around the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. This was about a four hour drive.

Along the way we passed numerous signs advertising this place called “Lands in Love,” featuring Israeli food.  Huh? We had to check this out. It turned out to be kind of a tree-hugger’s/animal lover’s sanctuary. Israeli? I had Pad Thai, and Kat had a plate of fruit and cheese.  We enjoyed our lunch outside surrounded by rain forest.

Along the way we passed numerous signs advertising this place called “Lands in Love,” featuring Israeli food. Huh? We had to check this out. It turned out to be kind of a tree-hugger’s/animal lover’s sanctuary. Israeli? I had Pad Thai, and Kat had a plate of fruit and cheese. We enjoyed our lunch outside surrounded by rain forest.

Then we checked out the “Pet Motel” where 142 rescue dogs live, hanging out on old couches and chairs and making more racket the anything we heard later in the jungle.

Then we checked out the “Pet Motel” where 142 rescue dogs live, hanging out on old couches and chairs and making more racket the anything we heard later in the jungle.

This was the best (and only) shot we got of Volcán Arenal which was shrouded in clouds the whole time. It is the beginning of the rainy season here which means it pretty much rains all the time except when it doesn’t!

This was the best (and only) shot we got of Volcán Arenal which was shrouded in clouds the whole time. It is the beginning of the rainy season here which means it pretty much rains all the time except when it doesn’t!

Just outside the tiny town of La Fortuna, we stopped for the night at this brand new hot springs “resort.” Most of the resorts around here are pretty high end, but this one was not a hotel and was designed more for the local and dirt bag bus-living crowd. They even let us camp in their unfinished parking lot for 12 bucks.

Just outside the tiny town of La Fortuna, we stopped for the night at this brand new hot springs “resort.” Most of the resorts around here are pretty high end, but this one was not a hotel and was designed more for the local and dirt bag bus-living crowd. They even let us camp in their unfinished parking lot for 12 bucks.


It was really cool to experience our first of many Costa Rica thunder storms sitting in these natural hot pools while a thunder and lightning storm raged and copious amounts of rain fell.

It was really cool to experience our first of many Costa Rica thunder storms sitting in these natural hot pools while a thunder and lightning storm raged and copious amounts of rain fell.

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The only level place in the whole hot springs was the bathroom. So that’s where we did our morning stretches. How convenient, all our morning “duties” out of the way in one room!

The only level place in the whole hot springs was the bathroom. So that’s where we did our morning stretches. How convenient, all our morning “duties” out of the way in one room!

The road the next morning led us into ever thicker jungle.  Or is that rain forest? We still haven’t figured out the difference.

The road the next morning led us into ever thicker jungle. Or is that rain forest? We still haven’t figured out the difference.

Lake Arenal is a good sized, man-made lake. It took about three hours to drive around two thirds of it on a slow, very windy, rain soaked, but paved road.

Lake Arenal is a good sized, man-made lake. It took about three hours to drive around two thirds of it on a slow, very windy, rain soaked, but paved road.

We stopped for a late breakfast at this wonderful German (!) bakery. Its owner was a German guy who started the place 14 years ago and admitted to us he’d been stuck there about 13 years too long. Our food arrived looking so good that we dived in without snapping a photo…sorry ‘bout that.  But we sure enjoyed our bratwurst, eggs, pretzel and apple strudel!

We stopped for a late breakfast at this wonderful German (!) bakery. Its owner was a German guy who started the place 14 years ago and admitted to us he’d been stuck there about 13 years too long. Our food arrived looking so good that we dived in without snapping a photo…sorry ‘bout that. But we sure enjoyed our bratwurst, eggs, pretzel and apple strudel!

Charlotte and Vaca Muerta had some admirers on the road towards the Pacific coast after leaving Lake Arenal and heading west.

Charlotte and Vaca Muerta had some admirers on the road towards the Pacific coast after leaving Lake Arenal and heading west.

We got a kick out of these tree fences the first time we saw them. Turns out they are everywhere in Costa Rica. The trees grow so fast that people just plant ‘em in a row, string some barbed wire and they are good to go.

We got a kick out of these tree fences the first time we saw them. Turns out they are everywhere in Costa Rica. The trees grow so fast that people just plant ‘em in a row, string some barbed wire and they are good to go.

Here you can see a mature tree fence keeping those happy Costa Rican cows from climbing further up the mountain.

Here you can see a mature tree fence keeping those happy Costa Rican cows from climbing further up the mountain.

After Arenal in the upper right hand corner, we headed southwest to the coast of the Peninsula de Nicoya. We stopped first to the left of my finger at Samara for a night. The next day we headed south down the coast on dirt roads all the way to the tip. Along the way we found some good muddy roads, some deep river crossings and got lost more than once. After dinner in Playa Santa Teresa we continued driving long into the night. Originally we thought we’d get back up into the mountains of the interior and it would be cooler with less bugs. Wrong! I ended up driving in a big circle until midnight and wound up back at the top of the peninsula where we originally came in. (directly above my finger)

After Arenal in the upper right hand corner, we headed southwest to the coast of the Peninsula de Nicoya. We stopped first to the left of my finger at Samara for a night. The next day we headed south down the coast on dirt roads all the way to the tip. Along the way we found some good muddy roads, some deep river crossings and got lost more than once. After dinner in Playa Santa Teresa we continued driving long into the night. Originally we thought we’d get back up into the mountains of the interior and it would be cooler with less bugs. Wrong! I ended up driving in a big circle until midnight and wound up back at the top of the peninsula where we originally came in. (directly above my finger)

Upon arriving at the Pacific Ocean in Samara, Surfer Ned (from Nevada) checks out the tubing action and decides to suit up and paddle out.

Upon arriving at the Pacific Ocean in Samara, Surfer Ned (from Nevada) checks out the tubing action and decides to suit up and paddle out.

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Wow! Big action on a rented Boogie Board.

Wow! Big action on a rented Boogie Board.

That was enough water for me! However, Kat says that’s the biggest smile she’s seen in a long while. Maybe I’m missing my calling here?

That was enough water for me! However, Kat says that’s the biggest smile she’s seen in a long while. Maybe I’m missing my calling here?

I preferred the dry beach, (no rain for a moment) a cold beer, a nice sunset...

I preferred the dry beach, (no rain for a moment) a cold beer, a nice sunset…

…making faces with the locals…

…making faces with the locals…

…and pigging out on this fresh fish/shellfish platter!

…and pigging out on this fresh fish/shellfish platter!

We spent a hot and muggy, but dry night in Charlotte (glad we’re not in a tent!) watching crazy rain and awesome lightning. The next morning we headed south down dirt roads with great views along the coast.

We spent a hot and muggy, but dry night in Charlotte (glad we’re not in a tent!) watching crazy rain and awesome lightning. The next morning we headed south down dirt roads with great views along the coast.

“OH MY!” take one…

“OH MY!” take one…

These colorful little guys were everywhere along the road. They were miles inland from the beach/water but seemed pretty happy just running around in the road. We watched one tumble about 40 feet down an embankment end over end, only to shake it off and start climbing up the cliff again. We learned later that they are deadly poisonous to eat.

These colorful little guys were everywhere along the road. They were miles inland from the beach/water but seemed pretty happy just running around in the road. We watched one tumble about 40 feet down an embankment end over end, only to shake it off and start climbing up the cliff again. We learned later that they are deadly poisonous to eat.

Happy Costa Rican cows and happy Costa Rican cowboy. All the cattle we saw were Indian Brahmas. Presumably they hold up better in the tropical heat and wet than other breeds?  We also couldn’t figure out why, despite green grass everywhere, they always looked skinny.

Happy Costa Rican cows and happy Costa Rican cowboy. All the cattle we saw were Indian Brahmas. Presumably they hold up better in the tropical heat and wet than other breeds? We also couldn’t figure out why, despite green grass everywhere, they always looked skinny.

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The first river crossing we came to was a no-go for sure. Rio Bongo was flooded way over its banks, causing us to backtrack and drive around endless muddy roads most of the afternoon, half lost, trying to get further south and back to the coast.

The first river crossing we came to was a no-go for sure. Rio Bongo was flooded way over its banks, causing us to backtrack and drive around endless muddy roads most of the afternoon, half lost, trying to get further south and back to the coast.

We made it through, though. This was land’s end at the bottom of the peninsula.

We made it through, though. This was land’s end at the bottom of the peninsula.

We headed back north along the coast watching the sun sink into the Pacific.

We headed back north along the coast watching the sun sink into the Pacific.

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Once dark we found ourselves deep in the steamy jungle again, looking for a way north and east into the mountains, hoping to find a cooler, less buggy place to spend the night. We kept running into flooded rivers which I had to wade first in order to see if they were too deep for Charlotte. Fortunately, none were more than knee deep and she motored through them like a Chris-Craft. They do look more ominous in the dark though.

Once dark we found ourselves deep in the steamy jungle again, looking for a way north and east into the mountains, hoping to find a cooler, less buggy place to spend the night. We kept running into flooded rivers which I had to wade first in order to see if they were too deep for Charlotte. Fortunately, none were more than knee deep and she motored through them like a Chris-Craft. They do look more ominous in the dark though.

Good driving lights are a savior on dark nights in the jungle! But horses? Where are the elephants, rhinos and big cats?

Good driving lights are a savior on dark nights in the jungle! But horses? Where are the elephants, rhinos and big cats?

I wound up pulling into the parking lot of this deserted restaurant around midnight. Within minutes some guy appeared out of the dark and asked what we were doing. After explaining we were looking for a place to sleep and if they had breakfast in the morning, we were once again welcomed with open arms. Restaurant parking lots are the ultimate home on the road!

I wound up pulling into the parking lot of this deserted restaurant around midnight. Within minutes some guy appeared out of the dark and asked what we were doing. After explaining we were looking for a place to sleep and if they had breakfast in the morning, we were once again welcomed with open arms. Restaurant parking lots are the ultimate home on the road!

At midnight the restaurant owner had told us that the kitchen would open for breakfast at 8am.  Perfect. However, at 6am sharp, Enny came to tell us cheerily that the “cocina” was open! Time to get up! Don’t want to keep our self-appointed hosts waiting. We ended up having a great breakfast and a nice chat with Enny who had only owned the place for two years. It was a huge restaurant set up for tour bus groups, but she told us the busses were few and far between. Out back was a nice swimming pool which she said the locals come to use daily and that income appeared to keep the place going. We almost felt guilty that she opened up her big kitchen just for us. I think we were probably her only customers that day.

At midnight the restaurant owner had told us that the kitchen would open for breakfast at 8am. Perfect. However, at 6am sharp, Enny came to tell us cheerily that the “cocina” was open! Time to get up! Don’t want to keep our self-appointed hosts waiting. We ended up having a great breakfast and a nice chat with Enny who had only owned the place for two years. It was a huge restaurant set up for tour bus groups, but she told us the busses were few and far between. Out back was a nice swimming pool which she said the locals come to use daily and that income appeared to keep the place going. We almost felt guilty that she opened up her big kitchen just for us. I think we were probably her only customers that day.

Our big loop of the Peninsula de Nicoya took us back to the Parque Nacional Barra Honda which we’d read had a cool cave tour… Later we drove back down the paved road along the northern side of the peninsula and took the ferry (dotted line) back to the mainland. From there we headed south along the Pacific coast.

Our big loop of the Peninsula de Nicoya took us back to the Parque Nacional Barra Honda which we’d read had a cool cave tour… Later we drove back down the paved road along the northern side of the peninsula and took the ferry (dotted line) back to the mainland. From there we headed south along the Pacific coast.

Joe and Mariela were our guides in the Parque Nacional Barra Honda. The park has 42 discovered caves, but many more are thought to still be in hiding. We first drove our guides in Charlotte up a steep 4WD road for about half an hour. (Sure don’t get to do that in a stateside national park!) Then we spent about an hour hiking in the jungle to the cave. Once at the cave we roped up and descended over 70 feet straight down into it and spent the next hour exploring an awesome underground fantasy world.

Joe and Mariela were our guides in the Parque Nacional Barra Honda. The park has 42 discovered caves, but many more are thought to still be in hiding. We first drove our guides in Charlotte up a steep 4WD road for about half an hour. (Sure don’t get to do that in a stateside national park!) Then we spent about an hour hiking in the jungle to the cave. Once at the cave we roped up and descended over 70 feet straight down into it and spent the next hour exploring an awesome underground fantasy world.

Interesting flora and fauna along our jungle walk included this “pokey tree.” Being the brilliant naturalists that we are, you’ll have to follow someone else’s blog to learn the official names of these things.

Interesting flora and fauna along our jungle walk included this “pokey tree.” Being the brilliant naturalists that we are, you’ll have to follow someone else’s blog to learn the official names of these things.

A seed pod that when broken open contained syrup that tasted like chocolate mixed with honey.  The natives used it to sweeten beverages (that is until packaged sugar arrived!).

A seed pod that when broken open contained syrup that tasted like chocolate mixed with honey. The natives used it to sweeten beverages (that is until packaged sugar arrived!).

Smart worm.  The best camouflage ever.  Who wants to eat a bird turd?

Smart worm. The best camouflage ever. Who wants to eat a bird turd?

Another seed pod that looked like the Fuller Brush Man had been there. Anybody remember him, or are we really dating ourselves?

Another seed pod that looked like the Fuller Brush Man had been there. Anybody remember him, or are we really dating ourselves?

Green lizards

Green lizards

Big yellow frogs

Big yellow frogs

Ready to descend.

Ready to descend.

Going down.

Going down.

Here I’m looking down the 70 foot ladder to Kat and Joe at the bottom.

Here I’m looking down the 70 foot ladder to Kat and Joe at the bottom.

First stalactites

First stalactites

“OH MY!”  take two.

“OH MY!” take two.

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We’ve been in some really cool caves, but this one may have topped them all.

We’ve been in some really cool caves, but this one may have topped them all.

After the cave, we drove back down the peninsula and caught the 5pm ferry to the mainland.  We spent the crossing having cocktail hour (beer) in Charlotte, feeling nice and dry as the rain hammered her windows

After the cave, we drove back down the peninsula and caught the 5pm ferry to the mainland. We spent the crossing having cocktail hour (beer) in Charlotte, feeling nice and dry as the rain hammered her windows

After a night in Jaco along the coast, to the left before the map starts, we tootled down the coast until we arrived in Sierpe where my finger is. We really liked this very un-touristy little ‘burg which is off the beaten path. The waiter at the German Bakery had told us about it and about a boat ride in the mangrove swamps that was not to be missed.

After a night in Jaco along the coast, to the left before the map starts, we tootled down the coast until we arrived in Sierpe where my finger is. We really liked this very un-touristy little ‘burg which is off the beaten path. The waiter at the German Bakery had told us about it and about a boat ride in the mangrove swamps that was not to be missed.

Have we mentioned it rained most of the day… Everyday. Somewhere along this leg to Sierpe Charlotte rolled 10,000 miles from home.

Have we mentioned it rained most of the day… Everyday. Somewhere along this leg to Sierpe Charlotte rolled 10,000 miles from home.

We had a pizza dinner in this open air restaurant along the river in Sierpe. The cool mural was enhanced by the rain hammering on the tin roof, and the lightning reflecting off the river enhanced the tree growing out of my head.

We had a pizza dinner in this open air restaurant along the river in Sierpe. The cool mural was enhanced by the rain hammering on the tin roof, and the lightning reflecting off the river enhanced the tree growing out of my head.

The restaurant kept this poor crab on a string as a pet. He lived in a potted plant.

The restaurant kept this poor crab on a string as a pet. He lived in a potted plant.

It was a rainy night.

It was a rainy night.

At 6am the next morning the sun was shining brightly and so were we, as we set out on our boat ride through the mangroves to look for critters.

At 6am the next morning the sun was shining brightly and so were we, as we set out on our boat ride through the mangroves to look for critters.

And here are some of the critters we saw…

And here are some of the critters we saw…

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Jesus Christ lizard – because they can run on water for over 100 yards we were told!

Jesus Christ lizard – because they can run on water for over 100 yards we were told!

Just chillin’

Just chillin’

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Macaw!

Macaw!

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Just missed a full faced shot of this Ocelot. Oscar was very excited because in six years of doing these tours, he had never seen one.

Just missed a full faced shot of this Ocelot. Oscar was very excited because in six years of doing these tours, he had never seen one.

Mangrove roots look cool at low tide.  Oscar told us the river level varies by over seven feet with the Pacific tides.

Mangrove roots look cool at low tide. Oscar told us the river level varies by over seven feet with the Pacific tides.

We first saw these floating Hyacinth plants in the Mekong River in Cambodia and nick-named them “salad bars.” Our guide Oscar in Sierpe explained how they came to be in CR. According to Oscar, the plants were originally introduced by the infamous United Fruit Co. to clean up the toxic pollution the company created in the Costa Rican waterways, mostly from palm oil production.

We first saw these floating Hyacinth plants in the Mekong River in Cambodia and nick-named them “salad bars.” Our guide Oscar in Sierpe explained how they came to be in CR. According to Oscar, the plants were originally introduced by the infamous United Fruit Co. to clean up the toxic pollution the company created in the Costa Rican waterways, mostly from palm oil production.

Besides keeping the river clean, Hyacinths have nice, pretty flowers.

Besides keeping the river clean, Hyacinths have nice, pretty flowers.

A native totem pole to the Green Monkey God.

A native totem pole to the Green Monkey God.

Oh wait…that last shot got turned sideways!

Oh wait…that last shot got turned sideways!

The reflections off the river were magical…

The reflections off the river were magical…

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Our little pink hut where we spent the night.

Our little pink hut where we spent the night.

The inside was far from pink. All the upper lattice-like walls were open air with screens. The big fan made AC unnecessary, and the rain serenaded us to sleep.

The inside was far from pink. All the upper lattice-like walls were open air with screens. The big fan made AC unnecessary, and the rain serenaded us to sleep.

Charlotte found a VW friend in this cool ’63 Splittie owned by our innkeeper, Edwardo. A sharp eye will notice that the bus has been shortened about two feet in its center. This modification was done in the mid 70’s before someone drove the bus down to Costa Rica. Edwardo has owned it 36 years and drives it every day.

Charlotte found a VW friend in this cool ’63 Splittie owned by our innkeeper, Edwardo. A sharp eye will notice that the bus has been shortened about two feet in its center. This modification was done in the mid 70’s before someone drove the bus down to Costa Rica. Edwardo has owned it 36 years and drives it every day.

Edwardo’s garden was full of nice pretty flowers and butterflies.

Edwardo’s garden was full of nice pretty flowers and butterflies.

From Sierpe we headed north and then east again, up the Pan Am and over the highest pass in CR. Our goal was to cross to the Caribbean side of the country before exiting into Panama.

From Sierpe we headed north and then east again, up the Pan Am and over the highest pass in CR. Our goal was to cross to the Caribbean side of the country before exiting into Panama.

Ugg! We really don’t like the Pan American Highway. The few times we have had to be on it, it has been choked with trucks. This day was no different.

Ugg! We really don’t like the Pan American Highway. The few times we have had to be on it, it has been choked with trucks. This day was no different.

We did have open road at the top of what we’ll call “No Name Pass.” We climbed and climbed for about an hour, much of it in second gear. When the road finally leveled out and descended, our GPS said we’d climbed from sea level to 10,979 feet! There were no signs or any fanfare denoting this as anything unusual.

We did have open road at the top of what we’ll call “No Name Pass.” We climbed and climbed for about an hour, much of it in second gear. When the road finally leveled out and descended, our GPS said we’d climbed from sea level to 10,979 feet! There were no signs or any fanfare denoting this as anything unusual.

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We didn’t make the Caribbean side that day but instead drove off up a dirt road into the mountains in search of whatever. We just like the mountains better than the ocean. This was our camp site for the night. It was up a steep track that didn’t look very used and was slick from the endless rain. There was a wonderfully loud, rushing creek and waterfall just behind Charlotte, but it was down in a gorge so steep and slippery you didn’t want to get too close…shades of that scene from the movie, “Romancing the Stone.” About 5am, an ancient Toyota truck crawled by us with a wrinkled farmer at the wheel. He yelled a cheerful “Buenos dias” as he motored by. Later, when we were functioning, we also motored up the trail following his tracks. They ended, along with the road, at a clearing with a shack and just enough room for the Toyota. There were hundreds of tomato plants stretching all across the impossibly steep hillsides and we could see the old guy way up the mountain waving at us.

We didn’t make the Caribbean side that day but instead drove off up a dirt road into the mountains in search of whatever. We just like the mountains better than the ocean. This was our camp site for the night. It was up a steep track that didn’t look very used and was slick from the endless rain. There was a wonderfully loud, rushing creek and waterfall just behind Charlotte, but it was down in a gorge so steep and slippery you didn’t want to get too close…shades of that scene from the movie, “Romancing the Stone.” About 5am, an ancient Toyota truck crawled by us with a wrinkled farmer at the wheel. He yelled a cheerful “Buenos dias” as he motored by. Later, when we were functioning, we also motored up the trail following his tracks. They ended, along with the road, at a clearing with a shack and just enough room for the Toyota. There were hundreds of tomato plants stretching all across the impossibly steep hillsides and we could see the old guy way up the mountain waving at us.

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Up in the remote mountains is where we like to be.

Up in the remote mountains is where we like to be.

Finally we made it to the Caribbean coast and wound up in the funky town of Cahuita. It had a decidedly Rasta air about it with stoned-looking ex-pats wandering the streets and dreadlocked Marley look-a-likes offering us ganja on every corner. The yellow squiggly line is the border with Panama and where the Sharpee line ends is where we crossed into Panama.

Finally we made it to the Caribbean coast and wound up in the funky town of Cahuita. It had a decidedly Rasta air about it with stoned-looking ex-pats wandering the streets and dreadlocked Marley look-a-likes offering us ganja on every corner. The yellow squiggly line is the border with Panama and where the Sharpee line ends is where we crossed into Panama.

We had dinner at a cool Italian place that featured two huge couches with coffee tables and the biggest flat screen in Costa Rica. We ate dinner on a couch watching ‘80s MTV re-runs. At around 8pm it was movie time and the night’s feature was “The Book Thief.” Nothing like a last night in Costa Rica consisting of Italian food, mixed with WW2 Nazi drama, in a smoky Rastafarian village on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Ah, global living at its finest!

We had dinner at a cool Italian place that featured two huge couches with coffee tables and the biggest flat screen in Costa Rica. We ate dinner on a couch watching ‘80s MTV re-runs. At around 8pm it was movie time and the night’s feature was “The Book Thief.” Nothing like a last night in Costa Rica consisting of Italian food, mixed with WW2 Nazi drama, in a smoky Rastafarian village on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Ah, global living at its finest!

Our final Costa Rican resting place was in a parking lot next to the beach, right smack in the middle of Cahuita. Not a soul paid us any mind.  Pura Vida!

Our final Costa Rican resting place was in a parking lot next to the beach, right smack in the middle of Cahuita. Not a soul paid us any mind. Pura Vida!

El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – The Mad Dash to Costa Rica.

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…
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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!

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

In the kitchen.

Scrambled eggs, beans, fried plantains, homemade tortillas and fresh fruit. The presentation was almost too beautiful to dive into.

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.

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.

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.

After breakfast Carlos showed us his house and gardens (attached to the restaurant). The home has been in his family for four generations.

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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.

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.

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This lovely lady turned out to be Carlos’ mom!

This lovely lady turned out to be Carlos’ mom!

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Frog anyone?

Frog anyone?

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…

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.

…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.

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?

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!

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.

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!

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!

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!

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Guatemala – “Toto, we’re not in Mexico anymore!”

Sunday March 9, 2014

Bellies bulging with Belize barbeque, we headed for Guatemala and the first of what we had come to anticipate as “the dreaded Central American border crossings.” Certain borders around the world are infamous for dingy, clapped out government shacks, power-bloated brainless officials, absurd bureaucratic regulations, and wild goose chases to procure documents that make no sense at all. From what we had heard, the crossings between Central American countries were among the worse, taking anywhere from two hours to an entire day.

Exiting Belize was no problem at all. A quick stop at immigration to exit stamp our passports, a second stop at customs to cancel Charlotte’s vehicle permit, and we were out. We had hidden Vaca Muerta on the roof to avoid the problems of confiscation like we had in Belize and were ready to enter our next country. Well armed with information from fellow travelers who had gone before us and plenty of photocopies of our travel documents, we confidently drove through the “no man’s land” between countries and advanced to our first task…fumigation. Just like in Belize, Charlotte had to be bug sprayed. Unlike Belize, however, we had to drive her through a “car wash” where scary chemicals were spewed at her instead of soap and water, and we got to watch with horror from inside. Our second task was to drive to a dingy shack to pay for the privilege of being poisoned.

Next we had to obtain our visas, and we had heard that although most people are unscrupulously charged 20 quetzales (about 3 bucks) per person, the visas should actually be free. At the immigration window, the surly woman relieved us of 20 quetzales each. We thought about arguing for a moment, but really, they have all the cookies, don’t they? We just wanted to get into Guatemala and continue our trip!

The weather was hot and muggy and crowds of people milled around. Some, like us, were crossing the borders, while others were hawking either money exchange or “fixer” services. Fixers are people who, for a charge, will guide you through the sometimes complicated process of getting through the red-tape snarls of exiting and entering different countries.

We accepted the money exchange service, but turned down the fixers. We did welcome their friendly help, however, in pointing out the customs building where we needed to obtain Charlotte’s permit.

The middle aged man at the counter in the stuffy customs building was mildly friendly with an edge of sarcasm, and it was all going just fine until he asked for a copy of Ned’s newly stamped passport. We had copies of everything else, but how were you supposed to have a copy of something that just occurred? Well, just like at the Ferry in Mexico, there was another building where you could get copies…except it was Sunday and they were closed. We asked if he could waive this requirement since there was no way to get the copy, and with a little smirk he told us to take a taxi into town. We then proceeded to argue with him. Big mistake. Stone wall. We hailed a cabbie and were driven into the dirty border town of Mencos. The first place was closed, and the copier was broken at the second. Sweating profusely in the non air conditioned taxi, we arrived at the third shop where we made the irksome copy.

Victoriously waiving our photocopy, we approached the counter, grateful that no one else was in line. “Stone-wall” however, turned away from us and made a big show of watching the soccer game on the big screen TV behind him (the only modern item in the whole place). Like I said, they have all the cookies. It never pays to argue with border officials. 25 minutes later he completed three minutes of paperwork. We took our vehicle permit, got in Charlotte and slunk away thinking that at least it was all over. Unfortunately, it was not. There was still one more bridge to cross…literally.

We remembered reading about this bridge which was infamous for toll takers taking way more than the actual toll and pocketing the rest. The actual fee was supposed to be 10 quetzales (about $1.50) but some people reported being charged anywhere from 20 to 40. Granted, we are obviously not talking about a lot of money, but the feeling of being taken advantage of is never fun. We were also still raw from the whipping we took getting in the door, so our incensed reaction when the woman asked for 50q’s was not too surprising. We huffed and puffed and said we wouldn’t pay that much. She threatened to call the police, and we said, “Yes, please call the police! In the meantime, we were blocking traffic, so we pulled over and began asking the locals how much they had to pay. Some said they lived here, so did not have to pay anything. Others said they paid the 10. Through it all, the expression on the woman’s face did not change. Not one muscle. She made old Stone Wall look quite animated.

In the end, we gave up. We paid the 50 quetzales and drove away feeling dispirited. But really, there was no use arguing. It was not worth the slim possibility of having the police after you in a foreign country to scoot off without paying. And besides, the six extra bucks meant practically nothing to us, whereas, here in Guatemala, it would go a long way toward feeding a family.

Charlotte’s chemical bath house.

Charlotte’s chemical bath house.


One of the hawkers was this kid selling bottles of whisky.

One of the hawkers was this kid selling bottles of whisky.


As evening was settling in, we came into the quiet little town of Poptún.  The higher elevation brought relief from the heat, and we found a nice restaurant for dinner.  The manager/chef was a young man named Adrian who was born in Guatemala, but raised in Boston.  He had recently moved back to Guatemala to help his elderly father on the family farm.  Adrian had worked for Texas Roadhouse in Boston as a chef, and was trying to revive the restaurant which was owned by a lovely woman named Iris.  Adrian was as bold and entertaining as Iris was warm and quiet.  They graciously allowed us to camp in the enclosed backyard where we gratefully spent a peaceful night.

As evening was settling in, we came into the quiet little town of Poptún. The higher elevation brought relief from the heat, and we found a nice restaurant for dinner. The manager/chef was a young man named Adrian who was born in Guatemala, but raised in Boston. He had recently moved back to Guatemala to help his elderly father on the family farm. Adrian had worked for Texas Roadhouse in Boston as a chef, and was trying to revive the restaurant which was owned by a lovely woman named Iris. Adrian was as bold and entertaining as Iris was warm and quiet. They graciously allowed us to camp in the enclosed backyard where we gratefully spent a peaceful night.


This sweet gentleman came begging money while we were eating dinner.  Guatemala, like the rest of Central America had been war torn for years and is much poorer than Mexico.  We would find a reoccurring theme of begging and being over charged.

This sweet gentleman came begging money while we were eating dinner. Guatemala, like the rest of Central America had been war torn for years and is much poorer than Mexico. We would find a reoccurring theme of begging and being over charged.


After breakfast at Adrian and Iris’ restaurant, we hit the road and headed southeast finding ourselves on a very rough, remote dirt road through mountainous jungles and tiny villages.  We have always made a habit of removing our sunglasses and waving at the local people as we drive by and had become used to the big welcoming smiles of the Belizeans and Mexicans.

After breakfast at Adrian and Iris’ restaurant, we hit the road and headed southeast finding ourselves on a very rough, remote dirt road through mountainous jungles and tiny villages. We have always made a habit of removing our sunglasses and waving at the local people as we drive by and had become used to the big welcoming smiles of the Belizeans and Mexicans.


Some of the Guatemala people were friendly, some gave us dirty looks, while others, like this family were just plain wary.  In most of Guatemala, we found that the women wore lovely woven clothing.  In each local area, however they had slightly different ways of wearing their skirts and tops.  The clothing was all somewhat colorful but, like the people, a bit more subdued than in Mexico.  We tried to hand out “dulces” to the kids, but received only blank stares.  We were puzzled, and I finally got out and asked one of the young mothers, showing her the candy.  She told me that they call them bon-bons.  We revised our language and had plenty of takers!

Some of the Guatemala people were friendly, some gave us dirty looks, while others, like this family were just plain wary. In most of Guatemala, we found that the women wore lovely woven clothing. In each local area, however they had slightly different ways of wearing their skirts and tops. The clothing was all somewhat colorful but, like the people, a bit more subdued than in Mexico. We tried to hand out “dulces” to the kids, but received only blank stares. We were puzzled, and I finally got out and asked one of the young mothers, showing her the candy. She told me that they call them bon-bons. We revised our language and had plenty of takers!


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This was a very poor area, but oddly, nearly all of the dirt-floored houses had satellite dishes.

This was a very poor area, but oddly, nearly all of the dirt-floored houses had satellite dishes.


Boys on the loose.

Boys on the loose.


Water Buffalo on the loose.

Water Buffalo on the loose.


Pigs on the loose…looks like these guys are running away from being dinner!

Pigs on the loose…looks like these guys are running away from being dinner!


We drove through the slightly seedy town of Sebol, and at 4:00, we were stopped by a construction road block.  The worker said the road would open at 6:00 or 7:00.  Evidently the problem was a big rock slide, and they had been working on it for a month.  We were in a tiny village with a shack "tienda" (store).  I decided that if we were going to have to hang out there for the duration we should make friends, but it was not to be.

We drove through the slightly seedy town of Sebol, and at 4:00, we were stopped by a construction road block. The worker said the road would open at 6:00 or 7:00. Evidently the problem was a big rock slide, and they had been working on it for a month. We were in a tiny village with a shack “tienda” (store). I decided that if we were going to have to hang out there for the duration we should make friends, but it was not to be.


I got out and found that they had beer but no refrigeration.  I then went to give my tire tread sandals away since they didn't fit that well.  I asked if anyone could use them.  First the women asked if it was a gift, and I said “Of course” (again, the cynical money side of Guatemala; everyone with their hand out).  Then they thought the sandals were funny.  I noticed all of the women had croc-like sandals, the ones charities give away in villages like these.  I guess there was not as big a need for shoes here.

I got out and found that they had beer but no refrigeration. I then went to give my tire tread sandals away since they didn’t fit that well. I asked if anyone could use them. First the women asked if it was a gift, and I said “Of course” (again, the cynical money side of Guatemala; everyone with their hand out). Then they thought the sandals were funny. I noticed all of the women had croc-like sandals, the ones charities give away in villages like these. I guess there was not as big a need for shoes here.


The women giggled as they handed my poor sandals around.  I explained that they were hand made in Mascota Mexico.  They seemed curious, but not very impressed.

The women giggled as they handed my poor sandals around. I explained that they were hand made in Mascota Mexico. They seemed curious, but not very impressed.

We made the mistake of handing out bon bons.  The kids took the candy, but still, no one was very friendly.  I went back to sit in Charlotte with Ned, and the kids began begging more and more bon-bons.  I decided to teach them to count 1-5 in English in exchange for bon-bons, and they seemed eager to learn (or they wanted more candy!)  Three teenagers arrived at the tienda, looking kind of bad-ass.  Uh oh, not great.  One peeled off and arrived at my window with the now infamous Mexico sandals.  He turned out to be the best of the bunch.  His name was Gorge and he was truly curious about the shoes and where they came from and was impressed that I had watched the woman making them. We chatted for a while and I found out that the teenagers do learn some English, but the younger ones do not.  Gorge said their Native language was Quiché (pronounced key-chay).   He, like so many would love to come to US.  When Gorge left, the younger kids started becoming a real nuisance, yelling for more bon-bons and hanging on my door.  I closed the window, locked the doors and crawled in back to read.  The road did not open until 10pm.  Then it was like a race start, with everyone jockeying to get out of there.  We let all the crazies go and navigated the final five miles of torn up dirt road in the pitch dark, blessedly alone.

We made the mistake of handing out bon bons. The kids took the candy, but still, no one was very friendly. I went back to sit in Charlotte with Ned, and the kids began begging more and more bon-bons. I decided to teach them to count 1-5 in English in exchange for bon-bons, and they seemed eager to learn (or they wanted more candy!) Three teenagers arrived at the tienda, looking kind of bad-ass. Uh oh, not great. One peeled off and arrived at my window with the now infamous Mexico sandals. He turned out to be the best of the bunch. His name was Gorge and he was truly curious about the shoes and where they came from and was impressed that I had watched the woman making them. We chatted for a while and I found out that the teenagers do learn some English, but the younger ones do not. Gorge said their Native language was Quiché (pronounced key-chay). He, like so many would love to come to US. When Gorge left, the younger kids started becoming a real nuisance, yelling for more bon-bons and hanging on my door. I closed the window, locked the doors and crawled in back to read. The road did not open until 10pm. Then it was like a race start, with everyone jockeying to get out of there. We let all the crazies go and navigated the final five miles of torn up dirt road in the pitch dark, blessedly alone.

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Our destination had been to the semi-famous pools at Semuc Champey, but we did not get to Languin, a town outside Semuc until 11:30 that night.   We spotted a rustic hotel, but it looked dark and closed up. We idled outside for a minute, and a kind man came and let us in the gate to sleep in the parking lot.  He even invited us to swim in this lovely pool…eeek!

Our destination had been to the semi-famous pools at Semuc Champey, but we did not get to Languin, a town outside Semuc until 11:30 that night. We spotted a rustic hotel, but it looked dark and closed up. We idled outside for a minute, and a kind man came and let us in the gate to sleep in the parking lot. He even invited us to swim in this lovely pool…eeek!


We passed another quiet night and had breakfast at the hotel.  Heading to the pools, we dropped about 4,000 vertical feet to get to the river.

We passed another quiet night and had breakfast at the hotel. Heading to the pools, we dropped about 4,000 vertical feet to get to the river.


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The pools at Semuc Champey are remote!  We drove for miles on a rough dirt road and found ourselves deep in the heart of the Guatemala jungle wilderness.  It was hot and humid, and the pools looked very inviting.

The pools at Semuc Champey are remote! We drove for miles on a rough dirt road and found ourselves deep in the heart of the Guatemala jungle wilderness. It was hot and humid, and the pools looked very inviting.


But we decided to hike up to the lookout first.

But we decided to hike up to the lookout first.


We had sweat off all of our bug spray by the time we got to the top, but the view was worth it.  The pools were gorgeous.

We had sweat off all of our bug spray by the time we got to the top, but the view was worth it. The pools were gorgeous.


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This guy hid in the foliage and entertained himself by watching sweaty humans struggle through the hour long hike.

This guy hid in the foliage and entertained himself by watching sweaty humans struggle through the hour long hike.


Ahhh, finally, swimming in the pools was amazing.  Beautiful cool, clear, water and lovely little cascades in a wild jungle setting.

Ahhh, finally, swimming in the pools was amazing. Beautiful cool, clear, water and lovely little cascades in a wild jungle setting.


Charlotte does not have air conditioning, so we always appreciate moments of reprieve as we drive back up into elevation and cooler temperatures.

Charlotte does not have air conditioning, so we always appreciate moments of reprieve as we drive back up into elevation and cooler temperatures.


On the paved roads again…this was one of three tour bus drivers we saw crashed out at this gas station, waiting for their tour-ees to finish touring.

On the paved roads again…this was one of three tour bus drivers we saw crashed out at this gas station, waiting for their tour-ees to finish touring.


We continued southeast to the city of Coban which was big and semi-modern.  We loved these counting down street lights!  Later, the suburbs came as a total surprise.  They were very modern, and, being evening, we passed dozens of people out jogging of all things!  We hadn't seen anything like that since we left home.  It was as if someone flipped a switch and we were transported somewhere else.

We continued southeast to the city of Coban which was big and semi-modern. We loved these counting down street lights!
Later, the suburbs came as a total surprise. They were very modern, and, being evening, we passed dozens of people out jogging of all things! We hadn’t seen anything like that since we left home. It was as if someone flipped a switch and we were transported somewhere else.


We found a beautiful restaurant/hotel in Santa Cruz Verapaz.  The wait staff was very friendly, and, when asked, eagerly said we could camp in the parking lot…another great camping score!  We were missing our remote, hiding in the back country camping, but so far, there just wasn’t anywhere appropriate.  There was either populated farmland or steep, rocky, inaccessible jungle.

We found a beautiful restaurant/hotel in Santa Cruz Verapaz. The wait staff was very friendly, and, when asked, eagerly said we could camp in the parking lot…another great camping score! We were missing our remote, hiding in the back country camping, but so far, there just wasn’t anywhere appropriate. There was either populated farmland or steep, rocky, inaccessible jungle.


We met the owner, Roberto and his girlfriend Cinthia.  Roberto was very intense, but warm hearted, and we had a good time eating his great food and visiting.

We met the owner, Roberto and his girlfriend Cinthia. Roberto was very intense, but warm hearted, and we had a good time eating his great food and visiting.


The busses of Guatemala seemed to be the most colorful and vivacious enterprise in the entire country.  Privately owned with lots of competition, each one strove to out-decorate and out-drive the others.  Charlotte had to be on her toes to avoid being run down by these flashy demons of the highways.

The busses of Guatemala seemed to be the most colorful and vivacious enterprise in the entire country. Privately owned with lots of competition, each one strove to out-decorate and out-drive the others. Charlotte had to be on her toes to avoid being run down by these flashy demons of the highways.

Guatemala, like much of Mexico was part of the Mayan empire, giving it its rich cultural heritage and native costumes.  Later becoming a Spanish colony, Guatemala gained its independence in 1821.  Like most of the Central American region, a series of democracies and dictatorships left the country with political unrest, and years of civil war have left deep physical and mental scars.  In 1996, the civil wars ended, and the government has been stable, becoming a representative democracy.  Since then the county has seen both economic growth and successful democratic elections.  Interestingly, however, there are about thirteen different political parties ceaselessly vying for power.  The effect is a staggering amount of advertising in the form of hand painting and stenciling on the landscape.  Absolutely nothing is sacred and every available surface is used to dizzying effect.   Power polls, guard rails, trees, rocks, houses, curbs, anything they can slap paint on sport the colors of one or multiple parties.  For us it became visually noisy and irritating, like being politically badgered, and our photos do not do justice to the amount of paint we saw. The countryside would have been quite pretty, but the constant mental input was too distracting. We found out later, that painting the countryside for political advertising is illegal, but the fine is only $100, so they continue to do it.  I don’t know what these parties stand for, but just for fun, here are few we were able to discern (some of you may be curious enough to Google them!): Red and white:  Lider (the obvious leader at the moment and winner of The Most Paint Used contest) Purple:  Todos Green:  Line Orange:  Patriot

Guatemala, like much of Mexico was part of the Mayan empire, giving it its rich cultural heritage and native costumes. Later becoming a Spanish colony, Guatemala gained its independence in 1821. Like most of the Central American region, a series of democracies and dictatorships left the country with political unrest, and years of civil war have left deep physical and mental scars.

In 1996, the civil wars ended, and the government has been stable, becoming a representative democracy. Since then the county has seen both economic growth and successful democratic elections. Interestingly, however, there are about thirteen different political parties ceaselessly vying for power. The effect is a staggering amount of advertising in the form of hand painting and stenciling on the landscape. Absolutely nothing is sacred and every available surface is used to dizzying effect. Power polls, guard rails, trees, rocks, houses, curbs, anything they can slap paint on sport the colors of one or multiple parties. For us it became visually noisy and irritating, like being politically badgered, and our photos do not do justice to the amount of paint we saw. The countryside would have been quite pretty, but the constant mental input was too distracting.
We found out later, that painting the countryside for political advertising is illegal, but the fine is only $100, so they continue to do it. I don’t know what these parties stand for, but just for fun, here are few we were able to discern (some of you may be curious enough to Google them!):

Red and white: Lider (the obvious leader at the moment and winner of The Most Paint Used contest)
Purple: Todos
Green: Line
Orange: Patriot


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Continuing ever southward, our destination was now Lago de Atitlán which we had heard was quite nice.  We found ourselves on another rough dirt road and wound our way sinuously along in first and second gear for about 50 miles.  After three hours, the road turned to pavement but was full of pot holes and still steep and windy, so we continued to creep along in low, slow gears. We finally arrived at a town called Chichicastenango which was supposed to be very colorful with a good market full of local weaving and textiles.   We found parking, and took a stroll through the market.  We normally love markets and town centers with their energy, beautiful churches and colorful displays, but this one had a bad vibe. It was dirty, and the people were more reserved.  It actually felt kind of depressing.  The church had ear splitting music playing, but it sounded creepy, like a cross between a 3rd world military march and a dirge.  We took some interesting photos and got out of there.

Continuing ever southward, our destination was now Lago de Atitlán which we had heard was quite nice. We found ourselves on another rough dirt road and wound our way sinuously along in first and second gear for about 50 miles. After three hours, the road turned to pavement but was full of pot holes and still steep and windy, so we continued to creep along in low, slow gears.

We finally arrived at a town called Chichicastenango which was supposed to be very colorful with a good market full of local weaving and textiles. We found parking, and took a stroll through the market. We normally love markets and town centers with their energy, beautiful churches and colorful displays, but this one had a bad vibe. It was dirty, and the people were more reserved. It actually felt kind of depressing. The church had ear splitting music playing, but it sounded creepy, like a cross between a 3rd world military march and a dirge. We took some interesting photos and got out of there.


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This 12 year old boy was chopping up rock-hard coconuts so fast we were amazed that he still had all of his fingers.

This 12 year old boy was chopping up rock-hard coconuts so fast we were amazed that he still had all of his fingers.


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After 200 miles and 8 long hours on rough roads, we arrived at Lago de Atitlán.

After 200 miles and 8 long hours on rough roads, we arrived at Lago de Atitlán.


The lake was touristy, but very pretty with a stunning backdrop of dueling volcanoes.  We found a hostel that let us camp in the parking lot, had a nice dinner and crawled in Charlotte for a good night’s rest. We were feeling rushed to get to Antigua, so we only stayed one night and did not do any hiking.

The lake was touristy, but very pretty with a stunning backdrop of dueling volcanoes. We found a hostel that let us camp in the parking lot, had a nice dinner and crawled in Charlotte for a good night’s rest. We were feeling rushed to get to Antigua, so we only stayed one night and did not do any hiking.


Volcano framed by the Arch of the Convento de Santa Catalina.   This is the famous picture everyone takes when they come to Antigua, Guatemala, so Ned had to take one too.  The shot was featured on nearly every Guatemala map and tourist poster we saw.

Volcano framed by the Arch of the Convento de Santa Catalina.
This is the famous picture everyone takes when they come to Antigua, Guatemala, so Ned had to take one too. The shot was featured on nearly every Guatemala map and tourist poster we saw.


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A beautiful colonial city, Antigua was full of churches, tourists and Spanish language schools.  Many people come here for weeks or months to do immersion training in Spanish.

A beautiful colonial city, Antigua was full of churches, tourists and Spanish language schools. Many people come here for weeks or months to do immersion training in Spanish.


This shop was one of the best we had ever seen.  It was an immense warehouse full of colorful, local artisan goods.

This shop was one of the best we had ever seen. It was an immense warehouse full of colorful, local artisan goods.


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On my way to pick up laundry, I spotted a sign for Salsa dancing lessons…I can be a bit of a dancing dork, but Gloria was delightfully fun and very patient.  I don’t remember a thing I learned, but I had a blast!

On my way to pick up laundry, I spotted a sign for Salsa dancing lessons…I can be a bit of a dancing dork, but Gloria was delightfully fun and very patient. I don’t remember a thing I learned, but I had a blast!


Over the last 3 months of travel, we have seen many women carrying a myriad of things on their head.  The ones that are able, pride themselves on balancing heavy loads without using their hands.  I missed the photo shot, but saw one woman carrying a full sized cooler without holding on!

Over the last 3 months of travel, we have seen many women carrying a myriad of things on their head. The ones that are able, pride themselves on balancing heavy loads without using their hands. I missed the photo shot, but saw one woman carrying a full sized cooler without holding on!


No local garb here…

No local garb here…


Wait, that’s me!  A great way to carry the laundry back and good for the posture!  Couldn’t do it sans hands, though.

Wait, that’s me! A great way to carry the laundry back and good for the posture! Couldn’t do it sans hands, though.


Night time in the main plaza of Antigua was beautiful and entertaining.

Night time in the main plaza of Antigua was beautiful and entertaining.


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At 9:30am on Saturday March 15th, we left Antigua and headed south toward the El Salvador border.  Along the way we drove through the town of Santa Maria de Jesus.  We were charmed by this scene of women washing clothes in community troughs, but it was the filthiest town we had seen yet.  The wash water was murky, and garbage plastered the streets.  In most towns and villages there is usually some evidence of pride in the community, but this one had none.  I had to ask myself why, but had no answer.  Had we stopped, we might have found out, but we were disinclined to do so.

At 9:30am on Saturday March 15th, we left Antigua and headed south toward the El Salvador border. Along the way we drove through the town of Santa Maria de Jesus. We were charmed by this scene of women washing clothes in community troughs, but it was the filthiest town we had seen yet. The wash water was murky, and garbage plastered the streets. In most towns and villages there is usually some evidence of pride in the community, but this one had none. I had to ask myself why, but had no answer. Had we stopped, we might have found out, but we were disinclined to do so.


Santa Maria had puzzlingly good concrete roads, not asphalt.  They were disgustingly dirty, but the surface was great.  Then abruptly, just out of town, we drove onto the roughest, rockiest dirt road of the whole trip.  It was slow going and lined with garbage for the entire eleven miles to Palin where we hoped to pick up a good Autopista

Santa Maria had puzzlingly good concrete roads, not asphalt. They were disgustingly dirty, but the surface was great. Then abruptly, just out of town, we drove onto the roughest, rockiest dirt road of the whole trip. It was slow going and lined with garbage for the entire eleven miles to Palin where we hoped to pick up a good Autopista


The track was literally paved with trash.  Thinking about it, it is obvious that it takes money to have clean roads and cities.  Everyone generates trash, and something has to be done with the smelly stuff.  We take it for granted that every week the nice garbage truck will show up at our curb and rid us of the unsavory residue of our day to day lives.  But what if we couldn’t afford garbage pick-up?  Or our town was too poor to provide it?  Probably, we would do as these people do and dump it wherever we could.

The track was literally paved with trash. Thinking about it, it is obvious that it takes money to have clean roads and cities. Everyone generates trash, and something has to be done with the smelly stuff. We take it for granted that every week the nice garbage truck will show up at our curb and rid us of the unsavory residue of our day to day lives. But what if we couldn’t afford garbage pick-up? Or our town was too poor to provide it? Probably, we would do as these people do and dump it wherever we could.


We passed several disgusting dump sites with smoldering garbage.  Pitiful dogs rummaged throughout.  We got the bug zapper out to kill the disease ridden flies, but the ones we picked up quickly fled back to their dumps.  Back in Belize, Emily had told us Charlotte smelled like a pet shop (what, really??).  I guess our three-month-lived-in-bus was not quite savory enough for these flies!   See if you can spot the dog…actually he was very sickly and sad.

We passed several disgusting dump sites with smoldering garbage. Pitiful dogs rummaged throughout. We got the bug zapper out to kill the disease ridden flies, but the ones we picked up quickly fled back to their dumps. Back in Belize, Emily had told us Charlotte smelled like a pet shop (what, really??). I guess our three-month-lived-in-bus was not quite savory enough for these flies!
See if you can spot the dog…actually he was very sickly and sad.


Palin was trashy too. The smoldering garbage lined road passed right under the good Autopista, but there was no way on to it.  We had to navigate our way through the crowded, grimy city.

Palin was trashy too. The smoldering garbage lined road passed right under the good Autopista, but there was no way on to it. We had to navigate our way through the crowded, grimy city.


The toll road cost $2 and was well worth it this time.  We went from the worse road in Guatemala to the best!  We found it odd, but entertaining that the left lane was painted with a speed limit of 80kph (48mph), while the right lane was marked 60 (36mph).  We took our chances and sped Charlotte along at her cruising speed of 65mph, heading for the border crossing into El Salvador. In our rush to get to Costa Rica, it took us only one week to cross Guatemala.  In all fairness, that might not have been enough time to do it justice, but overall we found the country subdued and money-hungry.  Our meals were pricey and uninteresting (note, no food photos).  Aside from the two restaurant owners, we had no close encounters, and that alone left us feeling a bit flat.  Traveling is always fascinating, but we simply couldn’t help comparing …had that road block happened in Mexico, it would have been a big party, and we would have left with tearful goodbyes and hugs for everyone!

The toll road cost $2 and was well worth it this time. We went from the worse road in Guatemala to the best! We found it odd, but entertaining that the left lane was painted with a speed limit of 80kph (48mph), while the right lane was marked 60 (36mph). We took our chances and sped Charlotte along at her cruising speed of 65mph, heading for the border crossing into El Salvador.

In our rush to get to Costa Rica, it took us only one week to cross Guatemala. In all fairness, that might not have been enough time to do it justice, but overall we found the country subdued and money-hungry. Our meals were pricey and uninteresting (note, no food photos). Aside from the two restaurant owners, we had no close encounters, and that alone left us feeling a bit flat.

Traveling is always fascinating, but we simply couldn’t help comparing …had that road block happened in Mexico, it would have been a big party, and we would have left with tearful goodbyes and hugs for everyone!