november 1 2008 : belize city, belize, central america
On our first day in Belize we found out that the country is flooded. Historical flooding apparently not seen since 1961 in fact. Cities are under water, crops are washed away, and roads are sinking. The biggest problem for us is that Belize only has one road running south and one road running west, neither of which is passable in the bus at the moment. And nobody seems to know if the flood waters are receding or if there are more to come.
Stuck in Corozal we figured out a new plan. Leave the bus behind for a few days and get ourselves out to the islands. We flagged down a bus and headed for Belize City a hundred miles to the south. Along the road the bus plowed through the water three feet deep in places and passed dozens of homes with canoes tied up to the front porch.
Belize City looked pretty ramshackle when the bus pulled in. We’ve seen plenty of run down towns but generally you can count on a couple of cleaned up streets with new buildings. Not here. Walking around town looking for a room it became clear that this was a city of hustlers. Everybody sort of had a hard look about them and quite a few times we’d see somebody spot us and walk a block out of their way to approach us with offers of rooms, taxis, city tours, and drugs. We shook them all off and found a nice place in a restored mansion to spend the night.
After dropping our bags off we walked back into the heart of town and found a bar along the canal with a view of the boats outside through the barred windows. This was a rough place with plenty of drunk locals slouching in the corners. It didn’t take long for the scammers and schemers to show up at our table. One by one they filed up.
“F@#! them niggaz, I’m a Belize Indian man! Buy me a drink?” Not sure what his little outburst was about, but it raised eyebrows at a nearby table.
“I’m an alcoholic man. I haven’t been home in years, but when I drink I can see my home. Buy me a drink?” His home was in Corozal a $4 bus ride away.
“I’m a poet. Love is a beautiful thing. Love sees no color. Love is everywhere. This is what I do man, I work for tips. Buy me a beer?”
One of my favorites was the working girl at the counter, standing next to me as I bought a couple of beers.
With a sexy look she asked, “Can I have your change?”
“Buy me a drink?”
“Cuz your girlfriend will whoop your butt?” she asked with a sly smile as she looked over at Ali. The answer of course was that yes she would whoop my butt if I bought a hooker a drink.
There were at least five more guys over the next couple of hours. Ali and I found it hilarious. Every one of them asked where we were from. We always answer that by saying Chicago since we have never met a person who hasn’t heard of the Bulls, the Cubs, or the Windy City. Amazingly each guy that sat down at our table has family in Chicago. It might seem unlikely, but I’m certain that none of these guys would have lied to us. “Really, you’ve got family in Chicago? Well sit right down and let me buy you a beer will you?”
We may have spent too much time at this place, but the entertainment value was too high to walk away. We did make sure we left before dark however, as Belize City doesn’t appear to be the most savory town even in the light of day.
november 4 2008 : corozal town, belize
After our night in Belize City we boarded a ferry for Ambergris Caye a quick hour away. On our walk to the dock we were passing by a group of ladies when one of them stepped forward and pulled a raccoon on a leash out in front of us. In a comically monotone voice she said, “This is a raccoon.” Then she stepped back. It was a very strange moment, but left Ali and I laughing hysterically for hours. We couldn’t stop trying to mimic her. “This is a raccoon.”
Our first impression as we pulled up to the dock on Ambergris was a good one. This was a far different island vacation spot than we were used to. The town of San Pedro is about five blocks long by three wide and built right to the edge of the water. Just a small sliver of beach is left out front of the hotels and the beach that is there is used like a pedestrian road, with a constant stream of locals and a few tourists passing back and forth. I imagine once you get out of town that it becomes more of a beach resort type place, but on our forty dollar a night budget we were well and pleased to find a room with a door that opened right out onto the sand.
It didn’t take us long to fall in with a cast of unruly characters again. A group of expats that included a North Carolina hillbilly, an alcoholic Paraguayan, a restaurateur Scot, a delightful London gal, and a New Hampshire veterinarian with three badly behaved dogs. The entire group liked to drink copious amounts of rum beginning sometime around ten a.m. and continuing well into the night keeping the well behaved guests in the more expensive upstairs rooms up all night long.
The weather was absolutely gorgeous, the water of course was a stunning collection of blues with a line of white waves crashing on the barrier reef a half mile away, and the Bilikin beers cold and delicious. We did nothing for three days but sit in the sand enjoying all of these things. Well we did also find time to make fun of the dive tourists who apparently thought it a good idea to squeeze their chubby white bodies into tight wetsuits and walk along the beach looking for their dive shops.
After three days with our new friends we knew we’d better get back to the bus or we’d soon find ourselves fifty years old and writing home to our parents to ask them for money to pay the months rent for our room in a hotel on the beach. At least that’s what it seemed most of these expats were up to.
There was a direct ferry back to Corozal but it was leaving late in the afternoon so we just decided to repeat our path from the other day. In Belize City we were shocked to find a cruise ship in port. Even more surprising was the sight of two thousand tourists walking along a trumped up “street” at the water’s edge full of frozen drink restaurants and vendor’s trinket stalls. The thing I found most amusing about it was that from the street in town you couldn’t even see this tourist street. Even the city itself felt a bit more picked up today. We found it amusing how the city transformed itself into a place we hardly recognized as the place we spent Friday night in.
I’m not a politics guy at all, but it is election day and I do have to say that as a traveler I am very much looking forward to an Obama presidency. Everywhere we go people ask us who’s going to win and then give us a big smile and a little chant, “Obama, Obama, Obama!” They are genuinely excited about it and I think that for American travelers abroad this is going to have an extremely positive impact. As Americans we’ve always been treated well everywhere we’ve gone. We’ve heard, “Ohh, America is #1″ a million times, but often it has been followed with a sorrowful pat on the back and a, “Too bad about Bush.” Hopefully this changes that. I can tell you one thing, not one person has mentioned McCain. For the record, I’m not making a political statement here, politics bore me to tears, it’s just a traveler’s observation.
From today’s Amandala Belize newspaper:
In Belize this evening, apart from the floods and the catastrophe on the Northern Highway south of the Haulover Bridge, the headline news is really in the United States, and it’s all about looking forward to tomorrow. Someone who looks like a lot of us Belizeans, Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois, is actually leading the polls as the favorite to win the presidency of the most powerful nation in the world. We never headline international news at this newspaper. But Obama versus McCain is absolutely history in the making. The whole world is watching, and waiting.
november 5 2008 : san ignacio, cayo, belize
Today we got on the road early, not sure what sort of conditions we’d find. We knew that the short-cut road around Belize City to the Western Highway was still closed, having disappeared almost completely a week earlier directly in front of the Minister of Works’ car. That meant an extra hour or so through what we believed was still the worst flooding right on the outskirts of the city.
Driving in Belize was actually very nice. Drivers here tend to keep the speed under 55, and didn’t mind my lollygagging 45-50 at all. Though in truth there are very few drivers on the road anyway as I don’t think too many Belizians can afford to drive themselves around in their own car. Buses are the norm here.
The flooding didn’t turn out to be too bad in town. The water generally stayed under a foot deep, but the road conditions were terrible. The now two or three weeks of flooding water has basically disintegrated the road, leaving nothing but some gravel underneath and making it feel more like a small river crossing than anything else. A couple of cars had been unfortunate enough to find the deepest holes and were now sitting abandoned with their bumpers resting on the rocks and water flowing over their bumpers. They made good markers for us on where not to go.
By late afternoon the flat sugar cane fields and swamp gave way to rolling hills. We pulled into San Ignacio (Cayo), found a spot to park, and went out for some food. After driving our bus through town it didn’t take long to have a group of expats around us asking questions and providing dire warnings about continuing on. Certainly don’t try to drive in Honduras! We shook that group off as quickly as we could.
Much more fun was talking to a Belizean local about our drive through Mexico. He found it utterly unbelievable that we could do that without being robbed and killed. It never ceases to amaze us how each country we visit thinks that their neighboring country is filled with nothing but terrible people who would just as soon kill you as look at you. The Belizean paper we read today just confirmed that with a long story about how you can no longer tell who the bad guy drug dealers are in Mexico. It stated that recently even a sixty-nine year old white haired man was arrested. It made clear that Mexico is no place you want to be. And this coming from a country in which we’ve been offered drugs, “sticky green” and coke, no less than ten times already. The count in Mexico was one.
november 6 2008 : tikal, el petén, guatemala, cental america
Border crossing day. The border was just down the road through one police checkpoint. We of course were told to pull over to the side. After taking my license there was some discussion between a big fat cop and his sidekick in which we overheard her say, “Well they’ll just have to pay it before they go.” He then walked back over to us and said, “Since you have already committed an offense…” We quickly broke in, “What offense?” “Well you have no seat belts.” We looked down and lifted up our lap belts to which he said simply, “You are not wearing your shoulder harness.” “We don’t have a shoulder harness, this thing is fifty years old and didn’t have any seat belts at all until we installed these things.” “Oh, it is a classic. Very nice. Okay, you can go.” That’s two countries and two cops who tried to get us on seat belt offenses. I doubt very much that’ll be the last.
This has to rank as one of the easiest border crossings in history. Checking out of Belize was a snap. The only sticking point for me was paying those damn exit fees again. Absolutely nothing irks me more than exit fees. At least here we weren’t forced to pay them in U.S. dollars. Anyway, $17.50 USD each and we were free to leave.
Fifty yards away was the Guatemala side where we passed through a large automatic car wash spraying pesticide or some such thing all over us. After that everything was a breeze. Pay them $5 for that, $3 per person for immigration, $6 for the vehicle, and we were on our way. Nobody bothered us, nobody hassled us, and in fact everybody at the border was friendly, smiling, and helpful. And best of all there were no lines. We were driving down the road in thirty minutes. The wrong direction through town it turns out, but the happy locals had us pointed in the right direction in no time.
In case anybody is thinking about following along in our tire tracks I’ve made a much more detailed write-up of the process involved in crossing the borders. Border Crossings
Because, I believe, of long running tensions between Guatemala and Belize, caused by the Brits who took Belize and forgot to pay for it, the Guatemalans have decided not to pave the first fifteen miles of road from the border. I don’t know how this punishes Belize exactly, but it certainly did slow us down. For an hour we crawled along before hitting the tarmac. Once we hit the tarmac I wondered if that was a good thing or not. The road was pretty bad for a while, but the scenery was nice, rolling hills through I guess what could be called jungle farmland. The kids continuously stopped, stared, smiled, and finally waved as we drove past.
We arrived at Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins, in the afternoon. We moved some cones and pulled into a soccer field which double as a campground. We tried to drive right past the sign telling us we couldn’t go any further, in order to get some shade, but men quickly came out of nowhere to point us back into the middle of the blisteringly hot shadeless field. Then we were off to see the ruins.
We got to the ticket gate and were confronted with a sign telling us the cost was $150 QZ, or about $22 USD, per person. Back at the border we’d exchanged about sixty dollars, figuring that in a country where a hotel room costs eight bucks, and lunch costs three, that sixty would easily get us through the day and on to our first real town tomorrow where we could hit an ATM. We were wrong. So we grabbed more U.S. cash out of the bus and walked over to a nearby hotel to make an exchange. Unfortunately the hotel told us they didn’t have any cash today. They must not be doing much business. The hotel next door just simply didn’t exchange money. Nearly defeated we made a last ditch effort approaching a couple of tourists and begging them to exchange our money for us. Fortunately the guy was a VW freak from the UK who’d just sold his own bus and he was happy to help us out.
I won’t go crazy on this topic, Ali’s already heard me rant on all afternoon, but the locals price for this site was one sixth of ours. This drives me even more batty than exit fees. I simply can not imagine if at the entrance to the Grand Canyon we Americans could simply show ID and pay our $20 entrance fee, and then have a busload of Japanese tourists come in behind us and expect them to pay $120 each. I understand the inequality here between us and the Guatemalans, obviously I do, but I still don’t think it’s right.
Finally, into the ruins. This place is like no other we’ve ever been. We walked through thick jungle with howler monkeys flying through the trees above us and then came out into clearings to be confronted by buildings towering 180 feet into the air. The Grand Plaza was gorgeous with a central courtyard surrounded by huge buildings that we were able to climb to the top of for spectacular postcard views. All around us poking out of the jungle was more of the same. Awesome.
Back at the bus, worn out and sweaty we headed for the showers which we found reasonably clean, which was nice, but without lightbulbs. When you see the kinds of snakes and spiders running around in Guatemala that makes for one incredibly fast and tense shower experience.
november 7 2008 : el remate, el petén, guatemala
We woke this morning to the unmistakable cry of howler monkeys. Not to mention the trees which seemed to be alive with too many strange bird calls to count. The jungle here is the real thing.
Later on we drove down the road about forty miles to Santa Elena and Flores. Flores is a small island just a few hundred yards out into Lago de Petén Itzá, across a causeway. It’s a bit of a touristy little place, but surprisingly quiet. Even at 1 o’clock it felt like everybody was just waking up. We went there, actually Santa Elena just on the other side of the causeway, thinking we’d get a hotel room for the night, as there didn’t appear to be any campgrounds. We checked out three places and determined at the end that we’d much rather just sleep in the bus.
Walking around Flores we checked out the menus at a couple of restaurants but weren’t too impressed with the offerings. We determinedly set out to find a local joint, which wasn’t easy on this island which was only about two hundred yards in circumference. But we eventually walked by a hole in a wall, literally, in which we saw three tables with foot stools next to them and one guy scooping food into his mouth.
I have to say at this point that my Spanish is really coming along nicely. On the food front there isn’t much that I can’t handle anymore. Speaking to the little old lady there I was able to score us two heaping plates of delicious food for about what it would cost us to order a Big Mac. Speaking of which, the first fast food joint in Santa Elena was holding its grand opening today. Pollo Campero was packed to overflowing right at the causeway entrance. It won’t be long now before the big boys move in. Again, speaking of which, Ali and I were just talking the other day about how Belize City must be one of the very last country capitals in the world to be completely fast food free. These places are disappearing fast.
Anyway, after Flores we decided to just boogie on back to El Remate, at the bottom of the long hill from Tikal. There was a large lake there and we were sure we’d be able to find ourselves a place to camp. And we were right. We drove along the edge of the lake and spotted a couple of places on the main road, but then veered off to the fringe road and passed a beautiful flat piece of ground on the edge of the lake with huge trees hanging over it providing shade. We stopped and went up to the restaurant across the road where I quickly met Ernesto the owner and asked about us camping for the night. “Camping? Si, si, no problem.”
When I asked how much he thought long and hard about it and then came up with “Quince Quetzales.” A whole two dollars. The amazing thing is that this was probably his long shot number. He probably would have been happy to let us stay on his lakefront property for the night and use his restaurant’s bathroom for somewhere around one dollar. I didn’t bicker over the price and Ali and I soon settled in to one of the least expensive and most picturesque places we’ve ever spent a bus night.
november 8 2008 : salamá, alta verapaz, guatemala
The next day we drove to Poptún where there is a backpacker famous camp of sorts. A huge property with treehouses and a natural lagoon pool. We spent a quiet day there hanging out and then hit the road.
Looking at the map it seemed easy enough to get where we were headed and driving along we even commented on what a pleasure it was driving in Guatemala. Since the first day the roads had been smooth and nearly speed bump free. We could drive through a “town” now without stopping and starting eighteen times per mile. A welcome change. Yet our perfect road and simple map deceived us. We somehow missed our turnoff, which had appeared to be a major intersection on the map, and ended up choosing an alternative road further along. The road soon disappeared, and over the next four miles we crawled along in first gear for forty-five minutes. After studying the map and seeing that it would be about twelve hours before we made the next town we decided to retreat.
It was a long way out of the way to the main highway, but that’s where we headed, and for the next six hours we did nothing but drive. Right at dark we got to Salamá where we had thought there was some sort of campground, but if there was we certainly couldn’t find it. We drove aimlessly in the dark around the city, not something we’re fond of doing, before finally coming across a little motel and calling it a night in our surprisingly not too shabby room with the bus parked ten feet away from our window. This was definitely not our best day on the road.
november 10 2008 : cobán, alta verapaz, guatemala
Just a short jaunt up the road was Cobán. Along the way we passed hundreds and hundreds of people going about their everyday subsistence level work. For these highland people just getting through every day looks to be a lot of work. For women it appears to be the most difficult. They are either standing up to their knees in a stream with piles of laundry all around them hanging on bushes to dry, or they are walking up the hill with huge loads of firewood on top of their heads, or they are carrying large pots of food or other goods down the hill to town to sell at the market. Either way they always seem to be working. Kids younger than about twelve seem to stick with their mothers, bathing and playing in the streams, or carrying their share of the loads up and down the mountain hills.
The men are tougher to figure out. We see them appear out of the woods quite often with their machetes and a bundle of wood to stack up on the road for the women, or we see them doing jobs such as trimming the growth along the roads using a machete in one hand and a sort of pick in the other. Another popular job seems to be working at cement block manufacturing plants. It seems to me that the best job to have around here is being a bus driver. By bus I mean small van. Reason being that there are always, at any time of day, people waiting at the sides of the road to be taken somewhere. To do what I don’t know.
Ali and I wish we had some sort of tiny hidden camera in which to capture all of the sights here. The women with their colorful traditional clothing, the men with their sinewy arms and always at hand machete, and the kids always smiling, always ragged, and always making fun out of everything, even their hard work.
In Cobán, which is a fairly substantial mountain town (substantial enough for a Macca’s even), we found a campground in a protected little pocket of forest right in the city. There’s nobody else here of course, and the caretaker seemed surprised, but happy, to see us. Despite our guidebook’s warning of violent assaults in the park we felt pretty good about the place.
Walking into town we weren’t all that thrilled though. There was certainly nothing pretty about the place, and immediately upon sitting down in the town square we were approached by a stoned out wreck asking none to nicely for Quetzales. Then another one wanting to know where we were staying, and getting frustrated by our refusal to tell him. We didn’t linger long. We eventually found a quiet place to eat and have a couple of drinks before heading back to the bus for a quiet night in our private little jungle.
november 11 2008 : lanquín, alta verapaz, guatemala
“She’s a tough little bus,” that was Ali’s take on our day’s drive. It was a rough one, but I liked it because it felt like an adventure again. The easy days bore me a little bit sometimes, but roads like this are a fun challenge. Four hours of driving today equaled 45 miles from Cobán to the awesome Semuc Champey.
We’ve had incredible weather now for more days than we can remember and today as we drove up, over, and through the mountains we were treated to some beautiful vistas along a perfect road. Then our turnoff came and things got a little out of hand. For the next twenty miles or so we had near constant inclines of what I imagine must have been at least twenty percent. Certainly the steepest and roughest roads we’ve ever encountered. Yet up and down we went, in first gear all the way, without any hesitation from the bus at all.
Semuc Champey is considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in Guatemala. It is a 300 yard long limestone bridge with a river roaring underneath it. On top are a long series of crystal clear pools. We could crawl right up to the edge of the limestone bridge where the river crashed into a big black hole and didn’t reappear until it spit out far below. Back on top we lounged in the cool waters of streams running down the hills which towered a thousand feet straight up above us. It was an incredible place to end up at the end of a torturous drive.
november 14 2008 : santa cruz del quiché, guatemala
We found a nice backpacker style place to camp nearby and spent another day there just hanging out in the sun and swimming in the river. Then this morning we set out towards Lago de Atitlán on what would turn out to be one of the roughest roads we’ve ever traveled. It took us through the Cuchumatanes Mountains which are the tallest in Central America. From the looks of things the entire road system gets washed away in the rainy season and only gets minor attention in the dry. There must have been a hundred places where the road had been completely covered by mudslides and then had just one lane dug out in the middle of it somewhere. As usual though we just plodded along on these 4×4 only roads and came out the other end unscathed.
At one point today we were driving through the mountains when we came to a tiny village and found it was market day. The narrow road was jammed full of stalls and hundreds and hundreds of people. It was kind of fun crawling our way through the mass of locals all enjoying their big day out.
The real challenge with driving in Guatemala has turned out to be the complete lack of any road signs. Worse than that is that we can never determine what town we are in because there are no signs telling us. Anywhere. About the only way we can tell where we are is by reading the signs in the bus windows. But overall we’ve found driving here to be really pleasant. There are very few cars on the road, mainly just bus vans, and the drivers are courteous and patient. And again, hardly a speed bump to be found anywhere.
Driving through one small town late in the day a kid on the side of the road waved us down and pointed to our tire. Flat to the rim. I don’t know how we couldn’t feel that. Anyway, we backed up a few yards onto a flat road and got to work. Funny thing is there was a tire repair shop right there on the corner. The tire was trashed so we grabbed the new one off the roof and had him install it. When he got it on the rim though he realized that the tire was way to small for him to get it to bead up and get air in it. So instead we threw on the spare and put finding a proper large tire store on our list of things to do.
november 15 2008 : panajachel, quiché, guatemala
The next morning we walked around Santa Cruz Del Quiché where it seemed the streets remained a market twenty-four hours a day. In the town square the Christmas tree stood tall alongside a contingent of fire trucks from Japan, complete with Japanese writing up and down the sides. I was hoping they’d turn on the sirens so I could hear what sort of sound a Japanese fire truck makes, but instead all I got were a bunch of firecrackers lit off and tossed around. Aside from the few blocks in the center of town there wasn’t much to see so we took off for Panajachel.
It appears I spoke too soon on the speed bump issue in Guatemala. The further south we move through the country the more they appear. By the time we got close to Panajachel they were in full Mexican mode, sprinkled liberally and seemingly randomly everywhere.
Panajachel is the biggest town on the shores of Lago de Atitlán. The lake is a giant volcanic crater that hundreds of thousands of years ago spawned the creation of a handful more volcanoes in the area. All of which makes for a pretty magnificent view from the edge of the lake. Looking across the water are three perfect volcanic cones.
We drove straight to what was listed in our guidebook as a very nice campground. The book was written a year ago though, and by now the place had disintegrated and closed. Plan B found us in a small bungalow where we could park the bus five feet from our door. Ali sleeps much better when she can keep an eye on the bus, so we make it a point to search out this type of hotel, worrying more about the parking space than we do the condition of the room. Fortunately here in Guatemala the cost of a nice room is about the same as a campground in Mexico. Speaking of costs, the cost of gas has steadily risen the further south we’ve traveled, from two bucks a gallon in Mexico, to three in Belize, and now over four here in Guatemala.
The past couple of days we’ve really not done much other than hang out around town, walking the streets, taking in the view along the lake, shopping the small craft stalls, eating great food and drinking Gallo. The town is a fun place to people watch, with quite a few tourists, and hundreds upon hundreds of traditionally dressed women and children trying to sell their wares. Their wares are mainly bracelets, scarves, necklaces, and small stuffed animals. Oh, and weed. About once a block somebody offers to sell us drugs. It sort of amuses us the terrible reputation Mexico has for drugs, yet it’s only since we left there that we’ve had them offered to us. Offered often and openly.
november 16 2008 : antigua, quiché, guatemala
When we first pulled into Antigua today I was actually a little disappointed. It wasn’t until we found a hotel and set out on foot that we were able to really appreciate the place. This is a walking town if ever there was one. Antigua is Guatemala’s best preserved colonial city and is famed for being picturesque. It truly lives up to the picturesque reputation. We couldn’t walk one block without breaking out the camera. There is something about these colonial cities that almost makes you wish the Spanish would come back for one more invasion to transform the cities that were missed.
The best part of a colonial city such as this is the central square, around which are beautiful block long buildings with covered walkways, and always at least one commanding cathedral. Antigua is filled to overflowing with cathedrals, all of which have been heavily damaged in the past three hundred or so years by earthquakes. Generally what has been left behind are the outside walls and the front facade, with the ceilings having long since caved in. They’ve done a nice job here of cleaning up the debris and preserving what has been left behind. All we did all afternoon was walk the cobbled streets aimlessly enjoying the historic city and the towering volcanoes hovering all around us.
Having come from the far north of the country and making our way this far south we have had the chance to see two distinct sides to Guatemala. Those being the haves and the have nots. On our drive today we spotted some sort of Porsche rally, with a dozen $100,000 cars cruising the streets. Further north it was pretty rare to see even a private car. In town we saw large families eating in fancy restaurants, dropping a couple of hundred dollars on dinner while small children on the sidewalk tried to sell trinkets to them for fifty cents. The class difference is really no different than you find in any country, it’s just that here it seems so geographic. All the money is centered on the area around Guatemala City and the further out you go from there the less there is to go around.
november 17 2008 : monterrico, guatemala
Today we decided that before leaving Guatemala we had to see what the beach was like. I chose the tiny town of Monterrico for the purpose and we set off. Getting there, as usual, was a bit of a challenge. One thing is for sure though, driving around a country that has virtually no road signs forces you to talk with the locals. We have stopped at least a hundred times to ask for directions, sometimes stopping two or three times within just a five block stretch of road.
Whenever we do ask I always find myself praying that we are already going the right way, in which case the answer to our question is simply “derecho, derecho,” straight ahead, combined with a wave of the arm down the road. If we aren’t going the right way things get much more complicated and trying to keep up with what they are telling us becomes impossible. We try to understand the first step, drive there, then ask somebody else. The nice thing about Guatemala is that there is always somebody sitting on the side of the road to ask.
In Monterrico there was no camping again, though we suppose we could have boondocked if we’d wanted to, but there were a few beachfront hotels with ridiculously cheap midweek rooms. Apparently this little dirt road town becomes quite popular with the weekend getaway set from Guatemala City. During the week it is completely deserted. The beach here is black sand and swaying palms stretch along the shore as far as we can see in both directions, with not another soul in sight. Unfortunately the beach slopes steeply into the water and the Pacific roars with a tremendous last second break. I went for a swim but after barely getting out past the break found that the rip tide was too strong to enjoy myself and quickly timed my re-entry through the crashing surf. This is not the kind of beach you’d want to spend time at with the kids. So instead we spent our day baking on the black sand and staying hydrated with Ali’s favorite drink of all time, the Michelada.
One of the things we’ve really enjoyed here in Guatemala is just how kind and polite the people have been. When walking into a restaurant it is expected to make a general greeting such as, “Buenos tardes,” to the people already inside. That’s nice enough, but they go a step further, and when leaving they’ll say, “Buen provecho,” to those near them. Meaning essentially, enjoy your dinner. It is then your turn to repeat the term to them, though in this instance its meaning is to wish them good digestion. How proper and civilized is that? Hell, they’ll even do this at Macca’s.
We’re crossing into El Salvador tomorrow so here is a little video of our time spent driving through Guatemala.
november 18 2008 : parque nacional el imposible, el salvador, central america
From Monterrico we either had to backtrack two or three hours or take a ferry from our long spit of land back to the mainland. We headed straight for the ferry with Ali saving her banana bread “for the ferry ride.” We both had thought this would be some sort of typical ferry boat. It was anything but. We arrived at the ferry dock to find a car backing up off of a flat wooden boat two car lengths long by barely one wide. A kid of about fifteen running the boat and its twenty horsepower engine.
Ali was immediately nervous. The whole thing looked like a disaster in the making. So she hopped out and left me and the kid to it. He threw down a couple of wooden planks and I eased the bus up and over the lip, settling her down with a foot to spare on either side. We didn’t wait around for another car to show up, thankfully, as it would probably have been a very long wait, and were quickly untied and on our way through the mangrove lined canal. The ride was very nice, peaceful really, and sort of surreal too; watching the bus slice slowly through the waves while passing by fishermen in canoes. Twenty minutes later we pulled up to the ramp for offloading. It took a little extra oomph to get the bus up the planks and onto the road this time, but we made it okay, and Ali was able to breathe again.
Next up was the El Salvadoran border. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the ease of our border crossings so far that I wasn’t really expecting much of a problem here. And again, there wasn’t any. As with all border crossings there were plenty of people milling around looking to latch themselves onto us as our “helper.” I gave them the brush off right away and made my way over to the officials with actual uniforms on, while Ali hung out with the bus. The Guatemalan officials were truly helpful, and got our paperwork squared away in no time.
Up the road we crossed a bridge where El Salvador immigration came out to the bus and informed me that we wouldn’t receive a stamp from them because our Guatemalan stamp was good right through Nicaragua. The countries have some sort of official standing together, the name of which I can’t remember, but in theory it makes travel a bit easier between the four countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The only thing we needed to do was get our vehicle permit from customs. Again, this was very easy to do, with friendly officials, but for some reason it took like two hours to accomplish. By the time I came outside I found Ali slightly disheveled, sitting on the curb, and shucking peanuts. We were ready to go.
Once in El Salvador we found roads as smooth as silk and even quite a few road signs with actual town names printed on them. Ingenious. We weren’t going far though, just eight miles or so over the border we found our camp for the night inside a Nacional Parque.
The gate was locked when we arrived but a nice girl from Boston walked up the road and introduced herself. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer who had been living in the tiny town here for two years. In fact she was heading home in a week. She knew everyone, had a troop of kids around her, and was able to track down the keys to the park gate for us.
We had lunner at a small sidewalk stand which is officially the tiniest place we’ve ever eaten a meal. The two nice ladies there welcomed us inside the kitchen to have a look at what they had on offer, and seemed to get a kick out of serving us. The food was cheap and delicious, and we went back to the bus happy as can be to be settled into such a nice setting just an hour after crossing the border.
november 19 2008 : playa el sunzal, el salvador
Our happiness didn’t last long however. By the time we went to bed last night the windy weather had gone from uncomfortable to dangerous. We were parked in a forest beneath trees a hundred feet tall with a wind that was suddenly blowing what had to be sixty knots. At times it felt like a tornado was whipping through. Small branches were snapping and crashing onto the roof, the sand sounded as if it was taking the paint right off, and the bus itself was rocking back and forth, feeling as if we were at anchor somewhere. However, it was pitch black, the gate out was locked, and we had no option but to wait it out.
By seven a.m. conditions hadn’t changed a bit. Neither of us had gotten more than a couple of hours of sleep. And when we heard a huge tree crack right next to us we decided to get out of there.
The thing about El Salvador that we were somehow unprepared for was just how tiny it really is. In fifteen minutes we were at the first small town we wanted to visit. We wandered around a bit, but it was early and not much was going on, so we moved on. We were driving the Route de las Flores, which sounded like a nice tourist drive full of cute towns, and it was, but the whole thing covered just twenty-five miles. So again we just continued on.
When we came across a bigger city we pulled into a Goodyear tire shop to see if we could finally get our new tire put on. Three friendly guys quickly took charge of the tire. They had no more luck than the other two shops at first however. But they were determined and hit upon the solution of putting a tube in the tire. Once they inflated that the tire popped out and caught on the bead of the rim. They then popped one side of the tire back off again, yanked out the tube, and popped it back together again. They were quite pleased with themselves, as were we, and when we asked how much we owed they adamantly refused to accept a penny. I say a penny because here in El Salvador the almighty U.S. dollar is once again the official currency.
Anyway, we ended up driving all over the western side of the country in just a few short hours, before settling down along the coast at a tiny family run hotel. Rooms here must cost about ten bucks, and camping in the yard just half that. It’s got that camping in the middle of a local neighborhood feel to it, which we like. The wife proudly showed us the bathroom and the kitchen we could use, the little boy ran his fingers all along the bus and called it Herbie, and the husband sprinkled ant killer on the ground and showed us the lightbulb we could flick on after dark. They were so friendly that we just got that warm fuzzy family feeling being around them.
november 22 2008 : la unión, el salvador
For three glorious, warm, sunny days we didn’t leave the beach. It truly is a wonder why people chose to live in places with snow in November when there are places like this in the world. The beach was just a three minute walk away from our camp. Out there was a nice rocky point break with an easy paddle out and reasonably safe waves for a chump like me. After I’d worn myself out in the water and Ali had soaked up enough sun on the sand we retired to a small beach bar/restaurant just a couple of hundred yards away. There we spent the entire afternoon eating, drinking, feeding stray dogs, scooting in and out of the sun, and petting dogs that surely hadn’t been loved up in years. After many, many hours of that we’d settle up our twenty-five dollar bill and walk back home with the sun setting over the water.
After a quick shower we would walk just down the street to enjoy what are surely one of the greatest snack foods ever invented, the papusa. Underneath a tarp covered stand, inches from the road, three ladies stood patting togetherpapusas, a thick, round, six-inch corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans, and chicharrón, then fried until the tortilla is just a little crispy and the ingredients reach one thousand degrees or so. Then on the table sits a big plastic jug filled with a sort of coleslaw and a jar of thin tomato paste. Each of these nighttime delicacies set us back thirty cents and came complete with the local’s street life ambience. A perfect way to end an exhausting and fulfilling day at the beach.
Back at camp the temperature was perfect for sleeping and there were no bugs. Seriously, why the rest of the world leaves this place completely to the surf bum is beyond me.
However today we decided to move on. Before leaving Ali went in to take a shower. I heard a scream a few seconds later and she came running back to the bus. A toad the size of a football was standing in the shower stall when she went in. Then as she ran out of the stall her new favorite homeless dog was waiting there for her for the third morning in a row. The whole sequence set her shower back a good hour. It took a broom and a lot of prodding to get the toad to budge from his nice damp spot on the shower floor.
We continued south, actually east, across El Salvador planning to spend a night at an inland city before continuing to the border. When we got to the town we’d picked out though we didn’t really like it much. The towns here in El Salvador have been sort of gritty and dirty, and not really very appealing at all in a tourists sense of the word. We checked out a dump of a hotel and decided to just press on to a town closer to the border, which is how we found ourselves in La Unión, another gritty, dirty, unappealing town. This time we checked ourselves into the low-class hotel complete with a hammock hanging across the middle of the room and no running water except for two hours in the mornings. That includes the toilet, which does have a large bucket of water next to it for self-service flushing. We’re all about the class.
Anyway, for our short time in El Salvador we really enjoyed the beach life, finding it laid back, clean, friendly, and inexpensive. We could have done without the cities here though, despite their one redeeming quality, which were the magnificent views of the seemingly hundreds of volcanoes dotting the landscape in every direction.
november 23 2008 : playa aserradores, nicaragua (222 nights in the bus : 36,588 miles)
Big border day today. We were up early and at the El Salvador border by nine. When we arrived there were a hundred trucks parked up and down the road on our side and we had dozens of “helpers” waving their unofficial official identification cards at us. We blew by everybody on the wrong side of the road and pulled up right in front of a tiny building where two actual officials sat. To the disappointment of many we were on our way to the next point in seconds.
We zipped through El Salvador immigration and customs and crossed the bridge, there’s always a bridge, into Honduras. This customs post looked more like a Sunday market, with food stalls everywhere, and in fact we drove right past it at first. But we figured it out and I got in line with everyone else. After about twenty minutes the line hadn’t moved, but fortunately for me the customs officer spotted me and called me forward. “What do you want?” I told him I needed a vehicle permit and he invited me inside the office. For the next two hours we filled out paperwork (actually just one piece of paper) and made copies and stamped things. Eventually we were on our way.
The thing with crossing into Honduras in the south is that there is really only a ninety mile chunk of the country there. We didn’t see anything enticing about the coast, and the northern roads were quite a detour, so we had decided to just pass on through to Nicaragua. Cost to drive through Honduras $49 U.S. dollars.
The drive was only about two hours, during which time we passed through six police and military checkpoints. At the first five the officials were extremely friendly, shaking hands, asking us personal questions, and maybe glancing at our drivers license before waving us on. But at the sixth one the two officers had a distinctly different demeanor. It was obvious from the start.
A couple of days earlier we’d met some surfer that told us how his friend had been shaken down three times on his drive through Honduras. Paying twenty dollars each time for offenses ranging from seat belts, to not having orange traffic triangles in the car, to driving without a shirt on. I didn’t say it at the time, but this friend of his sounded like a royal dumbass to me.
So when these two cops stood looking at my drivers license and then asked us, “Where triangles?” we immediately knew what the deal was. I just looked at them like they were the idiots and said, “No comprende.” They made signs with their fingers and kept saying, “triangles, triangles.” And I kept repeating in a very bored voice, “No comprende.” This frustrated them, so they told me to pull over. We didn’t move and asked, “Problema?” We didn’t want to push them too far though, so we pulled onto the shoulder.
Now they waved over their friend who spoke perfect English. He said, “They want to know where your triangles are.” And I said, “I’m just going to look at you and pretend I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.” This got a strange look, but he repeated it to the cops. Then I said to the cop in Spanish, “Five police checkpoints, no problem. Number six (pointing at him), problem.” He understood this, handed my license back and walked away without saying a word. Then the English speaking guy says to me, “They just wanted to see your title.” Trying to cover up for their little scam.
Anyway, we got a good laugh out of that. The scammer cops are so bad at being bad that you almost feel sorry for them. It’s a wonder that they’re ever successful with these hilarious cons. It’s too bad they’re successful actually, because it just makes it harder for the next guy coming down the road. If you ever find yourself in these situations just think logically about it for a second before succumbing to the bribery. I mean is there even a remote chance that these two cops are going to cause you any real trouble right there on a busy highway? And what are the chances they are going to take you to jail for not carrying traffic triangles? Come on now. Have a backbone, stand up to them without being an aggressive jerk, and you’ll be on your way in a minute or two.
Checking out of Honduras was a piece of cake and then we were on our way to our final border formality of the day, the Nicaraguan customs for a vehicle permit. Inside this office I found a line with fourteen truck drivers standing in it. I confirmed with a couple of people that this was the line I needed and then began the wait. While I stood inside in line I watched Ali outside eating Oreo cookies and exchanging bracelets with the local girls. Bus guard duty seems like the better of the two jobs to me. This line took about ninety minutes, after which our paperwork took two.
Outside a woman dressed in jeans and a pink t-shirt approached me with a packet of official looking papers telling me that I needed to pay $12 USD for what appeared to be some sort of road toll that the police would ask us for. I didn’t trust her right off the bat though, so I walked back inside and asked the customs guy if I needed to pay it. He hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t really say yes or no. Meanwhile the lady wouldn’t come inside the building. I said no, and we took off. Five minutes down the road we were stopped by the local police. He looked at our vehicle permit, drivers license, and then finally asked for our receipt. We pretended not to know what he was talking about, and after a minute he shook our hand and waved us on. The next cop five hundred yards further on didn’t ask us for it, which leads me to believe the lady and this cop were in on some kind of scam together. But we really have no idea, for all we know it was a legitimate toll and the two of us were now the scammers.
We were in Nicaragua and on our way. The roads were terrible at first and dotted with lots of signs stating the country that was paying for the construction project. The U.S. and Japan seemed to be the big winners, though it seemed they might have been better off just sending a crew down here with a couple of Caterpillar trucks to get it done. But once the road did smooth out it was beautiful. Smooth tarmac led us through the countryside dotted with volcanoes in every direction. Before taking this trip I don’t think either of us had any idea just how mountainous Central America is, and we certainly had no idea there were so many volcanoes.
Late in the afternoon we made the turnoff for Playa Aserradores, where a six mile, incredibly rough dirt track led us down to a surf camp situated on one of the most amazing pieces of property anywhere. It’s a beautiful place with a sloping view to the water and the powerful beach break Boom-wavos. Unfortunately the owner stopped allowing camping here a few months ago. Too many bums were taking over the place apparently. He admired us for making it there in a ’58 bus though and agreed to let us spend the night before making up our minds about paying for a room the next night or moving on. After a few fish tacos we crashed hard to the sound of breaking waves.
We’ve put together a picture video of our campgrounds to date (over one hundred of them). Ali has been fairly diligent in taking a picture of where we spend each night so I put them all together in order here, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
november 25 2008 : león, nicaragua
The next day the surf was solid overhead tubes. We sat next to the bus and watched the pros down below us as they dropped into one after the other. Pretty sweet. In the afternoon we took off since the owner wasn’t letting us spend another night. Just a short distance down the road, which was about an hour because of the brutal conditions, was another camp. This was more of a backpacker style hideaway in a tiny fishing village. The kind of place that reuses their dishwater and composts their toilets. There were a good mix of people there and we spent a pretty nice night there.
Today we were feeling a little bored though, so we took off again, this time for León, one of the two main Spanish colonial cities in Nica. Getting there was a bit of a challenge. It would seem easy enough to get down a road to one of the largest cities in the country, but Nicaragua is another of those countries that feels that people should just know how to get where they’re going without any help from government signage.
Along the way we passed through a number of police checkpoints. We were stopped at the first one where the officer stood and pretended to read our vehicle permit for five minutes before waving us on. We thought at that point that it was going to be a very long drive. But the rest of the drive we passed right through while cars all around us got pulled over. Unlike Mexico their checkpoints really do seem to be random.
Once we finally got to León we figured we’d find our hotel and get settled in. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. Only about every fourth street had a sign on it. But the real problem was that for the first half an hour we were driving around in what apparently is called Zone 2. The street signs are an exact duplicate of Zone 1, the city center. After we figured that out things began to make a lot more sense.
Walking around town we were surprised by how quiet it was. There wasn’t a whole lot happening in the afternoon, which I suppose made perfect sense considering it was hot as hell outside. We strolled around, visiting a whole bunch of cathedrals. The biggest one was right on the main square and was very cool because for two bucks they let you climb right up on the roof by yourself. We played with the bells, climbed over the domes, and sat in the shade enjoying the rooftop breeze and the views of the volcanoes in the distance. Once it got dark out the town vibe picked up quite a bit. León is a college town and the park was filled with students eating quesillos, a famous Nica street food, and ice cream. One thing we did notice was a severe shortage of restaurants and bars. Not exactly something that’s usually missing from college towns we’re used to.
november 26 2008 : masaya, nicaragua
Today was one of those travel days we’d rather forget. It started out well enough; we found our way out of town pretty easily, and drove straight to where our campground was rumored to be. The guidebook listed a very nice sounding place, but after driving up and down the road half a dozen times and getting vague directions from three different locals we finally gave up.
There was another place an hour away though, so we drove up there. This was a national park way, way up in the mountains along a dirt road. At the end of this very long rough road we found a dank, damp, and dirty parking lot. The only people around were a handful of construction workers throwing up some sort of shelter. It was only about an hour before dark now but this place was definitely not going to work either. We drove as quickly as we could out of the hills and drove straight down the road to the nearest highway-side hotel. Not exactly the way we had hoped to spend our day or our night. Sometimes traveling down here can be a lot tougher than we expect. Fortunately the gas station next door had a fast food joint that totally ripped off Taco Bell. They called themselves Taco Town, but used the Bell’s menu and uniforms, and actually whipped up a great burrito supreme.
We’re looking forward to a new day.
november 27 2008 : granada, nicaragua
Our hotel wasn’t exactly a lounging around type place, so we were out the door early today. Actually we were up early because for some reason, I’m assuming the hot afternoon weather, the hotel maids at the places we’ve been at lately have been working by five a.m. sweeping in front of our door, dusting our windowsills, or raking fallen leaves in the courtyards.
We hadn’t driven five minutes before getting pulled over. The officers came up to the car, asked for our permit and license and then blurted out something with the word, “Infraccion.” “No, no infraction,” we said. “Si, twenty dollars.” We just laughed at them and said, “No.” They told us to pull off the road to our right, but again we told them no, we were headed down the road to the left. “Infraccion, twenty dollars,” they tried one last time. “No, no, no.” And that was it, they gave up again, said something about a warning, and waved us along.
Down the road just a bit further was the Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, a wonderful place where the Nicas have no issue with letting you drive right up to the edge of an active smoking volcano. We enjoyed the quiet, the great views, and the ever so slight hint of danger wafting in the air.
From there we continued down the road to Granada, Nicaragua’s most famous colonial city. Amazingly we drove right into town and directly to a moderately priced hotel with a big courtyard parking lot. After yesterdays debacle we found ourselves almost giddy with excitement over having done so.
Granada is indeed a nice colonial city, with the churches and the streets lined with colorful buildings facades behind which lie beautiful garden courtyards. We trudged all over the city, which really isn’t all that much walking as it’s not that big a place, climbing on top of churches again and then quenching our thirst at any one of the dozens of restaurants. About the only thing we didn’t like about the town was the absolutely filthy main square. We honestly hadn’t seen a square this dirty anywhere in Central America. It was to the point that when I was going to buy a hot dog from a vendor Ali actually talked me out of it because of how dirty the area was. And believe me, that’s really saying something, because I can’t think of another place on our travels that either of us has said that. Overall though the town was a nice place and certainly worth an easy day hanging out.
november 28 2008 : san juan del sur, rivas, nicaragua
Of course after an easy day we were due for another rough ride. We got down to San Juan del Sur without a problem, had a delicious lunch right on the beach and then headed back out looking for one of two campgrounds we knew of located just to the north on a different beach.
The road was pretty brutal with stream crossings and washed out gullies, but we pressed on for a few miles, asking directions at each fork. Unfortunately the first campground was gone and the second, when we finally found the right dirt track, was impossible for us to get to. The ditch had completely washed out and we couldn’t get across. We had rock crawled for hours without seeing the ocean and the beaches.
We finally gave in once again and returned to San Juan del Sur to find a hotel. We had expected SJDS to be much more built up and touristy than it is. It’s certainly the tourism/surf capital of Nicaragua, but is still a pretty laid back small town kind of place. The heart of the town is only about a three block square area filled with low key ex-pat bars, a couple of t-shirt shops, and a few real estate offices.
We’re not really sure what to do with ourselves now. We’re tired of staying in hotels and just want to find a nice place to camp near a beach. This doesn’t seem like it is going to be possible here in Nicaragua though.
november 30 2008 : san juan del sur
Still hanging out in SJDS. We spent yesterday hanging out on the beach. Weekends at the beaches are always fun because that’s when the inland locals show up to enjoy the water. Huge families descend on the beach en masse, all swimming in shorts and t-shirts with the occasional pair of jeans thrown in. Every time I went in for a swim and left Ali alone I would turn around to find her talking to local girls. Everybody seemed to want to practice their English, or have their babies say hello in English, with the blonde American.
In the afternoon clouds began to roll in and by evening we had our first rain in weeks. By this morning it hadn’t let up. The town was underwater and we had nowhere to go so we find ourselves stuck inside for another day in the hotel.