Friday, 5 June 2015

0254 Best of the Best Part 2 - Mexico and Central America

Mexico and Central America.

29th July – 9th October 2014.  73 days, 6 countries, and 9,808 kilometres.

After getting some pesos from a cambio man, a pleasant early morning border crossing into Mexico at Mexicali saw me headed south on the quiet Hwy 5 by noon, with the heat building steadily, and headed towards Mike’s Sky Rancho up in the mountains that I had been told about by some bikers. After experiencing my first Military checkpoint and inspection without too much hassle, I headed into the mountains.  A big stop for competitors in the Baja 1000, the Rancho was now deserted, but cool, and a good place to let the ambience of Mexico soak in for a couple of days. The 20 km dirt road in is best done on a bike or a good 4WD, but only adds to the experience. 

After a couple of days I headed across to Ensenada for my first foreign shop for supplies, and then on down through Baja to
Colonet, and my first night on a deserted beach outside a hotel.  Next day down to another beach at Santa Rosalita, and then the little fishing town of Loreta, crisscrossing Baja as I followed the road south through cactus fields and rocky stretches with lots of donkeys beside the road, and into the town that got left behind in the 1970’s – Todos Santos.  Home of the original Hotel California (from the Eagles’ song), a lot of elderly American hippies from that era still live there.  Interesting little spot to stop for a few days and catch my breath in some great little restaurants and bars.

From there it was round the southern coast of Baja to the glitzy and overpriced resort of Cabo San Lucas, and then across the Tropic of Cancer and round to another little forgotten resort of Los Barriles for another pleasant night by the sea before catching a ferry the next day across to mainland Mexico at
Topolobampo.  By now, Topes were starting to become a frequent and annoying part of my life on the road that would continue unabated for the next 10 months ! On the ferry I met up with Mark Thompson and girl friend Bri from Sydney who are on a surfing trip through Mexico, and as we disembark in the dark at 10 pm, local truck driver Juan befriends me,  insists I take his Mexican hat, and wants to go to drink beer ! With great difficulty I manage to escape, and Mark, Bri and I set off in the dark looking for a place to stop for the night – And end up at a Pemex station about 30 kms up the road – Not the nicest, but quite adequate and secure !

From there it was down the coast through Culiacan, Mazatlan, Tepic, and then into the coastal resort town of Puerto Vallarta.  A bit of a big city with hotels and resorts in the middle, the old town further round the coast is delightful, with restaurants and bars and little narrow cobbled streets to explore – I have a pleasant couple of days there before heading on round the twisty coast road to San Juan de Alma and Playa Azul.  On the way I detour down to an
“Ecobeach” and find about 15 students from all over the world camping in beach huts and working to collect turtle eggs on the each to save them from birds and other local predators (including humans !). Great bunch of young people.   Had a lovely night in a camp site by the beach that was officially closed in Zihuetenejo, and  finally Acapulco, where I stop for a few days right beside the sea. In talking to the owner, we work out that this is probably where Janet and I stayed when we were here in 1972 !!  

From Acapulco I headed inland, first to a little town called Atlacholoaya where I had  delightful camp site all to myself, then on to Tlaxcala, near Puebla, where I stayed in an amazing resort surrounding a building that used to be a Textile Mill until 1974. Fascinating place.  Next day it was off down to Veracruz on the Gulf Of Mexico, and then on round the coast to Coatzacoalcos – Which really was a terrible place, and the camp site there was probably one of the worst on the whole trip – Overgrown, and nothing working and expensive !    Next day left as soon as I could and after passing my old company’s office in Villahermosa and having some fun on detours round road works  ended up in Ciudad del Carmen.  The road along from CD Carmen is amazing – Alongside the ocean and for about 40 kms even the smallest waves break over the road !  I went to the end, to the Isla Aguarda, and
found a delightful little campsite where a German couple, Peter and Christa were set up.  After a big storm I got set up and spent the next few days there enjoying the beach.  Eventually , with my 28 day Mexican Insurance period nearing the end, I had to start heading to the Guatemala border, and I headed off into the mountains to Tuxtla Gutierrez , and getting into Tapachula town quite late after a brush with some local villagers up in the mountains ! A night in the hotel grounds with a couple from BC,     Marshall and Heather and then it was off towards the Guatemalan border.

Crossing the Guatemalan border was perhaps the least enjoyable (but most memorable !) part of my entire trip.  I got taken for a ride big time – It is all detailed in my blog, but really did put a sour taste in my mouth for a long time.  Eventually got in, went to a hotel in Caterina, and spent my first night in Guatemala upset that I had allowed myself to get sucked in – Too tired, and just not properly prepared to cross a border – It never happened again !!

Incredible first day’s driving in Guatemala – Windy mountain road over 3500 metres, getting lost in San Marcos and eventually having to get a taxi to show me the way out of town, learning that a town spelt Quetzaltenango that you are asking for directions to is actually called “Xela”, a dashboard emergency light comes on telling me to “Go immediately to my nearest Toyota dealer” – And finally I arrive in the amazing Panajachel  / Lago Atitlan and the 3 surrounding volcanos.  Spend a very peaceful and enjoyable week in Pana – Really like this place and the people – And then I head into Guatemala City, up the very steep hill out of Pana, through Solola and Chimaltenango,  and on the highway into the capital with lots of Chicken buses speeding past me, only to stop repeatedly
and disgorge passengers along the way. Get into the Holiday Inn in Guatemala City, go to the Hard Rock Café for a hamburger for supper, and then pick Janet up at the airport the next evening.  I don’t think she can quite believe where she is so we spend the next day exploring safer parts of the city and enjoying German sausages and beer for lunch, and a nice dinner in a restaurant just near the hotel.  Next day we head out of the City, buying groceries on the way, and back towards Panajachel as I think it will be a good place for Janet to settle in.

We then spent the next 10 days in Pana, a week of which was spent in a local Spanish language school, enjoying the town and local sights, including a Guatemalan National Day Fiesta and Parade, which was great fun. Met Willie in his Gruene Minna van, Jurik and Simone also from Germany in their US bought camper,  and also French couple Estelle and Gregoire who we were to see a lot more of as we journeyed south, as well as several other travellers.  We then headed off to Antigua – Where Willie and Greg & Estelle were also, as well as Franco and Alejandra from Argentina in their brightly painted VW Kombi. 

The Police compound camp site was “interesting”, while Antigua was gorgeous, with its old cobbled streets, ancient buildings, earthquake destroyed churches and monasteries with hotels now built around them – Just an amazing place.  We were only there a couple of nights, but thoroughly enjoyed it.  From Antigua it was on to a resort called Los Laureles near the Honduran border which French friends Greg & Estelle had told us about as a great camping spot – and they were right.  Had a lovely night there on the soccer pitch before heading off to the Honduran border crossing near Copan Ruinas early the next morning. 

Eventually found the Mayan archaeological ruins and had a fascinating afternoon with our local guide Jovani in what is one of the most important and extensive Mayan ruins in Central America. The reintroduction of the striking red macaws that now fly freely (and noisily) through the ruins made it all very special.  Jovani arranged for us to camp right outside the gates of the ruins on a football itch behind a very
local little restaurant !  They even gave us a whole room with a shower and toilet.  We caught a tuk tuk into town for a beer and to spend the evening with all the locals in the main square before a big storm saw us scurry home.   We spent the next day at the indoor museum of the Ruins, and then we went to an excellent bird park where they have injured birds and animals for rehabilitation, as well as the Macaw breeding programme for the region – Saw my first Toucans !!

Terrible roads as we headed NE the next day, eventually turning S at San Pedro Sula towards Lago de Yohoa where Jovani, our guide at the Copan Ruinas had told us there was a great place to visit and camp D&D Brewery !  Lots of fruit and fish for sale beside the road, and we eventually found the little town of Pena Blanca, and finally, after much trouble, D&D.  What a find – Paradise in the middle of nowhere !! Catering
more to tents and cabins than campers, they nevertheless found space for us, and we had a great couple of nights there, enjoying company of fellow travellers, (including one guy Chris who I had met on a business trip to the German Grand Prix some years ago !)  Bobby the new American owner was doing major renovations to the entire property, while Osmond his right hand man finally persuaded me to part with my bicycle on the basis that he needed it more than I did !! After a couple of very pleasant and sociable nights, and a visit to some local waterfalls, we then headed on through Honduras to Danli, where we stayed in a little hotel just outside of town – Because there was an overturned van and lots of police and traffic right outside the hotel, so we stopped there ! Next day it was on through the not very nice capital city of Tegucigalpa, and on to the Nicaraguan border at Los Manos – Yet another pleasant border experience – Before continuing on to Esteli.

Esteli is the centre of a big tobacco growing and cigar industry , mainly because the soil is so similar to that found in Cuba, which means their product is of a similar quality.  Janet negotiated a Cigar Factory Tour at Tabacalera Santiago de Nicaragua S.A. and we had a fascinating 3 hour guided tour, eventually meeting the owner Don Francisco Santiago and his delightful wife and daughter, and leaving with 2 boxes of cigars as gifts for friends back home ! That night we spent camping on the lawns of the local Country Club, facilitated by the staff at the Cigar factory !!

The next day we got to a place called Sebaco without any problems, but then encountered a massive traffic jam – eventually finding out that local villagers had “captured” the only road bridge out of town  as a form of protest, and were not allowing any traffic to pass. I happened to meet an English speaking local called Federico who said he knew of a short cut through the countryside, and would we like to follow him ? The next 2 hours were spent on rough dirt roads out in the countryside of Nicaragua, and were quite an adventure with more horses and bicycles
than cars ! We finally got back on the main road, said goodbye to Federico, and headed towards Granada, stopping by a lake for lunch where lots of local girls stopped for a chat, and then on down the road with (live) armadillos and parrots for sale along the way.  We eventually ended up at the gates of the Masaya Volcan National Park, and camped in the car park so we could visit the volcano in the morning, and spent the evening chatting with Leif from Israel, who is travelling solo on a push bike through central America – Gutsy lady.

The volcano apparently erupted that evening, but by morning we were allowed through the gate to drive up – This is the only active volcano in the world where you can drive up and park right on the rim of the crater !  And after last night’s eruption the guides suggested we park our car on the furthest side away from the rim !!  Just an incredible sight, and we spent a couple of hours up there before driving back down through the lava fields and on
to the charming little city of Granada, on the shores of the largest body of fresh water in Central America – Lake Nicaragua.  We climbed church towers and saw buildings that had been sacked and looted and burned by pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, we visited an amazing hammock factory and café run by Tio Antonio and employing only youngsters with severe sight, hearing, or speech problems.  Delightful
little place.  We then went on a horse drawn carriage tour before ending our visit at a little café in the main square where we had ice cream and fried bananas before heading down to a camp site at a San Jorge hotel – Where we decided to take an air conditioned room as it was so hot and sticky ! We spent a very pleasant evening driving on the big sandy beach of the Lake, and having dinner in a restaurant on the beach looking out towards Omotepe island and its two volcanos, and where we were befriended by some locals who later brought us back local handiwork gifts – Such kind and welcoming people. 

From San Jorge it was off to the Costa Rica – A place which is supposed to be very westernized, stable, and where many expats come to enjoy a life in Central America, with visas easy to obtain.  It was Sunday morning, and we were quickly stamped out of Nicaragua, through passport control into Costa Rica, the car had its compulsory chassis fumigation, and then we just needed car insurance to continue.  For some reason, there were delays in obtaining this, and it was sometime before we understood what was going on. By this time, our friend Ravi on his motorcycle had passed through, and Estelle and Greg had also passed through with no problem – But we were left waiting.  Eventually we were advised that they could not give us insurance because our car was right hand drive and therefore unsafe. And being Sunday, the senior officer who could give us approval would not be at work until 6 am tomorrow.  They told us to go to a hotel – But how to get to that hotel if we could not take our car ?  And where was the nearest hotel ?  They couldn’t tell us.  We were already legally out of Nicaragua and in Costa Rica, so we were effectively stuck in No-Man’s Land between the two countries and could not go forward or back.  So we parked in the dirt car park beside the border post, got the chairs out, and sat and watched the world go by, making lunch, having a cup of tea, and with a procession of people coming up to chat.  There was quite a bit of to and fro of officials during the day – Suffice it to say that at about 7 pm, as it got dark, and just when we
had our spaghetti supper boiling on the stove, the official came up and told us we had to leave NOW, and that we had two days to complete our passage through and out of Costa Rica and into Panama.  The fact that it was now dark, and very unsafe to drive on their roads at night, did not seem to be an issue !  By the time the insurance paperwork was completed, we had 28 days coverage and were on our way.  In hind sight we feel certain that this was an attempt to extract a bribe from us, and it failed.  The fact that they could do this, in “civilized” Costa Rica, speaks volumes about how “civilized” it really is down there. We drove for about one hour in the dark until we came to the little town of La Cruz, where we parked up behind a gas station for the night.  Welcome to Costa Rica.

We awoke to the delicious smell of coffee, to find a little café right beside us open for business, and happy to fill our coffee cups for a few quetzales.  We then headed on through CR, through seemingly endless banana plantations beside the road, to Liberia – Supposedly a “delightful colonial town”.  NOT !  Horrible place – after a breakfast at a local hotel, we continued on through CR, passing increasing numbers of coffee plantations. Just short of capital San Jose we searched without success for a supposed camp site, so continued on, through San Jose in rush hour,  and then an amazing
mountain road towards San Cristobal, where we saw signs to “Mirador de Quetzals” cabins – sounded perfect.  And it was – We found this divine little place with cute cabins overlooking the valley, camping possible, dinner available – Costa Rica was improving ! We ended up staying in a cabin, had a delightful dinner and evening in the little restaurant, and by 6 am the next morning were out in the jungle with Jason our guide looking for the elusive quetzal bird.  Had an enjoyable and successful 2 hours before returning to a hot breakfast, half an hour photographing humming birds on the balcony, and then we hit the road – A great little place to stay.  After a crazy drive down through the mountains to San Isidro, we met
up with Greg & Estelle for lunch before heading down to the coast road to find some of the fabled CR beaches and resorts.  What did we find ?  Nothing except beaches that you had to pay to access, and touristy venues that were over-developed and commercialised.  So we kept going – All the way to the border with Panama to Paso Canoas.  Costa Rica ?  You can have it – The first really disappointing country on the entire trip.  And we met many other travellers who felt the same……..

Went through the Panamanian border in company with Greg & Estelle who, with their superior Spanish helped us through – Not difficult, just officious.  Once in Panama it was late, dark, and we were on a big freeway, so we eventually stopped for the night at a Caltex station by the road in Concepcion.

Next morning we had coffee in David and then decided to go up to the hills at Boquete at 1500 m, on the side of the 3450 m Volcan Baru.  Amazing explore up in the mountains with coffee plantations everywhere, and quite a lot of expat housing estates / resorts.  We eventually found a delightful little camping place run by expat German Axel and his family and had a very pleasant 3 nights here.  Next day it was off towards Panama City – But a terrible road with so much roadworks that seemed to go on for ever, and we ended up about 100 kms short of Panama in a great American style RV park in Santa Clara, run by an American lady who was trying to sell it, and which had noisy macaws and toucans in the garden.  Then it was on into Panama City where we stayed in a hotel while we sorted out our paperwork for shipping the car to Columbia.

Several dramas with the export paperwork from the Police due to an incorrect VIN number on my import documentation which required visits to a hard-to-find customs office, but eventually get everything done, including an oil change and unexpected water pump replacement on Troopie. We had dinner with Greg & Estelle and Ravi in PC, and enjoy some incredible drumming bands we found in the City before heading back to the hotel.   Once we had Troopie back from her service the next day, we explored some of the locks in the Panama Canal, and had a great Panamanian meal at a restaurant in the Allbrook Mall, and then the next day set off to Colon at the other end of the canal to sort out the shipping paperwork.

Suffice it to say that the shipping and paperwork and customs trail in Colon is typically chaotic, and we do not complete everything in one day. Colon is not a nice or safe city, so we decide to splash out and stay in the Sheraton, where we have a very pleasant evening pampering ourselves with fluffy towels, hot showers, and good food ! The next day we finally get all the paperwork completed, deliver Troopie to the docks, and catch a taxi who gives us a tour for the day before dropping us at another hotel near Panama Airport, ready for an early flight to Cartagena the next day.

Central America ?  Great.  Much better than expected, with the only disappointments being the Guatemalan border crossing and Costa Rica.  But Panajachel, Granada, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – Busy, bustling, often crazy, but beautiful and fascinating.  Lovely people, and great places.  Thoroughly (and unexpectedly) enjoyed it all.    Now let’s go to South America !!













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