Nicaragua – Exodus

NOTE: this post chronicles my getting stuck on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua due to nationwide protests, and my eventual crazy ride out.

For actual touristy Nicaragua stuff, see these: 

Nicaragua West    Nicaragua East

 

Background


“Nicaragua – where lead floats and cork sinks.”

On April 19th, while I was in Honduras, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan government announced a new policy that would decrease the Social Security payout to retirees, and increase the amount young people have to put in. This made many people very angry. According to the government there isn’t enough money. The system is broken and needs to be fixed. According to the angry people, there should be plenty of money. But it’s been frittered away on government crony boondoggles to Ortega’s pals and flat out corruption. Hmmm that sounds a little familiar.

Here’s a good link about how all this stuff started: https://www.facebook.com/jarrettevanbrown/posts/10155889891643303

So what started as a small protest was repressed violently by the government and turned into a huge blowup. There were protests in all the major cities. 45-100 or more people died or “disappeared” – depending on whom you ask. In Leon a 14-year-old girl was killed by a ricochet. In Bluefields a reporter was shot by a sniper while delivering a broadcast. The sniper was never caught and the government disavows responsibility of course. There are reports and some videos that look pretty convincing of bandana-wearing “Sandanista Youth” attacking or lobbing tear gas at protestors – then retreating behind police lines for protection.

In Nicaragua – if you join the Sandanista Youth, you get free secondary education (high school) – something that is prohibitively expensive for poor people. Several of the hostels and hotels have charities to send the local kids to secondary school. I always thought Nicaragua had one of the best education systems in Central America. According to locals – “That is all a lie”. Of all the countries I’ve been to so far – Nicaraguans seem by far the most cynical about their government. From everything I saw there seems to be good reason for this.

Attempt #1 to get from Bluefields to Granada


I got my tire changed in the Flamingo Casino parking lot, and on the road to Nueva Guinea at about 2pm (here’s the previous story of how I got here). I made my way back across the construction quicker this time. I also aired down my tires to 20ps before the construction started. 

I was having a nice pleasant drive. At one point near the end of a construction, I passed a truck as it picked up one of the highway workers. The two men in front were dressed in nice casual clothes. I assumed they all worked for the highway and maybe the two guys in front were bosses giving a worker a ride. As I rounded the corner to the intersection with NIC-71 and NIC-134, just before Nueva Guniea – I saw a lot of buses parked, and people sitting around. Uh oh. I was hoping this was maybe some kind of blockage or construction. But I suspected deep down it was a roadblock. I knew there was going to be some kind of protest on May 10th. So it wasn’t a total shocker. 

I drove around a few trucks and got fairly close to the front. The highway worker truck pulled in right behind me. They got out and started walking to the roadblock. I figured I would wait and see what they did. Immediately after I parked, my car and US plates started getting a lot of attention. Every group who walked by would look at the car, look at my front plate, then look at me. If they stared a lot I’d wave, and they’d usually wave back. At all the roadblocks I’ve seen – foot traffic is allowed through. So the buses and collectivo taxis stop at one end of the roadblock, then people walk through the roadblock to catch similar transport on the other side. Or in this case some people might just have walked into Nueva Guinea – a decent-sized down just on the other side of the roadblock. So there’s a ton of foot traffic.

I saw the assumed highway workers get back in their truck and drive around me. At that point I was kicking myself for not talking to them as they were walking back past my car to their car. But my Spanish is still so crappy, and I was a little intimidated by all the attention I was getting. So I just sat quietly in my car. I assumed the highway workers had somehow talked their way through the roadblock and were gone, and I missed my possible chance to tag along with them.

At first I assumed it would be like the other roadblocks where they’d hold us for a few hours. Maybe until 8pm or something. I bought some ice cream from a vendor and asked him “cuantos tiempo”. He said “dos”. Ok 2 hours – that’s like 6pm. I can live with that. It sucks because I might miss hanging out in Granada tonight. But that’s the unpredictability of travel!

I tried to confirm the 2 hour estimate with the truck driver who was parked in front of me. He didn’t understand what I was saying and gave me an annoyed look as he said something I didn’t understand. It didn’t boost my confidence over trying to communicate more with people.

I had to take a shot of this guy in a Kerry / Edwards shirt. How many people could name Kerry’s VP candidate

As day turned into night and 6pm passed, I started to think they may hold us until 8pm like the Oaxaca road block. Darn it. I decided to cook one of my freeze-dried “REI rations”. As I was preparing the dinner out of the back of my truck I saw a squat figure standing in the darkness a few feet a way, leaning on the front of his open-air bus/truck thing, which was parked directly behind mine. It spooked me a little. He said “La cena?” Yay something I understand – yes this is my dinner. He came forward and was very curious about the whole process. I was friendly and showed him how the boil-in-bag worked, and how you have to seal it and wait 10 minutes for it to cook. He seemed very bemused by the whole process. I offered him some but he wasn’t interested.

At some point his buddy came over. Of course with my crappy Spanish we struggled to communicate beyond basics. The squat guy got a big kick out of calling me gringo. He seemed a little drunk. I asked him how long this would take – he replied “cuarenta y ocho”. 48 hours?!? He nodded yes. Apparently the ice cream guy meant two days, not two hours. Argh. They said the roadblock went in at noon. By my calculation if my morning flight out of Big Corn hadn’t been canceled, I would have arrived at that roadblock right about noon. I might have just made it. Or I might have missed it by 5 minutes and been first in line – which would have been extremely frustrating.

At one point the other guy in the bus – who was younger and taller – communicated via translate apps on our phones. I asked him if they would really keep us here all night. He said there’s no way to know but probably. He also asked me if I was scared to walk around alone. This unnerved me a little. Should I be? Nicaragua is a pretty safe country. But it’s not like there’s any law out here to come and protect you. You’re kind of on your own at a roadblock.

After a bit a couple of other people came and joined us. The squat guy kept calling me gringo, and making a lot of jokes at my expense – most of which I couldn’t understand. I know this is totally normal for this part of the world, so I wasn’t too worried. But maybe a little. One of the other guys in the group was young, tall and didn’t say much – he just gave me this blank stare. He made me a little nervous. At times people would walk by us, but other times there were big gaps where we the only people around. They kept looking up and down the road and I started to get a little paranoid maybe they were waiting for a big gap in people to mess with me. They were also leaning or sitting on my car and kept getting on all sides of me no matter where I moved. I didn’t like being surrounded like that. If my Spanish was better the situation would have gone a lot smoother. But I couldn’t reply to most of the stuff they were saying, and it just got nervous and awkward for me.

At one point I took this picture of the license plate of the bus. I posted it on FB with a cryptic message (I didn’t want to scare my Mom) and also sent it to some friends. My plan was if these guys did start messing with me – I’d let them know that people know their plate #. I didn’t think it was likely they were going to actually pull something. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to have an insurance policy. 

My insurance

At some point they wandered off to further back in the line. I walked up to check out the roadblock. Night actually gave me a little cover as I wasn’t recognizable as a gringo from 100′ away. The roadblock manners had been playing music out of a big speaker the whole time – also firing off what I thought were fireworks.It was a pretty festive atmosphere. As I got closer I could see a bunch of branches blocking the road – with a few people sitting on them. Except for a few guys with scarves covering their faces, it was hard to tell who was a protestor and who was a bystander.

I walked over to the other side of the intersection – which leads to Nueva Guinea just on the other side. This block was a lot more built up – with concrete blocks, logs and metal poles and more people sitting. I thought I might be able to film, but I really didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I walked back to the car resigned that no one was getting through that – not with a bribe nor some kind of Jedi mind trick. Also I saw the truck with the highway worker bosses. They had just pulled up to a closer spot. The disadvantage to being closer was that they got blasted with music all night.

Truckers had strung up hammocks all over the place. Some were sleeping in their cabs.

I slept in my car that night, with the AC running (FYI – 12 hours idle + AC = 4 gallons of gas). I felt a lot safer *and* more comfortable in my air-conditioned car. It was miserable and buggy outside. One thing that saved me is I still had a 3G signal on my cel phone. So I as able to google how to run my engine without the stupid daytime running lights (start car, apply emergency brake, turn car off and restart). In the Oaxaca roadblock I had no cel signal and couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t a big deal in Oaxaca. But I didn’t want to sleep all night with my lights on here and draw even more attention to myself. Another good lesson for overlanders – never drive w/o cellular data access. You never know when it will be a godsend.

At one point I realized the bed of my car was really hot. I figured that must be my engine heating up the pavement and reflecting back at me. So I periodically scooted my car forward or backward during the night. I slept in my driver’s seat and kept a nice gap between me and the truck and front of me – in case I needed to move in a hurry for some reason (hopefully because the roadblock opened). 

At some point the guys in the bus behind me drove up to the front, pulled some kind of crazy turn-around maneuver, then stopped with their bus rear end at the roadblock. After a few hours of this they drove back to a spot further away from the roadblock than me, and pulled over into the grass. I have no idea what the first part where they pulled up to the roadblock was about. Just like the Oaxaca roadblock, I saw so many maneuvers like that which made no sense to me.

The sun comes up really early in this country – like 4:30. It’s weird that all of central america wants to be on central time (mountain now because of daylight savings). But if you look on a map – my location lines up with Atlanta. I decided to wait until 6am and if nothing moved – head back to Bluefields. I sat in my car and watched the truck drivers to see if they thought they might move soon. They kept intensely watching what was going on up in front – which gave me hope. But then when I got out of my car to look – nothing was happening. I guess if you’re bored you might a well watch something.

At one point the “gringo” guy showed up at my window. He was now saying 4 days, not 2. Argh. He asked what I was going to do. I mentioned Bluefields. He said Bluefields won’t work because of “rata rata”. Of course google translate offers no help and I had no idea what he meant. But it made me worried my way back to Bluefields would also be blocked.

About 5:30 it strarted to rain. This gave me some concerns for getting through the construction zone on the way to Bluefields – 30km of rocks and clay dirt that turns to ultra-slick mud when wet. It gets so slick you can barely stand up on it. One time I took a wrong turn off the highway and got onto some of that mud. Luckily it was totally flat so I made it across in 4WD. But when I got back on the pavement – all 4 wheels spun until the mud burned off. Is that what ‘rata rata’ means? Rain could make the construction zone impassible.

As 6am got close, I realized no one was going anywhere and it was raining hard. I decided to head back. On my way out there were about 40 more cars and trucks in line behind me. Also they had put up a makeshift tree roadblock on my side of the road (going against the stopped traffic). I was able to drive around by going into the little ditch on the side of the road – one of many times having a high-clearning 4×4 helped me navigate around the a roadblock. It seemed like the main purpose of these roadblocks was to keep buses and taxis from driving all the way up to the front to drop people off.

When I got to the construction zone it was pretty wet and people were just showing up for work. I made it through pretty easily until a big steep grade towards the end of the zone. There a bunch of us waited while a road-grader and a bulldozer with a track took turns towing vehicles up the steep grade of slick mud.

Big boy toys – bulldozner towing a bus which is towing a car behind it

People helping with the towing process were covered with sticky mud. One of them saw my car, said “quattro por quattro” and gave a thumbs up. Yeah. Glad I’m only going down. After a few tows up the hill, they picked my car out of the line to be the first one down. Cool! I made it down pretty easily although it did feel like sliding half the way.


This is not the grade, just a taste of what it’s like.

My main concern though was getting back up that thing later if the rains really set in. Could I be trapped on the wrong side of this? Do they just shut it down when the rains get too heavy? I guess they were trying to build a road from Rama to Bluefields. But in 2016 the rains started and never stopped. It somehow screwed up their road so bad they apparently gave up and decided to build a road from Nueva Guinea instead. This is the road all maps think exists, but isn’t there. So this is all going through my head. I asked the locals if they shut down construction. A couple of them said yeah but only for real rain. Apparently this isn’t even real rain. Argh.

Back at Bluefields


I got back to Bluefields and checked back into the Oasis/Flamingo. My plan was to stock up on water, gas, and food – and head back up the next day when hopefully the 2-day prediction would prove to be true. I walked down onto the pier to get something to eat. I was approached by one of the hustler dudes who sit around on the sidewalks. Basically these guys are friendly and either ask for a handout or try to offer some kind of service to earn a little change (I assume they could get drugs or whatever). They also speak pretty good English – since that part of the world is connected to the Carribean.

I told my hustler guy, a friendly older gentleman of Caribbean-African descent named William, that I need to find out the situation getting across the country. The bus drivers always know – and I figured he’d know them.  Also he should know the panga boat drivers who go up the river to Rama. As we walked I saw a Managua <-> Bluefields bus parked close to the pier. He said that bus was stuck and couldn’t leave. I figured ok – no matter what anyone says, if that bus is gone it’s a good sign. If it’s still there, bad sign. Tangible confirmation is the best. He enthusiastically said he was on the case and he would find out everything he knows. Great, I have a man on street now. He guided me to a local place that has tasty typico chicken, rice and beans.

When I got out of the restaurant he told me what he’d found out. He didn’t think anything was going to move until Monday at the earliest, probably Tuesday. This was Friday. Argh. He said there was a nationwide roadblock blocking all transport between the two coasts. But boats might be still running to Rama. He also said all plane traffic was blocked too. Which I knew wasn’t true. So I wasn’t sure what to believe. We walked up and asked the boat driver just to see if there’s a chance to put my car on it. He said they weren’t going anywhere until Monday at the earilest. 

William asked me for a few bucks to get something to eat. I gave him 100C – about $3. This became his daily rate for getting me the latest information on the transport situation. Best value ever. 

That night I hung out in the casino lounge and worked on my blog. I also entertained myself with a beer volcano created by my hyper-cooled beer.

I got going about 10pm the next day – planning to hit the roadblock about noon, which would be 48 hours from when I was told it started. It was raining off and on and I was very nervous about making it up the big hill. The Managua/Bluefields bus was still parked by the pier. But I decided to try it anyway in hopes the original 2-day prediction turned out to be correct. I bought 4 gallons of water and filled my tank and two 5 gallon jerry cans with gas. I figured vendors will always be there for snacks. And I have a weeks worth of REI rations at least. I was prepared it wait it out an extra night or two if needed. or if they were letting people trickle through some how.

One thing I forgot that I was really kicking myself for is some vodka to make time pass quicker and make my car a little more comfortable. I can mix that with orange stuff and drink it w/o drawing attention. Beer would just make me the life of the party, which I definitely didn’t want to be.

Attempt #2


Even though it was raining, the construction turned out to be no big deal. They had dumped a ton of rocks on the big grade. Driving up it was like a gravel road.

About 10km from the roadblock I passed a tricked out new blue pickup coming the other way. The guy standing in the bed was holding some kind of very large, serious military-grade rifle. I have no idea what was going on there. It was the only real weapon I saw in Nicaragua not on a car or cop.

I was worried the line of cars would be kilometers long this time. As I got closer and closer to the intersection where the block was – I saw no signs of cars waiting. I even aw little mini-roadblocks on the other side of the road, like the one I had to navigate around to get out the pervious morning. But no other cars or people. I started to get hopeful as I rounded the last possible turn before the intersection. Nope, there it was.

The line of cars and trucks had actually gotten a lot shorter than when I left the previous morning. I wondered is this a bad sign? Have people given up and go somewhere else? Or many they’re trickling through – which I had heard was possible at a lot of the other roadblocks.

There was a jacknifed flatbed truck blocking the path, this time the way around was also blocked with a bunch of branches. So there was no chance to drive up to the front. At first I thought the flatbed might have accidentally gotten stuck like that trying to turn around. But then I realized it was probably on purpose. I asked some guys near the truck if they knew when this would open. They said 3 more days. So Tuesday? Yeah. Ugh.

I walked up to the front. I saw the bus of the “gringo” guy. That’s not a great sign.

This is from the other side of the flatbed – looking towards the roadblock.

Then I saw the truck with the highway worker bosses. One of them was in his undershirt instead of his nice polo he was wearing two days prior. That seems like a real bad sign, If anyone could bribe their way though, I’d think it would be those guys.

The outskirts of the roadblock – 2 days in – lots of pineapples eaten apparently

I walked up to the roadblock. The mood was a lot less festive, but not super tense. Just tons of people standing around. It was impossible to tell who was in charge or whom you’d even ask to get through. There seemed to be a few more of the guys with scarves and plastic pipe things – which I figured out were rocket launchers that they were using to set off what I thought was fireworks the other night. This time it was clear from the way they were carrying them that these were makeshift weapons.

Even  if I did talk my way through, I wasn’t clear how I’d get around the flatbed situation behind me. My plan at this point had mostly just been to wait it out. I still couldn’t really wrap my head around trying to talk my way through. How am I going to get through when the construction bosses in the nice truck couldn’t get through? It never occurred to me that foreign plates could be a key.

I walked over to the Nueva Guinea side. There were only a few cars in line. I assumed everyone was just in town waiting it out. So frustrating – like 100 feet between one side and the other. On the right side  of the intersection – freedom to the other side of Nicaragua. On my side – trapped with my car. Straight ahead looked like a road, but was a big blank spot on every map I had. The left went to a few towns but otherwise seemed to completely dead end. And it didn’t matter because they weren’t letting anyone through in any direction.

I’d heard many horror stories of people trying to run these things or bully their way through. People had their cars attacked and sometimes were pulled from the car and beaten up. Don’t do it. 

I started brainstorming and imagining stupid stuff like – could I get a helicopter to lift my car over this? I pondered the barriers on both sides on the intersection that i needed to get through and the fields around them, particularly the field in the quadrant between my two barriers. There was a path going into the field a few hundred feet down on NIC-71 – my trapped side. It seemed very likely that might connect up with NIC-134 on the Nueva Guinea side. I could walk the route in the day, then try to run it at 3am or something. One problem though is as soon as I put my car in gear, those daytime running lights come back on. I’d have to disconnect ever light on the car before trying this. Which could turn into a big mess.

About that time my “gringo” buddy showed up in the intersection. He was all cleaned up and sober and super-friendly. He had spent the night in a hotel in Nueva Guinea. A hotel was an option for me as well – but it would mean leaving my car completely unattended  – in a place it was getting far and away the most attention it’s gotten the entire trip. I’d have find a good spot and really trust some neighbors to keep an eye on it. I asked the gringo guy what he thought of my plan to sneak around. He made a gun pantomime and rattatat sound. They’d shoot me basically. Ok not a good plan.

I did see one car let through at least part of the barrier. It was a land cruiser truck thing loaded up with people and many bunches of plantains – on some kind of official mission for the protestors I’m assuming. They had to argue about how to let the vehicle through the main roadblock towards Nueva Guinea. The group sitting on the main barrier wanted him to drive on the other side of the stop sign, where there were only sticks, but it looked real tight. Finally it was decided to move part of the main barrier, much to the chagrin of the guys sitting on it – who now had to help take it apart.

Obviously the weren’t letting people through very often if this was the process. There were even tons of motorcycles parked on both sides. Usually motorcycles can talk their way through at some point. The gringo guy was now saying 3 more days as well. Although he seemed to think that meant Wednesday, not Tuesday.

I decided to head back to Bluefields. 

Defeat – back to my car

At this point I was still hoping to see Granada, meet up with the Belgian guys, and salvage my Nicaragua Pacific-side vacation. As I drove back, I got the idea that maybe I will leave the car, fly to Managua and check out Granada. Then I’ll fly back and get my car in 3 days.

Bluefields take 3


“The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude”  (or so the quote on my home page goes)

When I got back to Oasis they just handed me my key. I’m like Clive Davis at the Beverly Hills Hotel – my room is always waiting.

Back in my home away from home

I got online and bought a roundtrip ticket to fly to Managua the next day – $140. That night I sent an Instagram message to the Belgian guys in Granada to see where they were staying.

The next day I got up, checked out of my room for the 3rd time, gave the hotel some laundry to do and killed some time until my afternoon flight. At some point the Belgian guys got back to me, They said the situation was pretty bad and they were bugging out to San Juan del Sur. Great. I kinda figured. I decided to skip Managua and just make the best of it in Bluefields. I went to the airport to cancel my ticket in person. They said they could only change it, not cancel it. I had to cancel it online, which of course there’s no way to do. I may try to fight it somehow with my credit card.

When I got back to the Oasis, they had already put my clothes in my room all nice and folded. They knew I wasn’t going anywhere I guess. You can check out anytime, but you can never leave.

This actually warmed my heart

I talked to my man on  the street, William. He was now saying there would be a big protests in Bluefields on Monday and Tuesday. So maybe Wednesday I could get out. But more likely Thursday. But also nobody really knows. Awesome. He also said there were roadblocks just outside of Bluefields – which I know isn’t true because I just drove through that and didn’t see anything. So I never know for sure. But I trust William knows the boat and bus drivers. And the Managua bus was still there – so for sure he’d know if he could get through.

Around this point I started to realize I need to abandon my hope of seeing Granada, Ometepe and San Juan del Sur on this trip, and just focus on getting me and my car out of the country somehow. On the map there’s a much closer border to Costa Rica – which doesn’t involve going near Managua, Masaya or any of the other major problem areas.

Blue route good, grey route bad

Googling and talking to locals about that border was frustrating because many said that’s a boat-only border and the boat hardly runs. But I found something that said there was a bridge built in 2015. Still you never know in this part of the world. You might hear they shut that down with the protests and never reopened it. Only local locals ever really know.

Welp, might as well explore Bluefields, work on the blog, and make the best of of it for a few days. I actually came to love Bluefields by the end. My first impression was of a very gritty town that might not be 100% safe. But I met so many people there who love their little gritty town, including expats. It really grew on me. I would have enjoyed it even more without the stress of worrying about my car. I had to start thinking about if I had to leave it behind in a garage. Would it be safe? Would I be able to get it out later when it had well expired it’s 30-day permit? Supposedly you can get that extended to 60-days in Managua. But who knows how well that will work with all this other chaos.

Jerry and the staff at Oasis were incredibly helpful. I can’t say enough good things about them. They called a hotel in Nueva Guinea where I could stay. They let me park my car there for free when I was on Corn Island. I had to explain how my car would still be on the wrong side of the roadblock. Jerry also gave me connections for a garage where I might store the car. They lowered my rate too. I felt like family by the end.

I wandered around town for a few days – taking out cash each time. Some people were worried about the town running out of supplies. The Corn Islands get all their supplies through Bluefields. No boats or trucks = no beer. No beer = no tourists. Although I’m not sure how many tourists Corn Islands are getting with all the turmoil. But I never saw a run on groceries, cash machines or all important beer supplies. I’m not sure what the breaking point is, but everyone seems prepared to be cut off for a few weeks anyway. I think Bluefields has some kind of strategic beer reserve.

TV seems pretty balanced – but the only political billboards and posters you see around the country are pro-Ortega stuff like this

The same ad agency that does the Ortega ads seems to be responsible for a lot of local stuff – you see this exact style everywhere

I went back to Marbella (where I had watched Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) a few times. 

Marbella
Tacos – not sure if pork or grey fish, really hoping pork

Best stick to the fried chicken – which is the only thing anyone seems to order

The Marbella trough urinal empties right into the bay – efficiency
I saw this online, but I think it captures the sense of humor of people down here – and laughing at the massive schism of marketing vs. reality that I’ve mentioned a few times.

The next day was Mother’s Day. Unfortunately I had no minutes, but Mom and I managed to chat for a while online. William’s buddy kept offering to carve me something. So I had him carve me a Mother’s Day gift. I love you mom! 

I had to spell it out for him in chalk

Google translate is useless on stuff like Tostones. But my license-plate-saving amigo San Bruno Rey – said to just google it and look at images. DUH!!! Btw tostones is some kind of flattened fried plantain pancake thing – meh
Remember phone sex lines? They still exist!
Fire trucks from some Russia / Nicaragua partnership

Its hard to tell from this – but that was one loaded- down boat.
View from the upper level at Oasis
Fish packing plants weren’t taking any more, because they had no way to ship them out. So fisherman were selling more than usual on the streets. You can’t see it, but right behind me was a carved up leatherback turtle 🙁

 

Dearest Martha, fate finds me still camped in Bluefields on Nicaragua’s sparsely-populated Atlantic Coast. Nationwide protests block all transport. With good providence, my predicament will clear up tomorrow day, or the next – hopefully long before I go mad from the preponderance of Ed Sheeran’s voice emanating from every dining and drinking establishment in town. I’m currently sustaining myself on copious rations of ice cold beer and tasty fried things. However should those become depleted, please pray for my soul.

— your loving Mateo

 

Everyone was entertained watching this kid pull up his catch. Probably what was in my tacos

Other than Marbella and the Oasis lounge, I spent much of my time at the 3rd floor restaurant of Casa Royale – the hotel next to Oasis. Great food and really friendly people. The only knock on Casa Royale I can think of – is the of course their heavy, HEAVY rotation of Ed Sheeran.

Gorgeous spot to work on my blog and watch the sun go down.

Best bartender in town – my buddy Clayberth. Like most others in Bluefields, he speaks pretty good English

 

 

Martha, I have the most fortuitous news! Supply lines are still mysteriously maintained. Morale is incalculably restored.
If Barbie had her own alcoholic beverage
After like 200 of these I finally figured out to just pull them straight off the top instead of try to peel them off. I’m … slow

I thought about trying to get out Monday or Tuesday and take my chances, but everyone was saying there would be protests in Bluefields. So it seemed like it might be a mess getting out. Neither protest ended up happening.

Given the deteriorating situation, I decided to make a run for it on Wednesday – during the first talks with Ortega. If the talks somehow went well the roadblocks might go away. But if they didn’t go well, which seemed likely, things could get real bad. I had heard in one offhand Facebook comment that foreign-plated vehicles and ambulances might be let through – which gave me a tiny ray of hope. But you hear so many things – and 90% of them turn out to be completely wrong.

That day I went around and got any supplies I could think of to potentially use as bargaining chips. I loaded my car with 2 cases of beer, many bottles of soda, water, extra gasoline, and vodka – to potentially use as bargaining chips. I also had cash.

After getting good luck from Clayberth and everyone at Casa Royale for my run the next day. I couldn’t sleep right away – so I went down to the casino. Where of course Ed Sheeran followed.

That day I posted my whoe plan on the Nicaraguan ex-pat forum to ask any more advice.

Attempt #3


I woke up at 6am to an FB message from a Danish guy named Lasse. He and his Swiss friend Stefan were stranded in Nueva Guinea and wanted to know if I could help get them out. A friend of theirs had read my post on the ex-pat forum and alerted them that I might be their ticket out. I said sure – assuming I make it through the first roadblock just before Nueva Guinea. They were able to provide some local reconnaissance as well, which helped.

The staff at Oasis had given me the number of a hotel owner in Nueva Guinea who said he would go down to the roadblock to try to help me out. I sent the guys over to talk to the hotel owner, but they said he didn’t seem to know much. They said they were staying about an hour walk from the roadblock. I debated if trying to get through the roadblock on my own first was a good or bad idea. If I tried on my own first, could I maybe screw it up somehow? Would be better to get local help first? Given the hour walk I decided to try to do it myself.

6th time through the construction – thank you for no rain today!

Once again the roadblock coming out of Bluefields was non-existent. I really don’t think Bluefields’ heart was in this thing. The cultures and languages are so different that the Atlantic and Pacific sides are like two different countries. Even Spanish speaking Bluefields residents speak with a heavily slurring Caribbean accent that the rest of Nicaragua makes fun of. So it makes sense Bluefields might not be totally on board with the Pacific side’s war.

About 6 km before the roadblock, I saw an old farmer waving me down from the other side of the road. Normally I would be suspicious of something like this, but in this case I thought maybe he can help me somehow. Maybe I can explain my situation to him, and he can help negotiate me through. But then it became clear he couldn’t speak. He could only make gutteral noises. So much for that plan.

But other than that he seemed all there. He wanted a ride towards the roadblock. Ok sure why not.  He got in, holding a big sack of something in his lap. He motioned to tell me that the block was coming. I said yo se – I know. He seemed to understand me.

I got up to the roadblock at Nueva Guinea, which had about the same amount of vehicles as the pervious time. This time there were 2 jackknifed flatbed trucks (I guess flatbed is good so they can still see over them if government troops are coming or something). There was a string of barbed wire blocking the way around the flatbed trucks – what was probably doable in a low clearance car (minus the barbed wire) but it wouldn’t have been fun. They were having a little party at the barbed wire spot – with a big speaker blaring Reggaeton.

I let the farmer out, he headed toward the roadblock but was walking very slowly carrying his bag, with a noticeable limp.

I waited a bit so I could park in a good spot between a lot of people.I didn’t want my car to be in the back behind a truck where no one could see it an it might be easier to mess with. I thought I might be gone a while – if I had to walk into Nueva Guinea to get help. I took a picture of my car – to show my US plates to whomever I talked to at the front. 

I only took a few pictures from here on out for obvious reasons. 

I walked up to the front. There were lots of well lived-in makeshift camps. Laundry was drying on the fence. Shirtless dudes were playing cards under a truck. I caught up to the mute farmer and said hi as I passed him. 

When I got to the center of the intersection, I found a friendly looking guy who seemed to be with the protesters. IE – not just a bystander. Trying to hide my heart-pounding nervousness, I said hey, and he gave me a little fist-pump. I said I have plates from Unistados Unidos (yes I know now that it’s Estados Unidos – doh! – but they understood). I asked – can I pass – “Hay paso por favor?” Here’s where being obviously a big pele rojo gringo helps a bit I think.

He asked another slightly older guy in a little group sitting in a patch of shade, who I assumed was in charge. None of these guys had rocket launchers or scarves. I think they’re all local farmers. After a bit of back and forth – the second guy nodded I could pass. I didn’t ask twice. I always remember a quote from some movie with Elliot Gould – “Never sell after you’ve made the sale.”

I hustled back to my car. As I walked back, on person in line asked if I was going to be allowed to pass. It was one of the construction boss guys who hit the roadblock at the exact same time I did 6 days earlier. I said “tal vez” – maybe. I didn’t want to rub it in. I thought I saw the gringo guy’s bus – but it was covered or something. I never saw him. One of my subplans was to offer him $20 if he could get me to the other side somehow.

Now my biggest concern is how to remove that barbed wire and get around the jackknifed trucks w/o getting in trouble. What if they say no? I talked to the nearest person and attempted to communicate that I was being allowed to pass at the front. He didn’t argue and got to work undoing the barbed wire. As I was driving past, I stopped the car, got out and gave away a few loose beers to that group. This quickly turned into a happy mob scene with endless people running up to my car for a beer. I gave away about 8 beers and made a note – give beers away in blocks – no continuous loose beers. People were excited for the beer, but no one got pushy or tried to grab one. 

I took this picture as I drove to the front. Driving past all the makeshift camps and involuntary campers – I thought loopily of the final scene in Officer and a Gentleman – where Richard Gere carried Debra Winger out of the factory. Would all the other poor stuck people cheer for me?

As I drove to the front, they moved the first branch barricade out of the way. I was now in the middle of the intersection of NIC-71 and NIC-134. As I thought I was through, I got out of the car and pulled two cold 3-liters of Coke and a 12-pack of ice-cold beer out of my cooler and gave it to them. The beer again was a huge huge hit. I made sure to let my original buddy distribute it.

As they were clearing the last branches from my path – some younger dudes with their faces covered with scarves and homemade rocket launchers showed up and started saying NO. Great. I’m guessing the rockets are something like a big bottle rocket with an M-80 on it – but they could be more serious. I managed to get a shot of one on my second trip to the roadblock:

I turned the iOS live view into a gif

There was some arguing back and forth while I sat in the intersection. The crowd was swelling. Chaotic yelling seemed to be the communication strategy of the day. Think – “Hay ay ay ay AY AY AYYYYYY!!” The older guys finally won out and removed the roadblock. Where they were sending me though I have no idea. Instead of removing the roadblock on the right towards Nueva Guinea they sent me straight ahead down a road that google maps doesn’t know exists. I hoped it would connect over to Nueva Guinea – which I could see from there. But the road turned into a very bumpy cow field.

I reluctantly turned around and headed back. Some guys were waving me back towards the roadblock. I hoped they would send me down one of the side streets and not back through the main block. But nope, it was back through the main roadblock – with a giant log still in my path to the left – towards town. Standing right in front of the log, with his legs spread in an aggressive stance, was a scarfed guy gripping a rocket launcher. At one point he actually pointed the rocket launcher at me. But most of the time it was still pointed up. I have no idea if that thing would actually do any damage to my car. But obviously if it comes to that I’m screwed either way. There are multiple more roadblocks in that vicinity.

I very slowly rolled up to a few feet in front of him. I had both windows rolled down at this point, which I was starting to regret. People surrounded my car on all sides, leaning in the car, arguing and yelling stuff. I heard “International!” a few times. I noticed that many of the guys who were arguing most vociferously for me were holding the beers I had given them. Score one for beer.

The rocket launcher guy made his way over to my rolled down driver’s side window. He of course was saying stuff in Spanish I couldn’t understand. I can usually communicate what I need to. But I can never understand what these guys are saying. If I tell them ‘no comprende’, they just repeat whatever they were saying. They’ve never had to deal with gringos, so they don’t know dum dum Spanish.

Everyone was yelling at everyone. This was peak chaos. At one point I asked the rocket launcher guy “propina?” (tip) Nope. He didn’t want money. I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what this guy wanted. Then he said “Tu arma?” which I actually understood. I’d heard it from the cops who pulled me over in El Salvador. They wanted to know if I was armed.

I said “No – yo no arma” and held up my hands. He gestured his weapon to say “Yeah, well I am armed.” Ok you’re the boss. So somehow I got the idea to just ask him what I had already asked the other guys, breaking my cardinal rule of asking twice. “Hay paso por favor? Placa de Unistados Unidos.” He paused for a bit then nodded and gestured that I could pass. I guess he just wanted to be asked and show he was in charge. What happens if he says no I have no idea.

A few of the crowd removed the log and I was on my way – a few 100 feet down to the next roadblock. A few more guys with my beers in their hands helped explain to the other road-block manners that I was allowed to pass and helped me back up and negotiate around it. After I cleared the second roadblock – my original buddy asked me for a few pesos (not sure why he said pesos, but that’s what he asked for). I gave him 200 Cordobas – about $6. He seemed happy. It was the only time all day anyone asked for money or anything else other than respect.

I spent a few frustrating minutes wandering around Nueva Guinea trying to find the hotel of my new buddies. (Really google maps – we’re gonna do this now?) I was paranoid someone with a rocket launcher was going to show up any minute and send me back to the roadblock. At first the hotel employees said the grngos went out. THEY WENT OUT??? But then it was determined that no, they were actually in their room.

They were completely shocked to see me through the roadblock so soon. I said “Get ready as fast as you can and lets get out of here!” I started moving stuff around in my car. They were back at the car, fully packed, in 3 minutes. Well done guys.

We piled in and headed down the road – aiming for the normally lightly traveled “other” Nicaragua/Costa Rica border at Los Chiles / Rio San Juan.

I knew there would be more roadblocks. But you have to figure if I got through Nueva Guinea, hopefully I can get through the others. We hit another roadblock maybe 20km down the road. We stopped and all got out. This one was mostly older dudes – no scarves or rocket launchers. They were super friendly and pretty much agreed to let us go immediately. I gave them some soda. I figured I might need the 30 beers or so I had left for more serious situations.

The roads were spooky empty. We agreed it felt like some kind of zombie apocalypse.


We saw maybe 10 cars for 100 km after Nueva Guinea.

We passed some women walking on the road who gave us the big “no go” sign, so we knew another roadblock was coming soon – at Santo Thomas up ahead. We tried to give them the “We know what we’re doing” sign, but that’s a little hard to pull off.

This roadblock was a lot more serious. Tons of guys with scarves and rocket launchers. This was at the intersection where you can first turn off to start heading back south to get to the border, or go straight towards Managua. The situation was very tense as we pulled up and hundreds of people started making their way towards us. We all got out. I told Stefan to let me do the talking, but back me up with your superior Spanish when necessary. I figured they’d think it was weird if the older guy and driver didn’t speak. Also I feel like I have a disarming presence that I hoped would do us well

They were really suspicious of us at first. I repeated my phrase “Solo quiero dejar el pais.” (I only want to leave the country).The tricky part is finding who to talk to. Basically I just looked for a sympathetic older face in the crowd approaching us, and addressed him. I think they understood pretty quick we weren’t dangerous or from anywhere near there.

When they saw my American plates, they starting asking me if I was a Contra (the US-backed group who fought the Sandanistas in the 80s). I know Ortega is a Sandanista. So I was thinking – do they want me to be a Contra? I have no idea if that’s good or bad. So made I don’t know gestures and tried to look dumb.

They wanted to check inside the car and were very curious to see in my car carrier on the top. I opened it up and they poked around a little. One thing that helped is we explained that we came from Bluefields and already got through Nueva Guinea. Also there was zero traffic coming from our direction as everything is blocked. So they knew we were probably telling the truth. Otherwise our appearance there made no sense.

Unlike the other road block where it seemed uncertain who was in charge – this one had a tall young dude with curly hair and his face covered who seemed to be clearly making the decisions. After some discussion, he nodded ok that we could pass. At that point I pulled out a full cold 12-pack. The dude I gave it to hoisted it on his shoulders like he was returning to his village with a magnificent kill. A gigantic roar went up in the crowd – up and down the street. Estados Unidos winning hearts and minds in Nicaragua. I wish I had the nerve to take video. But considering how much trouble some of these guys were going through to hide their faces it didn’t seem like a good idea.

As we drove further down to the other side of the roadblock, there was a gas station in the no man’s land between the two ends of the roadblock. People had taken it over and were camped all around the non-functional pumps – very Road Warrior-esque. The curly headed guy walked down and told the next roadblock to let us through to the left – the way towards our border crossing. If we had wanted to go straight towards Managua that might have been a problem. It certainly wouldn’t have matched our story that we just wanted to get out of Nicaragua.

I knew to expect a few roadblocks. But I hoped at this point we might be done – especially when we went through a wide deserted highway intersection still manned by police. We got some wide-eyed stares from the half-dozen or so cops there. We waved and they still just gawked at my car like “What the hell is that and where the hell did it come from?” I thought – ok maybe we’re in government territory now?

We drove for a long way and were maybe 30 minutes from the border, when I saw some white things in the road ahead – and a sign for El Tule. I remembered there was supposed roadblock at El Tule. Damn. This one was pretty serious too. These guys probably seemed the angriest of all. Driving up and getting out was very tense – similar to the previous roadblock.

They were really confused as to how I got there. They were also really interested in looking in the car and in the car carrier above. I guess they thought we were trying to sneak someone out of the country. Nobody ever wanted to look in my locking trunk in the back though. Maybe they didn’t notice it. Or maybe they were looking only in spaces big enough for a person? I have no idea.

Once they said we could pass, I pulled out some soda and beer and finally got the balls to ask for a pic. At least the ones in this pic were more than happy to pose so I am going to assume they are in no danger. If anyone thinks they are please let me know and I will blur out their faces. These guys are mostly farmers and I don’t think they have anything to do with organizing stuff.

The weird thing on this one is that the other side of the roadblock was so far down the road, they had to put a guy in our car to run down to the other side with us – sitting on Stefan’s lap. Ok sure.

When we got to the other end our rider explained to the people on that end what was going on. They moved a log to let us through into the grass on the right-hand side of the road. We drove around some trucks then pulled through a gap to get back to the road. Once on the road I could see a long line of trucks and buses. This looked like the other end of the Nueva Guinea road block. All the stuff inbetween had hardly any stuck vehicles.

I thought ok – maybe that’s it. And it was. The rest of the way was smooth sailing over completely empty roads. My paranoid self kept thinking the bridge was going to be out or something, and we’d have to try to get all the way back through the country and dozens of roadblocks.

So when we got to the bridge over Rio San Juan, I’ve never been so happy to be questioned by grumpy (pre) border cops in my life. As long as they don’t tell me the border’s closed. We told them the story and showed them some pics of the day.

Back over the Rio San JUan
Absolutely gigantic billboard – like the size of 4 normal billboards
Costa Rica in sight – I have never in my life been so happy to see a flag

The Nicaragua border took like 2 hours of silliness just to get out with my car. They also scanned my entire car with some multi-million dollar-looking x-ray device. Brilliant use of taxpayer’s money there. Wouldn’t want to scan people at the heavy traffic Honduras border. No idea why people are pissed at the govt. At one point we got called into a little room for questioning – which I can see given our crazy story and the fact that we just met that morning. But still, between entry and exit – the Nicaragua border is the closest thing to the movie Brazil I’ve ever experienced.

Taking pics at borders is also not a good idea. But I snuck in a few.

Stehan and Lasse chilling out at the Nicaragua border with some typico pork and beans, while the bureaucracy grinds it’s gears
Loneliest tourist information kiosk in the world – you can just barely see it – but the girl was asleep on her pamphlets
Completely empty border on the Costa Rica side – we were the only car and almost only people across all day
Once through the border my new friends and I drove an hour and half to our hostel and had a MASSIVELY celebratory beer.

We got to our hostel at La Fortuna, an hour and a half into the country – and I couldn’t find my passport. Awesome. The last guy who asked for it was the Costa Rica Aduana (immigration for cars). I had no recollection of giving him giving it back to me, and I was fairly certain he still had it. I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to replace my passport, and especially ship my car with some kind of replacement passport. But I know it wouldn’t be fun.

I considered driving back at night, but decided to just get drunk instead and deal with it in the morning. The hostel was full of loud annoying drunk Americans, probably on blow. Holy crap was it a culture shock for all three of us after being the only tourist gringos in our respective towns for many days. We all agreed we missed Bluefields.

The next morning I got up at 6:30am, blisteringly hungover, and drove back to he border. I saw the same lady from the day before. She searched the Aduana guy’s office while I watched from the outside window. My heart sank when it wasn’t right there on the desk or on top of a drawer. She rifled through everything and it wasn’t there. We tried a girl at another office to see if anyone had turned it in. Nope. We tried the guy out in the office in the parking lot. He came back in and wanted to search the Aduana office again. I didn’t think that would work, but ok. He looked in the same places and couldn’t find it either of course.

We were about to call it when I saw my form in the drawer and a photocopy of my passport. I said – see I was definitely here. This is also how I knew I was probably the only car to pass through all day. Then in a flash I said “copier machine!” I remembered losing a document before, only to find it in my home copier tray a month later. They opened the drawer and there it was.

Another beautiful sight at the Costa Rica border

I let out a bunch of gigantic “YES!” yells that probably freaked everyone else out at the border. I imagine they don’t get that kind of jubilation too often. Like “YES! THEY DIDNT FIND MY DRUGS!!!!!” Pretty sure you would wait until a few miles down the road for that celebration.

And thus concludes the craziest 24-hours of my life. Enough adventure travel for now.

Next up Costa Rica!


Nicaragua – East

NOTE: this post chronicles my time on the Atlantic Coast and Corn Islands in Nicaragua, before I got stuck there with my car due to nationwide protests. For that crazy story – click here.

For Nicaragua pt. 1 – click here.

Drive to Bluefields


I wanted to see some of the countryside and go places not every tourist goes. This is the whole idea of doing this in a car. I actually thought about driving to Puerto Cabezas on the north Atlantic Coast – which no one does – as there’s no tourist destinations anywhere near there. But google says it’s a 14 hour drive. Which means two days of driving each way. So once I nixed that idea, I knew I was driving to Bluefields at least – which is only a 6-7 hour drive. Nicaragua gets a lot skinner between the two coasts in the south.

After that I planned to take the ferry to the Corn Islands – which are a major tourist destination. Just like Ambergris Caye/Caye Caulker in Belize and Roatan/Utila in Honduras – there’s a Big Corn with has cars and more built-up resorts, and a smaller Little Corn with has none of that. Also some great diving. Later I found out the ferry was 5-7 hours, which did not sound fun. I decided to book a flight instead, for about $11o roundtrip. My plan was to buy a ticket at the airport when I got into Bluefields.

I saw this protest driving on the outskirts of Managua. They weren’t blocking traffic (yet?) and everyone seemed in pretty jovial spirits.

It was about here I got hit by a squeegee guy. I had a guy selling nuts on my driver window, and I didn’t notice the squeegee guy until it was too late. I tried to wave him off and he ignored me. But then I realized the window could probably use a clean and it was going to cost me 10 cords 0r about 33¢. I paid him then looked in my mirror and saw the nut guy do the same thing – distract a driver while the squeegee guy came in from the other side. Aha! The nut guy and the squeegee guy are working together! Who’s a deranged conspiracy theorist now?

I bought up this little thing from behind a counter, hoping it was some kind of empanada or pati. When I actually held it, it was so light I said “what’s in this thing, air?” Yep. But it was sweet and actually quite tasty. Maybe you’re supposed to fill it with stuff.

I see a lot of these boulevards in some random empty spot in a small town. Someone’s grand planning “If you build it they will come” dream – I’m guessing.

One really good tip I had gotten from the guy I met from Bluefields was to take the route through Nueva Guinea, not through Rama. If I had just blindly followed google maps like I have this entire trip, I’d be in Rama trying to figure out how to get to Bluefields. The only direct way from Rama to Bluefields is to put your car on a little barge called a panga boat. Would I have figured this out or wanted to do it? I don’t know.

Oh google maps, you so crazy

Further complicating the issue: maps.me, my paper map, and my Garmin Nicaragua openstreetmap downloaded in December also all think there is a road from Rama to Bluefields. There is not. Trust me I had many many days and a lot of incentive to try to find one.

Maybe the latest openstreetmap knows there is no road, but I wouldn’t know because I cannot for the life of me get it to install into Garmin’s ultra-confusing cluster-f*ck software. #)$*@$#)*#$)* Nor does even the older Nicaragua street map show up on my Garmin device even though I know I added it there before I left on the trip. I can only view it on my Mac. Garmin – most useless purchase ever. Maybe I can throw it at someone’s head in a jam and run away. I really want to take it out and smash it – Office Space style. Everything about the interface is about 100x more confusing and unusable than it should be. But it seems to work ok for hiking. So that would be dumb.

On top of that – only google maps realizes that there is a road to Bluefields from Nueva Guinea. 

Every other map I know of will tell you you can’t do this. 

One of the reasons the maps think there’s no road is that it’s brand new, and there’s actually about 30km still under construction. There are a lot of spots where traffic can only go one way so you have to wait. We’ll hear more from this road in the next blog.

I was a little worried about these sharp rocks. And I turned out to be right. The next morning I had a flat tire. I should have aired down to about 20psi or lower.

 

Bluefields


All in all the route took about an hour less than google maps expected. I rolled into town about 4pm. I had been primed to not expect much out of Bluefields, and it lived up to that. Gritty. 

I tried to find the airport but google maps was sending me all over the place. The streets are very narrow with people parked in all kinds off odd places, and the taxi drivers are really aggressive. I was a little frayed from 7 hours of driving and it was pretty chaotic. At one point I tried to get around a car as a taxi driver was flooring it to try to beat me to the open spot. He basically made it so tight that I hit the parked truck to the right of me. I was barely moving so it was just kind of a light clunk. I decided to pretend like I hadn’t heard or felt it and just keep moving. I looked behind me and no one was yelling or chasing. Whew. I don’t think it did any damage to either car.

I was frazzled so I gave up on the airport and went straight to my hotel – the Flamingo Hotel/Casino (formerly Oasis Hotel/Casino – which is the only name cab drivers seem to know). I had heard about this place multiple times and it seemed to be something on an institution. Rooms were $55, but I figured it was worth it for one night to know I was in a solid place. My book said some of the cheap hostels were sketchy. Also w/o AC I’m sure. 

After checking in I checked out the casino. It was all slots/video poker – no poker or blackjack, heh. I walked down to the pier and saw more grit. A few people said hi and welcomed me to Bluefields. It seemed a bit sketchy. But I know now they were literally just either being friendly or trying to offer advice or something to hustle a little change to get something to eat.

I managed to book a flight to Corn Island online, had a few beers and a burger at the Casino lounge, and went to bed pretty early. The next day I woke up and noticed my tire was flat. I wasn’t super surprised – because of those sharp rocks. I changed to my spare and worked it out with the hotel that someone would come fix the flat tire while I was gone. They let me park for free for 4 days while I was on the island. I can’t see enough good things about Oasis/Flamingo. The manager Jerry, and the rest of the staff went way above and beyond to help me out in a number of spots. Oasis will come up much more in the next blog post.

I decided to kill time before my afternoon flight at a local restaurant I’d heard about called Marbella. I hopped in a cab. He looked at me a little funny but started driving. About 1000′ later we were at Marbella. Oh. Well it’s only 20C – about $.60

I tried to order langoustines because I heard they were good around there. No langoustines. Ok. So I ordered chicken fajitas. This is what chicken fajitas looks like:

The place quickly started to fill up. Turns out Real Madrid was playing Barcelona. You see a lot of both jerseys everywhere in Latin America – almost always Ronaldo or Messi – easily the two most famous and probably best (or close to it) players in the game. By the time the game started it felt like the Superbowl with fans of both teams very animated. 

This is as it was filling up

I really enjoyed watching everyone get so into the game. I had to leave for the airport at halftime. But it turned out I could still watch the game, along with the entire staff of the Bluefields airport. When I got to the island I found out the game ended in a tie. Lame.

The plane flies into Big Corn island and from there you have to take a “ferry”, which is really just a big open boat, to Little Corn. The ferry waits for the plane and vice versa.

Little Corn Island


I met a couple on the plane were there for their anniversary. Every year one of them picks and plans a vacation to a place, and the other has no idea where they’re going. So this guy was on the plane literally just figuring out he was going to the Corn Islands – which he knew nothing about. What an amazingly cool idea. 

Cheslor is a superstar in Nicaragua!

The boat ride was pleasant and about 20 minutes. I guess with rough seas it gets really wet and takes a lot longer. I got to my hostel – Christine’s place. Very lovely.

Across the way from the hotel was a church. That’s nice.

I went down to find a place to dive. The #1 dive shop in town, Dolphin Dive, was actually pretty busy, which I didn’t expect. I thought it would be like Utila with endless capacity to handle divers. I had heard some bad reviews about the other big dive shop.  I think they’re going through some turmoil with the owner, and the staff’s attitude seemed to reflect that they weren’t happy. I managed to sign up for one dive the next day with Dolphin. As people canceled I got in 2 more dives – which was perfect. 

I got something to eat and hung out with some American guys I met on the boat. Little Corn was pretty easy to meet people because it’s so small. The biggest vehicles on the island are wheelbarrows and bicycles. We hung out with some other girls they had met earlier. Everyone seemed a little more tolerant of the guy that’s 20-years-older than them in this spot. Maybe because it’s a small island without a ton of tourists – so everyone just mixes together more. The larger the crowd the more people seen to stratify and split off into self-selected groups. Obviously mixed-age places are more fun – since tourist hangouts for people in their 40s don’t exist outside stuff like Cancun.

As I walked back to my room, a small church was having a Sunday night service. Or an AA meeting, I wasn’t sure.

As I approached my hostel, I could hear some incredibly loud music. But it wasn’t a club it was church music. Also not pleasant gospel or something, but some kind of wailing that sounded like the person was being impaled. 

 

I saw the Canadian couple that had the room next to me sitting out on our shared balcony. They had been sitting outside for a while – hoping the service would wrap up. We sat outside for an hour or so drinking rum. We literally had to yell at each other to be heard over the din. I can’t even imagine how loud it must have been to be in the actual church. Finally they called it a wrap and did the after church milling around thing. Everyone’s ears had to be wringing.

One fun little quirk of Little Corn is the power goes off from 6am to 2pm every day. So when I heard my AC go off at 6am, I knew my room would just slowly start getting hotter and hotter. No fan either of course. It definitely gets you up and going early! I signed up for morning dives the next two days after that, since I might as well get moving.

The diving was great. Dolphin Dive was very professional and a lot of fun. I forgot my GoPro, so I don’t have any pictures unfortunately. I feel like the reef on Little Corn was more colorful than the one in Utila. Maybe at a shallower depth, I don’t know. I saw more animals at Utila though.

On my second day I decided to walk over to Otto Beach on the other side of the island – a beautiful walk on a trail that winds through neighborhoods and tropical island scrub.

Someone’s crazy igloo house

I stopped at this baseball stadium and sat in the stands to rest in the shade and pretend I was a fan. I looked down and some kind of mosquito looking things were all over my legs. By the time I got to the beach my leg was absolutely on fire with the most intense itch I’ve ever felt. But as I was hoping – after about 2 hours it was pretty much gone. Supernova itch

Baseball is as big as soccer here

After the walk I popped out of the jungle onto Otto Beach – probably the most idyllic beach of the whole trip. 

The beach had a couple bars – this one attached to a $200-$300/night resort. I plopped myself down for some whiling

These guys at the fancy resort kept the beach clean of seaweed

My last night we were treated to a nice sunset on the other side of the island.

This place became my favorite spot to eat, drink and work on my blog
The pati guy – food highlight of Little Corn. Even when he didn’t have Pati he had something tasty.
Pati is kind of like a small empanada – can come with meat, veggies, or a sweet version with pineapple
This is the 18-wheeler semi-truck of the island

Once again I had a sad leaving island day. I hate leaving island day. I liked Little Corn a lot. But I think Utila still has my heart as far as islands go.

Big Corn


I took the ferry back to Big Corn, where I planned to spend one night and then take my early flight the next day. I didn’t see Roatan, so I decided I at least wanted to see Big Corn. The guys I met were on the same boat back to Big Corn, and taking the afternoon flight to Managua, which usually also stops at Bluefields. I could have gone on that flight instead of my morning flight. But I had already paid for my room. This would turn out to have repercussions. Big lesson is never pay for the room ahead of time unless you really think things are going to fill up – which doesn’t happen too often in this part of the world.

To be accurate I didn’t pay for the room, I just reserved it on booking.com. They don’t charge you, but if you don’t show up I guess the hotel can get your money from them. However, at least half the hotels never even check the reservations and have no idea who I am when I show up. This hotel, Big Fish, was no different. I doubt they’d have charged me if I didn’t show.

From the airport, I got lucky and got an amazing cab driver who spoke perfect English. I got to ask him all kinds of questions about life on the islands. We arranged for him to pick me up at 6:30 the next morning. Unfortunately a bit later I got an email from the airline. My morning flight was canceled and I had to move to the afternoon. But I had no way to contact the cab driver to tell him not to come. Oh well I figured I’ll just pay him the 60¢.

This flight cancellation would also turn out to have repercussions. 

And the rest of my Big Corn blog would probably conclude with – I took some pics, had dinner and went to bed.

Except for the drunk crazy lady who showed up to harras/catfish/unsure the guy who was dining near me.

First she stumbled into the restaurant and looked at me, then she recognized him. Apparently they knew each other because she had been kicked out of the bar at his hotel – that morning. It’s impressive enough to get kicked out of a bar in the morning, but to still be drinking at sunset is epic. She kept asking him if he was married, touching him, asking him all kinds of questions. It’s obvious he just wanted to get rid of her, but was too nice to tell her to get lost.

She was Swiss apparently. Came on vacation with some guy who abandoned her? Ditched by her friends? The guy kept trying to find out her story, but it wasn’t getting anywhere. At one point I think she said she needed $200 to replace her lost phone. So maybe she was just catfishing. 

At one point she left for a bit and I offered to help him as much as I can. Then he started asking me to figure something out. Hell I don’t know dude. I’m terrible at this stuff. The waiter also was terrible and didn’t want to risk pissing off a guest. At some point bugs started eating me and I had to get out of there. Before I left I got his # – then whats-apped him and told him he could hide out in my room if he wanted. He texted back later that he had gotten rid of her.

So the next day the cab driver showed up at 6:30. I told him the story and gave him 20C for his trouble. Later when he picked me up for the afternoon flight, he said the morning flights were running. Maybe the one to Managua, but it didn’t stop in Bluefields this time for some reason.

I had this tasty typico lunch as the proprietors watched the construction at the airport

I flew back to Bluefields. The hotel had fixed my tire but the spare was still on my car. I decided to switch the spare back to the back. I said profuse thanks for helping me and headed on the road about 2pm.

My original plan was to make it back to Granada in a day – but the flight delay had changed that. My biggest concern was how much farther past Nueva Guinea I wanted to ride in the dark. The Belgian guys I’d met at D&D Brewery and were then on Utila were in Granada. I was looking forward to seeing them. Did I dare try to risk it all the way to Granada? I’d been on that road and it wasn’t bad. Also Nicaragua is pretty safe as far as night bandits or something.

Turns out I had a lot more to worry about. That will be in the next post: Nicaragua – Exodus

 

Nicaragua – West

NOTE: this post chronicles my first few days or so in Nicaragua, before I got stuck in Bluefields on the Atlantic coast, with my car, due to nationwide protests. For that crazy story – click here.

Border crossing


I left out of Choluteca, Honduras – as chronicled here – and got to the border at Guasale – which had a ton of trucks to navigate around (never get in line behind the trucks – drive on the wrong side of the road). 

I said yes to a helper on the Honduras side, which probably wasn’t necessary. Also I think he might have scammed me out of an extra $10 just to let me on the wrong side of the road over the bridge between the two countries – in the weird no man’s land between each border. What happens if you commit a crime on that bridge? I have a feeling the guard would have let me go anyway if I asked nicely. There seemed to be some bad acting “show bribing” going on. As a general rule though if the border seems chaotic and busy, the helpers will come up right away and are probably worth it. If the border is super sleepy, there are no helpers and it’s pretty easy to navigate.

But my helper did get my Honduras papers cleared up and took care of my car and even paid for my Nicaraguan car insurance while I was waiting in line to exit at Honduras immigration. I broke my cardinal rule and gave this guy my original car registration – but it worked out. The one big scam I’ve heard about is at the Honduras is when a motorcycle rider gave a helper all his documents, then the helper said he had to “bribe” a guard $200 – who was probably his buddy. You lose all your leverage if they have your original documents. But it worked out for me this time,

The best thing my Honduran helper did was introduce me to a Nicaraguan guy who became my helper on that side – an older guy who led me on his bicycle across the border and to my first stop on the Nicaragua side. He ended up being absolutely worth it. He really perked up and started calling me “amigo!” when I had to change a $100 bill in order to pay one of the fees. We joked back and forth about it “Oh now I’m your good amigo?”

Nicaragua was the border I was most nervous about as I’d heard Nicaragua border agents will flat out ask for bribes. Also they will keep you there all day – if they’re having a bad day, or because they’re bored, or just plain mean. I heard some blogger stories about finding a totally empty border crossing, yet the agents just messed with them all day and it took like 8 hours to get through.

One blog I read had a story where his border agent was being really pissy in general, and really fussy about taking bills with even the tiniest tears in them (which they often do in many countries down here). So when she gave him his change, he got all fussy, mimicked her and looked over the bills, then tried to reject one and give it back to her. LOLOLOLOL. Aaaaaand then he got stuck there for 3 more hours. He’s not sure but his bill stunt could have caused the extra delay. Um yeah. You think? Pretty hilarious story dude. Was it worth it? 

Nicaragua instituted a new policy that you have to download and email them a form at least 7 days before the border crossing. One motorcycle rider on the ADV forum took two days to get across the border because – supposedly because he didn’t fill out this form. But I met plenty of other people who got across just fine without the form. The form itself of course is really confusing. It starts like this:

Hereby, the organization or association (Legal Name) _________________________
under the legal representation of, ____________________________,
with identity card ______________________________________, requests the entry and exit to Nicaragua of_________________________,

Hmmmmmm

Once you deduce the form, you have to email it to two random email address. Btw #1 = your name, #2 = your country, #3 = the word “Passport”, #4 = your entry and exit border station names – DUH!

Between me and 4 other people I know who sent in their form, no one got the same response. Some were asked for scans of passports. Some didn’t get a reply. I got a “thank you we’ll let  you know if we need more” reply. When at the border of course no one had access to this form. But supposedly just showing that you tried to email it helped. My agent never asked for it, but I showed her my email and the reply I got. I have no idea it helped.

My helper somehow knew the best window to wait at (IE – who isn’t having a bad day) and led me back and forth on a dizzying scavenger hunt of at least 15 stops: go here, get this stamped, come back and have someone sign it, go back to the stamper and have them sign it, pay $3 (US only – no local currency), take your $3 receipt back to the first lady at the window to stamp, take that back to the person who signed in step 3, get your car inspected and VIN confirmed, etc. etc. etc.

One of the air conditioners didn’t work so it was hot as hell. People crossing and agents were spilling out into the sidewalk, along with their desks, to avoid the heat. The whole scene was pretty much the opposite of a normal buttoned-down border crossing.

I was really glad to have my helper. I know sometimes these guys will try to make it look like they’re doing extra stuff to pad their tip at the end. But I watched and every stop was real. Only one guy dealing with my car asked for a “propina” (tip). I smiled and told him I was already paying my helper guy who was standing there. He made a pouty face like an 8-year-old and just kept pouting. It was weird. But he signed my paper – which was literally all he had to do. Nice work for the tip their buddy.

The silliest part was when they asked me how many pieces of luggage I had. Well let’s see – if you count stuff like plastic totes and bags of bags – about 20? I didn’t think that was a good answer. Nor did I think zero was a good answer. So I said 2. Standard. I grabbed my regular suitcase and my backpack out of the car and brought it inside to be scanned. 

And that was it. No one even poked their head in the rest of the car. To this point in my trip – no one has looked in my car carrier above the car. I could have literally smuggled assault rifles, wads of cash and bricks of cocaine all the way from Mexico to Nicaragua – in my $300 flimsy plastic car carrier. Probably the US too but I got the car carrier in Ensenada.

The funny part is getting out of Nicaragua at the world’s sleepiest border crossing with Costa Rica – they have a $multi-million machine that scans your whole car. But not on the way in, from Honduras, at their the busiest border crossing. Wouldn’t want to check for any guns or drugs coming out of Honduras. I’m starting to get the impression the Nicaraguan government is not a wise-spending, well-oiled machine.

I gave my helper a $20 – twice as much as the usual expected tip. He lit up like I just made his month. He was absolutely worth it and I was glad to help him.

León


I made my way from the border to León – an old colonial town which is very popular with tourists and ex-pats – about 2 hours away. One thing that fascinates me is how much each country does or doesn’t look different immediately upon crossing the border. US -> Mexico is different, but the US area right at the border looks like a lot like Mexico. Mexico -> Belize -> Guatemala is very different – due to Belize houses looking more like a Carribbean Island, and locals looking very different. Guatemala -> El Salvador was the first border that didn’t look very different – except instead of Gallo Beer or Coca Cola, all the little stores had signs sponsored by Aleve or Alka Seltzer. That’s weird. El Salvador -> Honduras wasn’t much difference at all. 

Upon entering Nicaragua you immediately notice the lack of motorized vehicles. Instead of the Tuk Tuks and taxis that drive people to the border on the Honduras side, it’s human powered bicycle rickshaws – in oppressive heat. Also horse-drawn carts are more common than trucks. I wondered if Nicaraguans were really that much poorer. I found out later that gas is about $6/gallon (unless they ripped me off somehow). So that would also go a long way to explaining it. Honduras and just about everywhere else is closer to the US – $3.50 to $4 (before Trump decided to start messing with the Middle East anyway). 

Other than that though the landscape was pretty dry – a lot like the nearby coastal parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

I got to Leon and went to a Hostel recommended by my friend Sophie – the Volcano Hostel.

New country, new beer!

One of the biggest reasons I could never entirely quit drinking – there are no new National Soda options to get excited about with each border crossing. And even if there were – “new country, new soda” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

People seem really serious about the Victoria vs. Toña debate in Nicaragua. My position as always is that I seriously doubt any of them could pick one from the other in a blind taste test – any more than an American could tell Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite apart. I ordered Toña because it was just easier to not be the oddball ordering Victoria. Unless you tell me the Victoria is 1 degree colder – then give me that. I do think Toña is closer to the 4.9% as advertised – vs. Honduran and El Salvador beers that seem more like 3.2%. I’m in Costa Rica now and Imperial seems back to the watery stuff. I swear I can drink 19 of them and barely get a buzz.

Apparently there’s a few party hostels on the main drag that go LOUD late into the night. Volcano was a few blocks off and more quiet. They had room for one car inside their garage – so that works. They didn’t have any AC rooms. He showed me a room with a nice big wall fan that was about 15 degrees hotter inside than the afternoon air outside. Hmmm. I said to myself – well it’s literally 100 degrees – which means it has to be a dry heat right? Dry heat places are usually nice at night. Even inside.  Surely the room will cool down at night with the fan going.

I said I’d pay for one night and probably a few more the next day. Turned out to be a good move as the room never cooled down. It was frustrating because the temperature just outside the room was perfectly comfortable. But the rooms themselves have high ceilings where the hot air gets trapped and acts like a giant heat sink radiating hotness back into the room. If they just punched a few damn holes in the ceiling the hot air would rise out and suck in all the nice cool air. You’d think the Spanish would have figured that out at some point. I saw room chimney-vents in Antigua where it’s barely hot.

The fan in the room was strong – but it felt like a hair dryer. I got my fan out of my car, so now I had two hair dryers blowing on me. The bed of course was hot so I had heating radiating up from the bed and down from the ceiling. I opened the door to my room – and with much difficulty got the other half of the double door open. Then I moved my bed close to the door and slept there with the doors wide open spread eagle in my underwear. Privacy seems like a requirement, until it’s not.

Some of the guests and staff had been drinking all day and were basically having a loud shitfaced party in the seating area a few feet away and in partial view of me. I didn’t care, and I couldn’t hear them anyway with the sound of two hair-dryers going. I only found out later this was a one-off party and not some strategy for drinking until you pass out as a heat mitigation tactic. I did finally shut the doors to my room when the sun came up, as I didn’t want to freak out the housekeepers. Of course the room immediately got hotter. Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of heat lag thing where the room is cooler than outside for some part of the day? Are we literally on a Volcano and that’s how this place got its name?

The next day I checked out the city some – lots of cool colonial architecture and street murals. Of course it was officially HOT AS BALLS. So I wilted after an hour or so and found and AC coffee shop – which I proceeded to know well for a few days and get massively caught up in my blog. I also found a hostel with a couple AC rooms and went for that. $25 instead of $14 at the Volcano. I’ll take it. Volcano still let me park my car for $3/night, so I went back and visited them frequently. Very friendly place.

Somewhere around all this is supposed to be a burnt out block from the riots a week prior. But I couldn’t find it. They must clean stuff up really quick.

This damage was from the protests I think

My hostel had a pretty weird setup, with a shower door separating the bed from the toilet. But it had AC, which is all that matters. I’m not sure where this pink light is coming from.

The biggest excursion to do when in León is volcano boarding. Basically you ride a snowboard/sled-looking thing down the side of a volcano. I had been hearing about this for several countries. We also met a woman in Honduras who had torn her MCL doing it, by getting one of her feet caught behind her as she slid down. So I was a bit paranoid to avoid going to fast.

Hiking up with the boards

Eva, the girl above, was working in a hostel for the protests. She said it was pretty nuts. At one point they moved the mattresses to the back because they were afraid the rockets the protesters were shooting might break the glass. I guess all the tourists cleared out of town, but a couple of the major hostels stayed open. For the most part the days would be clear then everything would shut down and the protests would start at night. I kind of expected if anything flared up again it would be like this – night and maybe protests in big cities. This would turn out to be an erroneous assumption. 

Another group getting ready to ride down. Everyone wears goggles and full body suits to prevent scraping on the rocks.
Except for the green stuff in the background – this could ba astronauts on Mars

Our guide in his jumper
Mine was a wee bit tighter

Safety briefing before the ride

Our guide explained the technique. Basically you lean back to make it go faster, use your feet to slow down. Pull your feet onto the board if you really want to go fast. The sketchiest part was it got steeper about halfway through the ride. So the way it curved you couldn’t see a lot of the track, from looking down it felt like you just rode off a cliff. Things always looker steeper than they are looking down, and vice versa.


I’d go faster next time. Still really fun.


GoPro action shot of us passing cows on the way back

Even with the heat I stayed a few extra days in León – mainly because I was getting so much work done on my blog at my favorite little coffee shop – one of the few establishments in town with AC.

The next day I decided to do the other popular tour – the sunset hike out to a local volcano – Telica. Every volcano has some weird different features. This one was very photogenic.

I got excited when I saw this dude’s hat at the park entrance. I asked him who his favorite player was, but I don’t think he understood me. So I thought – maybe someone just gave him the hat free. But later I saw big billboards for Cheslor Cuthbert – a KC Royals player from Nicaragua. I saw tons of KC Royals gear – especially on or near the Corn Islands, where he’s from.

Gotta buy something from the guy who hikes it all the way up to the top

I’m going for “ex-Navy Seal” 😀

I took this shot of another hiker
So then we tried to recreate it with him taking a picture of me. NAILED IT

On the way back from the hike I talked to the guy sitting across from me. He was from Bluefields on the other side of the country, where I planned to go in a few days. I asked him if there were many touristy things to do in Bluefields. He thought for a second, then kind of shook his head and said “not really”. You could tell he was proud of his hometown. But he also acknowledged it doesn’t really have a lot of tourist amenities to attract gringos. Ok well I won’t plan to spend too much time there.

The paragraph above is called foreshadowing.

 

Laguna Apoyo


After León I headed to Lake Apoyo – a big lake on the other side of Granada. I had heard about Paradiso Hostel on the lake and it did not disappoint. Rooms were a little stuffy, but they had fans. After the Volcano everything seemed more tolerable.

That night they had a trivia contest at the hostel.

I figured hey the team with the old guy should clean up here. Well we won but pretty much with no help from me. A lot of the questions were stuff like Beyonce’s kids’ names. But even the shit I should know I didn’t. The only answer I got that they didn’t know was Push It, when we were playing name that tune. Luckily my teammates carried me and we still won. First prize was a bottle of rum that I really could have done w/o the next day.

The Brit in the middle was our MVP by far

I hung around the next day pretty hungover. The comfy hammock and swimming in the cool lake took the edge off a bit. I felt a little like the creepy uncle as one of the only people there over 25. I talked to some of the young people I met the night before. I would describe them as tolerating my presence, but we weren’t exactly clicking or anything.

I did see a couple other dudes around my age. But who travels alone at that age and w/o a girlfriend or friends? Probably a sex tourist or something. I steered clear. 😀

The next day I was in a hurry to get on the road. As I paid my bill I got confused about the conversion rate of Cordoba to dollars. I glanced at the bill and saw morning bagel – which I did eat – once. So I just gave them my credit card. Once I got on the road I started thinking about the amount and thought hmmm that seems high. Then I looked at the bill.

Um yeah – that’s food for about 20 people over multiple days. Apparently I had two racks of ribs. Also wtf is a pineapple incident? 

But also they don’t even have my room charges on there, so that helped. This bill is about $230 and by my calculation I should have paid about $130. I’m pretty bad about not checking bills and things. I can only think of two times it’s really burned me though. I bought a $24 jar of almond butter at Whole Foods, and now this. I’m sure there have been little ones here and there too. But maybe those even out with times I didn’t pay enough – I dunno. I know I have some friends right now who are going into anaphylactic shock at the idea  anyone signing a ridiculous bill like that w/o looking at it. Heh.

I needed to get across the country to Bluefields. I didn’t think trying to call with my broken Spanish would be productive, also it would waste precious minutes and might cut out. So I decided to email once I got there. I procrastinated and didn’t sent the email until about a week later. I said I’m not mad as I should have checked the bill, but can you make this right? I also mentioned Trip Advisor in a non-threatening way. But still it was out there. Places like this are terrified of bad Trip Advisor reviews. They replied and asked me what items I thought were wrong. I replied – do you really think I ate all that food. I rattled off what I thought I ate and mentioned they left off my room charges. They haven’t gotten back to me yet.

Coming next – Nicaragua East

 

Utila and Pico Bonito

We said goodbye to D&D and I left yet another thing behind – this time my CF card in my real camera. The good news is it only had a few pics on it that I didn’t already copy to my computer. The bad news is those were the pics I took of the river tour and ruins at Lamanai in Belize. I usually keep an SD card in the camera as well – and write JPG to it, and raw to the CF. But after like 2 years I finally realized I never use the JPG anymore so I might as well stop. Oh yeah – that’s why I do it. At least there’s a JPG backup. Anyway I don’t think there was anything earth shattering – just some pics of turtles, small caymans, and a bunch of ruins shots.

We drove to La Ceiba, then took the 4pm ferry to Utila Island – the smaller of the two popular Honduras “Bay Islands”. On the way I thought I found another Pollo Campeñero, but it was just same chicken under a heat-lamp inside a Circle K. Lame. 

In the parking lot I decided to give away my prized Chichen Itza “Major Award” to a guy who was just hanging around and had no idea what to think of his new prize.

I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought this thing, apparently channeling my inner 13-year-old: “It’s a skull, and a face, inside a JAGUAR – TOTALLY RAD!” I was tired if it taking up space and weight in my overhead storage. He wandered off pondering the thing – probably trying to figure out how he could quickly exchange it for a buck or two.

Utila


Tommi, Steph and I had a few beers on our ferry ride and toasted the new adventure ahead. We planned to stay a few days on Utila – then hopefully a night or two on Roatan, the larger and more developed Bay Island. The big draw there was a sloth sanctuary where you can hold the sloths. It turned out we spent about 6 nights on Utila, and never made it to Roatan. I have a feeling Tommi pines for the sloths at least once a day. I bet she finds a way to get back here at some point.

Utila turned out to be one of my favorite places of the trip, and I believe a truly special unique place in the world. Like a lot of these close to shore Caribbean Islands, Utila has a completely different history, culture and language than its mainland parent. Utila apparently was founded by some mix of pirates, British naval officers, slavers, ex-slaves, Garifuna (ex-black slave diaspora from other Caribbean islands), local indigenous people and other groups. Supposedly almost everyone shares one of 5 last names on the island – one of them is Morgan, of the actual Captain Henry Morgan fame. Of course his treasure is supposed to be buried somewhere nearby.

Everyone speaks English and a local creole – that’s basically broken English with some local words. According to a local dive instructor – even people from different sides of the island have different accents. I’m going to look for a good book about the history of all these Caribbean islands (any suggestions welcome). I’m fascinated by the different micro-history of each one.

Once we landed we walked around talking to dive shops/hostels. There are about a dozen dive shops on Utila, which are also usually places to stay. Rooms are discounted if you dive with the same place. We had researched a few and heard stories from some others. The main decision for Steph was where to get her Open Water certification. She finally settled on Alton’s, which from what we saw was one of the more professionally run places. Good choice as it turned out to have our favorite divemaster – Beto. 

However Alton’s only had non-AC dorm rooms available, so we stayed at nearby Trudy’s – which has more of a younger party crowd. In the late afternoon there was a very nice cool breeze, so I wasn’t too worried about AC – more about my snoring in a dorm setting. But in evening the breezes die down and it gets pretty stuffy. We were glad to have AC. I guess in August/September the breezes dies down and it gets flat out hot.

Also I think I’ve figured out the snoring thing. I can tell if I wake up with a dry mouth that I’ve been snoring. In a humid climate, I don’t seem to snore as much. Maybe I should get a humidifier back in LA. Later Steph and Tommi and I shared a place – and they said they either didn’t hear me or it wasn’t bad (hmmm or they’re just being nice).

We also dove with Trudy’s a few times and had a lot of fun. Later I moved over to Alton’s when my room wasn’t available at Trudy’s. It’s definitely nicer diving right near your hotel – so you can grab stuff if you forget it. Also the first night at Trudy’s was a LOUD divemaster graduation party – which took a break as they all went out to the bars, then came back at 1am and went on until dawn or so. But all the other nights it was pretty quiet.

Sunset from our room at Trudy’s

That night we checked out a crazy place called Treetanic – built by hand by some crazy expats with a lot of local help. Unfortunately I only got night pictures – but you can see the full thing and read the full story here. I really can’t describe how nuts this place is – and it just keeps going on and on.

Colorful drinks at the restaurant below Treetanic
Checking out the restaurant below Treetanic
We had no idea how big the place was until after dinner when we explored. Massive. Tommi and Steph want to host a destination wedding here – just need a bride and groom
Cute themed bungalos, but be prepared for noise late into the night on nights when the club is going

We walked back from Treetanic to our hotel around 10pm – just as all the kids who work in the dive shops were heading out for the night after pre-gaming with their red solo cups. This was a recurring evening theme of the trip – old farts headed in, kids headed out.

By “kids” of course I mean anyone under 32. Utila is a very popular spot for young people to come, get their divemaster pretty cheaply, then work for 6 months or more. Over the course of 6 days saw many tearful goodbyes as someone was leaving the island to go back to real life. It reminded me of the end of summer camp in Grease.

Even though Utila is so laid back and has almost no cars bigger than a golf cart, I never could figure out if it was legal to walk down the street with a beer in your hand. But no one seemed to do it. So I didn’t either, even though the risk of repercussions seemed negligible.

One of my lessons from this trip, seeded my first night hanging out in TJ with Gramps, is basically: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Latin America it seems to me is still a culture with a lot of etiquette rules and social norms in place of explicit laws. Utila is still a poor place and no one is going to hassle paying tourists. But I just get the feeling it would just be rude to walk down the street with a beer. Sure you’re not fooling anyone with those solo cups. But maybe just making the effort is all that matters.

Another way to blend in with the locals in a lot of places I’ve been on this trip is to wear jeans or pants at night. But screw that. I’m already sweaty enough. They’re just going to have to deal with my bare gringo legs.

Bill – our neighbor at Trudy’s sporting his massive bottle of Bombay Sapphire – which he gave to us when he left, and I think we gave to someone else. He had been coming to Utila since ’92, sailing the Caribbean for decades, and was a fountain of information. He LOVED to talk – but pretty much always had something interesting to say. I can always get on board with that
The dock at Alton’s 

The next day Tommi and I went diving at Alton’s while Steph took her Open Water classes. Utila is mostly about diving. There’s a coral reef surrounding the island and some dozen dive shops – with some of the cheapest rates in the world. One thing they seem to be doing well is preserving the reef and preventing massive development – maybe because they know it would jeopardize the dive industry – their bread and butter. Utila is not covered with a lot of gorgeous beaches from what I saw.

The biggest vehicles on Utila are golf carts and a very small number of cars. Although some people seem to be pushing it with dune buggy things that sit 6+. One thing I figured out in Caye Caulker and Utila really enforced – look for islands without cars. I’m kicking myself for not checking out Isla Holbox in the Yucatan. Oh well, save something for next time.

One night we went to a local dive bar Steph had read about. It was pretty fun and had a number of rowdy characters playing some animated pool and giving each other massive amounts of shit in the island style. I decided I needed to be a lot drunker to really dive into that mix. There was a poker game in the corner that also looked pretty local. But we might have been able to talk our way in.

The most animated guy at the bar was some wiry 60-ish looking guy with a do-rag around his head. I literally just had to mention the do-rag to my local dive instructor the next day and he was like “Oh yah Chat. Everyone knows Chat.” (Note – that’s not really the name, but it was something similar.) Like I said – it’s a small island. Everyone knows everybody and everything and there’s nowhere to run away to if you misbehave. I’m sure this has its good and bad. But it seems to work pretty well to keep crime and bad behavior to a minimum.

This dive bar has some shifty characters
Gotta get my Pizza Nut
Super tasty local fish dish
The world’s longest most chaotic most badly organized and explained game of flippy cup – brought to us by the same people who have our lives in their hands every day diving. Hmmm…
Which led to a really blurry night at one of the island’s many ironically named clubs – “Relapse”, “Rehab”, “Withdrawal”, “Acute Alcohol Poising”, “You’re a Drunk Loser and You Destroy Everything You Touch I Hate You You Have No Daughter”. Or something like that. They get really creative with the names.
Old Milwaukee, like an old friend – from my Kirksville, MO dorm room to Utila Honduras

For me the biggest draw of Utila next to diving, is the people. There’s just a laid back, good-natured vibe. Everyone has known everyone forever and they know they have a little slice of paradise. I always try to imagine what it would be like to grow up on an island with sand and beach as your front yard. You can play all day with no way to get lost or worry about strangers. I wonder what it feels like the first time you go somewhere else as a kid and realize the whole world lives very differently from you. I kept asking locals if anyone ever leaves. They said some do, but they usually come back. 

The 3rd biggest draw for me might have been the local banana bread sold at the little store between Alton’s and Trudy’s, which I managed to not take a picture of. But really. It looks like banana bread. So freaking good though. My habit was up to 2 a day and getting close to 3.

Halfies are more slimming than full wet suits for some reason. Or maybe it’s the angle

Interesting crosshatch shadow made by palm leaves

I finally got my GoPro working for a couple Trudy’s (Underwater Vision) dives. I decided not to hassle with it on my first few dives with Alton’s because I wanted to just get comfortable. Beto was a big help with tips to get me to breathe slower (put my tongue under my top teeth), and work on my buoyancy (how to use inhaling and exhaling to rise and fall instead of the BCD). For the first couple dives, I still had a tiny bit of that panicky feeling going down that I had experienced in my Open Water class in LA. But by the 3rd dive it was completely gone and I was loving it underwater. 

Requisite underwater selfie – of course our dive guide was watching when I did this
Hey Tommi!

Apparently there’s a red filter I need to apply to these videos which will bring out the color more. But it’s not in the free Go Pro software and I don’t have the bandwidth (actual bandwidth, not corporate euphemism bandwidth) to download any new apps at the moment. So just imagine more color 😉


Stingray trying to bury itself in the sand – until we annoyed it so much it swam off


Notice when this barracuda turns to look right at me. A little unnerving. These guys can swim at 40mph or something. Beto said he was knocked out by one underwater.

 

I wanted to do a night dive, but since I was only open water – I had to have my own instructor and do it as an “adventure dive”. For my instructor I got Alton. He knows about everything there is to know about diving, the local waters and history of the island. Funny thing is I didn’t figure out until the next day that he was the Alton on the name of the dive shop. I can’t say enough good things about Alton, Beto, Malin, and everyone else at Alton’s

The night dive is apparently the best time to see animals – especially just after sunset when all the critters hiding all day come out to feed as fast as they can – so they can go back to hiding.


This guy was huge. Must be a close cousin of the king crab.

I think I bonded with diving for good on the night dive. I was kind of hungover all day from the blurry night I referenced above. But I immediately stopped feeling sorry for myself underwater. I realized that underwater none of my bad habits follow me. I don’t drink underwater. I don’t chew my fingers underwater. I don’t dick around on the internet and argue politics underwater. But most of all I’m completely present when I’m underwater. Something I struggle with at times in day to day life – as my friends, family and ex can probably attest.

I wish I could live underwater and just come up to the surface for supplies. Much like if I’m out hiking, I don’t even care if I see lots of animals. I just enjoy being in nature and a beautiful foreign environment. Animals are a bonus.

I know for a lot of people meditation works wonders to bring them back to present. I’ve tried a bit – but never been able to force my brain to sit still long enough to really meditate. Yes I know I should start small, etc. But for me – something like diving just short-circuits all that. I have to be present when diving. I am in a beautiful hostile environment, where I have to keep track of a number of things. to keep myself alive. I literally have to monitor my breathing and slow it down – a major tenet of meditation. I guess for me, I like a practical reason to do those things as part of some larger physical activity – as opposed to an exercise in an of itself. If I don’t have that, some part of me rebels – which yeah is probably a root problem that I should try to address.

I could go on with this internal monologue for many paragraphs. But the upshot is diving is good for me and I need to seek out similar activities that bring me to present. Hiking works as well. Even though I space off a lot more while hiking – I’m in a foreign environment, so the thoughts are usually good – life-aligning-type stuff. Same goes for road trips – although I like the exercise component of hiking much better. Which is why this foot problem is breaking my heart. I really feel like some of the happiest times of my recent life was those 6 months preparing for this trip, hiking 10k ft. Mt. Baldy 2 out of every 3 weekends. My whole retirement plan is to drive around, hike and take pictures. I have to get this thing fixed or healed somehow.

I left my Go Pro out on Alton’s dock after the night dive. Some of the dive instructors there said they might have taken a few pics with it. Below is what they took. Oh you kooky kids!!! I shudder to think what the Trudy’s kids would have done with it.

After the night dive. I realized I only needed 4 more adventure dives to get my Advanced Open Water certification. I decided to go ahead and do it and stay an extra day – as Tommi and Steph were still unsure how long they were going to stay. The next two dives were a deep (30m’) wreck dive (two birds with one stone I think) and then a drift dive. The wreck dive was really cool.

The next day we did a navigation dive and (I think, I don’t have my log with me) a deep dive. Kind of a bummer I missed the buoyancy dive because that’s probably what I need the most. But maybe I can pick it up somewhere. And that was it – I am now Advanced Open Water (thank you Malin for filling out all the paper work – I’ve heard horror stories of dive shops not following through on that once they have your money and you are long gone). 

On our next to last day – we checked out one of the only easily accessible local beaches – and hung out with some new friends who were also in my advanced open water class.

Hanging out on the last day waiting for the ferry. I hate Goodbye Island Day.

Pico Bonito


After Utila we headed to Pico Bonito, a national park near La Ceiba – which is where the ferry arrives. I was fretting a bit imagining all the things that could have gone wrong with my car sitting there for a week in the ferry lot – mostly break in, flat tire, or propane tank exploding and burning the car to a crispy hulk. Tommi of course was on me about the negative thinking and how I can manifest these things with it. I told her my energy doesn’t work like that. I need to imagine every bad thing that can happen in order to prevent it. We got to the car and it was fine of course, which prompted Tommi to say “See!” I was ready though. I said “See what? That’s the power of negative thinking!” Which went over about as well as you’d expect. I don’t think she’s buying into my negative thinking anti-manifestion philosophy just yet. 

Of course if something had happened to the car, I know she’d never say a word. But she’d be thinking it.

This boat driver clearly needed to worry more

We got to a jungle retreat we’d heard about – Omega Tours and Eco-Lodge. After some haggling we settled on the two bed “cabin” which had loud-looking fans and the beds were on two floor levels. So I figured even my worst snoring should be abated a bit, and we risked it. Turns out the snoring was not bad at all (supposedly).

The other thing I was worried about was no AC – which I have come to believe is a primary component of an “Eco-Lodge”. Not sure how I feel about that. When we checked in the sun had just gone down, and it was not quite hot as balls, but certainly humid as balls. After all, as the host greeted us  – “Welcome to the Jungle”. Nice. Are we gonna die? But anyway the cabin had 3 walls that were just screens, and as the night air cooled down it was perfectly comfortable with a fan. Score one for Eco-Lodges.

Wonderful jungle scene to go to sleep and wake up to
The grounds are gorgeous

The next day we went on the popular white water rafting tour. The river was pretty tame as it’s the dry season, but we still had a blast.

Look ridiculous while the guide does all the work. Ok! Tommi loves this pic.

We had to practice pulling someone into the boat. I took this footage with the GoPro. Tommi is lucky my bandwidth is so low there’s no way I can upload the whole clip. So we just get to see the Tommi Splash, not the arduous Pull Tommi Back Into The Boat 😉


Tommi showing how it’s done

This looks a lot sketchier than it was

There’s a little waterfall that they love to run the boats into so you get soaked.


I think Steph was done with this about 3 plunges before it actually ended


The bath with me in front was a little shorter


Later we got to do some rock jumping

Fun couple we met white water rafting who work in healthcare and take like 20 5-day trips a year or something. Great life plan! I think we drank 49 beers between us.

The next day Tommi and Steph had to fly out at some insanely early hour. So we drove to a little town just outside of San Pedro Sula. 

Bathrooms at a gas station along the road
This gas station was also REALLY proud of their American beer selection

Our hosts at Omega recommended a great cheap place – Hotel Casa Blanca in El Progresso – which is near the airport. According to booking.com it was completely full. However we got there and it was anything but. Another lesson of this trip is that online presence/functionality is really spotty. This place is such an establishment that it has a green sign in town directing people to it – yet you can’t book it over the interwebs. So always try in-person if you can. 

Old radio in the lobby of the hotel

Asking around at the hotel, and triangulating with Trip Advisor – we got recommendations to one place in El Progreso – a family meat grill place called Las Tejas – Asados Tipicos

The sign out front says “Asados Tipicos – Comida Familar”. Imagine a restaurant in the U.S. – “Typical meats, familiar food”. Hmmm… maybe there’s niche there.

Tommi cyphering on the best meat option – which she did achieve – the chicken skewers. Steph got some weird fatty pork thing and my salad was fine. But the skewers were amazing. The red button was to call the waiter for more meat.

On the way back from dinner, we stopped for ice cream at a big rest stop thing which also had a pizzeria attached and a grill in the parking lot. The place had a ton of outdoor seating and seemed to be something of a local hangout. As we sat outside and watched people joke around and hang out, I realized that I doubt any of these people would trade their lives here for a new life in the US and all the lonely arduous trouble that comes with it – if the economic opportunities were remotely in the same ballpark.

The locals I’ve met seem almost universally proud of their beautiful countries – and will light up any time you ask them about things to see and do here. From everything I’ve seen (which obviously doesn’t include the worst impoverished areas) the idea that people are fleeing some hellish existence here couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s at the same level of reality as the idea that people are fleeing California in droves due to crime and rampant socialism gone wrong.

Obviously there are still very real problems with poverty gangs and crime in the big cities. But personally, everywhere in Latin America so far I’ve gotten nothing but warm greetings and friendly people. Imagine a Spanish speaking Latino with toddler-level English being able to say that about 4 months traveling in the US. o_O

/rant

And that was it for Tommi and Steph in Honduras 🙁 They took a butt-early flight the next day, and I drove to a border town called Chuloteca. I stayed in an unmemorable hotel except for the loudest extended family on earth SCREAMING in the pool until 10pm or so. I looked out expecting to see 75 people and saw about 12.

Then I headed for the Nicaragua border the next day – nervous about what I’d heard could be the bribe-i-est border of the trip, and stories about people getting stuck there for 2 days just because some agent was having a bad day.

Honduras – part 1

I headed out of La Palma in the morning – ready for my first solo border crossing. This border might have been the sleepiest and easiest one yet. It still took 2 hours of course. But I didn’t need a helper and none approached me.

Oh yeah – I dropped a $5 bill on the El Salvador side, which is probably like a $50 to the average Salvadorean. Some random guy came running after me with it. This might have surprised me earlier in the trip. But now that I’ve been in this part of the world for months, I’d be surprised if someone saw me drop it and pocketed it.

On the drive into Honduras I passed this creative use of space

Lake Yohoa / D&D Brewery


I made my way to D&D Brewery on Lake Yohoa in the West-Center of Honduras. This was a place I really wanted to check out as I’d heard about from multiple traveler forums. Southwest Honduras coming from El Salvador is high in the mountains and an absolutely gorgeous drive. I never expected to see so many cypress trees in a place this far South.

I got in about dusk and was a little spooked during the drive. For one thing I had read on the Pan-American forum that Honduras is the one place you don’t want to push rule #1 “Don’t drive at night”. Like even at 4pm the roads get dangerous with bandits or something. Well if you’ve been reading my blogs you know a recurring theme is listen to other travelers – but take everything with a grain of salt – especially if you don’t back it up with multiple sources. At least everywhere I went in Honduras – this one turned out to need a lot of salt. I’m sure there are unsafe areas, and random crimes can happen anywhere. But personally I found Hondurans some of the friendliest people I’ve met, and I never felt unsafe the entire time I was in the country.

However the other thing that spooked me I have yet to hear a good explanation for. About 50km into Honduras, on a rural stretch of highway I saw a guy walking on the road and thought to myself – “that dude looks naked”. I quickly convinced myself he must just be wearing some weird-patterned outfit. But as I got closer – yep he was naked. He was a young tall good-looking guy, mid 20s to low 30s. He had shoes on and was carrying a purple plastic cup. He didn’t look distressed at all. Nor did he look crazy. As I passed, he gave me a somewhat sheepish look like “Yep, I’m naked.” I didn’t think to get my camera out, nor would I really feel right about snapping a pic of this guy on what may very well be the worst day of his life.

Yes I could have stopped to help him. But he made no gesture like he wanted help. And I have no idea what’s going on in this country or with this situation. I just know that it’s ostensibly one of the most dangerous countries on my trip. If he had gestured for help I would be in a big quandary. What if this is some gang trap? I honestly don’t know what I would have done.

So that’s it. You have all the facts I have. Any guesses? I asked a number of Hondurans who could offer no more insight. Some said he was probably crazy. I know crazy when I see it, but this dude knew exactly where he was and what was happening. What does the purple cup mean? My best wild guess is he was robbed, and sent on his way naked – which I have heard about in at least 2 other cases over the years – one in Mexico and one in El Salvador. 

Interestingly I saw a similar thing about 20 years ago in San Francisco. I rounded the corner at Bush and Polk, coming back to work from my lunch – and was greeted with a completely naked woman wearing purple plastic pumps and carrying a see-through purple plastic purse that was more like a cube cage with some stuff in it. I had been to Burning Man a few months earlier, so my first though was “Oh, a naked person”. Then my next thought was “Wait, this isn’t the right context.” Yes it’s SF. But in that part of SF this would be about as abnormal as any other major city in the world. I said hello, as it was all I could think to do. She said hi back and kept walking. I watched her walk towards downtown SF, attracting ever increasing attention. To this day I have no idea what was happening there. But the purple plastic stuff in both cases makes me wonder – is this some weird secret society hazing ritual. Probably not.

So anyway that stuff had me a wee bit unnerved. But once I got off the main highway and onto the dirt road towards D&D, I felt a lot better, as I could tell it was just farmers and normal rural activity. Then when I got to D&D I felt even better, as they had a sign offering parking for “overlanders”. This means they know exactly what’s up and are specifically targeting people like me driving across Central America. D&D turned out to be my favorite place to stay so far on the trip – a fun multi-aged mix of hostel crowd, overlanders and locals that somehow does a really good job of getting everyone to socialize. I think its secret is a combination of the free-flowing beer, and the fact that there’s not much else in this part of Honduras so everyone winds up here, rather than splitting off into self-selected groups.

Sunset from D&D

Another thing they do really well at D&D is clearly detail all the stuff to do there. A lot of places could use a board like this.

I think there were 20 of these
Ok so the party isn’t raging yet, but this circular setup around the firepit helped contribute to the social atmosphere imo
And its a brewery with pretty good beer!

After a fairly drunken night where I met a bunch of new Instagram friends (it’s a great light-weight way to keep up with fellow travelers imo), I went on one of the guided hikes the next day. 

This is the part where I always feel like we’re in some action movie – a bunch of hostages being led through the jungle by our kidnappers – hopefully to be rescued by Russel Crowe someday

The hike was perfectly nice. But somehow at the top I managed to piss off a bunch of ants. The workers were small, but the soldiers were huge. They weren’t bothering anyone else. But everywhere I stepped near the hill they’d start attacking. I really think that I stepped in their hill, and the workers put some kind of scent marker on me to tell the soldiers to find and attack me where ever I went. 

You can hardly see this soldier ant – but her head is as big as a matchhead, and she’s biting my bootlace for all she’s worth

They made it all the way up my boot and even got into my sock – but amazingly none actually bit me. Pulling them off my shoe was actually pretty hard as they were biting with incredible strength. In the movie Apocolypto – they use the heads of these ants as sutures. They get the soldier to bite down, then rip off the body and the ants stay clamped on. I can absolutely believe that feeling how strong they were biting my boot and socks. The kid in the movie was screaming in pain. Glad I miraculously avoided that.

The entire top of this hill is a giant anthill – where all the ants seemed only focused on finding and attacking me. I had to jump from rock to rock. It’s like the hot lava game but biting ants.
Nice view, mean ants

For some reason ant attacks seem like a constant theme with me this trip.

This guy was very pleased with himself

After a couple nights at D&D, I drove up to San Pedro Sula to pick up my friends – Tommi and Steph. I also picked up a new Belgian friend – Sietske. She was coming along for Copan Ruins, and a ride back to D&D. I checked with Tommi of course, and she replied “Sure, your call! Rule is always, if it goes south you get to fix it :). Meaning you have to take her and her shit and drop her off at center camp lol”. HAH! I also gave 3 other backpackers a cramped ride to the bus stop. 

We retrieved Tommi and Steph at the airport and headed south to Copan. Along the way google maps lady got creative and sent us down this dirt farming road. It was a good introduction to driving by the seat of your pants for Tommi and Steph.

Oh google maps lady – good one!

Passing this beast reminded me of the big evil truck in Speed Racer. 

Something seems not right about this race setup

Our first destination was Luna Jaguar Hot Springs – a nice hot springs complex an hour north of Copan Ruins. However we took another google maps-recommended rural shortcut – purposely this time – as I knew there was a ton of construction on the main road, and my car can handle anything.

Anything except a cow’s rear-end that is. As I was passing pretty close to a group of cows, I heard a thump on the right side of the car. I looked in my rearview mirror – all cows were still standing. Instead of stopping I decided to just keep moving as I don’t need any pissed off farmers coming after me for hitting their cow. Which to be fair I did not. From what we could reconstruct, one cow got spooked, probably by another cow, and backed into my passenger side door – leaving a big dent and a nice cow shit stain along the length of the door. Luckily it was a glancing blow, or my car would have been messed up.

Problem though is the passenger window wouldn’t roll down with the new dent. Except, trying to roll the window down then somehow pushed the dent back out. Woo hoo. Now there are just a few little dents around the door handle, which I can totally live with. Lesson is give cows a wide berth, especially if in a group. And if you’re keeping count – that’s one crunched bumper, a chipped side mirror, and a dented door – all fixed for $25 or magically fixed themselves. Running pretty good so far on car issues. (Why did I have to say that?)

Jaguar Luna Hot Springs (Agua Caliente)


Hmm I guess this is the only pic I took ofLuna Jaguar – there’s a lot more to it than this.
Ok I found one more Steph took – mud bath
New sticker!

Copan Ruinas Town


After Luna Jaguar we headed to Copan Ruinas town. There are little places near Tikal and Palenque that are mostly just a few overpriced hotels. I was expecting something like that, but this was a lot more – cute cobblestone streets and lots of tourist-friendly amenities. 

Dinner the first night. I don’t remember the name of the place or the food – but that drink was amazing and packed a huge w(h?)allop. And the waiter was the best service of the whole trip.

The next day we ate at a fun Mexican place, owned by a Canadian of course, Carnitas Nia Lola

This bean dip thing is a Honduran specialty, and the head delivery was a nice gimmicky touch
I see any grill and I’m like – “I must photograph you…”
The inside at night

Copan Ruins


Copan is my 8th Mayan Ruins of this trip I think. They’re all different. The coolest thing about Copan was the Sculpture Museum, which had a full scale replica of an earlier sarcophagus on the site. The real thing was buried under a pyramid, which is standard practice, as one king has to build his bigger peni— pyramid over the top of the previous.

However apparently this building was so special that they took great care not to destroy it in the process and keep it intact. Archaeologists have burrowed into the pyramid enough to see the edges of this and map it out. If you also take the tunnel tour you can see a small piece of it apparently. We did not, Tommi tried to “unwittingly” sneak into one of the tunnels and was rebuffed by a guard from across the open square. BUSTED.

I was mesmerized by the sarcophagus

Out on the grounds the other big highlight is the hieroglyphic stairs.

Steph channeling ancient Mayan spirits

Macaw Sanctuary


After Copan we headed to the nearby macaw sanctuary. Apparently Copan used to be the home of wild red macaws until they were captured as pets and decimated. Some doctor saw a few breeding pairs being fed on the grounds and realized they were close to a self-sustaining population. So the macaw center is working to bring the birds back to their indigenous area. Also you get to pose with the birds (these are tame birds used for breeding I think).

This breeding pair was actually on the Copan grounds

Great curasow – one of the weirder birds I’ve ever seen

Toucans! Tommi’s obsession

Gracias


The next day we headed back to D&D Brewery – this time through the mountains and a popular colonial town called Gracias. Unfortunately I didn’t really figure out the time properly and we wound up driving back at night – on the Pan-Am Highwary – which at night in Honduras is one of the most stressful roads I’ve been on this trip. Once we turned off for the lake though it was all good. 

Cute town square in Gracias

Chickens!
Sietske models Baleadas! Finally. Reminds me of a Taco Bell bean and cheese burrito – but tastier and smaller.
We stopped at this roadside attraction on the way back, mostly to pee, but we checked out the treehouse and they had lots of corn desert things – it reminded me of Interstellar


Interesting row of lakeside restaurants that all look the same – this is only half of them. Must be a popular truck/bus stop as well.

D&D Part 2


We made our way back to D&D, which didn’t have quite as fun of a crowd this time. But it picked up after the first day. 

I made a new friend
Lesson’s Motmot on the D&D grounds – cousin to the national bird of El Salvador – cool colorful bird
The next morning Steph and Tommi went kayaking while I slept and worked on the blog. D&D has great internet.

In the afternoon we walked over to a nearby coffee plantation where Steph and Tommi obsessed over how to get the over-abundant air plants back to the US, and I dropped my phone but somehow found it again.

I must have you

Blue pool! Mucho mosquitos!

That night we wandered off the grounds looking for other food options. Tommi and Steph discovered that food on exterior signs rarely matches the dish cooked inside. This place had tacos and a bunch of other stuff on their sign – but literally none of those things were available. In these kinds of places, I’ve learned to just point at something someone is eating and say – “uno por favor”. If no one is eating anything I just say “Uno please” then they say “[… something …]?” in Spanish and I say “Si!”. Tommi tried to order one of the mystery items they did have. But after about 30 minutes of chopping and sizzling – they came out with 3 of these pork chop local delicacies called chuletas (I think). I was already stuffed and gave mine away – but Tommi and Steph seemed pleased with it.

I don’t think we took any pictures so here’s one off the web that’s kinda close.

Tommi with a HAUL of food

Cerro Azul/PANACAM


The next day we went to Cerro Azul (also called PANACAM) – a really cool national park that has amenities and well marked trails – an absolute rarity in this part of the world. It was a gorgeous hike and I was able to get a cheeseburger at the end. That was a good day.

The next day we headed to La Ceiba for the ferry to Utila – that will be in Honduras post #2.

El Salvador

El Salvador and Honduras are the two countries I was most nervous about to start this trip. I even considered not going through El Salvador – as it and Belize are the two countries you don’t have to drive through to get to Panama. A few travelers even cautioned against it. But in each case it was someone who had a second-hand story about some gang violence horror. No one who’d actually been there recently had anything bad to say, nor did I hear of any crimes against tourists.

So I posted in the Pan-American Traveler forum asking for the perfect two weeks in El Salvador. I got such a flood of replies and interesting-looking things to do – I decided at that point I wouldn’t skip El Salvador. There’s even a trending hashtag for it. #DONTSKIPELSALVADOR

As I suspected might happen, I was rewarded with an amazing 2 weeks, a sense of getting back into adventure travel mode a little – and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my trip.

Luckily the End of All Roads guys felt the same way. So we crossed over the border together on Saturday of Semana Santa – which turned out to be a good call – as it was about as sleepy of a border as I’ve seen. This despite advice that it would be completely jammed from a fellow traveler, who coincidentally was also one of people who had never been there but said not to go to El Salvador. Lesson: listen to locals and fellow travelers. But get multiple confirmations before you take anything as gospel.

This was my first time riding with the crew – and boy were they thrilled to have a support vehicle! They put at least two small items in my car. I took delight in teasing them about my comfy AC, and 15 minutes packing time – while they were basically riding in 95 degree humid heat with winter coats and pants, and packing is a half-day process for them.

I think we determined after a while that things work better with them in front. With me in front I’d drive right over a big pothole – straddling it, and watch them have to take quick evasive action. Well I guess they figured out not to drive centered behind me pretty quick. At one point the car in front of me swerved right in front of me and hit his brakes to avoid a pothole, so I had to slam on my breaks. I looked over and there’s Dan at my driver window – choosing to swerve beside me rather than hit his brakes and risk some kind of skis=d. Oh hi Dan – nice to see you. Of course behind them I had to worry about my worst nightmare – accidentally hitting one of them somehow. I stayed way back except for every now and then when I’d space out and be on top of them.

Ghost town
We still had to wait 2 hours of course for them to manually enter all our information into their systems.

No corruption (asking for small bribe or imaginary fees) signs like this were all over the border. Nicaragua could use some of this.
New sticker!

El Tunco


El Tunco is a party beach town that came up more often than any other place when discussion El Salvador. Also it wasn’t too far from the border, so we decided to head there and see what it was like.

When we got there I dropped off my hitchhikers. I met these guys at the border – from left to right they’re from Israel and Bulgaria.

They seemed nice and not too smelly – so I’ve gave them a ride to El Tunco.

The guy from Bulgaria really talked up his country and made me want to go there to check it out some time. It’s always a good sign imo when people are proud to sell you on a trip to their country. I left Kansas City – but I love the town and am always glad to talk up the great food and things do do there. I’ve met some travelers who literally describe their hometown as a shithole (For example: Geel, Belgium – can anyone confirm?). That would be a depressing way to think imo, but then again I didn’t grow up in a place I would consider a shithole. If I grew up in St. Louis I might feel different. Ha! #UPTOP

It was also really interesting hearing their experience trying to live on as close to $0 per day as they can. They jump in the backs of trucks for free rides whenever they can. I try to connect with locals whenever possible – but traveling like this, they’re certainly seeing more of the way real Central Americans live than I am.

Although there is a downside – like a 2-hour ride with 20 people crammed into the back of a small pickup and a piss drunk driver yelling at everyone. When I told them the place we found was $35 a night (cruising in w/o a reservation on Saturday of Semana Santa – the busiest night of the year next to NYE, lol), they reacted the way I’d react to $300/night. That’s probably their budget for the week. They eventually found some abandoned house on the beach to sleep in. Pretty cool. I’m not gonna lie, I envy them a little. But not quite enough to take a 2-hour standing-room only truckbed ride with a drunk driver.

This is living indeed. I don’t really care about beach/party towns, and my dislike of heat is exhaustingly well-documented. But still I loved El Tunco and had a hard time pulling myself away.
New country – new beer – Suprema! The beginning of local El Salvador/Honduras beer that I’m pretty sure it 3.2% at best – as I could drink 13 of them and barely have a buzz.
This very drunk woman REALLY LIKED Bob. Her boyfriend standing a few feet away didn’t seem as enamored with the situation.

That night the town was absolutely packed for the climax of Semana Santa.  It was so crowded walking down the street was difficult, and seemed to get hotter and hotter just from the crush of humanity. As the night wore on the scene became less and less gringos and more and more young Salvadorans looking to hit the clubs. We hit a few places then crashed somewhat early. Of course with all the noise no one really slept too well until the wee hours. 

The next night I found a place – Guacamaya – with a big line and the glorious cooking scene out front. Of course I had to order some papusas.

Papusas! Amazing thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, garlic, chicken, zucchini flowers, chicharron or tons of other options and combinations.


Watching really good papusas being made – you really get a sense of the care and precision that goes into each step.

I came back for more the next day. So insanely good! Despite the heat, this patio on the second story was actually quite comfortable with a nice breeze.
This channel running by the pupusa place created a nice breeze and lots of fun birdwatching
Guacamaya is also a hotel with a FAMILY pool. Fornicate in sin somewhere else dammit.
These sketchy looking shower water heaters are pretty much ubiquitous around here. But despite the electrical taped splices inches from hot running water I’m sure quite safe. Oh wait – this one gave me a nice shock when I grabbed it. Trust is gone.
You may be cool. But you will never be *scenes of yourself in beach-cop action painted onto your police truck* cool. David Hasselhoff eat your heart out.
Beer shadows me wherever I go
There’s something a little obscene to me about putting out a sign like this in front of a store in El Salvador. Like telling the locals don’t even bother.

Dog vs. swinging trash cans

Dan and the guys found 3 rooms at La Guitarra – my favorite place to stay in El Tunco. I wound up across the street at a surfer hostel. I swear I said hi to a half dozen of them and didn’t get one reply back. It’s like non-surfers speak at some different frequency they can’t hear. Maybe I just found the super aloof surfer hangout.

But from my travels there does seem to be a healthy contingent of surfers with a “too cool for school” attitude. We were talking to one guy in Baja who when his other surfer bro left – just got up and said “Im gonna go read a book” like mid-sentence. I guess we weren’t interesting enough. Cool story bro! Lol. And I was with Mike and Kelley – who also surf. We just thought it was funny. Whereas divers, motorcycle riders and other groups seemed a little nerdier and way more welcoming and engaging for some reason – even the windsurfers were mostly just nerds about it. Maybe because surfing is so much harder. But you’d think with surfing being such a zen sport people would be a little less aloof or something. 

$2 beers right on the beach with a surfing exhibition right in front – can’t beat it
The hotel phone – “Mom can you hear me?”
The glorious La Guitarra parking lot. Only annoying thing is they were out of stickers to put on my car. Boo.
93 watery beers and a bunch of pupusas later, it was time to split up. The End of All Roads guys headed east to Honduras while I headed up to the cloud forest in NW El Salvador.

Ruta de las Flores


Next to El Tunco – the Ruta de las Flores probably came up the most often as a must-see in El Salvador. Basically it’s a procession of colonial towns in a cloud forest, surrounded by a few national parks. I will say El Salvador does a good job of promoting and clearly labeling tourist routes like this. Honduras and Guatemala could learn a few lessons.

I pulled over at a designated viewpoint with a platform (something else lacking in most Central American countries) and got my first taste of the local cicadas. I’m used to midwestern cicadas that make a rhythmic pulsing sound – which I actually get pretty nostalgic about. These guys sound more like a constant train whistle to me. I don’t think I could ever get nostalgic about that sound even if I grew up here.

The first town I checked out was Juayua – but I couldn’t figure out where to park so I moved on. However I made it back later with a tour, so there will be pics further down.

The next town I stopped was Ataco – a very nice little town and seemingly the one with most touristy stuff (restaurants, shops) of the route.

Ataco papusas – ok but not Guacamaya
This was for rent with seats going all the way up the heel

 

Tacuba and Parque Nacional Impossible


I stayed one night in Ataco and decided to take a fun-looking dirt road to a town called Tacuba – which is the jumping off point for treks into Parque Nacional Imposible (named for some kind of impossible to cross foot/cable bridge that used to be there – I think). 

The ride out to Tacuba was pretty dicey. As always google maps happily sent me on my way – but I wouldn’t want to be in a normal car. Also I got a ton of stares from the local kids. I wave and usually they wave back once their slack-jawed surprise at seeing a big red beard gringo in a weird marshmallow/spaceship-looking car coming down their barely-traveled road wears off.

It’s great having friends come visit. But it’s also nice getting back to my choose-the-crookedest-road-you-can-find adventure. This is the best of my trip.

About the only accommodations in town seem to be a very friendly, lovely hostel called Mama’s y Papa’s y Manolo’s. Manolo is their son – a famous local guide who appears in my guide book and all over the internet. However I came to find out he’s in Switzerland promoting the family coffee business or something. Must be nice!

Mama and Papa welcomed me in. I immediately knew I’d stay a couple nights and go hiking in the park the next day.

The hostel is a menagerie of ducks, turtles, chickens and other critters.
Tortuga!

The pleasant mountain town of Tacuba is sleepy (except when school lets out) and walkable in 30 minutes or so. Only a few little restaurants but the food was quite tasty. The only real tourist highlight is a ruined old church. 

This guy got a kick of me taking a picture of his truck. No he did not seem dangerous at all and was with his family.
Most restaurants and tiendas were also someones living room. This one was set up so they could push the shelves against the far wall when they closed.
Sobering reminder that San Salvador is still having massive gang problems. 29 murders since April 1st. This was April 6th.
Some kind of big church ceremony went on pretty late into the night. Vendors waited out front with food and drinks.
I finally tried one of the famous chocolate bananas.
Delicious! Frozen to just the right temperature.


Chilling out in the hammock at Mama y Papas.

If you listen closely to the video above, you can hear a couple individuals start off with slow clicks, which get faster and faster until they merge into a train whistle that lasts about 15 seconds per individual. When they’re all going at the same time it sounds like some weird 50s spaceship or Star Trek sonic ray that would have Kirk holding his ears in scenery-chewing agony.

At one point I was hanging out in the hammock – listening to chickens, cicadas, car horns, bike horns, barking dogs, construction, other birds, car stereos blasting reggaeton – all no problem whatsoever – just a cacophony of soothing random sounds. But there was a crying baby about a block away that just killed me. Can anyone tune out a crying baby? Damn genetics. 

The thing to do from Tacuba is arrange hikes into Parque Nacional Imposible. This is my slightly off-kilter but entertaining guide William.

Under no circumstances attempt this w/o a guide. Nothing is marked and trails go off in all directions.

It didnt come out in this pic, but you can actually see the ocean from here – which really hits home how small El Salvador is.
William liked to point out different trees that had medicinal properties – I believe this one is good for your prostate somehow. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any trees to fix a sore heel.

At one point William asked me if I wanted to go for an rappelling adventure. Ok, sure. He said this is the first time he’s done this. Hmmmm. 

Here we go.

Part 2 of the adventure involved rappelling straight down off an overhanging ledge. The only possible way back up was to somehow climb straight up the rope with nothing to put your feet against. I lacked confidence that William could pull my dead weight up out of that thing, so I passed and William went down instead.

Getting William, who knows how to climb up a rappelling rope, back up was enough of a struggle that I felt pretty good about my decision to pass. To compound the fun – the rope decided to run right through a giant hill of tiny stinging ants. So I had to make sure not to drop William, while getting stung and furiously trying to scrape ants off the rope.

The national bird of El Salvador – the Torogoz or Turquoise-browed Motmot. Not a common sight apparently. Really pretty bird with a crazy coat of constantly shifting colors, and the long tail feathers that remind me of a glider.

After Tacuba – I headed back to El Tunco – for a surprise repeat guest appearance from – Sophie! She had missed her flight to Costa Rica and decided to head to El Tunco instead. I loved El Tunco and nothing in El Salvador is more than a few hours away. So I headed back.

Just chillin in his highway hammock
El Pulgracito de America = The Pinky of America, a nickname for El Salvador
MAGA!
I took and posted this picture of Sonsonate – just to show a typical street scene in a typical town. Turns out someone I know is from nearby! This has been on of the unexpected pleasures of the trip – finding out which of my friends have roots in Mexico and Central America.

 

El Tunco redux


I arrived back in El Tunco and had a beer while waiting for Sophie to materialize.

I’m not sure where this beer is made. But it’s closer to 5% and quite tasty.

We had some beers at La Guitarra and watched a bunch of local surfers tackle the tricky (IE – not for beginners) break.

This local kid put on a surfing exhibition then popped out of the water and appeared selling bracelets – still soaking wet. Of course I had to buy one. You’re gonna go places kid.

The next day Sophie and I drove up to Cerro Verde National Park for some hiking. I decided to take a crooked mountain road that the clerk at La Guitarra had warned me against the first time I was in town. She had made it clear the road wasnt dangerous because of bandits – but because I might drive off the side or something. Well by now I’d been in El Salvador long enough to know the roads are generally pretty good. Any road that people can drive on – my car should easily handle.

The road turned out to be about the nicest perfectly paved road you could see – with very robust guardrails everywhere. Apparently there’s a saying in El Salvador: “The people can eat pavement” which refers to the amazing condition of so many of the roads (the road to Tacuba not withstanding).

Maybe it was dangerous when the lady I got advice from last took it. Or maybe she’s just deathly afraid of heights or something. Also the drive was just gorgeous. Anyway the point is – just like advice from travelers – advice from locals isn’t always rock solid. There’s still room to use your own judgment.

We got there too late for the Santa Ana volcano hike, so we took a nice loop hike with a local guide.

Noisy biologists measuring a tree’s girth. Our guide chastised them for making so much noise and scaring off all the animals.

I’ve seen a lot of rocks and trees on this trip that are supposed to look like an elephant. This one wins.

Later in the parking lot 3 different groups of people came up to me to ask about my car and drive. Some of them had either lived in California or had relatives who did. They were all universally warm and welcoming and literally thanked us for visiting their country.

On the drive back we came across a wreck that had stopped traffic in both directions. Before we saw the cause of the backup, Sophie got a little spooked and started to hide her iPhone. Yes Sophie – this is the mandatory stop where they steal everyone’s iPhone. Although to be fair if I hadn’t already driven through that area I’d have been a lot more skittish. And now that I think about it – I did previously see a guy on the side of the road in that area with an Uzi slung over his shoulder. He was dressed pretty nice, older guy, but seemed to be intently looking for a certain car. Glad I wasn’t it. Sorry I didn’t get  picture.

I tried this local delicacy in the parking lot – fried yucca, slaw, and sardines. It was … not good. Least favorite part was crunching the little sardine skulls.

Since we didn’t have time to go on the Santa Ana hike, or check out a local waterfall and Ruta de las Flores town – Juayua – when we got back to El Tunco, Sophie went into the only local tour guide shop  – Tunco Life – to ask about a Santa Ana hike. Amazingly they had a trip planned for the next day which did exactly those three things. Crazy! I can’t say enough good things about Tunco Life and our guide (and owner of the company I think) Josue. We had a blast and I think he has a big future leading tours out of El Tunco.

First we went to Juayua, the town I didn’t stop at my first time through, which has a bustling local market

Looking at this absolutely lovely town square I had one of my recurring moments of rage at Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. Apparently these pleasant locals going about their day in such a beautiful place never got the word that they live in a shithole. It’s one thing for some small-minded person from the US to hold those kinds of warped prejudices about a place they’ve never seen. But it’s entirely another for our president to affirm and amplify those ideas. DONALD ERES UN PENDEJO

Then we went to the local waterfall. Which was nice. It’s weird because I love nature so much, but I seem to get less jazzed about waterfalls than the average person. Same goes for hot springs. I think it might be because I like to travel minimally. And once I have to think about swimming that adds all kinds of concerns – suit, towel, sunscreen?, where do I change? Getting wet is complicated. Yes I realize how silly that sounds.

Then we went back to Cerro Verde – to climb Santa Ana this time – much to Sophie’s delight.

Every volcano is different. This one had a bubbling cauldron of green sulphur. Really cool.

NO ACEPTE IMITACIONES! This guy hikes up the mountain every day to sell his legendary homemade frozen popsicles. He must eat a lot of his own supply to hike that much and still maintain a healthy belly 😀
Sophie struggled a bit with her Sabrosita. I told her to employ my method of just shove it in your face so fast it has no time to drip. But she wouldn’t listen. Stubborn Irish!
These are the fattest agave stalks Ive ever seen. Agaves can live up to 100 years before they shoot their stalk up to attempt to reproduce, and then they die.

After the tour there was much drinking. Much.

The next day I hung around El Tunco hungover and had an aggressively useless day. Then after that I said goodbye to Sophie and headed out to Perquin in the NE corner of El Salvador. I wanted to see the rest of El Salvador before meeting up with my friends in Honduras.

On the way I FINALLY ate at a Pollo Campero. It was quite tasty. I’d put the chicken sandwich up there with Wendy’s Spicy Chicken and Chik Fil A.

 

Perquin


I was about 10 minutes from my hotel in when I got pulled over by the cops for the first time this trip. I thought they might get me for speeding since the speed limit around here is something ridiculous like 40kph – which no one adheres to except giant trucks going uphill.

But no they just wanted to ask me a bunch of questions. Possibly because it was getting close to 5pm and gringos driving around after dark is a bad idea. They did ask if I was armed. Um no, I’ll leave that to you guys standing there with your AR-15s or M16s or w/e (don’t @ me gun nuts) strapped across your chest. I told them about my trip, and in the end they were all smiles and sent me on my way. Just curious I guess.

I should add that I’ve always had a good way with cops for some reason – maybe my non-threatening teddy bear demeanor. If I’d had my buddy Ande in the car however, we’d both be swiss cheese right now.

So of course I had to post the above on Facebook because among other reasons, it’s theoretically possible there might be a few girls out there I want to impress with my dangerous adventure. Which prompted my Mom to reply, first comment:

Yeah that ought to do it. Good luck with that grandkid that you’ve probably given up on anyway. Also I want to know who taught my Mom emojis.

LOVE YOU MOM!

I try to imagine the great 19/20th century explorers like Earnest Shackleton in the age of social media. Have fun on your little adventure to the South Pole son, but BE SAFE! His men would mutiny.

So after my cop adventure I had a tasty comfort meal of sphagetti bolognese at my hotel – a mostly empty grand hillside resort that could hold a ton more people.

The next day I headed to one of my two intended destinations. The war museum in Perquin – documenting the civil war that raged here from 1979 to 1992. Warning – some of this stuff is graphic. As always the US at least plays a supporting bad guy role here in supplying the genocidal government with arms and money and even officers to run the war. Gotta stop those communists! Of course the rebels were mostly just left-leaning and communism was way down their list. But a few actual communists showed up and then the US had to get involved. 

The rebels’ radio station that worked from hiding throughout the war.

Bomb crater with US-made bomb sitting beside

Reagan: time for the United States to take the initiative again. Always works out well.

There are tons of FMLN flags like this one in the area

My second destination of the day was really tough – El Mozote the site of the worst massacre of the war. The US-backed army tortured, raped and murdered over 800 men, women and children. One woman in the entire village survived – by hiding in a tree for 5 days as she watched all the horror unfold. Of course justice was weak and hard to come by – with pressure from the US to minimize the massacre. Reagan called initial reports of the massacre a “gross exaggeration”. 

Once the memorial was established, the sole survivor led tours of the site until she died in 2005. Other women have continued her tradition. I spoke to one of them in my broken Spanish for a while. Similar to Vietnam, I felt obligated to contribute much heavier than I normally would.

These are just some of the names. If you zoom in you can see how many had single-digit ages.
Memorial to Rufina Amaya – the sole survivor who was instrumental in bringing the truth to light

After El Mozote – I headed across El Salvador along the northern highway to La Palma – a gorgeous scenic drive that I highly recommend. I had basically circumnavigated El Pulgracito de America in two days – and could easily have done it in one. 

Along the way I saw this weird development under construction or something. I NEED TO KNOW who’s crazy dream of a street plan is this?

La Palma


La Palma turned out to be a fairly nice town – which is always a pleasant surprise for a border town. 

I was a little paranoid about trying to cross the border with a very dirty car. I’ve heard they might turn you around and make you wash it – which is complicated because you’ve already checked out of the previous country. So do you wind up like Tom Hanks in Terminal?

Of course about 30 seconds after my car wash the skies just opened up. Dammit – $3 car wash wasted! Not really – as the car was still much cleaner than it would be.


Get the HAIL out of here!

I asked them if hail as common. It is not.

The electricity in the hotel went on and off constantly during the storm. Staff didn’t miss a beat, all food was still served.

The next day I headed to Honduras – my first solo border crossing.

Antigua and Lake Atitlan

Antigua


Cities I’ve resided in for a month or more: KC, LA, SF, Houston, Charlotte Amalie – USVI, the bustling metropolis of O’Fallon/Winfield – Missouri, and Antigua – Guatemala.

Antigua is currently #1 on my list of places to potentially settle for a bit. The only potential downside I can come up with is that living there might *too easy*. Such problems to have. I had my Spanish school, coffee shop, gym, taco place, laundry, and local pub all within a two block stretch. Did I mention the year-round perfect weather? If my friends in the End of All Roads crew hadn’t come and wanted to ride into El Salvador together, I might still be there.

Shuana and I made it into town about sunset, and got set up by our host in a very nice AirBnb. He recommended a place called La Fonda de la Calle Real for some delicious local cuisine. Our place was about a mile out of the town center, so we were thrilled to see Uber back in operation (no Uber in Tulum or Belize). Although once we rode into town I realized parking was pretty easy. I was expecting something more like San Miguel de Allende – which is San Francisco-level parking difficulty.

We liked this place so much we went back another time. Shauna really loved her chicken soup with onions – which might be the quintessential Guatemalan food item.

Traditional Guatemalan cooking ingredients and spices

I got the stuffed chiles – very tasty.
Cilantro chicken soup – served with lime and chili powder

The next day we explored the town, and went on a coffee plantation tour in the afternoon. Next to San Miguel de Allende, I’d say Antigua is the prettiest old colonial town I’ve seen on the trip. The nice thing for me though is Antigua is much more spread out, easier to park, not as crowded. Probably my favorite thing about Antigua was the temperature – after spending over a month in the steamy Oaxaca Coast, Chiapas jungle, and Yucatan. At 5000 feet, Antigua is roughly 25 degrees cooler than it would be at sea level. I immediately felt a spring in my step walking down the street w/o having to worry that any energy expenditure would get me all sweaty.

Note: these pics are taken over several days – and timelines may be confused all over the place. I was in Antigua so long the days blur together a bit.

These guys seem like the Guatemalan equivalent of lawn gnomes

Similar to San Miguel – many buildings in Antigua were in ruins 100 years ago. A few have been left that way – as tourist attractions I assume. But most are now lovingly restored. They do an incredible job of keeping the buildings looking 200+ years old. Antigua was capital of the Spanish world in Central America for a couple hundred years, then leveled by an earthquake in 1773. Antigua was rebuilt, but the Spanish moved their capital to present day Guatemala City – which is probably what spared the city from being plowed over to make room for newer buildings. According to my Spanish teacher, pre WWII you could buy a ruined mansion in Antigua Centro for $100 or so – which would now go for $2 million US or more.

Many houses are of this Spanish colonial style with an inner courtyard. In the past they were stately villas – now they could be hotels, many stores, even a McDonalds – which is about the nicest McDs I’ve ever seen (not pictured).

Inside this ruined building you can see floats they’re preparing for Semana Santa

Pictures don’t really do justice to how much the volcanoes tower over the city.

This has to be one of those lions created by someone whos never seen a lion. And even at that it’s impressively off base.
Ushuaia! It just needs LA.

Life giver

The coffee tour was a nice way to get a bird’s eye view of the city, learn about how coffee is made, and taste some delicious coffee.

No idea what’s going on here

That night (ok it may be a different night – but close enough!) we had a delicious steak dinner that was expensive by Guatemala standards, but still plenty cheap by LA standards. I think it was about $80 for two people.

Not a bad view from dinner – yes that’s a live volcano erupting

Lake Atitlan


Rather than having to get up at 6am for a group tour from Antigua, we decided to drive and do our own Lake Atitlan tour. After some fun google maps detours, including one that had locals staring at us until we realized the road we were on was impassible, we found our way to Panajachel – the jumping off point from the south side of the lake. You could drive to the villages on the north side but it would take countless hours – as the roads are very bumpy and mountainous (basically you’re descending into the bowl of volcanoes that rings the lake).

Atitlan is a gorgeous lake surrounded by volcanoes and a very popular tourist hangout with some expat communities. After some usual failed negotiating by me (ignore the first wave of touts and go to the public dock) we got our own private boat and driver. The private boat was more expensive, but may have still been worth since we were on a limited time frame and we never would have met our wonderfully sweet boat driver – Thomas. 

Our first stop was San Pedro – which we dubbed party town. A whole flock of people were drinking and making a ton of noise at one of the bar/restaurants. Eventually they all piled back on the party boat below and left. The town immediately got about 99% quieter.

Guy at the top was the King of Party Boat – complete with purple robe

We wandered around San Pedro for a bit and had some lunch at an Israeli-run place that had a bunch of people sitting around who looked like they hadn’t slept all night and were in “chill out” mode. Shuana and I both know the look.

If you’d like to live in a wedding cake – here’s your dream house
Sometimes I like to tease pushy vendors by telling them if something fits me I will buy it. Which I totally would. Here this woman has to help me remove a shirt that she still claims totally fits me.

After San Pedro, the boat took us to San Juan – which was our favorite stop – a very low key town with mostly Mayans. Apparently the thing to do here is grab a tuk tuk and go visit the various Mayan crafts and artisans. First stop was a weaving demonstration. I’ve never seen traditional weaving demonstrated to this level of detail, and was fascinated at the skill and ingenuity that goes into it. 


Like our boat driver, this woman also had the sweetest disposition. So much so that I still think about her months later. Maybe there’s something to growing up in a simple traditional lifestyle (never losing your innocence?) that leads to happiness.

I realize this issue is something of a 3rd rail so I want to make it clear I really have no idea what these people’s lives are actually like – from my 30k foot, 1st-world-privilege perspective. I know there are real hardships I will never have to bear – like availability of quality medical care. So before I step in something – I will just say this: I don’t envy the wealthy, not one bit. I have everything I could ever want that costs money. I envy people with kids – and on some level I envy people like the Mayans who grow up in a community where they know they will always be taken care of by family and friends. 

And yeah I know I’m fabulously wealthy by local standards here. Argh – enough whitesplaining. 

Guatemala has by far the most places where the women still wear traditional Mayan outfits. It was interesting watching the dresses and tops get heavier as we went from a hot to cool climate. Men ditched theirs a long time ago apparently. In El Salvador the govt murdered some 30k Mayans in 1932, so everyone ditched their traditional clothes.

Our next stop was a traditional honey maker where we were sold on the promise of honey beer! Apparently this honey is made by very small stingless bees – which I didn’t know existed. I guess they can exist only in a place with no bears to steal their honey.

While the honey was delicious. The honey beer was … not tasty.

Back to the boat for our 3rd stop.

Our trusty sailing vessel

Hemmingway?

Our next stop was San Marcos – which I can sum up in one word – HIPPIES! I found a bit odd the sight of traditional Mayans commingling with dreadlocked hippies with dozens of piercings and skin hanging out between various odd wraps of grungy sarong-y yoga outfits. I didn’t feel quite comfortable asking the hippies to pose in their native environment, so apparently this is the only pic I took of the town – which was quite lovely.

We rented a tuk tuk to go to the point outside San Marcos with a nice view. Mostly at this time of day the view becomes hazy and smokey though.

On the boat ride back to Panajachel we saw these weird buildings which make absolutely no sense in their environment. Someone’s fevered dream of a Miami-style condo complex?
Sunset over the lake

On the drive back, about 30 minutes outside Antigua we saw an area that looked about as close to a wild west brothel scene as I imagine you’re going to see in 2018. Women were walking between and standing in doorways with negligees and bustiers. Some women were also clearly of the “not born female” variety. I thought the scene was amazing. Shauna was nonplussed. 

We had seen  bit of this place on the way out and I wondered what the heck was going on. On the way back at night it was really rolling. I decided not to stop and take pictures or pull over and ask if it was safe for gringos 😉 Apparently prostitution is legal in Guatemala but “procuring” it is not. I have no idea what that means.

The next day Shuana had arranged a ride to the airport in Guatemala City with the world’s greatest Uber driver, Edgar, whom we met the night before. Edgar has wifi, water, snacks – and his car is amazing. Seriously, if you’re ever in Antigua look him up. The 2 hour ride to the airport was something like $25.

But first I was trying to figure out how to dry my clothes in the world’s most confusing device ever – this combo washer/dryer. 

Almost none of these translate to anything that makes sense. Furthermore if you screw up it will happily start washing your clothes that you just want to dry.
Helpful!
Notice the lock icon. Please can I just have my clothes? My friend needs to get to the airport. I promise I won’t burn myself. The real irony is after hours, and not letting me even open the door, this thing still didn’t come close to drying my clothes – which proceeded to get all sour-rotten in my hot car.

And that was that – we said our goodbyes from 3 weeks of fun.

Goodbye volcano!
Goodbye Ol’ Ironsides, I’ll miss you most of all.

Antigua solo


Finally free! I can do what I want, eat dodgy street food, blare my cheesy trance music that no one likes, sleep until 11. So I decided to take a picture of this:

Good to know Antigua has the boot. I guess I’d rather that than them take my front plate. Semana Santa (Holy Week = week before Easter) was approaching and the parking cops were getting serious. For background, Semana Santa is a big deal pretty much everywhere in the Catholic world, and Antigua has one of the biggest in the world. Not just the week either, for a month leading up to it weekends get crazier and crazier.

My friend Ande was on his way in a week, and then the End of All Roads guys were coming through a week after that, so I decided to chill in Antigua for a while and take Spanish classes. I wandered around a bit and for some reason felt the need to punish myself for the second time on the trip. Why I didn’t eat Pollo Campanero which was just across the street I couldn’t tell you. Burger King seems to have some kind of siren spell on me.

I also found and signed up for a Spanish school, Tecun Uman – which came recommended by a couple people. Apparently Tecun Uman is the original Mayan name of Antigua. Cool. Then I signed up for the mellow volcano hike (not the 2-day 5k’ heel-buster) and I even found a pub that would have the NCAA games on – which Ande wanted to see. Awesome productive day! Time for beer at my new local pub.

The next day – Sunday – I met up about midday for our volcano hike. The town was so packed it took us a good hour just to get across and then out of town. And Semana Santa was still 3 weekends away. The 3-hour hike was beautiful and not hard on my heel at all – as the soil was soft and going up is easy. The next day I paid for it though – limping around. I realized I just can’t do a two day massive hike right now. I also officially canceled my hiking/photo trip to Patagonia – which broke my heart. Maybe I’ll get to go in the future.

On the hike up we were followed by a few guides with horses – who would be happy to let you ride them for a fee of course. They kept looking at me drenched in sweat and offering me the horse. Sorry guys – I just look like I’m going to die but I rarely actually do.
Not only did this guy luck out not having to drag my bulk to the top – he got chocolate chip cookies – and then followed me around the whole rest of the time we were at the top
Almost at the top some expats opened a Lava Store that repatriates all profit back to the locals who lost everything in the last eruption. I bought a few pretty cool trinkets.

Attempting to roast marshmallows in the volcanic heat. I saw how long it was taking others and just ate my marshmallows cold. I have failed the marshmallow test – just as I know I would have if I were given it as a kid.

(For reference since I can’t put links in captions – Marshmallow Test. But seriously, why should I sit there and torture myself looking at the marshmallow in front of me – for one more marshmallow? Better to just eat it immediately and get on with my life. Now offer me a whole bag if I wait and I’ll think about. I have a hot take theory that the marshmallow test really measures willingness to please authority.)

The sun went down when we were on top. Glad I brought a light for the hike down in the dark even though it wasn’t mentioned.

The next day I started Spanish classes at 8am. The classes are actually held in the restaurant next door to the school. Not a bad view from the rooftop dining area. Did I mention it’s about 72 degrees every day? Yes I might have mentioned that already.

The classes run from 8-12, then the school has an optional excursion or activity every day from 2-4. This day we learned how they make the Alfombras – also called carpets – out of various colored grains and other bio-degradable stuff. These are laid out on the street during Semana Santa and can take 12 hours or more to create, but only a couple seconds to disintegrate when the processions marches over them.

The funny thing is – I heard they were showing how to make carpet and I kept thinking some ingenious step was going to turn this pile of stuff into an actual carpet. I am a little slow sometimes.

On one of the tours I talked to a person from Quebec in Spanish because she had no English. A first!

One of the fun things about learning Spanish is the revelations and insights it provides into my own language. Sort of like traveling to another country for the first time. What’s the same, what’s different.

For example – in Spanish the way to say “I get sad” is “Me pongo triste” – which literally translates into “I put sadness upon myself”, or something like that. I wonder do you grow up thinking differently if you feel you put sadness upon yourself? Do you feel more in control of the situation? I have no idea, but it fascinates me to think about. 

Here’s another example I posted on FB:

In Spanish negative or positive sometimes affects verb conjugation – at least with commands (maybe others). “Do this” is conjugated differently than “Don’t do this”. I’m like alright – just another weird thing in Spanish that thankfully we don’t have to do in English.

Well not so fast.

Today we were going over past tense and I was trying to turn some sentences into English in my head. I was struggling with “No traje al regalo.” I was trying to turn traje, the past tense form of “bring” into “brought”. I did not brought the gift = no bueno. I no brought the gift = no bueno. But remove the “no” and “I brought the gift” is fine. Weirdness! Same works for give/gave.

I guess what’s happening is “brought” actually equals “did bring” and you can’t unbundle it? It’s very hard to work “brought” into a past tense negative – w/o resorting to something like “I have not brought the gift” – which has a different meaning and probably some silly name like subjunctive imperfect.

Another fun diversion at Spanish school was the Planet Earth documentary the local birds put on. 

The guy on top is great tailed grackle – which looks a lot like a US raven but with a long tail. The brown bird is a female checking out his action – which was impressive. First he would put some food in the bird bath, then fly off and watch as she and other females nibbled on it. Then he’d start chirping really loud to get their attention. For the finale he’d land near them and put on a dance that looked like some mini-version of the crazy puffed-up dance that birds of paradise do. Feed her, serenade her, then wow her with your dance moves. Notes were taken.

I didn’t get a good picture of the dance, but it looked like this:

I’ve definitely never seen a raven near me do that. Their version of impressing females seems to be to show off who can fly around with the biggest stick in their mouths – seriously.

My teacher told a story of how his uncle feeds the local pigeons so he can sell or eat them. When he wants to harvest them he soaks their food in rum so he can scoop them up when they just fall over drunk. Brilliant!

My awesome teacher Jorge. He always called me “Matthews”. It was so cute I never corrected him. I told him I liked to learn the theory so he taught me a bunch of weird conjugations like future conditional that I will never need, but were fun to learn.

Somehow I let my birthday slip, so after 3 weeks the school sang me Feliz Cumpleaños – which has like 2 extra verses than Happy Birthday. Also apparently it’s a tradition that everyone has to hug or shake hands with the birthday person. I was very touched.

Spanish school also came with a very cheap homestay. The food was pretty good and all my tchotchke viewing needs were certainly met. 

The bed was a little hard and the room was kind of dank though (and not in the good way). So I eventually moved to a cheap AirBnB about a mile outside of town. However the find of the homestay was meeting my new friend Sophie! She’s from Ireland but currently living and working in Germany as an automotive engineer. Cool!

Elegant, refined, stately … are not words I would use to describe Sophie. I figured out after a few times hanging out that she’s basically just a kid who never grew up. Although I’m not supposed to give away her secret. So don’t tell anyone.
Awww

Also with Sophie came her friend Vilma from Chile, but currently living in Norway. The two had apparently just met but were already peas in a pod. 

Children – do not emulate this behavior!
New friends!

We’ll hear more from Sophie in a bit. Here’s my local taco shop – quite tasty. They have the only shirts in Latin America that fit me. 

I also had a local gym and coffee shop nearby. I love the coffee shop even though it’s the kind of place where coffee nerds like to come in and ask details about when the coffee was roasted, the discuss the “personality” of the coffee. Just try it you nerds. You’re distracting me from dicking around on the internet while I procrastinate on my blog.

My pub was pretty fun except for some old guys who inevitably would want to start talking politics. “Well you know when the race wars start…” Dude. We were having a nice game of pool. Why?

Also making an appearance in Antigua – my old friends Bruno and Molly – from my plate rescuing adventure in San Miguel de Allende!

Ande Arrives!


I cut my first week of Spanish school short because one of my oldest friends – Ande, arrived from Florida. I picked him up at the Guatemala City airport. I could have had him take an Uber for $25 or so. But I wanted the experience of – “Who’d have ever thought when we were driving to high school together that I’d be picking you up in Guatemala City in my own car that I drove there?”

We had a great couple days in Antigua catching up and watching the NCAA tourney. 

Also, even though it was a very busy weekend leading up to Semana Santa, I still managed to find a sweet 3-bdrm Air Bnb for $88 a night or something. AirBnBs are weird – you never know what you’re going to get from the pics. I decided all of them should have a video like this, where you can virtually walk though the entire place:

I always wanted a house I can park in

Ande had work in Guatemala City the next week, so we decided to head to Guatemala City Saturday night instead of fighting the Sunday crowds in Antigua. We stayed in the upscale business district, which was basically deserted for Semana Santa.

Is this neighborhood safe? Oh look a fancy model kitchen!
Yeah I think we’re probably ok here

For some perspective though, here’s the best article I’ve read on the gang situation in this part of the world, and how it all works. 900 dead bus drivers in a city of 3 million people boggles the mind. Some of them are willing to risk death vs. paying $15/week protection – which really hits home how much poorer this part of the world is. This was from 2013, I only hope things are better now.

The highlight of Guatemala City was a massive and very tasty steak dinner.

End of All Roads Arrives!


After Ande left, I went back to Spanish class for a couple weeks until the Wednesday of Semana Santa. Basically Semana Santa is a 4.5 day weekend. Everyone gets off midday Wednesday until the next Monday. Antigua turns into a massive cluster of people. Naturally this is exactly when the End of All Roads guys managed to time their arrival. It’s too bad they didn’t get to see the normal mellow side of Antigua. 

Still, even showing up at the absolute busiest possible time – they were about to find a reasonable 4-bedroom AirBnb.

Dan and Bob fresh off the ride. I was actually sitting at this BBQ restaurant when Dan pulled right up out of the blue. Of course we all forgot to take any pics except this one.
The 3 BMW 850 touring bikes tended to create a spectacle. Wherever they went – bikers would come out of the woodwork.
That night we went out with Sophie and Vilma and painted the town a bit


Cool open air venue with a bunch of different bars and central entertainment area

Semana Santa


The next couple days were spent dodging Semana Santa processions and watching the town get even crazier.

Practicing for the Semana Santa processions – apparently people pay something like $80 to help carry the float for one block. There are 100s of floats and dozens of processions that go on for hours. So do the math – the church is absolutely raking it in.
Making the Alfombras. My biggest fear was stumbling into one of these and ruining it.
Highly-paid artisans at work

One of the parades at night

At one point I was trying to make my way across town to the End of All Road’s air bnb, I got stuck in a procession. It was like something out of a movie. I thought I was through it, then suddenly I was surrounded by and walking against the grain of 100s of men in black robes waving incense. It was completely surreal with only a few feet of visibility and hooded faces coming out of the smoke. I only wish I hadn’t been too freaked out to realize I should film this cool scene. Sigh.

We decided to leave on Saturday before the total craziness of Saturday night and trying to get out Sunday.

The next day we met up at the gas station by my place, and headed for El Salvador.

Goodbye Antigua – I suspect I will be back.