||99 Days Home
John, please feel free to
use, alter, delete as
appropriate. We hope this information is
useful/interesting/helpful to others. We
are, obviously, having a wonderful time.
I am currently working on this material as we sit on a ridge
I am also sending along some additional listings for places to stay and shop. Feel free to use as appropriate. Many aren’t covered in the text. They are at the bottom of this lonnnnng missive.
(2) your listing for the
Tracasa truck stop near
I am picking up this message where the last one left off.
We are in Coban,
So we headed off toward
We stopped at two different sanctuaries. After hiking up and down and up and down through the first one (where we had stayed the previous night), we were treated to tea/biscuits/fruit by the lady of the house. She was absolutely charming, and thoroughly made up for our disappointment at not seeing a quetzal. We moved 50 yards down the hill to the federal Quetzal Sanctuary, and trekked through their part of the forest keeping our eyes peeled, but we weren’t that lucky; we did see other birds, and some lovely flowers, however. Oh yeah, and an interesting young lady on a Saturday outing who walked the whole trail in high heels that matched her metallic burgundy two-piece strapless outfit with very tight pants - we were in hiking boots. (Rick said, “she was wearing heels???) We spent the night at the sanctuary, in their parking lot. We were all alone except for the security guys, who were very interested in our rig and what we were up to. We spent a lot of time talking with them, and made some new friends, particularly a man named Esias, who even let me take his picture. (You can see him at www.flickr.com/photos/kathyrickpics .) It’s these real-people connections that we treasure.
Tell me: what’s the difference between a cloud forest, a rain forest, and a jungle? We are clueless. And wet. We’ve decided that these areas have their own weather rules. But…..you only get wet once. And yes, jungles do have bigger bugs and, well, I guess cloud forests are more… foresty.
Despite the lack of quetzals we had a good time at the sanctuary. Early the next morning we waved goodby to Esias and his buddies and made for the border. For the first time in quite awhile we were on good road, and Rick found himself doing all of 45 mph; he got quite excited.
Down, down through the
cloud forest; we dropped out of the
highlands and found ourselves in an area that looked like the Baja:
brown, with few trees. We were between
mountain ranges, and down to 650 feet; pretty darn dull we decided. Later in the day we climbed up again, over
3800 feet, ending at about 2000 feet in Esquipulas,
with a very famous (but boring) basilica.
The town was an absolute madhouse, as it was Sunday and the
were lined up for blocks going into the basilica to see its version of
rice” (Black Christ) statue. On Monday
all had quieted down, we were able to enjoy the town for a couple of
then arrive at the
We’ll tell you about our
Parting company, we
Further north, we entered
But on to
We entered the park and
were enchanted. It is a lovely place. If you stayed under the canopy you didn’t get
too wet, and it wasn’t too hot. We climbed
the pyramids, took tons of pictures, heard/saw birds and monkeys, and
about the sun
came out. We were on top of
We had a great time at
The Yaxja ruins are off
the road that runs (generally)
We were tempted to set up a permanent campsite at the Yaxja Lageoon, but finally decided to press on. And we were quite close (100 kms) to Finca Ixobel, south of Poptun, where our packages would be arriving (soon, we hoped); we could take hot showers, eat good food, and generally relax and recuperate. All this was what we’d been told by others.
And they weren’t wrong. Finca Ixobel is an oasis rising out of the jungle. It has some elevation (about 1700 feet) and is in a pine forest. There is cool shade, a swimming hole, an excellent restaurant (that makes its own bread), electricity (the refrigerator is gasping in relief after all those days in muggy 90+ heat) etc. etc. etc.
We weren’t far from Poptun, and we wandered in there a couple of times. The first time Kathy caught a ride and did some shopping. Catching a tuk-tuk back to the finca was a real adventure by itself. Shortly after hailing my ride, my driver (gorgeous and about 40), stopped for a minute, stepped into a store front, and came back with two mango fruit bars, one for me. What a delightful fellow! The next day, we drove the truck into town to take care of some things. My tuk-tuk guy saw us several times as he made his rounds through town, waving and honking each time we came into his view. It was great fun.
One reason we’d taken the
truck into town was to find a
welder…seems to be kind of a recurring theme for us.
If we ever write a book, it’s going to be
titled Welders Round the World. On
this occasion, we had noticed, the same day
the rock hit the window, that our rear spare tire was suddenly wobbling
the welding we had had done up in
As so often happens in
these situations, our encounter with
the welder and his family provided us with a nice experience and a
to share. In order to do the repair we
had to first remove the storage boxes, and to do this we needed to
out to make them lighter. Well along
with the tools and hoses and other items, there were two cans of
We stayed at Finca Ixobel
about a week. Our packages arrived (the
mail, via the
postal service in thirteen days; the window, via UPS – at exorbitant
cost – in
five days) and we began preparing to head for the
Leaving Finca Ixobel, we
headed for Rio Dulce,
a very well known watering hole right along – guess what! – the
We liked being there.
Rio Dulce is international in flavor, so we were able to do some
interesting grocery shopping; the boating crowd tends to have
food needs, so that was great! I’d been
looking for Italian seasoning for weeks, with no success, and finally
arranged to have some shipped to me: but there it was on the shelf of
grocery I walked into! Damn!
And Rick was able to locate a new bomba – a
pump to boost the low water pressure we so often have to deal with. We filter all of the water we put into the
fresh water tank on the coach, and often the local water pressure is
too low to
get the water through the filter; hence the need for a booster pump. We’d gotten one at a Home Depot back in
We had hot showers (there
are two – the one closest to the
river is hotter), a nice chat with the manager of Bruno’s,
Moving south, we were
getting into lush countryside, with
banana plantations everywhere. Along the
road we were following we encountered bits and pieces of a traveling
heading north up into the Peten. We were
reminded that Semana Santa was fast approaching. We
made a great stop to visit the ruins at Quirigua, on the edge of a
banana plantation. The ruins there are
quite special. They are famous for very
carved stelae. The setting is tropical
and lush, and these monoliths rise up out of the grass; they are
thatch-roofed structures, which seem to add to the scene.
We were very impressed. Stelae
carved in a similar fashion are in
So Quirigua was cool.
We could have stayed the night outside the entry gate, but we
anxious to head for
As I say, we wanted to spend the night in Copan Ruinas; however, had we been caught by oncoming darkness, we noticed a big gas station under construction at KM 194 just inside the Honduras border, which would have made an excellent overnight spot; should be finished soon.
Our time in
now, you’re wondering
about our adventures in
We had a nice experience
All in all we spent 8
We did our best not to
miss anything important. We visited
The area below Cerro Verde is known by the tourist folks as the Ruta de las Floras and is the prettiest area we saw in the whole country. One special town was Juayua, where we had a simple lunch, enjoyed the lovely church and plaza, bought some local coffee and had a friendly encounter with some fellows eager to pose for a picture in front of some of the truly wonderful murals that decorated some of the downtown walls. An oft-recurring theme of our CA travels is the desire to increase tourism with all the possibilities for income that entails. It seems clear to us that over the next ten years or so, many more tourists are likely to come to these areas, and lots of these small towns are gearing up for it.
During our time in
Another special spot we
visited was Joya de
Ceren, a genuinely interesting Mayan site that is quite
unique. This site was discovered on the
edge of a
small town as new construction was begun in 1971. It
has been extremely well preserved and is
unique in that it is the only Mayan site that shows details of daily
living. This happened because in about
640 AD the town had been suddenly buried in a deluge of ash from a
eruption, preserving the buildings to the point that pottery and
even evidence of the food on the table have been recovered in near new
condition. Much like
We spent one night in the
pretty little town of
Suchitoto is a university
town, and evidently a very
cultural area. The concert was well
attended, including two local beauty queens (one complete with tiara
and a large Canadian contingent (the performer was from
Oh yeah, the active volcanoes? We never saw one get very busy, but the El Salvadorans are very cleverly harnessing what’s inside – geothermal energy – and using it, wanting to rid themselves of dependence on foreign oil. Smart. We did go through one area with large pipe lines, a plant of some sort, and steam rising from the mountain side.
We traveled to the far
northeastern corner of the country to
see what had been promised as a special experience.
To get there we took some mountainous back
roads that are partly paved, and really enjoyed it.
We were at a high enough elevation to be
going through pine forests (wherever all the trees had not been cut
down). Cool and breezy.
We were headed for an area of
We both entered and left
We stopped for a last
night in the country at a lovely hotel
After traversing a
difficult but scenic unpaved road from
The entire time we were
So… the town of
But this is a nice town,
and famous ruins; we stayed two
days. Upscale enough to be ready for
tourists, with coffee houses, cobblestone streets, tours to nearby
pizza. A very popular boondocking spot,
which we used quite successfully, is the Texaco station right beside
ruins. Noisy until dark, it was quiet at
night, and had electricity available.
At this Texaco station, one day we ran into a couple of fellows
And the ruins are quite
nice. They contain the most intricately
stelae in the
Also at the site are some
semi-tame scarlet macaws that are
happy to let you take their picture, as long as you don’t get too close. They feed them, so they hang around. We really enjoyed them, as the scarlet macaw
is very difficult to see in the wild.
There is a refuge for them in northern
As we left town we made a brief stop at a local eco-tourist park that had a lagoon where herons are supposed to over-winter in great numbers. Way down a dusty road, across a stream, we found the lagoon; unfortunately, the herons either never had come or had already left. But we had a chance to exchange greetings with locals washing their trucks in the stream, and the lagoon was pretty anyway.
We worked our way north
up the valley from the ruins, a lush
valley with coffee growing on the hillsides; we were really traveling
Well, no mas ruinas.
We had come to the end of our visitations to
the archeological sites preserving the remains of these interesting
civilizations. Over the years we have
visited locations from outside
Aside from ruins,
Near Gracias is
From Gracias we took a
dirt road over to La Campa,
through a pretty pine forest. Another town
with a nice square; this one
pretty dry and dusty, but It was a nice ride.
We wanted to see the town, but also afterwards we were headed
Well, let me tell you about this road through the mountains. It’s even paved part of the way, to east of Belen if you’re keeping track. Then it becomes dirt and rocks and climbing and ugly. We stopped for the night at the end of the pavement. In Miguel Guancapla, a dusty little town with dirt streets. We were parked kinda on the main road where it went through town because the bridge was out. We were surrounded by curious folks for the entire evening.
We were the entertainment most of the time (although at one point a rooster across the street decided to take on a turkey he didn’t like the look of, and it was very exciting for awhile; it seemed to us that the turkey finally prevailed, ‘though both birds strutted off looking self satisfied). We had decided to watch a movie, and happened to choose The Motorcycle Diaries. It was great, because the kids gathered around and watched with us, at least until the motorcycle gave out and there was less adventure involved. Then the kids disappeared and the older folks stopped by to take a look. At one point we were approached by a fellow bringing another man with him; the man was sick, and they were hoping we had some medicine we could give to them. We passed along some aspirin, but were reluctant to go further than that. Afterwards we remembered that there has been a lot of public service medical work done in these rural areas, and they probably thought we were visiting doctors. We hope the aspirin helped.
Okay, up we got in the morning and tackled this road ahead. We knew all about it from others who had passed this way. Well, it lived up to its reputation; this was the worst not-under- construction road we’d seen yet in our travels. But we finally reached La Esperanza, and it really was well worth all the trouble. You see, it was Sunday, and La Esperanza has a really good produce market that day each week. And being Sunday, all the people in the area are in town, so it’s a good day for people-watching. And there’s a nice (lovely, in fact) church, and…..it was Palm Sunday and morning services were just letting out. How many reasons do you need? We had a wonderful time. Great radishes and carrots, great people-pictures, and even an ATM (thank you, thank you!).
Everybody on the road was headed up to the coast for Semana Santa. We hadn’t been able to come up with someplace to be for the week, and so we decided to grin and bear it. Our plan was to follow the route we’d decided on, stay somewhere if it was possible, and if not then just move on. This is a bit risky, of course, but we did make it work. We left Siguatepeque on Monday morning, knowing in a week it would all be over with. There are two main areas where Hondurans head on holidays, the Lago de Yojoa area, and the northern coast/Bay islands. We were headed for Lago de Yojoa. (By the way, you just try typing that word – it’s hard!)
The Lago de Yojoa area is stunningly beautiful. The lake is surrounded by lush tropical foliage. There are many restaurants and fishing villages around the lake, along with coffee fincas, vineyards, and lovely homes. And lots of eco-tourism. We stayed at the Finca Las Glorias resort for the night, mingling with the well-to-do Hondurans up from the city. We were down by the marina, with a great view of the lake, under some very large trees. It was delightful. There were loose horses on the property, munching on the grass, and they kept drifting past our chairs set up under the trees. Management would have let us stay for a few days, but we felt a bit Bohemian (?) in this crowd, and the crowds were getting larger, so we spent the morning relaxing under the trees (it was quite hot) and then moved further on around the lake in time for lunch… at the D&D Brewery we’d heard a lot about.
The Brewery is owned by
an American (they are all over
But this area is so
We started to move further north, the road ever more lush and
gorgeous. With the bright red dirt and
sugar cane, we were strongly reminded of
We took our lives in our
hands, and headed for the north
coastal area, home of the
We headed toward Tela, with the idea of staying the night at the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens. This turned out to be a good choice. They had already closed when we arrived, but we talked our way in. These gardens were begun in 1927 by United Fruit (one of the big banana outfits here) as experimental gardens, trying to see what else they might be able to successfully put into production. The gardens, primarily varieties of trees actually, are extensive and lovely. We had a very quiet night listening to the birds in the trees (it’s another huge birding spot) and an even lovelier walk in the gardens the next morning. A real highlight of the park is an enormous stand of big fat bamboo that has grown across the road and forms a canopy; it’s almost dark inside, but cool and cozy. One of the park workers, Roger, attached himself to me as I was walking by myself at the far end of the park; he walked all the way back with me, chatting about this and that. He practiced his English, and I practiced my Spanish. I suspect that he was making sure the “crazy gringa” didn’t get lost. Rick, by this time, had retreated from the extreme heat and was holding down the fort at the coach.
We spent a short time in
Tela, right on the water, dipping
our toes in the
We bought a watermelon (our favorite fruit these days, and available everywhere along the road) from an old man riding a cart filled with them that was pulled by an old horse; I got to pet the horse for free; the watermelon cost me about a buck and a half. We ate off it for four days.
We turned south when we
left La Ceiba, fleeing back into the
mountains. We had toyed with the idea of
continuing along further east and visiting
We knew our day involved
heading down a dirt road, into the
mountains, and there would be no sources of money in our near future. So we took a short detour.
We went partway up the road to
Anyway, back in
The road up the mountain was another of our gems; in parts it was really good, but where the heavy rains had done their job well it was a real mess. But we got all the way up to the visitor’s center, and found a nice spot for the night. The place was deserted, no caretaker, but a couple from the city was staying the night, and they had gotten the key and did let us into the building to look around. We had the pleasure of signing the guest book, and found the names of friends who had been here in 2003 and who had led us to come here ourselves. There were many trails into the forest, and we knew our friends had seen quetzals here, but in the intervening years the trails have badly disintegrated, and there was no reliable signage, and, as mentioned, no guide on site for the holidays. As far as we walked, it was beautiful; we had rain off and on while we were there, so it was all misty and damp. I do love cloud forests! The couple departed in the morning and we had the entire area to ourselves most of the day. Two or three small groups came through, leading to interesting experiences.
The first group was a
family who owned a coffee finca 4 kms
down the road; they were checking on their plantings.
At this point we ran up against some of our
fears. This is hard to put to
paper. We know we are on the edge of our
comfort level at times here in
The group was comprised of about 13 people ranging in age from maybe 8-9 to a couple in their mid-40s. They shouted back and forth across the clearing, 2 of the teenagers were carrying guns (serious firepower here, the ubiquitous combination of an M-16 and a shotgun) and roamed around our coach examining it from head to toe. They were a happy crowd, laughing and enjoying themselves. Several of them took off up a trail and were gone for quite awhile (we found out later they had been checking the property), while the rest poked around the buildings and took their ease, always with part of the group eyeballing us. We were increasingly uncomfortable, and deciding that they looked like they were going to stay all day, and perhaps we should take off (we had earlier decided to remain for a second night in this lovely spot). We had said hello when they first arrived, but not much else passed back and forth between us.
However, it all changed when those who went up the trail returned. The family’s mother, very outgoing, came to the coach, shouted “Hola, mi amiga” and started in chatting with me. She was very friendly, quite determined to break down the barriers, and we quickly made friends. This is when we found they had their plantation (150 acres – quite large) home down the hill a ways; and indicating the guns, we asked about security for us in the area. No problema they assured us, turns out they kept an eye on things all around their property. The end result was we felt great again about staying where we were, and accepted their invitation to visit with them the next day when we came back down the mountain. It was really great!
One other thing about
guns down here: we see them every
day. Every bank, pharmacy or larger
store has uniformed armed guards with either an M-16 or shotgun;
shop owner himself will be carrying a sidearm in a holster, often with
clips of ammunition on his belt. We
don’t really know what to make of this armed presence, as the general
population we come into contact with seems happy and easy going, not
threatening at all. We asked
One other group that came by was half-a-dozen teenage boys, who simply arrived, sat shyly on a ledge and watched us quietly for about 15 minutes, gestured they would like a little money, and left when we refused. A bit more unsettling, but we were still bubbly from our new coffee friends, and didn’t let it bother us. Towards the end of the afternoon a small family hiked by, said hello, admired the coach, “Buen Carro”, and moved on. It rained off and on all day, but cleared before dark; we were alone, the birds were singing, it was delightfully cool, and we enjoyed a quiet evening inside and settled down for the night.
The next day we did stop
by Finca Buenos Noches, the coffee plantation,
and spent an hour or so with Amilcor and Lilian Murillo and their
family and workers. They are lovely
people, working the family finca which Amilcor inherited from his
father. They stay up on the mountain for
months out of the year, harvesting the coffee, and live the rest of the
La Union, where they raise dairy cattle (they are running about 800 head, we think). They
returned to La Union about 3 years ago,
after spending the previous 10 years at Roatan, in the
We cannot overstate the pleasure we took from getting to know these people. They were friendly and interested in us, happy to talk about themselves and their life, showed us all the apparatus and processes of a working finca, and poured us a cup of great coffee to boot. Before we left we invited everyone to come see our “casa rodante” and took lots of pictures, which we will send to them. We also were able to take a bag of coffee with us, keeping intact our plan to buy coffee in each country we visited. They wanted to give us the coffee, but we really wanted to be able to thank them financially for all they had done for us. Hugs and kisses around, we continued on down the road. By the way, they spoke almost no English, all of this was accomplished within the limitations of our extremely limited Spanish abilities. We find more and more that when we encounter someone who will speak slowly and limit their vocabulary and just work with us, we can communicate pretty well with them and it is very enjoyable all around. It seems pretty clear that the folks who make this effort with us always have some background in working with Gringos somewhere.
We had been a little concerned about being able to get off the mountain; the road is quite steep and in bad shape in places. We had experienced quite a bit of rain while we were there, and our friends had commented this would not be a good road in rainy weather, partly because there is a river to ford down near the bottom. But no problema. At the ford, folks were washing cars and enjoying playing in the water; we waved, crossed, and went on.
Ahead of us lay about 3
more hours of dirt road, but lovely
vistas and a pleasant drive. We finally
reached pavement (yes!) in Limones, and then made quick work of it to
“road experience.” We were heading
toward Valle de Angeles, a mountain town above
But here we were; they welcomed us at the visitor’s center and showed us around. We slept uneasily through the night (Kathy worrying about the refrigerator again; Rick wondering how the hell he was going to get back down the hill). We had decided since we had made it through this ordeal we were going to finally take a good hike into the cloud forest. A guide wasn’t required, as these trails were very well marked. They showed us where to get started, and we began. Not two minutes later, this very nice fellow who worked there attached himself to us and indicated he would keep us company. With no anticipation of payment. Cristobal was great. He pointed out flowers and birds, showed us the old mines (the entire mountain was heavily mined in the 30s – gold and silver), and patiently stopped each time we wanted to take pictures – even helping in our unsuccessful quest to get a butterfly to sit still for a photo. When we returned we, of course, tipped him despite his protests. We had made another amigo.
We did, of course, get
back down off the mountain, and
proceeded to Valle de
Angeles, where we spent a
charming Sunday in this lovely, tourist-friendly mountain town in a
forest. We spent the night there, having
gotten permission to stay in the hospital parking lot, although the
Touristico would have also been a good choice at a time other than
weekend; the next day (finally Monday after Easter!) we went further
We are in
Also, based on sound
advice from other travelers, we have
made copies of our drivers licenses and have had them laminated. When asked to present same, we have only
handed over the copy, never the original.
This has worked well, and helped us survive an unpleasant
Best Wishes and Happy Travels, Rick, Kathy and Trav’ler (aka La Tortuga)
Next Installment May 2008
Carreterras Sinuosas, Puentes Angostas, y Pavimento en Mal Estata. All that means windy roads, narrow bridges, and pavement in bad condition – aka welcome to Central America!
We left you as we had just crossed the border into Nicaragua. We are always excited as we enter a new country. We have great expectations of the sights to be seen, the people to be met, the fun times to be had. Nicaragua would be a really new experience for us: the poorest country in Central America; the one most recently torn apart by war; the one with the most volcanoes; a country that had suffered a devastating earthquake in 2000 and was still recovering; we were intrigued and inquisitive.
In the final analysis, we were a bit disappointed. And we found we were not alone when we met others traveling in the area. Despite reports from some friends who had had a fabulous time, general consensus agreed with ours. Our judgment is colored by certain events: an incident of vandalism; a cop demanding a bribe; a hot, dry and unappealing countryside; the lack of general friendliness on the road. We did have good experiences, and at least one act of major kindness where not expected. And we are well aware that we skipped some interesting areas that others had thoroughly enjoyed. But ultimately we found ourselves pushing on and hoping that Costa Rica would prove more enjoyable. But you want to know how it all went…..
Heading toward the Nicaraguan border we noticed that the countryside was becoming very dry and brown. Cattle country, with few trees and little water. We crossed into Nicaragua from Honduras at the small town of Las Manos. Again, as with other crossings, it proved to be a good choice. Nicaragua and Honduras are friendly to each other and make it easy for the traveler. We were done in 45 minutes and on our way. We had found ourselves at the border about mid-afternoon, unusual for us, and started looking for a place to hang for the night. We headed for Ocotal, a border town, but found it to be far too quintessentially border-town-ish to be anything other than pretty ugly and rough. We did find a grocery store and a bank (gotta, in any new country), but moved on.
A ways into country, we reached a river and then green tobacco fields; things were looking up. We’d heard about the Club Campestre, a private club about 4 miles north of the town of Esteli that would let us camp; we spotted it and swung in to check it out. What a cool spot! They were happy to have us, and only asked that we give the vigilante a couple of bucks a night to keep an eye on us. Antonio took very good care of us, made sure we could find electricity, water, dump station, and where the dressing rooms were to change before using the pool! We found a nice grassy spot with some shade, and settled in. We were surrounded by lush, green tobacco fields; very bucolic.
Esteli has the reputation of being a good spot for language schools, and of being a nice town as well. It seemed to offer possibilities for a nice wander. We found a great produce market and bought some really yummy veggies (an oxymoron to Rick, of course); however, while we were having lunch the coach was vandalized. Not a huge deal, but someone had taken off with two of our tire pressure sensors (useless to him and $50/apiece to us – not including shipping costs) and let the air out of a third tire (couldn’t get the sensor off, we guessed, and got piqued). This made us pretty darn unhappy. Then I watched the guard outside one of the banks actually frisking folks before he would let them in (took a pair of scissors off a guy while I stood there). And there was graffiti all over the walls. (Esteli has a reputation of being very political; there are marvelous murals on the walls commemorating the struggles they had during the war. That was fine; but the graffiti was very new and very angry looking.) Well, after all this….we had been considering staying a week or so and taking some more Spanish lessons. But we just didn’t feel comfortable and decided to move on.
On the other hand, that same day in Esteli a delightful fellow spent most of an hour showing Rick various places in town that might have a rear-view mirror for us. We’d seen mirrors mounted above the rear window of many vans to allow the driver to see immediately behind the rear bumper and thought that would be a cool addition to La Tortuga. After asking at a couple of places without much success, one older fellow took us under his wing and rode with us from shop to shop until the right thing was located. He spoke good English, and some German as well, and was trying to get a job in the tourist industry. We told him to keep trying, as he would be a great asset to all of us tourists and travelers. So, as always, a really positive experience with someone served to help balance out the occasional hard times.
Esteli is in a large agricultural valley; leaving, we climbed over some hills and turned north, heading up into a mountainous area and the retreat known as Selva Negra. We passed many coffee fincas as we climbed. It was quite lovely, and we were on a beautiful new road. Then we hit Matagalpa and the road died. Enormous potholes, big enough to give an elephant trouble. We knew the locals were pretty unhappy as they had erected signs with pictures of cars and people falling into the huge holes. They were kinda cute, actually. We were glad we were only taking the road one time, not every day. On we went, with Selva Negra in view. Selva Negra is Spanish for black forest – like in Germany -- and is a large coffee plantation and eco-tourism destination with a world-wide reputation for sustainability. It was founded by Germans who were brought over by the Nicaraguan government in the 1880s to show them how to grow coffee, and they have thrived here. We had been told their parking lot was available to us, and that the restaurant served very good German food. We wanted to check it all out.
Selva Negra, about 10 miles north of Matagalpa, is a lovely place; they have a chapel and reception area, both of which were being prepared for a wedding about to happen. There are flowers everywhere, a large pond with a group of noisy geese, birds galore, hiking trails into the forest; all very Bavarian and charming, and a very cool and lovely 5200 feet in elevation. This is a fascinating place and a highlight of anyone’s trip to Nicaragua. Well worth seeking out.
The next morning we continued on up this lumpy bumpy road, intending to visit the town of Jinotega and then take a dirt road through the mountains, ending up back at Esteli. As we climbed, we passed flower and produce stands selling the local output. The vegetables were humungous and the flowers just as spectacular. It was quite a scene, misty (still in cloud forest at this point). The scenery, too, was beautiful, but the road got worse and worse. We passed out of the forest and back into the dry-brown hills with which we were so familiar; we became less and less interested, and finally decided to retrace our steps back down the mountains rather than continuing on. That was okay with us, as we were headed for Leon (the old capital) and its pleasures. We had heard that Leon is a very interesting city, and were anxious to see it.
Well, dammit, Leon was going to have to survive without us. I guess it’s cumulative; REALLY bad roads – that are going to be that way for a REALLY long ways -- may just be beyond us right now. Darn it, we wanted to see Leon, but this road was the pits – BIG PITS. So, after a few miles, in sweltering heat because we were now back in the lowlands, and knowing Leon would also be very hot, we turned around. Another time, after the government starts working on these roads, we’ll come back. We know we are shooting ourselves in the foot, because we skip some places we would like to see. But we remind ourselves that we are travelers, not tourists; we see what we see, not trying to cross everything off our lists.
Back on the main highway (the Pan-American, to be exact), a good and decent road, we made our way southeast towards Masaya National Park and its nifty, active volcano. The dry brown countryside looked a whole lot like Bakersfield. Until now we hadn’t spent much time on the Pan-Am because we wander on the back roads so much. We were encountering more traffic and – got stopped by a policeman. It was a congested area; we weren’t unduly startled, as police will often pull us over and check our papers. We knew along the Pan-Am we were more likely to be faced with police irregularities. It had been suggested to us that having copies made (and laminated) of our driver’s licenses might keep us from having to pay a bribe at some point. So Rick tried it out. He handed the fellow his duplicate. The man demanded to see the original. Rick showed it to him through the window but wouldn’t give it up. The guy got really irritated and demanded $20 to give Rick back his duplicate. Rick smiled and we just drove off. We felt smug. What a jerk! There are several reasons why we tend to spend our time back in rural, out of the way places and this is one of them. The only times we’ve felt uncomfortable in any way down here have been when we’ve been on or near one of the major highways. The traffic, of course, is much worse, the police stops are much more frequent, and the border crossings are much more difficult. It’s the back roads for us, just as it is up north.
Volcanoes are cool. Vulcan Masaya is really cool. We arrived just as the park was closing, but were allowed to stay in the parqeo overnight and then drive to the top the next morning. Masaya is a collapsed volcano with an open area up at the top – misty sulphur steam coming up to meet you, strange swift-like birds, no foliage -- but huge, huge bumblebees; how weird is that! There are supposed to be parrots living there that have adapted to the fumes, but we didn’t see any. Coming back down from the volcano I saw plumeria trees in bloom. I was nonplussed, as I was used to seeing this flower in Hawaii, and then realized that the climate and terrain weren’t all that different, really. A revelation. The visitor center here is a really good one; just enough information to be helpful without so much that you are overwhelmed. Some of it was in English.
After wandering the volcano and environs, we went on into the town of Masaya; a hub, it was rather chaotic and we were our usual constantly lost selves trying to find our way to the town center. But we did. This town has two market areas, and we visited both of them. We started at the “nice” artesania one, which had some very nice things; some were from Nicaragua and others from further away. They had coffee for sale, but I thought it a little pricy and hoped to find a better deal elsewhere. Didn’t, of course. And Rick was looking for sandals to replace his worn ones; this is a leather goods area so we had high hopes.
Not finding the right shoes at the first market, we decided to take a taxi to the more local market across town. We had first tried to drive there, but got lost in the maze of streets and then came to a spot where we couldn’t get there from here, so went back to where we had parked before. What an eye-opener we found when we arrived at the “everyday” market. It was enormous, full of little walkways between stalls and tons of fun. And even though it was a Sunday, Rick found someone to temporarily repair his sandals while he continued his search
We have seen, over and over, here in Nicaragua that the people are very poor. Goods are quite inexpensive; if you wanted to retire here and build a home, we suspect it would be pretty cheap. We did see some begging, although no obnoxious or pushy behavior. But there are fewer work trucks; horses are everywhere, hauling carts filled with goods, being ridden, and being used for “taxis,” pulling people around town in their carts. Mostly they look pretty tired and underfed. We also saw tons of people on bicycles, often two per vehicle. We were told that the owner of the bike was often the one sitting and being pedaled by the passenger.
Granada is quite close to Masaya, and it was our next stop. Granada is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, and it is quite the thing for travelers like ourselves to spend their nights at the tourist park along the lake. We pulled in, found a spot, and soon were joined – by a Rumanian-French couple traveling with their 3 small children. Don and Marilena were delightful; their children a joy to meet. The family was on a two-year trip in the Americas, having seen the States and Canada and now moving further south. We had a nice evening’s chat, compared notes on shipping plans for South America (they were starting to get organized and so were we), and parted company the next day. We were headed into town, and they were planning a morning of school lessons, internet, and exploring along the lake. We keep hoping to run into them again, but so far they haven’t materialized.
Granada is often compared to Antigua, Guatemala. It is an old colonial city with a big town square and nice buildings. We wandered around, finally found the tourist office squirreled away in a corner, and checked out some of the sights. We tried hard to like it, and indeed found it open and friendly and clean. But we’ve been to so many beautiful cities, including Antigua, and found Granada kind of ho-hum.
We were finding that in Nicaragua it was simply a poor economy. The market goods were basic, we saw less sophistication among the people, and they generally seemed more discontented and less happy than in the other countries we’ve visited.
So were we. Each place we tried seemed less than what we had expected, and we kept moving on. Suddenly we were in the southern part of the country and getting close to the border. I called out “Slow down” and grabbed my camera. I wanted a picture at the place where the TransPacific Canal would have crossed through this area had it been built in Nicaragua instead of Panama. I’d figured out pretty closely where it should be and snapped off a couple of shots. Not a very spectacular spot, but at least I recorded it for posterity….
As we approached the Costa Rica border crossing, the countryside became a little greener, with more trees; we were near water; this, to us, was the prettiest part of Nicaragua. We hit the border and chaos ensued. Our luck had run out.
All in all, Rick says this border crossing wasn’t more difficult than any of the others; the process is the same each time. But it was filled with people insisting on helping and having their hands out for money and saying they could do this and he should go here and this is the guy and we can help make this go faster and the officials didn’t want to talk to him but were looking for “his guy” and we think they were all in cahoots and it was too expensive and we think we got rooked and all the other things we’d heard of from everyone we talked to. And it’s horribly hot and dusty and a real mess.
This is the only national border where everyone has to use the same crossing, right along the Pan American Highway. We did notice a footpath on the map that led between northern Costa Rica and Lake Nicaragua, but we sure wouldn’t have wanted to try that! Every other border crossing we have done (including into Panama, stay tuned) has been in a rural, relatively quiet area with few people and no confusion. This was Grand Central Station. But we finally made it through and limped on down the road into Costa Rica, licking our wounds. After an hour or so, we realized it really didn’t matter all that much; it’s all just fine, regardless of momentary frustrations.
And then we hit the first large-ish town in the new country – Liberia – and immediately realized Costa Rica was going to be different. Rick thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Not only did they have a Burger King, but a very nice supermarket with some of the things we’d been missing for eons (sweet Italian sausages! I could make lasagna!). Not for these reasons alone, but for its charm and cheerful air, we liked Liberia very much. We spent a couple of days in the area, coming in for shopping and internet access. While walking around town we realized all the traffic was stopped on one street. We thought it was a parade, but no – a peaceful protest march in support of more rights for university teachers. We cheered them on.
We were hanging around this part of the country waiting for friends whom we had first met in Oaxaca, Mexico. They had moved through Central America more quickly than we, and were on their return trip back toward the States after going all the way to Panama City and spending considerable time there. We waited for them at the Delfin Trailer Park about 4 miles north of town, which worked out really well. This was a very nice place, friendly, with electricity, a nice swimming pool, showers, and plenty of shade. Oh yes, and horses nearby munching away. After our friends arrived we all went camping and hiking for a couple of days in the nearby Rincon de la Vieja National Park. There was a semi-tame coatimundi wandering the parking area where we camped, along with monkeys and birds as we hiked along. This area is thermal, with mud pots and hot springs and waterfalls. During the day we were inundated with rental SUV’s all lined up in a row, but at night it was just us and the starry skies.
We were interested in traveling around the side of this volcano, up into the northern lowlands, and then around the other side where we would drop down and pick up the road to La Fortuna, our next point of interest. It got greener as we went along on a nice paved road, closer and closer to the volcano (Vulcan Miravalles this time). This is an area where the government is developing hydroelectricity; there are regular wisps of mist coming out of the ground. There are many tourist facilities in the area because there are hornillas (literally little ovens) and tumeroles (mud baths); we got permission to overnight in the parking area of one of these facilities, and, for the first time, realized how much more tourist-oriented Costa Rica is. They want and expect money for everything. Ten dollars just to park on a very unlevel, grassy area for the night. But it was quiet, and again we had horses for company.
The next day we went on up between the two volcanoes (Rincon de la Vieja and Miravalles), driving through very nice countryside and stopping to check out a new flowering tree on the one hand, and to take pictures of some incredibly cool goats on the other. This stop caused a couple of friendly fellows to come chat with us and talk about the plantings we were seeing. They said that in another month (this was early April) the rains would come and the area would be green again. We thought it looked pretty nice right now! There were fat dairy cattle in the fields; we decided this was a pretty darn nice area.
On above Vulcan Miravalles (now an unpaved road), into the lowlands (pineapples, sugar cane and row crops) and (now paved) through the cowboy town of Upala (rodeo tonight) and back into the mountains again, to Guateso, also known as Guatuso, or maybe Guatuzo, and which is officially San Rafael de Guateso (welcome to maps of Central America) and then to La Fortuna. This is a major tourist area. La Fortuna sits on the slopes of the east side of Vulcan Arenal, a very active volcano. The scene reminded us of Denali NP in Alaska. People come here from all over to see the volcano spit fire and spew smoke – if they can get a clear view. Like all really tall mountains, it makes its own weather, and is often too cloudy to be tourist-friendly. Got lucky: found a camping spot on a river that had a good view window, it was a clear night, and the volcano performed admirably. You could see the fire bouncing off the slopes and then look away and see all these beautiful stars. A truly cool deal. You reach this spot by heading south off the main road just at the guard shack near the dam, then going on beyond the entrance to the national park, across the bridge and making a quick left, fording the stream.
Lake Arenal and Monteverde, two major-major destinations, are near here. Lake Arenal was formed by the creation of a hydroelectric dam, and is quite lovely. The drive around the lake is just great, and the road has been recently paved so it was a pleasure. The road winds around, crossing many streams. It was here that we first met the phrase (to be seen everywhere in Costa Rica): Puente Angosta, which means narrow bridge. It seems that regardless of how wide the road is, they never seem to widen the creek crossings. The road goes down to nothing, there is a yield sign in one direction, and everyone crosses their fingers no one comes at them quickly in the opposite direction. We found these little bridges in small towns, big cities, along very busy corridors of the Pan-American highway – everywhere. Now how can you justify that? But I digress.
There are a couple of cute towns to browse along the way around Lake Arenal, and we were delighted to find a spot on a ridge overlooking the valley where we could spend the night next to some beautiful and friendly cows/calves. It was cool and breezy; late in the afternoon we watched a storm coming across, moving overhead, and moving on. We were in an abandoned, or at least not currently active, upscale housing development, and were very glad it was ungated and available to us.
We wanted to continue on around the lake and head for Monteverde, supposedly a really nice area settled by Quakers and home to the country’s most famous cheese. However, we knew the road to get there was unpaved and gawd-awful. we took a quick break and headed back down the mountains to the hot/dry town of Canas (or Canos or Las Canas or Los Canos – you decide) to see the Las Pumas Rescue Center. This is a private foundation that is devoted to rescuing or housing wild animals that need shelter. We saw pumas and magueys and other cats, and plenty of birds and monkeys. A nice spot.
Then back into the mountains, through Tilaran, where the pavement ended, and then up this really, really bad road to Monteverde by way of Santa Elena. We wandered the area and visited Monteverde with its famous cheese factory, and spent the night in the parking lot of the Argentine Café, home of an incredible chocolate soufflé, and an unfortunately un-level parking lot (refrigerator rebelled, of course). Then, the next day we took the only other way down out of the mountains away from Monteverde, and it wasn’t any better (which we already knew). Each way, to get to pavement was about thirty miles of incredibly difficult road. But you survive. Worth it (?) maybe, but only because of the soufflé. This is one of many really touristy areas in Costa Rica; folks fly in from everywhere to do canopy tours and butterfly houses. But they all come up the roads in rental cars or shuttle vans so who cares. Anyway, far too many billboards, inns, resorts and spas for your intrepid correspondents. On another trip, we’d give this place a pass.
After all this we wanted to crash for a few days. We headed to a “real” campground outside San Jose, the country’s capital. This, the Belen Trailer Park, is an oasis of comfort; we spent a week. There is w-ifi, electricity, water, a laundry, and showers. High enough in the mountains to be cool and comfortable. We took two trips, the first to get propane for the vehicle, and the second to see some of the surrounding towns.
This should have been a lovely day, and we did manage all right. But the roads were, again, really awful; and the Costa Rican drivers were the worst we had seen yet. The traffic was heavy and we would get stopped on these curvy mountain roads; drivers would simply go off into the dirt on the left side of the road, forcing oncoming traffic to go around them; they’d pass each other, honking and pushing, regardless of what was happening ahead. It was all rather nerve-wracking. We finally gave up and started to head for the barn, and then it began raining like the devil. We got into the San Jose suburb of Alejuala, hoping for a shortcut to home, and ran into a huge parade! It seems the big hero of the Costa Rican revolution was born in this town and this was his birthday. Horses everywhere, crowds galore, traffic backed up for forever; what a gas! Hard to maneuver through, of course. We did get back eventually and looking back on it we had had a pretty good adventure.
After we returned, we found out that we were in the middle of a 3-day weekend, which had added to the traffic in these pretty little resort towns; we decided the better part of valor would be to hunker down and wait it out. And we spent some of this waiting period trying to decide why we weren’t enjoying Costa Rica as much as we had expected. What was wrong?
I think I can explain. Let’s talk about Costa Rica for a minute. It has about a billion volcanoes; they are strung across the country from west to east, continuing a chain from Nicaragua, and are major destinations for visitors, along with two lovely and popular coastlines. It is an incredible country for outdoor enthusiasts; you can hike, snorkel/dive, go birding, raft, canopy/zip line tour, etc. etc. The whole area is developing rapidly, with condominiums and planned developments in all the popular areas – ERA, ReMax and Century 21 are all active here. It is more modern than any of the other CA countries we had been in to date, although it has really lousy roads and the worst drivers we’ve come across, often just plain discourteous. It is the most expensive country in CA. They have their own money but are just as happy taking dollars off you as colones (at 500 to the dollar, the money exchange was an ongoing challenge. Don’t care what you call it, 60,000 of anything seems like a heck of a price for a tank of gas). We either knew all these things or found them out quickly. What we found, as a result, was that we were having trouble settling in and enjoying ourselves.
Each country has its own charms, but sometimes it’s hard find what appeals to you. We had wandered from one area to another, not finding “our” Costa Rica. We are strongly put off by excessive tourism. We like quiet, out-of-the-way areas with mostly locals. We basically don’t do beach areas with their heat and bugs. We like to meet local folks and find a commonality. Everywhere we went it seemed we were being charged for things that would be free in most countries. We were coming to the conclusion that Costa Rica used to be a country but was now mostly a tourist destination. We didn’t give up, but were getting discouraged.
We also knew that most people who visit Costa Rica arrive by plane and either rent a car or take tour busses to see the sites. They either aren’t dealing with the roads and drivers at all, or are in a car that isn’t theirs and to which they have no sense of responsibility (to say nothing of the pots and pans that aren’t crashing down around their ears!).
Well, what to do? We couldn’t just stay in our campground, and we really did want to keep trying. So we struck out again, and this time we struck gold. To the east of San Jose is the Orosi-Cachi Valley area. We decided to go check it out. And we fell in love. The area reminded us of a smaller version of California’s Napa Valley, 50-60 years ago. It’s lovely and green, nestled in the hills; instead of vineyards there were coffee fincas. In this area, the bushes were all in bloom, covered in lovely white blossoms; the plantations were neat and well tended; streams ran through the valley, with puny high and narrow bridges keeping most people from crossing. The town of Orosi has a Franciscan church that looks like it belongs in rural California; one-story whitewashed adobe, red tile roofs, and a neat little rose garden along the side. We weren’t homesick, but definitely nostalgic. We spent the night parked in front of the church and alongside the soccer field.
This town has an incredible Italian restaurant, the Stella du Nord, which lived up to its reputation of making wonderful pizza. The view from its location high above the valley was just as impressive. We strongly felt a sense of community among the residents here; women were walking their children to school and then gathering for some activity of their own, everyone was open and friendly, the kids were all dressed in little blue uniforms.
At another town in the valley we stopped at a ruin to take some pictures, and were impressed at how clean the area was and how well the ruin (of a very old church) had been preserved. There wasn’t much left, and it hadn’t been reconstructed, but you had a sense of reverence for what had been there. The setting, and the color of the building, made us think of the Alamo – but not surrounded by the huge city of San Antonio: just a quiet country location. It was quite special.
San Jose had been at about 3,000 feet and nice and cool. Orosi was about 5,000 feet and even cooler. When we reluctantly left and continued east, our goal was to stay in the mountains as much as possible as we headed towards Panama. So we mostly followed the spine of the Continental Divide.
This led us up, up, up to over 11,000 feet (and a temperature of 53 degrees) as we went through the Cerro de Muerte area. We had been given some info about a place to camp right at the summit but somehow missed it and plunged on down the other side. And what a plunge it was: we dropped nearly 9,000 feet in 29 miles. We took a short detour into the highly recommended tiny Rio Sevegre Valley. It was steep and tight and narrow, even one lane part of the way, but incredibly beautiful, following the river down and down. This is a weekend retreat area and there were lodges/spas, and retreats around every corner. What a lovely place for a getaway. It was quite enchanting. But too early in the day to stop, and no good places for us anyway. So we climbed back out and headed on.
I was determined that we weren’t going to leave Costa Rica without checking out the beaches, even if briefly. I’d heard too many wonderful things. So we turned Pacific-ward, taking a steep road down out of the mountains and over to the coast. We stopped for the night right along the water, at a small national park beach called Playa Pinuela, east of Domnical. It was lovely, though very hot; I walked the beach (picking up sand fleas that tormented us for the next several days, but SO WHAT), the sunset was stunning as a backdrop for the palm trees, all you could hope for. We had a quiet night, then in the morning, before moving on, watched fishermen bring in their catch and load it into refrigerator trucks to be taken to market.
After a very early breakfast, we split and headed straight back up into the mountains, following the Rio Gravele de Terraba through a lovely lush and narrow river valley with banana plantations, up to Paso Real where we turned east along the spine of the mountains to the small but important hub town of San Vito. There were cattle on the steep slopes and in holding pens, evidence of the main focus of the area. What a gorgeous part of the world, and from this road you really can see forever – almost to both oceans.
We crossed the border into Panama just east of San Vito. And this really was a border town to fall in love with. When we started our trip into Central America we didn’t even know this crossing existed, but had learned of it from other travelers. Tiny and quiet (we almost had to wake up the customs people to help us) with no turmoil. We were through in about one and a half hours; most of the time was spent in Rick having to walk about a quarter mile into town to get to the bank where he bought the entry stamps for our passports. At larger crossings, there is always a banco right at the border, but not here. Painless and easy. We congratulated ourselves on another successfully negotiated entry into a new country.
As we left Costa Rica, we reflected on our time there. We had been disappointed in the commercialized nature of so many aspects of the country, but we knew this had led to a good economy and a better standard of living than we had seen elsewhere in Central America. The taxis were real cars, for Pete’s sake! Costa Rica is so similar to the United States; we thought this a real detraction, but we also knew this helped make it so popular with tourists. In the final diagnosis, we determined there were many parts of Costa Rica that we had thoroughly enjoyed, and would be happy to revisit down the road, but that we preferred our Central America a bit more “foreign.”
And we were now in Panama! We had been waiting so long! Panama, the home of the Canal we had read so much about, and the jumping off spot for our entry into South America. We were truly excited.
And again, as in Costa Rica, we were immediately struck by how much more modern this country was than what we had been seeing closer to Mexico. There were stripes and white sidelines on the highway! Billboards! Regular trash pickup in all the towns! Very sophisticated clothes! Regular laundromats! Bagels in a Jewish bakery! Stores closed on Sundays! …..you get the picture. The stores were carrying more and more food we recognized, and we had been told you could buy “anything” in Panama. The change was quite remarkable.
Something else: we were receiving by far the most sophisticated appreciation of the Tiger we had gotten since we left the States. In the less developed countries, people will often stare as we drive by, mostly because they have not seen anything quite like us. But here, and also in Costa Rica, they know motor homes well; it is not uncommon for someone to stop to chat; they either have/had one themselves, they understand why we are small, they like the 4-wheel drive and the diesel, and appreciate our lifestyle. It’s lots of fun.
So what is there to see in Panama, you ask? Why is it a booming economy and why are so many North American retirees coming here? It’s booming to a large degree because of shipping – remember, the Canal is here. And people retire here because it’s less expensive than other places, there are good medical facilities, the beaches are stunning, and the lifestyle isn’t that different from what they left. Many folks have second homes here, coming in for several months at a time, leaving before the rainy season starts.
Well, we don’t want to live here, but we have visited some mighty fine places, particularly in the mountainous western part. We’ve tried to stay in the mountains (mountains? in Panama? yup) because it’s cooler. By now it’s the end of April, and really hot. But we crossed into Panama in the mountains, and so were able to pick out some spots to see that were still nice and cool. (That spine of the Continental Divide we talk about actually goes all the way through the country, but gets lower and lower as you get further east.) I know, we keep talking about east and west now. You thought Central America was to the south. But by the time you get to Panama, it definitely east and west. Your geography lesson for today….
Panama has one volcano, inactive (although I saw in the local paper that it was beginning to burble a bit and residents were being warned), Volcan Baru. Baru is lovely, up in the mists of a cloud forest; it is approachable both from the west and the east, and we’ve seen it from both sides now….. The area to the west is more rural and quiet, with small villages selling the spectacular veggies that grow on the sides of volcanoes. It’s a wonderful area to visit, with small country roads and fresh strawberries and jams of all sorts for sale along the way. In this area we saw the first indigenous tribes we encountered in Panama. The women dress in these sack-like loose garments, brightly colored with what looks like rickrack as decoration. Not flattering, but probably cool in the heat. Little girls wear them also, but the males are all in western dress, we learned. Later on, in Panama City, we would see other tribes, from the area into the jungles further east, the Darien.
The east side of the volcano is a little drier and more developed, and most activity is centered around Boquete, a charming mountain town we really liked. Developed enough to have a couple of good restaurants already, it is poised to become a major tourist attraction. We felt we could have been happy settling there if we were to do it today, but five years from now would be much less interested. The countryside is lovely, and Boquete is in a beautiful mountain valley fed by a stunning river; a really nice spot. We spent several days camped by the river, near the soccer field, and really enjoying ourselves.
We had been told about a wildlife rescue center in Boquete, Jardin Paraiso (Paradise Garden), which we visited, and which proved to be a real highlight of our time there. They had a capuchin monkey, Monty, that adopted Rick and he could hardly be persuaded to part with it when we left. I got some really great pictures of the two of them. Also in evidence were toucans, scarlet macaws and parrots, a maguey who took exception to my attempts at picture-taking; all this in a lovely garden setting created by the owners of the center, an English couple who wanted to retire here and settle down quietly. It seems they had several birds they brought with them, and by the time they had jumped through the necessary hurdles in order to bring them into the country, the government decided they were a good spot to drop off birds confiscated by customs, and that’s what started it all. This place was a gem.
We finally decided to move on; we had a tentative arrangement to ship La Tortuga and needed to get to Panama City to talk to the shipping agent. So we dropped down out of the mountains, knowing that was it for cool weather until we were in the mountains of Columbia! Yuck! It got really hot immediately. We were back on the Pan-Am highway, and Panama’s portion of that road is not so good – sections with big holes in the pavement – so we resumed playing dodge ball along with the other drivers. But we persevered and finally got to the big city.
But the coolest thing: as you approach the city, you go across this huge bridge – over the Panama Canal! We were really jazzed. We have spent a lot of time reading about the Canal; we have read David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas. We were eager to see everything. We checked out the Miraflores Locks, on the Pacific side, and the visitor’s center there. The Transisthmian Canal (the official name – try saying that 12 times) was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999, with great trepidation. No one was sure they would be able to maintain it properly, and apparently we left in kind of a hurry, leaving them a bit of a mess. But by all accounts Panama has succeeded admirably, and the locks are being handled efficiently and at a greater profit than the U.S. had been able to manage. We did leave them with about $5.2 million in deferred maintenance, with which they are still struggling. However, the new visitor’s center is very nice, with lots of good information, and the views of the ships passing through are pretty darn neat. We got in as seniors (jubilados) – the American influence can still be felt
We will visit the Caribbean side of things a bit later. Colon is the port side there, and that is where we will be taking La Tortuga to put him on the ship for Columbia. While there we will visit those facilities. For now we have retreated to a nice spot along the water, near the Canal, where we are hanging out in a huge, shaded parking lot across from the Balboa Yacht Club, along the Amador Causeway. We can see the ships going by; at night they are quite lovely. The breezes help keep the temp under control and we have been joined by 2 German couples, an Austrian, and an Icelandic couple. We are quite the international group. As has been true all along in Central America, far more Europeans than northern Americans are in evidence.
We’re on Eastern standard time now (they don’t do Savings time down here), at about 8 degrees above the equator, and sleeping under a strange starry sky. Panama is a real combination of the familiar and the foreign. While waiting to talk to the shipping agent, at one point it was 105 degrees and about to rain. That wasn’t fun. But the women in this city are quite sophisticated and they dress very provocatively; I think they look trashy but Rick is in 7th heaven. I compensate by realizing how handsome the men are, and how the older ones really seem to appreciate a “mature woman.” So we’re both happy…..
We expect to ship the rig about the end of May. We will have to leave it in Colon a couple of days before it departs, and then fly to Cartagena to pick it up, hanging around a hotel while it is in transit. It will be very exciting, as the method of transport we are using involves loading the coach onto the flat bottom of a rack, having it strapped down, and then watching it be lifted into the air, over onboard, and then lowered onto the top of a stack of containers. If I can keep Rick from having a heart attack during all this I will consider the project a success. We are both nervous, but that’s how it’s done.
In the meantime, we are spending about 3 weeks back in the States, visiting some family and taking care of some business. We hope you will stay tuned for “how it all works out.” We are also trying to pull together some final thoughts on our time in Central America, which we hope you will enjoy. It has been exciting, challenging, and very rewarding.
Please, Please, Please visit our photos at www.flickr.com/photos/kathyrickpics to see more of what we’ve seen. We have pictures there covering our travels back to last summer in Alaska, and we think you’d enjoy seeing them. You need pretty good internet speed, otherwise it’s as easy as pie. Enjoy.
Love to you all; Rick, Kathy, and La Tortuga
Attachment 1. Sunset over the Panama Canal and the Bridge of the Americas
2. Rick and Monty the Capuchin monkey,
bonding; Boquete, Panama
3. Toucans, Costa Rica
4. A young Panamanian charmer
Attachment 5. Anyone for a carriage ride around colonial Granada, Nicaragua?
Some additional photos are attached and many more are available to you at www.flickr.com/photos/kathyrickpics Enjoy.
Captions for attached photos (not included here yet):