Travelogue by Rick and Kathy Howe - 2008

El Salvador
Costa Rica
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 overlooking Lake Arenal in Costa Rica.  We are watching rain clouds roll across the valley in our direction.  It is beautiful and not too ghastly hot.  If no one shows up and kicks us out, we will spend the night (and the directions and coordinates will show up in a future message!).


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.


John:  (1) in Guatemala your notation of the spot near the El Florido crossing is still there and still looks just fine.

(2) your listing for the Tracasa truck stop near Comayagua, Honduras looked pretty bad as an o/n.  it was filled with stored trucks and had a big for sale sign in front.  We passed.


I am picking up this message where the last one left off. 




We are in Coban, Guatemala and have decided to change our plans and make an abrupt right turn, instead of continuing to explore Guatemala.  It’s the old getting-the-mail-forwarded dilemma.  As we have figured we need about 3 weeks lead-time, and we need the mail to include some medications, it’s complicated.  The spot we were hoping to use, a brewery we wanted to visit in Honduras, wasn’t answering their phone or returning our e-mailed questions.  So that was out.  What to do?  We finally decided on, and made excellent contact with, a finca in eastern Guatemala that would be happy to receive and hold our mail.  But we weren’t expecting to continue to be in Guatemala for that much longer.  So…..hey, let’s go to El Salvador while we wait for our mail!  It’s small, it will take about the right amount of time, and we want to go there anyway. 


So we headed off toward El Salvador (or El Sal-ba-DOR as they say).  We left Coban and got about 50 miles.  And stopped for a hopeful search for Quetzals, the beautiful bird that is the national symbol of Guatemala.  Our road took us through a lovely cloud forest and quetzal sanctuary corridor.  Guatemala is working hard to develop this area as an eco-tourism destination.  The corridor stretches for many miles, and has several stopping places, either at land owned by the government, or by private parties adjacent. 


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 .)  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… 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: dry, dark 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 faithful were lined up for blocks going into the basilica to see its version of a “black rice” (Black Christ) statue.  On Monday all had quieted down, we were able to enjoy the town for a couple of hours, then arrive at the El Salvador border in good order.  We crossed on February 18th. 


We’ll tell you about our El Salvador experiences later.  After 8 days in that country, we returned to Guatemala through the same border town where we had exited, and drove back up to Coban, very much appreciating the increasing beauty of the country as we approached the quetzal sanctuary corridor/cloud forest again.  We returned to our same campground in Coban, and, amazingly we were shortly joined by a sturdy rig with Arizona license plates!  We spent a couple of days sharing experiences with Don and Kim, who are amazing trekkers; they’ve been in many countries and had lots of information for us.  They had recently shipped into Panama from Australia, and were on their way back to the United States for a bit.


Parting company, we resumed our Guatemala adventuring.  While our mail began its journey to catch up with us, we turned our faces to the north, and the magnificent Tikal Ruins.  Our journey toward the top of Guatemala took us back into areas of more traditional dress, at least somewhat.  We’ve found that once you leave the western highland area, you are much more likely to see people wearing clothes just like in southern California.  The guidebook says “European,” we say “just like us.”  But aside from clothing, the sights were as expected:  lush fields with corn and cows at lower elevations, coffee at certain levels, even some papaya plantations.  We crossed a large river (the Rio la Pasion) on a barge.  Well, it was a ferry, but sure looked like a barge to us; very reminiscent of the Northwest Territories, oh yeah, and a great little ferry crossing the Mississippi on a back road near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The whole scene was so evocative of rural Latin America; guys washing vans in the river, kids swimming, lots of vendors selling treats to those in line for the ferry, and summarizing the entire make do attitude you find down here, the ferry is propelled and steered by a couple of outboard motors.  Great scene.


Further north, we entered Flores late in the afternoon.  Flores is the jumping off place for day tripping to Tikal.  It’s a nice little town on an island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza.  We wandered the quiet streets, enjoying the water, a nice meal, good internet, and the constant buzz of tuk-tuks going past.  We spent the night along the waterfront right after crossing over to the island.  Shortly before we got there, I (Kathy) was wandering in the back while we were on the road, and said “Oh, oh, Rick, I think you need to stop.  I think we have a broken window.”  One of the two front windows on the overhead cab had caught a rock and was shattered.  Well, many phone calls and decisions later (thanks to good internet), we had a new window on the way to us from South Carolina, being sent to the same place as our mail.  More excitement (and cost) than we anticipated on the day.


But on to Tikal.  The ruins here are the most famous in Guatemala, and rightfully so.  They are magnificent, and in a wonderful jungle setting.  It was quite rainy the afternoon we arrived.  We had been told (correctly) that if you got your tickets after 3:00 pm, they would be stamped for the following day, and you could enter both today and tomorrow.  But it was so rainy we decided to wait until the following morning in hopes of clearing weather.  We camped in a pretty field with lots of trees, right by the entrance.  In the morning it was still raining, but we decided to go on in.  As we approached the ticket booth, we met a couple of fellows who had been there for the dawn patrol (there is a trek to the top of Temple IV at daybreak to see the sunrise).  It had rained the whole time, they were drenched and unhappy, and would be delighted to sell us their tickets at a discount.  Everybody was pleased with the transaction that followed.


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 then, about 10:00 the sun came out.  We were on top of Temple IV at the time.  It was cool.  Temple IV goes up high over the canopy and you get quite a view of other tall structures.  A neat experience.  My camera had gotten a bit wet, but dried out in the sunshine.  Apparently Temple IV is the “biggie”; it was a weekend and lots of locals were in the park, most of them headed to the top of Temple IV.  Bizarrely, when they would finish the climb to the top, they would get on their cell phones and call all their friends.  


We had a great time at Tikal; we recommend the experience highly.  There are several nice hotels to stay at in the park, the area to be walked isn’t insurmountable, and it was fun.  We camped for a second night, and then went back to Flores the following morning (about 60 kms).  We had a solid recommendation for a place to get propane so we topped up the tank.  After accomplishing that chore, we had another ruin in mind:  Yaxja. 


The Yaxja ruins are off the road that runs (generally) between Flores and the Belize border, to the east.  You will have heard of them if you followed the doings on Survivor: Guatemala (we hadn’t, but the show was filmed here).  At Yaxja we found the best setting for ruins that we have seen yet.  We were tremendously pleased.  Yaxja is a relatively new site, with major restoration work having been completed just in mid 2007.  It has not yet been discovered by the big tour groups, so it is very quiet and undisturbed.  Set in the jungle near a lagoon, it’s a quiet paradise.  The howler monkeys were fascinating, we saw several different kinds of birds, and the ruins themselves are quite amazing.  We had a lovely day’s wander, climbed everything in sight, and spent two nights beside the lagoon, all to ourselves.  The guides were very helpful, and they liked the fact that we were camping with them. 


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 around; the welding we had had done up in Whitehorse, Yukon last summer had failed.  Fortunately, the aluminum boxes once again had proven their value by keeping the spare from bouncing off down the road somewhere we would never have found it.  So, we had the whole thing remounted and reinforced for probably about one tenth of what it had cost in Whitehorse. 


As so often happens in these situations, our encounter with the welder and his family provided us with a nice experience and a great story to share.  In order to do the repair we had to first remove the storage boxes, and to do this we needed to empty them out to make them lighter.  Well along with the tools and hoses and other items, there were two cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup and a big jar of Jiff Peanut Butter being stored back there.  Well, the welder commented on this while we were unloading, and then later on an older woman, presumably his mother, came out and showed great interest in a can of the soup, so Rick graciously gave it to her and she scurried back into the house with her new treasure.  Well, the uproar of excitement that ensued convinced him that the second can needed to follow the first; but he made a show of hanging on to the peanut butter, and laughs were shared all around.  Along with the welder calling to a passer-by to come help remove the boxes, and Onises, the welder’s son helping to reload everything into the boxes, a needed repair job evolved into a cultural exchange of the sort we enjoy so much.


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 Honduras border.  We had one more ruin to visit in Guatemala, at Quirigua, then we would be on to the border, and the Copan Ruinas, right on the other side.  (In Guatemala it’s Coban; in Honduras it’s Copan; I haven’t a clue as to why.) Just before leaving the Finca we arranged to buy some coffee.  They are well known for their coffee and were happy to put together a bag for us; when she was ready to seal the plastic, she used the flame from a candle she had lit for just that purpose.  It was an old-fashioned candlestick just like out of Dickens.  It was a special moment.


Leaving Finca Ixobel, we headed for Rio Dulce, a very well known watering hole right along – guess what! – the Rio Dulce.  This large river flows out of Lake Ixobel and into the Caribbean.  It’s a favorite spot for boaters; they pull in for fun and supplies, or protection when the weather is unfriendly further out to sea.  It’s a lively place, and the cool spot to camp is at Bruno’s.  Bruno’s advertises its location as “under the bridge” and that’s pretty much just about right.  “The Bridge” is the longest such item in Central America.  It crosses over “The River” and lets the traveler go further south along Guatemala’s eastern border.  Tons of truck traffic, so it’s not a quiet place, but still a pleasant if slightly weird experience. 


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 American-type food needs, so that was great!  I’d been looking for Italian seasoning for weeks, with no success, and finally had arranged to have some shipped to me: but there it was on the shelf of the first 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 Mexico, but it wasn’t very satisfactory.


We had hot showers (there are two – the one closest to the river is hotter), a nice chat with the manager of Bruno’s, Steve, who is an expatriate who’s been in Guatemala for about 15 years, and gave us lots of good information, even walking Rick through town to get La Bomba and assorted hardware.  He is very active in the local area, involved with building a school, teaching English classes, etc.  Very busy, and never a dull moment.


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 circus, 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 large, intricately carved stelae.  The setting is tropical and lush, and these monoliths rise up out of the grass; they are protected with thatch-roofed structures, which seem to add to the scene.  We were very impressed.  Stelae carved in a similar fashion are in evidence at Copan, right across the border into Honduras, a much more famous site.  But we found Quirigua pretty darn special, and the setting much more interesting than at Copan Ruinas, which is much drier and filled with tourists.  (More on that later.)


So Quirigua was cool.  We could have stayed the night outside the entry gate, but we were anxious to head for Honduras.  After a quick stop in Chiquimula for some shopping – there is a Paiz shopping center right on the highway --  (and one last ice cream at Pollo Comparo – which quickly melted in the deadly heat), we were border-bound.  We crossed at El Florido (not to be confused with La Florida – what is this?????) and found ourselves in a New Country.  Again, an easy border crossing.  Rick is beginning to think he’s magic!  He admits that dread of all the border crossings was the main thing making him think twice about this trip of ours, but so far, so good.  As before, we were required to present passports, title of the coach, and Rick’s driver’s license.  Everyone was courteous and organized.  This is a wonderful crossing.  And Copan Ruinas is only a few miles away!


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 Guatemala was enjoyable and instructive.  We stayed in the country a total of about five weeks and could easily have stayed longer.  We were impressed by the beauty of the mountains, forests, and jungles we saw.  Lake Atitlan is truly an extraordinary area, as promised.  The high mountain roads and old villages; the large numbers of indigenous people, both women and men, wearing traditional dress and the variety of that dress from one region to another; the neat and prosperous looking fields of fruits and vegetables with irrigation systems and signs of constant attention from the workers; all these things and more have impressed us.  As mentioned earlier, the roads are built and maintained to higher standards than in Mexico, and are generally far cleaner as well.  Indeed, we saw numerous crews along the roads not only picking up trash, but patching potholes and painting the concrete drainage channels installed along the roads – we’ve never seen a clean up crew in Mexico.  The people we met were unfailingly friendly and helpful and added immeasurably to our enjoyment.  And, there’s Pollo Comparo, a frequent sight along the road anywhere near even a medium sized town.  The Colonel done in a south of the border style; clean, modern and obviously very popular… and with hands down the best fast food ice cream cones anywhere!  Fast food is pretty darn big down here, with McDonald’s being the most common after PC, and they really do it right.  They generally have large staffs of neat and friendly workers handling large crowds in efficient fashion, and the food tastes… just like home.  All in all, as our first stop on our Latin American journey, Guatemala got very high marks: just a terrific country to travel in.


By now, you’re wondering about our adventures in El Salvador:


We had a nice experience crossing into El Salvador; their borders are very organized, with professional people who know how all is supposed to be done.  In about half an hour we were on our way; success!  Border crossings have a reputation, you know; everyone has wild tales to tell, from “it took us 3 hours and was a total hassle,” or “absolutely terrible; never again” to “just stay cool and it’s easy.”  So far we’ve made it through just fine.  Rick handles everything himself; we’ve found that if we try and share the burden we get into trouble.  (Does this mean that Kathy is a buttinsky and keeps trying to “help”?  Yup!)  So Kathy stays in the truck and gets out the new map.  More fun anyway…..humph.  A further note on El Salvador borders, everyone says that crossing between Honduras and El Salvador at any crossing is really difficult, lots and lots of stories of delay and corruption.  These two countries are not good friends and their border is in dispute in several places.  Exactly the opposite is true of El Salvador and Guatemala, and the reputation for easy crossings between these countries was another factor in our decision to both enter and leave El Salvador via Guatemala


All in all we spent 8 days in El Salvador.  The country gets a bad rap from folks; kind of a step-child to other Central American countries; and with good reason.  The scenery isn’t as spectacular; the forests have been destroyed to provide firewood for the greatest population density in Central America; the beaches aren’t much (we’ve been told; they aren’t our bag so we don’t often visit); the churches have all been destroyed by earthquakes so there’s no splendid architecture; civil war took a very heavy toll on the population; etc.  To that we would add that despite the fact that the country has the highest per capita income in CA there appear to be even more people sitting idly around than in other areas we have visited.  And there seem to be more really fat people than usual.  And the country has lousy maps!  But…..we still had a darn good time.   The counterbalance to all of the above is that the people are charming and friendly, and there are several cool things to see there.  And some of their volcanoes erupt quite regularly. 


We did our best not to miss anything important.  We visited Cerro Verde National Park, camping up on the volcano, just over 6,000’ elevation.  It was an interesting experience.  We started up the road through sugar cane and then coffee plantations, then into fog, and it just got worse and worse.  Pea soup for real.  We were slowly moving along at about 5 mph, with flashers on, when we could sense the road starting to widen out.  We figured we’d better stop, not knowing where we were; it was getting late.  After about 20 minutes the fog started to lift and we realized we were in the parking lot at the end of the road!  It was the jumping off place for hikers up the mountain, there was a refreshment stand, and people were coming down the hill after their trek.  We were back in civilization!  We spent some time chatting with folks, and then had a quiet night; the fog disappeared totally, it was a full moon, and we had a wonderful view down on the small towns that nestled at the foot of this lovely volcano.  A real treat.


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 El Salvador we moved back and forth between mountainous and lowland areas.  Dropping into the lowlands sometimes got a bit bizarre.  At one point alongside the road were folks holding up iguanas for sale; we were unable to tell if they were alive or dead.  Yuck. 


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 nearby volcanic eruption, preserving the buildings to the point that pottery and utensils and even evidence of the food on the table have been recovered in near new condition.  Much like Pompeii, except that in this town the populace had enough warning to clear out.  Very interesting, and a charming woman guide who did her best to explain it all to us with her limited English. 


We spent one night in the pretty little town of Suchitoto, about an hour up into the mountains from San Salvador.  This town has made a name for itself as a music center; they have a famous concert series that occurs in – guess what – February!  We came into town, started chatting up the tourist office, and found out there was going to be a guitar concert that evening.  It was really great.  We made arrangements to spend the night at a piscina (swimming place) outside town.  Unfortunately, it was too far to walk into town, and the busses weren’t running in the evening.  But we talked to the manager, and he said he was going to the concert and would be delighted to give us a ride.  Well cool.  Well ….. it turned out we, in our Sunday best (which admittedly isn’t all that different from our Wednesday best) would be riding in the back of his pickup truck.  We managed just fine, but it was a first for us.


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 sash), and a large Canadian contingent (the performer was from Canada) including a representative from the Canadian embassy in San Salvador.   The town is a weekend get-away spot for folks from the city.  We had a good time.  The venue was the old National Theater, with peeling walls and hanging draperies to frame the stage area, and a dirt floor.  At the start of the concert a bat started flying around.  There were speeches (long ones), three patriotic songs, and every other person taking pictures with their cell phones.  Surreal, but nice. (Anyone recognize that quote from one of our favorite films?  Notting Hill.) 


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 El Salvador that had been the scene of some of the worst and heaviest fighting of the civil war that ended in 1992.  In Perquin, the guerrilla headquarters, the town has created and maintains the Museum of the Revolution (and we spent the night in their parking lot).  This was a very rewarding, sobering experience.  In a nearby town, El Mozote, down several miles of dirt road, has been erected a simple wall memorial listing all the people in that village who were murdered in a single massacre by government troops (who had been trained by US advisers); over 900 of them, mostly children, many only a few days old.  Beside the church, which is beautifully painted in whimsical, brightly colored murals, a garden has been planted; it’s the site of a mass burial of many of the victims.  This was a terrible civil war; as you probably know, our country supported and trained the brutal government forces.  Yet another example of our badly flawed foreign policy during the Cold War: “Any dictator is fine so long as he’s not a communist”.  But enough.


We both entered and left El Salvador at its western border with Guatemala.  Traveling west from Perquin was very pleasant; we traveled along a series of paved/dirt rounds high in the mountains. The people were friendly and delightful.  Chickens, turkeys and pigs alongside the roads were healthy and happy.  Oh yeah: one way to know you are in El Salvador is because every town has a police kiosk somewhere along the road, and it’s marked by a couple of traffic cones, holding a parking spot for the police car.  Yes, you just go around them. 


We stopped for a last night in the country at a lovely hotel in La Palma, high in the northwestern mountains.  We were surprised to find the entire hotel jammed, although they found a spot for us to park (and had free wi-fi!).  It was the Hotel La Palma, on the road into town but towards the southern end.  It seems about 75 medical missionaries from Virginia were there, preparing to spend a week doing outreach work in the mountains.  They were great folks, medical students, and we had good chats with them.  They were all hyper when they arrived, but exhausted when returning the next day.  Such energy! 


After traversing a difficult but scenic unpaved road from La Palma west to Metapan, we crossed back into Guatemala at the same border crossing where we had entered El Salvador; again, an easy time was had.  We’d had a good time in this country, and hoped that others would spend some time here.  We worked our way back up through Guatemala and then entered Honduras at Copan Ruinas. 





The entire time we were in Honduras we were concerned about and reacting to the onset of Semana Santa.  So, Semana Santa you say; what’s that?  Well, officially, it’s Holy Week.  But practically speaking, it’s more like Labor Day weekend in the United States, only bigger; lots bigger.  All of Mexico and Central America (and, we are told, South America as well) takes the week off.  We travelers try to find someplace to hide.  Literally.  We try to locate a place to get to that’s not popular with the holiday crowds, and hunker down until it’s all over.  So our plan was to enjoy the countryside, try to stay away from “happening” places, and endure.  On the whole, we thought we did quite well.


So… the town of Copan Ruinas is only a few kilometers from the Guatemalan border; this was our first Honduran destination.  We arrived there on the Wednesday before Palm Sunday, i.e., eleven days before Easter.    And already the circus was in town (different part, we guessed, from what we’d seen going up the road the day before) and they were celebrating the town’s fiesta week, in order to get an early start on the holidays.  So you see what we mean!


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 fincas, and pizza.  A very popular boondocking spot, which we used quite successfully, is the Texaco station right beside the 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 from the states (Arkansas and Mississippi, by their accents); one has a house here and the other is a beekeeper who was visiting him and teaching the locals about honey production.  It was great to hear American voices.  We also shared our parking area with a German fellow traveling alone in an old US van.  Oh, and we filled our water tanks – given the near total absence of campgrounds down here, such basic necessities can be few and far between, but we’ve learned that water can be had at many gas stations.  Typically we buy fuel there as well.


And the ruins are quite nice.  They contain the most intricately carved stelae in the Americas, and people go ape over them, even though we liked Quirigua better.  Frankly, we were a little bored; and then we went to the museum they have erected on site.  And this is one hell of a museum; built in 1998 and by far the best museum/visitor center of any of the ruin sites we have visited.  You enter through the mouth of a serpent, and go down a tunnel which suddenly opens into an open-air two-story museum that contains some of the best of the sculptures from the site.  The explanations were excellent, there is a replica in full color of an interior temple, and many detailed carvings.  It is jaw-droppingly cool.  The museum saved the entire experience for us.


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 Guatemala, and we had given serious consideration to taking the trip, but ultimately decided to wait for another opportunity.  So we were pleased to be able to see a bunch of them up close and personal.  There were wild agoutis near them, happily eating whatever the macaws let drop.  So we got pictures of them, too.  An agouti looks like a brown rabbit with no tail and smaller ears.  They are apparently becoming endangered, but not at Copan.


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 into Honduras for the first time now.  We noticed we were seeing many more men on horseback, not merely carrying a burden but ridding for pleasure.  Some mighty fine horseflesh.  We had heard that Hondurans are proud of their horses.  And the other end of the same day we saw a fellow trudging along with his machete in one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other.  (Please remember that machetes are work tools, not just weapons!  He didn’t appear threatening.)


Well, no mas ruinas.  We had come to the end of our visitations to the archeological sites preserving the remains of these interesting ancient civilizations.  Over the years we have visited locations from outside Mexico City all the way into Honduras.  This is not a passion with us, but we are very glad each time we stop; we learn and appreciate, and feel fortunate to have these opportunities.  Copan Ruinas marks the southern boundary of the Mayan civilization.  Early dwellers further south have not left such distinctive monuments, although signs of them do exist.  We’ll continue to keep our eyes peeled, and of course Incan sites await in South America.


Aside from ruins, Honduras is cattle and coffee, with bananas on the side.  Virtually the entire country is given over to these commodities.  What deforestation has occurred (and it’s not as bad as El Salvador), has created pasture land given over to cattle, and beautiful cattle they are.  This is true throughout Central America, beautiful, fat, healthy, almost groomed looking cattle.  Coffee grows on the hillsides, in shade fortuitously.  And the northern coastal part of the country was developed by U.S. interests many years ago as banana paradise.  More on that later.


In west-central Honduras we visited several small towns with nice churches.  Gracias (you’re welcome) is a pretty little town ripe for stardom.  It has reportedly the oldest church in the Americas, a nice central square, and is totally torn up because they are laying new streets.  We suggest a visit in a couple of years, after they are all finished – right now it’s a mess.  We had thought to spend the night in town, at Finca Bavaria, a well-known spot.  But we weren’t impressed:  the place looked vacant and run-down, and when we found the proprietor, she wanted much more money than we had been led to expect.  So we wandered on.


Near Gracias is Celaque National Park, in a cloud forest.  We decided to check it out.  We took our usual trek up a tiny, windy, nasty road, heading for the visitor’s center and a quiet night’s sleep.  We got most of the way up, and then chickened out.  Not being sure what we would find at the top, and it getting late, we opted to sleep beside the road.  This left us on a steep slant, which was (just) okay for an overnight, but put the refrigerator into rebellion.  You may not know this, but the type of refrigerators normally used in RVs require being level in order to work right.  Ours said “noop,” and turned itself off.  Well, all we lost was the milk, and my frozen blueberries I’d picked in Alaska last summer were all a mess, but we were concerned about further damage if we lingered there, so we contented ourselves with a hike up the rest of the way to the visitor’s center in the morning, and skipped taking a hike in the woods.  And….we wouldn’t have found a level place to camp up there anyway.


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 for the town of San Juan, and then on to La Esperanza; our map said we could get there from here.  Hah!  Damn map; this road doesn’t go to San Juan, said the nice man on the side of the road.  We were talking to him because we were stopped; we were stopped because the road was blocked by equipment trying to pull a huge truck out of a huge ditch where it had slid on its bald tires.  That was going to take awhile, and we weren’t going to get where we wanted to be anyway.  So back to Gracias to pick up the “main” road to La Esperanza. 


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… 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!).


Comayuaga, Honduras’ historic early capital, was next.  We were now back on pavement, and quickly moved through Siguatepeque toward our goal.  It was that hot; when we hit town we noticed it was 99 degrees – in the shade.  Sunday afternoon was quiet in the old town square, a lovely spot.  We wandered around anyway, seeing several ancient and lovely churches and other assorted old buildings.  We had hoped to overnight here, but our information required starting at the tourist office, and they had closed at noon (on a Sunday!) and were closed on Monday as well, so we ultimately beat feet back to Siguatepeque, at a higher elevation, and with a known secure spot at a Shell station along the highway.  it was noisy, but we managed.  It was north of town, across from a Wendys and a Domino’s.  We are finding fewer and fewer official-type places to camp and having to make do with what’s possible.  At least we had a security guard, water, and a place to dump tanks.


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 Central America), and we met several English-speaking folks during the very fine meal (and beer) we enjoyed.  It was great to compare notes on traveling, and hear from a local birder all about what we could do in the area.  It all sounded great, but as you know by now, getting up at 5:30 isn’t for us.  We aren’t even dilettantes when it comes to birding. 


But this area is so lovely.  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 Kauai, where we had spent many happy times.  We stopped at the famous Pulhapanzak Falls on Rio Lindo, really cool.  The falls are 43 meters high (you figure it out) and drops down from a large swimming hole.  Actually, the site is operated as a private balneario with restaurant, water slide, and several play areas.  People camp here, and we had been considering it, but not during Semana Santa, no way!  There were people everywhere, enjoying picnics by the water, playing music, and generally having a marvelous time.  Let’s party!


We took our lives in our hands, and headed for the north coastal area, home of the Bay Islands (think Roatan) and Tela - La Ceiba - Trujillo, all popular beach towns along the Caribbean coast.  What were we thinking!  Well, we really did want to see some of the coast, regardless of (1) the crowds, (2) we aren’t beach people, and (3) it was already hotter than hell and we were still up 2000 feet in elevation.  The road to the coast is the main road through the country, and it was very busy.  We had been warned that it was a dangerous road at this time of the year, because of all the drinking and crazy drivers, but what the hey.  We took it cautiously, there were plenty of police trying to keep things under control, and we did all right. 


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 Caribbean.  It is a lovely beach, and we had found a spot at a nice public park that wasn’t crowded - yet.  But hot – whew!  And lots of evidence of the big holiday festivities ahead.  Off we went, on along further east and La Ceiba.  We stopped there because we knew there was a real grocery supermarket.  We are having real difficulty finding things – decent cheese, stuff like that.  So we stocked up, noticing that we could get stuff we hadn’t seen in weeks; but the prices were terrible.  It was a beautiful sunny day, green and lush, and as we navigated the northern coast, we saw lots of small streams and larger rivers coming to the coast from the mountains, each one lovely and clear and rocky.  There were Cruce des Ganados (livestock crossing) signs everywhere, with all kinds of critters all over the roads mixing with the trucks filled with bananas and workers on their bicycles.  This is a nice area, if it would ever cool off!  The refrigerator is panting again; I’ve lost milk, orange juice and bread to the heat and humidity.  Whine… but a really pretty area. 


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 Trujillo.  Trujillo is where ole Chris Colombo landed, and has several interesting things going on.  But we’d just had enough of all the crowds and the heat.  We decided to spend the night in Saba and then head for a national park above La Union that we’d heard about.  Once we made the turn south toward Saba we lost all the traffic; yes!


Saba was interesting.  By now it was Wednesday evening of Easter Week.  Saba is a company town (Dole) that is a stop-over spot on the way to the coast.  We had heard about the Hotel Executive that would probably let us park in their lot.  We had to circle around town awhile before we found it; it’s on the road out of town toward Olanchito.  They were, indeed, happy to have us; there was a pool which we enjoyed, and we were certainly the entertainment for the other guests.  We’re getting used to this.  The hotel was interesting because it was kind of a business traveler’s spot.   We had a quiet night, our fans kept us within reach of cool enough, and the next morning we were ready to move on but needed to find an ATM.  (By now you may have figured we are using cash for everything and relying on ATMs for funds.  This works very well except in rural areas where you may not even be able to find a bank.)  well, hmmmmm, all the banks are closed.  Big signs, closed from Thursday to Sunday for – guess what – Semana Santa.  These countries really take this holiday seriously.  And, there are no ATMs in town anyway.


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 Trujillo, having been told there was an ATM in Tocoa, 20 kms away.  And there was – the bank was closed, but the ATM was working.  I felt very sorry for the young couple standing in front of the bank trying to figure out what to do; I’m sure they had no ATM card and had counted on being able to get money out of their account.  (And by the way, you should have seen the lines at the banks on Monday morning, after the holiday was over.)


Anyway, back in Saba we headed south, taking a dirt road that headed into the mountains toward La Union, leaving the lovely pavement behind.  And it was a bitch of a road (my language is getting worse as the roads do the same; sorry).  But, we had a beautiful ride; the country is really great, with neat views at every turn.  It got drier as we climbed and we lost that lush quality to the countryside we’d been enjoying.  Hours and hours and hours later, we found ourselves in La Union, a scruffy little mountain town that was thoroughly enjoying the holidays.  Looked like a town party was about to start as we traveled through, heading toward La Muralla National Park, up in another of Honduras’ great cloud forests.


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 Central America.  Americans generally (and us particularly) are used to:  (1) establishing and maintaining their privacy and the physical space around them; (2) voices at a “normal” level; (3) not being stared at; and perhaps most important: (4) being able to establish common ground with folks, talking enough to determine who people are and what they are “all about.”  This group immediately challenged all four of those issues.


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; sometimes the shop owner himself will be carrying a sidearm in a holster, often with extra 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 Steve, the manager of Bruno’s back in Rio Dulce, about it and he said it was largely a carryover from times past when such security was a legitimate concern.  He said that at least for some folks, if a business doesn’t have security on site people will be reluctant to work there thinking they may become a target because they are unprotected.  Whatever, occasionally we experience some discomfort, but have pretty much accepted the situation.  By the way, for comparison purposes, it is not all that different than what you see in Mexico, but it is more prevalent down here.


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 extended family and workers.  They are lovely people, working the family finca which Amilcor inherited from his father.  They stay up on the mountain for about 4 months out of the year, harvesting the coffee, and live the rest of the time in 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 Bay Islands.  We think this is one reason they are so outgoing and friendly with foreigners; Roatan is, of course, in a huge tourist area.  The coffee they produce is sent to Roatan for processing, and is sold at Café Buenos Noches in town there. 


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 our next “road experience.”  We were heading toward Valle de Angeles, a mountain town above Tegucigalpa (the capital).  We wanted to come in the back way, and enjoy La Tigra National Park, a cloud forest that lay along this secondary route – also hopefully avoiding the crowds we anticipated at the main entrance area as this was Easter Weekend, the grand culmination of Semana Santa.  And we met our most challenging road yet.  All went well as we headed into the mountains, we even had a section of pavement; then we visited San Juancito, a charming old mining town (burros wandering down the middle of these tiny cobblestone streets), and then headed up the hill to El Rosario, the back entrance into La Tigra.  This was a very bad decision – vehicle-wise.  We had read that you can camp the night at the visitor’s center at this park entrance.  Yeah, well, sure.  But you have to get there first.  This was very steep, very tight and windy, very rocky, very narrow with tight uphill hairpin turns that we only just were able to make, and had lots of traffic on this, Friday afternoon of Semana Santa.  Well, we finally got there.  And the small parking area was so steep there was no way we could even get sort of level.  Once again we were thankful to have chosen the Tiger (newly renamed La Tortuga – The Tortoise).  Anything bigger or with less ground clearance would not have made it up this hill.  We do not recommend it without walking the road first.


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 pine forest.  We spent the night there, having gotten permission to stay in the hospital parking lot, although the Parqueo Touristico would have also been a good choice at a time other than Easter weekend; the next day (finally Monday after Easter!) we went further down the hill toward Tegucigalpa, the capital.  There were road crews out along the road, picking up the trash after the long holiday; delightful!  We stopped at another mountain town, Santa Lucia, which was very quiet after the holidays.  The children were back in school and we had a wonderful time taking pictures of them enjoying their recess.  They were as delighted with us as we were with them.  It was a great exchange.


Tegucigalpa is still in the mountains, and in a very nice setting.  We hadn’t planned to stop, and easily made our way around the city; suddenly we found ourselves on the road to the Nicaragua border at Las Manos, a couple of hours away.  We weren’t planning to cross the border today, but found nothing to hold us back.  Suddenly, the border approached, Rick grabbed his paperwork, and about 45 minutes later we were in Nicaragua.  How about that!  Damn, he’s getting good at this (but we know worse borders are ahead).  Nicaragua deals in cordobas, incidentally; about 15 of them to the dollar.  New money to convert each time you buy a watermelon.  Cool.  Incidentally, we have decided that, as a general rule, it is a good idea to arrive at any border with the equivalent of about $75.00, either in dollars or in local funds.  There won’t be an ATM at the border; some of this money will go to clear the “old” border, some to get through the “new” border, and any left over to get you to a source of new funds.


We loved Honduras.  We spent 12 days there in all, and enjoyed everything about it (except perhaps the roads that needed help).  The people were unfailingly helpful along the road, and friendly when given the chance.  On the roads, we continue to find that paved roads down here tend to be pretty darn good, better than many of the roads in Mexico.  But there are fewer of them so the wandering traveler who wants to experience rural areas spends a higher proportion of time on unpaved roads, which tend to be quite bad.  Unlike northern Canada, the dirt roads down here do not seem to receive any regular maintenance.  They just are what they are, which is uneven, rocky, and rutted.  As to the people, well they are just wonderful.  We find ourselves experiencing more and more delightful encounters with these friendly, happy folks.  They take life as it comes, working hard and enjoying a life without all of the pressures and distractions we are all so used to, and just seem so pleased to have a chance to meet us.  It is proving a wonderful experience.


We are in Nicaragua now, at the Club Campestre outside the town of Esteli, continuing our trek towards the Panama Canal.  We wish we had started sooner in the winter; we have a sense of time passing too quickly.  We know that Costa Rica and Panama have definite rainy seasons that will begin about the time we get there (rats) and that it’s not going to get any cooler.  But hey, it’s all too much fun to stop! 


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 experience in Nicaragua.  We were stopped alongside the road by an “official” who demanded Rick’s license.  He gave him the copy; the officer demanded the original, which Rick would only show him through the window.  The officer then demanded a bribe of $20 to give back the copy; we simply drove away.  If the officer had had the original in his possession, it would have been more difficult.


Best Wishes and Happy Travels, Rick, Kathy and Trav’ler (aka La Tortuga)

Next Installment May 2008

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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!  … 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 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

Attachment 2.  Rick and Monty the Capuchin monkey, bonding; Boquete, Panama

Attachment 3.  Toucans, Costa Rica

Attachment 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  Enjoy.


Captions for attached photos (not included here yet):


  1. These guys couldn’t wait to pose in front of some of the gorgeous murals in downtown Juayua, El Salvador.
  1. Kathy with Cristobal in the La Tigra cloud forest, El Rosario, Honduras. 
  1. Evening falls during Semana Santa, Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
  1. Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a…  If you want to see a Scarlet Macaw, go to the ruins at Copan, Honduras. 
  1. How many wonderful, beautiful children are we seeing everyday down here?  This bunch was at recess in Santa Lucia, Honduras.

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