CENTRAL AMERICA OVERLAND #12

19-August-2010: Belize City (Belize)

After completing all the shipping requirements and payment to ship Troopy from Colombia to Panama, we had one full day left in Cartagena, Colombia. It was a leisurely start to recover from a very busy and traumatic time the day before, with the customs officers pulling apart and inspecting everything inside Troopy. The extreme heat and humidity was exhausting.

We walked to Castillo San Felipe, an imposing and impenetrable fortress built on top of a big hill. Although old Cartagena had been attacked by pirates many times, this fortress has never fallen into enemy hands. It has a commanding view of the whole city and of the Caribbean coastline. We were able to walk through a series of underground tunnels linking key areas of the fortress. Apparently, it was very cleverly designed so that soldiers defending the fort would be able to hear the footsteps of the approaching enemy from deep below the bowels of the fortress. We managed to avoid the route funnelling visitors past the colourful souvenir shop and stalls and walked back to our hostel where we left our luggage and had a late lunch.

That evening, we took a taxi to the airport to catch our flight to Panama City. At the check-in counter, we had to show proof of our onward travel out of Panama City. They were quite satisfied with an original Bill of Lading with both our names on it, along with Troopy’s registration and engine numbers. After going through the security screening, we then had to go through the anti-narcotics screening process which involved a full body scan, bag search and fingerprinting. All the passengers standing in line were able to see ourselves on the computer monitor, not very impressive viewing though! Unfortunately, the X-ray machine revealed all...!
 
Whilst waiting for the flight to board, we saw a few customs officers walking in with a few pieces of luggage. A few passengers recognised their luggage and were asked by the customs officers to unlock and open their luggage. The officers were very careful to put everything back in place. After the bag searches, the All Clear was given and we were allowed to board the plane.

The short flight to Panama City was in a twin turbo prop operated by Aires Air. As it was a night flight, we were not able to see very much from the plane. After scoffing down our sandwich and drink, the aircraft got ready to land at Panama Airport. Immigration and customs formalities were very amicable and straightforward. We passed the sniff test performed by the anti-narcotics dog at the Panama immigration counter. After clearing customs, we were met by Michelle, the owner of the Villa Michelle Hostel which was a 20 minute drive from the Airport.

The journey to our Hostel took us along very modern highways and freeways. We passed tall residential apartments and office buildings. Without a doubt, we are in a much wealthier country. Our Hostel is a big bungalow within a big compound surrounded by high concrete fences and an electronically controlled double gate. The friendly owner of this bungalow/hostel also resides here. It has comfortable air-conditioned rooms and visitors have free reign throughout the whole bungalow. The bungalow is painted a bright yellow with lots of traditional and quirky paintings and artwork on the walls, china cabinets and even the outdoor recreational area. It did not take long for us to tumble into bed as we were both very tired.

Very early the next morning, Kienny boldly hailed a half-full taxi in the middle of peak-hour traffic oblivious of irate drivers honking their horns. We had to resort to this as every taxi that passed us had passengers in them and time was getting on. We negotiated a fare to Allbrook Bus Terminal so we could catch a bus to the port at Colon to collect Troopy. There were several bus services to Colon. We first had to buy 3 tokens each to drop into the machine in order to access the bus loading bays. Once on board the bus, a counductor comes round to collect US $5 each for the bus fare.

The bus ride took one and a half hours. We found our way to the Wallenius Wilhelmsen office at the Manzanillo Shipping Terminal. The original Bill of Lading was sighted and stamped by Wilhelmsen to allow Troopy to be released from the port. It was then that Aldo our “helper” miraculously appeared at the office, offering to help us for a small fee. On the way into the Port, we did notice a lot of locals waiting around to help truck drivers and tourists like us to get all the necessary paperwork done before any consignment can be released from port.

Aldo seemed to know the whole convoluted process very well. We were very glad to hire him as he knew exactly which Aduana (customs) window to go to, how many photocopies we needed and how many official stamps were required. Still, the whole process took us all morning. By lunch-time, it was very reassuring to catch a glimpse of Troopy in a holding lot with all the other imported vehicles. Unfortunately, Troopy had a little accident whilst being loaded onto the ship. It looked as though something had run into the rear driver side corner of Troopy. The back corner light assembly was smashed, the cover for the rear bumper was torn and there was also a small dent in the side panel. Our hearts just sank to see poor Troopy! Fortunately, the damage was only cosmetic. The broken light assembly meant that we had no reversing light. Troopy’s brake and tail-lights are located on the actual rear bumper and were not damaged at all. We spent another hour or so filling out paperwork and having photos taken of the damages. Then we had to drop the paperwork back into the Wilhelmsen shipping office to be verified. We have 12 months in which to file a claim for repairs on the damages to Troopy.

After a quick re-organising and washing of Troopy the next morning, we drove to Miraflores Locks to view the Panama Canal. This is an amazing feat of engineering. The Miraflores Visitor Centre is a fantastic place to start our tour. We strolled through 4 floors looking at the history of the Panama Canal. It must have been sheer hard labour for the thousands of labourers from all over the Caribbean and Africa who endured tropical diseases, extreme heat and humidity. These men are the true heroes and pioneers of the Panama Canal!

Today, it is a very busy waterway linking shipping between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Each ship has to pay for the passage two days in advance. This is the only place in the world where the ship’s captain actually relinquishes command of his vessel to a shipping pilot in order to manoeuvre huge tankers, container ships and bulk carriers safely through the various locks along this 80 kilometre stretch of waterway aided by tug boats and pulling engines on the front, sides and back of the vessels. It is fascinating to be able to watch each lock filling and emptying to allow ships to be at the right water level as they progressed through the canal. The whole journey through the Canal takes between eight and twelve hours. There were lots of big ships waiting their turns to enter the locks. It is great that visitors can watch the locks in action from a sitting gallery or from the balcony of the restaurant. We were literally, a stone’s throw away from these enormous vessels.
 
After Miraflores, we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on food supplies. We then headed back to our hostel to fill up our water tank and pack the groceries away before heading out to dinner at a local Waikiki Restaurant to celebrate the start of our travel through Central America. We planned to head off towards Costa Rica the next morning.

We left the Hostel mid-morning after saying goodbye to our host. She warned us to be careful of trouble with the police seeing we had a broken tail-light. That really confirmed our worry that we might be pulled over a lot by the police looking for a good excuse to extract an on-the-spot “fine.” We got into Troopy quite resolved that we ought to try and find a new tail-light lens cover before we venture any further. Geoff cleaned up the bumper bar and tail light assembly and did a great job improving the appearance with black masking tape. Travelling through Panama is really very easy since American English is widely spoken here. We stopped at a few auto repuestos to look for a new tail-light lens assembly but to no avail. We just have to push on and keep trying along the way.

There are many high-rise apartments as well as some very nice houses on the outskirts of the city. The undeveloped countryside is very lush green with thick jungle vegetation and the screams of millions of cicadas even penetrated the roar of traffic on the highway. The roads here are mostly concrete and are generally good although some parts are showing signs of wear and tear. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time we got to the Pacific coast of Panama.

We found a very run-down campground just past the La Lajas Beach resort. The caretaker was the only one there and after paying a small fee, we chose a campsite under a stand of tall swaying coconut trees. It was lovely to be the only campers here. We took a stroll on the nice clean sandy beach by the Pacific Ocean before cooking dinner. Not long after we finished dinner, the clouds rolled in and the winds picked up. Then came the rain and being the wet season, it rained and rained!

In the morning, Geoff discovered that the other two auxillary batteries were not charging properly. On closer inspection, he found that the solenoid had been destroyed probably due to the shipping people attempting to jump-start Troopy the wrong way. He found evidence of arcing under the bonnet. So now, we will have to look for a replacement solenoid in addition to a new tail light assembly.

From Playa Las Lajas, we drove to David which seemed to be quite a wealthy town with a couple of big supermarkets and home improvement centres servicing the expatriate community and agriculturalists. We decided to stop here to pick up a few more groceries. We then called into an auto repuestos where we were able to purchase two new replacement solenoids and engine oil. We had no joy with the lens cover for the tail light assembly.

We took the road from La Concepcion to Volcan, a very scenic drive through pretty valleys and green mountains. As we climbed in altitude, the road became steeper, narrower and winding. We were quickly enveloped in swirling clouds of mist and fog. Every so often the fog would lift to reveal a very picturesque and fertile area. With the rich volcanic soil, agriculture is the main industry here with a number of small Swiss communities growing flowers, strawberries, vegetables and dairy. There are also many horse stables in the area breeding race horses. Villages like Bambito and Cerro Punta also had very nicely presented alpine hotel accommodation to cater for the city folk who retreat to the hills, a cool respite from the searing hot climate in the lowlands.

We eventually made our way to Rio Serreno and to cross the border from Panama into Costa Rica at the Rio Serreno border post. It was easy exiting Panama at this very small and laid-back border post. However, we were turned back by the Costa Rican authorities as they no longer have the facility to issue temporary vehicle import permits to overland travellers crossing in their own vehicles. We were told we had to drive another 40 kilometres south along the border and cross at the main international border crossing at Paso Canoas on the Pan American Highway. Fortunately, the Aduana chief on the Panama side was very kind. He typed up a letter of explanation and rang Paso Canoas to let them know that we were on our way. We should only need to turn in our car permit and show them the letter from the Aduana chief. It was a challenging drive along the border as the winding road was shrouded in fog with many potholes along the way. We had a couple of close shaves from oncoming vehicles trying to swerve to avoid the potholes. It was quite a drain on the nerves.

We got to the border post at Paso Canoas at about 5.30 pm. It was a very busy, muddy place with trucks, cars and people everywhere. Money changers and border touts quickly descended upon us. We exited Panama without any trouble but when we arrived at the Costa Rican immigration, the money changers and border touts again rushed towards us. We had to persist in politely refusing the help of these border touts who try to help tourists for a small tip. We were able to get through immigration and customs simply by asking the official people and other truck drivers. They were all very helpful and friendly. It was dark by the time we finished border proceedings and raided the ATM machine. We were uncertain where we were to camp that night. We did not like the idea of staying in a border town as we know that tourists can get into trouble in these places when darkness descends. We decided to start driving out of town and before long we found a small motel just on the outskirts of Paso Canoas.

Early the next day, we made our way to the Pacific coastline via Golfo Dulce to a small fishing village called La Palmar. The beach was very beautiful. We stopped for morning tea under some coconut trees and enjoyed a beautiful pineapple we had bought early in the morning. We spotted a few pairs of very colourful and noisy Macaws busy feeding in the tops of a tree. They knew we were trying to photograph them and were taunting us by turning their backs to us, then flying away just as we were about to click the shutter. We also spotted a couple of furry sloths curled up into a tight knot in the top of a green leafy tree. We have heard other people talk about seeing the sloth but we had no idea what they were talking about. Now we know!

After lunch we continued along the western coastal route up to Playa Dominical, a town well-known to the surfing community of the world. There were surfies, hippies, retirees and young oldies like us. This is a very busy beach full of holiday makers from all walks of life. We asked a couple of policemen on foot patrol if we could spend the night by the beach. They said it was fine, so we found a parking spot with Wi-Fi access and there we stayed for the night. For dinner we had a very delicious and authentic Thai meal at the Coconut Restaurant and finished off with yummy homemade Pistachio ice-cream. Our camping site was under shady trees inhabited by fruit squirrels dashing about looking for fruit to pick and then dropping the seeds onto Troopy’s roof. The area also had quite a lot of pelicans and colourful hummingbirds with wings flapping tirelessly. It was the wet season in Central America so we were not surprised that we had rain for most of the night. Fortunately it stopped before dawn so when we awoke we were greeted with beautiful sunshine.

As we travelled in Costa Rica, we got the impression that people in Costa Rica seemed to have a good standard of living. The towns and cities are mostly very neat and tidy with almost no litter at all. Even houses and yards in the less wealthy areas are lovingly cared for with a small garden out the front with neatly trimmed hibiscus hedges. However, when we spoke to the locals, they were very concerned for our personal safety. They talked about their economy getting worse, increasing crime rates and warned us to be very careful in our travels.

We arrived at Volcan Irazu National Park late in the afternoon. We were fortunate that the clouds had lifted allowing us to get good views of this dormant crater. There was plenty of very healthy vegetation in this area with very large fronds and lush flowering shrubs. For the first time this trip, we found ourselves camping at altitude (3400 metres). We camped about 800 metres from the National Park entrance in a small but grassy volcanic crater. As the sun was setting, the temperature up here began to plummet. It was definitely a night for down sleeping bags!

We awoke early the next morning and packed up and drove for an hour before stopping for a light breakfast at a mirador or viewing platform. Once again, we had a very scenic drive all the way to San Jose where we just could not resist stopping at a Denny’s Restaurant for morning tea. We filled up so much on pancakes and cheesy omelettes that we literally waddled down the stairs to the car park.
 
We passed lots of coffee plantations and dairy farms on the way to Volcan Poas. We were able to walk up to the edge of the very large principal crater. There were a few steam vents emitting wisps of vapours. Unlike Volcan Irazu, Volcan Poas was quite devoid of vegetation. Instead, it looked very arid with very little greenery. We did not stay here for long as we wanted to visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

The highlight of our time in Costa Rica would have to be our visit to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The entry ticket was expensive but it was well worth every dollar! The Waterfall Gardens is managed by Peace Lodge Spa Resort. It is a very nice place to stay and dine with two fancy in-house restaurants  Starting at the top of the property, we walked through an aviary featuring many of the birds found in Costa Rica, a butterfly enclosure, a snake house, frog house, monkey and feline cat enclosures ending in a picturesque walk to view several cascading waterfalls. At the bottom of the park, an old American school bus shuttles visitors back to the entrance at the top of the park. The whole complex is built around a beautiful rain forest gorge. The buildings and fixtures are of natural timbers and rock. Even all the walkways and bridges are made of cleverly and rustically put together pieces of timbers. It is a wonderful place to visit for the young and even the old!

As we drove away from the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, the road became eerily quiet. Parts of the road looked to be in disrepair. We passed a few private estates that seemed deserted and looking very run-down and overgrown. Some sections of the road had lots of cracks, even big holes in the concrete and bitumen. In a few areas, a whole side of the road had slipped away to the valley below. We wondered if there had been an earthquake in the area. Well, this was one place we did not stop to take pictures! We just kept driving as it was late in the afternoon and we had planned to camp at the foot of the Arenal Volcano.

It was about 6 o’clock by the time we were on the approach road to the Arenal Observatory. We were caught in a very heavy thunderstorm. The rain was so heavy that even with Troopy’s windscreen wipers going at top speed, we could barely see out the front of the windscreen. We had to drive very slowly for we did not want to miss the iron bridge. We were told by other travellers we met in Colombia that there is a beautiful wild campsite by the river if we took the track immediately after the iron bridge, on the road to the Observatory. This would give us the best close-up view of the very active Arenal Volcano. When we found the turn-off, there were lots of other tourists standing on the iron bridge watching a group of conservatively dressed young people singing gospel songs in 4 part harmony! They looked like they were from an Amish or Mennonite community. The iron bridge was supposed to be a very good place to view the red glowing and rumbling volcano, hence it was a popular stop for tourists on their way to the more upmarket accommodation in the Arenal Observatory Park.

It was dark by the time everyone left the iron bridge. The rain had eased and we were able to quietly drive down to the end of the bush track alongside the river. There was a small open area by the river where we could camp. We were also well hidden from the main road. Although the rain had subsided, the view of the volcano was totally obscured by thick fog and cloud. We could not see red glow of the volcano at all. Every so often, we could hear a dull rumble and a few hisses coming from the volcano to remind us of its presence. We were somewhat disappointed but the fireflies were a fascinating consolation.

After breakfast and a wash in the river the next morning, we visited the Arenal National Park. Here we explored an area of old lava flow. Aside from the sharp, ragged edged volcanic rocks, it was very interesting walking through a volcanic rainforest. This area is rich in bio-diversity. Tall and large Ciebo trees, palms, monkeys, birds and other minute animals thrive in this micro-climate. It was a hot and humid 3 hour walk and Kienny managed to trip over and got her feet covered in mud. She was really dragging her feet all the way back to the car-park after that!

There is a volcanic lake to the North-West of Arenal. They say it is somewhat like driving in parts of Switzerland. The drive around the lake is very scenic, rich with rainforest trees and clumps of tree ferns perched high on tree branches. The houses and hotels were of Swiss/German alpine log- cabin style. We found a German Bakery where we just had to try the homemade Bratwurst with sauerkraut, red cabbage, home-baked German bread...and free Wi-Fi. What more could we ask for?

After filling our stomachs and fridge with Bratwurst sausages and German bread, we continued our excursion around the Lake District. When we got to the last frontier town of Liberia, we were caught in another huge thunderstorm! We could not believe the amount of water this deluge had created. Whole streets were flooded and rivers were swollen and fast flowing. It seemed like the rain was following us wherever we go.

We had planned to find a recommended camping site at Canas Castillas. After asking a few locals for more specific directions, we finally came to a fast flowing river. A few vehicles were banked up as the crossing was too treacherous to cross over safely to the other side. We were not sure what to do as it was late in the afternoon. We did not relish the thought of having to turn back to find a hotel in the flooded town of Liberia. So we sat around and waited for about half an hour or so when one of the locals decided to test the waters on horseback. This was followed by a small sedan and that signalled to everyone that it was time to get moving and cross the river.

Canas Castillas is a Swiss-German campground and nature lodge about 15 kilometres from the border with Nicaragua. The entry into Canas Castilla was just off the rise after the river crossing. What a beautiful campground this is! The owners have put a lot of hard work into this property. This 75 hectare working farm is a natural paradise of beautiful rainforest trees, native animals and snakes, in particular rattle-snakes. We camped under the canopy of a very large tree with spider monkeys swinging from branch to branch, curiously checking us out. We had Bratwurst sausages and German bread rolls for dinner while the owner’s very large Great Dane puppy licked our frypan clean! We met a German school teacher on holidays in Costa Rica. We also met two very crazy American boys who were researching snakes in Costa Rica. They would go out into the rainforest at night to try and find rattle snakes. Apparently the property on Canas Castillas is well-known to have a high population of rattle-snakes.

From Canas Castillas, it was only less than 15 kilometres to the Nicaraguan border. We crossed into Nicaragua at Penas Blancas. The proceedings at this border crossing were fairly straightforward and took about one and a half hours. The immigration and customs officers were friendly and helpful. We were again approached by many border touts wanting to help us. Our confidence at border crossings must be evident in our body language as the border touts stopped following us after we politely refused them in our best Spanish. By now, we were running on auto-pilot going from the fumigation area to customs, immigration, insurance and finally the exit gate. Our Nicaraguan visa is actually valid for all countries in Central America with an accompanying official receipt. We were glad to leave the border post as it was a very busy, wet and muddy place.

As we made our way to Playa Maderas on the Pacific Coast, we were stopped by a policeman. He first asked to see the car documents, then licenses and then if we carried hazard triangles. Finally, he took issue with the fact that Troopy is a right-hand drive. He was very insistent that this was not legal in Nicaragua and held on to the car permit and driver’s license while he thumbed through his Highway Code book. A local who spoke English helped to translate for us. He tried to encourage us to give the policeman a tip (wink wink) but we just ignored his suggestion waiting patiently to see what would happen next. After about ten minutes, he found the section which apparently states that the steering wheel would have to be changed over if the vehicle is to be in Nicaragua for more than three months. We explained to the policeman that we were only transiting the country. We also tried to impress upon him that the fact that we were given a temporary import permit meant that we have satisfied all entry conditions with the Customs office at the border post, so there should not be any problems. After a further ten minutes, the policeman eventually returned the import permit. It was another five minutes later when he eventually returned the license and we were allowed to go. Other than this incident, we did not have any more troublesome police stops anywhere else in Nicaragua.

We spent the night camped at Camping Matilda right on the Pacific Ocean. This nice half crescent-shaped beach was both clean and quiet. We camped under swaying coconut palms. The main part of Camping Matilda is like a big bungalow with several dormitory style rooms. It must get quite busy here during the peak tourist season. Crime must be a problem here too as our campground is within a barbed wire enclosure. The beach entry-gate to the bungalow is also locked at night with chain and padlock. The next morning, we left Playa Madera taking an alternate route so as not to run into that policeman again.

Nicaragua is another very lush green country in Central America that is emerging from a troubled past. The roads are in quite good condition except during heavy thunderstorms when the city’s drainage system cannot cope with the massive volume of water causing some streets to become water-logged. The people are friendly and there are many national parks, beaches and volcanoes to explore.
 
We called into the old colonial city of Granada. It has wide streets with white-washed buildings. Some of the streets are of cobblestone. The very open city square was abuzz with locals cooling off under shady trees, backpacking tourists wandering around looking very lost and bewildered and street stalls selling food, drinks and curios with music blaring from loudspeakers. The weather was hot and humid. After a short stroll around the plaza, we decided to have lunch at Kathy’s Waffle House with free Wi-Fi. We decided not to stay in Granada but to keep driving to the Somoto Canyon National Park.

Just as we arrived at the entrance to the Somoto Canyon National Park, the heavens opened up once again! It was late afternoon and the two boys minding the Park Office told us that the park was closed. They said that we could return in the morning and that it was compulsory to take a guide through the canyon. As it was raining heavily, we asked if we could just camp the night at the park entrance so that we would be ready to start the tour first thing in the morning.

Early the next morning, our guide Osman arrived to take us on a hike to view the Somoto Canyon. It was a short drive to the riverbank where our Osman and his young cousin inflated a small dinghy. Being the wet season, the river was impassable in a vehicle. We paddled our way across the swift-flowing river in the small dinghy. Then, we walked uphill for an hour or so to the rim of the canyon. Along the way, Osman pointed out all the native flora and fauna to us. He was very passionate and proud to show us the country where he had grown up. At the top of the canyon, we could look out across to the opposite side where Osman’s family lives. We exchanged greetings by yelling across the canyon. We then walked down to river level and took a canoe further upstream to view the narrowest part of the canyon. It was as narrow as one metre across. Just imagine the sheer power of a great volume of water carving its way through the canyon over time. We then hopped into inflated tyre tubes and floated downstream over a few scary rapids. Osman and his cousin swam alongside us. Despite their slight build and stature, they were good, strong swimmers who knew the river well. They were able to keep us from being swept away by the strong current.

After our canyon tubing adventure, it was time to say goodbye to Osman and make the short drive to the border post. We exited Nicaragua at El Espino and entered Honduras at La Fraternidad. This was a very quiet and sleepy border post. The immigration and customs officers at the Honduran border post were very friendly and helpful. We were not sure what to expect in Honduras as it is another country emerging out of a troubled past. We have heard from other overlanders that the police checkpoints in Honduras were very troublesome and that the police were very corrupt, looking for every excuse to extract money from people driving the Pan-American Highway. So after clearing Immigration and Customs, we set off with great trepidation not looking forward to the inevitable encounters with the police check-points.

We had about 120 kilometres of driving to do in order to get from the East to the West of Honduras to El Salvador. Within this short distance there were ten police checkpoints! The first seven or eight checkpoints were quite harmless. We greeted them with eager big smiles, shook their hands and apologised to them in Spanish for our very bad Spanglish. That seemed to break the ice and the stern frowns on their brows. They asked where we were going and looked at Geoff’s driving license before waving us through.

The last two checkpoints were the most challenging. One policeman asked to see Troopy’s import permit, license and triangles. Not satisfied, he started to say that we should have reflectors on the sides of the car. We politely pointed out to him that we have three small square reflectors on each side. Then he said we did not have a fire extinguisher. We showed him the small extinguisher we have, mounted on the pillar just behind the driver’s seat. It was then that the policeman must have realised that he was not going to get anything out of us. He then looked at the import permit and said that we did not declare all the contents of our vehicle on the permit. He said we were going to have to return to the border post to make that declaration or pay US$20 fine to him. We said that we have already paid US$30 to the Customs for the import permit and that we should not have to pay anymore. Moreover, we stressed that we had asked Customs if there was anything more we had to do or pay and they said “No.” The policeman insisted we could not venture further. As he was dangling Troopy’s paperwork by the driver side window, Geoff promptly took the paperwork from him. We then told him resolutely that we would not be paying any money and that we were going to go to El Salvador. He then said a very rude “Goodbye” and stormed off. Geoff then drove away from the checkpoint quickly only to be stopped at another checkpoint not 5 kilometres further down the highway!

This last checkpoint was a classic and comic act! The policeman greeted us very cheerfully and then he put his head inside Geoff’s window and remarked at how hot he was! He saw that we had the air-conditioner running and put his face right up close to one of the vents. He then asked if we could give him some money to buy lunch and a cool drink. We shook our heads and said very little which caused him to think we did not understand Spanish. So, he asked us to give him “Dollares.” We said, “No Dollars.” He said, “Give me Dollars!” We said, “What Dollars?” He then showed us a $10 note which we tried to take from him. To his dismay, he said that we had to give him dollars. Kienny then told him that he should be giving us dollars instead. The policeman said he was thirsty, so we offered him our water-bottle. He started to laugh nervously and asked if we had any souvenir for him. That was when Kienny reached into the glove box and pulled out a small Koala purchased from Mad Harrys. (Our patience was wearing thin!) Geoff turned the air-con vent away from the policeman’s face and we said a polite “Adios” and drove away slowly. From our rear-vision mirrors, we could see the proud policeman showing his little koala off to his mates with a big grin on his face. We breathed a sigh of relief and were so thankful that we had survived the Honduran Highway police checkpoints without having to pay any bribes! It is no wonder that many travellers tell us not to stop in Honduras! Besides, our aim was to transit through Central America so that we could have more time in Guatemala and Mexico.

We exited Honduras and entered El Salvador at El Amatillo. Again, the border crossing proceedings took about one and a half hours but was all straightforward and friendly. We had to drive about 5 kilometres to the Customs warehouse to apply for our vehicle import permit and have the car inspected. We heard that one Australian couple had a lot of trouble with the customs here, being a right-hand drive but we had no problems whatsoever. By the time we were through the El Salvadorean customs, it was getting dark. Thunderstorm clouds were building up and there was that familiar smell of dense moisture in the air. We pulled into a service station that had a few trucks parked in a big open lot. The owner of the service station very kindly allowed us to sleep there for the night without charge. We were able to park under a massive carport, which was a real blessing as we had a very heavy and crazy thunderstorm that evening. We also had two armed security guards keeping watch over us all night long. What a friendly country!

We left very early the next morning after saying goodbye to our host. We then continued westwards towards the border with Guatemala. Along the way, we found a garage where we could do an oil change on Troopy. The mechanic did a fantastic job with his two young sons as apprentices and charged only US$7. We gave him a $10 note and asked him to keep the change.
 
Just near La Libertad, the road had a big detour due to massive bridgework in progress. The road came to an abrupt halt and we saw a group of 10 to 14 year old boys running towards us. We quickly rolled up our windows thinking something untoward was about to happen. What happened was that the boys jumped onto Troopy’s side steps and they clung on to the roof-rack and told us they would guide us across the river. We had 3 boys on each side of Troopy. With great excitement in their voices, they showed us the way through the detour. When we realised that they were just harmless boys, we lowered our windows. The boys poked their inquisitive heads inside Troopy to have a good look around. Every so often there were shouts of “Tumulos, Tumulos!” or “Speed bumps.” They then guided us safely across a couple of river crossings and asked for US$1.00 each. We said we couldn’t pay them all but we did give them a little koala each and half a packet of raisins. They were very happy with their souvenirs and we were very impressed with their entrepreneurial prowess!

We continued driving along the Pacific Coast. Everywhere in Central America is so lush and green. The road we were on was a tree-lined avenue. There were rows upon rows of sugar-cane and corn crops. People here in El Salvador are very friendly and American English is widely spoken here.

We crossed from El Salvador into Guatemala mid-afternoon at La Hachadura. The border crossing was not hard once we worked out the system. Everyone in the Immigration and Customs office was very friendly and helpful. Perhaps the grey hairs might have helped a bit but we have found all our border crossings to be very amiable and welcoming.

The first things that struck us in Guatemala were the numerous speed bumps called Tumulos, Topes or Vibradores in every village, town and city. Some were well sign-posted while others were not. Some of them were shallow and round, some consisted of vibrating strips and there were those that were sharp and bone-jarring. Our route in Guatemala took us through volcanic mountain scenery and many colourful indigenous villages.

Whenever Guatemala is mentioned in the news back home in Australia, it is usually to do with mudslides and flooding. We did not get very far from the border when the road stopped just short of a very wide river crossing. The big iron bridge was missing, in fact parts of the enormous yellow iron bridge was a twisted mess wrapped around a lone concrete pylon in the river. We backtracked a little and found a small insignificantly marked detour across the river. This must have been a recent occurrence as there were trucks banked up on the other side of the river with their bewildered drivers at a loss as to what to do. Their rigs were too big for this detour. They would have had to backtrack a long way to find another way across the river to the border town.

We arrived in Antigua just on dark. It had been raining so the streets outside the old colonial city were a bit muddy. Once we got to the old city, we had rumbly cobblestone streets. We had heard that one could camp for free in the secure compound of the Antigua Tourist Police. So after asking a couple of people for directions, we eventually found our way there. This is a large walled and well-guarded compound with only basic toilet and shower facilities shared with the other police officers. We had to sign ourselves in when we first arrived.
 
The city of Antigua is quite a romantic city at night. Many of the old colonial buildings were illuminated by quaint and old street lights. As we walked into the old quarter of town, we could hear soft music playing as we walked past cafes and restaurants. The aroma of cooking was tantalising. Looking into a few restaurants, we saw couples and groups of tourists seated around warm candlelit tables enjoying food and conversation. We found very nice pizza and delicious home-made lemonade at an Italian owned restaurant. Antigua is definitely a popular tourist destination. We felt quite safe walking around in Antigua at night aided by the knowledge that there were tourist police stationed on nearly every street corner.

Next morning, we tried to book a hiking tour to Pacaya Volcano where one was supposed to be able to view red hot lava flow and also toast marshmallows over the hot lava. Unfortunately for us, the volcano had erupted a month ago. Now the trail is covered with ash and much of the vegetation burnt. Instead, we explored the old town on foot for the rest of the morning, had lunch at the Cafe Barista before heading for Chichicastenango and Sacapulas en route to the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal. On the way out of Antigua, we were caught in a procession commemorating August 15th Assumption Day. There were people everywhere. Houses and streets were decorated with white and yellow streamers, banners and balloons. There were elaborate shrines of angelic figures being paraded through town, kids with Halloween masks and costumes, young girls were dressed up like they were in a beauty pageant and lots and lots of colourful cars and people everywhere. We could not do much but to just follow behind the procession.

The way to Chichicastenango and Sacapulas passed many indigenous villages along the way where we saw women from two different ethnic groups, dressed quite differently to each other. One group wore their skirts in a more fitted fashion while the other group had a loose fitting skirt; all were of very colourful and intricately woven textiles. The women were walking along the roadside skilfully balancing basins of corn on top of their heads. They were on their way to the local corn-mill to have their grains milled into flour.

We were again driving at altitude with very scenic drives through vast areas of alpine forests. Between Uspantan and Coban, we had to take a few detours due to landslides. It is the rainy season here in Central America where landslides are a common occurrence. We were very fortunate in that we usually encountered very heavy rain on our travelling days. Whenever we went on an excursion, the weather was usually fine and sunny to start off with. The thunderstorms tend to happen late in the afternoons or overnight. The landscape changed from alpine to limestone and tropical rainforest as we passed San Antonio Las Cuevas where one could go caving/spelunking or canyon tubing. This part of Guatemala reminded us of the limestone hills and caves around Ipoh in West Malaysia.

We arrived at the Tikal National Park quite late in the afternoon. The rangers at the park gate collected our entrance fee and from there it was slow 15 kilometre drive to the village of Tikal. We were warned not to exceed the speed limit of 40 km/hr so as not to startle or run over the wild animals. We found a nice green camping area in the garden of Hotel Jaguar Inn. After a nice meal at the hotel restaurant, we turned in early for the night so that we could be up early to tour the Mayan Ruins in the cool of the morning. As dawn broke, we heard the calls of Howler Monkeys coming from the forest at the edge of the campground. They sounded like very angry dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. It was a bit scary at first especially for Kienny who likes to visit the bathroom first thing in the morning!

The ancient Mayan Ruins at Tikal is a fascinating complex of pyramidal shaped ceremonial and astrological temples built of stone with ascending steps leading to a temple or worship altar at the top of the steps. It is easy to see why it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The setting is in stark contrast to the sandy desert location of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The whole complex is set amongst dense vine entangled tropical rainforest. Spider monkeys swing effortlessly from tree to tree, colourful birds perch high up in the tall canopies. It was like being in a lost world shrouded by the early morning mist. It must have been very exciting for the archaeologists who first uncovered this ancient civilization dating as far back as 2000 BC up to the early 16th century.

We spent about five hours exploring the ruins, climbing the steep stone steps up to the temples, watching, listening and enjoying the abundant wildlife all around us. There is ongoing work to restore the decaying parts to its former glory. We entered the park at first light in order to beat the heat and the hordes of tourist. It was great. For the first couple of hours we had the park to ourselves but by mid-morning there were busloads of tourists scrambling over the ruins all jostling for the best vantage point to take the prize-winning picture. We were also fortunate enough to tag along with one of the tour groups and hear the guide talk about the genius of the Mayan mathematical and astronomical calculations involved in constructing ceremonial platforms to coincide with the Sun’s solstices and equinoxes. We wondered if these platforms were used to offer human sacrifices to their gods of the sun, moon, and lightning and of the underworld.

After two nights in Tikal, we made our way to the border post between Guatemala and Belize. Since the Palenque Mayan Ruins in Mexico was more easily accessible from Belize, we exited Guatemala at Melchorde Mencos and entered Belize at Benque Viejo. Both border crossings were very relaxed and friendly. Belize definitely had a relaxed, reggae Caribbean atmosphere. The people we met all spoke English with a Caribbean accent. While we were waiting for our car permit, the customs officers were ordering meatballs, pork, rice and beans for lunch. That made us very hungry and we could hardly wait to finish border proceedings and drive to the next town to have lunch. We passed many supermarkets and hardware stores with Chinese names. Many houses were built on raised platforms or stilts amongst coconut trees. In many places, the homes were just a stone’s throw from very marshy ground.

It did not take long for us to get to Belize City where we found camping at the Cucumber Beach Yacht Club with the help of our “Mexico Camping” book by Mike and Terri Church. This Yacht Club is the first port of call for cruise-ships, yachts and catamarans from all over the world. It has a very nice restaurant, a water-park and beach resort facilities and even an ATM machine. We were able to park Troopy beside the docks next to the yachts. We were only metres from the Caribbean Sea and it was lovely to get a nice warm afternoon sea breeze. That evening, we walked the whole length of the jetty in a U-shaped formation. Even though Troopy was parked within a stone’s throw of the restaurant, we would have had to swim across the water to get to the restaurant.  We were glad to have that fifteen minute walk back to Troopy after a very big Caribbean style ribs dinner. That night, we had the yacht club virtually to ourselves except for the security guards, three dogs and lots of CCTVs mounted high up on lamp-posts.

We left the Yacht Club the next morning travelling further north towards the border with Mexico. The countryside was very green, tropical with lots of coconut trees. Much of Belize seemed to be waterlogged. There were vast areas of marshy wetlands everywhere. Many homes were built above ground and the surrounding property was marshland. Some families have small Fan boats (Air boats) used to navigate the marshy waterways like the Everglades in Florida. There is also a Mennonite community near the town of Orange. It was strange to see these folk in traditional clothing, living and farming the conservative way in Belize amongst a mix of African and Latin American people.

We exited Belize at Santa Elena and crossed into Mexico at the Subteniente Lopez border post. This is crossing point between Central America and North America. We have had a fantastic time travelling through Central America. The people were all very friendly and welcoming. We found all the immigration and Customs officers at all the border crossings to be very friendly and helpful. Except for a couple of stops in Honduras, all the police checkpoints we have encountered were all very friendly as well. Many of the police and military were highly amused to see a steering wheel on the right hand side. To them, this seemed all wrong.
We have found the roads to be quite good in Central America. Guatemala wins the First Prize for having the most speed humps! Just when one least expects it, one gets a sudden bone-jarring jolt. Many were unpainted so the rule to remember is to slow right down when coming into town. We were uncertain about the security situation in Central America because of its turbulent past. However, we have found the travelling to be very safe and straightforward for overland travellers. The people in El Salvador and Guatemala were the friendliest although in Guatemala, we saw a few people carrying hand-guns tucked into the backs of their jeans. Perhaps they were plain-clothes police officers or private security guards. In any case, we thought it best to not be too inquisitive.

We are very glad to have traversed Central America. We always wish we had more time to spend in each country but time is flying past ever so quickly. Maybe next time!

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking
here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.
 

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/Americas.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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