34 Central America
Two close escapes. April 2007
Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala & Belize.
Volcanoes and earth quakes have shaped these small mountainous lands. Many have coffee farms and banana plantations, stunning beaches, volcanoes and pristine forests. Some have been harmed by guerrilla wars and some are still recovering from hurricane destruction. We are going to drive North West towards Mexico and the USA.
We had come by plane, from Cartagena, Colombia and were glad to find that Dipli had arrived safely (via Seaboard Marine) at the scruffy port of Colon. Although Colombia and Panama are joined on land, the Darien gap (150km), an area of marshy forests and rivers, (also with guerrilla and smuggling activities) has no through road.
The Panama Canal.
How amazing to see gigantic ocean-going vessels move through green fields and to watch how the ships, as high as a 5 storey-building, rise and fall as they pass through the huge locks. The 80km long canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific was started by the French & completed by the Americans in 1914. It costs a liner about $35 000 to pass though the canal. A new project has commenced to widen the channel and to use locks recycling the fresh water, now lost to the sea.
Of course we had to find the point furthest south on the continent of North America! The dry, cattle raising, Azuero Peninsula was our destination. GPS coordinates noted, we were contentedly parked on the lonely beach, having driven down a river bed to get there. At sunset we did not notice the spring tide rising into the river and approaching us from all 4 sides… Jan drove to the highest point on the sand bar, but then the water started receding just as the waves were lapping around all the wheels. Whew!
Panama for settlers.
We met many people who were escaping from the northern winters to settle or run a second home in Panama. Panama seems to be becoming the preferred option rather than Costa Rica, which was becoming too expensive and prone to more crime.
An Orchid garden we visited, collects and breeds the endemic Dracula orchid species. Each one has a dragon-like tiny face in the centre of the bloom.
A cool pine forest nearby was a suitable place for Jan to replace a broken shackle bolt.
People from this nation are known as “Ticos”.
The country has no army and has more money for education and conservation. The roads were not as good as in the poorer Central American countries where the roads and bridges have been “donated”.
The beautiful forest zones, diverse on different altitudes, are so dense that you would be very lucky to spot a large beaked toucan or a multi coloured parrot, never mind a puma or a jaguar. (In spite of scores of “jungle and canopy tours”). We found a wildlife sanctuary where we could admire some of these creatures close-up.
We enjoyed the walks around the collapsed craters of volcan Irazu and a trail close to the active Arenal Volcano which smokes and thunders, sending down streams of lava. Our friends from France invited us to their beach house on the remote Nicoya Peninsula where we enjoyed their company, swimming, and French cuisine.
Although it has no street name signs, San Jose. (the capital of CR) actually has a campground! Long-haul travellers gather there. Tips on overnight parking spots (from Alaska to Argentina) with GPS coordinates were being exchanged on print outs, CDs or by direct transfer. They were also using wireless internet to send e-mail or to talk by PC phone from within their vehicles; something we would migrate to in the US.
It was hot and the queue at the border was two hours long. Watching the contraptions extracting sugar cane and orange juice was a welcome diversion. Fresh coconuts were chopped open with a machete and were also on offer complete with a straw.
In contrast with CR where most people flashed cell phones and seemed to possess cars, Nicaraguan villagers seemed to have more bicycles, ox and horse carts, and large wooden wheelbarrows. Alas, they all, and some big trucks too, were hauling timber from the forests. Labelled as one of the poorest countries, it has had to contend with guerrilla insurgency, US trade embargo, falling price of coffee, droughts, fires and floods.Granada. The huge Lake Nicaragua has 3m long sharks adapted to fresh water. From its beach we
could explore the charming colonial town of Granada (founded in 1524). It has traffic-free cobbled streets, trim churches and a palm-covered plaza. In the court yard of an old Spanish-built restaurant we enjoyed fresh fish from the lake with steamed plantains and yucca. Fruit drinks on the menu were made from limes, cactus fruits or tamarind beans.
Managua the nation’s capital was severely damaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 – after having been rebuilt following an earthquake 25 years before. Vacant land and earthquake damaged ruins surround recent restorations.
We were on anti-malaria prophylactics but did not fancy visiting the lowland Mosquito Coast (The place where mosquito’s got their name from?).
At the frontier we met a black poodle with her own passport. We wondered whether border officials object to the photo showing her with the little pink tongue sticking out. (Like not being allowed to smile on a passport photo). She was travelling in a Unimog with her German owners.
For overnight parking we always studied the maps to try and find a spot with some elevation, otherwise it was too hot to sleep.
After shopping at many colourful markets, we were happy to find, near the capital, Tegucigalpa, a rare huge air-conditioned hypermarket. We also found an Internet café where we could see the latest picture of our grandson (son of Liesl and André) and where we were thrilled to read that Ingrid and Gerhard wanted to come and join us in Mexico.
Beyond the sprawling city, roadside stalls displayed brightly coloured hammocks, baskets, cane furniture and ceramic vessels. Bunches of bananas, heaps of water melons and cantaloupes and some very large papayas were also for sale.
At Lake Yojoya the owner of the restaurant with internet and fresh blueberry pie, told us about his South African ancestors and invited us to park on his coffee farm overlooking the lake.
Copán was a large Mayan settlement which was inhabited for around 2000 years. They intricately carved huge blocks of stone depicting their rulers. Walls and a stairway are carved with hieroglyphs. Buried underneath the main structure a red-painted temple in perfect condition has been discovered. A full scale replica of the 6th century temple can be seen in the site museum.Winding roads twisted up and down along meandering rivers through small towns. One village is famous for the Flor de Copán Cigar factory. Bundles of tobacco leaves are sorted rolled and packed by hand to be shipped in fancy boxes all over the world. 1000 people are employed there.
On a tortuous stretch of mountain road Dipli suddenly had no steering! Luckily we were going slowly, as we had just taken a sharp curve at the bottom of a hill and had started on the uphill, so Jan managed to stop before we went over the edge. (Lost a drag link castle nut; had a spare).
It is the smallest Central American country.
“Pupuserias” are the favourite eating places in El Salvador. A “pupusa” is a maize meal mass stuffed with cheese, beans, and meat. They are served with cabbage and carrot pickle and a tomato “salsa”. Quite tasty.
At Lake Suchitlan the humidity was even higher but fortunately there was a swimming pool. The Pacific coast surfing beaches was another option for keeping cooler.The capital, San Salvador, has an interesting modern church with lovely stained glass window panels and a soaring arched roof that looks like an airline hangar. The cathedral’s façade is decorated with colourful motifs that reminded us of Ndebele art. Some lopsided earthquake-damaged buildings surround the area. At the main market the women making tortillas wore short very frilly aprons over ordinary clothes. Red and yellow cashew fruit were on sale. Wheel barrow loads of mangoes were being pushed in.
We were warned about violent crime in the city, so were happy to find parking next to the Sheraton Hotel. There happened to be a theatre there where we could attend a show.
Fortunately we could safely park at family of friends, in Guatemala City. We had to obtain visas for Mexico. The consulate was efficient but we had to submit proof of financial resources, which we could print off the internet.
Antigua is a lovely colonial town. The local police indicated that we should move further from the corner and then left us to enjoy being parked on the main square. It was noisy but the main plaza, the illuminated cathedral and beautiful government buildings were on our door step.
From scenic Lake Atitlan, with surrounding volcanoes, the ascending road went past villages where women were dressed in exquisite hand-woven traditional outfits. At market towns like Chichicastenango and Panachuel these weavings and crafts from leather and wood were offered to scores of tourists to barter for.
Heating on the up and cooling on the down hills Dipli took us north east to Cobán where a coffee farm claims to be a main supplier of coffee to Starbucks. An interesting tour showed the seedlings, berries on the trees and how they are soaked, sorted, dried, roasted and packed. Cardamom seeds are harvested there too.
The tall Mayan temples were shrines to the ancestors. One high pyramid may be climbed at sunset. The ancient sky scrapers pushing through the tropical jungle was an awesome sight. Howler monkeys and macaws were making quite a din at dusk.
The shore of Lake Pedén Itza was a convenient grassy spot for some TLC for the vehicle. The only time cool enough to do the work was at 5 in the morning.
While Jan was toiling, Leone spent her time at an internet café. There we received the good news that Ingrid and Gerhard were going to have a little bambino but that they would not be able to join us in Mexico as planned, due to the risk of malaria.
Ex British Honduras is trying to do the eco-tourism thing but, apart from the curiosity of the English language, the only real attraction is the blue Caribbean Sea with its barrier reef. Next country for us will be the United-Sates-of-Mexico.
Cashew nut fruit