Shipping the Darian Gap

North- and South America are not connected by any roads, between Panama and Colombia is about a 150km stretch of jungle, the so called Darian Gap. Therefore, we have to ship our Landy to Colombia.
To keep costs low, we searched for shipping partners to share a container from the Panamanian port of Colon to Cartagena in Colombia. We decided to use the biggest container available (40′ HC) so that we can squeeze in two cars and one or two motorbikes. We quickly found a van and a motorbike for the journey and as an agent we used Boris from Ever Logistics (WhatsApp +507 6213-3485). Main reason we chose Boris over other agents is that with him, we can load the container outside the port, are present when it gets sealed and can keep the keys to our cars.
Useful resources to find shipping partners are the well known PanAmerican FB-Groups (PanAmerican Travelers Association, Overland the Americas and for motos Horizons Unlimited). Since a few weeks, there’s also an online app called container buddies (We didn’t use it).

Because Rachel and I wanted to sail via the San Blas islands to Cartagena we chose the Saturday shipping, so that we have enough time in Cartagena to get the cars out of the port without having to pay extra fees. You get three free days to unstuff the container, the clock starts ticking as soon as the ship’s in the port. Each extra day costs $41.

Total costs for two cars and one motorbike:
Panama: $1800
Colombia: $557 (payable in Colombian Pesos)
Total: $2357 ($978 for us)

The process to get the cars out of the container in Cartagena is actually quite easy but involves a lot of walking around, filling out forms, waiting and takes two days.
If you are shipping with Boris and Seaboard the first step to get your car back is to go to the Seaboard Compass office in El Bosque (location see iOverlander.com) with the draft Bill of Lading. There you will get a detailed step-by-step checklist and the original Bill of Lading.
If you have a motorbike and it’s Friday afternoon by the time you get out of the port, you are probably out of luck getting the mandatory SOAT insurance – the gas station SOAT selling places we found do not issue the insurance for motorbikes, you have to go to the Seguros SURA office that’s open Mon-Fri (8-12;1:30-5)

Panama

Before leaving Costa Rica, we stopped at a private Mirador (Viewpoint). The Mirador is run by a National Park Ranger and has two short but steep trails to a viewpoint. From there you have a beautiful view of the coast and with good weather we were told you can even see mount Chirripo. What we also saw on the hike were many green and black frogs, nearly completing our animals to see in Costa Rica list! The only ones we didn’t see were Quetzals, the elusive national bird of Guatemala we’ve been on the lookout for since months.

We entered Panama from the small border crossing on the Caribbean coast. We picked this partly to give us the chance to visit Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, but mostly because it is supposed to be much easier and cheaper with a dog. We have read and heard from folks that crossed through the Pacific border that they were required to pay an additional $100 “home quarantine” fee for each dog, where the Caribbean side doesn’t. We had time to kill before shipping the Landy, so the detour was well worth it to us. We had a slow exit from Costa Rica – it took nearly an hour to get the exit stamp, then a police officer didn’t understand what a canceled TIP document looked like and wouldn’t let us pass until the boss from the Aduana (customs office) came out and told him to let us through. Panama side was the normal Central American chaos, but everyone was nice and we had all stamps and documents in hand in just over an hour.

Most people come this direction in order to visit Bocas del Toro, a group of islands just off the coast of Panama. We considered going, but decided against because we’ve already had lovely Caribbean island experiences (Caye Caulker, Utila) with another to come (San Blas Islands), so the hassle of the ferry hardly seemed worth it. Instead, we drove back towards the Pacific side and up into the mountains. There were plenty of beautiful views along the way, including a giant hydroelectric dam and the reservoir behind it.

We spent 4 nights in Boquete, which is a very pleasant mountain town. It is a popular spot for Americans to retire and we could see why. The climate was pleasant – warm but not too hot during the day, and cool but not cold at night – and the surrounding mountains were green and lush. There is also bit of hiking in the mountains above town. We did two of these hikes. The Hidden Waterfalls hike has a relatively well maintained trail heading to two spectacular waterfalls, then a muddy path that leads to a third. Little dog legs and rainy season don’t mix well with the mud, so we turned around after number two. Then a bit higher is the Trail of the Quetzals. We were able to sleep at the ranger station above town for free and walked a portion of the trail. It had rained a bit in the morning and we knew it would probably pick up again, so we turned around after 2 miles and got back to the Landy just in time to avoid a downpour. We sadly didn’t see any Quetzals, which was our last chance in Central America. On our way back into town, we happened to pass a honey farm and popped in to see what they had. We did a honey tasting, with 15 natural honeys and 10 infused honeys. The natural flavors just come from the variety of flowers the bees visit and some were really unique, like the honey from coffee plants. We walked out with just two jars, though we would have liked to buy 10.

After Boquete we headed back towards the coast which we regretted immediately. Higher temperatures and humidity make it hard to sleep at night or do anything during the day. We thought we should check out some beach camping in Panama and made our way towards Las Lajas. We were making great time on the well maintained freeways which is welcome break from the potholed roads of Costa Rica! Then on the Panamerican freeway heading south, we suddenly came to a total stop. There was a protest in the town ahead and traffic was backed up for miles. This is just a way of life in Latin America – you make your concerns heard through road blocks, and everyone just turns off their engines and waits patiently. We were only delayed about an hour and made it to the beach with plenty of time to melt in the sun.

Next stop was Santa Catalina, further down the coast and gateway to Coiba National Park. On the way we stopped at the Salto Las Palmas waterfalls – free and you can drive right to them! We were still reeling from the budget shock of Costa Rica, so we are flocking to free waterfalls and activities like college kids flock to free pizza. In Santa Catalina, it was once again hot and humid, so we booked a dive tour – best way to beat the heat is on and under water! The dive shop took care of Mitzi for us during the full day adventure to Coiba National Park. The whole day was spectacular. First, the boat ride took as past beautiful undeveloped coastline and we saw humpback whales and dolphins! Then the diving itself we saw a huge variety of marine life: Giant oceanic Manta Ray, turtles, huge schools of fish, seahorses, and reef sharks. The surface intervals were spent on beautiful white sand beaches. It was a perfect day of diving!

Santa Catalina was beautiful, but without another dive day it was too hot for us. Back to the mountains we go! We went to Laguna Yeguada to find cooler temperatures and hopefully some hiking trails We found heavy rain and one short hiking trail, but we also made a new friend. A local police officer and part of Panama’s Nature Police welcomed us and was very curious about our trip and Switzerland. We shared a lot about the climate and culture but he couldn’t believe people live somewhere so far from the ocean and beach! He was also curious about Swiss food, and we struggled to describe what the cheese is like. Even in English or German it would be tough for us to describe hard cheeses to someone that only knows Prepackaged Yellow slices, so in Spanish it was nearly impossible. The next day we left town and stopped in Natá de los Caballeros to see their very old church. It claims to be the oldest built after Spanish colonialists arrived. It is well maintained with a wood interior was unique to see.

Next stop on our journey was El Valle de Anton, also in the mountains but further east. The town has hiking trails, a lovely market, and some restaurants. At this point we knew we needed to start killing time before reaching Panama City, so we settled into a hotel camp with a pool for a few nights. Our shipping partner Alexis also happened to be in the town, so we were able to meet up with him. Our first full day we hiked to La India Dormida above El Valle. Round trip from the car was a bit over 10km with not too much climbing, but it did involve some really steep rock sections that Mitzi was too tired to scramble down. The next couple days in El Valle were quiet, other than a parade through town for the Festival of the Golden Frog. We still aren’t sure what the festival is really about but the local schools put on a good show!

Two nights were spent at another hotel with a pool, down near the coast this time. We were able to meet some other travelers we haven’t seen since Mexico – Roque and Sharon (their blog is at bootsandcoffee.com) Panama is the end of their Panamerican journey as they are planning to live down here.

After two nights we were ready to make our way into Panama City, with a few stops on the way. First we went to Los Cajones de Chame, a beautiful river canyon. We all went for a quick swim, including Mitzi. You know it is hot out when she comes into water voluntarily! Then we took a scenic drive by Altos De Campana National Park, did some laundry at a truck stop, washed the car, and hit the freeway to Panama City! It was Thursday evening so we expected all traffic to be leaving the city, and none entering. Which it was – except all lanes during rush hour were used for exiting cars, and there was no way into the city until around 9pm. There are two main bridges over the Panama Canal near Panama City, one of which is very close to our intended camp site. This was unfortunately the stretch of highway most effected by rush hour… so we ended up having to turn around, head back to the truck stop and spend the night there. After a less than wonderful night, we finally made it across the Canal and into Panama City – more on that to come!

Costa Rica III

Part 3 of our adventures starts and ends back at the beach. We start on the Pacific coast, with a night of wild camping. We found some safer stretches of coast in this part of our journey and could enjoy something for FREE in Costa Rica! After all that complaining we did about prices in the last stretch, it was a nice change of pace.

A couple of highlights along the Pacific Coast: Manuel Antonio National Park, a beautiful preserved area with hiking trails. This was the one National Park we decided to splurge on entering. Due to the hot weather and needing to leave Mitzi behind, we got up early and were there right for the 7am opening. The temperatures then were still cool and we had the place to ourselves! The sights were great and we were out just after 9am, as the temperatures were just starting to creep up and the crowds were really rolling in. The park wouldn’t have been half as nice two hours later (nor would it have been possible to go without the pup).

Uvita and Marino Ballena National Park – technically there is an entry fee here, but we stayed in a spot that has a private entrance and enjoyed walking along the beach here. It is known for the “Whale Tail” land formation. You can walk out to the end during low tide and enjoy the great view. We went as the tide was coming in and got to splash around in the waves that were coming from both sides.

Osa Peninsula – There was a lot of great wild camping spots on the Peninsula and plenty of wildlife sightings – some turtles in the water of Golfo Dulce and Scarlet Macaws dropping shells on us from Playa Matapalo. We didn’t go into the National Park here – again, no dogs and the high price tag – but we don’t feel like we missed out on much and enjoyed all the lovely free (and safe) beach camping.

Backtracking up the coast a bit, we stopped in Dominical for a couple nights. We were technically “wild camping” but it didn’t feel so wild, since they were in a parking lot next to a bar where we could pick up WiFi, had a short walk to an brewery, and close to a surf shop where we rented some boards. This was most definitely Rachels last time on a surf board – 4th time was still not the charm. Ben had fun practicing, but we were both ready to head back in the mountains!

Up near Chirripo National Park, we found a hostel with camping that let us park the Landy there. It is the low season now, so we were the only guests and got to chat a bit with the hostel owner. We poked around the villages, found a short trail past some waterfalls, and bought cheese and chocolate at a couple local shops. We also went up to a private nature reserve to go hiking our second morning there. Unfortunately it was also not dog friendly, but the trail was very short and temperatures are cool, so Mitzi didn’t mind letting us go for a walk without her.

Our next stop was for 10 days at a small Animal Shelter in the town Pueblo Nuevo. Rachel has been wanting to do some volunteer work while we travel, and this opportunity seemed perfect. The day to day work involved lots of dog walks (fun) and dog poop (gross) but the best part were cuddling with the sweetest bonded pair, Clarita and Kasper. If we weren’t limited to one dog on the upcoming sailing trip, we may have taken off with these two.

From the shelter, we got back on the road with a nice 4×4 road full of views on our way up to 3000m. Just outside of the National Park Los Quetzales is the beautiful mountain village San Gerardo de Dota. We went on two beautiful hikes and paddled around in a cute little lake.

Next up, back to San Jose to pick up more car parts! But first to the Central Valley to see the sights and visit a Swiss bakery. Our first Zopf since October! Due to recent rains, their campsite was flooded so we headed to the city that night instead of staying in the beautiful area. On the way we visited a few beautiful spots: Sarchi, famous for their elaborately decorated Ox Carts, Cartago with a beautiful church and ruins in the center of the city, and the ruins of Iglesia Ujarrás. We spent the next three nights at the same hostel as our last visit, had some more delicious food in the cool neighborhood there, and visited the National Museum. Out of San Jose, we spent one night up in the mountains by Volcan Irazu hoping to see some Quetzals – but still no luck. And from there a long drive down to the Caribbean coast and the town of Puerto Viejo. From here we are getting travel documents ready for Mitzi, and as soon as that’s all in order it will be off to Panama!

 

Costa Rica II

We left the beautiful Nicoya Peninsula excited to see what the highlands of Costa Rica have to offer. The country has a lot of beautiful and exciting National Parks – that are both expensive and totally forbidden for dogs. Monteverde, which would have been the next stop, has $30 entrance fees per person plus a hotel room to leave the pup at while there, made this quickly drop from possible stops. Instead we drove a windy mountain road nearby, enjoyed the beautiful views, and continued on to Lake Arenal.

Costa Rica is known as the Switzerland of Central America, but our first night at Lake Arenal was literally a little piece of Switzerland! The farm and hotel/restaurant Los Heroes was built by a Swiss couple that relocated to this part of the world many decades ago. They built up their property in authentic Swiss fashion and have been welcoming overlanders to stay for free on their property. There is a small train that runs uphill to a beautiful view of the lake and volcano – or, if you’re looking for a hike like we were, there is a farm road to the top as well. Best of all, they have a restaurant with delicious and authentic Swiss dishes we haven’t had in ages! Rösti and Züri Geschnetzles really hit the spot.

Next stop was just south of Lake Arenal, in La Fortuna. We wanted to position ourselves somewhere with a bar to watch the Switzerland vs. Costa Rica World Cup match, and with all the tourism around La Fortuna we figured there would be plenty to do. But oh, those crazy entry fees caught us by surprise again. Waterfalls all seem to be privately owned, and in order to have the privilege to see one they charge pretty crazy fees. The Fortuna waterfall is fairly iconic for Costa Rica (at least it made the cover of our Lonely Planet book), so we walked up from our camp to the entrance ready to just get in the tourist vibe and pay the $15. Then on the 30 minute uphill walk, we discussed previous waterfalls on the trip… from the recent ones in Honduras National Parks to the gorgeous Thousand Foot Falls in Belize. And oh it kind of looked like the photos we saw of this La Fortuna one… Hmm, is it really worth it? So we turned around, enjoyed the walk, and about 5 minutes after returning to camp a torrential downpour started. And lasted quite a while. Phew, good choice to skip the falls! We finally chose one tourist event in the La Fortuna area: a Chocolate Tour. It was enjoyable to see the cocoa trees in their small farm, the tour wasn’t too special. The chocolate factories in Switzerland and Seattle give better information (and much better samples!) than this place for muuuuch less money.

Those torrential rains we barely avoided are just a part of rainy season in Costa Rica. The Pacific side tends to be dryer, the Caribbean coast rainier, and the highlands are a mixed bag. Our first day up there at Lake Arenal, we had lovely weather and great views of the Volcano and surrounding landscape. But by now the rain had settled in and showed no signs of letting up. Our hopes of doing some hiking in the dog-friendly parks nearby were washed away. Too console ourselves, we enjoyed local hot springs! There are a number of places to enjoy the thermal waters in the area, from a free place to jump in the river to fancy spas with $80 entrance fees. We found a nice spot with lots of Costa Rican families that welcomes campers.

The next morning, we packed our stuff and got ready to go – only the Landy seemed to be having other plans. The car suddenly turned itself off, as if we had turned the key to Off, only nobody had done a thing. Long story short, we needed to move up a mechanic appointment we had made with the guys at Nomad America. Instead of taking a 3 day scenic route to their shop, we headed there straight away. Nomad America isn’t actually a mechanic shop, but it rents out 4WD vehicles (including Defenders) with rooftop tents for folks wanting to get a short taste of our crazy lifestyle. Their mechanic is familiar with the Landy and agreed to work on the car in his spare time. The guys here were super helpful and friendly, even though we weren’t regular customers, and let us spend the night on their property.

The shop was not far from San Jose, so we decided we would stop in for a night to see the capitol. The one night turned into three (Which would eventually turn into a second visit). Our guide books all said San Jose has little to offer, but we felt they were way off! The neighborhood we stayed in was fun, walkable, and full of great places for food and drinks. The historic old town was close by and full of beautiful buildings and interesting shops. We also got to meet a pair of Overlanders we had seen online many times – slowcarfasthouse.com They are fellow dog owners that share great information for those of us behind them on the road. As we pulled into the hostel we would camp at, they were being interviewed by a local TV station about their trip. We were caught for a couple seconds in one of the shots, nothing special but Mitzi let it go to her head 😉
Unfortunately they don’t let us embed the video, but you can see it here: http://www.repretel.com/actualidad/la-pareja-que-cumple-suenios—casa-rodante-120065

Our full and fun 3 days in San Jose ended our first adventure in the Costa Rican highlands. We took a fun offroad path back to the coast and the second Pacific adventure began!

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Costa Rica I

Costa Rica is an interesting place. It is a huge tourist destination and unlike the rest of Central America, it is full of people that speak English and steep entrance fees to see anything. After our tense drive through Nicaragua and the nervous weeks leading up to that, we were mostly excited to have made it safely to the Switzerland of Central America.
Our first two nights in Costa Rica were spent at a nice jungle camp run by Swiss immigrants. This would be the first of many Swiss expats or Swiss run establishments we would run into in Costa Rica. According to Wikipedia there are just 550 Swiss expats here, but it seemed like they all owned a camp, bakery, restaurant or something else for us to visit.

Two nights of jungle bugs and heat we’re enough for us and we headed to the beach. One of the best features of Costa Rica are its beaches – clean, beautiful, and fully public. Our first night we found a beautiful white sand beach on the Nicoya Peninsula and parked for the night – for free. Before we arrived, we pictured that every night would be like this.
A note about safety though – violent crime here is very low, but petty crime sure isn’t. In the first week we heard from two separate overlanders that had their cars broken into. Popular beach destination like Tamarindo or Jaco are not safe to camp at night, or even leave your car unattended. We’ve already had some stuff taken from the car when we parked on an unattended but “safe-looking” street back in Oaxaca and didn’t want to lose more.

We chose therefore to stay in proper campgrounds for the rest of our time on the peninsula. Better to pay a bit for a safe night then to pay a lot to replace stolen goods or smashed windows!
Nicoya Peninsula had some lovely camps, our favorite of which was Elimar in Mal País. We stayed put here for a full week and really could have stayed longer. Every night we had a beautiful sunset, and during the days we took a couple surf lessons (more below on that( and watched World Cup games. We caught the Switzerland vs Serbia match at a sports bar in the nearby town and it was full of Swiss tourists. We haven’t seen this many Swiss people in one place in over half a year!

Surfing in Costa Rica really seems like something you just have to do. There are so many famous surf beaches and we passed by so many surf schools on our drive down the peninsula that Rachel had it in her head we HAD to try it. After finally talking Ben into it, we booked a lesson in Playa Santa Teresa. The instructor was great and it turns out Ben is a natural. All those hours on the Stand Up Paddle really paid off! Rachel was… Well, it’s the effort that matters. We took a second lesson two days later (giving our sore muscles a break) and then took boards out on our own two days after that (again, sore sore muscles!) Three days of this really wore us out. Who knew falling off a board (in Rachel’s case) could be so exhausting?!  If we had it in us for more surf days, we definitely would have stayed in this lovely corner of Costa Rica even longer.
We finished up the Nicoya Peninsula by driving through the town of Montezuma, visiting a microbrewery, and spending the night in a quiet village at Playa Gigante. From there we were ready for some mountains and said goodbye for now to the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua was a very short visit for us. Because of the civil unrest we didn’t do any tourism and just drove through this beautiful country in two days. We met up with two other travelers near the Honduras/Nicaraguan border and convoyed through the country. We avoided all the big cities and most of the main roads so that we could avoid most road blocks. We started early and were at the border at 7am.

On the Honduras side things took a while due to a few Nicaraguans crossing into Honduras. We got all our exit stamps without any problems and moved on to the Nicaraguan border. This border was fully staffed even though we were the only ones there. We thought this might make the process quick but it turned out that there were some fees to pay ($12 per person) in US Dollars and not in local currency. We could not use any coins, only bills, and they didn’t have change. Finding money changers to break our $20 bills took a long time, but finally we found someone. Buying the mandatory insurance was quick and two hours later we were finally in Nicaragua and ready to blast through.

We took some backroads that were beautiful but slow going and didn’t encounter any road blocks until La Paz Centro. We told them that we are tourists on the way to Costa Rica and asked them if they would let us pass. After some internal discussions they let us through. We drove on and hit the next road block at El Tamarindo. Here again, they people blocking the road were really nice and waved us through quickly. They were more relaxed here than in La Paz and they wrote “Turistas” on our windshields to help with further blocks.

Just a few kilometers after the block, on a long straight road we came up to a slow truck. He signaled us to overtake and so we did, driving over a solid yellow line. By the time we are on the other lane we see the police waiting for us. They wanted all of us to pay a fine for crossing a solid line. This seemed so bizarre to us, to have these traps waiting in between road blocks. Luckily the French couple in our little convoy are retired French police. They talked with the jefe at the police stop and they let us go. Note to self: Make a Swiss police ID for future corrupt police encounters!

After that we decided not to push our luck any further and we headed to the coast for the night. The coast was beautiful and eerily devoid of tourists. The hotels along the coast were empty. There was one Nicaraguan family on the beach, and our group of 5. The coast is so far removed from the unrest but feeling the impact of drop tourism greatly.

The next day, we got up even earlier and left our camp at 5:30am. We passed by some more road blocks but they were only starting up and let us “Turistas” through without even stopping.
In Jinotepe however everything was closed. With the help of locals we navigated through the many neighborhoods and around uncounted road blocks and we were back on the main road. One last big block in Rivas was passed quite quickly. We arrived at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border at about 10am. No bribes payed, no violence encountered, and with a happy yet sad feeling – happy that we made it through without any issue yet sad that we had to skip this beautiful country.

 

 

Honduras Part II

From Gracias, Honduras, where we had our first long streak of bad travel luck, we continued on through Honduras and found better luck ahead! We had a long drive through green hills and mountains to our next destination. We stopped in the town of La Esperanza stretch our legs, have coffee and do a little sightseeing. Little towns off the tourist route are often the most charming, and this one was no exception.

We spent a few nights near the Lago de Yojoa at D&D Brewery. The brewery is a hostel and restaurant as well and has cheap and easy camping. The area nearby has hikes and activities, but unfortunately the brewery part of the location was a bummer. We took full advantage of fast internet to catch up on some chores (taxes, boo!) and did a hike through the jungle to a beautiful viewpoint above the lake. On our way up, we were sweating so much we could have sworn we’d gone up 500m. In reality it was probably closer to 200m (if that). Heat and humidity in this region is no joke!

Enough with the jungle, it’s time for the beach! We made plans to be in Utila and go diving with Yolanda again, so we packed up and took 2 days to head that way. We spent one night on the beach in Tela, where we didn’t do anything other than hang out in the pool and sweat in turn. The next day we caught the afternoon boat to Utila. The best way to describe this boat is a vomit rocket. We knew something was wrong when the staff was handing out barf bags before we had even taken off. The catamaran is new and nice, but the direction of travel to Utila has you hitting the waves sideways. And this afternoon the waves were big. As soon as we left the harbor, the boat was rocking and crashing and splashing side to side. The waves hit the side of the boat and block your view of outside, so the usual trick of picking a point on the horizon was nearly impossible. The only choice was sit back and hold tight for an hour.

Once we pulled into Utila Harbor – ah, scuba divers paradise! Dive shops as far as you can see. Utila is one of the best places to go Scuba dive in the Caribbean. The mesoamerican reef system stretches down here and there are about 80 dive sites off the island. We decided to do our Advanced Open Water certification here since the prices are great. Our course was a lot of fun – on top of the deep dive and navigation required dives, we went on a wreck dive, peak buoyancy dive (where we did tricks like circus divers) and a chaotic night dive. After our 5 required dives, we got 2 free Fun Dives with the shop. And Rachel was having such a good time, she tacked 2 more dives on top of that!

We didn’t take any pictures except some GoPro films but one of our fellow divers sent us the following pictures, thanks Lorenz!

The other side to Utila is the party island side. Which, if you know us, is not our scene. However we really enjoyed the cheap diving, good beer and good food. We saw lots of animals on the dives: Eagle Ray, tons of parrot fish, angel fish, nurse shark, dolphins (from the boat), two boat wrecks taken over with marine life, and so much beautiful coral.

Back on the mainland of Honduras, we backtracked our route quite a bit and visited a few spots we passed on the way up. Cerro Azul National Park had a beautiful and well maintained trail through the cloud forest and 5 types hummingbirds hanging out around the lodge. From there we went to Pulhapanzak waterfalls, Cuevas del Taulabe (cool caves), and finally covering new territory in the colonial town of Comayagua.

One of our favorite things about Honduras were the National Parks and the well maintained trails. We headed up into another cloud forest, La Tigra, to do some more hiking. The trail was a very pleasant, not too steep route to waterfalls. We have both missed these kinds of trails so much! The last highlight was our visit to the village of Valle de Angeles, just below the National Park.

Our last night we stayed in a hostel near the border of Nicaragua to prepare for our border crossing in the morning. The previous months, civil unrest in Nicaragua has made it a bit dangerous and difficult to travel through. We made plans to meet two other vehicles and caravan together to Costa Rica.

Honduras I

After a beautiful week in El Salvador and many in Guatemala, we had high expectations coming into Honduras. With fewer tourist highlights (meaning fewer viral Instagram photos), we weren’t sure what to expect.

Our start was rough. Border crossing into Honduras was absolutely chaotic. First on the El Salvador side, they didn’t have electricity and there was a huge backup of trucks waiting to get through. Then the Honduras side was disorganized, confusing and at times ridiculous. It took way too long and in the end I don’t think half the agents knew what they were doing. Details are unimportant, but this was by far the longest, most expensive and most stressful crossing yet.

Then we had a long drive to our first stop. Distance wasn’t too far, but the road was rough and we kept getting caught behind trucks on the steep uphill segments. Then we finally arrived in the town of Gracias, tired and ready to relax. The town is cute and sleepy, but the established campsite in town was apparently the party spot. Loud music until 6am, party people woo-woo’ing, and us grumbling from the Landy. Luckily we are in the land of good coffee and found a great shop in the center of town, located in the town square “tower”. Then exploring the town, we visited the old fort and cute shops. The town has set up great tourist resources and is ready for the crowds – the crowds just need to find it!

Needing some real peace and quiet we headed to Celaque National Park. This park is a gem. There are well maintained hiking trails and facilities. We were happy and ready for a relaxing evening when the moths showed up. Not just normal moths, but an insane invasion of moths that shed their wings and crawl through any gap in your car. They were getting in faster than we could counterattack. Stepping outside was like stepping into a plague… So we bolted. Friday night we slept outside a thermal pool, which is also a party spot. But we we’re so exhausted from the moths (and relaxed from the pools) that we slept through it all.

The next day we tried the park again. These moths were apparently a one time deal, and we finally got to enjoy the hiking trails and peace and quiet. Our luck finally changed, and the rest of Honduras was great – stories to come!

El Salvador

El Salvador is a small country and we only explored a small portion of it, but what we saw was stunning. From the first day we felt welcomed, had wonderful coffee and food, and met so many warm and friendly people. Our week here is full of happy memories and we had full, happy bellies to match.

After a painless border crossing from Guatemala, we took the Ruta de las Flores. Earlier in the year the road has tons of flowers blooming, but when we went we were “only” treated to cute villages, great coffee and beautiful views. We camped at a small lake just off the route, Laguna Verde. The tranquil lake had a small walking trail around it and was a nice spot to relax. In the evening, the local police came by to welcome us to the region and chat with us a bit. They were really friendly and wanted to take selfies with us. This isn’t at all the image I had of police in Central America.

The next day, we explored a couple of villages and visited the weekly culinary festival in the village Juayua. We tried some local sausages, served with beans and vegetables, then had our very first pupusas. They are essentially stuffed tortillas cooked with oil. Like good street food, cheap stuff is often the best – pupusas are less than $1 and delicious.

Filled up on food, we headed to Parque Nacional Cerro Verde to burn the calories off. We hiked up the Volcano Santa Ana, where we got an amazing view of the crater. The sulfurous lake in the crater is a stunning green color. If the winds are not in your favor, you get a whiff of that sulfur, too.

Next stop was the Lago de Coatepeque. This is a big lake at the base of the National Park and a popular weekend hang out. Folks were out taking boat tours and playing on jet skis, or having drinks at one of the many restaurants that line the lake. The city Santa Ana is close to the lake and also worth a quick stop. The church and buildings surrounding the plaza were very cute and there are plenty of pupusa stands to choose from. We then drove to the adorable village of Suchitoto for the night. The village was fun to walk around and we had a nice place to camp at a hostel/peace museum built into the grounds of a former convent. The night turned into two after Rachel got food poisoning, but the folks running the hostel were very generous and let us have a private room for a fraction of the normal price. We haven’t gotten sick on any street food yet, but some raw tomatoes in a “nice” restaurant is what got us. No more raw vegetables unless we are washing and cutting them ourselves!

For our final night we went to the highest point in El Salvador. El Pital was a peaceful place, but we got caught in a torrential downpour while out for a walk. Another lesson learned, this time about rainy season! Our shoes and clothes were completely drenched and it took a week to get the car fully dry again. Oops! In spite of all that, we still loved El Salvador. There is so much more to see, but our plans for Honduras led us to the western border crossing and left the southern half of the country unexplored by us.

Route taken:

Guatemala Part II

Lake Atitlan is a stunning lake formed by an ancient eruption and now framed by three volcanoes. We spent a week at a lakeside campsite and could have stayed much longer. We stayed near the village of San Marcos, which is a funny little gringo hippie village. The selection of yoga classes and kombucha was like what you’d expect in the most hipster neighborhood in Portland. Our campsite was about a mile from here and felt like another world. Pierre, a longtime French expat, has a lovely property with rental homes and camping with a view. Down by the water there is a dock to swim from, hammock to chill on and boats to get you to other villages around the lake. Our favorite stop was in the village of San Juan, which is known for textiles and weaving. We visited a local cooperative, where they demonstrate the weaving and dying processes and sold local artisan products.

After a relaxing week came the very strenuous overnight hike up Volcan Acatenango. This is a popular overnight hike because it offers views of the very active Volcano Fuego. Many tours and guides operate up here, but we decided to go up without support. To reach base camp at 3700m (12,140 ft) we had to climb over 1300m (4,300 ft) in 5km (3 miles), followed by another mile of normal hiking along the side of the volcano, to reach base camp. For Seattle friends, the profile is similar to that of the old Mailbox Peak trail, just a bit more climbing and at a much higher elevation. All this with our packs full of water, food and gear for the night. We cruised the first half, led by Mitzi’s surprising energy level.  After we crossed the 3000m mark, Rachel felt the effects of thinner air and started to slow down. Then we reach a stretch with sharp lava rocks that Mitzi needed help to cross, which gave us (mostly Ben) the extra challenge of schlepping her up the hill. At that point, we were kind of wishing we had done like most others and hired someone to bring our tent and food up. But we survived, and once we arrived at our campsite, we were treated to a view of… Clouds. We were completely fogged in and could only see about 10m ahead.

We could hear the volcano rumbling and booming from our tent. Occasionally the clouds would drift and reveal Fuego’s peak for a minute, then for two, and by sunset the clouds had fully disappeared and we got to watch Fuego put on a show! As it got dark, the magma glowed and the many eruptions were more and more impressive to us. Poor Mitzi didn’t enjoy the booms and hid in the tent all the night. Every half hour or so the volcano would rumble and boom. We didn’t get much sleep that night but it was an unforgettable experience and worth all the trouble!

Antigua Guatemala was our final stop and is one of the most visited places. The well preserved colonial town has managed to preserve its charm in spite of all of us tourists roaming around. The cobblestone streets and colorful buildings are best viewed from the patio of Antigua Brewery with IPA in hand.

We only spent three weeks in Guatemala and could have stayed so much longer. The country is vibrant and fun with so much to explore.