Merry Christmas from Costa Rica! Sorry we haven’t updated the blog in a few weeks. We have an excuse, we promise!
We last left you just across the border from Guatemala into Honduras. Country #6 of the Nomadizens adventure. We only had a few days to spend in Honduras, so we decided to head to Lago Yojoa in central Honduras. Our planned route took us near San Pedro Sula, the deadliest city in the world in 2011. We decided to ask some guys at the border about the road. Yes, it is a bit dangerous, but they still recommended that we take that road instead of the alternate route, which would leave us more isolated.
We drove into Coban Ruinas, the nearest town to the border, to stock up on cash, groceries, and gas. Again, our cash was not available for us to withdraw, so we exchanged the rest of our USD at a bank in town. We filled up the gas tank and decided we’d have to survive on leftovers until we got more cash in a couple of days. I like to triangulate on safety advice I get from locals, so I asked the gas pump attendant about the road to San Pedro Sula. Ohhh, it’s very dangerous. It has lots of potholes and it will take you 7 hours! Hmm, our GPS said 4 hours, so hopefully this guy is exaggerating, otherwise we would be driving well after sunset. Other parts of enjoyment including trying to find a parking space at the bank, getting our stuff out for it, and then Bethany coming back two minutes later exasperated needing a copy of her passport. The town itself was pretty, but had some rough roads. We had a hunch Honduras would be the poorest country we’d visit in Central America and initially we felt vindicated.
The Honduran countryside is beautiful. Lots of lush, green, rolling mountains. We passed 6 or 7 police checkpoints along the highway and were pulled over at one of them. Ike had to show his driver’s license, and we got vibes that the officer was going to ask for a bribe, but we pretended we didn’t speak Spanish so he didn’t bother asking. [Fun times; reminded me of being in Japan and basically being a trained monkey. ‘No entiendo senor!’ Goodbye! Adios! Si!’ Lulz.] Traffic increased as we approached San Pedro Sula, but not once did we feel unsafe. (Granted, we never went into the city.) We turned south towards Finca El Paraiso (Paradise Estate) and were shocked at the high quality of the highway. It was like a well maintained US interstate! [The same couldn’t be said of the vehicles on the highway though; a couple of times we saw chunks of metal getting thrown off the semi we were following. After the second one, we realized we needed to get out from behind the death-semi.] We enjoyed that while it lasted, but about 20 miles out from our destination we turned onto a secondary road with enough potholes to make up for the nice highway. We crept along and started noticing some new clunking noises coming from Sweetcakes. No bueno. We are starting to realize that Sweetcakes must prefer small town mechanics, because we always have to visit them when we are in the tiniest villages! [Our initial hope that it was just the shocks squeaking was quickly being shot to pieces as we now heard what sounded like metal on metal tinkling, which I had read online was truly indicative of bad ball joint. WOOOOF. We were also surprised by how caucasian the people of honduras were. There weren’t too many people who were clearly indigenous, but all we could do was speculate as to why it was different here as opposed to the other countries.]
We limped along the road, eventually turning off onto an even rougher gravel road leading back to the Finca, and then an equally bumpy long driveway leading back onto the plantation. Hang in there, Sweetcakes! The Finca was beautiful and we were the only ones around. We set up our tent between the rushing stream and the pool. Not too shabby. [$10 USD gets us our own freshwater fed pool? I think we can handle that! But we were both blown away by the beauty of the campground and how affordable it was. Amazing!]
The next morning we gingerly drove Sweetcakes back out to the main road and headed 5 miles back to the nearest town with an ATM. Our money was now available to us (wahoo!), so the next obstacle to tackle was finding a mechanic in this tiny town. Who better to ask then one of the 3 shotgun wielding guards in front of the bank? He recommended a mechanic just a few blocks away.
We turned off the paved road and onto a different gravel road, into a typical residential neighborhood in rural Central America. Kids on bikes all over the place, dogs running around, homes made of tin roofs and cement blocks, and the gravel uneven and thin. One building had “mecanico” painted on the side of the building, but we didn’t see any evidence of the mechanic, so I hopped out and asked a couple of teenage girls where the mechanic was. They pointed us down the road another half block. Sweetcakes crept along the road and we saw a shop with a dozen vehicles parked out front. Must be the mechanic!
We pulled in and I hopped out to try to explain our vehicle problem to the mechanic [Named Ochoa; he introduced himself to us and had the same name as the one the security guard had given us. Great smile and a nice guy!]. Eventually one of the 4 guys working there noticed us and came over to chat. Actually, they probably all noticed us pull in but then were holding out on who had to deal with the gringos. I explained that we were hearing some strange noises when we drove on bumpy roads. He asked if it was the brakes; nope. Next he bent down near our front wheels and grabbed onto something and rattled it. “This shouldn’t move,” he explained. Ike had done some research the night before and was worried it might be our ball bearings. He looked at the other side and found a loose washer above our shocks, so that explained the metal clinking noise. I asked if it was a big problem and he said nope! Hooray! [seriously, the amount of relief I felt at this moment was tremendous] He said he could fix it and that in fact, they sold the parts we needed in town. The mechanic’s teenage son crawled under Sweetcakes and started wrenching on the nut to remove the clinky washer above our spring, then took apart something with our stabilization bar and saw that the rubber piece that held it in place was pretty well shredded. Now we knew exactly what parts we needed, so we headed off with the mechanic’s 9 year old son, Dennis, to the parts store a couple of blocks away.
I tried to make small talk with him, but 9-year-old Dennis was clearly not thrilled about being seen walking through town with a couple of gringos. A few minutes and $10 later, we had the parts we needed in hand and headed back to the shop. The teenage son spent the next 45 minutes yanking around under the car and then voila, we were fixed! We handed over $10 for the labor and were on our merry way, incredulous about how cheap and easy the fix was. We had a couple of low-key days hanging around the cool, beautiful coffee plantation. One night we wandered over to D&D Brewery for some delicioso German-brewed cerveza.
That evening, after having the car fixed up, we sat in front of the computer watching the Simpsons with the quiet roar of the river rushing over rocks behind us. The roadway back to the campsites was spaced every few hundred feet with a streetlamp and as we were settled in after dinner watching TV we saw a dog come running up the roadway towards us, it’s owners a little ways behind it but obscured by the shadows. The dog came up and was quite friendly with us, Bethany and I making sure it seemed nice and saying hello to it. We waited for the owners to come up to it, and as they arrived, it was only upon hearing them speak that two and two fell into place and we realized it was Laika licking our hands and Nikki and Jakob walking up!
I mentioned it briefly in a previous post, but there is little more enjoyable while overlanding than being surprised by friends you’ve met before spontaneously showing up at your campsite. :)
Having seen one of our posts on facebook, they’d walked on over from the German Brewery a kilometer down the road to say high. They were taking off for Nicaragua the following day, but had wanted to swing by and say ‘hi’ before they left.
Tearfully saying goodbye to the best rum on the planet. We then found the Flor de Cana rum in Nicaragua. The other best rum on the planet.
The following day we did some hiking around the coffee plantation, the biggest surprises being the density of the mosquitoes present [ungodly; ughhhh] and the ability for the coffee farmers to plant the plants on such steep inclines. Bethany and I were both shocked at how the rows of coffee plants went along unimpeded by the steepness of the hillsides they were planted on. We had a difficult enough time just getting up and down the hiking trails unimpeded; doing it with a basket to collect coffee beans seemed rediculous. Nevertheless, the trails provided us with nice views of the surrounding countryside as well as a couple fleeting glimpses of the large lake we were camping next to.
And just like that, our time in Honduras had come to an end. We had a big day ahead of us: a long drive across the second half of Honduras, then the border crossing into Nicaragua. Another border crossing. By this point it was seriously hard to remember which country we were exiting and which we were entering. And by now we’ve forgotten the specifics of this border crossing, sorry to any fellow overlanders reading this for informacion. [All we truly remember is that we crossed on a Sunday hoping for it to be less busy, but it still took us 3 hours to get across the border. The Nicaragua side was supposed to be the more difficult side but the touts were only on the Honduras side too.]
Our first night in Nicaragua was spent camping outside a nice little hotel not too far from the border. They had internet and only charged us $4 to stay there. I think I like this place! The next day we intended to head to Volcan Masaya, but the park was closed for the religious holiday (we had no idea…), so we headed over to nearby Laguna de Apoyo instead. We set up camp outside a hostel and met fellow overlanders Colin and Aurelie from France. The hostel was a bit pricey ($10/person/night), but it was a gorgeous location with great amenities and delicious food from the restaurant. We ended up staying a second night. [As we had pulled in, I noticed the bright blue Dodge Ram with the camper in in, and remembered someone[who it was, no idea] who had asked us if we had seen their vehicle before, but we hadn’t. Either way, we were excited to meet more overlanders, and Colin and Aurelie were amazing! They’d flown to Quebec from France to start their trip, they’d crossed to the US at Detroit [lulz x 1000] and were both kind and friendly. It was nice having them parked next to us inside the resort hostel. We also enjoyed seeing the huge number of tourists that were visiting this area, the overwhelming majority of them college-aged students. It was a bit different for Bethany and I to be the ‘oldies’ [Less enjoyable was that evening when I was woken up in the middle of the night by one of the couples getting amorous with each other.] Our vehicle was parked up on a plateau near the top of the hill the resort occupied leading down to the lake, and near the vehicle was a large concrete bowl. Our second day there, a couple from New York City had inquired about the supposed ‘hot tub’ the hostel said it offered, and was told this concrete bowl, with two attached metal pipes that spiraled around at a foot diameter or so. Turns out they light a fire between the coil pipes, and the heating of the water pumps the warm water out the top of the pipe as it warms up, and draws cold water in the lower pipe. An ingenious setup, but despite running the fire for an hour, the water wasn’t above lukewarm when the NYC couple left.]
Sunset over Laguna de Apoyo
We signed up for the night tour at Volcan Masaya with Colin & Aurelie for the following evening. We made a brief stop at a grocery store between the lake and the volcano and came back to Sweetcakes to find our laptop missing. No bueno. We thought perhaps in our haste to pack up camp we left the computer there, so we hopped back on the road back to the lake. Midway there we noticed the phone was also missing, and we had used the phone on the way to the grocery store. Ughhhh, someone must have broken into our car at the grocery store. We circle back to the grocery store thinking perhaps we can talk to the security guard in the parking lot. But then we figure, what is he going to say? Probably that he didn’t see anything, and that they have a sign posted in the parking lot saying to take all valuable items into the store with you. At this point we need to head to the volcano or else we will miss our night tour, so we head out, both still a bit dumbfounded at how they got in the car since we had locked it.
We register at the base of the volcano, then drive up to the parking lot where the tour starts. I went back to the car to grab something and noticed that my key didn’t work in my door. That’s strange. Then it hit us: they must have stuck something in the lock in my door and forced it open. Instead of dwelling on the theft, we realized it could have been a lot worse (broken window or they could have stolen a lot more) and decided to make the most of our volcano tour. We met up with Colin & Aurelie and a few other travelers in our tour group. [including the couple who’d tried to use the hot tub]
Peering over the edge of the crater, we watched as the sun set behind the cloud of gas spewing out of the volcano. Our guide pointed out holes in the side of the crater where a species of bird has adapted to breathing the normally toxic gases and now lives happily in the crater. [Our guide took us around the back of the main entrace to get a better view, and Bethany and I were happy we’d brought our hankerchiefs to help block the gases in the air. We couldn’t help but cough, even though the air wasn’t that cloudy. Moving back to the main parking lot, we hopped in Sweetcakes and followed the caravan of other vehicles up the hill towards the next hiking spot. From where we parked, we made our way up the steep hill towards the top and the viewpoint it included. The sun had set and nightime decended on us as we crested the peak, and we enjoyed the view of the surrounding cities of Masaya [where we’d been staying, as well as Managua. All of the cities are located in the valleys beneath the chain of volcanoes. Our guide informed us that they’d seen earthquakes, eruptions, lava and damage over the last few decades. Following the view from the top, we made our way to another stop, and this time descended down underground, to lava tunnels formed during the previous eruption. The bats were plentiful, and often became flying tunnels as tour groups approached from opposite directions, giving them little recourse but to fly upwards.]
Masaya in the background. Somewhere in those lights is our computer and cell phone.
The tour eventually took us to the Gates of Hell, so named by a Spanish priest who saw the glowing orange light on the rocks from the lava in 1529. Our guide asked us to turn off our headlamps and step up on a little platform and look out over it. Far, far below, we could see light flickering orange light. Much of it was obscured by the gases in the air, and we took turns looking over and then ducking back to cough. Curious, I turned on my headlamp and noticed that turning off the headlamps to see the lava was only half the story. The platform we were on was built out over the cliff side. It was just a couple of two-by-fours slapped together with light handrails on it. I suddenly didn’t feel as confident with all five of us standing on it.
Back at the entrance to the museum, Colin, Aurelie, Bethany and I set up our campsites and began making dinner. Colin busted out a grill and began marinating the chicken while we made fried rice. An eclectic meal, yes, but still fantastic.
Colin and Auriele
Later that evening, we took a walk around the museum and looked out over the valley, the lights from the cities of Managua and Masaya sparkling in the night below, with the stars overhead.
A bit later, I made my way over towards the museum to see if they’d left the door to the restroom unlocked or not. As we’ve mentioned before, walking around central america at night with headlamps on is interesting because you frequently see glittering lights on the ground that looks like water droplets reflecting the light, except instead of water droplets, it’s the eyes of spiders. I noticed some more on the walk, and walked over to see if the spider was particularly big. Leaning in when the light hit it, I noticed it wasn’t too huge, only [ugh, ONLY] the size of a half dollar. As I was doing this though, I startled a lizard that was down near my feet. As it scrambled away from me and up along the curbside I was standing next too, my brain realized that it was not, in fact a lizard. The size of it had just made my brain think that, and instead the neurons firing made the connection that there were not four legs, there were eight. I was instantly reduced to a gibbering mess, expletives flowing in a flood. It wasn’t a tarantula either, but just a monsterously sized version of the wolf spiders I’d been looking at, and it was as big as my splayed hand. Sweet. Baby. Jesus. It was a miracle I was able to sleep at all that evening.
The following day we made our way down into Granada, a colonial city popular with tourists who want to see the architecture. Before we got there though, we stopped by the police station in Masaya to file a report of our stuff being stolen. I sat in the car to make sure we didn’t get burgled a second time while Bethany went in and the cops went through the motions of caring about our stuff. They took a picture of the lock on the door, made Bethany repeat her paragraph-long statement about what happened a million times as they kept transcribing it on different papers, and generally just wasted our time. The kicker was when they kept telling us to come back tomorrow [sorry, not an option] and then said, “Well, just call us in a week and we’ll update you….oh right you don’t have a cell phone anymore.” We wrote it off as a loss and continued on to Granada. We made it our base for the day so we could begin rapidly ordering things off of Amazon to ship to my mom who was visiting us the following week in Costa Rica.
Nothing like a farmers market of fireworks
Parking ourselves at the local Red Cross, we made our way into town and found a internet cafe and began the process of re-draining our bank account. Following the spending spree on Christmas presents for ourselves, we walked through town to find a local restaurant that wasn’t filled with gringos [fried chicken for $4 a plate, with more sides then we could eat? Bingo!] and then walked to the laundromat to get our clothes cleaned up. Back at the red cross, we had our clothes hung up to dry on the line when a gringo couple on a dirt bike came up to us and asked if we were living at the red cross. Brad and his wife had been living in central America for a few years already, but recently came to Nicaragua from El Salvador. Brad told us he was getting a psych exam as part of the requirements for receiving his Nicaraguan license. “The woman administering it was getting frustrated by my lack of Spanish and eventually started filling in the answers for me.” Brad said with a sheepish smile.
Taking a walk down to the lake later that afternoon, we enjoyed the breeze coming in off the water and the cobblestone streets. We returned to see Colin and Aurelie writing a note on our vehicle. The informed us they had found another French couple [doing the trip by bike! Bravo!] and were grabbing pizza with them later. The graciously invited us to join them, and we had incredible pizza. In typical American fashion, we made them all speak English.
Driving down to Playa Maderas from Granada, we again enjoyed the nice roads, happy to made good time. And then we got to the turnoff for the beach. The 10km out to the coast served as deterrent to any suckers who thought it’d be easy. Most people out there were college students who rode out in the surf tour vehicles. We got to practice 4×4 some more heading up and down some gnarly roads, eventually arriving at the beach. We agreed to pay the $6/day to camp 100 ft from the beach and waded our way out into the water.
Surfers and sunset
This dude was just rooting around our campsite
“I mean, I’m sure it’s a blast when you’re good at it, but all these guys are doing is standing up and falling down.” Bethany quipped while watching all the beginning surfers attempt to ride the waves. Playa Maderas was filled with newbie surfers giving it a shot, to their own pain and our hilarity.
Eating our breakfast in the common room the following morning, we struck up a conversation with Justin and Melissa, a couple from Regina, Saskatchewan. “We’re originally from Iowa, south of Iowa City.” we told them. “Oh, is that like, near the Quad Cities?” Justin asked. Turns out he’s starting chiropractic school at Palmer this March. Looking forward to catching up this fall when we’re all in the midwest!
Justin and Melissa
Roast we made in an hour using the pressure cooker. BOOM! #overlandingluxury
Bethany and I spent the following couple of days acclimating ourselves to beach life and preparing ourselves for the beach time we’d be spending with Pete and mom.
Heading down towards the border, we reviewed the crossing steps to get into Costa Rica, as we’d heard it was a decent ordeal. Indeed, it was. First, we pulled into the border area, found a man in the blue shirt, and had him double-check our import visa information against the car. We then drove over to the customs area, and after looking around the milling people, found the place to receive our exit stamps. We each payed the $1 [and got the receipt!] to stand in line and get the stamp. Then we made our way over to cancel our import visa, standing in line and striking up a conversation with Colin, a Canadian who was driving his motorcycle down to Panama. While waiting in line, we asked the police-man if he would inspect our vehicle and sign off on our cancellation as part of the process. “Nope.” He said, we had to ask someone else, after we had our cancellation completed. 30 minutes later, we had the visa cancelled but the cop had disappeared. Asking around, we finally found someone who could stamp our form, who then sent us to another room where a bored looking police-woman then signed our form and told us, “Todo bien.” in a monotone as she picked her smartphone back up and began loading facebook.
Making our way over to the Costa Rican side, we took a diversion as the road split, driving through the fumigation station that coated Sweetcakes in poison. As we exited, the person who was supposed to be collecting the payment for the fumigation was nowhere to be found, so we rolled on ahead following the semi. Lacking signage, we then picked a direction and tried to find where things got busy again. Eventually, we found a place to park and made our way into the customs building. As we filled out our forms, a gringo next to us asked if we had to pay to get this stamp. “Nope, this one is free” we replied. “Thank goodness. I just paid $100 to get out of Nicaragua.” Uhhhh, WTF dude. Tourist fail. With our stamps, we then spent 10 minutes driving around asking people where the mandatory insurance we had to purchase was. The truckers helped us track it down, but then we ended up in a parking lot filled with semi’s and they told us to double back. Finally we found the place, and hopped in line with several over gringos. Colin we saw again, as well as another young man on a motorcycle who had started out at Playa Maderas with us that morning. We also met two guys from Quebec who were driving to Costa Rica to build a house. Neighbors in Quebec, they were going to be neighbors in Costa Rica as well. Except no one had told them the customs office was closed on Sundays, and had spent the previous day drinking in the shade and sleeping in the truck. We also bumped into Danny, who we’d initially met back at Zipolite in Oaxaca, Mexico. We spent the next hour and a half in line talking shop with the other overlanders, and were then told we had to head back to where we started to get some of the paperwork completed. Getting over to where we started, the man behind the counter told us we needed additional copies made, and that could be done at the bus ticket office next door. The woman there couldn’t care less about us bothering her, but finally we had our copies made and the man reviewing them. Signatures and stamps completed, we moseyed on back to the building we had just been at, standing inside and staring at the six employees who dutifully tried to ignore us. 20 minutes of standing there later, we finally had the forms completed, and we could make our way out of the border. Only 3 hours! But we were 24 hours from meeting my family and 11 days on the beach!
Overall, we were surprised how our preconceived notions of what Honduras and Nicaragua would be like were nothing like the reality. Given the instability they’d experienced and we associated with them, we were expecting them to be some of the roughest countries we would visit. But as we move further and further away from the time of the civil wars, the countries demonstrated how they can rise from the ashes. Infrastructure was in place [namely for us, roads], markets and modernity abounded [noted as we drove past a huge wind farm in Nicaragua] and in general we just loved how open, fun, and cheap the countries were.
Quick budget recap, since we lost our detailed expense-tracking spreadsheet when our computer was stolen:
We averaged $78/day during our brief stay in Honduras. But, we entered the country with an empty gas tank, which has a big impact on our budget for such a brief stay. Besides gas, we were right on target.
We averaged $56/day during our 8 days in the country, but there were probably a few expenses that we forgot about once our computer was stolen. So I’m guessing in reality we were close to our $65/day budget.