central america

Running into the Storm

Northern Caribbean Coast of Honduras

We left Costa Rica, and headed to the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras.  Our plan was to stay in Triunfo de la Cruz, a small Afro-Caribbean community located on one end of the Bay of Tela.  This village was home to the Garifuna people, descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people.

As we crossed into Honduras it began to rain.  Then it started to pour.  We arrived in Triunfo de la Cruz to find a windswept village on the edge of a very angry ocean.  The salty waves were overflowing into the streets, and palm fronds and coconuts were strewn about.  We got out of the truck to get a better look at the waves.  We realized this wouldn't be the best place to be during a storm.

We drove up the road to the beach camp we had planned to stay.  The caretaker was outside, watching the ocean as we arrived.  She said the camp had no electricity or water. As we were speaking to her, I caught a glance of PJ in my peripheral vision.  He had discovered a little cement pond, and had jumped in to go after the ducks.  We raced over to the pond to find him laser focused.  I don’t think he even realized we were there.  As PJ dove for the ducks, I saw the caregiver begin to actually pull her own hair.  

Jorge grabbed a stick to try to lead PJ near the edge, but he was too quick.  I wanted to laugh out loud at this funny scene, but it wouldn't really be appropriate if PJ ended up eating one of those ducks. Jorge was finally able to grab PJ and pull him out, only to have him escape and dive back in.  In the end, Jorge got that crazy dog out of the pond and the ducks lived another day.  The caretaker was happy when we finally got on our way.

We drove into the town of Tela, and found a place to stay on higher ground.  Although it rained for most of the week, we took some time to explore the area on foot and on our bikes. 

The most interesting day was when we discovered another Garifuna village called Miami.  It was located on a sand bar between the ocean and Los Micos Lagoon. There was one sandy road that ran the length of the village.  Palm frond houses were scattered along the lagoon and the beach.  Horses and children ran free.  This sweet little village had a peaceful and quiet vibe.  Photos below.

By the time we left Honduras, we had been gone almost a year.  My clothes were tattered and torn.  I broke one toe early on in Mexico, and sprained both wrists Nicaragua.  We both had been stung by bees and bugs.  My feet were cut and bruised.  Jorge was stung by a scorpion in Panama.  It was just a small price to pay for such a great adventure.

Our next stop was Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  This place turned out to be one of our top 3 destinations.  Look for my next post coming soon!


The Places I've Never Heard Of

Discovering Arenal, Costa Rica

By the time we left Panama, we had already crossed six borders. We've learned that borders are tricky and unpredictable, especially if you are crossing with a vehicle, a dog, and a motorcycle.

We decided to leave Panama through the Rio Sereno border, a different border than the one we entered. At the border office, we checked out of Panama and then proceeded to the Costa Rica immigration building. No problems.

Next, we proceeded to the Costa Rica aduana office (vehicle import office). They tell us our original vehicle permit was only for 5 days, and we have already used 2 days, therefore our vehicle must be out of Costa Rica in 3 days. Panic twirls around in my stomach.

Fortunately, our tourist permit was for 30 days. So we were permitted to be in the country, but our vehicle was not. This was the worst possible timing for border issues, because we are supposed to meet up with our friends, Sonja and Rose. They rented a house for us, and we had plans. Not to mention, we planned to use our truck as transportation, and Sonja and Rose were counting on that.

We asked if they could extend the vehicle permit to 30 days, same as our tourist visa. No can do. We went round and round, thinking of solutions, but each one was shot down by border officials. Finally, they said to go to the original border (Paso Canoas) we entered Costa Rica at, and see if they can work it out. That border is at the opposite side of the country.

We should have looked more carefully at the vehicle permit. However, I assumed that once we left Costa Rica the first time, our tourist visa and vehicle permit would be cancelled and re-issued when we returned, and our time would start over. I should not have assumed anything.

I sent a text to Sonja to let her know what was going on. She writes back in her usual calm and soothing tone, "So sorry that happened! Postitive thoughts, don't let the situation get the best of you. It will work out." Okay, she's right. I'll take it one step at a time.

We start the long journey across Costa Rica to the Paso Canoas border. Once there they tell us the same thing, our vehicle must be out of Costa Rica in 3 days. The only other option is to store our truck on their impound lot, and during that time our remaining permit days are frozen. If we put the truck in impound, we would need to rent a car.

We knew that was our only solution, so Jorge set the truck up for the impound lot while I tried to reserve a rental car online, on my phone. I couldn't believe that the cost for an economy rental car started at $500 per week. But at this point, we have no choice, so I book it. We have to travel to Liberia to pick up the car at the airport location.

It starts pouring rain. Jorge runs off to find a taxi, and returns in 10 minutes with a beat up old taxi that is probably unregistered. As usual, Jorge and I are trying to be very aware, as taxi's can be dangerous sometimes. People have been robbed and assaulted in taxis. No need to be paranoid, just aware.

Without being invited, PJ (our dog) jumps in the back seat of the taxi. The driver immediately asks me if he bites. I reply, "Oh, no, he's very friendly. He only bites if I tell him to."

We get all our stuff packed in the so-called taxi. We drive about 10 minutes and the driver stops at a gas station. We notice his tank is almost full. He only puts a couple dollars worth of gas in the car, and he makes a call. He didn't top of the tank. Weird.

I see a guy on a motorcycle at the gas station. He was fully loaded for travel, with Alaska plates on his bike. I get out quickly to say hi. I tell him I am from Alaska, and ask him where he is from. Turns out he is from Germany. He bought the bike in Alaska, where he began his long journey to Argentina. I love meeting people doing amazing things. He was about 30 years old, traveling alone. We talk for just a couple minutes, wish each other luck, and say goodbye.

The taxi driver starts driving again, and we are flagged to stop at a police checkpoint. The police asked for the driver's papers, and our passports. The driver gets out of the car and hands over some paperwork. He looks nervous. We hand over our passports. Five minutes later the policeman starts to remove the license plates from the taxi. Since they are taking his plates, I'm wondering if we will have to get out of the taxi, and be left there on the road. We wait. If the police take your plates or your drivers license, you must be off the road within two hours. The taxi driver gets back in the car, and we continue on toward Liberia.

Finally, we get to the car rental office, and get out. We are still alive. The taxi leaves. We show our car reservation to the consultant, and she tells us they over-sold and they don't have any cars. Then she stares at us with no expression. I was waiting for her to apologize, and start working toward a solution. No, she doesn't care. I wonder if she is enjoying herself. Jorge tells her to figure it out, and he goes outside.

Fifteen minutes later a miracle happens and they have a mini van available. The consultant smiles sweetly and tells us we have to also purchase required insurance, and that is $700 additional dollars for the week. Oh my God, that would be $1200 to rent a car for a week. I know for sure she is enjoying this, I see it on her face. That is more than ALL my expenses for an entire month. Even if your own car insurance covers you, you are still required to buy it. I am thinking I may need to kick this girl's ass.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with no choice. We do the deal, and off we go. Jorge tells me to let it go, but I need fifteen minutes of silence to get over the robbery. We drive toward Arenal, the place we are meeting up with Sonja and Rose. It was a gorgeous day, and the closer we get to Arenal, the more magnificent the landscape becomes.

Arenal is a rural town located in northern highlands of Costa Rica. This place is known for the serene, 33-square-mile, Lake Arenal, and the looming Arenal Volcano. My mood changes as we drive through green, sloping hillsides, wide open spaces, and then to tropical jungle. We turn a corner, and I caught sight of the deep blue lake. It puts me in the moment, and I feel the stress fade away. I know I am priveledged to be in this special place. I want to enjoy every moment of this wild adventure we are on.

We drive along in search of the rental house, and we happen to see a gang of monkeys. Maybe 5 of 6 adorable creatures just chillin' in the tree. It was so amazing to see them in their natural environment.

Sonja knows how to choose a great destination. She sure does. She's a traveling gypsy at heart, and even has a travel website - www.travelelixir.com. I've realized that the most interesting places are the places I've never heard of. They are still mysterious, magical secrets, not yet crowded by tourists and make believe attractions. You get to one of these places and you can't believe the whole world doesn't know about it. I am happy to report from the road that there are so many places that are still undiscovered and untainted.

Sonja booked a beautiful house overlooking the lake. See house photos below.

Sonja and Rose arrived later that evening with smiles and hugs. It was so great to see old friends after all this time away! Rose is Sonja's 14 year old daughter. I was looking forward to hearing all her teenage comments and opinions in the coming week. She did not disappoint!

Rose and PJ

Apparently, it can rain heavily in Costa Rica for days on end. We experienced that our first couple of days. It was refreshing, and we didn't let it stop us. The first day we drove around Arenal and the neighboring town of Fortuna. The second day we went to Hotel Los Lagos, to soak in hot spring-fed water, while the heavens poured down on us.

On the last rainy day, we visited Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. We walked 3 km over the bridges through the mesmerizing cloud forest. We crossed 15 suspended bridges above the trees, through the thick, wet jungle. It was an enchanting place, especially in the rain. At the end, we were lucky enough to see a sloth hanging from a tree.


On another day we went to check out "living nature" at the Arenal Natura Ecological Park. The most interesting area was the frog and toad garden. There are several poisenous frogs in Costa Rica, and getting poisened by one is not uncommon. Everyone told me that if PJ (our dog) licked one, he would be dead in an hour.

Anyway, the park was over-priced, and just okay. The highlight was the guide, who was really into it. I loved his passion. I mean, he really knew his stuff. He was so serious about his reptiles, I was sure there would be a pop quiz at the end. I was watching Rose, and I could tell she was soaking in all the information. I am amazed at the information she has retained in her 14 years, on many unusual subjects too!

In my opinion, the best day was the day we kayaked on Lake Arenal in the morning, and then took a drive to Tenorio Volcano National Park where we did the 4.5 mile waterfall hike. It's a gorgeous walk along the bright blue waters of the Rio Celeste. The highlight is the roaring Rio Celeste waterfall. The trail was very well maintained, and is so gorgeous it doesn't seem real. The trail was very muddy, due to the rain. For me, that made it more fun. At the end, right before we returned to the parking lot, we crossed a little creek. We took the opportunity to wash the mud off there. Rose decided to just lay in the creek and let it flow over her completely, which was so cute. Teenagers.


I should mention that the drive through the countryside to Tenorio Volcano Park was pretty dreamy. Along the way we passed through a little tiny town, where a man was cooking chicken skewers on the side of the road. I was surprised that Rose wanted some chicken that wasn't properly inspected by the health department. She went crazy over it, and said if she had to order her last meal, it would be that chicken. She makes me smile.

On the way back from Rio Celeste, Rose keeps talking about the constellations. Her and Jorge are going back and forth about it. So Jorge finds the perfect spot to stop the van near a wide open field, with no civilization lights to be seen. The sky was clear and the stars were bright that night. They got out of the van, and she gave Jorge a little tour of the sky. Where does she get this? She says she gets her constellation information from her Dad, Noel.

On the last day, Sonja and Rose went ziplining, and Jorge and I went swinging over a wonderful waterfall along the side of the road. Sonja decides to take her daughter "extreme" zip lining, no surprise. Photos of their zip lining and our swinging adventures below.


Thank you, Sonja and Rose, for a fantastic time in Costa Rica! 

I Fell From the Highest Cloud

I fell from the highest cloud and landed gently in the Panamanian rainforest. Wow. We made it, and it felt great to accomplish our goal of reaching Panama. We made it to the narrow piece of land that connects North America to South America.  It would be our turn-around point. Columbia was so close I could touch it. It was a shame we couldn't continue on, but that would be for another time.

A slice of the Panama rainforest below.

The leg to Panama started in northern Nicaragua, where we had been for close to a month. From there we drove south, towards Costa Rica. We passed five police spot checkpoints as we departed Nicaragua.  Each time they questioned us and requested our passports and vehicle documents.  If they found any violations, they could take our license plates or drivers license.  If that happened, we would have to pay a fine the following day to have them returned.  Or we could just pay the police "personally".  We had no violations.  We kept going.

It took about four hours to cross the Nicaragua / Costa Rica border. We entered Costa Rica after dark and drove about an hour in search of a hotel for the night.

When I called the hotel, a man with a New Jersey accent answered the phone.  He gave me directions, and said to call him when I got to Liberia. He said he would wait for us under a bridge near the hotel, so he could show us a short cut. By now I was used to the things people do south of our border.

I called him, and five minutes later we saw him flagging us down under the bridge. He said to follow him, and "don't be scared". He jumped in his car. I wasn't sure why he said not to be scared, until he led us down the Panamerican highway, ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD, driving on the shoulder.  And yes, we followed.  We went the equivalent of about two blocks, and then he made a quick left turn into the hotel. He said if wouldn't have taken the short cut we would have had to drive a couple extra miles, God forbid!

The New Jersey guy turned out to be the owner of the hotel. It was a charming little place for $30 per night. He checked us in and ordered us a pizza. It wouldn't be the last time we saw him. We ended up staying there again on our way back through Costa Rica.

Notice the focus....

Notice the focus....

We got up early the next morning and drove the entire length of Costa Rica, and then crossed the border into Panama.

We rented a condo in Chiriquí, not too far from the border. Chiriquí is the western most province of Panama. This region is the most varied of Panama's provinces, ranging from beaches to cloud forests. You can visit a banana plantation or coffee farm, swim under waterfalls, raft challenging white water rapids, hike up a volcano, kayak in estuaries or around islands, and so much more.

The condo building was built and owned by an accomplished Canadian man named Jack. It was a beautiful riverfront property, complete with monkeys swinging from the trees.  This was the first time we stayed outside of the local community.  We also had some treasured amenities like hot water, air conditioning, and a washer and dryer. 

I think there were six units, and one casita, all occupied by Canadians.  You couldn't see the condos from the street, they were set way back off the road down an grassy path.

In addition to the condos, Jack had a nice shop, with an attached "bar". The bar was a screened-in room that was used by the residents to get together, eat, drink and play pool. The residents had a potluck one night and they invited us to join them. It was interesting to meet everyone, and find out how they came to Panama. Most were retired, and lived there half the year.  Jack was fortunate to have such a great group of people living on the property, and they were lucky to have such a hardworking man keeping everything in working order.

Jack had a giant 105 pound dog named Atlas (named after Panama beer company). When we checked in he said that Atlas roams free on the property, and that he was friendly with people, but not dogs. To our surprise, he said Atlas would probably kill PJ. He had killed other dogs. So that element turned out to be a real bummer because before we took PJ out we had to make sure Atlas was closed in somewhere.

Photos of of Jack's condo project.

We got out quite a bit in Chiriquí, and visited Volcan, David, Boca Chica and Boquete.  Below are images of our adventures.

Hiking in Boquete.

Jumping and Swimming in the Canyons of Gualaca.

December 8th was Mother's Day in Panama.  We celebrated by kayaking in Boca Chica Bay, around a mecca of islands.  This place had very strange, circling currents, and a few nice empty beaches.  As we loaded up to leave Boca Chica, the town had a horse parade for the mothers.

Hiking at Macho de Monte.

Kayaking in Estero Rico.

After a couple weeks at the condo, we decided to move closer to Panama City. It wasn't working to have PJ so trapped. We found a little house an hour and a half from Panama City, in a place called La Laguna. It was a 20 minute drive up a scenic mountainside road from the beach. The house was a little odd, consisting of just a small kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms, but no living room or dining room. The owner explained that the living and dining room were outside on the back deck, where he had an outdoor couch and chair, along with a plastic folding table and chairs. Ok, that works for me.

Jorge with our neighbor, Derrick.

It was a cute community with houses spread out along the pretty road. There seemed to be a river flowing at every turn.  Within walking distance from the house, at the end of the road, was a dreamy lagoon. Photos of the lagoon below. We spent Christmas there.  We made a fire, had a picnic and paddled and swam in the lagoon.

Photos of La Laguna

We took a bus to Panama City. We went to see the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo, its cobblestoned historic center.  The hour and a half bus ride was like a scary amusement ride, but without being strapped in. At one point the bus rounded a turn on the highway, and the old lady in the seat next to me ended up in my lap. Not just half way on my lap, but completely on my lap, like a child sitting there. I had to struggle to keep from laughing out loud. She was embarassed, so I kept it inside. The situation got even more awkward when she couldn't get off my lap because with all the movement of the bus.

Shortly after that, the bus exited the freeway to pick up more people. The pavo (the guy on the bus who collected the bus fare and who helped the people on and off) jumped off the bus as the bus driver rolled to a stop. He yelled out for any grandmas who might need help getting on with their bags. A few people got on the bus. The last woman to get on was a plump lady in really tight pants. As she pulled herself up onto the bus, she lost her balance and began to fall backwards. The pavo didn't miss a beat and was right behind her.  With both hands on her butt, he pushed her right back up. I am pretty sure that was all part of the job, and he was good at it.

Photos of Casco Viejo

We couldn't go all the way to Panama and not see the Panama Canal, considered on of the seven wonders of the industrial world. The canal serves as a maritime shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This interoceanic waterway uses a system of locks that operate as water elevators to allow the crossing through the Continental Divide. The Panama Canal transformed world trade by reducing time, distance and costs between producers and consumers.

It costs a 40' sailboat about $800 US dollars to go through the locks, and it costs a large container ship about $400,000 US dollars.

Photo taken at the Panama Canal.

Before leaving Panama we did one of my favorite hikes, right above La Laguna - a trail called Cerro Picacho.  From the top you could see Anton Valley below.

From Panama, we started our journey home and headed to Costa Rica.  Our plan was to meet up with our friends Sonja and Rose.  Stay tuned for descriptions of Costa Rica!



The Rooster Was Too Close To My Window

Jorge and PJ, Chinandega, Nicaragua

The city of Chinandega is located in the Chinandega department (region), located in northern Nicaragua on the Pacific side.

My first impression of Nicaragua was formed at the Nicaragua / Honduras border (Los Manos), and it felt sketchy and deceptive. Men quickly surrounded our truck as we pulled in, portraying themselves as border officials with credentials. They insisted that we hand over our documents, as if they had authority. They were actually men you could hire to escort you through the border process.  By hire, I actually mean tip. This is not necessarily bad, since it became very apparent that they know the process well, and maintain positive working relationships with the actual border officials.

We spent four hours there, at the border. Once through, we went directly to an ATM to get cash.  That was when the machine kept my card.  I was pissed, because I knew that would be a big hassle. Ten minutes after the ATM incident we were back on the road, and I saw a volcano smoking. I grabbed my phone, and rolled down the window to get some photos.  Suddenly the wind blew, and my phone went flying out of the window. It didn't feel like a good sign.

A couple days later, people surrounded us again as we parked near a town center. We could barely get out of the truck, because people were suffocating us with their presence.  I wasn't sure what their purpose was at first, but I soon realized they were just trying to get us to eat at their food stands. They even grabbed us to pull us the way they wanted us to go. I definitely didn't want to be rude to someone in their own country, so I tried to escape the crowd gently. 

Nicaragua was the country I was most excited to see because it was the most unfamiliar.  I also thought of it as the most dangerous, and for those reasons I was interested.  I didn't really know what to expect.  After a couple days I was in love with the place.

As we drove into Nicaragua, I was surprised that the roads were so pristine. The highway was lined by grass on both sides, and beyond that there were big open fields. Horses grazed along the road, and volcanos rose up proudly in the distance. It felt so serene.

As we got closer to the city of Chinandega that first night, the road got busier. It was a Friday evening, and sunset was approaching. Suddenly I noticed we were sharing the highway with people, bicycles, pedi cabs and cows and horses pulling old carts.

It was dark by the time we arrived in the city, and the streets were awash with enthusiastic energy.  People socializing in the streets with no regard for motorists trying to squeeze around them. Smoke was drifting through the air, and I guessed that crops were burning near by.

That first evening we had to find the property management company to get the keys to the rental house. As usual, there was no proper address for the place. We were just told it was at KM 154, past a bridge. They said to look for a wooden house on the left side.

Somehow we found it. They offered to escort us to the house, since it was hard to find and down a dark road. They led us up the highway, and then turned down a dusty dirt road. We drove through a creek and past pastures and thatched houses. I squinted to catch a closer look at the houses and people through the darkness. I could see the living spaces were mostly outside, but under thatched rooftops. Most had outdoor kitchens and washing sinks, and old water wells with cranks and buckets. There were animals wandering near the houses; pigs, cows, chickens and dogs.

Finally at the end of the dirt road, we saw the white caps of the ocean lit up by a big moon, and we turned into the driveway of our rental house.

Daylight photos taken along the dirt road.

The modest concrete rental house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and an outdoor shower placed under a giant tree (no indoor shower). The windows had shutters and screens, but no glass. There were fans, but no air conditioning. No television or wifi.  No hot water. The floors were rough concrete. It was nicely furnished and comfortable. The outstanding features included a large screened-in patio, and an outdoor brick barbeque grill. 

We really enjoyed the house, and the location. It was a large lot, and the house stood on a hill looking down on the ocean. There were neighbors, but they weren't close. PJ could run free here, and he had open access to the cool Pacific. He shared the yard with the neighbors' two pigs, who wandered over every afternoon.  Horses grazed freely on the perimeter of the property, and chickens and roosters were always around.  One rooster in particular loved to wake me up at 5 am.  He would get way too close to my window, and I think he must have stuck his head under my pillow so he could crow directly into my ear.  

See photo description of the house below.  I found the rental house on www.airbnb.com

The caretaker and night guard of the house, Fernando, was waiting for us when we arrived. He showed us around the house, then went outside. Jorge told me Fernando was going to sleep in the hammock on the patio.  The hammock right outside my bedroom window?  Just tonight, or every night?  Well, every night he slept there.  I was kind of taken aback at first, but in the end I didn't mind him being there at all. I could tell he was careful to not bother us.  He was quiet as a mouse each night as he swung in his hammock with his machete strategically placed below him. 

Jorge and Fernando

We quickly began to enjoy Fernando's company. He was a happy person and a pleasure to be around. We started to bring him coffee every evening. He drank it black with one spoon of sugar. Then we started cooking him dinner and eating with him outside each night. His Spanish was hard for me to understand, but we would have these funny conversations. He would say something to me in Spanish that I didn't understand, so I'd reply in English. In turn, he would reply back in Spanish. We'd go back and forth like this for twenty or thirty minutes, smiling and laughing. Neither of us had any idea of what the other was talking about, but It didn't really matter.

We came to find out that Fernando worked at the property seven days a week and was paid $150 per month by the American owner.  He would arrive around 3 pm and work on the landscaping. After dark he would retire to his hammock.  He got up early each day and racked the leaves before leaving. 

He told us a little about his life. He was 51 years old. He had married twice and had eight kids, and a few grandkids. His second wife died not long ago. She had been sick, but died rather suddenly one day. He said he was with her, and she bent over to cough, and suddenly she was gone. Just like that. He didn't have the money for a casket or formal burial, so he built a wooden box for her and got permission to bury her in the corner of a pasture.  He said he could only bury her four feet down, as deeper than that he would hit water. 

Fernando burning in the yard.

What I loved about Chinandega was the country setting right up to the coast line.  I usually think of a country landscape being inland.  I loved all the trees, plants and flowers.  And I loved how the animals just mixed together freely, and animals were everywhere.  Most of the houses near us on the dirt road had dogs, pigs, chickens and goats.  Many had cows that would graze in the big pastures during the day, and at night they would come home and stay in a coral near the homes.  I have never seen so many cows!

We took advantage of what nature had to offer in Nicaragua.   There was so much to do!  When I think of Nicaragua I will remember the breathtaking volcano hike, and the rough off road trip to get there.  I will never forget racing down the wide open beaches on our motorcycle, and paddling through the thick mangrove forests.  I will laugh when I remember being on the water when we heard the blare of the tsunami siren after an earthquake, and PJ chasing the chunky pigs in our yard. And I will dream about the deep orange sunsets and the simple life of days past that still remain.  

Cosiguina Volcano hike memories below...

Paddling photos below taken at:  Resurva Natural Padre Ramos, Estero de Aserradores and the Pacific Ocean.

Motorcycle and Bike Ride Photos

We visited the city of Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua, and founded by the Spanish in 1524.  The streets and colonial buildings were crumbling.  I wouldn't rave about Leon, but it was fun to see.  There was an outdoor market/mercado set up behind the cathedral, with large outdoor grills, and folding tables and chairs set up under tarps.  We had an amazing chicken lunch there. There were many other stands with vegetables, cheese, house supplies, meat and fish.  Although I saw several tourists and international students around the city, the vendors didn't seem to cater to them.  The shopping was mostly for locals.

Chinandega, Nicaragua beach photos below.  The first two shots were taken directly in front of our rental house.

I actually had a good cry as we pulled away from the beach house for the last time.  Fernando was waving through the rear view mirror.  I wondered if I would ever see this place again.  It was perfect, except for that damn rooster who was too close to my window.

Far and Away Places - Guatemala

In the last seven months we have traveled over 10,000 miles through Mexico and Central America in the truck, and over 2,400 miles on the Mosquito (motorcycle).  I have been the navigator. I plan the route, and am responsible for getting us there. I think people who know me would be really surprised, since I'm known for getting lost. I never use short cuts, and rarely deviate from a route that I know. However, I can read maps and use a GPS.

It wasn't that I didn't have a sense of direction, I just didn't pay attention to my overall surroundings and take the time to understand where I was in relation to what was around me. With a new sense of awareness and observation, I have been able to get us through foreign lands without many mistakes.

I try to always have an actual road map for reference, and to more easily see the big picture. I also have a Garmin road GPS and Google Maps on my phone. Google Maps is what I have relied on most.  Jorge also has a GPS that he uses on the water and in more remote places. It has main roads but not streets. We can use it to record a track on a trail, off road, or on the water, so we know how to get back. Jorge also has an external antena for that GPS, with a magnet so he can place it on the hood of the truck. Apparently it picks up 6 satellites instead of 3.

While I have been the navigator, Jorge has been the driver. I'm the travel agent, he's the tour guide. Jorge is the cook, I am the dishwasher. He's the joker, I'm the voice of reason.  PJ is always the tourist.

The journey from Yucatan, Mexico to Guatemala was long and exhausting. We headed toward Palenque, Mexico in the late afternoon and drove until darkness covered our path. We had a good nights rest in our trailer at a Pemex gas station along the way. Just like before, they asked for a couple dollars to watch over us through the night.

We got up before the sun the next day and got back on the road to Palenque. Our plan was to leave our trailer somewhere in Palenque, and continue through Central America with just the truck. Consequently, we would have to rent places along the way. We decided to do this because we heard many roads weren't well maintained, there weren't many RV parks, and rentals could be found quite cheap in Central America. The new plan was to look for a place in Palanque, Mexico to leave the trailer - maybe someone's property, a hotel or restaurant, or maybe a campsite. 

The hours ticked by as we stayed focused on getting to Palenque. We arrived around 3 pm, and immediately started scoping the place out. It didn't take long to find an old house on a large property, with the family outside cooking. They were happy to let us use their property for a small fee, but in the end we couldn't agree on where it would be parked on the property. We had to continue our search. We drove in circles for awhile, finding a couple more possibilities that don't work out. 

We were both pretty drained when we finally found a hotel / restaurant that had a perfect spot for us. We give them a couple hundred dollars to park it and watch it for the next four months.

We prepped the trailer for our departure, then fell asleep watching the last presidential debate.  The next section of road between Palenque and San Cristobal was known to be a treacherous ride through the steep mountains. It definately proved to be an adventurous, curvy, steep and narrow road. We left when it was still dark. We had to be careful of people walking along the roadside, since there was no shoulder. Most were men, and I quickly noticed that 99% of the men were carrying machetes. There were huge unmarked topes (speed bumps), and numerous horrible potholes.  There were even places where people were holding a thin rope across the road to block our truck and asking us to contribute some coins to the Virgin Mary. Although it was a little stressful to be so alert on this long drive, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. We saw the sun rise over the rugged mountains while the clouds drifted between them.

We arrived at the Mexico/Guatemala border a couple hours before dark. It was chaotic, with no organization.  We had an idea of what to expect from internet research.  We had our passports, birth certificates, drivers license, registration, title and proof of insurance for truck and motorcycle, PJ shot records and international health certificate. First we have to check out of Mexico, so they know we have left their country. Second, we have to check in to Guatemala. After about three hours and running back and forth between windows and buildings, we finally get through.

San Antonio Palopóo, Lake Atitlan

San Antonio Palopóo, Lake Atitlan

We choose to stay in Lake Atitlan for our time in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is a lake in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Thirteen Mayan villages lie around the perimeter of the lake, each with their own personality, and each known for something different.  The climate has been described as an eternal spring, and considered one of the best climates in the world. I was also lured to this area by stories of the colorful and rich Mayan culture, vibrant markets and the beauty of the lake.  Lake Atitlan was said to be stunning and clear, with volcanoes and mountains rising up around its edges. 

Before we left the Yucatan, I found a rental house for us at Lake Aitilan. I looked for rentals on www.vrbo.com, www.airbnb.com, www.flipkey.com, www.homeaway.com, www.longtermlettings.com, and then I also check out other sources like property management companies or private owners I find over the internet.

I found the rental house in Guatemala from a local real estate company. I found them last minute, three days before our arrival. They had one house that was MUCH more than we needed, but it had been vacant awhile and they wanted someone there. It was also the only one they had that would allow dogs. It was located in the village of San Antonio, right on the lake. Five bedrooms, three baths, a fireplace, and a huge deck overlooking the lake. Like I said, much more than we needed. No television. The closest internet was in the next village. They gave it to us for $400 for 3 weeks. It was just a lucky break, and the place was absolutely wonderful. 

Photos of the house below.

Unfortunately, the main road to San Antonio was being repaired, so we had to take the back route which was much longer.  It also required a 4wd.  Photos below.

We settled in. We walked to the mercado in front of the old church to stock up on food. We started to explore. San Antonio was a quiet and picturesque village that rested on a mountainside along the shore of the lake.  It was a very laid back and simple place.  There was one hotel and only a couple of restaurants. The church is near the center of the village and a natural focal point. Their cemetery was spread on the hillside. The indigenous people wore traditional and very colorful woven garments and headdresses, which added to the ambience.  Photos of San Antonio below.

We happen to be in Guatemala for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). People celebrate with kite festivals in various locations. The festival is a way to remember their lost loved ones. People create elaborate, large and colorful kites, and they are flown in local cemeteries throughout the country. 

I realized later that kites are very popular in Guatemala at any time of year.  We would see remnants of handmade kites hanging off rooftops and electrical poles all over the place.  We saw kids flying kites during the entire time we were there.  From sun up to sun down you could find kids in front of our rental house flying their kites on the edge of the lake.  You could also look up the hillside and see kids flying their kites out of their windows or on rooftops.  Most homes in San Antonio didn't have glass in the windows. 

A couple days before Dia de los Muertos, Jorge decided he was going to make a kite.  He decided to build it with the tent poles and the rain cover of our tent.  He designed it, and then redesigned it a couple times after it landed in the lake.  After he was happy with it, he gave it to a couple little local boys.

On Dia de los Muertos people come to the cemetery to paint and decorate the headstones of their relatives, and leave candles and flowers.  Many family members stay at the cemetery all night, bringing dinner and listening to music.  Our house had a view of the hillside cemetery, and when it became dark we could see the twinkle of the candles, and hear the music.  It happened to rain hard late that night, but the people stayed and the music continued.

We spent a lot of time kayaking and paddling on Lake Atitlan.  There were very few boats on the lake. We only saw the small water taxis that take people from village to village, and the small wooden fishing boats the fisherman used.  For that reason, the water was very clean and clear.  The lake is approximately 50 square miles, and the deepest lake in Central America.  

The village of Panajachel is known to be the main tourist center, entry point of the area, and the transport hub to other villages or cities.   It was filled with worldly backpackers, souvenir stands, restaurants and shops.  It's a fun place to visit, with the only complaint being the vendors were very aggressive.  Maybe they are so persistent because they are forced to sell their high quality handmade items for so little because there is so much competition between the sellers.  The general rule is that they initially ask for double what they are willing to take. 

We drove the mosquito to Panajachel every couple of days.  We bought our groceries and did our laundry there, and went there to take water taxis to other villages.

Lake Atitlan is also a great place to hike. One day we hiked up beyond the village on San Antonio, past the onion fields to a beautiful waterfall. The waterfall feeds the onion fields below, by a network of narrow trenches that weave down the mountain and through the fields.  Photos below.

One day we decided to take a bus to Antigua. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You could hear horse and carriages clicking through it's cobblestone streets, past the old churches, Spanish style architecture and beautifuly restored homes.  Shopping and restaurants were outstanding.  It would have been better to stay at least a couple of days.

During our three weeks in Guatemala, we only drove our truck one time. Instead we drove the mosquito (motorcycle), chicken buses, tuk tuks, and community trucks.  Chicken buses can be taken between villages, to other cities, and even to different countries in Central America.  The buses are school buses from the US, that are auctioned off when they reach 10 years or 15,000 miles.  People in Guatemala paint and decorate them, adding to the already vibrant flavor of the country.  They are a really inexpensive way to travel, I think we paid a couple cents to go about 20 miles.  They are known to be fast, fun and sometime dangerous.  When we got on, the bus driver didn't stop, he just slowed down and we jumped on.  Photos below of chicken buses.

The "community trucks" (my name for them) are smaller pickup trucks, that have a metal frame over the bed.  In addition to carrying people, I've also seen these truck carrying livestock.  They park in various areas, and you just pile in the back.  The are usually really full, with everyone squeezed in standing up.  One day we took a community truck with PJ.  He squeezed in with all the people, and when the truck started moving he laid down and put his head on a man's foot.

I loved the bustling local markets of Guatemala.  Every village had their own, on a scheduled day of the week.  We probably visited seven or eight markets.  In addition to fruits and veggies, spices, live chickens, meats and cheeses, they also sold their crafts, textiles and garments.

Lake Atitlan was full of good vibes, and I hope to return one day.