Leaving El Salvador, through Honduras and first 20 days in Nicaragua Sept. 12 to Oct. 2, 2006

Filed under: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua — Aaron and Amy at 1:39 pm on Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The night before crossing the border from El Salvador into Honduras we stayed at a gas station about 45 minutes away from the border. We got up early and were at the El Amatillo border crossing at 8:15 a.m. It was a good thing too, since it was the worst border crossing we had experienced so far; we didn’t leave until 1:30 p.m.! The border “helpers” were the most persistent they have ever been hanging on the RV and Aaron was eventually forced to yell at the top of his lungs several times to convince them we did not need their assistance. They are men with ID tags hanging around their necks “confirming” they are legit and trying to sell their services at the border to help people get through. We speak Spanish and have never used one until we crossed into El Salvador, and even then it was proven that we shouldn’t have. There were compounding issues beginning with not having enough local currency for the vehicles, the dogs and us. Aaron was forced to take a bus back into El Salvador in order to get more money to cross into Honduras; then it was lunchtime, then the guy we needed a signature from was an ass. All the while Amy sat in the RV with the dogs and the side door closed since there was so much unruly foot traffic hanging around the RV. Needless to say, it was very hot. At one point when Aaron returned to the RV while waiting for the border official to finish his seemingly endless lunch, he screamed at the top of his lungs and said ‘Screw it! We’re turning around and going home!” He had a sandwich and coke and proceeded to take care of everything necessary to cross into Honduras. We ended up continuing to drive south, although it was by the skin of our teeth.

We intended to drive through the tiny pacific side of Honduras in one day and were headed to the ocean side border crossing of Guasaule at the Nicaraguan border. While stopped for propane Amy spotted an old RV whizzing by on the highway. She mentioned it to Aaron and we later saw it stopped at a gas station. We decided to turn around and say hello, as RV’s are really a rare sight once you leave Mexico. When we saw them and their license plates we were shocked; they were from El Salvador! They asked where we were heading and instantly told us that was a horrible border crossing with even worse roads and we should follow them to the El Espino crossing further north. They told us of the perfect camping spot they always use right next to the border. After exchanging quick stories we obliged and followed them through the beautifully lush Honduran mountains. Rene is from the capital San Salvador and frequently travels by RV to visit his daughter and grandson in Managua, Nicaragua. He had brought along two of his friends to join him for the Independence Day holiday weekend. We arrived at a beautiful horse ranch on a few hundred acres of property. After meeting the owner and taking a tour of the facilities (which included meeting the beautiful and well cared for horses) we all had dinner together at the restaurant on site. Rene continued to be the perfect host as he prepared his elegant camping table with cheese, fruit, wine, rum and tequila! To Amy’s delight he played a few songs on his guitar, creating another great experience with locals after a horrible day at the border!

The next morning we drove a short 12 kilometers to the mellow mountain border at El Espino and crossed in an hour and a half. We were on our way to Leon, hoping to catch some festivities for Independence Day. We stopped in the small town of Somoto to grab a bite to eat and saw the first of many Independence Day celebrations! While looking for our suggested restaurant we were in the middle of a parade, which consisted mostly of scantily clad teenagers pushing and shoving in excitement. We got some quick email taken care of and hit the road again. We headed south on highway #26 avoiding the capital city of Managua. Unfortunately the road was ridden with potholes and quickly became the worst road we had driven on in nine months! We slowed down to a crawl, swerving and dodging potholes like every other car on the road (which, for its condition, there were surprisingly a lot of). While driving we came upon a small parade on this rural road, with teenagers dressed in military outfits and the girls scantily clad shaking everything they had as much as they could. They were as mesmerized to see this behemoth RV as we were to see them marching down the hot dusty road.

At some point during the afternoon, it became clear we would not reach Leon that day, certainly not with enough light to negotiate the city. We passed a restaurant with a large palapa that had ample room for the RV. Since we were also hungry, we turned around for some lunch and asked if we could stay the night. They welcomed us and even showed us their bathrooms and showers! We were just going to patronize their restaurant in order to stay the night, but then they offered electricity, so we offered 100 cordobas (about $6 US), which they were happy with. When we got the RV settled we sat down for some lunch. When we entered there were four separate tables occupied by about a dozen men. On most of the tables there was a mountain of empty beer bottles. One was clearly intoxicated as he said in a sing-song voice (in English), “Uh oh . . . here comes a gringa!”. We sat down and ordered some food. Aaron asked the very accommodating owner to please bring a large bottle of Tona, the local cerveza, to each of the tables of men. As he brought them out and said they were from Aaron, they all thanked him and one by one started conversation with us. Some were more drunk than others, but we enjoyed talking with them none the less. At one point the owner thought one guy was bothering us and told him to leave us alone. We thanked the owner but told him it was alright and that we wanted to talk with the locals. After dinner we hung out with the waitresses and their boyfriends for a bit, then turned on the air conditioning in the RV and watched a movie. They told us there would be a parade in the morning that would come down the road right in front of the restaurant. We got up the next morning, had some breakfast and watched the parade go by. We wanted to move the RV closer to the Road so Amy could take pictures from the roof, but thank god we didn’t! The parade took up the highway so the pullout on the side of the road is where the traffic was forced to drive. That’s exactly where we would have parked!

We watched as the boys walked by dressed up like military men, most of them obviously too small for the outfits they wore, and the girls walked by dressed scantily clad enough that outsiders would think they were hookers. It’s amazing to watch little girls as young as maybe 5 or 6. They are obviously learning from their sisters (and possibly mothers) to do sexy bump and grind solo dances. They are dressed up in clothing most westerners would call trashy; wearing super mini skirts with pantyhose, high-heeled boots, shirts tied high in a knot exposing even more flesh, lace gloves and wheeling batons as props while they bump and grind down the road. All the while their teachers, mothers and sisters walk along side them laughing and encouraging more. The parades we have seen are a mesmerizing experience. The older groups here were marching like they had been in the military their entire lives, while the younger ones at the end of the line try and keep up. The bands are fantastic! We heard them practicing for a parade for several weeks when we were in Panajachel, Guatemala. The force and rhythm of the drums vibrate your soul while they playfully swing the drumsticks around their wrists, showing off even more for the camera. The bandleader seemed to set the energy for the band and crowd, keeping them motivated in their heavy costumes beneath the unforgiving sun. It was 10:00 a.m. and it was scorching.

We finally made it to the outskirts of Leon and pulled into a gas station for some refreshments and directions through town. We were actually headed to a beach on the other side of Leon, called Playa Penitas. There was a gentleman in the store that looked at our map and said he was going to that side of town if we wanted to follow him. There were lots of one-way streets and low-hanging wires, so we were thankful to have a guide through this colonial city while driving our large car. The road to the playa was once again one of the worst roads we had been on, so it took us about 40 minutes to dodge the potholes on a 25 kilometer road. We drove up and down the beach road looking for a restaurant that we could pull into and camp for a couple days, but the restaurants and hotels were set up differently than we were used to. They were very close to one another using every possible piece of land. This meant there was nowhere for us to pull in on the beach. We finally found a restaurant that had access and we negotiated a price to pay and confirmed they had electricity we could use. We had RV friends that were in Nicaragua before us and they exclaimed how hot it was. We didn’t entirely believe them, but after a couple days in the northwestern pacific lowlands, we were convinced. One of our guidebooks actually says the area around Leon and Chinandega is one of the hottest in Central America! Unfortunately our generator in the RV still was not working, which created a problem for leaving the dogs in the RV and going into Leon for the day. The restaurant told us they had electricity we could use in order to run our air conditioning, then proceeded to show Aaron two tiny exposed stereo wires they used to rig some electrical out to a palapa! Aaron fiddled with it for several hours, combating the ferocious mosquitoes before he finally gave up. At some point early on he realized it wouldn’t work for the RV, but thought he would try and make it better for the restaurant, but eventually gave up. After a night of using our two small fans when it’s really hot we need to charge our batteries the following day. Knowing this, we only stayed that one night in Las Peñitas. We packed up the following morning and continued checking out the beaches further south.

Upon leaving Leon, we had our first bribe proposition in Nicaragua, and only the second one in nine months (the first was in Belize in June). The way it works is that there are cops placed at strategic intersections and they pull people over claiming they did something illegal. Surprisingly in Nicaragua it happens a lot to locals as well, but as soon as they see gringos they have found their next victim. They claimed Aaron used a “transport lane” that is just for busses, which they claimed was illegal. They took Aaron outside the RV and Aaron had them explain several times what they were claiming. Aaron claimed they were trying to bribe him, not give him a real ticket and demanded they give him their badge numbers. They went back and forth for a while playing good cop, bad cop. Aaron finally got frustrated and came to the RV for money (which apparently they didn’t know) and one of the cops came and told him to forget it and move on. We promptly drove away and continued towards the beaches of Montelimar, Masachapa and Pochomil.

We were looking for a beach where we could rent a house for two months in Nicaragua. We needed a break from the RV, several family members were going to join us from the states, and Aaron would be visiting the states for three weeks. All this meant we needed to find a good rental house where we wanted to stay for a couple months. We were on a mission! Upon entering the area for the beaches, there were several cops at an intersection. They asked where we were going, looked at our vehicle permits, and eventually decided that we had made an illegal move when we approached them. They claimed that we swerved into the other lane. Aaron exclaimed, “Yes! To avoid hitting a bicyclist! Do you prefer I hit the bicyclist?” They carried on and on for quite some time with Aaron’s now well practiced mantra of declaring they are asking for a bribe, this isn’t a real ticket, requesting their badge numbers and explaining how bad this is for their country. They were quite persistent, but you can bet Aaron wasn’t happy dealing with this two times within several hours. Amy was getting upset as well, and told a local onlooker how horrible this is for their country’s tourism. Aaron asked Amy to get the camera so we could take the policeman’s picture. Before we could, they promptly handed back our precious vehicle permits, license and told us to move on. Unfortunately the three previously mentioned beaches left a lot to be desired. Montelimar is basically only accessible to a resort and we didn’t find anything in Masachapa. We tried to go into Pochomil but they tried to charge us triple the amount that was clearly stated on the sign (they charge you to enter some beach areas). After much debate we decided we had had enough with these people trying to get money out of us. We refused to pay the fee to enter Pochomil so we turned around and headed towards San Jorge, a beach on Lago de Nicaragua across from Ometepe Island. We drove on in disbelief and utter disappointment. We had been looking forward to Nicaragua more so than some other Central American countries, and we had experienced three illegitimate attempts to get money from us within a couple of hours. We know this is what is expected in Latin America, but the fact is that it wasn’t a reality until Nicaragua. Not until nine months into our trip did we experience the hassles with bribery.

We arrived in San Jorge and easily found the beach. It was well marked because there were signs for the ferry to Isla Ometepe (Ometepe Island). We drove on the hard packed sand down the beach checking out different restaurants we could park next to. We picked one, settled in and had some dinner. That night we did internet for a couple hours before getting ready for the trip to Isla Ometepe the next morning. We had pre-arranged to store the RV at Hotel California for two nights so that we could spend a couple days on Isla Ometepe in Lago de Nicaragua. We packed enough for the dogs and us for 2 days and took the hour-long ferry to the village of Moyogalpa. In the ancient language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, “ome” means “two” and “tepetl” means “hills” or volcanoes”. Thus Ometepe Island describes the geography consisting of two volcanoes. The larger one is active Volcan Concepcion at 1,610 meters (making it the freshwater island with the highest altitude in the world) and is connected to the smaller Maderas by a small isthmus of land. Many people come to the island to hike the volcanoes, swim in the crater lake and check out the thousands of ancient petroglyphs that cover the island. We walked around Moyogalpa for a bit looking for a friend of a friend. Tabitha Parker is a Doctor of naturopathic medicine that has been working on the island for several years. We got her name from our friend Jacquie who lives in Bacalar, Mexico, who is also a naturopathic doctor. Just as we thought, everyone in town knew Tabitha and they pointed us to her house. Tabitha and her fiancé were off to Costa Rica the next day, so we spoke briefly (they were very gracious, but unfortunately had very little time before departing) and then made our way to the other side of the island to the village of Altagracia. We explored the beautiful cemetery with the Volcano Concepcion set as a marvelous backdrop to the mausoleums. We toured the small local museum and checked out some really cool ancient statues set in a garden outside the small church. We got a ride to Playa Santo Domingo where we hoped to find a cute little hotel.

We stayed at Hotel Villa Paraisio for two nights. It is a very cute small hotel with bungalow rooms with hammocks out front and a great restaurant. Unfortunately our room had huge gaps underneath the door and in the window screens, thus the room always had a lot of flies and bugs. The second night the electricity went out and they couldn’t get their generator working; so we had no air conditioning, no ceiling fans and we couldn’t open our windows or doors due to the horrible flies. (We ended up not paying for the 2nd night.) Otherwise the hotel was cute on a long stretch of beach that was clean, other than all the flies. We took a tour to the Mirador (lookout) about halfway up the Maderas Volcano. Aaron was feeling pain in his bad knee and Khorrah had a stroke last August in Guatemala, so we decided not to tackle any major hikes. Unfortunately the view from the Mirador was pretty pathetic. We thought we would have a nice view of Lago de Nicaragua, but all we could see was Playa Santo Domingo where we were staying. We made the trek downhill through the tree roots sticking out of the mud. Thankfully, the trip was redeemed when we came upon a large group of Howler monkeys. Skylos was mesmerized by their noises, so Aaron picked him up to try and give him a better view of the monkeys! (Skylos has many nicknames, of which Monkey is one of them!) How cool that even our dogs get to have these great experiences on our Latin American trip! After the hike we visited the Finca Magdelana, which is a coffee farm. Since it wasn’t coffee season there wasn’t anything going on at the farm itself, but there are a lot of petroglyphs on site. Our guide showed Amy around and regurgitated a small amount of information regarding the petroglyphs, all the while touching and walking all over them. Most of the shapes were common things like spirals, sets of horizontal lines, figures of people, figures of animals, etc. Some rocks had depressions ground out of them with petroglyphs right next to it. You can imagine they were used for rituals or offerings. The petroglyphs are carved onto large boulders which are usually sitting in bunches of 10-40 boulders in one place. We ended our trip by taking a lancha ride back to our hotel, which provided a spectacular view of Volcan Concepcion and its perfectly symmetrical cone. We got a ride from the hotel all the way back to Moyogalpa in a group’s minivan that was taking them to the ferry. One of the couples met and married in Flagstaff, Arizona. Both couples have houses in Costa Rica on Panama Beach and were visiting Nicaragua for a few days. Small world!

After Isla Ometepe we headed to San Juan del Sur, apparently our last hope to find a rental house on the beach in Nicaragua. (From here on San Juan del Sur will be referenced as “SJDS”.) We had heard a lot about SJDS and everyone seemed to have mixed opinions. We knew there were a lot of gringos, but we were hoping there might still be some redeeming features about the town. When we pulled in it had been raining for several hours. We parked on a side street and began walking around in the rain looking for real estate offices (which there are a plethora of) and a camping spot (which proved to be more difficult). We walked all the way to the other side of town where there were a lot of nice houses on the beach that were apparently vacant. We spoke with several of the houses cuidadors (caretakers) about the possibility of renting the houses, but they all either said no or directed us to the real estate offices. We got an appointment for later that day to look at some houses and then proceeded to find a suitable camping spot for a few days. We ended up parking at the Hotel Ana Mar at the end of the beach road, but it was a struggle to get permission. They turned us down once but Aaron went back to ask again because they were our only hope. This time they obliged and we agreed to pay 100 cordobas a day (about $6 US) in order to use their electricity (although sparingly). The hotel was right on the beach and had a fence that was locked at night. We quickly befriended a lawyer, Tito, who has his office downstairs at the hotel. Aaron and Tito went spear fishing, which is when he met Tim who is a real estate agent in town. Tito and Tim became great friends of ours whom we have enjoyed spending time with. Tito has several cars so he agreed to let us rent his Jeep Wrangler for the duration that we would be renting our house. We looked at several houses and finally found one that we liked. It was just north of SJDS, high up in the hills above Nacascola bay. We were immediately blown away with the house and began negotiating a monthly rental price. There was a lot of negotiating and incorrect information given (there were too many people involved in the negotiation process). At the beginning they told us we could rent it and then when we came in to sign the lease, they said we couldn’t rent it at all. Over several days in SJDS we got all that figured out and came to an agreement with the owner. We left for the colonial city of Granada with the expectation that the transaction would be complete the next day. It drug on for another 4 days, but we eventually got the signed lease emailed to us. We were originally looking for a house for October and November, but we liked the house so much we were able to negotiate the lease to include December as well.

Before leaving for Granada, we went out on Tim’s boat to go fishing, spearing and snorkeling. Tim’s girlfriend Kathy and her son Mario joined us as well as a couple of other guys living in SJDS. The guys dropped us off on a small beach called Brasilito that had a few houses that were vacant. The only person there was the cuidador watching the houses! It was so beautiful! We hung out for several hours until the boys came back to get us. It was so beautiful, peaceful and relaxing! Aaron is starting to get better at spearing and is now capable of getting dinner on any outing. This was the first day that Aaron shot a really big fish. While waiting on the bottom of one of his more shallow dives he saw the shape of a large fish approaching. He allowed himself to drift up and forward with the current to allow for a better shot. It proved to be the perfect position as the large predator approached. Aaron waited for his shot and fired. The fish exploded with speed and began stripping line off the reel. As Aaron fought the fish he had several opportunities to see the fish as it doubled back and then would run again taking even more line. After several minutes of fighting Aaron was able to follow the line out and deep to reach the fish for the final kill. The experience had been exhilarating. Although we don’t know the exact weight we believe Aaron had landed a forty plus pound Roosterfish. Regardless of the weight it was enough to feed over ten people that night.

We were both really excited to see the colonial city of Granada. While Aaron may have had his fill of colonial cities in Mexico, we were both anxious to see how Granada Nicaragua would be different. Granada sits on Lago de Nicaragua and has a long history of being sacked and burned by pirates that came up the San Juan River from the Caribbean. It is known for its colonial architecture and all its glorious churches. Granada is a beautiful city that is slowly getting an architectural facelift. Construction is happening on almost every street. The old and new features are beautiful in their own right. The fresh coats of paint, Spanish tile roofs and pretty wrought iron balconies make them like new; while the old buildings with paint chipping away with old doors and windows and weeds growing in the old red tile roofs have a charm of their own. Visiting museums, restaurants and stores can be a real treat because they are housed in the old colonial buildings. They all have ceilings that are about 15 feet high with thick adobe walls. Most of them have intricate wood fretwork on ceilings, windows and doors. Nicaragua is famous for its cigars, many of which are grown from seeds brought into the country from Cuba. Amy was able to watch people making and rolling cigars at the Dona Elba store. Amy spent a couple hours by herself walking through the enormous cemetery with all its mausoleums. She walked around in awe of the architecture and sculpture of the tombs, whether they are old or new. We decided this would be a great cemetery to enjoy the Day of the Dead, so we planned on bringing Aaron’s mom back for the celebrations. Granada really reminded us of San Miguel de Allende, (our first colonial city in Mexico). Granada gave us a glimpse of what San Miguel must have looked like 20 years ago; before the colonial city was refurbished to its current splendor. We camped at the Red Cross of Granada, which is in between the city and the lake. There is also a Spanish school there, but I can’t imagine sitting outside without fans in the sweltering heat trying to concentrate and learn Spanish! We cherish our Spanish school experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico and Panajachel, Guatemala. We stayed in Granada for a week, which allowed us to really explore the city, do lots of internet, meet lots of great people and explore the nearby town of Masaya. Masaya is known for its arts and crafts market; crafts from around Nicaragua are brought here to sell within the old market walls. We took a day trip on the motorcycle and stopped by Laguna de Apoyo on the way back. We were scouting out a place to camp in the RV. The laguna looked nice, and we would be able to park on a dirt road down by the Narome Resort; but patronizing their restaurant would be very expensive. We were glad we checked it out on the bike first and decided to just go back to SJDS when we were done with Granada. Before leaving Granada we had the opportunity to meet a couple friends; Greg, his wife Karen and their daughter Daniela. Before we left we all went up to dinner to their favorite restaurant on the rim of Laguna de Apoyo. You can look across the laguna and see the rooftops and church towers of Granada! There was a Unicat (which is a kind of tank-looking Mercedes RV) parked at the Red Cross and we managed to track down the owners. We were told they were on their way to South America as well, and stopped in Granada and bought a house. We were inquiring to see if they were interested in selling the Unicat, but they are in fact remodeling their house which they will rent out and then continue on their trip south. They were very interesting people to speak to and Bruce was kind enough to show us the inside of his RV. It really is built like a tank! It’s 4-wheel drive, about the same height as ours with four foot tall tires and about three feet of ground clearance! It has 16 gears in both forward and reverse and is capable of climbing over a boulder the size of the tires. It can literally go straight up any hill. The inside is pretty small, but it sure would be nice to go to South America in one of those ( they are worth $250,000 to $1,000,000 US)!

Upon leaving the city of Granada, we hit a car that was poorly parked on a one-way street so that his rear-end was hanging out. It all went pretty smoothly, considering our previous experience with the police in Nicaragua. They were very official about everything; taking all the measurements of the vehicles to demonstrate how far away from the curb the guy was parked. We followed the traffic cop to the police station and Aaron finished some paperwork. He eventually had to return to Granada to pay a small fine (about $6 US) and get his license back. Needless to say the Nicaraguan wasn’t very happy that the cops told him it was basically his fault for parking so poorly! Due to the delay, we ended up parking in a gas station in Rivas so we could buy groceries and not have to continue driving to SJDS at night. We were up early the next morning to take possession of our rental house! Can you imagine our excitement?

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