Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador & Guatemala June 23 to July 8, 2007

Filed under: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua — Aaron and Amy at 9:13 am on Sunday, July 15, 2007

We arrived in the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua and were looking forward to visiting our friends Greg & Karen and their two daughters Daniela and Emma.  We had some time to kill before they were expecting us so Aaron decided to find a welder to create a stand for his new small motor.  There was a tiny hair “salon” right next to the welder so I got a much needed haircut.  It consisted of a large gold framed mirror on a tiny table underneath a tin roof.  There were only three walls so it was open to the welders working in the dirt lot right next to us.  While Aaron waited for the guys to start his project he watched them build a gate.  He realized there was a much easier way to build a stronger gate and offered to show them how.  In the end he only paid about $6 for his project.  Whether or not that was their normal cost or if they discounted it because he saved them so much time we don’t know.  But we were happy with the price nonetheless.  We spent four nights at Greg and Karen’s house visiting with them, making our last purchases in the Masaya craft market and running errands in Managua.

            We packed the RV and drove four hours to the Honduran border of El Espino.  Honduras is the single most expensive border we have encountered.  It costs $30 for the vehicle permit and about $15 for the dogs, people and other miscellaneous fees.  All of this is paid extremely reluctantly since the only time we spent in Honduras was to drive the 3.5 hours across the narrow piece of land on the Pacific, both north and southbound.  Heading southbound we were leaving from El Salvador and in a hurry to get to Nicaragua so at that point we chose to skip Honduras.  Heading northbound through Honduras we considered driving up to the Caribbean side to visit Trujillo and the Bay Islands, but that is a lot of time and money spent on gas (we get about 8 miles to the gallon) to see the Caribbean side of Honduras.  Obviously I wanted to see the archaeological site of Copan (and surrounding areas) but we decided it would have to be another trip.  On our southbound trip we never had any problems with the police in Honduras.  We heard several other people were harassed and paid bribes as they passed through the narrow pacific stretch of Honduran land.  Driving northbound we came across a handful of police checkpoints.  As always Aaron greeted them with smiles, handshakes and Spanish asking how he could be of assistance.  The first three were no problem with basic questions of where are we from, where are we going, and what is this thing we are driving.  It was very, very hot and Aaron either offered a glass of water or they asked for it.  It was about the fourth police checkpoint that got interesting.  It started as friendly as the others then the policeman asked for money for a hotel.  Aaron said “No, I’m not going to give you any money.  I can offer you a glass of water if you like.”  The policeman said yes so I went to fill the glass that we had been using.  When the policeman saw it he said he was kidding about the water, but we could give him some money.  Again, Aaron said we would not give him any money and the policeman asked “Why not?  The other tourists do.”  Then the policeman said “Well then I will give you a ticket.”  Laughing, Aaron asked, “A ticket for what?”  “For excess cargo or for your dogs.”  Aaron said “I’ve got all my documents for vehicles and dogs.  You aren’t giving me a ticket for anything.”  With that he waved us on and told us to leave.  About thirty feet away from the first cop was another policeman working the lane of traffic heading south.  As we approached he looked interested and we thought, “No.  He wouldn’t.”  Sure enough he gave us the signal to stop.  I told Aaron to just keep driving but he stopped.  This guy just straight out asked for money.  As Aaron told him we weren’t giving him any money he could see the first cops in his side mirror telling the second cop not to bother with us.  Prior to this our experience with corrupt cops (only happened in Belize & Nicaragua) consisted of them pulling us over and claiming we did something specific that was illegal and that we were going to get a ticket; allowing time for us to offer money on the spot.  This was the first time that the cops had blatantly asked for money.  It was an interesting experience mainly because we knew we weren’t paying and weren’t afraid of them.  They always get tired of dealing with us and let us go.  It has never been more than ten or twenty minutes that we have been delayed.  In our opinion it is time well spent.  We can’t tell you how many gringos we have come across that pay the cops on a regular basis.  Whether they are living in the country or traveling in a vehicle they always seem to pay.  Only recently have we met other campers that stand their ground and refuse to pay.  We met one old guy in Costa Rica that told us  whenever he gets pulled over he gets out two bills of equal value, walks back to the cops and puts them in their shirt pockets and then drives away.  He considers this a time saver since he didn’t have to go through the expected scenario.  Hmm.  No wonder why the cops keep stopping gringos for money.

We got to the infamous El Amatillo Honduras/El Salvador border crossing with enough daylight to get through and find a camping spot on the other side.  All we needed was our vehicle permit but the official told Aaron the computer system was down and we would have to wait.  After about 45 minutes we decided that we weren’t driving anywhere in the RV (we don’t drive at night) and asked if we could park at the border.  We were granted permission to stay at the aduana (immigration) and in fact they offered electricity, but our batteries were full from driving all day.  Before this we had never needed to stay at a border.  We really lucked out because the aduana department was secluded off the main drag down a dirt road.  If it had been any other border it would have been way too seedy to hang around.  The aduana department for entering El Salvador at El Amatillo was in a large parking lot with police and their drug sniffing dogs protecting us and our RV.  We felt very safe as we made dinner and settled for the night.  Just before dinner the aduana official rushed to the RV and told Aaron that their computers would not be working that evening but he could take a taxi a few kilometers back (the different offices are separated by several kilometers) and use another computer to get our vehicle permit.  That way we would be ready to leave first thing in the morning.  Aaron used a little tok-tok (motorcycle powered taxi with a roof and extra seats) and was back within thirty minutes, vehicle permit in hand.  When we left the border the next morning the plan was to drive straight through El Salvador and into Guatemala.  As we got near one of our camping spots from our south-bound trip (El Sunzal; near La Libertad) Aaron asked if we had time in our schedule to stay the night.  (We don’t normally have a “schedule” but I am flying from Huatulco, Mexico to Seattle at the end of July and therefore we have a specific travel timeframe).  We had some room to spare so we stayed the night . . . which quickly turned into four nights!  There is a camping area called Roots that has room for RVs.  It is right on the beach and has several surf breaks in front.  There are always lots of surfers and other interesting travelers to hang out with.  It’s kind of a relaxing party scene and Aaron really wanted to hang out at the beach before going inland for several weeks.  We also wanted to see our friend Oscar who owns the hotel next door.  As we pulled in we saw two other campers; trucks with a camper that had a pop-up top.  One couple was from Colorado (Sean & Erin) and the other two were traveling companions from Oregon/Australia (Nick & Lizzy).  We actually met Nick on our south-bound trip in Nicaragua on Majagual beach (near San Juan del Sur) as Aaron was bringing in his kayak and fish he had speared!  We had dinner together the first night and enjoyed hanging out, talking about the campers and swapping traveling stories for the next several days.  Aaron went on a fishing trip with Oscar and some of his hotel guests but didn’t catch much.

After leaving late from El Sunzal we crossed through the Guatemalan border in an hour and were trying to make it to Lago de Atitlan the same day.  We got lost looking for propane in Esquintla and got as far as the intersection to Lago de Atitlan by dusk.  We couldn’t find a restaurant to camp for the night so Aaron pressed on towards Panajachel.  With barely enough light left to drive any further on the secluded rural highway, we came upon a Texaco gas station.  It was completely fenced in and they said we would have to speak to the head of security down the hill.  Aaron went back to what turned out to be a dairy and spoke to the head of security.  At first he said no but then said we could park where we were on the side of the road, but Aaron was persistent and finally the man obliged.  We didn’t want to drive any further and weren’t completely comfortable with parking on the side of the curvy road.  There was a nice house across the street owned by the same people who own both the dairy and the Texaco.  They were in the city and the head of security said it shouldn’t be a problem.  They opened the gates (it was completely enclosed) and showed us where to park.  We slept well in the cool mountain air.  As Lago de Atitlan came into view the scene took our breath away.  We have always said that Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places we have seen, but I think we forgot how beautiful it really is.  We drove around the lake towards the town of Panajachel in amazement of the lake’s stunning scenery.  As we wound around the lake high on the cliffs we could see the majestic volcanoes reach towards the sky.  The mountains around us were thick and lush with vegetation and the hillsides had geometric patterns from the different fields of planted crops.  We were happy to be back.  We settled into our camping spot at the Tzanjuyu Hotel and were disappointed to see how run down it had become.  It has to be one of the best pieces of property in town (it’s right on the lake and walking distance to Panajachel) with a beautiful old hotel, but the owners have let it go.  The field of grass was about two feet tall (normally it was mowed), the pool was drained and there was neither electricity nor water.  The owners hadn’t paid their electrical bill in months so it was finally shut off.  They actually asked for the same fee to camp that we had paid a year ago.  When we left we ended up paying them $3 per night (they had asked for $10/night).  Needless to say they asked us to report that campers are no longer welcome at the Tzanjuyu Hotel.  We’re not sure what the future of the hotel will be, but the owner refuses to sell the property.

We wanted to catch up with friends that we met the year before but we had lost their email.  Jeffro and Mayah were building a hotel and restaurant that was supposed to open six months earlier.  (He is Australian and she is from New Zealand).  We took one of the lanchas across the lake to their hotel to set up a dinner date.  The hotel was far from complete but they gave us a tour of what they had accomplished in the previous year.  We set a date for dinner the next evening and headed back across the lake to the RV.  The next evening they joined us for several glasses of our Nicaraguan Flor de Cana rum before going to dinner.  We went dancing and really enjoyed the night until Mayah started to belligerently attack us for not being vegetarian.  It got way out of hand so Aaron paid for our share of dinner and we walked out.  It was a very unfortunate event but at least Mayah came by the RV to apologize for her behavior two days later.  While in Panajachel we spent some time on the internet making Skype phone calls and working on the RV.  We also went back to the market at Chichicastenango to purchase a few items.  Now that we are on our northbound journey we can buy crafts and shove them in any available nooks and crannies!  When we got to the village we found a restaurant that had a second story balcony.  The food was horrible but the balcony provided excellent views of interesting activity below and allowed me to get some great bird’s-eye-view photos of all the women in their colorful indigenous clothing.

Upon leaving Panajachel we were headed up the steep, steep, steep road to Solola before continuing on to Quetzaltenango (aka Xela).  Unfortunately we weren’t thinking about it, but before heading up the hill we filled up the RV with gas in Panajachel.  We should have saved the weight and filled up in Solola!  It was a four hour drive to Cuatro Caminos (the intersection between Quetzaltenango, Totonicapan and the Mexican border of La Mesilla).  We parked the RV in the Shell gas station at Cuatro Caminos and took a bus to the San Andres church.  It is a brilliantly painted yellow church with lots of colorful figures in niches.  I had seen it on calendars, tourism magazines and my Lonely Planet Central American guidebook.  I wanted to get some photos so we took a short bus ride before continuing on to Quetzaltenango.  At that point we had basically decided we weren’t going to stay the night in the area and that we would continue on towards the Mexican border.  When we pulled into the town of San Andres we saw a tiny yellow church high on the hill.  Aaron gave me a look indicating, “We are climbing up to that little yellow church in the short amount of time that we have?”  I told him it was a part of the adventure and we will just have to do it quickly.  Fortunately for the sake of our restricted schedule the church we were looking for was actually right where we got off the bus in the center of town!  I took several photos and we asked when the next bus to Quetzaltenango was leaving.  I had about eight minutes to “ooh and ahh”, and then we boarded the bus to Quetzaltenango.  It was about another thirty minutes to the city where we got a small combi bus to the center.  We didn’t have much time since we needed to get back to the RV and continue towards the border, so we just walked around the center for a while.  There was a really pretty building where we stopped to have an expensive coke before heading back to Cuatro Caminos.  If you had more time to explore Quetzaltenango you would probably be able to cruise the neighborhoods and discover interesting spots.  But I felt the short time we had was basically enough to see the town center and get some photos.  When we arrived at the RV Aaron paid some of the gas attendants for keeping an eye on it and then we took off.  We drove for several hours to get close to the Mexican border and find a place to camp.  It was about dusk when we found a gas station that allowed us to stay overnight for about $3 (US).  We were told the name of the town was Cable (not on the map, but it is very close to La Democracia).  We had a surprisingly poor dinner at the restaurant across the street and settled into bed.  Before it got too late we heard a gun shot very nearby.  We didn’t make much of it and then heard another shortly thereafter.  Aaron closed the door and a few minutes later we heard the last one.  The following morning Aaron asked our security guard about the gunshots and he said “I was warning off my enemies.”  Frequently we are asked if we have ever felt unsafe and our answer is no.  Although that is still true there are these instances where we don’t feel completely at ease.

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