Terrestrial Travel in Central America

Traveling from Panama to Mexico is actually pretty easy, so long as you don’t mind taking a lot of time to get from A to B. Transportation deserves its own blog entry because I’ve probably spent half my trip just traveling. So far I’ve kept track of 41 buses, 25 collectivos and taxis, 5 private cars, 6 boats, 2 horse carriages, 1 horse and 1 scooter that have got me to where I am now in Belize. The roads have been horrendous, and I’m not talking back streets, but main highways and the only roads connecting towns to one another. Sometimes they’re just plain old undriveable due to flooding, rockfall, mudslides, missing bridges or collapsed banks, yet so many huge, coach buses and semi’s traverse them regularily. And I’ve never seen so many semi’s full of rusted metal cargo, anyone know what that’s about? In addition to all that, impossible mountains, curvatious roads and wreckless driving always kind of made me wish I was walking instead. Although, with the exception of rowing into Panama, I always got to walk to my next country since buses drop you off at only the first of 2 border crossings needed every time, one to exit the country you’re in and the other to enter the country you’re going to. Sometimes the two crossings are more than a kilometer apart, and I can’t understand how they really control the area between since locals seemingly wander freely between both. Sometimes I have a hard time even finding where I need to go for my stamps and accidentally end up in the next town without realizing I’ve ‘entered’ the country, just strolling along.

one of the cliff-hanger, deadly switch-back roads leading town the mountain into Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

Buses are actually like driving markets since street vendors sell everything on board; no need to go to the market. While on the bus, street vendors take the opportunity to hop on, both while we’re parked and also just come along for a few kilometers before hopping off, and sell all sorts of random things. People carry their entire inventory somehow attached to them in an organized, presentable way. One guy pitched toothbrushes, backscratchers and a foldable fan all in one breath. Some come on dressed as clowns and act out a short comedy sketch for tips. Others come on claiming medical knowledge to sell you creams and herbs that all look like tiger balm to me, and some just want to show you their own health ailments like dumbness, missing limbs or freaky tumors growing out of their stomachs. Those who only sell one thing specialize in yelling it over and over in rapid succession, most popular being ‘PAPASFRITASPAPASFRITASPAPASFRITAS’, and ‘CHICLETSCHICLETSCHICLETSCHICLETS!’ Some don’t bother coming on board and at a stop light just come up to the window, ‘FRESASFRESASFRESAS’ or ‘AGUAAGUAAGUAAGUA’ while sticking said item into your window on the end of a big stick.

our friendliest bus driver, who smiled all the time except when a camera was pointed at him, but insisted we have a photoshoot outside his bus

The buses in central America are beautiful works of carbon-spitting art, to put it simply. Drivers put a lot of pride in the decals, stickers, disco lights, neon and colour patterns both on the inside and outside of their buses, and the most popular long-haul local bus is an early 90’s Blue Bird schoolbuses that probably got shipped here from the US when they couldn’t pass smog check anymore. They have the capacity of about 55 children, but maybe 60 adults squish the popular routes. They’re affectionately called chicken buses, and some upper class locals even refuse to take them, but in my experience they’re a lot more entertaining, but a lot cheaper for a much longer (just in time, not distance) journey, and I always appreciate more bang for my buck. Just be prepared that the journey will take at least an hour longer than the driver tells you, and will include numerous stop and go pickups of people on the side of the highway that don’t count as “stops,” so all buses are “direct.” Not quite true, but I’m not in a rush so I’ll just keep enjoying the scenic route.

Why traveling with a Guy helps

My first day solo in Panama City I ran into this guy named Guy at the canal. Well, actually he ran into my taxi from the locks back into town and we discovered we were on the same journey north through Central America. We only spent a day being tourists together in Panama and lost eachother for Costa Rica, but reunited again in Granada, Nicaragua a few days later. The fact that his name is Guy provided endless pun jokes, but he himself provided splendid entertainment. One morning we were walking on a totally empty sidewalk and he had is head down in my lonely planet book when he walked straight into an electricity pole as wide as him. I was half a step ahead and only heard a loud thump, then him mutter ‘well that was stupid.’ When I turned back to see him just flip the page and keep reading on, I had to put two and two together to figure out what had just happened and then almost peed my pants laughing. The next time he made the same comment to himself I had to ask what happened since he was in the bathroom, and he casually explained he had just put soap in his eyes.

girl and Guy on our nicaraguan road trip

The most ridiculous thing he ever did was stroll right into a dog napping on the road, this time without any book or distraction but just total oblivion of where he was stepping. His reaction this time was a simple ‘Oh, hello’ as the dog wimpered off totally in shock, not sure what had just happened in his deep, peaceful sleep. Then there was the time he almost walked off the top of a Mayan temple in Copan, but realized just in time the edge of the path we were walking on didn’t have any steps down. In Honduras, me and Claudia convinced him to try painting his toe nails red with us, but that really didn’t help the fact that locals always hear is name pronounced as ‘gay,’ not Guy.

very steep steps to fall off

Aside from being my complimentary entertainer, he provided great travel company with some great philosophical debates, discussions on faith, and shared incredible stories from his time as a professional cyclist on Lance Armstrong’s team. He had a heart of gold, listening to everyone’s life story and trying to be friends with any locals he interacted with. He was always trying to give away all the most valuable stuff he had, and for some reason that kind of generosity was never abused. When we took a horse-drawn cart 9 hrs for only $20, he offered to pay the drivers with his ipod instead, worth probably $150, but they preferred the cash in hand. While we were traveling, we cracked a few beer and he only took one sip of his before passing it off to a guy peddling his bike alongside us, going just slightly slower than our horse and looking a bit more fatigued. When we met up with my friend Claudia in Honduras, she told us about how she had gotten mugged just a couple weeks before, and when she told Guy her blackberry was the last thing taken, he offered over and over to give her his blackberry, even though I’d say that was the only thing he was dependent on, communicating with family and friends hourly. The most ironic give away he actually succeeded in was in El Salvador; we were looking for a restaurant that was serving lunch and when the first place we asked was out of food (?), he gave the owner a bag of raw potatoes covered in salt and hotsauce he had bought in the market a few steps before, probably thinking it was some delicious fruit.

Claudia, Guy and I at the border of Honduras via horseback

One valuable thing I learned traveling with this guy named Guy was about safety. There is something always unnerving about traveling alone as a girl, and his company was extremely comforting in the dozens of sketchy buses and dark streets we had to frequent along the way. He explained something pretty profound to me too: one time he walked right past a guy trying to say hello, ignoring him probably as a precaution, but the guy responded to his brush off by yelling ‘well there’s one great way to get robbed.’ He said he never feels afraid at 2 am in the most dangerous neighbourhoods because he’s already made friends with the street folk, and thus, he’s probably safer there than anywhere or anyone else. Being friendly to people is so important, and the trick Guy taught me was to always make people believe you trust them. I’ve been trying it and it does really work; once you make a personal connection, even if its just sharing a hello or a smile, the chance that they’ll hurt you is probably zero.

Cigars and Horse-drawn carriages in Nicaragua

 

tobacco leaves growing and drying at Mombacho's

The best discovery I made in Granada was Mombacho Cigars, a brand new elite cigar company founded by three Canadian guys. They are hand picking and rolling tobacco from nearby Mombacho mountain, employing only locals and paying them well, and have established themselves on the main street in Granada in the most beautiful colonial house, complete with a cafe, restaurant and rooftop view. We almost walked right past it, but got enticed to come in when one of the founders Fraser asked us  ‘Would you like to see how cigars are made?’ and of course, I did. I love cigars. And Mombacho cigars are really, really good, proven by the fact that I probably smoked 5 in 2 days.

tasting a Mombachito, a mini Mombacho premium cigar

We made a good friend out of Fraser, and he was happy for the English-speaking company, so the next day we spontaneously decided to take a road trip to Leon, another tourist, colonial town similar to Granada. The best part was probably the road trip itself, since we took in in a topless 70’s toyota truck through some marvelously scenic landscapes.

no roof and no doors make an excellent road trip car

While I was in Granada I started thinking about how most forms of transport used to involve horses, either on horse back or with horse-drawn carraiges. What a romantic and wonderful reality it would be, especially in a place like Granada, to have no cars, buses, trucks, tuck tucks, or dirtbikes.

a horse drawn carriage strolls down Calle La Calzada

I thought about this while traveling around town with a carriage, but later decided I wanted to actually travel like that. Guy was up for it too, so it only took stopping a couple carriage drivers before one offered to take us to our next destination, a town called Chinandega reachable by bus in 1 hr. Instead, we took a 7 hr horse and cart into the night and quickly realized why vehicles are so much more efficient as hundreds zipped past us. However, it was still more enjoyable, we appreciated the scenery passing by so much more, interacted with all sorts of locals on horse back or pedal bikes pasing by, and made great friends out of our 2 chauffers. And, it did only cost $10, expensive compared to the $1 bus but still incredibly underpriced.

our cart driving out of Leon through some Market traffic

Picturesque Nicaragua

majestic Volcan Concepcion in Isla Ometepe

Leaving Costa Rica was actually pretty simple, as far as the scheduling and prices of buses, but I got so torn when I arrived in Liberia because I had the choice of going back south into the country and visiting Monteverde cloud forest but had so much anxiety about getting stuck in a bus for 2 days or having a bridge collapse under us that I decided to head north into nearby Nicaragua instead. It took 3 buses, a taxi and a ferry in a whole day of travel but I went straight to my first destination: Isla Ometepe. It is this beautiful island formed by 2 huge volcanoes that rise so high up from the middle of Lake Nicaragua, a fresh water body of water so big you’d swear you were in the ocean as you crossed the rough waves to get to Volcan Concepcion. It’s the most picturesque, perfectly symmetrical, cone shaped volcano, with a little bit of white cloud on its peak, and I’d definitely suggest anyone going to Nicaragua to be sure to spend some time on this sleepy island. However, don’t take the overnight ferry to Granada since traveling from 12 to 5 am on a rocky, oily smelling cargo ship doesn’t really let you appreciate the lake or the pitch black scenery going by. And, getting sea sick makes it much worse. So does drinking 3 double pina coladas before embarking… live and learn I guess.

A view of Mombacho Mountain behind the colonial-style roofs popular in all the sleepy colonial towns

 

I arrived in Granada, the most popular destination for tourists in Nicaragua, and it was pretty easy to see why. It looked like a post card from Cuba, with so many colourful, 1-storey homes and degraded colonial churches and facades scattered around the walkable, cobblestone town. I couchsurfed here too, but with one Spaniard and an American, since it seems half the town are actually foreigners who came and never left.

so many of the home fronts looked like colourful play houses straight from Havana

I spent one day with a couple American guys, one whose name is Guy and is a retired, professional cyclist and the other who owns a bike rental company in Granada. It was appropriate we spent a day biking together to nearby Lago de Apoyo, a big crater lake you can swim in, but on the way home I decided I was the weakest link in our bike gang so I traded my bike for a horse since riding those is more my forte.

this boy traded my rental bike for his horse on the way home from crater lake in Granada