Grant and Susan in Central America
Belize (formerly British Honduras), was an oasis of English, and the countryside very green. We never did get to the cities, which have a reputation for having a surplus of underemployed Rastafarian youths, who harangue tourists to buy them drinks. We went through Belize in one day, crossed two borders (four sets of border officials). The borders took longer than the actual driving time.
We got searched entering Belize, and then again entering Guatemala, but the officials were polite and the searches were not arduous. The only "bribe" requested was a fee for fumigating the motorcycle on entering Guatemala. Having paid the fee, they don't bother doing the actual fumigating, which is O.K. by us. Supposedly, it's to keep out the Mediterranean fruit fly.
It certainly is cheaper here than in Mexico. We spent about 5 days in Chetumal before crossing into Belize, and were paying $25.00 Canadian a day for a room, which was even higher than Cancun, considering it had no TV, no pool, not even hot showers. We still have no TV, no pool, no hot showers at the Cony Hotel here, but now we're only paying $7.00 a day. We were told by a couple who had just come through Guatemala that hotel prices are generally in this range. But they don't have what you would call luxury hotels.
It's only marginally cooler here than in the Yucatan, since we haven't gone very far south, but the green hills around the town and the little river running beside it make it very attractive. The hotel owners and staff have almost adopted us (I don't think they've ever had guests stay this long before), let us park the motorcycle right in the middle of their restaurant, use their laundry tub for washing our tent out, and when Grant was really sick, brought him chicken soup. The store keepers know me by sight now. Certainly feels a lot friendlier than any of the Mexican towns we stayed in, probably because they don't have a lot of tourists.
Bike in middle of restaurant, El Palenque, Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala
We plan, once Grant is feeling better, to go to Tikal, about half a day from here, then south to Guatemala City, and possibly Antigua, a maximum of a week. Then into Honduras, and right through Honduras and Nicaragua on the Pan American Highway with a minimum of stops. We plan to bypass El Salvador completely. Once in Costa Rica, our visa is valid until September 10, so we'll be there through the rest of August, anyway.
On August 3, we drove from Melchor to the ruins of Tikal, on a terrible gravel road (it took us 2 hours to cover 60 kilometers on that stretch, and about 7 hours to cover the final 180 km south from Tikal to the paved road in Modesto Mendez, in southern Guatemala). On both stretches, we found lovely scenery and lots of friendly folk in many small towns along the way. In some towns, school children cheered as we went through, and invariably when we stopped for a break, we were surrounded by curious people of all ages, usually male, of all ages, wanting to know where we came from, how big was the motorcycle, how fast would it go, etc.
The ruins were spectacular, and certainly worth the trip, although anyone visiting there should fly in, not drive or go by bus. The bus trip is apparently a real nightmare, according to some people we met who had taken it. They cram 8 people into each row, plus people standing in the aisles, and if you're really unlucky, on the outside standing on the bumpers. These incredibly old buses make the trip from Guatemala City in up to 25 hours, 2/3 of which is on dirt road. Pretty rough.
Even though the trip took us much less time, we still broke it up half way, and rested at an American owned farm in Poptun, where we ate and drank like pigs for a week and did little but read and play cards and talk.
The farm was a magnet for travellers from all over, mostly European on summer holidays. We met some interesting people. One fellow, Ed Sismey, from Britain, had bicycled from southern Chile to Guatemala, and was continuing to Alaska. He had been on the road for a year and a half. We got lots of good information from him about the roads to the south, and things to see, and imparted the same about the trip north. Another couple, from Moose Jaw, Sask., were planning the same trip as us, but were travelling by bus, train and plane. He's already pretty homesick, though how anyone can be homesick for Saskatchewan is hard to comprehend.
Ed Sismey on his bicycle, Poptun, Guatemala
On August 14, we dragged ourselves away from the farm and headed south for Guatemala City next, which is quite a bustling place, full of activity.
As is usual for Latin American cities, no one has heard of emission controls for cars, and the air pollution can be staggering. We ran some errands there, and I recovered from a flu-like illness, which lasted several days. Hopefully, we'll be healthier for awhile now. By the time I was recovered and we were able to move, we were within a few days of the expiry of our 30 day visa, so we headed for Antigua for a day to see the market there, and picked up some lovely textiles, then left the next day for Honduras.
In Guatemala, we encountered military checkpoints for the first, but certainly not the last time. Our experience so far has ranged from simply perfunctory questions, to careful perusal of documents, to extortion of bribes in order to pass (Honduras). It doesn't make me as nervous now as it first did, but it still is hard to get used to when you come from a country where people are generally free to go anywhere. When asked what's in the top box, I reply truthfully, resisting the urge to say "machine guns, grenades for the brothers, Long live Che Guevara", stuff like that. I suspect they have no sense of humor!
We crossed into Honduras on August 23, and after paying bribes to the Guatemalan officials, paid more bribes to the Honduran officials. They don't even make a pretense about it being a fee, and give no receipts. We ended up with an 8 day visa, but only 72 hours "transit" pass to get to Tegucigalpa. Already we were unimpressed by the honesty or efficiency of the Honduran authorities, but worse was yet to come in Teguc.
We spent a day in Copan, where there are some magnificent Mayan stelae (carved stone figures), then drove north to San Pedro Sula, (there are no roads from West to East in Honduras, because it is so mountainous.) The scenery was gorgeous, some of the best we'd seen yet, but the roads in the North and West were awful, full of potholes, and in some places, half the road has fallen into a gorge at the side. Also, herds of cows graze on the roads, and sometimes take up the whole road. You definitely don't want to drive at night there. The people we met were friendly, although not as nice as in Guatemala.
The next day we headed south to Tegucigalpa, arriving in mid afternoon, about 24 hours before our transit pass was to expire. After finding a hotel, we set about to get an extension to the pass, so we could drive to the border. After being referred by the Transit office to the Customs office across town, the customs officer informed us that due to an omission in the form issued at the border (they had omitted to write down the engine number of the bike), we had to go to yet another office, which was unfortunately closed for the day, then back to customs, and finally back to transit to get the extension. All this in a city with no street signs whatsoever. In hindsight, at this point I should have offered him a bribe to overlook the omission, but I was so stunned at the whole bizarre situation, that I didn't even think about it. Since we had no interest in staying any longer in Honduras than necessary, we decided to just head for the border the next morning, and get out of the country before our 72 hour pass expired. So, in the pouring rain the next, we headed for Nicaragua,and made it with about 2 hours to spare.
We found Honduras appallingly expensive for food as well as hotels, and including bribes at both borders, averaged $60.00 Canadian a day for the 3 days we were there. And that was with no shopping for souvenirs or anything else. Tegucigalpa was even dirtier than Guat City, and we were not inspired to confidence in the food when we were told that the only McDonald's in town had been defranchised for failing to keep up the sanitary standards. Honduras is definitely not on my recommended list, despite the pretty countryside and friendly people. It feels like a police state, with at least half a dozen checkpoints on the roads we travelled, plus being stopped in Tegucigalpa itself. Honduras may be destabilizing as a result of the hostilities and the U.S. presence there - we saw slogans on walls in Teguc - "Contras assassins", "Yankees out of Honduras", etc., and we were told there have been sizable demonstrations in Teguc to that end. The Hondurans are afraid that the contras will become like the PLO - unable to win militarily in Nicaragua, they'll become a permanent fixture in Honduras, an armed group that will be difficult to deal with.
Nicaraguan border formalities, although tedious, were not difficult or unpleasant, and no bribes were requested. The border officials were very helpful, a pleasant contrast to Honduras. Also worth noting is that although we encountered a fair number of uniformed soldiers in passing, there were no checkpoints on any of the roads, and we were only once asked to show our passports in all the time we were in Nicaragua.
Kids in Nicaragua were very curious about the bike
We spent only about 4 days in Nicaragua, travelling through Esteli, Leon, Managua and Granada before heading to the border. We could have done it in even less time, but since they require you to change a certain amount of U.S. dollars for cordobas at the border, and you can't change them back when you leave, you have to be there a few days and buy souvenirs even to make a dent in them. There are 8,000 cordobas to the dollar at the official rate, and 9,000 from the money changers at the Honduran border. The currency is devaluing even faster than Mexico's, and many of the hotels require that foreigners pay in U.S. dollars, a government regulation.
Woman in front of propaganda signs, Nicaragua
Anyway, about Nicaragua. Lots of propaganda everywhere, billboards, wall painting, etc. Some billboards show a picture of a female Nicaraguan soldier leading a blond male, obviously American, uniformed prisoner by the neck. The caption is to the effect that Nicaraguans are prepared to defend against the Yankee invaders. The U.S. is depicted in one wall painting as a serpent with fangs dripping blood. Nice stuff like that. People are friendly, but cautious, not as outgoing as either the Guatemaltecos or Hondurenos. And a lot of people seem hostile to gringos generally, then warm up when they find out you're not American. The country is incredibly poor, and shortages of everything are common. Empty shelves in stores and pharmacies, restaurants running out of food. It is certainly the poorest country in Central America now.
Woman chases a dog away from a church in Nicaragua
The people here are called Ticos, since Costariccense is a bit of a mouthful, and they are terrific, really friendly and helpful. The country is like a little jewel, only a few hundred miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and not much larger north to south, with fabulous beaches on both oceans, and mountains and volcanoes in the central highlands, where San Jose is located. They have a tremendous system of national parks here to protect the various ecosystems, 8% of the country's total area, and although we've only seen one of them so far, we're intending to visit a few more before we leave. The countryside is incredibly lush, but the climate is temperate rather than hot, except on the coasts.
Farms in Costa Rica
One of the really nice things here in San Jose is that the drinking water is safe out of the taps, and the sanitary standards generally are very high, plus the food is excellent and reasonably priced, so eating has become a pleasure again, instead of being something to endure. We have had no digestive problems since we arrived in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica prides itself on being one of the only real democracies in Central America, and certainly the press is not censored, and people don't hesitate to speak out about the government. At the moment, the ex-President is under investigation for something, and there's quite a lot of heated discussion pro and con the whole thing. My Spanish has improved to the point where I buy the Spanish papers, and manage to understand about 80 % of what I read. A large number of Ticos speak English, though, and the general education level seems to be higher than farther north.
The prices here for hotels range from $7.00 Canadian where we're staying (definitely not the Ritz), up to super luxurious resort hotels. Similarly, the price for the big meal of the day, lunch, can be as low as $1.60 each for more food than you can eat, but there are also luxurious restaurants and casinos.
I would unhesitatingly recommend Costa Rica as a vacation spot, over Mexico or even Guatemala. Mexico is generally quite a bit dirtier than here, and not as friendly, and Guatemala's political situation is still not too good, even though the average tourist wouldn't notice it. There are tons of tours out of San Jose, 1 day to 3 day, for everything from white water rafting, to visits to volcanoes, beaches on both oceans, several national parks, river boat trips and train rides. It is definitely on my list of places I'd come back to.
September 11-20, 1987 - San Jose, Costa Rica
We've finished our Spanish classes, and Grant has learned enough to compose simple sentences and respond to questions. I have learned there are at least three more tenses in Spanish than I wanted to know about, and no less than 600 irregular verbs to conjugate. However, at least I sound a little less illiterate now, having mastered past and future tenses. We are, as usual, awaiting packages, one from Vancouver which will be ready to pick up on Monday, and no duties charged. The other is a new replacement shock absorber from California, since the one we have keeps leaking pressure, which is not a good thing. The people at Works Performance were very helpful, and are sending us a new one free of charge, and hopefully it will arrive early next week.
Majorette in parade, Costa Rica Independence Day
We met a local BMW enthusiast, who has a land surveying company, and he has introduced us to other BMW types, all professionals and well off. We have gone for several day trips with him and friends, to places like the Poas Volcano. Among this group is a pilot, Oscar, for the Costa Rica national airline, LACSA, who lives about 10 miles outside of town, in a really lovely house. He and his wife Maya invited us to stay with them for a few days (they have a lovely guest room), and then next weekend to go camping with them on the Pacific, where they belong to some private beach club.
Panama is the end of the road for Central America, as the Darien Gap divides the continents. Although we have heard of and even met someone (Helge Pedersen, a Norwegian) who had managed to get through it on a motorcycle, no one has done it two up.
It didn't sound like something Susan was keen to try (winching the motorcycle up hills, paddling it in small canoes down rivers, wading through muddy creeks up to your neck with leeches hanging off you, fun stuff like that).
Bike at the end of the paved road, Panama
We had been hoping to get to South America this trip, but our funds ran low after so many months of leisurely traveling. We figured we had enough money to get to the end of South America, but not enough to get anywhere after that, and the accountant (Susan) did not want to land up broke in Chile.
So, after driving to the official end of the (paved) road, we passed some enjoyable days visiting with the Road Knights motorcycle club at their clubhouse on the US military base in Panama City, then flew the bike to Miami and reluctantly drove north to begin income production again.
Bike at the Road Knights motorcycle club, Panama
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