A quick geography lesson. I probably should have learned some of this in sixth grade but it took me traveling down here to really put it together. First off, Mexico is not considered apart of Central America. Duh, that’s why they were included in NAFTA as they are apart of North America.
Also, Panama is not largely considered a part of Central America either. This one is more debatable but the idea probably has it’s origins in the fact that it was originally apart of Colombia. Interestingly, it was the US that encouraged Panama to become independent with it’s support. Not surprisingly, shortly after that (one year exactly) the US began construction on the canal. Coincidence? Culturally speaking though, from our experience, Panama is very much the crossroads of the world. It is not only the land bridge between South and Central America but the most famous short cut in the world as well. All this has created a very diverse culture that has a unique feel, quite different from the other countries of Central America.
Then there is Costa Rica. With no civil wars and tourism developing for the last fifty years it feels quite a bit more Western than the other countries. In fact between our two months in Panama and Costa Rica, Lisa and I lost a bit of our Spanish as English was so widely spoken. Also, education levels are much higher in Costa Rica with it’s strong middle class and limited poverty.
So where does that leave us? In what I call central Central America. Honduras is where we are right now actually. Our experience has been that these middle countries: Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala constitute the backbone of what I would consider the real Central American experience. When we crossed from Costa Rica into Nicaragua a few weeks ago it felt as if we were reentering the 3rd world.
Backtracking a bit to catch up…in our last post we were still living large in Costa Rica, and that seems a long time ago now. We managed to finally break free of the spell Finca Bella Vista (the blooming tree house community) had cast on us and made our way down the coast towards some of the more well traveled tourist paths.
Hanging bridge through the cloud forest canopy
As mentioned in Lisa’s post, the world famous Monteverde cloud forest reserve almost scared us off at first with it’s carnival veneer. Fortunately we found a little base to enjoy the sights from. Honestly though, the forests were quite similar to what we had already been hiking through for the last few weeks, just with better trails, signposts and more people.
From Monteverde we headed over to Lake Arenal, another beautiful attraction with an active volcano parked at the head of a long lake which in turn is nestled into surrounding hills. Our campsite by the river watching the volcano for lava flows at night was fabulous. It was hit and miss with the clouds though and although we saw some of the lava flows it was brief, distant and at night so hence, no photos.
Volcano Arenal from near our campsite.
Leaving the Arenal area we headed down to Liberia, a transportation hub on the Pan-American,to connect up with our friends Kathy and Rick. We had originally met them in Oaxaca and as they have been living in RVs and trucks for going on six years now, needless to say they are veterans of road travel. They are an inspiring couple and have taught Lisa and I a lot about the ins and outs of life on the road and about building a mobile community. We spent three wonderful evenings with our friends sharing in good meals and lengthy conversations. We based ourselves at the Rincon de Vieja park where we could punctuate our discussions with walks through an assortment of volcanic features. Rick and Kathy are heading south (lands end for them is Tierra del Fuego) so unfortunately we said our sad goodbyes and crossed into Nicaragua.
Walking with Rick and Kathy in Rincon De Vieja park
The first recognition that we were in a different land was the transportation. Many of the cars and trucks had been traded for horse and oxen drawn carts. Even the little three wheeled taxis where now bicycle taxis. As I write I wonder if the differences I noted earlier between the countries are as much cultural as they are economic. Certainly there are strong ties between all the Central American countries with the Latin culture but the poverty of the central Central American lands really stands out and changes the experience for the traveler.
Adjusting to the changes, Lisa and I headed to the Volcano Masaya area, just outside of the capital of Managua. The volcano and visitor center museum was fantastic, We camped the night in their parking lot and in the morning drove up to volcano’s edge for a peek into the caldera. That’s right, parking for fifty cars right at the lip of an active volcano. Of course they have precautions like back in parking only for fast escapes and limit your stay to 20 minutes because of the dangerous sulfur fumes. Conservative stuff like that. A place like this would never exist in the US with all the liability concerns. The caldera of a volcano is truly a raw force of nature. No lava churning around as one might think but the tortured cliff walls and noxious gases spewing forth were unlike anything I’d seen before.
Moving from the volcano to higher and drier Western Nicaragua we did a rural loop drive that took us to a night at Finca Silva Negra. It’s another coffee farm, this time owned by a family of Germans, hence the name (Black Forest). We had a tour of the operation in the morning with Mousey, one of the owners and they are doing an incredible job of making the entire place ecologically and socially sustainable. Schools for the workers kids, including scholarships to university, worm composting, reusing methane from their cows to cook with, the works. Amazing to see all this in a medium scale business. They are showing how it can be done.
A long slow drive through rural farm and ranch country brought us back to the Pan-American highway at the town of Esteli. We visited the Museum of Heros and Martyrs here although there are many across the country. These are tributes to those who died in the Sandanista revolution and this one was run by the mothers of the deceased. It was a powerful experience and spoke loudly to US interference (they call it imperialism) down here. Some times it’s hard to be an American traveling through this part of the world, knowing some of the history. I’m actually surprised we have been received as kindly as we have.
This painting is based on a famous photo from the revolution, in front are old weapons.
Entering Honduras we were given the usual run around at the border, Los Manos. Even though we have gotten better overall at avoiding the scams you still need a constant vigilance. We camped that night a little ways into the country at Danli, an area famous for it’s Havana cigars. It may not be Cuba but many of the Cuban cigar makers immigrated here after the rise of Castro and their cigars are considered as good as. Onwards and upwards we once again moved up into the mountains outside of the capital Tegucigalpa or Tegus as the locals call it. Valle de Angeles was a nice opportunity to do a little gift shopping and afterwards we spent the night near the entrance to La Tigra National Park. Our hosts were another German couple who had the only flat camping spot in the area…their parking spot. We spent two nights here, hiking outside the park (national parks here have a dog prejudice just like in the states) and learning from Jurg and Monique about their life as essentially homesteaders in the wilds of Central America.
Moving over the continental divide one more time we spent the night at an abandoned national park high amongst the pines. Honduras is the only place we’ve seen in Central America that reminded us of the mountains of Idaho. The high rolling pine forests are kept clear of undergrowth through annual burning, set and managed by the locals. The park itself was abandoned a few years ago as the conflict between conservationists and loggers grew increasingly violent. It was quite tranquil for the night we were there. No park managers, visitors, or anybody else for that matter.
The now closed visitors center at Parque La Maralla
The next days drive is the subject of our other recent blog entry titled breakdown. You can probably guess the jist of it if you haven’t read it yet. . After getting Betty back together we left Sambo Creek and headed along the Caribbean coast to La Cieba where we spent a few days running errands. You realize the reality of globalization when you leave the poverty of rural Honduras to find an air conditioned mall with all the modern conveniences.
That brings us around to where we are now. Lago Yojoa is situated in the hill country an hour from the Caribbean coast and surrounded by farms and ranchland. The family that manages the Finca Paradiso (Paradise Farm) where we are staying. Again, they grow coffee mainly but we are realizing that they have to do many things to stay afloat so they also rent cabanas, operate a private swimming hole (balanerio) and sell many fruits and other small crops.
Spanish Scrabble with the family
Getting to spend time with the Hernandez’s reminds us of how people make up more important part of the landscape of travel than geography does. We’ve rented a cabana for Lisa to work from and I have spent my days working on Betty (she now has tinted windows all the way around), doing laundry, fixing bikes (ours and the kids) all the while accompanied by at least one, sometimes up to five of the children. The schools are attended in shifts here with three shifts a day. That means many teachers work from 6AM to 10PM and kids are on the highway coming or going to school all day long. Mostly the finca kids just play with Alli but they’ve also given me a good chance to rebuild some of my Spanish skills and just have fun with kids again. Lisa has been playing the guitar for them in the evening and we’ve played a few rounds of Spanish Scrabble. Tonight, being our last night, we are piling into the van to watch Star Wars on the laptop, complete with popcorn and brownies. Connections such as these are the true highlights of the trip and we’ll remember the Hernandes family for a long time to come.
Lisa entertains while Fernando keeps the beat
Future plans include staying in the mountains and visiting ruins and cultural areas for the next month. Tikal and Copan top the list while cities like Panachel and San Cristobal de la Casas await us. As it is warming up we won’t see much of the ocean again for the remainder of the trip most likely. That’s assuming we stick with our current plans which would be very surprising indeed!