One Year on the road: 11 borders crossed, 4 vet visits, 1 bribe payed, 2 dead bodies seen, dozens of fish caught, countless waves ridden, and many friends made.
Sometimes you get sick of it all; burnt out, tired, hungry, living in a truck, the rain, the cold, the heat, the bugs. There are fleas on the dog, fleas in the tent, sand in the pants, salt in the eyes. Washing dishes in the sea, showering with a bucket, dried food on the forks, dried sweat that makes your socks stiff like stale bread, stale bread and old eggs, fresh bread and local cheese. There are drivers with no regard for human life. Days with no propane means no coffee, no morning coffee is like a punch in the face. You sample alien fruits, uncertain regarding the proper way to consume them. People are talking, not knowing what they are saying, just nod and smile, walk away, fake it. Locals yelling, selling, and talking at you, “grrrrrringo!” I would still take it any day of the week over the routine back home.
Its not all stale bread and sandy butt crack, and it is always more good than bad. A bad day on the road is still a day on the road, and any day on the road, is a good day indeed.
The markets South of the border, specifically in Mexico and Peru, provide access to all sorts of culinary delights. The food that we know as “Mexican”, in the states, is not Mexican food at all (I have yet to see a burrito south of the border). The tacos, salsa, meats, and price leaves one speechless. I will eat street food from anyone who sells it (no matter what it is). Often times I place my order without knowing what I will receive. They slide a plate my way, and I send it to my gut. They tell me what I am eating, but I don’t know what they say (my spanish is fickle). Down the hatch. I do this in every country, and sometimes several times in one day. There is fish stew for breakfast, guinea pig for brunch, ceviche for lunch, and trucha frita for dinner. I find myself eating hamburgers with ham, while the pigs freely roam the dusty streets. The only bouts of food poisoning that I have experienced have occurred in the states (several times I might add).
All the locals have been welcoming and warm. Although each country has a different overall attitude (with kindness occurring on a spectrum), in general, people are good. People are happy. Locals are welcoming. They ask where we are from, shake our hands, ask how dangerous our dog is. Bravo? No matter how poor, or how rich, people have been universally good. But!… don’t forget, that no matter where you go, there will always be an asshole. Assholes are everywhere in this world, and just because you are in their country it does not mean that you have to be nice to them. In terms of the big picture, 9 1/2 times out of ten people have been awesome. In reality, most assholes that we cross paths with are American expats who can be found complaining about any number of things (usually locals).
Camping south of the border is cheap, and many times free. If we pay to camp it means that we are taking showers, using wifi, enjoying the luxury of bathrooms, and sometimes cooking up a fancy meal in the communal kitchen. There are sometimes even perks such as pools and flat screen tv’s, and “Law and Order” is always on. On average camping costs anywhere from $5 to $15 a night, but one must remember that this does add up, over time. Free camping on the beach is fun, but you are often exposed to the elements, and sometimes need to get creative with how you go to the bathroom (especially if the area is crowded with other beachcombers). We could write an entire blog post just on that topic, but we will keep moving forward. There have been several free camp spots that trump any pay site. This is due to seclusion, surf, scenery, adventure, and the general satisfaction that occurs when one discovers a pristine location with an unspoiled backdrop . We camp for free as much as possible, but when we start to resemble the hippies and homeless, with our smells, haggard appearance, complete disregard to how a successful society should function, then it’s time to take a shower, wash the cloths, and email the family. It is a slippery slope. Maybe not?
The experience has been educational, enlightening, and an overall eye-opener. People in the states are frightened to travel to the 3rd world, but we like to challenge this idea. We met a couple from Europe that did this trip from the South heading North. They claim the most dangerous place they visited was Florida. They got robbed multiple times (one of which was a break in to their hotel room while they were sleeping). But hey, that was just one couples experience. You also learn to listen to others, but be aware that it is their experience. One must remember that the most dangerous situations are usually involving being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As with anywhere, one needs to be smart, keep their eyes open and have personal awareness as to how they relate to their current surroundings. This is true whether you are in Northern Florida or Southern Colombia.
There is no denying that this has, in fact, been one big learning experience. For example, did you know that eggs and meat don’t need to be refrigerated, 90’s rock is huge in South America (from the remote villages of Colombia to the beach towns of Chile), and there are ALOT of people in Central and South America with family in New Jersey. In Peru when I ordered an egg, cheese, ham sandwich, they actually brought me an egg sandwich, a cheese sandwich, and a ham sandwich. Separately. In Central America its more glorious to drink beer from a can, rather than a bottle. And people cannot comprehend how we are married and have no kids. In an effort to keep the mood light, we just tell them Lupe the dog is our kid. That always brings a smile.
Life is short, work is hard, surfing is fun. After all working takes the best years of a persons life, right?
The smell of septic was present. The stale, unventilated air was very hot and sweaty. Any clothing or cloth-like material had an apauling salty dampness about it. A constant creaking and uncertainty, “are these sounds are normal?” It sounds like something important is breaking, but the crew doesn’t seem to be phased by this, so I can only assume everything is ok. You just need to embrace the fact that you are uncomfortable and nauseous because there are not many options at this point. There are 20 passengers on this overcrowded sailboat and 3 gracious crew. Out of the 4 bathrooms one is in our cabin and shared by whomever needs to use it. The more people that use our bathroom the better the chance the flushing system will malfunction, only increasing the septic odor in what I call my bedroom. I attempt to sleep naked with the mentality that whomever enters the room to use the facilities will feel instantly uncomfortable with the presence of a naked stranger and use one of the other bathrooms, which to the best of my knowledge are worse off then the one I sleep next to.
I could sleep on the deck aside my vomiting wife, but the hard grip tape-like surface is doing a number on my back and shoulders. Besides she needs her space, and I need to sleep below deck with my dog Lupe to ensure she doesn’t mysteriously disappear into the sea during this multi-day open water crossing to Colombia. I could manage to scrounge up a pillow or two for some extra support but the consequences of sleeping on such a surface will make the next day a painful achy one for sure. The last 15 years its been hard to sleep comfortable due to a number of sport related injuries, so sleeping in certain positions seems to be a requirement for me to ensure a pleasant work day.
Only a few were seasick, my wife being one of them. The smell of puke was not overwhelming. Sometimes on a vessel seasickness is a chain reaction. One person gets ill, than another than another. The stench becomes too much to handle, then next thing you know the entire boat is regurgitating last nights pasta carbonara with raw tuna sashimi on the side. In my opinion, this is not the best meal to feed a boatload of potential sick half drunk humans. But I enjoyed the meal, and considering all of this, the boat in a whole did a good job.
20 plus bodies are littered on any flat surface that can be found. God for bid you need to get up in the middle of the night to take a piss, you will be tripping on humans in the blackness of the evening, not trying to step on their faces with your filthy moist feet. Besides any excuse in the middle of the night to go outside for a breadth of clean air will be taken advantage of. After breathing and moving in the stagnant thick air for several hours like one of those dreams when everything moves in slow motion, you contemplate just using your own bathroom because it can be quick and easy, and you’re half sleeping in a hypnotic state, questioning if your even awake or just dreaming this. Then after having more difficulty breathing, you enter the bathroom while stepping in 2 inches of unthinkable water, sweating profusely, taking small fast breadths of the septic poop filled air, you decide to parade outside stepping over the bodies while the boat rocks heavily, grabbing anything you can get your sweaty grip on. Your rancid foot only manages to come in contact with a few bodies, and as you accidentally wake these people up by stepping on whatever body parts wind up under your feet, you don’t seem to care. You just need to get outside fast because your suffocating from the hot, wet contaminated air of the cabin. After I take a whizz off the side of the boat, check up on my sick wife, admire the amazing view from the rapidly moving sailboat, you realize how easy it is to fall into the black early morning sea without anybody else realizing until its too late. With a few sloppy foot steps you could easily end it all, better take caution.
You find one of the last nooks to squeeze into on deck because you need to take advantage of laying down in the cool fresh air, and your too exhausted to stand. The smell of the ocean is refreshing and clean. You are a bit chilly and shivering, but its such a relief from the cabin you decide to see how long you can take the cold night with minimal clothing and no blankets. You could go back down to the black polluted cabin to fetch a sheet, but the chore seems like more work than your willing to do, and during the process there is a good chance your sleeping surface will get snatched by another human. As you lay down and contemplate life and this adventure you decided to embark on, you notice another body slowly shuffling up from below deck going through the motions you just went through. You managed to steal the last possible outdoor sleeping surface so they are forced to stand in their semi slumber while gaffeling as much oxygen as possible. you smile mischievously, stare at the constellations, forget about the hardship, feel grateful for where you are on the planet, and really take in your beautiful view of the 3 am sky in the middle of the sea.
We could have taken a airplane to Colombia instead of the 5 day sail. But putting Lupe the dog on a plane would involve stacks of paperwork, vet visits, and a possible non entry to the country because her breed has a bad reputation in Colombia. We could not take the risk of non entry because our truck is also on a ship someplace in the middle of the Caribbean awaiting our arrival in Colombia. Plus smuggling Lupe through international borders is a task we know all to well at this point. Since we did the boat, we would not have to pass through any security or authority of any sort with Lupe. So no matter how uncomfortable the over crowded vessel was it was really the only option to arrive in Colombia. Plus we are embarking on a journey where flying might seem like the easy thing to do, challenges are a big part of this trip, and suffering will humble a person. Though the stank boat overcrowded with twenty something year old cocaine filled backpackers was not a walk in the park, I did enjoy it thoroughly, and might do it again if need be. After all, being comfortable your whole life will make a person soft. And soft people suffer when things get tough. The midnight view of the sea and the flying fish hitting you in the chest made the experience interesting and worthwhile.
The birding was fun but I’m not a birder. We hunted the Quetzal through the jungle trek. There was six of us shuffling up this mountain. I think we saw more than a few. If I was a birder I would be able to brag to all my bird nerd friends about the sight we saw. Yea its a beautiful green bird, and we had fun on the hike, but the humid tropical air was hard to handle without the beach nearby.
Surfing is always an option anywhere in Central America, and that was one of the main reasons we left Jersey in the first place, to surf everywhere. Our last couple weeks in Costa Rica surfing one of the longest lefts on the planet during the first big swell of the season left our bodies beat down and it was hard to move, our feet sliced up from rock reef. It was probably the best biggest longest waves of the trip and probably our lives. The sense of satisfaction was glowing in our minds, so surfing in Panama was not a priority.
The constant thought of having to ship the Toyota to Colombia was on our minds. This process involves mucho paperwork, constant back and fourth emails to our agent, questions, security concerns, coordinating dates as to when we can pick it up, and deciding how we will be getting our bodies on the other side to receive the vehicle on time. This was a small burden, but maybe i worry too much. Not to mention the many thousands of dollars its going to cost to get us and the truck finally moving again in South America. We knew about this though, for a long time. Its all part of driving to Tierra del Fuego.
Once you travel from the States to South America, by the time you get to Panama you are kind of over Central America. All the countries in Central America feel very similar, especially the costal route. You are anxious for a change, and you know South America is on the horizon. You are excited to get there, to taste the new food, and peep all the hype. For example, once you leave Mexico the food situation goes downhill. Maybe thats because Mexico just has some of the most amazing inexpensive eats i’ve had my entire life. The rest of central America, not so much.
Dont get me wrong, Panama has a lot to offer, and is a beautiful place to visit, but for us personally it marked to end of a major leg of this trip and the beginning to something bigger and more mysterious. In Panama we surfed Santa Catalina, which was an interesting paddle out, with welcoming locals. The place is famous and the waves are strong, this is not a place for the meek, which is good because it keeps the kooks in check. The tides in Santa Catalina can have a difference of 15 feet, so getting caught inside at a lower tide can have an impact on your feet, body and board. We did manage to see one surfer with a blood gushing wound on his face, but thats normal there.
In many of these tourist communities there was a large presence of expats. These folks a lot of the time are a miserable bunch of chaps. They usually have their own cliques and sit around complaining about locals while chain smoking and making business. Its kinda funny that during our 9 months of traveling the most miserable sketchy people that crossed our paths are usually jaded american expats. I recommend minimal contact with these people. Connecting with locals is far more rewarding.
We spent over a week in Panama city getting ready to ship the truck and coordinate our sail to Colombia. We camped out in the street next to the canal one night. In the morning were woken up by a large family picking mangos from a tall tree above our camp. The street was crowded with parked cars and sound of mangos slamming on the hoods was amusing. Old town was riddeled with street art and narrow roads. Evidence of an old colonial town once threatened by pirates and smugglers. The history was evident and the ceviche is fresh. For $1.25 you get a heaping cup of fresh lime soaked fish straight from the boats you dine next to. And don’t forget the first Dunkin Doughnuts we visited since Jersey, it wasn’t the same though, no bagels, no sandwiches.
23 wake-ups in Nicaragua.
So, what did we do while there….
Well, let’s backtrack for a moment. We rolled into Assedores, a small village in Northern Nicaragua, on the 18th of February. It was just before sunset. It had been a long day on the road, which included a double border crossing. We were cranky. We navigated the area, searching for a spot to set up camp for the night. We pulled up to Pedro’s, whose hand painted sign of surfboards and tents caught our attention. This should do the trick. I ask, “Podemos acampar aqui?” Two white pick ups with Cali plates had just rolled in, and Pedro informed us that his lot was full with campers and vehicles. Luckily, Hugh, a Canadian expat who happened to be buying water at the time, kindly offered us a spot to park on his nearby farm. It was 2 nights at Hugh’s farm amongst goats, pigs, dogs, and chickens. We met David, Carlos, and Sarah, a trio from California, who also stayed on the property. I practiced my Spanish with Layla, the 4 year old daughter of the neighbor. Lupe frolicked amongst the various animals. Dean sampled some weird fruit that he claims is the best thing he has ever eaten.
We drove North, arriving at the village of Jiquillo early in the morning on the 20th. We scoped the small coastal dirt road for a spot to possibly set up shop for a bit. We pulled up to Rancho Esperanza. It seemed perfect. Perhaps, just what we were looking for? It was 4 nights at the Ranch. It was like a vacation. We met travelers from around the world, ate some tasty food, and enjoyed their extensive library consisting of every book a traveler could desire. There was some surf out front, an abundance of hammocks, and Lupe was able to make some friends. Oh, and how about that $2 fried whole fish next door?! That was a game changer.
Popoyo. Well, then there was that day driving from Jiquillo to Popoyo which turned out to be a little tricky. It began with some transit cops pulling us over, outside of Managua, with claims that were not wearing seatbelts. Tough chance, Matlock. We always wear seat belts. We were not budging and homeboy knew he was in the wrong. We continued on our way. Well, the roads in Nicaragua were slightly more rugged then we had anticipated, and our map was definitely not up to date with the latest road construction (or lack there of). From dirt road to dirt road, we searched for the route to Popoyo. I swear it was on the map! We followed the coast through small villages until the road… suddenly…ended. We inquired with some locals. Does this route exist? We are informed that it would take 30 minutes of driving on the beach to reach our destination. Okay, we can potentially handle that. Let’s give it a try…
So, we began. It was smooth traveling consisting of hard packed sand, late afternoon sunlight hovering above soft breaking ocean waves, open windows, and fresh breeze. Everything was cool. That was…until…the sand…started…to get….deeper. Wheels were spinning. We were stuck. Okay, everybody stay calm. 30 minutes, some frantic shoveling, strategic positioning of rocks and we were, once again, ready to roll.
So now the sun was going down quite rapidly. We would need somewhere to camp…PRONTO. We rolled up to a little nook on the beach, slightly hidden amongst some trees. This would do. Lupe would be securidad for the evening. There was a house nearby and we agreed that it was probably best to check-in with the people and inform them that we were sleeping nearby. This is when we met Lionel. Lionel owns the property and he is building a house on it, along with his brother-in-law. Lionel kindly offered us to camp on his land. It was a beautiful ocean front lot, surrounded by secure fencing. We pulled in, set up, and found a temporary home for the evening. We had a conversation with Lionel, in which he shared stories about his life and travels. He proudly told us about his children who are successful professionals in the States. He also informed us that he had just written a book of poems. It was a nice conversation, and we felt thankful for his hospitality. We were up at sunrise and enjoyed our morning coffee on the rocky point out front.
But wait, there was the morning of driving. We leave Lionel’s with Popoyo as the destination, but somehow we found ourselves back on uncharted dirt roads. It appeared that a wrong turn had brought us off course, but, luckily, we managed to find our way to the meeting of “Eagle”. “Eagle” is a retired Floridian who is now living in Nicaragua. We converse, trade some stories, and he kindly put us back on track. Right on, Eagle!
En route to Popoyo. We rolled into town. We think this is the spot? It is quiet….somewhat deserted. We were unable to locate any signs for camping. Hmmmm…..We started asking around. A Spaniard named Paco, who lives at the Mini-mart, offered us help. He directed us to a nearby restaurant and provided assistance in talking to the owner: $4, shower, close to the break. Perfect. There was 1 night there, but some concerns about security had us looking elsewhere.
We arrived at Finca Popoyo. It is a 10 minute walk down the beach from our first spot, in town. Apparently they don’t usually allow campers, and word on the scene is that we are the first. We are proud of this. There were 10 days here. We formed a small camp/community of sorts. Along side of us, there were 4 surfer dudes from Basque country (turns out that they were the white truck with Cali plates at Pedros’ up in Assedores), and 2 hilarious Spaniards who we had met at the ranch in Jiquillio. There were other travelers, as well, who were part off our nice little community. There was Fer, a surfboard shaper from Basque country, and his beautiful, kind girlfriend, Huen. There was Don, a well-traveled, sociable chocolate maker from Asheville, NC. We also met Elijah and Gideon, two easy-going travelers from Cape Cod. Oh, and Jorge! He was the securidad hefe who LOVED our truck. It was easy living with long, quiet days and familiar faces. Well, that is until Lupe got attacked, I got a surfboard to the head, and we all got fleas…but, hey, it is all part of the adventure. There were surf day trips, goose barnicle hunting expeditions, hamburger nights, Tonas aplenty, nightly Spanish lessons consisting of Dean and I attempting to understand the group. Que pass tio? So, we did learn that, while in the States we say, “What’s up, man?” apparently in Spain they say, “What’s up Uncle?” Who knew. So, we learned something.
Popoyo was really good. It was invigorating.
We then found ourselves in Astillero. We were there for 3 nights. It was just the 3 of us (me, Dean, and Lupe). We enjoyed the quiet of Hostel Hammocas. Mario hooked us up with a fan, we had showers, and uncrowded surf. There were only a few other people staying there, and it was a peaceful spot. Midday was hot, but we camped beneath the shade of tamarindo trees and the ocean was nearby. It soon became time, though, to move….onward.
There was Playa Gigante for a night where we reconnected with Becca and Mark, an Australian couple, traveling in their Kombi to South America. We walked the rocky coastline, before sunset, soaking in the vibe of the village before it was time to continue onward.
Our last night was spent in Playa Maderas, outside San Juan Del Sur. The Taco parked beside Cafe Revolution, at a beachside campspot. We both got in the water, connected with some fellow travelers, made final preparations for the next border crossing, and within a day it was decided that we would be moving on to Costa Rica. Our time in Nicaragua had come to an end.
Nicaragua was rather extreme for us. It had it’s challenges, but they seem to be forgotten amongst the many wonders of the country. As I write these words I recognize that ‘challenges’ seems so relative when traveling through a country. I imagine that this also reflects the country, though- this experience of extremes. There were hot afternoons, water impoverished landscapes, skinny dogs, and the faint smell of burning trash in the air. It was common to see men in oxen-drawn carts, children on horseback, and pigs freely roaming the landscape. There was a seriousness in the people. It was not unfriendly, but there was sense that life is tough. You see it in their brow. There were also the big shady tamarindo trees, expansive beaches, powerful surf, and playful children (so many children!)- all symbols of the life and energy present in the small nation. There was a sense that people work hard and they go out of there way to offer assistance. For that we are thankful.
It took me a little bit to warm up to Nicaragua, but now that I have, I have fallen. I hope to see you again someday, Nicaragua.
Here is some footage of us crossing into El Salvador from Guatemala…
here is some footage of our time spent on a peach farm in Guatemala.
We woke well before sunrise at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala with plans on crossing into El Salvador ASAP. Border crossings are always a process and you should expect the unexpected. Arrive prepared, well fed, and expect a long sweaty line of traffic.
Before each border you need to do your homework. Each border is different, and there are always useful tips online to better prepare you for the process. Most borders have locals that are willing to walk you through the process for a small, negotiable fee. I always try to avoid these dudes (they are just random dudes, not official by any means).
One of those dudes spotted us miles before the border, swerved his motorcycle in front of us, began motioning us to follow him, and straight being the only direction to go, we had no choice but to follow. We stopped to do all our Guatemala exit paperwork, and the dude just started telling us what needed to be done. “two copies of this, one copy of that, go over there, talk to that guy”. Guatemala done. We are almost in El Salvador, but before that lets sit in bumper to bumper traffic on a bridge for an hour.
As it turns out, our dude was pretty damm useful. He ripped around on his bike telling all the trucks to move over so we could get by. He directed traffic “go here, go around that guy, drive on the wrong side of the road for miles at a time, cut off everyone, its ok”. We took his lead, with no hesitation. No one seemed to mind either which is interesting. But, after countless traffic violations we were at the El Salvador border.
Once agian, dude helped us, “go here, go there, fill these out, now do this”. I have to admit that we propably could have done this all ourselves, but it would have taken twice as long and would have been three times as stressful. When we were finally done, the dude, AKA George, was the man of the hour. At this point, I was ready for him to haggle me for money, but no. It was a smooth transaction. I offered him $20 bucks, and he seemed to be stoked for his two hours of helping us gringos in the sweltering heat. Well worth it in my opinion. By the end of the day we were swimming in 80 degree water on the tropical beaches of El Salvador.
To all travelers crossing this boarder, look for this dude named George. He was a perfect gentleman and spoke perfect english. He lived in the states for over 20 years, and is now slowly preparing to become a legal resident. Props to the kind locals helping a couple confused gringos.