Wednesday, August 28, 2019

El Salvador and Honduras (in a hurry)

As I mentioned in my last post, we were trying to get to El Salvador by boat from Nicaragua because my passport situation required it. Mom's passport situation required us to start moving very quickly because we now had less than 3 weeks to get all the way to Cancun for our flight home and even less time than that to get to Antigua, Guatemala for mom's flight home first.
With a new temporary passport in (mom's) hand we finally returned to Potosi, 10 days after having had it stolen on our way there. There is no really good information about this marine crossing and we were pretty sure there was no regularly scheduled transport between the two countries. A few tour/transport agencies claim to be able to arrange something, usually a much more expensive private transfer that doesn't appeal to anyone as it is significantly more than the van options to get to the same place.
We had arranged transportation through an online travel agency and despite repeated assurances that everything would be taken care of, I can't say I was very surprised when on the morning of our boat departure, we got a message saying that the company failed to find any more passengers and it would suddenly be much more expensive if we still wanted to go. This is not the way to win me over.
Once again we were rescued by the amazingly friendly and helpful guy at the guesthouse we were staying at. He made a few calls and within an hour had come up with a solution to get us across. Fishermen. We had to walk over to the little port area and get ourselves through immigration first though. We were the only people there and the whole thing was surprisingly very easy. There might be only 2 buildings and a broken pier that isn't even used anymore but the officials were nice and were also making sure our ride was legit. We had to wait a while for the 2 fisherman to show up (he'd been loading his little boat with buckets of fish in another area nearby) but eventually he pulled up on the empty black sand beach and we jumped in. It was a tiny open boat with 6 buckets of small fish covered with cloth. We threw our bags on top of the buckets, sat 3 across on the only bench available and started the crossing. The Gulf of Fonseca is not very large and has one small opening to the pacific ocean. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are all easily seen from any point in the water, with a few islands and volcanoes dotted around the bay. It was a bit hazy but still very picturesque. The only other boats were of other fishermen and the whole crossing was a relatively easy 2 hours with a brief stop at a village on one of the islands along the way to drop off a few things.
Our entry into El Salvador was less than glorious. I was already wet from water splashing all over me and when our boat pulled up to the busier port in La Union we had to wade through dirty, knee-deep water full of garbage and fish guts to get ourselves ashore. It didn't look like a wonderful town to hang around in though everyone we met was helpful and friendly enough. We stayed just long enough to get stamped in, hit the atm and catch a bus out. We spent the night in San Miguel, the largest city in the east/south of the country.

Black sand at Potosi

Our boat

Arrival port in La Union, El Salvador

The buckets of fish successfully offloaded.

El Salvador looked similar to the rest of the countries in Central America at first glance though it is smaller and therefore more densely populated. Most tourism revolves around surfing and volcanoes but the country has a terrible reputation for serious gang-related crime and boasts one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world. We only stayed 3 nights in El Salvador so could hardly claim to know the country, but where we were and what we did didn't feel any more dangerous and threatening than anywhere else we went. I think the people were the friendliest and the national food (pupusas) were the best that we experienced in Central America. There was a noticeable increase in security everywhere and barbed-wire is definitely the national decor so I have no doubt that crime is a serious problem. But the overall impression is that things could be so much better but I have also seen poorer. Though they overlap a lot, there is a difference between no money and totally undeveloped poor vs deteriorated, corrupt and crime-riddled poor.  Parts of Africa or Bolivia where people live in huts and there are no paved roads feels like the former while El Salvador (and its neighbours) with its western chains, skyscrapers, paved roads and shopping malls is closer to the latter.
With a reduced schedule we were forced to prioritize our experiences down to the essentials which in our case meant mostly Mayan ruins for the rest of the trip. In El Salvador there is only 1 unesco site, Joya de Ceren, known as the Pompeii of the Americas. We relocated from San Miguel to Santa Ana and from there visited Joya de Ceren on a day trip. Unlike the more famous Mayan tourist sites, this one is not based on huge temples and religious structures but is a simple village that was abandoned during a volcanic eruption about 1400 years ago. It was only discovered in 1976 and archaeologists have had to dig through 14 layers of volcanic ash to expose the original buildings. It isn't a large site and the village only existed for about 30 years before being abandoned, but there are several simple residential buildings to look down on. This site is more for the serious archaeologist than the casual tourist but it is interesting to see something of how the simple Mayans lived long ago. The lower temperature of the ash that covered the village helped it preserve everything so well including organic material such as food, giving researchers valuable info not found elsewhere. From there we caught a local bus to the town of Chalchuapa to visit a small temple site but it had been over-restored and wasn't of particularly high quality. It was a warm up for what was to come but it is probably not unfair to say that El Salvador is not going to become an international archaeology powerhouse anytime soon.

Joya de Ceren

El Tazumal pyramid at Chalchuapa

The theatre at Santa Ana

Santa Ana cathedral

Our next destination was Copan Ruinas in Honduras. The normal and most direct route between Santa Ana and Copan is actually through Guatemala, but due to my passport being too full we needed to take the long way. We also had to do it on our own. There are no tourist shuttles or direct buses that don't go through Guatemala. Getting up really early we left Santa Ana at 6am for a bus back to San Salvador where we had to change bus terminals to get another bus directly to the border at El Poy. It was pretty scenery as we climbed up into the highlands that would make up the western corner of Honduras. Once we crossed the border it was interesting to see how the vegetation would change from corn and banana crops and a more tropical look at lower elevations and in the valleys to coffee and pine trees at the highest points of the ride. The border crossing was quick and simple and after a 10 minute van ride to the nearest town, we caught another bus to the highway junction at La Entrada. We knew another bus would eventually come by for the final stretch to the village of Copan Ruinas but unfortunately we ended up waiting for an hour and a half before the final bus of the day came by. In all it took us 13.5 hours but we made it. We didn't want to get stranded half way. If there is a country with a worse reputation for danger than El Salvador it is Honduras, though that is mostly in the big cities and the people we met along the way were all helpful and friendly. They just don't see many independent travelers moving around by public bus anymore.

Honduras highlands

Arrival in Copan Ruinas

The Mayan ruins at Copan are well known as one of the best in the world, often compared with those at Tikal in Guatemala. While I personally think there is no comparison (I liked Tikal much better), Copan is a superior site for those interested in carved detail. The stele found there are arguably the best ever produced by the Mayans. The site is a large one with a large central plaza, several temples and residential areas and of course a ball court. The most impressive and unique part is the huge hieroglyphic staircase that climbs 21 meters up the outside of one of the temples. Considered by many to be the largest ancient text in the world, it describes the royal lineage of Copan and the accomplishments of its 16 kings. It is partially restored and has been covered by a canvas tarp for decades now to prevent further deterioration by the elements. We spent a couple hours wandering around and checking out all the ruins. It was hot as usual but fortunately shade wasn't too hard to find since the ruins are still in the jungle. Even better than the shade, the jungle provided us with animals. We didn't see or hear any monkeys but even better, the entry area is full of released scarlet macaws. There were dozens of these beautiful birds and we spent quite a while watching them. Animals have definitely been a highlight on this trip overall and the macaws were no exception.

The hieroglyphic staircase

The grand plaza with ball court

I love the huge trees growing out of the ruins

There are other touristy attractions nearby including more ruins, waterfalls and bird parks but we only had the one full day and spent it all at the main ruins. Also due to our limited time frame we had to save time by leaving Copan Ruinas by tourist shuttle to get to Guatemala rather than making our own way. Fortunately we were able to use the deposit we'd paid toward our failed boat crossing out of Nicaragua on a shuttle arranged through the same company.

Friday, August 23, 2019


I'd have never guessed we'd end up spending more time in Nicaragua than any other country in Central America. It wasn't by plan and ended up becoming a necessity as we ran into a few problems.
Nicaragua is a bit of a mixed story depending on who you talk to. On one side, it is more politically aligned outside of the US-axis than any other country in Central America having been good friends with Cuba, Iran and the rest of the "other side" in recent history. This all stems from a leftist revolution and take over back in 1979 which led to further messiness and a civil war with US-backed rebels throughout the 80's. Not that they invented corruption and incompetence (there is a reason the Somoza regime was overthrown in the first place) but like most revolutions worldwide, leadership changes but crappy conditions mostly just stay the same for the little guy.
Despite all this, in the last decade or so Nicaragua had been gaining a pretty solid reputation as the next "Costa Rica" with much better prices and a lot of growth potential on a stable and safe tourism front. Many Americans and Canadians were buying up land for retirement and things were generally looking good. Last year all hell broke loose with a whack of political instability, violent protests, mass repressions and human rights violations by the authorities and suddenly most of the foreigners ran away and tourist-oriented businesses shut down. It was yet another thing to keep my eye on as it looked more and more likely that we would get there this year and it seemed that things had stabilized enough on the safety front and visitors were starting to trickle back in.
We got a direct bus from Liberia to the border. Generally I make a point of taking more obscure and interesting routes and border crossings through countries and have avoided a lot of scam and hassle this way. With Nicaragua we didn't really have much choice but to take the most popular crossing and although it wasn't particularly difficult or obnoxious, it was probably the least pleasant border post of our trip. The exit fee for Costa Rica is just stupid and scammy in the way they have a broken official payment machine so you have to pay extra to pay the fee at other booths and of all the people we were to meet and deal with in Nicaragua, the touts and bus drivers at the border were the worst. Not the best start to the day.
Our first destination was Granada, arguably the most touristic place in the country and with a large expat community. If they aren't living on the beach, they are probably living in Granada. Granada is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Central America and bills itself as one of the best preserved colonial towns in the region. True. It is cute with its colonial plaza and many of the streets have been repainted in multiple colours so it is all very photogenic and makes for a nice stroll. The churches are looking a little run down but that just gives it a bit more character. It was pretty, quiet and noticeably suffering for a lack of visitors though we saw more here than anywhere else in the country.

Granada cathedral

Granada's central plaza

Colourful homes

Guadalupe church

Xalteva church

We planned on giving ourselves a couple nights in Granada to see it and then move on. What we didn't realize until the morning of our departure was that our chosen departure date was a major holiday in Nicaragua and that this one was very politically motivated, having to do with the Sandinista revolution by the (somewhat) current government. With all the troubles lately I guess it was a good excuse for them to really get some serious self-promotion on and so all public bus licences were revoked for the day and suddenly Granada felt like a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic on the roads and the little bus station was completely deserted. What was supposed to have been a simple "get up and relocate a few hours northwest" kind of day became much more interesting. First there was the initial panic of "we aren't going to be able to get out of this suddenly ghost town and I have a place booked to get to" which was solved when our Granada host suggested a tourist shuttle.
Tourist shuttles are just that, a much more expensive door-to-door service used by most travelers now because of their "ease, safety and comfort". I would never consider a tourist shuttle under normal circumstances, finding the vans more uncomfortable than buses and lacking in any kind of local flavour. Nevertheless they are faster and were running when nothing else was that day. Our plan was to get to Leon, normally only 2-3 hours away. It took us over 5 hours because shortly after leaving Granada we found all the missing buses and people. It seemed like almost everyone (certainly everyone that wanted to) was in these re-purposed buses heading toward the capital for.....something. We don't know and never did find out. From the looks of things most were never going to make it in time anyway. The "highway" was gridlocked and our shuttle driver at one point resorted to driving at oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the divided road. This was done at the suggestion of the traffic police until we got busted by a different set of traffic police a while later. The other tourists didn't complain when were forced to turn around, backtrack to the nearest roundabout and rejoin the crowds. A few were fairly convinced they were going to die. Highly amusing...
Nicaraguan buses are "chicken buses", converted North American school buses, in rough shape, usually with a personalized paint job and surely a new engine because I don't ever remember a school bus at home that could drive like that. Now fill the buses with thousands of excited locals to the point they are riding on the roof waving red and black FSLN flags (from the political party). They'll spend hours travelling to the capital and maybe get there but it didn't really look like they cared where they were. Not the way I hope to spend my holidays but maybe Nicaraguans are short of entertainment options.
We made it to Leon in the end. Maybe it was the long weekend or maybe it is always that way, but we found it to be much quieter and more relaxed than Granada. The majority of visitors that come to Leon come for the volcanoes and the cathedral. The cathedral is a unesco-listed one and unique in its fusion of local and colonial styles. It sits on the dusty main plaza amidst other colonial buildings, the likes of which we have grown very accustomed to this past year. It didn't take long to wander from church to church to check out the various facades, some of which were rather unique (one had dice? carved into it).

Church of the Recollection, Leon

Leon cathedral

Volcanoes, on the other hand, are very much a part of Central American geography with a long string of them on the west side of the isthmus at fairly regular intervals from Costa Rica all the way into Mexico. We were always within site of one it seemed and climbing or other activities are offered at many in each country. Leon advertises volcano boarding which seems to be more or less sand boarding down a volcano (on the outside). We had ruled out any volcanic activities not only on account of the oppressive heat but also because during the rainy season the tops of the volcanoes are usually covered in cloud. Laziness had nothing to do with it I swear. Instead we made a little day trip to the ruins of Leon Viejo, the original settlement of Leon, one of the oldest in the region having been founded in 1524. It was abandoned in 1610 after multiple earthquakes and issues with the nearby active volcano which subsequently buried the site. It wasn't rediscovered until 1967 and parts of it have been uncovered and partially restored though it is mostly just the general layout and the bases of walls that remain. It lies beside the second largest lake in Nicaragua and has nice views of the nearby volcanoes as well. The ruins are obviously not as popular as volcanoes to most tourists these days because we were the only people visiting and the village beside the ruins was incredibly quiet with almost nothing catering to possible visitors.

Leon Viejo

Leon Viejo. 

Momotombo volcano from the lake shore near Leon Viejo

From Leon we made our way to Potosi, a tiny village at the end of a peninsula in the northwest of the country. Our plan was to take a boat from Potosi across the small Gulf of Fonseca to reach El Salvador. We needed to do this route because I was rapidly running out of space in my passport for anything but the bare minimum of stamps to finish our trip and this was the only way to avoid entering Honduras without flying. Unfortunately, after checking into our little guesthouse in Potosi, mom discovered that her bag had been rifled through on the bus and her valuables had been stolen, including her passport. They warn you about this kind of thing and it sucks, but the worst part of it is that the process of replacing a passport ends up more costly (in money but especially time) than what was actually taken in the first place. Let's just say that I was not happy and the whole ordeal put us about 10 days behind schedule before we got back to Potosi and on track again. So close to the end, and having just bought our flight home based on a different schedule and itinerary, there was plenty of frantic planning on my part to come up with something new. In the meantime we had to backtrack to the Canadian embassy in Managua and after applying for a new passport, returned to Granada again to sit and wait a week for it to arrive.
We had to spend a little time in Managua so got a chance to see it as well. There is not much in Managua that is very exciting to be honest. There was a ton of heavy security lining the streets while we were there though I got the impression it was for a political event and not the usual amount. The only really potentially touristic area is along the lakefront but it was closed for security reasons. The most interesting attraction ended up being a partial viewing of the old cathedral which was abandoned after an earthquake damaged it in 1972.

The abandoned Managua cathedral

Central Managua. These giant "trees" light up at night.


Monday, July 29, 2019

Caribbean Side of Panama and Costa Rica

Almost everyone I've talked to that has been to Panama has told me that I must visit Bocas del Toro. Such consistent (and insistent) recommendations should not be ignored, so with the limited time we had we prioritized a visit to this archipelago of small islands off the northwest coast of Panama. Fortunately, they are easy to get to and although we got dropped off at the small coastal town of Almirante at 4:30am we didn't have to wait too long for sunrise and the first of the small speedboats to begin the crossing to the islands. We first passed through a narrow channel of huts on stilts (it's the kind of place where kids take canoes to school) before hitting more open water and crossing to Bocas town, the largest of the settlements and main tourist hub for the area. It is rainy season in Central America now so we have been under constant threat of rain and thunderstorms. Brief, strong showers are not uncommon, especially in the afternoons and the high humidity is inescapable.
This is for the most part clear, warm Caribbean waters and Bocas has a lot of tour agencies and activities on offer. It's a backpacker to mid-range vibe, no big resorts and fly-in packages. There are a few beaches outside of town on the main island. We crossed the island on the local bus and visited Starfish Beach which was pretty though tourists have killed most of the starfish at this point so there weren't many to see. If you like your beaches with warm shallow water, a thin sliver of sand to lay on and a lot of palm trees then look no further.

Walking out to Starfish beach

Starfish beach

With the limited time we had, rather than using the little inter island boats to independently try to visit other beaches in the area, we opted for a cheap day tour that would take us around to a number of sites quickly. It started with dolphin watching in the bay, a bit of snorkeling, relaxing on a beach on a small uninhabited island, observing sloths in the mangroves and finally more starfish. None of these things blew us away but it is pretty and we enjoyed the day.

Our little tour boat

Deserted Zapatilla island
Lunch stop on tour

I can see how people could spend longer than planned relaxing at Bocas but that wasn't an option for us. Not only was time a factor but also money. Panama is definitely more expensive than the last few countries we've been in and that also had us motivated to keep moving along. From Bocas we caught a morning boat back to the mainland and from there negotiated a shuttle to the border where we walked across a little bridge into Costa Rica. It is the quieter border crossing side of the country and we got through and on the next bus without any hassle or too much delay.
Our first stop in Costa Rica was Cahuita and we knew right away we would not be spending long in the country. Costa Rica is ridiculously popular, much more so than the rest of Central America, mostly because of its reputation for safety, stability and natural beauty. If you want to have a safe, family-oriented tropical vacation and not have to worry too much and have money to burn, it's great. For us, not so. Outside of Patagonia, Barbados and Antarctica, I think Costa Rica was the most expensive place we went this year. I'm not always against spending money (despite what the rest of my family will tell you) but I am only willing to do so when there is perceived value in doing so. I don't feel the need to spend random time on beaches or in national parks just because they are popular, so we specifically targeted certain activities we knew we could accomplish quickly and successfully and left the country in 5 days.
The first activity was to see sloths in the wild. This was a major bucket list item for Sasha and while we had seen a sloth in a park in Cartagena and just a couple days before on our boat tour in Bocas, neither had been good enough to leave us feeling truly satisfied. Sloths are very common in Costa Rica. You can pay lots and go see them at some "rehabilitation" sanctuaries and even hold them I believe, or try your luck with seeing them in a national park somewhere while hiking. We'd heard that it was pretty much impossible to not see them at Cahuita National Park so decided to take our chances there. Unlike almost all other parks in Costa Rica, Cahuita NP is easily accessible without a vehicle, doesn't have an entry fee (it is by donation only) and doesn't require a guide (though having one can make wildlife spotting much easier). The entry to the park is at the edge of the town of the same name and we spent several hours walking the 8 km trail through the park. It is described as a loop but is an incomplete one as it leaves you at the other end of the park on the main road where you can easily get on a local bus or shuttle back to town. The trail parallels a nice beach which seemed to be what most local tourists were visiting for. There were 2 places where we had to walk through small streams but otherwise the trail was mostly shaded and well laid out, at times just a sandy path and at other times an elevated boardwalk over flooded land. We saw (and heard) howler monkeys which we love, capuchin monkeys, sloths and a variety of birds and smaller critters. We had a great day and would definitely recommend it.

Sandy trail through Cahuita NP

Cahuita beach

A stream to cross

It seems that most people rent a car or use shuttles in Costa Rica. We were on the public buses as always and it wasn't difficult or uncomfortable though we often had to hold onto our luggage because there was nowhere else to put it. We made it from Cahuita to Tortuguero village in a long day using a combination of 4 buses and a boat. Tortuguero is a small village on a sandbar built between a river and the remote northeast coast of Costa Rica and not accessible by road directly. It is a popular destination however, especially during various turtle seasons when sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Fortunately for tourists there are 4 species of turtles here and they lay at different times so there is usually something going on. The green turtle laying season starts in July and we were right at the beginning of it. As planned.
Tortuguero National Park lies just outside the village and is dense jungle cut by waterways and canals on their way to the sea. Wildlife is also abundant here but the only way to visit is by boat tour or on a short muddy hike along a limited trail paralleling the coast. We started the morning with a two and a half hour canoe tour into the national park. We saw birds, a caiman and some more howler monkeys. This is a very wet area, especially in the rainy season so it's not surprising we got poured on. Maybe that is why we didn't see as much as I expected. That afternoon we got poured on again as we went stomping around in the national park on a flooded and muddy trail.

Boats to Tortuguero

Tortuguero port

Mother and baby howler monkeys

Tortuguero beach
Tortuguero village

Just after sunset we met with our guide for a final foray into the park, this time with a walk back along the muddy trail to a staging point where we would wait until the local turtle spotters found a turtle for us. It is done this way so that the tourists spend a minimal time on the beach itself where they could damage nests or scare away any turtles that haven't committed to laying yet. Once a female turtle is finished digging her nest and and begins to lay her eggs she goes into something of a trance and it is safe for us to approach. Only a red light is used and no photos are allowed so we don't have any but if you get a chance it is a pretty amazing thing to see. The lightning was good for viewing the turtle but when it finally started pouring we ended up heading back a little early. It was a 2 km walk back to the village in the strongest downpour I've been in. Usually these only last a couple of minutes at such strength but it was ferocious the entire walk back. I've never been so fully clothed and that wet before. My rubber boots were full of water by the time we got back. Fortunately it was warm enough and we weren't eaten by jaguars (apparently lots of turtles get eaten so it could be a thing) so we had a good but busy and wet day overall.
The following morning we had the unpleasant task of packing up our gear (still wet) and traveling all the way across the country to its second largest city, Liberia. This entailed taking the boat back out of town (the water level had risen significantly in the 2 days we were there and several homes were flooded in the village and surrounding area) and 3 bus rides and took about 11 hours. It was our final night in Costa Rica and we were merely staging ourselves for the main, western crossing into Nicaragua the following day.