Looking forward, yet heading back. The feeling of dread burned deep. Like the moment a mountaineer reaches the summit, only to turn around and face the harder challenge…getting down. Our descent is The Return. The borders, the miles, the hassle. Charting and planning with our maps spread wide, we replayed the details of the day we crossed 2 borders, touched 3 countries, survived the 12 hours it took and swore – never again. We knew this was coming. The day we made the decision to turn around in Panama, to put South America back on our “must do in this lifetime” list, we knew each mile traveled was a mile we had to repeat. Colin was getting pretty creative on ways we could avoid The Return. “Screw it! Let’s just max out our credit cards and get on that ferry. How much is Sprite worth? Can she do anything to bring in some money? Are the Zapatistas hiring or at least recruiting?” And then he came up with something we were qualified to undertake, “You know those guys who drive through town with a speaker bolted to the hood of their car shouting for ‘metales, metales, metales, botellas, botellas, botellas’ we could do that.” In an effort to prove he was the right man for the job, he clenched his hand as if holding the CB and repeated the words with his exaggerated-muffled Spanish accent. I was convinced he sounded right on target, but where do we get a speaker? And how do we carry all these metals, metals, metals and bottles, bottles, bottles?
We camped with a guy in Costa Rica who also had a few ideas for us, “You could get precious stones like onyx in Honduras and sell them to the hippies who make jewelry…” He paused for a second because a better idea was forming, “Or you could get the stones and just make the jewelry yourselves!” Colin was the one who responded first, “Where might one find these precious stones?”
At an attempt to return with the same adventurous spirit we embodied coming down, we decided to change our route, change our attitudes, take new roads, give up our judgements and give second chances. Nicaragua, What beauty are you hiding? Honduras, Are you more than a murder rate? El Salvador, Sorry but we will leave you to the surfers. Costa Rica, Is your Caribbean side as charming as your Pacific coast? We played this game of what’s and if’s and began to drive north…6 more borders to go.
A Sea of Blue Bags: The Other Side of Costa Rica
She looks so happy with her hair tucked under a heaping basket of fruit balanced on her head, her bosom pushed up in a puffy dress. Pretty in blue and stuck on every Chiquita banana. The golden fruit took off – by the 20th century bananas surpassed coffee as Costa Rica’s most lucrative export. (Lonely Planet)
A landscape of banana plants, short palm like plants that run in rows broken up only by the road and surrounding mountains. Blue bags cover each bunch of bananas and act like a protective barrier, but we learn the bags hold pesticides. Every banana sits in a sack of poison. We see blue bags sitting in ditches and along the road side. We pass signs that warn of danger and suggest watching out when aircrafts are present since they fly low, over plants unloading more pesticides. We see people taking bananas straight from the blue bags selling them at roadside stands. The banana towns are built on the only plots of land not covered by banana plants. Run down apartments, paint faded and peeling. Some with doors, most without. A few stores rest along the roadside, but the over all feeling here is depressing. We couldn’t be further from the colorful produce aisles in a U.S. super market. The neat piles of yellow bananas on the shelves, the blue sticker of a pretty and smiling Ms. Chiquita.
I imagine the Caribbean as shallow blue water, a visible sea floor. Couples snorkeling just off the shore, cushioned lounge chairs and pineapple drinks wait for their return. All these thoughts are great, but would be the very opposite of what we found. Think Bob Marley music and Rastafarian vibe. Rough waves punching dark sandy beaches. Tons of rental cabins and “beach shacks” several places to buy wacky hats with strands of dreadlocks sewn to the rim. The rainforest was plentiful and we had a wonderful couple of days at Camping Maria near Playa Negra. Maria, the owner, and her mother kissed us when we left, sent us off with a prayer and thick fried tortillas.
Maria’s place was on the water, surrounded by trees and all sorts of cool bugs and other creatures. Grasshoppers the size of pickles (we’re not talking the small ones, more like the big fat dill size) and frogs with black puzzle piece shaped spots on a turquoise body. Bats asleep on the underside of a fern. Other than her place, we would recommend the Pacific side of Costa Rica, without a doubt, and inland along the spine of the country (Osa Peninsula, Manuel Antonio, Arenal volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, scenic drives along the southern central area were a few of our favorite spots). A treat was spending our last few nights in the country at the finca where we started this Costa Rica journey – Canas Castilla. Agi (owner and amazing cook) greeted me with a big hug. She showed me the renovations to the camper bath house, filled me in on the happenings around the farm and recent travelers. It felt like coming home.
It’s Not You It’s Us…No, It’s You
Bracing ourselves for Nicaragua was like giving a cheating boyfriend a second chance. You try to look at the positive aspects of the relationship – focusing on his good qualities. But that sour stench of broken trust seems to ooze out from his pours. As the stink ultimate kills the relationship, you walk away knowing you tried, knowing you gave it one last good shot.
We pulled out our optimistic outlook. Folding the past into the archives and setting out to see this place with a fresh perspective. We drove into new territory that lead over bumpy gravel, slinging us back and forth across the road and around tobacco fields. Long two story barns looked old and historic, with open shutters exposing hanging leaves of tobacco. Over an hour later and the scene is the same; more long barns, more hanging tobacco, field next to field, big full trees setting the boundaries. The smokey smell, the symmetry of rows, the horses in the fields. A time past brought to the present. This was a different Nicaragua. The bribing cops, and blank stares, and starving animals, and constant honking cars, and whistles and grime were gone – lost in the beauty of this place. We worked our way towards camp passing cattle farms fenced in by rock walls. A landscape with low growing shrub trees and taller trees with moss dripping off its branches. My favorite part was a tour we took with a farm owner through a farm and rainforest; with trees and plants used for back pain, headaches or for catching a buzz (I swear the rainforest has everything). Our guide stopped by a seemingly normal tree and cut a slit into the bark with his knife. The tree bled. A red stream of blood poured down the trunk. He pressed the pad of his finger into the stream and rubbed the blood onto his palm. It foamed up like soap then he dabbed it onto his face. A bleeding tree for the skin. Where can I buy one of these? The blood was actually the tree’s sap and used for an antiseptic.
Later we would find Volcan Masaya and Somoto Canyon and nod to each other that this was nice, but we couldn’t avoid moving through the towns that connected these places and again it brought back old feelings. Other than a couple spots and the bloody tree, we just did not love Nicaragua. So we did what only Overlander’s can do, we drove on.
Diamond in the Rough
It was pleasant crossing into Honduras. I am aware I just used the word “pleasant” and “crossing” in the same sentence, but it’s true. The borders going back were no where near as horrible the second time around…with the exception of leaving Nicaragua. I swear I heard the border man say, “Don’t let the door kick your ass on the way out!” It kicked us alright, a few times for good measure. (On a side note: all this kicking by borders led to a good story. Our first ever published – on a site we love and use often so it was exciting to see us there: Expedition Portal, The Not so Glamorous Side of Overlanding)
After carefully reading the State Department’s warnings, followed by staticics which were full of very convincing reasons to avoid their list of towns in Honduras, “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high…has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for the last five years…certain areas of the country demonstrate higher levels of criminal activity than others…” (US Department of State website). I wrote them down in my red notebook. In bold. Page bookmarked. Highlighted AVOID on my map. We drove right down the main artery and into the guts of the worst one, also the largest – Tegucigalapa. We can admit this now since we are safely cruising around the U.S. Don’t worry mom and dad, it was during the day. And we didn’t veer off the main road, following a semi loaded with goods. “This guy must be going straight through on the most direct route,” Colin explained his theory while moving his grip to 10 and 2. “I’m following him.” Sounded good to me since my plan was still in the forming stage.
Pushing through the city like a snowplow, the semi leaves a clean path for us to follow – we stayed close behind. If he changed lanes, we changed lanes. If he turned, we turned. It worked. The only problem was me…giving Colin the play-by-play of what exactly we were driving through. “Just look, quick! Over there!” As I pointed towards his side window. “Holy shit! You’ve gotta look over there.” Now I’m pushing my finger against my window. Colin comments in a not so friendly tone, “Sure I’ll look, let’s just pull over here… how about a picnic?” I realize the importance of keeping up with the semi, but what I see must be seen. We are in the bottom of a humongous dirty brown bowl. From my view point all sides of the city go up. Thousands and what seems like millions of houses stacked on top of more houses. Not in order, not with roofs, not finished. They are scattered, dilapidated, rusty. They are squished so tightly together and cover so many square miles it makes me tell Colin once more, “You just gotta look.” Once we clear the city limits, the road gets wider, the lanes open up leaving the chaos behind us with a view where Colin can finally see. It’s a snapshot of the entire city below us, spread out wide, pushing farther than we can see with our own eyes. “I can’t believe we just drove through that, ” Colin says with a look of amazement.
That was the worst part of Honduras. A nice distance from Tegucigalapa we pull over to buy some treats from a vendor. I kept seeing these tiny ring shape cookies everywhere. On billboards, in stores and now on a sign plastered to a roadside stand. Colin runs over to get some and when he returns with the goods he tells me the vendor had him sampling a little bit of everything while explaining the ingredients of each product. He was cheery and seemed happy to have our business. The cookies were terrible. What I imagine dry dog treats taste like, but we kept eating them hoping maybe it was an acquired taste. And because the vendor was so likable, we just wanted to like the treats.
While sitting off the side of the road choking down dog treats, we noticed all the pine trees. We were cruising at a higher elevation and except for the highway, we were surrounded in beautiful green forest. This continued. Hills, trees, mountains, clean. Every town, people waved, smiled, were helpful. There are a handful of National Parks in this region and a popular brewery conveniently located right in the middle, with pretty good beer, and welcomed camping. We considered staying longer, checking out some of the popular treks, parks and area highlights (which is a surprising long list) but our vehicle permit was getting ready to expire so we made the decision to keep moving. We met a few groups of travelers who all had the same thought, Honduras is a gem! Our last stop was through Copán to see the ruins. I hung back with Sprite and opted to skip it. Colin still tells me, it was one of his favorite stops.
At this point in The Return, we are on a high from the Honduras portion and really looking forward to seeing Guatemala for the second time, since it was awesome the first time around. We also started to cross paths with Overlander’s we had met coming down, who we got ahead of and now seeing them again. These reunions felt like meeting up with old friends. A lot can happen in just a month or two and the stories would be an exchange of what went wrong, what went well, what to avoid and what not to miss.
3 more borders to go…
A real time update: All of the above happened during the summer. We landed back in the U.S. in the middle of July crossing the Laredo border into Texas. After spending almost 6 months in Mexico and Central America it was a small shock to the system. In a good way! We spent the rest of the summer (until now) wandering; hitting up lots of National Parks, little towns, scenic drives, hikes…feeling grateful and happy to be exploring this country. At 11 months in, we are making the most of our last month. Wondering how it went by so fast. Wondering what happens next. Hoping I took good notes to finish this blog…