Challenge and pleasure always take turns when you travel. It feels like a condensed, concentrated version of life. We experience the ups and downs in high frequency like life on a roller coaster. In these past few months we spent more time with each other and had more exhilarating and demanding experiences than we would have had in many years in our life at home. We are so lucky to have this time together, and so far so good. We seem to master this relationship bootcamp well. Nevertheless, being on the road isn’t always easy. The challenges of finding a place to sleep every night, the uncertainties, new environments, making sure we have enough water and food with us, dealing with our different approaches to life and finding compromises, are tiring sometimes. It makes us more tolerant and loving, because there is no escape. We’re in it together. We depend on each other. This basic life of camping almost every night (we only stayed in five hotels in four months!), always exposed to nature, dealing with very limited resources, makes us appreciate the simple things in life so much. We feel the biggest joy just having a hot shower for a change, or occasionally not having to worry about rain and wind when we go to bed.
Traveling keeps us on our toes. It makes us very aware of how much water we consume, how using electricity at night is depleting our resources, how we can get by with very little and find new joy in the luxuries of western life we used to take for granted. And then again, looking at the “little” we have with us on the road, it seems luxurious compared to many people’s lives in the countries we travel through.
Approaching the bottle neck of Central America, we decided to travel rather quickly, not only because we are spending more time getting South than anticipated, but also for security reasons. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all belong to the CA4 region which gives tourists one visa that is valid for all four places, but some of these countries can be relatively unsafe. We met many travellers who had wonderful experiences and didn’t have any problems including ourselves, but the amount of armed guards on every corner (except in Nicaragua) is slightly unsettling and tints the experience of these otherwise beautiful places…
Guatemala is probably the most colourful place we’ve ever visited with strong Mayan culture and beautiful nature.
Coming from Belize we entered Guatemala on a smooth paved road, that, without warning suddenly ended into a gravel field with so many potholes we couldn’t even avoid them and our car got almost out of control. After a tiring drive, and our rather unsettling experience at the end of our Belize visit, El Remate at the Peten Lake in Guatemala provided a nice place to spend a few tranquil days and we treated ourselves to a hotel for a change. But there’s never really any rest on this kind of journey.
We had been offline for only a few days and received news that Erdem’s father, whom we love very much, had a heart attack and was in the hospital. We wish we were there for them. It is always hard to be away from family and friends for so long, not just on our journey, but also living in the States when our families are on the other side of the world. Dropping everything and hopping into a plane isn’t always an option. Being far away is especially hard in difficult situations like these. Luckily Hasan was with family that took wonderful care of him and he is up and well.
In addition we learned that our personal documentation of the incident at Caracol, had gone viral and been used by several media agencies without our knowledge, which leaves a weird aftertaste to our visit in Belize.
After a few days of trying to get our heads straight, and our spirits back up, we went on to travel through Guatemala. Our first stop were the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Several months ago, when we had visited our first archeological site on this journey — Teotihuacan in Mexico — the Mexican president had the same idea that day. Now that we went to Tikal in Guatemala, guess who was there: the Japanese prince and princess! A grand finale…
The jungle setting was impressive, and Tikal is certainly one of the nicest ruins to visit. There is wonderful wildlife, and one can imagine this may have felt like the Manhattan of its times…
A golden tailed ant. These things are a lot bigger than normal ants.
This little monkey jumped around, ate some leaves, and immediately went to take a nap right above our heads. Siesta!
The Ceiba, is the sacred tree of the Mayans. It’s easy to see why, standing at the base of this beautiful giant.
These are some curious things we liked at Finca Ixobel, which was our next stop after Tikal. Hat-lampshades.
Not sure if this sign could possibly have any effect.
Erdem almost stepped on this huge tarantula at night.
The Guatemalans mastered the art of loading as many people as possible on anything that can carry them, and somehow they manage to drive up roads that we’re somewhat scared to attempt with a 4×4. No pictures of the really sketchy parts, we were too busy avoiding death. There are constantly parts of the road missing or covered by rock slides, and some are so steep and narrow it takes full concentration and lots of patience to make it.
Lesson learned: In Guatemala, gps estimates need to be doubled at least. The worst roads so far!
We were told that Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places in the world. After many many many hours on steep, bumpy roads, even a water puddle would feel fantastic. We definitely enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it strongly if you’re traveling on a large vehicle with low clearance.
Looking back, that stretch of road feels like a weird dream… We gave a Mayan woman and her two daughters a ride, ate chocolate covered frozen bananas, bought a kilo of mandarines for 4 Quetzals (50cents), drove straight into a colourful indigenous market, took wrong turns many times, tried to teach kids about advertising, almost stepped onto a deadly snake, listened to children sing a Hebrew (!) song as new tourists arrived, played games with the night guards, felt little fish nibble on our mosquito bites, saved a woman from drowning, jumped down little waterfalls, and watched the roaring river disappear underground…
These little fish loved Erdem’s legs… They ate so much of him, he decided to lay a trap and eat one in return…
…But their intelligence outlasted Erdem’s patience.
This woman jumped into the water not expecting it to be deep and immediately panicked. None of the four could swim very well.
These kids are working hard trying to sell homemade chocolate speaking all kinds of languages, constantly competing against each other. We decided to give these two a competitive edge using our advertisement skills. They don’t seem to be in agreement about the strategy, but that’s how many clients are… The school is more than one hour away so they don’t go very often… It is such a starch contrast to see the indigenous people and the busloads of (what seemed like mostly Israeli) tourists in this place. We observed the kids sing a Hebrew song to a couple that gave them a few cents in exchange. A bizarre moment.
The Guatemalan mountains are breathtaking, but the road to Lago Atitlan was no cake either. Our breaks overheated, despite engine-breaking, with endless, curvy, steep descends through the beautiful Mayan highlands. We barely made it in time as darkness set in and we were slowly winding down the mountain together with the last people driving home from work, including reckless drivers in their dark-smoke exhaling recycled school-bus monsters.
Finally at Lago Atitlan, a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes.
The water level of the lake was unusually high. Only the roof of this house was still reaching out.
A small boat tour, brought us to an indigenous village, where Rosa, a curious, extrovert seven year old asked Erdem about his entire family tree including the names of his brother’s wife’s mother and father, and all thirteen names of his mother’s siblings, while trying to teach us the names of her own eight siblings and selling us bracelets.
Sometimes Guatemalan roads just end without warning, and where there once was a bridge the road now goes through the water again. Nature wins.
Antigua, an authentic colonial town, was our last stop in Guatemala. The tourist police lets travellers camp in their lawn and we met a lot of people who are on a similar journey. El Caracol – an artist family from Uruguay, Adventuresinskyhorse – two crazy lawyers from Florida, Bizitza Bici – a lovely bicycling couple from Spain, and many more…
When we built our table in a garage in Los Angeles, we were dreaming about sharing it with other travellers. It looks like we underestimated how many people we would meet and re-meet. (Photo by Bizitza Bici)
In this photo, Hani looks like he’s pissed of at the people who vandalized his truck. But the truth is, he did it himself. He went out of his way to find a truck, an ambulance shell, an airplane cockpit, a canoe, a motorcycle and blend it all together with some paint! We found Hani and Sarah to be an amazing couple with great sense of humor. Despite Hani’s objections, we know deep at heart that he loved us too. If you’re interested in reading about misfits and awkward couples, we highly recommend checking out their Kickstarter project.
Turkish meatballs are our favourite travel food. They last long, can be served hot or cold and go great with pasta or rice.
The volcano was quite active possibly due to the earthquake in El Salvador. That 7.4 shake was even felt hundred of miles away in Antigua, waking us up in the middle of the night.
Lise and Eva were excited to see us again and took full advantage. Lise is enjoying the brief pause at the apex here. The Dauphin girls are used to adrenaline.
Antigua is full of colorful markets, wonderful textiles, and tourists enjoying the feast for the eyes and cheap prices. It is hard to keep yourself from buying too much stuff.
Erdem got a $2 haircut before we continued on to El Salvador with an American couple, Dave and Michelle, whom we met in Antigua. Sharing the pains of border crossings makes things easier…
Entering El Salvador, we were welcomed by an incredible amount of inefficient paper work at the border and a big sign saying “Bienvenidos amigos touristas!” – “Welcome tourist friends!”. We found a nice but wet spot for the night at Thermales de Alicante hot springs, where we reunited with the German couple Joerg and Simone, who after escaping eastern Germany in their early twenties, are now escaping western Germany in order to travel the world. The rain, and Sarah’s stomach were unforgiving, so after she felt better, we decided to travel through the country rather quickly. We certainly didn’t do this place justice, knowing there are many beautiful places to visit, but we will keep the lush green, steaming mountains, rain and more rain, the friendly singsang voices of the people, the horsy grasshoppers, using US dollars again, the security guards with their big shotguns, the ingenuity of the people, and delicious Popusas in our memories.
Occasionally, there are some windows in some borders that slow the whole process down dramatically. They love preparing multiple copies of ridiculous amounts of information no one cares about.
Honduras and El Salvador are infamous for their homicide rates. Conveniently, there are many funeral services that operate round the clock. Death here seems to be a streamlined process.
El Salvadorian Popusas are amazing! They may not be worth blocking the main street of a town and leaving your girlfriend alone in the parked car in the midst of angry bus drivers, but they are really good.
This is a grasshopper that wants to be a bird.
This is an insect that wants to be a frog.
Travelling through Central America during the rainy season gives you a really good idea about how much water the heavens can store.
Joerg and Simone enjoying the hot water.
It’s fascinating how much people carry on their heads in these countries. We even saw a woman transport a big table this way…
A genius way of transporting wood down the hill. This guy built his own mini truck using wheel bearings and a few pieces of timber. He uses halved bamboo pieces for breaking and doesn’t worry much about overheating them. If you gotta do something, you might as well enjoy it.
Breakfast in El Salvador, lunch in Honduras, and dinner in Nicaragua was the plan but in the end we didn’t eat much in any of these places at all. What a tiring day! Nevertheless, traveling through places with some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and horror stories about countless police check points, ended up not being as bad as envisioned. Honduras, besides its inexplicably deep potholes, and inignorable amount of funerary services, seems to make an effort in welcoming tourists instead of scaring them away like in the past, and so driving through was quite a breeze. Only two out of five police check points stopped us, and our usual “No hablo Español” together with a silly smile, let us get by without any trouble. Each border crossing took about two hours of swarms of helpers trying to get our attention, and endless forms, copies, and bureaucracy. Border crossings are certainly the least fun part about overland traveling, and after two in one day, we were exhausted. So we forgot to buy the obligatory car insurance for Nicaragua. Oh well. We were able to take care of it in Leon the next day… There’s never enough paperwork to be done!
A sign at the border crossing into Honduras saying something like “Humans are not for sale”.
We encountered many of these permanent “temporary solutions” in Nicaragua.
Entering Nicaragua we were overwhelmed by the amount of people and chaos at the border. The officials all wearing gloves and mouth covers. No signs. And even after crossing the border, driving the first few miles was like playing a computer game. Erdem made the cynical comment: “It’s such a nice variety of obstacles here: low hanging branches, cows in the street, potholes, nice scenery.”
Tired and hungry we arrived in Leon, a quite lovely, lively city, full of socialist intellectual spirit and young western backpackers. As we were rushing to get to the beachside campground before dark, we were cheerfully delayed by a small gay parade, with young guys shaking their bodies rhythmically to music, blocking the entire street. A beautiful magical moment, but the worst timing. The road finally frees up again, and we drive directly towards the blinding sun, as it starts raining. It takes our last bit of energy trying to avoid getting hit by cars that also don’t see a thing. Somehow we make it out of town and arrive at the beach at Las Peñitas/Playa Roca just as the sun was setting in all shades of red over the serene sight of people riding horses along the beach, and a friendly voice welcoming us in English. Ahhh… We finally relax and enjoy the beautiful Nicaraguan sunset…
But somehow, pleasure and challenge constantly take turns. So the same night Sarah’s stomach decides to empty itself again so forcefully that the locals called a doctor and stuffed her with antibiotics (a souvenir from Guatemalan water?). The clouds that caused the breathtaking sunset, turn out to be the remnants of a hurricane and we spent the night fearing for our lives inside a “California-rain-proof-tent” locked in by a gate right next to a beach which we learned was evacuated for a tsunami warning just a few days ago. The lightning, thunder and torrential downpour was so loud, bright, and unforgiving like we’ve never experienced in our lives before.
Like Sarah’s father likes to say: “After the rain always follows the sunshine” – so when things were dry again and the skies acted like nothing had ever happened, we moved on. Lago de Apoyo, is a small volcanic lake that we were told was created a long time ago when the crater imploded. We had a wonderful time at Hostal Paradiso, and made several excursions around the lake on the canoes where posh locals threw free beer down to us. A welcome rest in paradise. Although, the electricity went out on day two, for a full night and day, because lightning hit the local power plant.
The heavy rains also caused some trees to fall, and we were able to help clear the road with our winch on our way out of the natural reserve. Erdem is always excited when he gets to use his toys and the workers were happy to have a gringo do their job.
Nicaragua kept us longer than anticipated. Besides tons of police stops (including some interesting attempts of bribery which we could elegantly avoid), this country is really quite wonderful and much safer than some of its neighbours. It is full of live, all kinds of animals in the streets, the most incredible sunsets, and great nature. We would have loved to spend more time.
Isla Ometepe, a volcanic island in Lago Nicaragua, was one of our favourite places. Our car had an adventure on the tiny ferry which had to leave the back gate open so we could even fit.
We learned that a few weeks prior to our visit there was a terrible landslide on the island destroying a large area. The Central American rainy season is no joke!
We spent a day drinking tea with Ali Kemal, a turkish guy who lives on the island and who was promptly brought to our camp spot for a meet up as soon as locals heard about Erdem being from Turkey.
Ali moved to this island ten thousand kilometers away from his hometown more than a decade ago. Not because he wanted to but because he had to. Let’s just say that his devotion to communist ideals wasn’t favored by the Turkish Government and the police didn’t treat him well. It takes no effort for those painful memories to surface in the presence of a fellow countryman. He crafts and sells handmade souvenirs, struggling to look after his Nicaraguan wife and son.
Nearly half a century after the assassination of Che Guevara, his image is still so dear to the hearts of the Latin American people. This poster hanging on a restaurant wall is a colored reproduction of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Che. A ballpoint pen has traced the outlines of his face, as if to memorize it further. However romantic it sounds today, ‘revolution’ is still a pronounced word in this part of the world.
Ometepe is a magical island with two volcanoes and wonderful sunsets.
Ojo de Agua.
Noone can resist Nicaraguan sunsets!
Things are beautiful one moment and a challenge in the next. This beautiful sunset and warm breeze brought millions of flies to the shore. Locals call this phenomena ‘Del Sur’. They are not biting flies like mosquitoes, but it’s still impossible to breath, let alone eat or talk in their presence.
We canoed to the monkey island and then hiked up to a waterfall with Hilmar and Therese a German couple and Corinne, an adventurous French woman who learned she became a grandma during the hike down and couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the evening. Sadly we didn’t run into Petra again, an Austrian doctor, whom we’ve randomly met several times before.
Saying our goodbyes to Hillmar and Therese at the bus stop in Rivas on the mainland.
And f i n a l l y we made our way to Costa Rica… OMFG how slow can one person be! Half an hour to cross the border, two hours to get car insurance!
We are now about to celebrate Halloween in Costa Rica but the Trick or Treat seems to have happened already yesterday. Just not the kind we could have possibly imagined. Even here we’re kept on our toes. But more about that in our next post.