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The very hungry caterpillar

5 Jul

San Jose, Costa Rica
[by Paula]

Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Fiery skies at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

None of our trips are complete without Jeremy getting bitten on the neck by some wierd tropical insect. And who knew cute furry caterpillars could abseil from trees, land on your shoulder and sting you?

As I watched the inch-wide rash blistering and swelling before my eyes, I calmly suggested he sat down and stayed still while I kept an eye on him. Inside I was wondering how quickly one might get to a hospital from an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. We described the perpetrator to someone who worked at the finca we were camping in, and luckily were told it was not dangerous. Another crisis averted.

Given recent events, the fact that a mildly aggressive caterpillar is the worst thing we can report from the last two weeks says something about the blissful time we had in Nicaragua. As well as being many other fabulous things, it is camping heaven. Just the tonic we needed after so long without the van.

When leaving Honduras, bound for Nicaragua, we whizzed through the border in record speed. As we signed the last piece of paperwork the Nicaraguan customs officer high-fived me.

‘Yep, I’m going to like this country’, I thought.

View from campsite at San Jacinto, Nicaragua

View of bubbling mudpools and volcanoes from our camp spot in San Jacinto, Nicaragua

Western Nicaragua is pretty much a massive ticking time-bomb of fuming volcanoes. So first stop was the ‘ring of fire’ – an area with a chain of 12 active volcanoes. We drove along an impossibly straight and flat road with the most sublime view of the volcanoes ahead.

In the tiny village of San Jacinto, we’d hoped that the hotel there might have room for camping, but it looked closed. We were just dilly-dallying about, wondering what to do, when we noticed lots of people waving and pointing towards what looked like the end of a dead-end street. “What are they waving at? They don’t even know what it is we’re looking for,” huffed Jeremy (and I mean huffed!).

Wrong. As we drove slowly towards them, nestled in the corner just before the end of the street was the most perfect little shaded campground, called Rancho Las Hamacas. It had a platform overlooking natural bubbling mud pools, sulphurous steam rising from them against a background of two spectacular volcanoes.

We climbed the very active Volcan Telica the next day – a fairly tough three-hour hike up that ended with peering over the rim of the steaming crater and listening to the monstrous grumbling below. Eek.

With aching muscles, we set off the next day to the left-wing city of Leon, a key hub of Sandinista support, and to the tiny museum of ‘heroes and martyrs’, which is maintained by a committee of mothers whose children were killed during the conflict in the 1970s and 80s. The town is also peppered with feisty political murals and memorials.

Sandino image at the mausoleum to the heroes and martyrs, Leon, Nicaragua

Sandino’s image is everywhere in Nicaragua, not least in the leftie city of Leon

On the way out of the city we were pulled over by the police for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. After much discussion and pointing it looked liked we were going to get away with it, but one of the officers kept leaning in the window and mumbling something about buying a drink. I didn’t even have to play the dumb foreigner – I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I said, “I don’t want a drink, thank you’” and we drove off. As we did so Jeremy said: “He was drunk, he wanted us to buy him a drink!” Oh.

And that comedy of errors was the closest we’ve come to being asked to bribe a police officer in 9 months of driving through Mexico and Central America.

A few miles down the road we camped behind a hotel on the Pacific at Las Peñitas, and ate fresh fish with coconut, and the best fries we have encountered in a long while. The owner – a French woman – invited us to join her and a bunch of local surfer dudes who were driving back into Leon in a truck for the evening, to watch an open-air concert organised by the French embassy. That sounds civilised and cultured, we thought. At 4am the following morning we finally dragged her, blind drunk, out of a night club and back into the truck.

There was more camping utopia at the volcanic crater lake Laguna de Apoyo, where we swam in the pristine water, with howler monkeys bellowing in the trees above. In the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, we met up again with my former BBC colleague Lynda, and after lunch walked past a bar just in time to glimpse England losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarter finals.

While there we camped in a slightly weird lake-front ‘tourist centre’ – basically a strip of bars and restaurants along the front. It seemed like the only feasible place near town, but felt a little bit sketchy. We asked one of the wardens about camping safely, and she radioed her security colleagues, telling them to meet us at the car park. As we drove up they were waiting to guide us into a space, and then more or less acted as our personal security guards for the rest of the night. One guy slept near the van with a dog for the whole night – now that’s service.

P with a raspado con leche

The pure joy of discovering raspados con leche – shaved ice with a gallon of condensed milk poured over it.

However, it turned out the innocuous-looking restaurant next door was actually a dance club – so with music blaring till 3am we had a fairly poor night’s sleep. We headed off early next day towards the port of San Jorge, via another very active volcano, Volcan Masaya. It’s one of the only volcanoes where you can actually drive to the rim, but we’d heard it was closed due to excess activity. We turned up to find it had just been re-opened but officials had limited the time you could spend at the top to just 5 minutes, for safety reasons. So worried are they by the threat of an explosion or rocks being hurled from the crater that you have to park facing outwards so you can make a rapid escape!

We ended up running over our time, because at the top we spotted two other road-trippers from Germany who were driving a big truck – Sabine and Thomas – and had a chat with them while the steam belched out of the volcano behind us.

Back down in San Jorge we bought a ticket for the next day’s ferry to Isla de Ometepe – an island on the lake that is made up of two massive volcanoes – and then slept on the beach next to the port.

We had lovely memories of Ometepe after visiting 10 years ago, and it was just as spectacular as we remembered. We had a good long stop at a wonderful finca/hostel for 5 nights. Finca Magdalena is an organic farm, at the foot of Volcan Maderas, which is a co-operative owned by several families. We camped next to their stunning garden which was constantly full of butterflies. A little deer wandered around wearing a red neckerchief – very communist! At night the fireflies took over from the butterflies and lit up the trees in their hundreds.

Camping at Finca Magdalena, Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

A little slice of camping heaven at Finca Magdalena, Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

On the second day, we saw two very tired people returning with bicycles, with one of them saying: “that was the hardest cycle of my life”. ‘What wimps’, we said, with a smug little smile. However, we did wimp out of climbing the volcano, which was a fairly horrid 6-8 hour muddy climb into the clouds. We decided to cycle the 35km road around the base of the volcano instead.

It was the hardest cycle of our lives.

Six hot hours of up and down on a ‘road’ made up of jagged boulders and slippy stones. Ouch. But what scenery. We stopped for a fried fish lunch in a little bay with a view of Volcan Concepcion, one of the most iconic views in Nicaragua. Can’t grumble really.

While there I was busy writing a couple of articles for the BBC Travel website [an online commercial venture that’s not accessible from the UK, I’m afraid]. A piece on camping in Mexico & Central America and a related photo slideshow. Thanks to our fellow road-trippers at Life Remotely, Earth Circuit, Apollo’s Journey and From A to B for their help with it.

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Our last two nights in Nicaragua were spent on the gorgeous beaches north of San Juan del Sur. Surfers flock here for the fabulous waves – it was the most tourists we’d seen in one place for a long while. While there we bumped into Sabine and Thomas again. We camped in one surf camp that had howler monkeys living in the trees above us. The cacophonous sound they make can be quite disconcerting when it wakes you up at 6am.

But at least they’re not as scary as caterpillars.

Days: 276
Miles: 9,287
Things we now know to be true: Howler monkeys make very effective alarm clocks.

Back on the road!

9 Jun

San Pedro Sula, Honduras
[by Paula]

The van leaves the mechanic

Vroom vroooom. Happy days.

We are back on the road!

It’s true. Almost ten weeks (actually 69 days, or 1,656 hours) after breaking down, we collected the van yesterday, all spick and span. I did actually kiss the mechanic this time – he was a little taken aback. Thanks to everyone for all their concern and encouragement. We know it’s only a van, but some days in the last two months have been tricky to deal with. But we’ve managed to see a lot and meet some great people while waiting. So much so that this post is double length, so get a cup of tea and settle in.

At the end of the post are more teary thanks, to all the people who have helped us during this mechanical episode. Cheers all.

So, we are super-excited to be leaving San Pedro Sula today for our first night of camping in a long while. Tonight we shall no doubt celebrate this milestone with a beer or two.

But what have we been up to since we last blogged?

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, where life goes at its own pace.

Just before we left Estelí, there was one last thing to do. Watch the final of the European Champions League – the result of which, although Jeremy’s team Tottenham was not playing, was crucial for their forthcoming season.

I opted to meet him in a bar towards the end of the game. I turned up and searched the room, my eyes sweeping back and forth to try to locate the lone gringo nursing a beer near the TV screen. No sign. I was just starting to get concerned when I saw his face popping up from within a group of raucous young Nicaraguans. He waved, just a little frantically.

I headed over to find that in the 80 minutes since I’d left him, he’d been co-opted by the most steamingly drunk people in the bar. One guy was sleeping at the table with a half-eaten piece of fried chicken still hanging from his mouth, another was just continually high-fiving Jeremy and telling him how much he loved him. Four blokes who’d just got a little bit over-excited about the game. It’s comforting to know that some things are just the same, the world over.

We left Estelí and took the long, long journey to Nicaragua’s remote Caribbean coast (more commonly known as the Atlantic coast), which involved two buses and two boat rides over two days. The main journey ended in Pearl Lagoon, a small dusty town in an area that’s home to Creole, Miskito and Garífuna people. It’s one of those places where hotels and eateries are few, and those that exist open when they feel like it, which can be a little baffling for the newly-arrived traveller. But we soon happily settled for a waterside cabin, complete with decks and hammocks, that was part of a great restaurant and bar.

Pearl Lagoon seemed to us like a mixed-up place; a microcosm of many of the things that are great, and not so great, about parts of Central America.
It had so much natural beauty on its doorstep, but a lack of infrastructure to support what some visitors would want. On the other hand, there was a sense that maybe some people liked it just fine that way.

Pearl Cayes, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Cayes – not too shabby a beach.

As a region that’s seemingly ignored by central government, an investment gap has been filled by drug traffickers, who use the lagoon on their way north and apparently can be relied upon more to build new facilities such as the town’s only internet cafe. Under-employment seems to mean there’s a heavy reliance on migrant relatives sending cash from abroad, and chronic boredom is apparent on the streets.

Even small businesses seem to run hand-to-mouth, like the rustic little bakery-cafe we went to for breakfast each day. We’d order scrambled eggs, and they’d disappear out of the door, then come back with six eggs from the shop.

Set apart from the rest of Nicaragua, locals in English-speaking Pearl Lagoon often refer to their countrymen as ‘the Spaniards’ – many of whom have been coming from the Pacific side to settle in the east, to the chagrin of some lagoon natives.

One minute we were trying to tune in to the patois English, then the next someone would speak to us in Spanish, while others just constantly flipped between the two.

Seafood soup - rondon - at Pearl Cayes

Cooking up a seafood lunch, Pearl Cayes

Without a doubt it’s a fascinating and stunning place to spend time. We took a boat trip out to Pearl Cayes, which had scenery to rival any idyllic Caribbean setting. It was the stuff of a desert island fantasy – as the first cayes appeared on the horizon I half expected to see a guy with ragged trousers and a long beard, waving madly – but then I realised Jeremy was on the boat with me.

Some of the islands – which have been disappearing amid rising sea levels – were merely a mound of bright white sand, and a tuft of palm trees.

We stopped at one and snorkelled in turquoise waters while our guide cooked up one of the local dishes, called rondon – an exquisite coconut milk-based soup of fresh fish, shrimps, crab, plantains, coco and yucca. It’s worth noting that one of the fish in the pot was caught by Jeremy with a hand-held line – his first ever catch.

Another day, after a failed boat trip to a different village in the lagoon, we found ourselves at a loose end. Before long we were found and adopted for the day by Anselmo, from Pearl Lagoon, and his British wife Libby, their baby son John, and their two visiting English friends Jen and Mike.
After a feast of a picnic we drove out to the nearby Miskito fishing village of Awas, to swim and enjoy an incredible sunset. With its undeveloped open spaces and waterfront palapas, it would have been the perfect camping spot, and we daydreamed wistfully about the absent van.

Sunset in Awas, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset at Awas, a quiet Miskito fishing village near Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua.

At one point Anselmo appeared carrying a blue crab he’d just caught, which was put in the car as an addition to the evening meal. We were invited to the couple’s house for dinner, where he whipped up a delicious rondon, complete with the blue crab. It was a great opportunity to chew the fat about the local culture and – with the four being involved in aid projects in Nicaragua – the whole development debate.

After a few nights there we did a marathon run all the way back to Honduras, with two days of 12-hour journeys to get back to San Pedro Sula, where the van was.
En route, we changed from boat to bus at the port of El Rama. While we were hanging around for the bus we bumped into a former BBC colleague of mine, Lynda Smith, who has been working in a school in Granada in Nicaragua. It was one of those surreal double-take moments! We’ll swing by and see her again once we reach Granada with the van.

That day we received an email to say that the transmission was due to be delivered in a couple of days!! We could hardly believe this episode might actually be reaching a conclusion.

We hot-footed it to the D&D Brewery and hostel at Lago de Yojoa – where, for complicated reasons, the transmission was being sent – and waited it out. The day it was due was a long one. Every time Jeremy heard a truck in the driveway he sprinted out. It didn’t come.

Cachuate, Cayos Cochinos, northern Honduras

You’d be forgiven for thinking all we’ve done is laze on the beach. Here’s another stunner at Cacahuate, Cayos Cochinos, northern Honduras.

The next day Bobby, D&D’s owner who had been helping us with the shipping process, called the company and they promised it would be there in a few hours. A huge truck pulled in at lunchtime. I was too nervous to look, having – rather pessimistically – convinced myself that the wrong package was going to arrive. But it was our transmission, it really really was!

We loaded it into the back of a pick-up truck taxi and drove straight to the mechanic’s in San Pedro Sula. Ivan, the boss there, was surely as happy to see this bloody spare part as we were; he’d had our van sitting festering in his yard for more than eight weeks!

Ivan said he wanted up to eight days to work on it. So we headed off again, this time to Honduras’s north coast and another Garífuna village called – rather cringeingly – Sambo Creek. Not sure who’s idea it was to name it that…

This region of Honduras is particularly damn hot. We steamed for a few days, ‘cooling’ off in the bath-warm ocean and waiting for some other tourists to show up so we could take a trip to the nearby islands, Cayos Cochinos.

After a couple of days, we set off on a magical day trip to the cayes. Now, I don’t want to sound all fussy about which idyllic Caribbean desert islands are better than which – but these kicked the arse of just about anything we’ve seen. Just impossibly gorgeous. We snorkelled in sparkling waters on the beautiful coral reef, among luminescent fish. Incredible.

Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

We broke down while leaving Cayos Cochinos and had to be towed to this island. Nightmare.

We then sat down to a lunch of fish so fresh it was practically flapping about on the plate, accompanied by delicious coconut rice n’ beans and fried plantains.

On the way back our boat broke down. Are we jinxed? Was this a bad omen? It was about the most untraumatic breakdown imaginable though. We were towed by another boat to yet another perfect desert island, and jumped in for a swim while the drivers installed a spare engine. Bonus!

Now, why can’t all mechanical problems be like that?

Days: 250
Miles: 8,136
Things we now know to be true: It only took Phileas Fogg 11 days more to circumnavigate the globe.


PICS PICS PICS: We put a few Honduras pics on Flickr recently. More to come soon. Click here to see them.


And finally… GRACIAS / THANKS! to …

Tesla and dog Jacob, La Hamaca hostel, San Pedro Sula

Tesla (pictured with their gorgeous dog Jacob) and Juan Pablo were a lifeline for us at La Hamaca hostel in San Pedro Sula.

  • Elvin Henriquiz and family, at the car wash in Las Flores, Lempira, where we first broke down. First they rescued us, then they took care of us, which we will never forget.
  • Our mechanic Jorge Ivan Canales at Flash Centro Automotriz in San Pedro Sula. For getting that thing to go; for being a professional and not just whacking it with a hammer.
  • Chris & Mary at Pop Top Heaven for getting us a new transmission; collecting it, measuring it, weighing it and photographing it; answering a zillion emails, and just generally doing everything they could to get us going again.
  • Bobby Durette at D&D Brewery in Los Naranjos, for helping us with the shipping of our transmission, and for putting up with our constant emails and fretting.
  • The lovely Tesla and Juan Pablo at La Hamaca hostel in San Pedro Sula for their warm welcome, help and enthusiasm, dinner-time chats, lifts to the supermarket and more. Every time we went back there it was like coming home.
  • Fellow road-trippers Zach & Jill at Anywhere That’s Wild, Erik & Joe (Pepe) at Apollo’s Journey, James & Lauren at Home on the Highway, Andy & Dunia at Earth Circuit, Brad & Sheena at Drive Nacho Drive, the guys at Life Remotely and Fanny & Chris at Bip Bip Americas – for their many words of encouragement and empathy.
  • Cheers. xx

    ‘Bad news sells’ shocker

    19 May

    Estelí, Nicaragua
    [by Jeremy]

    We’ve been back at Spanish school in Estelí, Nicaragua while we await delivery of the new transmission – yes, still waiting. Last we heard it was, allegedly, on a ship heading this way.

    Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to avoid studying the present perfect subjunctive tense we’ve been playing around with some trip statistics. As journalists we know you can make statistics say whatever you want them to – if they don’t, you just pretend they don’t even exist.

    View from our Esteli apartment during a rainstorm

    Shall we postpone that shopping trip, dear? – it’s a bit drizzly out. Road turns to river outside our apartment.

    Even knowing that, some of our stats make for some surprising reading – others less so. And there are a few conclusions we can draw from the geeky analysis, pie charts and databases we’ve consulted. Chief among those is the fact that you people are sick.

    Actually, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to seasoned hacks like ourselves, but our blog reader stats show a massive spike from the day we broke down, to today. You clearly revel in the misfortune of others. Bastards.

    More bizarrely, we’ve been monitoring the search terms people have used before arriving at our blog. It’s to be expected that, for example, ‘Baja camping’, or ‘Lago de Atitlan’, or even ‘stranded in Honduras’ would rank high among the searches.

    But who is it that scours the internet using the terms ‘Mariah Carey’s hands’? And imagine the shock and disappointment when their search returns our blog. Or who searches for ‘physical star jumps’ and is pleased to get pictures of us arseing about on the beach? The person who sought information on ‘gay-friendly Xela’ would have read only about one drunken night we had in a gay bar.

    Surely not what they were looking for.

    What we’ve also noticed is that you’re not just sick, but nosey too. The thing most people want to know about – apart from how we handle not having a toilet in the van – is how much it costs to do a trip like this. A combination of savings, selling all our accumulated stuff before we left and doing some work along the way means we have a budget of a maximum of US$30 each per day (£20). So far – after 229 days on (and off) the road – we’re running at $29 each per day.

    That includes all our petrol, food, accommodation/camping fees, drinks, water, laundry, internet, taxis, tolls, visas, propane, trips and souvenirs and a range of sundries from haircuts to maps, and toilet charges to bug spray.

    Jeremy sampling the wares, cigar-making factory, Esteli

    First the beard, now the cigar-smoking. Jeremy’s Che delusions continue to worsen.

    And yes, I am sad enough to admit that every single one of the above is accounted for, down to the last penny.

    It all adds up to a fraction of the cost of our life in London.

    Statistics alert! Of that budget we have spent around 5% on trips, 17% on petrol, 20% on accommodation, 9% on drinks and water, 0.4% on propane, 0.7% on laundry and 18.5% on meals out.

    So some other conclusions we can draw are, firstly, that we eat too much (and that meals-out figure is down from 22%). That’s no surprise. And, secondly, that we don’t wash our clothes enough (or maybe that having laundry done is very cheap, but that wouldn’t be as amusing).

    Well, as they say around these parts, the adverbial pronoun waits for no man (or woman) so we had better get back to the homework and our dark thoughts of murdering the person(s) who invented grammar.

    Before we do (see how he’s avoided the homework for a bit longer there? – ed), here’s a whistle-stop tour of the past couple of weeks. Bored of waiting for our transmission, we headed to Estelí and enrolled at CENAC Spanish school for a couple of weeks.

    We’ve rented what might loosely be called an apartment. The fact that the walls don’t reach the ceiling is just one of its interesting features. The electrical wires hanging from the shower are another. But, as ever, people’s kindness has been overwhelming, more than making up for any relative discomforts. Our formidable landlady brings us cooked meals and random vegetables on a regular basis. Whilst we really don’t need it, it is much appreciated.

    The rainy season is just beginning and our apartment has a balcony from where we can see the late afternoon storms brewing over the mountains and heading to town, where they unleash themselves in a deafening torrent on our tin roof. The unpaved street turns into a river within minutes, sweeping rubbish and – sometimes, we’re convinced – small children down with it (okay, that was a small exaggeration, but only a small one).

    Swimming in Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua

    Floating along in the Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua.

    We spent an exhilarating few hours hiking, wading and floating down the Cañon de Somoto last weekend and had a heady trip to a handmade cigar factory – something for which Estelí is famous. This weekend we’re heading up to the Caribbean coast and the reportedly stunning Pearl Lagoon.

    By the time we come back from there we hope to have better news about the van.

    We couldn’t have any more bad luck with this – could we? After ordering the transmission we had it transported overland to the port at New Orleans. But they lost the paperwork and it sat for a week or so at a depot with no-one knowing where it was supposed to go.

    Then, after we hassled, they located it and sent it to the port – by which time it had missed its shipping slot. So they sent it to another port but by the time it got there the container was full and it had to be sent back to the previous port.

    Finally, two weeks late, it supposedly left on Wednesday, and is due to arrive with us in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the next fortnight or so. But when we got the email from the shipping company, the measurements of the package were significantly different from those we gave them when we booked the shipping.

    So who knows what we will get, or when. I know we’re not supposed to moan because we’re really, really lucky to be doing this, but can I just say all this waiting and uncertainty sucks!

    And the sad thing about all this is that we know the part you will have enjoyed the most was that last bit – where everything goes wrong. Sickos…

    Days: 229
    Miles: Same as before
    Things we now know to be true: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.