Tag Archives: finca

Is it a bird, is it a plain?

17 Mar

nr Manizales, Colombia
[by Paula]

Cattle at finca, Los Llanos

Cowboy country, Los Llanos

We’d spent the morning watching a vet shoving his arm up the backside of several cows, then shovelling out the excess manure with a cupped hand before feeling their ovaries for signs of damage. Not for the first time did we pause and comment on how weird our life sometimes seems these days.

We had travelled to Los Llanos – the plains of Colombia, a rough wilderness of tropical grasslands, sprawling cattle fincas, and undisturbed wildlife that stretches hundreds miles across to Venezuela. We were going a little bit on instinct. Not a lot of tourists go there yet, and the area we visited remains sandwiched between parts of the Llanos that are as known as much for their guerillas and paramilitary groups as they are for their birdlife and cattle.

We’d been invited to stay at a finca by someone we had met briefly at the mechanic’s in Bogota. He was a really nice guy, he drew us a detailed map of where his finca was, told us to go there, and said he’d call the farm manager and ask him to look after us during our stay. We were aware that if something had gone wrong, this could all sound a bit sketchy.

Sometimes, when making decisions like this, I try to imagine how I might explain it to my mum.

[Mum: What do you mean you’ve been kidnapped? How did it happen?
Me: Well, we met this guy at the mechanic’s and he said it would be okay…
Mum: Did you know anything about these people, or the farm, or the roads, or who you might encounter on the way?
Me: Um…. kind of, well, not much really…]

But instinct is about the most valuable asset you can bring with you when you are travelling. We really wanted to go to Los Llanos, we knew this was a unique opportunity, and we had a good feeling that we wouldn’t regret it.

Jeremy horse-riding, Los Llanos

The cattle farm also grew African palms for oil.

We were right.

Before leaving Bogotá we’d had the new ignition wire installed in the van, and all seemed to be well with it. We had, yet again, a deadline for renewing the permit for our vehicle (which allows it to legally be in Colombia for a set period) but could not face a re-run of the bureaucratic hell involved in doing this in Bogotá. So we headed for the provincial city of Yopal in Los Llanos, to get it done before driving the final leg out to the finca.

The whole process was like night and day compared with the capital – a nice small customs office and helpful staff who didn’t over-complicate things. We completed the forms and headed back the next day to collect the permit. It was ready later than we’d have liked, and we were getting a bit tense about getting away and finding the farm before dark.

Just as the final stamp was hovering over the form, the official in charge was suddenly in the mood to chat to us about our trip. Her eyes got wider and wider as we explained we were driving the Americas and living in the van. “Aren’t you scared?” she asked.

We politely conversed. I was trying not to make it obvious that I was sneaking glances at my watch. 4pm! The farm was in the middle of nowhere and Los Llanos was not really the place where we wanted to be wandering about in the pitch black.

She patted our arms as we finally left, giving us god’s blessing and repeated wishes of good luck. It wasn’t very effective because as we tried to find the right road out of the city, we missed the turning. With little time to lose we decided to take a cheeky u-turn and head back to the junction.

We swooped left. But, unbeknown to us, a moped had just scooted up our inside and was attempting to drive straight on. I heard a thud and a scrape and saw a flash of a helmet out of Jeremy’s window.

There was a lot of shouting from passers-by as we pulled across the road and stopped (we later learned that we should have stopped exactly where we were – it seems people might have thought we were trying to leave the scene of the accident). Jeremy rushed straight over to the woman we had hit, and thankfully she was okay, if a bit bruised and shaky.

“Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.”

She called various friends and relatives, and lots of men started turning up, as well as the police. We felt terrible, and Jeremy’s attempts to apologise and ask how she was were quite brusquely brushed aside. As we waited for a second policer officer to turn up, it’s fair to say we were starting to feel a bit intimidated, and were pretty sure that at the very least we were going to get it in the neck from the police.

When the second officer turned up, his colleague said to him, “is she (the victim) a family member of yours?’. He said yes and went over and hugged her.

“Bollocks” I thought, we are really going to get stiffed here. Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.

After a bit of discussion, though, the police said: “Look, no one wants to bother with a load of unnecessary paperwork. How about you just fix her moped and that will be that?” They said they understood that we didn’t know the town and probably didn’t realise we weren’t supposed to do a u-turn there!

Jeremy went with them to the bike workshop while I stayed with the van. After a bit of a debate – during which the moped driver’s friend tried to get Jeremy to cough up for some un-related repairs – he paid 50,000 pesos (£20/$30) and left them to it.

“I bet you couldn’t get out of there quick enough!”, I said to Jeremy later.

“Well, I was trying to, but they were playing the Tottenham v Inter Milan game on the TV in there, and it was 3-0 with 5 minutes to go, so I watched a bit of it.” he said.

I don’t think that boy’s priorities will ever change.

The van parked up at the finca, Los Llanos

A great place to roam around.

Running even later than before, we got the f*** out of Yopal and headed down the pot-holed road to the finca. Thanks to a great map and the directions of various drunk people along the route, we pulled in to the farm well after dark but without getting lost. Only a couple of rooms on the property had electricity, so it was pitch black. The farm manager, Luis Carlos, and various other workers were there to meet us as we emerged from the van, blinking in their torchlights.

We spent a magical four days there, being shown around and looked after by Luis Carlos, the head horseman Miller and his family, and many others.

By day we walked, rode on the horses, and spent hours marvelling at the birdlife. One morning the guys took us out to another finca in the area, which was like going on a mini safari – lagoons full of dozens of caiman and turtles; capybaras (also known as chiguiros – the largest rodent in the world) roaming around or taking mud-baths, and hundreds of exotic birds darting around, including flamingoes and stork-like gabanes with their smart red collars.

We spent a morning watching the cattle being rounded up and selected for the backside treatment referred to earlier. At one point a young farm worker played ‘bullfights’ with a particularly stubborn calf, while others were lassoed into position. It was all in a day’s work for them, but hugely exciting for us to see real cowboys in action.

On the Saturday night Luis Carlos innocently suggested we drive them all to the nearby town of San Luis de Palenque, so we could ‘see the riverside malecon’. After a walk he suggested a beer in a local tienda. “If you fancy one, I’ll drive back,” I said to Jeremy. Thirty two beers later (between four of them) I rolled them out of there and into the van.

The next day they took us back to town to enjoy a traditional carne asada – a hunk of cow roasted for 6 hours on an open fire – for lunch. Divine. And this time it was my turn to quaff the beers.

Carne asada

Carne asada. Yum.

There is a romance to Los Llanos that is hard to put your finger on. It’s a tough life for those who live there, but there is a lot of love for it.

At dawn and dusk there is a cacophony of birdlife like we have never heard. The flat plains stretch as far as the eye can see, before the view pixelates into the steaming haze. The darkness at night is like someone throwing a blanket over your head at 6.30pm – in more ways than one because even at 9pm the thermometer was showing over 80 degrees.

We will always be grateful to Jaime for the invitation, and to everyone at the farm for their warm welcome and their patience with our Spanish speaking. It certainly helped our vocabulary to try to give a coherent explanation of our lifestyle, our atheism and our lack of desire for children. And we had no trouble understanding their reaction – on all three counts, and in the nicest possible way, they thought were were absolutely nuts.

Perhaps the photo slideshow below will speak a few more thousand words about the magic of the Llanos.

[If you are a subscriber and you are reading this on an email, we think you get a better version of the slideshow if you open our website, rather than just clicking on photos from the email]

Days: 493
Miles: 16,347
Things we now know to be true: Cows don’t seem to mind a rectal examination.

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Honduras – we love you, we hate you…

27 Jun

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
[by Paula]

We got the van out of Honduras last week, and I have to say we didn’t even give it a cursory backwards glance as we gleefully skipped southwards over the border. We’ve since been busy loving Nicaragua – the gorgeous camping spots, volcanoes and lakes galore, and the (mostly) blissfully smooth roads. Yes, now that we are sad little petrol-heads, things like smooth roads get us very, very excited.

We are, frankly, relieved to be here. We had a bit of a rocky relationship with Honduras and gladly decided to go our separate ways. It was for the best.

It didn’t help that our ‘back-on-the-road’ celebrations earlier this month were somewhat marred by a couple of things.

Volcano, Nicaragua

Can’t move for volcanoes in gorgeous Nicaragua.

We picked up the van on a Friday afternoon, and took it back to the hostel we were staying at in San Pedro Sula which – we may have mentioned before – is a very dangerous city. The murder capital of the world, in fact. For this reason we did not go out after dark on any of the previous 10 nights we’d stayed there. But this night Honduras were playing Panama in a World Cup qualifier, so we arranged to go to the game and the co-owner came along with some of her friends, leaving her sister in charge.

We were having an amazing night. Tens of thousands of people stood to sing the national anthem, the beers were flowing, everyone was really up. The guy sitting behind us had just returned to Honduras for the first time in 20 years, after living in the US, and was beside himself with excitement. We both said later that it was one of those moments – and there have been a few, despite everything – where we thought, ‘aw, Honduras is lovely, Hondurans are lovely people, maybe it ain’t so bad after all’…

Then at half time that all came crashing down. We got a call to say there was an armed robbery at our hostel. Two men with guns had ambushed six backpackers as they arrived, burst inside and robbed them and another guy already inside. Some of them were left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in – passports, money, cards, whole backpacks, everything gone. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. As the locals reminded us later, not all robberies in San Pedro end the same way.

As we were driving back there from the game we were really terrified. The phonecalls from the hostel were increasingly frantic and confused and at one point it sounded like we might be returned to a siege, with the gunmen still inside. But when we arrived they had gone, and the police were there. Jeremy and I had spent the intervening half an hour trying to face up to the possibility that we might have lost all our stuff too – as all our valuables and car keys were upstairs in a bedroom and we didn’t know if the whole place had been ransacked.

It hadn’t, and our stuff was still where we’d left it. The van was safely parked behind a solid gate next door. More importantly, we realised how lucky we had been to pick that one night to go out.

No one blamed the hostel, who handled the situation brilliantly. Sadly it’s not unheard of for tourists to be followed to their hotels, or jumped when they arrive somewhere. Often the taxi drivers are directly involved or tip people off. Most hotels – as this one does – use taxi drivers they know, but in this case the travellers had turned up on spec.

Pink boa snake, Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

Honduras has some cool and unique stuff, like this pink boa (I know, it looks white, but it is called a pink boa..)

No one got much sleep that night. In the morning we helped the people that had been robbed as much as we could, with spare clothes and use of our Skype account etc, before heading off to Lago de Yojoa, south of San Pedro. Two of the victims – young Danish backpackers – decided to come with us as they couldn’t replace their passports until after the weekend. We bundled them into the van with what was left of their belongings. They were still shocked after what had happened, but remarkably philosophical.

As we drove along one of them said: “We’re so glad we met you. Proper grown-ups who are responsible and know what they are doing.”

We just looked at each-other, silently thinking: “Holy shit! What makes them think we are grown up and responsible?!..”. We felt so old, but then realised we were actually old enough to be their parents.

We were absolutely desperate to get them there safely, and pulled into the lake hostel a couple of hours later, very relieved.

However, on the way, we’d heard a disturbing new noise coming from the van. It didn’t sound healthy at all, although the new transmission seemed to be performing fine. We pushed it out of our minds temporarily and set about enjoying our first night camping in months.

Coffee finca camping, Honduras

Camping again. Heaven.

We slept in a beautiful coffee finca, teeming with birds and amazing bugs, and so tranquil and dark at night. We’d missed the van so much – every little task, no matter how mundane, felt exciting. It was just brilliant to be independent again.

While there we talked to a Honduran woman, from San Pedro, about our feelings for the country. She had just returned after spending five years in Italy, and was shocked to see how violent her city had become. People hide in their cars, behind high walls and razor-wire fences or in soulless shopping malls. Many use drive-thru shops and banks instead of walking around and there are armed guards everywhere, even on some residential streets. There are many people who will try to defend it as an okay place to live, but to us this is not an acceptable way of life.

We told her: “One minute we warm to Honduras, we see its good side, and then the next we are really scared.”

She said: “I’m from here, and I feel exactly the same.”

We’ve tried hard not to be too negative. We wanted to love the country, not least because we had bad memories of a previous visit 10 years ago, when Jeremy was very ill there. This time we met lots of wonderful people in Honduras, and saw a tonne of natural beauty that is hard to beat. We tried to recognise that being stranded somewhere can give it a sinister feel that is partly imagined, because you feel trapped and are no longer staying out of choice.

Our mechanic Ivan, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Our Honduran mechanic, Ivan, must have been very glad to see the back of us.

After a couple of nights at the finca we decided to drive-test the van, to try to work out how serious the noise was. We drove up and down the nearby hills – scratch, scrape, scrape. It was still there. Much as it was truly the last thing we wanted to do, we reluctantly accepted we’d need to head back to the mechanic in San Pedro Sula to get it checked out.

We pulled in that afternoon. I’m sure he was as depressed to see us as we were to be there. Even the security guard had a face that said: ‘oh hello, back again (sigh).’

After much thought we decided to go back to the same hostel – what happened was not their fault, we still felt safe there and we wanted to support them. And it turned out others had made the same decision and gone back too, which speaks volumes for the wonderful owners, who helped us beyond measure during our many stays there.

The mechanic said he’d found a damaged wheel bearing, which might be the source of the noise. But he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the right part to replace it in Honduras. I stopped listening then as I was too busy hyperventilating into a paper bag.

The upshot was, we were stuck in San Pedro for another, very very long five days. Thankfully a new wheel bearing was found and ordered, and arrived the next day. But the noise was still there. The mechanic wondered aloud if there might be a problem with the new transmission. Our hearts sank again. Finally, another problem with the brake calipers was found as a possible source. They thought they’d sorted it, but the noise remained.

On the final day, when we went to collect it, our mechanic – usually a sharp, clean-shaven, tidy kind of guy – had a five o’clock shadow and tousled hair. We felt partially responsible. Had we broken him too?

Volcan Telica, Nicaragua

It’s behind you! Another spectacular smokin’ Nicaraguan volcano.

He trudged out to the reception area and said: “There’s nothing more we can do. We’ve fixed everything but the noise is still there sometimes,” and concluded that it was nothing serious, that we could safely drive it like that and just live with it. Of course, we haven’t heard the noise since.

We drove off, happy and excited again. Nicaragua awaited! We headed south and looked for somewhere to camp near the border. We pulled into what we thought was a church with lots of land and asked if we could camp there. The man very kindly phoned to ask his boss, and then gently told Jeremy that the answer was no – it was a youth rehabilitation centre and they didn’t think it would be appropriate. Oops. Now that would have been a weird last night in Honduras.

We eventually camped up in a basic little deserted turicentre, with rooms and a slimy swimming pool. The owners, an old couple, had their house in the grounds and we parked up under a tree in front of it. She cleaned up a toilet especially for us but said there would be no access to it after midnight. We told her we’d be leaving early for the border.

Next morning she got up early and shuffled out to our van in her nightdress. She said she’d opened the side door to their home and we were welcome to go inside, wash and use the loo. For about the millionth time on this trip, we wondered if we’d find such hospitality and trust in our own part of the world.

Other than border officials, that old lady was the last person we saw in Honduras, and for that we are very glad.

Days: 268
Miles: 9,003
Things we now know to be true: There’s a fine line between love and hate.

Part Two: Mission Impossible?

15 Mar

JD, Lago de Coatepeque, El Salvador

The clue should have been in the name. “Dondé es el parque nacional El Imposible?” we asked out the window for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Never heard of it, it’s left, it’s right, it doesn’t exist, it’s back the way, it’s straight on. No-one knows. Even our maps had three different marked routes, none of which actually seemed to lead there. At one point a very drunk man crossed his arms and suggested we go in two directions at once, and then asked for money for his help – we almost followed his advice!

Camping at El Imposible

The guided tour of the van didn't take long...

Having spent our first few sweaty hours in El Salvador with our new-found friends and fellow road-trippers Zach and Jill (yes, they’ve had all the jokes) looking for El Imposible, we gave up – temporarily. After driving in to a small ditch – unintentionally – we camped out together at a small coffee finca. Well, it said it was a coffee finca and a camping site on the sign – but when we knocked on the locked gate the man who answered told us they had no coffee and we couldn’t camp. Our powers of persuasion, coupled with our lost foreigner look, prevailed and before long we were set up and toasting our arrival in El Salvador with a well-deserved beer, while daring each other to brave the massive spiders in the toilets.

The next day got worse before it got better. More determined than ever, we set out again for El Imposible and met the same confused responses until finally we got two people to agree there was a way from the town we were in, Tacuba, but only in a 4×4. We don’t have one – but that hasn’t stopped us up to now and we followed Zach and Jill along a frightening but ultimately rewarding trail. Before long we were grinding up an impossibly steep cobblestone drive to a small bare patch of ground a family had invited us to camp on, next to their shop and the local church.

No sooner had we parked than we became the main attraction for not only the family but everyone for miles around, it seemed. Children, adults, dogs all wanted to peer into our vans, watch us cook, eat, set up the bed, chat and share the hottest afternoon and evening so far with us. We must have seemed very odd to them – playing cards and drinking a beer round our camping table in the middle of their football pitch, just one of a series of things that greatly amused them.

If they thought us odd they hid it well, and they could not have been more generous – providing us with camping space, security, water, bringing us chairs to sit on, creating some shade for us with sheets and then bringing us tortillas. We were then invited to take part in their Semana Santa procession. They had nothing but were willing to share it all.

And then, finally, El Imposible! Up at 5am to join our local guide, Clementino, for a punishing 11-mile hike. But wow. From the summit we had sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean in one direction and an exhilarating panorama of mountains and volcanos in the other. Suddenly all the hardships were worth it. Impossible? Huh. Seven hours later, with limbs aching, we had conquered it.

Camping at Lago de Coatepeque

Rooms with a view

A quick al-fresco jungle shower and then on down the Ruta de las Flores to Juayua and the weekend food fair – which because of the elections had just finished. Bugger! But that wasn’t the end of our bad luck. With voting the next day the sale of alcohol was banned for 72 hours. It was a heavy price to pay for democracy and we retreated to our ‘campsite’ – a cul-de-sac at the edge of town – and with Zach and Jill set up our table and chairs in the street, literally, before finishing off the last couple of tepid beers and the remains of the warm white wine. For the next 48 hours we were reduced to putting triple sec in hot chocolate to get our kicks. What a desperate bunch.

With our limbs barely recovered we headed for Parque Nacional Los Volcanes and, after a beautiful and spectacular drive, camped in the national park and watched the sun set behind the perfectly formed crater cone of Volcan Izalco.

Donning the hiking boots once more we headed out to tackle the summit of neighbouring Volcan Santa Ana – an amazing walk up to the crater with incredible views across Lago de Coatepeque and right across to the mountains of Guatemala.

Talking of Guatemala, when we last posted we were still there – and now we’re not. So to recap. After saying farewell to Brian and Christine at the airport we headed to Valhalla – not literally the viking hell, but a picturesque macademia nut plantation on the outskirts of Antigua, where we spent two peaceful nights getting used to life in the van again before heading for the Atitlan nature reserve. Then it was back to Xela for a bit of work (and the chance to catch another football match) and then on to the coast – and the steamy beach town of Monterrico.

The Monterrico Ferry

Don't tell the insurance company about our ferry journey

The drive there was uneventful enough until a few miles short of the town we reached the ferry port. I say ferry, what I mean is effectively a dug-out canoe-thing, a sort of raft with sides, onto which we had to drive the van and float – ok we had a tiny engine – but you get the idea. This was NOT, I repeat NOT a ferry. On the 30-minute journey through the mangroves it creaked, leaked and listed each time another boat passed. I’m sure our insurance company would have said “you did WHAT?” if something had happened.

But it didn’t, and we found yet another odd camping spot in the car park at Johnny’s Place – a beachside hotel and restaurant where we had the great fortune to bump into Zach and Jill. The odd part of it was we had camped in the sandy parking lot, right outside the manager’s cabin and wondered if we were being a bit too cheeky. The manager turned out to be Tony – a Glaswegian hippy who took to the road in the 60s and never quite made it home. After watching a fiery red sunset from the never-ending black sand beach it was easy to see why he chose Guatemala over the Gorbals.

And so back to the present – and future. We spent the past couple of nights, again with Zach and Jill, camped on the shore of Lago de Coatepeque – enjoying the amazing views, swimming, playing cards, laughing at each other’s strange expressions, putting the world to rights, celebrating the end of prohibition with a few (is 45 still a few? – ed.) cold beers and again becoming the centre of attention for curious locals. Zach even managed to be recruited to star in a commercial!

Cooking at Lago de Coatepeque

Whipping up a feast with Zach and Jill

Yesterday we said our goodbyes (or we hope our ‘hasta luego(s)’) as we headed to Santa Ana and they to San Salvador. I’m sure the four of us will share a few more beers and strange adventures over the coming months. We hope so – they’ve been great travelling companions and kindred spirits.

For us, it’s time to meet up again with some old friends we haven’t seen for far, far too long – a shower and a washing machine. Hola, mucho gusto.

Days: 163
Miles: 7368.2
Things we now know to be true: Nothing is impossible

In case you missed the latest pics on Flickr, here they are again: Flickr pics: Xela, Guatemala