Road trip: Central America - January 17 to June 6, 2014

June 7: Conclusion

Now that our trip through Central America has come to an end, here are some of the statistics, things we've learned and tips for others who are thinking about taking the drive down into Central America.

Total days: 141 days

Countries visited: Mexico / Belize / Guatemala / El Salvador / Honduras / Nicaragua / Costa Rica / Panama.

Total distance traveled (approximately): 13.600 km / 8,500 miles
USA -> Mexico -> Belize -> Guatemala -> El Salvador -> Honduras -> Nicaragua -> Costa Rica -> Panama -> Costa Rica -> Nicaragua -> Honduras -> Guatemala -> Mexico -> USA. That's a LOT of border crossings.

Budget / cost: We tried to stick to a budget of $2,000 per month. We usually went over a little.
The cheapest countries for traveling were Nicaragua and Honduras (cheap camping; cheap food). The most expensive were Mexico (toll roads!) and Costa Rica.
The cheapest diesel was sold in Panama (at a similar price to diesel in Texas).

Roads: compared to the roads up in the US or in Europe, many roads in Central America fall in the categories of "not so great" to "horrible".
There's hardly any fast highways: most of the PanAmerican highway is actually a small two lane road, usually filled with potholes or slow-driving trucks. Mexico has some decent toll roads, but they're terribly overpriced.
Expect the unexpected whilst driving: animals on the road, unmarked speed bumps, pot holes, pedestrians, ox carts ... We often compared driving in Central America to playing a video game: trying to dodge whatever is thrown in front of your wheels (except there's no 'reset' or 'replay' button in real life if something happens).

Favorite country: Mexico
Like us, all of the travelers we met along the way spent much more time in Mexico than initially planned. It's a big country with lots of variety in landscapes, climates, culture, food ... It has a little bit of everything (some of the best mountains and natural attractions; the best colonial towns; the best food and the best beaches).
Of course, if you look at the map of Central America, about half of Central America is taken up by Mexico!

Favorite colonial town: tie between Antigua (Guatemala), San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) and San Cristobal de Las Casas (Mexico)
Others we enjoyed a lot were Guanajuato (Mexico), Izamal (Mexico), Merida (Mexico), Granada (Nicaragua) and Gracias (Honduras).

Favorite beach: tie between the Riviera Maya (Mexico) and Roatan (Honduras)
If you surf, you'll probably love places like El Tunco (El Salvador), San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua) or Dominical (Costa Rica). We don't surf and our main criterias for a 'nice' beach are white sand, turquoise water and a coral reef for good snorkeling. We found this less than expected on this trip unfortunately.
The white sand beaches along the Riviera Maya in Mexico are beautiful and have decent snorkeling in some places. Roatan's West Bay in Honduras we actually visited during a separate trip a few years ago, but it's spectacular with amazing snorkeling. We imagine Belize's Ambergris Caye to have similar spectacular beaches and snorkeling (it shares the coral reef with Roatan), which is why we didn't go there on this trip.

Favorite lake: Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Hard to beat lake Atitlan with its location in the highlands, surrounded by volcanoes and cool climate.
Other pretty lakes were Laguna de Alegria in El Salvador, Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua, Lago de Yojoa in Honduras and some of the Montebello lakes in Mexico.

Favorite ruins: tie between Teotihuacan (Mexico), Palenque (Mexico), Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras)
It's tough to choose one or even two favorites. Ever since I read the books by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, I have wanted to visit Teotihuacan with its impressive "Pyramid of the Sun" and "Pyramid of the Moon". Palenque has a great jungle setting. Tikal is huge compared to the other ruins, with many tall pyramids and lots of wildlife. Copan surprised us as it has a mix of stelaes and jungle covered ruins, including scarlet macaws everywhere between the ruins.
Of course, the other ruins we visited were worth the visit too: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Quirigua, Monte Alban, ...

Favorite campgrounds: another tie. We particularly enjoyed staying at campgrounds where the climate was cool (high altitude to escape the humidity and heat of the jungle) and/or where we met up with other overlanders.

Our favorites were:
- the tennis courts at San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) --> great atmosphere and location in town
- Teotihuacan (Mexico) --> great atmosphere
- Club Nautico near Campeche (Mexico) --> best facilities and swimming pool
- Xpu-Ha near Tulum (Mexico) --> best beach
- Cenote Suytun near Valladolid (Mexico) --> beautiful cenote; cenote access included in the camping price
- Yax-Ha in Chetumal (Mexico) --> waterfront camping with all facilities
- El Muelle near Tikal (Guatemala) --> great for visiting Tikal if you have a dog; lake and swimming pool to cool down in the jungle heat
- tourist police in Antigua (Guatemala) --> great location in the center of Antigua
- Vision Azul in Panajachel at lake Atitlan (Guatemala) --> great view of the lake, two volcanoes and night time lights of towns across the lake
- laguna de Alegria (El Salvador) --> remote, quiet camping inside a volcanic crater
- finca Canas Castillo (Costa Rica) --> best wildlife viewing

Favorite volcanoes: lago de Atitlan
When you travel through Central America, expect to see many volcanoes. The view of the volcanoes across lake Atitlan is hard to beat. We also enjoyed visiting Cerro Verde national park in El Salvador with its 3 volcanoes; standing in the volcanic gases at the crater rim at Volcan Massaya national park in Nicaragua and sleeping in the crater at laguna de Alegria in El Salvador.

Favorite waterfalls: number one has to be El Aguacero (Chiapas, Mexico).
Followed closely by Rincon de la Vieja (Costa Rica), Boquete's pipeline trail (Panama), El Chiflon (Mexico) and Pulhapanzak falls near lago de Yojoa (Honduras).

Best wildlife viewing: Costa Rica
When staying in a jungle area almost anywhere in Central America, there's a chance you'll see monkeys. Other than that however, we had the feeling that there isn't much wildlife left for easy viewing in most countries down here. Costa Rica, with its huge protected areas, was definitely the best country to see all kinds of wildlife.

Places we wish we visited:
- We've heard great things about the ruins at Calakmul (Mexico). Unfortunately, we weren't sure whether we could take our dog there; it really wasn't on our way and we were thinking we'd seen enough other ruins on this trip, so we skipped it.
- Having seen and visited so many volcanoes on the way South, we skipped the boat ride to Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. Not sure if we made a mistake by skipping it.

Places we visited but could have skipped: hard to say. We weren't very impressed with colonial towns such as Bacalar (Mexico) or Suchitoto (El Salvador). We expected more nice beaches (most beaches weren't white or didn't have snorkeling). We expected more of small towns like El Valle (Panama) with its two disappointing waterfalls.

Best food: seafood taco's in Mexico
People in Central America eat rice, beans and corn tortilla's with almost every meal. For us, in general, the food in Mexico and Guatemala were the tastiest: especially in Mexico, there's lots of local specialties ("carnesita's" in Merida; "tegogolo's" at lake Catemaco; "mole" near Oaxaca/Cholula/Puebla; etc.).
We loved the hand-made corn tortilla's in Guatemala but didn't care much for "pupusa's" in El Salvador (hand-made corn tortilla's filled with, for example, beans).

Best beer: We tried the local "lager" (pils) beers in each country. My favorite is "Panama" (from, exactly, Panama).
My least favorite were all of the beers in Nicaragua. Not sure what they put in their lager beers there, but they all had a similar, strange flavor.

Trip troubles:

- Mechanical / electrical: bad electrical wiring at an RV park in Mexico killed our RV's converter and microwave. Other than that, we are lucky and happy to report that we didn't encounter other issues (no flat tires, engine issues, etc.).
- Legal / police: 2 bribe ('mordida') attempts. One attempt by the immigration officer when entering Belize; one by a police officer in Panama. Both times we got away without paying the bribe by playing dumb.

Tips for other travelers:

- GPS, part one: to find our way, we used a Garmin GPS. The big benefit of Garmin is that you can download country maps for free! (see http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/)

- GPS, part two: for trip planning on our laptop, we liked "Microsoft Streets and Maps" best; unfortunately, it only covers Mexico in Central America. Once we were South of Mexico, we used the free Garmin BaseCamp software.
Both programs allow you to create a route and export it to the "GPX" format, which you can copy directly onto your Garmin GPS.

- GPS, part three: when planning a route, remember that Central America does not have a good highway system. Yes, Mexico has toll roads, but even on those, you cannot drive faster than 55 miles / 80 km per hour.
A good average speed to use when planning the next day's route, is 35 miles / 50 km per hour. On "driving" days, we tried to leave the camping area around 8 AM and drive until lunch time or early afternoon: that allows us to cover approximately 175 miles or 250 km on a driving day.

- GPS, part four: if you have an iPad, the app "City Maps 2 Go" is great. You can download up to 5 country maps for free and even if you don't have a data plan on your iPad, the app allows you to see in real-time where you are on the map (thanks to the built-in GPS on the iPad).

- Driving, part one: avoid driving after dark: driving is difficult enough during daylight hours. There are people walking on the road, dogs, cows, horses, ox carts; plus the dreaded speed bumps ("topes" or "tumulos").

- Driving, part two: car insurance?
Most countries in Central America require you to have car insurance. For some, you have to buy it in advance (Mexico: very expensive); others you have to buy it at the border (Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama: all inexpensive).
Guatemala doesn't require insurance and there's no option to buy it at the border, so we drove through it without insurance (as most overlanders do).

- Driving, part three: you will pass by many police and army checkpoints whilst driving through Central America. 95% of these let us pass through; the other 5% asked us to show them our passports and/or car import papers. No big deal: these checkpoints are here to make your trip safer.

- Driving, part four: one country in Central America is notorious for stopping RV's and requiring you to carry two safety triangles and a fire extinguisher: Honduras. This didn't happen to us, even though we visited many places in Honduras; most police checkpoints just waved us through.

- RV parks: south of Mexico, there are no RV parks. Finding a safe place to sleep means relying on other travelers' list of camping options or asking around yourself (try hotels, restaurants, water parks: walk in and ask if you can camp there for the night: "se puede acampar aqui?"). Contact us if you need a camping list in Central (and South) America and if you have an iPhone/iPad, download the "iOverlander" app.

- Traveling with your dog, part one: make sure your dog has current vaccinations. Go to the vet in the US before crossing into Mexico to get a "health certificate" and go to the vet in Mexico (we went in Chetumal) to get an updated "health certificate" in Spanish, to use South of Mexico.
With the exception of Belize (for which you need to process paperwork for the dog before arriving at the border), no one really cared about our dog sitting in the car.
It was usually on our initiative that we told the custom officers at the border that we had a dog with us: they looked at the Spanish health certificate and stamped it.
Central America has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If you ask what to do to "import" your dog, they come up with all kinds of fees. Same thing happens on "campgrounds" if you ask if you can use the electricity: if you simply plug in without asking, no one says a thing; but if you ask if you can plug in, expect to pay extra ...

- Traveling with your dog, part two: in Central America, dogs are usually not treated as pets; they are guard dogs or they live on the street. Many dogs are not treated nicely and look malnourished. When walking around towns, expect to see many wild dogs who may or may not show an interest in your dog. Usually, they aren't aggressive however and back away when you step in.

- Water, part one: if your RV has a water tank, it's fairly easy to find a faucet on your trip to fill it up. However, do not drink the water. We used the water that came out of the faucet for taking showers and doing dishes. For drinking or washing our fruits and vegetables, we used bottled water.

- Water, part two: buy a water filter to use when you fill up your RV's water tank. We used a low cost filter from WalMart (which connects between the faucet and your hose). It doesn't make the water safe for drinking, but it does keep sediment out of your RV and RV's water pump.

- Water, part three: if you regularly want to fill up your RV's water tank, bring a looong hose so you can reach the faucet.

- Electricity, part one: if your RV has a 30 or 50 AMP hookup, don't think you will find this kind of hookup south of Mexico. At best, you'll have a 15/20 AMP outlet available, so make sure you bring the correct connector piece for your 30/50 AMP cable.

- Electricity, part two: do not leave home without bringing a tester (RadioShack sells them). Always test an outlet before plugging in your RV. We've encountered 110 V outlets that showed 230 V (one of these killed our converter and microwave...).
Or, you could buy the more expensive device which plugs in between your RV and the campground outlet, and protects your RV from all kinds of electrical troubles (these cost around $200).

- Electricity, part three: sometimes, the nearest available outlet is far away, so bring a long extension cord.

- Electricity, part four: most overlanders carry either a solar panel or a generator to keep their RV battery charged while boondocking for an extended period of time. We used to have a solar panel on our travel trailer for the trip up to Alaska; and on the trip through Central America we carried a generator.
Positive about a solar panel is that it charges your battery non-stop when there is sunlight.
The positive about a generator; and the reason why we were carrying one; is that it allows us to run the A/C if we were miserably hot and didn't have an electrical hookup at the campground.

- Waste water: it's almost impossible to find a dump station for your RV's grey/black water once you go south of Guatemala. The good thing is that most camping options provide you with a toilet / shower and a place to do dishes, so it takes a while before your RV tanks fill up.

- RV supplies: almost impossible to find. Try a marine store as RV's are similar to boats regarding electrical and water/waste systems.

- Border crossings, part one: go early and expect each crossing (leave one country + enter the next one) to take around 1-3 hours; some border crossings require you to pay a fee in the local bank, which can be closed on Sundays.
Also, borders in Central America look nothing like borders, let's say between the US and Canada. Border crossings in Central America are a mess: it's usually hard to find out where to go to next, or if you're finished and can leave; there's usually many trucks at the border, blocking the two lane roads; buildings aren't clearly marked; etc.

- Border crossings, part two: every country requires you to not only get a stamp in your passport, but also "temporarily import" your car. This usually means you'll be filling out extra paperwork and the need to stand in (a long) line with truck drivers at the customs office ("aduana").
Keep in mind that both Guatemala and Costa Rica have a strange law that you cannot re-enter the country for 90 days if you cancel the car permit upon leaving the country (so, if you're planning on going back to that country within 90 days, do *NOT* cancel your permit. If you do, expect headaches at the border upong re-entry, or in the worst case, a 'no').

- Border crossings, part three: almost every border crossing requires you to have copies available of your important documents. It's a good idea to take a bunch of copies with you of your passport, car title and driver's license.
Every border has at least one place where you can make copies, but it's much easier if you already have them handy.

- Border crossings, part four: avoid showing up at borders around lunch time. Border officials take random, long lunches; in which case you'll have to wait until they return from lunch. We try to arrive at borders early in the morning (also to avoid busy times when other tourists might show up in tour buses).

- Border crossings, part five: when arriving at a border, expect to be swarmed by locals who want to offer their services to help you; for a fee of course.
Sometimes their help is actually useful (as mentioned above, some border crossings are a complete mess); other times you can easily figure things out for yourself. If you do hire a "helper", just make sure to agree on a price before allowing someone to help you (we never paid more than a few dollars).

- Food, part one: to keep the overall trip cost low, cook your own meals. Eat out at local municipal markets as these serve local food + are very cheap. Street food is usually very good and inexpensive. Also, along the roads, you'll see small inexpensive restaurants.

- Food, part two: try new things. Buy local ingredients. What's the point in traveling if you're going to eat at a Burger King in Antigua?

- Choice of RV, part one: as mentioned above, most RV camping options in Central America are not on campgrounds. Also, many small towns have very narrow streets. Therefore, we do not recommend taking this trip with an RV longer than about 24 feet. We drove a truck + truck camper; 24 feet in length with the dual rear wheel (dually) and were OK.
Our truck camper is 3.5 meters high (11 feet) which sometimes got us into trouble with low overhanging branches.

- Choice of RV, part two: do you need 4WD (4x4)? Our truck had 4WD and we used it on a few occasions (driving through a flooded camping area in El Valle, Panama and through flooded streets in Tegucigalpa, Honduras). Four wheel drive isn't a necessity, but if you need it, you'll be glad you have it.

- Choice of RV, part three: If you're buying an RV specifically for this trip (maybe to take with you on a trip going to South America), research shipping costs before buying the RV.
To go from Panama to Colombia for example, you will need to ship your RV on a cargo boat (unless the planned ferry boat is operational by the time you read this): if your RV does not fit inside a container, you will need to pay by the square meter: the bigger your RV, the higher the cost.

- Choice of RV, part four: diesel engine or gasoline? We drove from Texas up to Alaska and back down in a Jeep Commander with a gasoline engine (towing a travel trailer). We drove through Central America in a Dodge RAM 3500 with a diesel engine (with a truck camper on top). We like both.
Almost every gas station in Central America has diesel and gas available. In my experience, diesel is more fuel efficient, but keep in mind that some diesels reportedly have issues with the high altitude driving required in South America; but that isn't an issue in Central America.
Whatever you end up buying, try to buy something for which you have a good chance of finding parts in Central America, in case it breaks down.

- Choice of RV, part five: if you buy a diesel powered RV, research whether it requires "Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel" fuel (ULSD). Our 2008 Dodge RAM with the 6.7l Cummins diesel engine did require ULSD. Most or all diesel engines built after 2007 require ULSD (to keep the emissions low).
In most of Central America, ULSD is *NOT* available: the diesel is the old, polluting kind. We did see some ULSD in Panama and in northern Mexico.
Luckily, our Dodge showed no problems of running on the high sulfur diesel. Other engines, like those in newer Mercedes RV's, aren't as forgiving we heard.

- Choice of RV, part six: which brand? Depending on in which Central American country you are, you see Dodge, or Ford, or Chevy ... What you see in every country is Toyota, so RVs built on top of the Toyota LandCruiser are very popular amongst overlanders. We bought a Dodge truck since the Cummins diesel engine is sold in many Central American countries.
If you have a brand that isn't sold in the country and if you break down, it'll just take some more time for the necessary parts to be shipped to you.

- Choice of RV, part seven: it's a good idea to carry some spare parts with you; especially a replacement air filter, oil filter and fuel filter; as these are likely to have to be replaced during your trip.

- Things to buy before leaving home: several things, which are cheap up in the US, are considered to be luxury (expensive) items down in Central America.
Stock up on these before you leave the US: dog food (especially wet food), dental floss, lip balm, sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and most importantly: Nutella.

- People, part one: people are people, wherever you go. There's nice people and some not so nice people. Chances of crimes are much higher in cities. This is the same in Central America as it is up in the US or in Europe. Try to pay no attention to people who keep reminding you how dangerous it is (in their opinion of course). Go find out for yourself how safe it actually is. 99% of all people we met were very friendly and helpful. In fact, on the rare ocassion when we had an argument, it was with an expat ...
Use common sense when traveling.

- People, part two: RV's are not a common sight in most of Central America, as aren't tourists in remote areas. When traveling through Central America, expect almost everyone to stare at you as you drive by.

And finally, when you live in the US or Europe (or in any other "first world" country), you get used to many things you don't really need. Our RV has a microwave/oven, hot water heater, A/C, TV, DVD, etc.
Most people in Central America don't have these things in their houses; many houses don't even have windows or doors! Some people have no running water; and even if they do, most of the water is not drinkable.
Yet, the vast majority of people you meet in Central America smile at you and couldn't be friendlier when you reach out for help.
Be grateful for what you have and enjoy visiting these different cultures. When you get back to your first world country, you'll realize how lucky and privileged you are.


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May 17 - June 6: Mexico (going North)

Saturday - Sunday June 6 - 7: San Antonio, Texas

We stayed for the weekend at Haichong's parents house in San Antonio. They looked after our 2 cats while we were in Central America so we were happy to see them again! After 5 months, both cats remembered us, including Sophie!

We did some repairs to the RV; bought a new mattress for the RV; cleaned all the dust and mud of the car and RV (first cleaning in 5 months!) and got ready for the next trip. We are planning to go up north, towards Colorado to find a place to settle down and make some money!

Thursday June 5: Matehuala, Mexico to Laredo, USA

A long day of driving. As opposed to the journey south; when we slept in Saltillo, halfway between Matehuala and the border; this time we drove straight in 1 day from Matehuala to the US border.
We took mainly toll roads and arrived at the Columbia crossing between Nuevo Laredo (Mexico) and Laredo (USA) around 2 PM.

We handed in our car permit on the Mexican side and went to immigration for our exit stamps.
We explained to the immigration officer that we hadn't received our entry stamp back in January and that this caused issues for us (i.e. the attempt to bribe us by the immigration officer in Belize!). No problem: he found another stamp; changed the date back to January 17, 2014 and stamped the entry stamp in our passports!

The entry stamp into Mexico, dated January 17, also helped us upon entering the USA again today.
See, with our green cards, we can not be out of the USA for a period longer than 6 months (unless if we file paperwork prior to leaving the USA). Without the Mexican entry stamp to prove that we had left the USA on January 17, how could we prove in the USA that we hadn't been out of country for longer than 6 months!?

Entering the USA was easier than expected. Yes, the immigration officer asked us how long we had been out of country (5 months, so no problem). Yes, I had to empty the car and the drug-sniffing dog inspected both our car and camper. But, the entire process went fast (as there was no line at this border crossing) and in 30 minutes we were on our way. Back in the USA!

We drove to Lake Casa Blanca state park, in Laredo, and camped there for the night. We went swimming in the afternoon to cool off from the dreaded Texas heat.

Wednesday June 4: San Miguel de Allende to Matehuala, Mexico

After some grocery shopping in the morning, we left San Miguel and drove north to the city of Matehuala. We slept again at the same hotel as we did going south: Hotel Las Palmas.

As you drive north, the altitude drops from 1.900 meters (San Miguel) to around 1.500 meters (Matehuala). The climate and scenery reminds us of west Texas: dry, hilly, lots of cacti.

Sunday June 1 - Tuesday June 3: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

We're back in San Miguel!
We left Cuernavaca early in the morning and headed northwest into the mountains surrounding Toluca. To avoid driving into Mexico City (a city of 20 million people!), we made a half circle around it.

Toluca is known amongst Belgian soccer fans for "Casa Hogar": the charity foundation started by the Belgian Red Devils when they played here in the World Cup '86.
It was also the city where Belgium played all its first round matches. Not easy, as Toluca is Mexico's highest city, at an altitude of 2.600 meters (8,800 feet)!

The drive was great: since the toll road in the southwestern part of Mexico City isn't completed yet, you have to take the mountain road between Cuernavaca and Toluca. It goes through a national park and has great views. The temperature dropped to 7 C (47 F)! It was like driving through the mountains in Colorado in the crisp air ... but then much further to the south.

We drove the toll roads as much as possible and had to stop at a toll booth about 10 times during the day; the most expensive toll being $40 for a 30 minute stretch north of Toluca ... crazy.

We arrived in San Miguel in the afternoon and parked our camper again at the Tennis Courts RV park in the historical colonial center. We stayed here for 1 week on the trip going south; back in January; and are planning to relax and rest here for a few days now on the way up north, as we've been driving too much these past few days!

We've been looking at the map and weather forecasts as we're planning the itinerary for the drive up to the US.
We skipped the Baja peninsula and the west coast on the drive south, but (and it's a big one), those areas of Mexico are HOT and humid in Summer (rainy season). We've been thinking that it would make a great future trip: to combine Baja + Mexico's west coast (Copper canyon, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Michoacán's coast, Patzcuaro and Morelia, Lake Chapala and Guadalajara ...) and to do it between December - April, when the weather is perfect.
So, we're thinking we might be on our way up once we leave San Miguel and leave western Mexico for a future trip ...!

Saturday May 31: Cholula to Cuernavaca, Mexico

We had rain all night and into the morning, so we decided to continue driving. Three hours to the southwest of Cholula, lies the city of Cuernavaca. It's famous as a weekend retreat for Mexico City residents.
Cuernavaca does have a central square with some old buildings, but we opted to stay at an RV park to the south of the city. Quiet; away from the city traffic and noises. They have a 'real' RV park with full hookups: $15 per night.
Unfortunately, there's an event center nearby and this being Saturday, there was a wedding going on. In other words, fireworks 'bangs' into the night ... a very short night with barely any sleep.
This is one aspect of traveling in Central America that we will not miss: yes, the people are very friendly and more open and welcoming compared to the US or Europe, but at the same time, the culture in Central America is one of not caring. People play music out of their car speakers at full blast. They stop their car right on the road. They play with fireworks on random days in the middle of the night. Who cares if it inconveniences others? They don't!

Enough with the rant, back to Cuernavaca. For whatever reason, I expected Cuernavaca to be this lovely, small mountain town. In reality, it's a big ugly city. Not sure why Mexico City locals come down here by the thousands every weekend ... We spent the day at the swimming pool and, as usual these past few weeks, ended the day with some rain (this being rainy season in Central America).

Friday May 30: Oaxaca to Cholula, Mexico

We said goodbye (for now?) to Kurt and Michelle and drove a few kilometers southwest of Oaxaca to visit the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

We arrived at opening time and almost had the place to ourselves. We were pleasantly surprised by these ruins!
They don't have the same level of detail as, for example the ruins at Palenque, but the views are what makes Monte Alban special! Monte Alban is situated at the top of a mountain and, as the clouds drifted in between the ruins and you could see down into the valleys, almost looked like a mini Machu Picchu.
The ruins are organized around a big central plaza with some buildings and a few small pyramids. You have great views onto the valley with the city of Oaxaca.
Also, the on-site museums houses most of the stelae found here and several pieces which were found in the tombs (most of the artifacts from the tombs however are on display at the Cultural Museum in Oaxaca).

Click here for our pictures of Monte Alban

We left Monte Alban mid morning and headed northwest to Puebla and Cholula. It's quite a drive from Oaxaca (about 5 hours on the toll road) but the scenery along the way is great. Lots of red rocks, which reminded us about the scenery in Utah.

We stayed at the RV park "Las Americas" in Cholula on the trip south and since Cholula was a convenient location to pass through again, we stayed at the same RV park. This time we were all alone. We negotiated the price down to $15 and this time the hot water and the WiFi were actually working!

Wednesday May 28 - Thurday May 29: Oaxaca, Mexico

We drove a few kilometers west into the city of Oaxaca. We joined the Swiss couple (Kurt and Michelle) and camped at a public parking in downtown.
There is a campground in Oaxaca ("Oaxaca trailer park") but we read nothing but bad reviews about it (old and not well-maintained), plus it's a 30 minute walk outside of the city center, so we decided to stay in town. The public parking might not have much in the way of facilities, but the location is hard to beat: it's in the center of town, a few blocks away from the zocalo (central square).
Also, it's interesting that the parking owners family lives on-site. The grandfather and grandmother, father's family and son all live in their own very small (think 3 square meter each) houses. As you 'live' in your RV on the property, all of these people are living here permanently and you get to see, for example, the grandmother sitting in her small room/house, eating soup on her bed. I assume the bed is one of the only pieces of furniture she has in there, as there really isn't much room left once the bed goes in there!

Besides the family, they also have some small rooms that they rent out. Again, no bigger than 3 square meters each and no running water ...
We saw a twentysomething guy get ready for work: he shaved outside of his front door (which means he was standing inbetween the parked cars) and brought a water jug outside to wash his hands. Once he was clean, he went back inside and appeared with a small box filled with candy. That was his job: walking the streets of the city, selling candy for a few pesos each ... Definitely puts your life into perspective!

During our two days in Oaxaca, we explored the city.

Click here for our pictures of Oaxaca

Yes, Oaxaca has a colonial center but; as opposed to other colonial towns in Mexico; Oaxaca feels like a big city. It's not as cozy or charming as San Miguel or San Cristobal.

That being said, Oaxaca definitely has some impressive sights.
On Wednesday, we visited the two big market buildings in town. One of them is the 'Mercado de comer', where we ate the local specialty of 'mole negro': a sauce made with chocolate, that they smother over all kinds of food.

In the afternoon, we walked from the Zocalo up to one of the most beautiful churches we've seen on this trip: the 'Iglesia de Santo Domingo', built in the 16th century. The inside of the church is what makes it special: statues and carvings everywhere, even all on the ceiling. It's kind of like looking at a 3-D ceiling.

Next to the church is one of Oaxaca's most well-known attractions: an old monastery which houses the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca.
Inside, artifacts display the history of this area: from the ancient Zapotec people; who lived here apparently since approximately 200 BC; to the Spanish invasion in the 1500s.
We liked the artifacts that came from the nearby Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban: very impressive gold statues and even a skull dressed up as a piece of art, which were found in one of the tombs at the ruins.
I also liked the monastery's library with books dating back to the 15th century. Interesting for example to look at the old world maps and see what the people living in the 15th century thought the world looked like!

On Thursday, we walked around in the morning and visited the other parts of the colonial center, with some small musea.
In the streets, many vendors sell fake brand clothing. A Lacoste polo goes for $11 down here; I bought new Rayban sunglasses for $3! Big difference with the $100 price tag up in the US.
(I lost my old -- $100 real -- ones on our offroad adventure at the Ruta de las Flores down in El Salvador)

- At lunch time, we walked back to the food market to eat some more of the local specialties. Again, cheap but great: $10 total for our lunch including fresh juice.

In the afternoon, we relaxed in our RV and at night, we walked around the city with the Swiss couple; Kurt and Michelle; on and around the Zocalo. It's always interesting to see a city at night, with the lights illuminating the old churches.

Monday May 26 - Tuesday May 27: Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico

We camped for two nights at the "Overlander Oasis", a small campground run by a Canadian couple who moved from Canada down to Oaxaca back in 2008. Having been "overlanders" themselves, they opened this campground as many travelers on the north-south route pass through Oaxaca.
$19 per night; electricity; water; hot showers; WiFi.

The town, Santa Maria del Tule, is known for having one of the biggest trees in the world: the "Arbol del Tule" ("Tree of Tule").
In town, Oaxaca's two main industries are evident: there are lots of stores selling "mezcal", an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant and similar to tequila.
The other big thing in Oaxaca are its fabrics: as you walk around town, you see lots of women creating colorful rugs and clothing on old-fashioned weaving machines.

Sunday May 25: Tehuantepec to Hierve el Agua, Mexico

We left the hotel around 7:30 AM and drove into the mountains, towards the city of Oaxaca at 1.500 meters altitude. It's about a 4 hour drive on the slow mountain road, however, surprisingly, there are hardly any villages along the way. We only saw one gas station (close to Oaxaca), where we filled up, but we were close to being out of diesel as we weren't expecting this road to be so desolate.

A few miles to the east of Oaxaca (pronounce "wa-haw-ca"), we took a smaller mountain road up to 1.800 meters altitude: here is an area that resembles "Mammoth hot springs" in Yellowstone, called "Hierve el Agua" ("bubbling water").
We camped there for the night: $7; no facilities other than restrooms.

Click here for our pictures of Hierve el Agua

The views here are terrific! You camp right at a steep mountain edge and look out over the valley and surrounding mountains.
The springs are on a plateau just underneath the camping spot: one big circular pool surrounded by rocks covered in mineral sediment.
The water that 'bubbles' out of the springs here is actually not hot water.

Saturday May 24: El Aguacero to Tehuantepec, Mexico

A lot of driving today as we left the Chiapas highlands and headed down to the Pacific Ocean, into the state of Oaxaca.

We drove the free road (libramiento), rather than the toll road, since we had time.
Along the way, in one spot, we noticed a lot of birds making nests in the trees. Very nice to see as there were hundreds of big birds in an area no bigger than 50m x 50m.

Click here for our pictures of the nesting birds


Cattle Egret

We had lunch in a small town and arrived in the city of Tehuantepec in early afternoon. As opposed to the highlands, it is HOT here.
We asked a hotel if we could park our RV there: hotel Santa Cruz; 100 pesos; WiFi; pool. We spent the afternoon cooling off in the pool and watching the Champions League finals on TV.
We don't recommend the hotel however, as they came back to us in late afternoon and tried to increase the price! (we didn't budge!)

Friday May 23: Ocozocautla to El Aguacero, Mexico

One of our favorite places of the entire trip: El Aguacero.

Click here for our pictures of El Aguacero

Recommended to us by fellow travellers Toby and Chloe ("Carpe Viam"), we stayed here for the night (100 pesos; restrooms; otherwise no facilities).

This is a must-see place: you park at the top and hike down into a deep canyon. At the bottom is a river, where you can swim to cool off from the hike; and a few hundred meters into the canyon are many waterfalls. Beautiful!

We brought our lunch down into the canyon with us and spent the rest of the day exploring the canyon; walking behind the waterfalls and swimming in the river.

Thursday May 22: San Cristobal to Ocozocautla, Mexico

We left San Cristobal in a chilly 14 C around 10:30 AM and drove an hour down the mountains into the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez where it was 32 C!
We would have liked to visit the Sumidero canyon just north of town, but unfortunately dogs are not allowed into the canyon area; not even whilst sitting in the car. Frustrating: as a tourist with a dog that has received all the necessary shots (otherwise, we couldn't even bring the dog into the country in the first place), you cannot enter the canyon area, even though wild dogs wander around everywhere ...
What bureaucrat came up with this great idea!?

At lunch time, we arrived at the small town of Ocozocautla (feel free to pronounce it if you can) and camped at the "Hogar Infantil": a children's shelter. They have 4 RV campsites on their large property outside of town.
It's free to stay here, but they do accept donations to help the children's shelter. The RV site has full hookups (water - electricity - dump station).

Another couple is staying here in their RV: they are from Chile and are driving from Alaska to Chile. ("De Alaska A Patagonia").
The Swiss couple in their MAN truck (Kurt and Michelle) also arrived late in the afternoon.

Monday May 19 - Wednesday May 21: San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico

After stocking up on groceries in the Wal-Mart in Comitan, we arrived in the mountain village of San Cristobal de Las Casas around lunch time. We drove through the center of the colonial town to reach the campground for a few nights: Rancho San Nicolas.
As usual, the cobblestone streets were narrow so it was an interesting experience to maneuver our truck through traffic!

San Cristobal is situated at 2.200 meters altitude (7.200 feet). The town is surrounded by mountains. Lots of pine trees and cool temperatures: around 20 C (70 F) in the day time and 10 C (50 F) at night.

Click here for our pictures of San Cristobal de Las Casas

We relaxed on the campground on Monday afternoon and met other overlanders who are camping here: a Swiss couple who've been on the road for 3 years already (on their way north in a MAN truck) and 2 other RV's, both from California (on the way to South America).

On Tuesday, we explored the town. Wow! We weren't expecting what we saw: a colonial town to rival the likes of Antigua and San Miguel. Lots of cobblestone streets with restored colonial houses; several nice churches; lots of native people walking around the town in their traditional colorful clothing (similar to Guatemala); and a huge local market (where we had lunch for $3 total, including fresh juice!).

On Wednesday, we walked around the town again and visited the rest of the highlights, including the church on top of the hill, which has great views of San Cristobal and the surrounding mountains.
We had more street food; including tamales and taco's; for a few dollars each, from locals who sell the food out of coolers on a street corner.

Sunday May 18: Lago Tziscao to El Chiflon, Mexico

Hot showers are rare on a trip like this, so we really enjoyed our long, hot showers this morning!
We left lake Tziscao and visited the other lakes in the "Laguna de Montebellos national park": some small, some big lakes, situated in between steep and rocky hills. Pretty.
We ate lunch at one of the lakes and then headed west. The road descends towards the Pacific Ocean, past the city of Comitan. About one hour southwest of Comitan are the waterfalls of El Chiflon.

In the afternoon, we visited the El Chiflon waterfalls. There are several waterfalls: as you hike deeper into the park and next to the river, you get to see several waterfalls. The final ones are very spectacular!

Click here for our pictures of the El Chiflon waterfalls and the Lagunas de Montebello

There's a viewpoint right in front of the thundering waterfall and as you stand there, you get soaking wet from the spray. Very impressive!


The small dot on the right is Haichong

At night, we camped in the park: $4; electricity; water; no showers or WiFi.

Saturday May 17: Huehuetengango, Guatemala to Lago Tziscao, Mexico

After a chilly night (12 C) thanks to the altitude (1.800 meters), we left Huehuetenango around 7:30 AM. The road north towards the border with Mexico goes through the mountains so it was again slow-going, but the mountain scenery was the most amazing we've seen so far on this trip! The PanAmerican follows a river at the bottom of the valley, with steep mountains on either side, partially hidden in the clouds.
We reached the border at 10 AM. Exiting Guatemala was easy, but because of the car permit issues that we had when coming back into Guatemala a few days ago, we decided to test whether this border official would mention to us that we don't HAVE to cancel the car permit ... and yes, he told us that we could simply suspend the car permit and that it would stay active until mid August!
Out of spite, we kept it active, even though we aren't thinking about returning to Guatemala in the next few months.

Once we entered Mexico, we actually had to drive 4 km to reach the immigration and car permit buildings.
We received our entry stamp in our passports: this time we were super careful to check this, as back in January, they "forgot" to give us an entry stamp when we entered Mexico through the Columbia crossing in Laredo).
The car import place; which is called the "Banjercito"; took about an hour. We received our car sticker and were on our way.

We had lunch in a small roadside restaurant (excellent fish soup, even though we're in the mountains) and drove to an area with many lakes, called "Lagunas de Montebello".
We camped at a lakeside hotel: "Eco Tziscao". We parked right at the edge of the lake. $7.69 for the night, including waterfront camping; electricity; hot showers (!) and WiFi.

A chilly 14 C here, thanks to the altitude (1.400 meters) and lots of pine trees. If you would wake up here and think you're in the Seattle area, you wouldn't question it.
Who knew that you could encounter such temperatures in Central America?!
It's all about the altitude ...

Also, when you travel south into Mexico from the US, Mexico looks like a poor country. But, after you've been traveling for a few months in Central America and then you enter Mexico; like we did today from Guatemala; Mexico feels like the civilized world again! Interesting to see how your perspective changes depending on where you're coming from!


Comments

  • My apologies. Pam and Randall. I've posted a few times. We've run into Calvin and LeeAnne at the OverlanderOasis.com outside of Oaxaca and hosted the Kiwi-Panamericana.com on their way north. We are one hour west of Denver. Our first trip south was at ColoradoTallman.Wordpress.com

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May 12 - 16: Guatemala (going North)

Friday May 16: Fuentes Georginas to Huehuetenango, Guatemala

After a morning soak, we left the hot springs and headed northwest. We had breakfast at a roadside vendor in Quetzaltenango (12 Quetzales) and drove the PanAmerican northwest.
The road is in terrible condition here: lots of potholes. Plus, this is a very mountainous area, so you're constantly stuck behind small trucks, whose old diesel engines produce a cloud of black smoke.

We arrived in the town of Huehuetenango around lunch time and asked a local hotel if we could camp there: hotel Fuente Real. 150 Quetzales ($18); toilets; electricity; water; WiFi.
We relaxed at the hotel the rest of the day and walked around in the neighborhood.
We walked into a dirt road to a church in the distance which looked new. When we arrived, a few people came towards us and were incredible friendly and welcoming. They even called the priest to open up the church, so we could have a look inside. They had just built the church and inaugurated it on March 31: they were very proud to show it to us and were very interested to learn where we are from.

Huehuetenango is located next to the highest mountain in Central America: La Torre, at 3.800 meters. We will definitely miss the highlands with its beautiful mountain scenery and cool temperatures as we keep heading north.

Thursday May 15: Antigua to Fuentes Georginas, Guatemala

We said bye to the tourist police and left Antigua early; around 7 AM. We wanted to get going early so we could reach the famous market at Chichicastenango mid Morning.

Chichicastenango is a small village in the highlands famous for its Thursday and Sunday market.
We arrived around 10 AM and found a parking spot close to the center of town where the market is held. Even though the market is basically a giant version of what you see all over the Guatemalan highlands; that is, Mayan women selling colorful, handmade clothing, woodwork and leather goods ...; the atmosphere here is definitely that of a time long ago. As are the prices: for example, we bought 12 peppers for 10c; you wonder how some of these vendors make any money.

The "postcard highlight" of the market is the central church: on the steps, women are selling flowers and by the entrance, religious types are swinging baskets with burning incense.

After about an hour of exploring the market, we drove the PanAmerican (or "Interamericana" as it's sometimes called) to the city of Quetzaltenango.
There, we turned into a very small mountain road for the 8 km (5 mile) drive up to what is described as "Guatemala's prettiest hot springs": Fuentes Georginas.
Getting there proved to be a challenge: the road was steep and narrow. It didn't help that other trucks (mainly farmers) use the same road, so it was occasionally a daunting task to cross each other, especially with the cliffs on one side of the road!

After about 30 minutes of slow driving, we reached the hot springs at the end of the road.
They allow overnight camping so we decided to stay the night; mainly because driving that road once per day is more than enough.
They charged 100Q per person entrance fee (about $12) + 10 Q for camping ($1.25).

Click here for our pictures of Fuentes Georginas hot springs

The hot springs themselves are very pretty and very hot. Definitely the prettiest hot springs we've seen in a long time (perhaps only topped by the Tabacon hot springs in Costa Rica).

We spent the rest of the day soaking in the springs and walking a short trail into the mountains ( which lead to another, small hot springs pool). The hot springs are at an altitude of 2.400 meters, so it got cold at night; perfect temperatures to visit hot springs (especially since we were allowed to use them anytime we desired, as we were camping there).
The very dramatic mountain scenery reminded me of the Swiss Alps: very narrow valleys and steep mountains.

Tuesday and Wednesday May 13 - 14: Antigua, Guatemala

We relaxed in Antigua. As usual, great scenery in the colonial town surrounded by volcanoes.
We ate out in the local market: a full meal, including drinks, for $2 (15 Quetzales) per person!

Monday May 12: Copan Ruins, Honduras to Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala (like Costa Rica) has the following law: when you import your car as a tourist, you receive a 90 day permit. If you leave the country and cancel your car permit before it expires, you cannot re-enter the country with that car for a 90 day period.
Why does this law exist, we have no idea. It's pretty silly if you ask us and no other Central American country besides Guatemala and Costa Rica has a rule like this.

That being said, we left Guatemala at the end of March (on our way South) and canceled our car permit, without knowing this law exists. Of course, no one at the border informed us about this when we left Guatemala and entered El Salvador: they simply took our car permit and sent us on our way into El Salvador.
That meant that legally we were not allowed to re-enter Guatemala until sometime in June, about 40 days from today. Of course, to get back North to the US (where we live), you have to drive through Guatemala; there's no way around it ... (other than shipping your car back, which is costly and time consuming)
And we certainly couldn't wait until late June to return to the US, since we have the 6 month rule on our US Green Cards ...

The border being only a few kilometers west of Copan Ruinas, we arrived at 7:30 AM.
Leaving Honduras was easy: there were no lines and it only took about 20 minutes to get an exit stamp in our passports and to cancel the Honduran car permit.

Then came the difficult part: entering Guatemala.
The immigration officer stamped our passports and sent us on our way to the 'aduana'; the Customs office; for our car import permit. We got there at 8 AM.

The lady looked us up on her computer and told us we could not take our car into Guatemala. End of story. The law is the law.
Then started the process of begging and trying to convince her ("how are we supposed to get back to the US?", "why didn't anyone tell us about this rule when we left Guatemala in March?", etc.).
After a while, a friendly trucker, who had overheard our pleas in bad Spanish, came to our help. He translated for us and tried to convince the lady to allow our car into the country. Good news: she was willing to give us a "transit permit", which would allow us into the country for 24 hours so we could pass through Guatemala and drive straight to Mexico.
Hmmm.. 24 hours to drive through the entire country.. That didn't sound very pleasant nor safe to us: we would have to drive pretty much non-stop, including in the dark (we avoid driving in the dark in Central America because it's hard enough to avoid speed bumps, cows, horses, dogs, ... in daylight).

Finally, after a phone call with her supervisor, she agreed to give us a new 90 day permit!
The final problem was her computer: it wouldn't allow her to register the same car to me, since we were still in the original - canceled - 90 day period.
She couldn't register it to Haichong, since Haichong's name isn't on the car title.
She 'fixed' the issue by adding a space in my passport number ("EI 123456" versus "EI123456"). This way, the computer didn't recognize me so it allowed her to register the car to me.

It was almost 11 AM (3 hours after we arrived at her desk) when she was finished and was ready for the inspection of our truck.
Wait, what is that on your truck? A camper? That needs a separate import permit!
The truck camper is legally not a vehicle: it has no registration, no VIN, no title, no license plate. It's basically something that sits on the truck; much like our clothes, pots and pans and groceries in our fridge. Nevertheless, it needed an import permit (for which we had to pay of course).
We tried to explain it to her ("no other country in Central America has required a separate import permit"), but she was convinced she was right. So, off we went, back to her office to prepare the extra permit.

At this time, we were happy to have the new 90 day car permit and just wanted to get going, so we gave up on arguing with her. At the end of the day, she has the power; there's not much you can do if you want to be allowed access into her country. So now our camper has its own import permit sticker (extra $20).

It was well after 11 AM when we drove into Guatemala.
We ate lunch in a small town along the way and drove all the way into the Guatemalan highlands to reach the town of Antigua again. We camped at the tourist police in the center of town, where we also stayed back in March.
It was 32 C and humid back at the border versus 17 C in Antigua: it feels great!

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May 8 - 11: Honduras (going North)

Sunday May 11: Gracias to Copan Ruins, Honduras

We left Gracias and drove northwest to the town of "Copan Ruinas", situated in Honduras near the border with Guatemala. The town is famous for the Mayan ruins of Copan. The road between Gracias and Copan Ruinas isn't the greatest so it took us about 2 hours to get there. Lots of potholes and sections of dirt road (even though the Lonely Planet describes this road as a good, paved road ... I'm starting to wonder how reliable those guide books are).
Right across from the ruins entrance lives a family who allow overnight camping on their land. We parked our camper here for the night: $7.50; electricity; water; showers; no WiFi.

We visited the Mayan ruins at Copan in the afternoon. After having visited so many ruins on the way down, we weren't expecting much. However, we liked Copan, a lot!

The ruins at Quirigua in Guatemala are a little bit similar, in that both Quirigua and Copan are famous for their stelae. The stelae at Quirigua may be taller than Copan's, but Copan's are definitely more impressive as they are more detailed and carved out of the stone like statues.

Click here for our pictures of the Mayan ruins at Copan

Copan also has a lot of other things to see besides the stelae: a pyramid, a stairway with hieroglyphs and many buildings; several of them partly overgrown with mature trees, which only adds to the mistery and beauty of the place.

Another plus of visiting Copan are the many scarlet macaws that live here. While visiting the ruins, we saw 10-15 macaws: beautiful, colorful, huge birds.

Saturday May 10: Lago de Yojoa to Gracias, Honduras

Before we left the lake this morning, we headed a few kilometers north to the small town of San Buenaventura. Here we visited the very scenic Pulhapanzak falls: very dramatic waterfalls (45 meters high) and well worth the detour!
We drank "jugo de cana" for the first time: fresh sugarcane juice, which is made and sold by people along the road (50c). Not bad: it tastes like brown sugar with some unidentified flavor added in.

We headed southwest to the small town of La Esperanza were we ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. The menu showed $6 for a meal of noodles and shrimp: pretty expensive for rural Honduras we thought. Turns out the meal was meant for 2 people!
And it was a giant amount of food. We ate until we were full and still ate only about half of the food ... for $3 each!

We continued on through the mountains; sometimes on good roads, sometimes on horrible roads, but through beautiful scenery. It's very unexpected for us that Honduras has this much impressive mountain scenery.
This part of the country has a large indigenous population, known as the "Lenca" people. The mountain road here; which connects several small towns; is known as the "Ruta de Lenca". Lots of small villages along the way, but as opposed to Guatemala, even people in the traditional villages in Honduras are not wearing traditional clothing any longer: they are dressed like Americans/Europeans. In Guatemala, even in places like Antigua, you see lots of people wearing colorful, traditional clothes.
Many boys throughout Central America wear soccer shirts. Being this close to the start of the World Cup (Honduras qualified together with Mexico and Costa Rica in this region), I was expecting many Honduras soccer shirts. I've seen maybe 2 or 3. Everyone is wearing either a Barcelona (Messi) or Real Madrid (Ronaldo) shirt!

If you can say one thing about traveling in Central America, it's that it's never boring. It might not alwas be fun, but it's definitely always interesting.
Even when driving for several hours at a time. Some roads between towns are in plain horrible condition: muddy dirt roads with big holes, which allow you to drive 10 km/h. Other roads are in better shape, but to make it interesting, expect a deep pothole once in a while; or a big rock on the road; or a truck driver passing on your lane from the opposite side; or a cow or horse standing right next to (or on) the road; or an ox cart ...

We reached the mountain town of Gracias in early afternoon. We parked our camper for the night at Hotel Finca Bavaria, owned by a German. $7.50 per night; electricity; showers; no WiFi.
The hotel's location is perfect, two blocks away from the central plaza.

Gracias is a nice small town, kind of a "mini Antigua". It's a colonial town with cobblestone streets, several churches and nice, old houses. It takes about an hour of walking around to see most of the town.

Click here for our pictures of Gracias

It's interesting that Gracias; back in the 16th century; used to be the capital of the Spanish' Central America (until Antigua, Guatemala took over at a later time).
We visited the local fort "San Cristobal", which is located on a hill with views of Gracias and also the mountain to the west of Gracias: "El Cerro de las Minas", the highest mountain in Honduras (2.849 m).

Friday May 9: Comayagua to Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

An easy drive this morning brought us from Comayagua to the largest lake in Honduras: Yojoa.
We parked our camper for the night at the Hotel Finca Las Glorias: a big property right next to the lake. $10 per night; electricity; water; showers; WiFi; swimming pool.

We spent the day relaxing on the property: swimming in the pool and walking around exploring the property. The lake has some nice mountains behind it. Lots of birds in and around the lake.
At lunch time, we ate at the restaurant in the hotel. Excellent food: we had the local specialty, lake bass (fish).

Click here for our pictures of Lago de Yojoa

Thursday May 8: Ocotal, Nicaragua to Comayagua, Honduras

Ocotal is only 24 km from the border with Honduras so we arrived there already at 8 AM. One and a half hours later, we were done and on our way into Honduras! No problems at the border; just a lot of paperwork for the car.

The first city you see in Honduras is Danli: cigar capital of Honduras. We passed several cigar factories.
It was time for our car to get an oil change so we did this here. While doing our oil change, the mechanic explained why there is so much violence in Central America. If it wasn't for the drug usage of Americans, there wouldn't be so many gangs down here trying to smuggle the drugs up north. Makes sense ...

The drive from the border to here was beautiful: lots of dramatic mountain scenery. Actually, this is the nicest mountain scenery we've seen on this trip. The border crossing is around 800 meters altitude and we climbed higher until 1400 meters. It was raining around the big city of Tegucigalpa and it was a chilly 18 C!

As we kept going north into Honduras, the roads dropped down to lower elevation and before we knew it, the temperature was around 32 C again.
We reached our stop for the night in early afternoon: a water park in the town of Comayagua, park "Villa Mar". We asked if we could park here for the night which was no problem: $12, including electricity, showers, Wifi and use of the water park (several pools with water slides)!
We spent the rest of the day playing in the water park.


Comments

  • I see that you had thoughts of settling in Colorado. If we can offer you a driveway in the mountains for a few days this summer, please send us an e-mail. Good luck on your return trip.

  • Thanks, that sounds great! However, I don't know who you are, as the comment didn't include your name. :-) Could you let us know? Thanks! Jorn

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May 5 - 7: Nicaragua (going North)

Wednesday May 7: Jinotega to Ocotal, Nicaragua

We were awakened before 6 AM by some people who were admiring our camper. They were standing outside of our window, talking loudly, and even banging a few times on the wall of our camper (as if to test how sturdy it is). Great ... No more sleep, so we got up at 6 AM and left Jinotega around 7 AM.

We headed northwest to another mountain town: Ocotal.

Click here for our pictures of Ocotal

We arrived after a few hours of driving and asked the local Red Cross in Ocotal if we could camp on their property: no problem. Water; electricity; in return for a donation: we donated 100 Cordobas, which is about $4 (which is a little more than what the Red Cross in Granada charged us: 80 Cordobas per night).

We walked into town and had lunch at the municipal market: cheap and good food, $2.50 for a full meal.
In the afternoon, we explored the town, which is known for having "Nicaragua's nicest central park": apparently a former mayor was an avid gardener and he was responsible for creating the central park / plaza, which contains over 100 different tropical plants.
The town looks similar to Jinotega: a small colonial town, surrounded by mountains.

Late afternoon, we relaxed at the camper. It was time to edit some pictures; now all we need is a good WiFi connection to upload them to the site.

Tuesday May 6: Laguna de Apoyo to Jinotega, Nicaragua

On our trip going south, we skipped the Nicaraguan highlands so we now headed that way.
From the Pacific side, we headed north into the central mountain range. We arrived in the small mountain town of Jinotega just before lunch time.
We asked the local police station if we could camp at their station for the night and that was no problem. No fee, no facilities, but very safe indeed!

The police station's location is very good: it's right in town. We walked into the town and had lunch at a local restaurant.
We spent the afternoon exploring the town. It's a colonial town but not at the same level of restoration as others we've visited on this trip.

Click here for our pictures of Jinotega

Very positive is that it's in the mountains, so it's definitely cooler compared to the lowlands on the Pacific side (Granada, Leon, etc.). Also good is that the rain season hasn't started here yet.
The most famous thing to do in Jinotega is the hike up one of the mountains to a big cross ("Cerro La Cruz"). The hike starts behind the cemetery and goes straight up the mountain. We thought it'd be an easy hike, but it turned out to be very tiring! It's about an hour of walking steep uphill until you reach the cross and the viewpoint: great views into the valley where Jinotega is located.
The way back down was easier, but we were very happy to be back in town nonetheless, with trembling legs.

At night, the temperature cooled down even more; very nice.

Monday May 5: La Cruz, Costa Rica to Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua

Today marks the one year anniversary of our road trip! Exactly one year ago, we left Austin, Texas to make our way up to Alaska. Time flies!
Initially, we were thinking: "let's move to Colorado". But wait, now that we have some time, first let's do a road trip up to Alaska.
Then, when we arrived back in the lower 48, we thought: "It's winter and cold in Colorado; let's first do a road trip through Central America". And now we're here in Nicaragua and on our way back up the US. And were it not for the 6 month restriction on our US Green Cards, we would probably be crossing the Darien Gap into South America by now ...

It was a tough decision to leave the Swiss finca this morning: what a great place to stay! We said goodbye to Linda (the sloth) and headed northwest into Nicaragua.
The border crossing took about 1.5 hours; not bad.

In Nicaragua, we filled up on diesel. We actually made it through Costa Rica without getting diesel! We filled up in Panama just before crossing the border into Costa Rica; and now we filled up in Rivas, the first city when coming from Costa Rica, about 20 km into Nicaragua. It's good to have a big fuel tank, since diesel is pretty expensive in Costa Rica compared to other Central American countries. Nicaraguan diesel is a little higher than diesel up in the US: about $4.5 per gallon ($1.2 per liter).
Also in Rivas, we went grocery shopping at the local supermarket (Maxi Pali). Who do we run into in the parking lot? The German couple in their Landrover Defender who were our neighbors for a week when we stayed at the campground in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (back in January 2014)! They were heading south and were going to cross into Costa Rica today to stay at the Swiss finca for a few days ...

We headed further into Nicaragua and slept at a place recommended by the German couple: a private lakefront house on "Laguna de Apoyo", just outside of Granada. The owner (Don Julio) actually allows RVers to camp on his property for $8 per night. No electricity; no WiFi; water; showers.
It took us a while to find the property. Our GPS sent us into a small town (Catarina, one of the "white towns") and then towards the lake on a very small road. As we were driving the small road, the branches and electric cables overhead were getting to be very low. Two locals came running onto the road (one holding a machete) and signaled us to stop. They were very friendly and told us we would never be able to reach the lake by following that road. They opened the gate to their property to allow us to turn around on that very narrow road and pointed us in the right direction.

Click here for our pictures of Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo is a 200 meter deep lake, in an old volcanic crater. We relaxed at the lake the rest of the day. It's great to be able to go swimming to cool off.
This is Nicaragua, so as you're sitting on the lake's rocky beach, you have tourists swimming in the lake on your left and a Nicaraguan mother, in her bra, doing laundry in the lake on your right, with 6 children playing and swimming around her.

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May 1 - 4: Costa Rica (going North)

Saturday and Sunday May 3-4: La Cruz, Costa Rica

We stayed for 2 extra nights at the Swiss finca, in northern Costa Rica.

Click here for our pictures of Canas Castillo

Imagine staying at a place where the temperature is hot but with a light breeze; sloths hanging around in the trees; spider monkeys visiting the trees around your camper several times per day (Sophie went crazy barking at them!); crocodiles swimming in the river in front of the property; lots of colorful birds flying around your camper all day; a huge iguana living in a nearby tree; the sound of howler monkeys coming out of the forest in early morning and early evening; a nearby river where you can go swimming (watch out for those crocodiles though) ... for $10 per night. What more can you ask for?

The Swiss owners are also taking care of an orphaned two toed sloth, which they found at the bottom of a tree in May 2013. They tried to return the baby sloth to its mom in the tree, but it rejected it ... so the Swiss couple is now raising the sloth.
The sloth; named "Linda" (Spanish for "beautiful"); is incredibly cute and fun to pet. We fed it mango pieces and put it in a mango tree for its daily exercise. Obviously, there's no need to put it on any kind of restraint (like a leash) as the chances of it "running" away are nul: it moves very slowly, just like you'd expect a sloth to move.
At one point, the sloth climbed a branch that lead her to the ground. Sloths are not made to walk on the ground and it was laying on the ground rather helplessly. I offered her my arm, to climb up upon, which she did. It was a unique but pretty painful experience, as she hooked her "two toes" on each leg into my arm.
Amazing!


Linda, the sloth, climbing a mango tree

On Sunday, we hiked a trail to the top of one of the surrounding hills for great views. We saw a big tree with a group of howler monkeys in it. The monkeys and Sophie had a contest to find out who could make the most noise.


Spider monkey

Nature is still pretty dry here: rain season is not supposed to start in this area until the end of May; as opposed to central and southern Costa Rica (and Panama) where the rain season has already started.

Friday May 2: Dominical to La Cruz, Costa Rica

In the morning, the flooding had subsided. I immediately tested the generator and it started to work on the first try! We were happy to move on from Dominical ...

We headed northwest on the PanAmerican highway; past the south central mountains / volcanoes, the Orosi valley and Manuel Antonio national park (all of which we visited on a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago); and stopped to watch the crocodiles from the bridge across the rio Tarcoles.

Click here for our pictures of the crocodiles in the Rio Tarcoles

An old guy offered to "watch" our car (i.e. protect) while we were watching the crocodiles, which we gladly refused. Some people think tourists are crazy enough to pay money for anything!

We ate lunch and did some grocery shopping in the city of Liberia and, around 2 PM in the afternoon, arrived at our destination, just outside of the town of La Cruz and about 10 km from the PanAmerican highway on a dirt road: finca "Canas Castillo".
A working farm with some cabanas, operated by a Swiss couple, in the jungle. They allow overlanders (RVers) to stay on their property. $10 per night; electricity; water; showers; slow (but for me, non-working) WiFi.

The rest of the day, we relaxed on the property; which is nicely located next to a big river; and went swimming in the river. We watched spider monkeys swing overhead in the trees and eat mango's.

Our neighbors are other RV travelers who are doing the PanAmerican from north to south, until Argentina: a Swiss couple in a converted Toyota Landcruiser ("bimobil").
Strangely enough, I had met them earlier on our trip up in Death Valley, California last October! When I was staying there on the campground in the northern section of Death Valley national park (California, USA), they stayed there for 1 night. They remembered seeing the Airstream (in which I was traveling at the time) and I remembered seeing their converted Landcruiser. What are the chances!

Thursday May 1: Boquete, Panama to Dominical, Costa Rica

We woke up late with the plan to spend the day in the Boquete area and to visit the hot springs, a few kilometers south of town. As the temperature started rising, we didn't feel like soaking in hot springs, so what to do?
We decided to head for the border!

Boquete and the city of David are near the southern border with Costa Rica (on the Pacific side). We filled up on diesel and arrived at the border at 10 AM. Panama's diesel cost is by far the lowest so far on the trip: $3.75 per gallon = $.98c per liter. Also, our car's engine requires "ultra low sulfur diesel", which is the normal kind of diesel in Europe and in the US. In Central America however, it's almost impossible to find so we just fill up on whatever diesel is available. Except in Panama! Down here, all diesel pumps proudly display the label: "Bajo en azufre", or in English, "low in sulfur". Whether it's "ultra" low in sulfur, I don't know, but it's a start!

We were very pleasantly surprised by how easy this crossing was!
First we got our "salida" (exit) stamps in Panama and canceled our car permit. The customs officer didn't care much about what we had in our fridge (fruits / vegetables / alcohol); he was more interested in our camper: "do you have A/C?", "is that a fridge?", "you have a TV?". RVs are not a common sight in Central America.
Then it was onto Costa Rica. First, our car got fumigated. Then we got our entry stamps in our passports. Even though we told the immigrations officer that we were planning on being in Costa Rica not much longer than a week, he gave us 90 days. Then we got our car import permit reinstated (our car insurance that covers Costa Rica was still valid). Then someone asked about Sophie's permit: we showed him the entry stamp on her paperwork from when we entered Costa Rica a few weeks ago, and he said this was OK and no other stamp was needed.
All in all, we spent about 1.5 hours on the border: amazing.

We drove into Costa Rica following the PanAmerican highway. I'm not sure where Costa Rica spends all of their tourist dollars, but it's definitely NOT on their road system.
Where Panama's PanAmerican higway is mostly a 4 lane highway in decent to excellent condition, Costa Rica's PanAmerican is mostly a very rough 2 lane road.
The road follows the beach, next to the central mountains. Very pretty as the mountains were partially hidden in the clouds.

We arrived in the beach town of Dominical just after lunch time and camped on the beach. Dominical is famous for surfing; swimming is not recommended here. We were a little disappointed by the beach here: it's not very pretty with dark sand, not much privacy (as the beach is in town) and lots of sand flies.
Oh, and the police who were patrolling the beach told us not to leave our camper alone as break-ins are common: great!
Beaches are public property in Costa Rica so we camped on the beach for free. No facilities.

This being the beginning of rain season; again we had very high humidity in late afternoon. We consider ourselves lucky to have the luxury of an AC in our camper so we turned on our generator to be able to run the AC. We went inside and heard it started to rain in the early evening. It quickly flooded our campsite, including the generator! We were inside when the AC stopped working; which is when we looked outside and noticed the flooding. Apparently, we had parked in a lower area as we stepped outside in ankle deep water. The generator was standing in the water which caused it to stop working.
Hopefully we'll be able to leave the beach tomorrow morning without getting stuck in the mud. It's definitely a different experience traveling through these countries once rain season has started!

On a side note: while walking around Dominical and the beach area in the afternoon, we found that "puravida" ("pure life": Costa Rica's marketing slogan) is a popular WiFi password!

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April 19 - 30: Panama

Wednesday April 30: Santa Clara to Boquete, Panama

A long day of driving today, made worse by a late start and a traffic jam along the way.
First of all, we had to wait for the owners of the restaurant to show up in the morning to unlock the gate so that we could drive out. We slept at the same beach front restaurant where we stayed on our way south (in Santa Clara; near Playa Blanca). But (!), this time we only paid $4 per person, as opposed to $5 per person on the way down. Not sure why: pricing in Central America does change depending on who you ask.
We were joined for the night by a retired French couple, on their way south to Argentina.
Secondly, the PanAmerican highway was blocked at Las Lajas for an unknown reason. We stood there in a major traffic jam for 1 1/2 hours and when we could finally continue, we saw no trace of any accident or road work ... strange.
While we were waiting, we met an American who lives in San Antonio, TX but who also owns a home down here in Panama. He loves it here and says many Americans and Canadians are moving down to Panama once they're retired.

We finally arrived in the city of David; in western Panama; by late afternoon and stocked up on groceries, since we're planning on crossing into Costa Rica and groceries are much more expensive in Costa Rica compared to other Central American countries.
We drove north into the mountains to spend the night in the cooler climate of Boquete. We stayed for free next to the river north of town; the same spot where we stayed on our way south.

Tuesday April 29: Soberania national park to Santa Clara, Panama: THE DRIVE BACK TO THE US

This morning, we continued our exploration of Soberania national park. We drove the small road to Gamboa, next to the Panama Canal, where we walked around along the "pipeline road" in the national park. We heard howler monkeys and saw many colorful birds (unfortunately, I'm not an expert on recognizing birds).
Many other tourists here during the early morning hours, exploring along the pipeline road with powerful binoculars and long lenses; although it wasn't as "bad" compared to the number of big camera lenses seen along the roads at the Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuge up in New Mexico in peak birding season.

Afterwards, we drove south next to the Panama Canal and headed for the Canal's visitor center at the Miraflores locks.


A boat passing through the Miraflores locks in the Panama Canal

Since the canal passes through the central highlands of Panama, the water level inland is higher than at the sea level (at the Carribean and Pacific sides of the canal). To resolve this issue, whilst building the canal, they installed 3 sets of locks, which lift / lower the ships up / down to a different water level. The Miraflores locks are the easiest to visit and the visitor center here also contains a museum.

During our visit, a big tanker ship passed through the locks: interesting to observe as it was raised in the locks, on its way to the Carribean Ocean.
We also visited the museum, which is an interesting place to learn about the history of the canal. Originally, attempted to be built by the French (1880s); they failed, after which the Americans took over the construction of the canal and finished it in 1914. In return, the US controlled the canal and its surrounding lands. Finally, in 1999, the Americans handed over control of the canal to Panama (and they are actually doing better at managing the canal than the Americans ever were able to do; go figure).
In 2002, Panama changed the pricing structure. Ships that wish to sail through the canal pay an average of $300,000! Amazing.

In the afternoon, we started the long drive back to the USA ... we have reached the furthest point of our road trip, so we are now officially on our way back up to the US!
It has taken us 102 days to drive from the Columbia border crossing in Texas >> Mexico >> Belize >> Guatemala >> El Salvador >> Honduras >> Nicaragua >> Costa Rica >> Panama.
We will try to follow a different route as opposed to the one we followed on our way down here; as much as possible. On the preliminary agenda are to explore Honduras (we largely skipped it on the way down), the highlands of Nicaragua (we largely stuck to the Pacific lowlands on the way down), the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (we explored the central highlands and the Carribean coast on the way down) and the west coast of Mexico (we traveled down mainly via the central highlands, the east coast and the Yucatan).

Sometime in the future, when we don't have time limitations because of our green cards (max. 6 consecutive months out of the US), we will hopefully be able to explore South America during a separate trip.
Out of curiosity, I already asked a shipping quote to ship our car (RoRo on a cargo boat) from the US mainland (Florida) down to Cartagena (Colombia); so that we don't have to drive through Central America again to reach South America.
Remember that, to ship our car across the Darien Gap from Colon (Panama) to Cartagena (Colombia), we were quoted $1,700 by SC Line. Since there is no road (Darien Gap), I assumed shipping companies take advantage of travelers, hence the steep cost of $1,700 for a short trip.
Turns out I was right ... we were quoted only $1,400 to ship all the way from Florida to Colombia!!

Monday April 28: El Valle to Panama City / Soberania national park, Panama

We left El Valle de Anton this morning and headed into Panama City: the capital of Panama, situated on the Pacific ocean.
Right before you enter the city, you cross a high bridge over the Panama Canal. It's no more than a big river/canal, but since you've known it since childhood, it's nice to actually see it in real life.

Hard to believe your eyes when you drive into the city itself: it looks more modern than most U.S. cities! Nice, big roads; modern skyscrapers ... a big difference with what we've seen these past 3.5 months. Of course, on the outskirts of town are lots of slums and rundown apartment buildings with trash everywhere on the streets, but the center of town is clean and expensive looking.
We walked around in the city for a while and then headed north towards the city of Colon, situated on the Carribean ocean. This is actually the narrowest area of Panama and in fact Central America (it's called the "isthmus" between Panama City and Colon), hence the main reason why they decided to build the Panama Canal here.

The entire area surrounding the canal (the "canal zone") from Panama City to Colon, is federally protected to insure proper water drainage into the canal. About halfway up to Colon, next to the canal, we camped in Soberania national park. Free; no facilities.

Click here for our pictures of Panama City

This national park is supposedly one of the premier destination in the world for birders because of the variety of birds found here.
We walked the "plantation trail" into the jungle for 4 km and saw lots of wildlife: a group of white faced capuchin monkeys, a group of howler monkeys, 2 coatimundi's and the small rodent looking animal (it looks like a giant hamster) of which I don't know the name.

Sunday April 27: El Valle, Panama

We got up early and headed for the biggest waterfall in the area: Chorro El Macho. There's a very short trail just northeast of town that leads to the waterfall. It's a nice waterfall but not that impressive; especially compared to ones we've already seen on this trip like the one in Rincon de la Vieja, Costa Rica or the one in Boquete, Panama.

Afterwards, we headed for the local natural hot springs. For only $3 per person, you get to experience a mud facial mask (the soil and water are rich in minerals, especially iron) followed by a soak in the hot springs. Very nice and very quiet.

Before heading back to town, we visited the other waterfalls in the area: Chorro de las Mozas. These are even less impressive than El Macho so we wouldn't recommend them. However, the road that goes up to the crater rim next to these waterfalls is definitely recommended.
I didn't think we would get to drive a steep road like the one going down to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan, but this one here feels even steeper! It brings you all the way up to the crater rim, from where you have amazing views into the crater and town, as well as amazing views down the mountains towards the Pacific Ocean.

Click here for our pictures of El Valle

We headed back to the fire station in town at lunch time and parked there for another night.
In the afternoon, we walked back into town to buy some groceries at the market and fresh bread at the panaderia (bakery). We watched a soccer game that was going on: very nice to watch and a unique experience, with the surrounding mountain scenery and local passionate fans.

We had another rain storm in the afternoon. It's very similar to Florida's weather in Summer: hot mornings which eventually result in pouring rain in the afternoon, after which the temperature is cooler and it's more pleasant to be outside.

Saturday April 26: Santa Clara to El Valle, Panama

We woke up in 29 C and extremely humid weather. Add to that several bug bites (sand fleas) from staying on the beach: time to head into the mountains again!
Luckily for us, the mountain town of El Valle was only about 1 hour inland. We arrived in El Valle around 9:30 AM and asked the local fire station ("bomberos") if we could camp next to their station. No problem. No fee. No facilities.

After lunch, we explored the town. The fire station's location is very good as it is walking distance to town, yet it's on a quiet side road.

El Valle de Anton has great mountain scenery with lush mountain tops wrapped in clouds. It's actually located in the crater of an extinct volcano: the crater is 5 km across. A jungle like environment with lots of colorful birds including many hummingbirds.

That afternoon, as we were checking our emails in the local internet cafe in the afternoon, dark clouds moved over the town and it started pouring! The pouring rain lasted several hours; so much so that some streets were starting to flood. The weather forecast for the next week doesn't predict much sunshine; in almost all of Central America. I guess rain season really does start around mid April in Central America. Hopefully, on our way back up north, we'll still have some decent weather.
In the middle of the pouring rain, we headed back to our campsite as we were parked in the fire station's grassy back yard. This of course had turned into a small lake by the time we got back. Fortunately, I was able to move the car (in Low 4WD) onto a more solid surface without getting stuck.
Once the rain stopped, we continued our exploration of the town with its market: lots of "Panama hats" for sale!
Panama hats are made in the nearby town of Penonome, but actually, the original "Panama hat" comes from Ecuador.

Friday April 25: Las Lajas to Santa Clara, Panama

We drove east on the PanAmerican higway this morning. The goal was to reach the small mountain town of Santa Fe, but when we got to the turn-off, we decided to skip Santa Fe. The mountain road going to the small town would take around 2 hours to drive (from the intersection with the PanAmerican highway) so that's too far for a quick visit, especially since we would need to take the same 2 hour road back down after the visit ...

Shortly after continuing the drive east on the PanAmerican highway, we were stopped by the police: speeding! The speed limit was 80 km/h but I was driving 102 km/h. He walked over to the car and asked to see my driver's license. The $100 ticket, he informed us, would have to be paid in Panama City.
He didn't write the ticket however, so we were confused. What's going on?

We quickly realized that he was trying to get a cash bribe from us so we played dumb and told him we hardly spoke any Spanish (which is actually kinda true).
The officer walked back to his motorcycle and returned with an English-Spanish dictionary!

He started pointing at English words in his dictionary like "opportunity", "50" ... He wanted $50 to 'forget' about our ticket.
We still played dumb and asked where to pay for the ticket and if he could drive with us to the police station. He ignored this and then pointed to "40": the amount was going down!
After playing dumb for another 10 minutes, he opened his dictionary and pointed to the word "jugo": juice. Haichong got out of the car; went inside our camper; took out a small carton of apple juice; handed it to the officer; he smiled and said we were free to go.
True story!

We turned off the PanAmerican highway a few hours later and camped at a restaurant on the beach in Santa Clara; next to Playa Blanca. $10 for the night; electricity; water; showers; no WiFi.
We spent the rest of the day walking on the beach. Based on the Lonely Planet's description, we were expecting a "sparkling white beach". Unless they are color blind, it's far from white.
As opposed to the beach in Las Lajas, this beach is also definitely developed! A very different (i.e. less nice) experience compared to staying on an empty beach like Las Lajas. Lots of million dollar beach front homes here and a very fancy highrise hotel: we must be getting close to Panama City.

Thursday April 24: Boquete to Las Lajas, Panama

After doing some grocery shopping in town, we left Boquete via the amazing 4 lane highway that runs down the mountain to the city of David.

After spending a few days in the mountain scenery, we headed to the beach: an hour east of David is the Pacific beach area called "Las Lajas".
This being a week day, the place was almost deserted. We asked a restaurant with cabanas if we could stay, which was OK. $6 for beachfront camping in between the cabana's (with our electrical cord hooked up inside one of the empty cabana's); water; cold showers; no WiFi.

We were as good as the only people on the beach. It's a very pretty beach as there is hardly any development: the beach is bordered by the jungle and rows of palm trees. We spent the rest of the day walking on the beach, swimming and relaxing.

Click here for our pictures of Las Layas

Wednesday April 23: Boquete, Panama

We left pension Topas this morning and drove into the mountains northwest of Boquete. A small road loops around to the start of some hiking trails.
We hiked the "pipeline trail": a 1 hour hike that goes through the jungle to a beautiful waterfall.


Boquete's waterfall at the end of the Pipeline trail

On the way back down, we saw a quetzal! It was a female bird, we think (the males are supposed to be even prettier).


Quetzal bird

We decided to stay again in Boquete for the night and found a camping spot near a small mountain river north of town (free; no facilities).
Not the cleanest spot to stay (some locals apparently have decided that this is their private garbage dump), but very quiet at night; cool temperatures and scenic next to the river.

Tuesday April 22: Boquete, Panama

Relaxing day in Boquete.

Click here for our pictures of Boquete

We did laundry in town. It was high time: the previous time we did laundry was in Granada (Nicaragua) and before that in Antigua (Guatemala).

When we entered Central America back in January, our plan was to drive until Panama and then turn back (and drive back to the US by following a different route).
Now that we've gotten to Panama, it's tempting however to throw that plan out of the window and keep on going south to Argentina ...
So, we've been getting some shipping quotes and have been looking at our savings account to see if we can make it happen.

The big expense is definitely shipping our car between Panama and Colombia and then from Argentina (or another country down there) back to the US.
You see, the PanAmerican highway that goes from Alaska down to Argentina doesn't actually exist all the way. Between Panama and Colombia, in the Darien province of Panama, they never finished the road. This 'gap' is known as the Darien Gap. The only way to get into Colombia from Panama is to ship your car on a cargo boat. There's been some rumors about a ferry boat that connects Panama with Colombia, but as of today, it still isn't in operation (apparently it's having problems getting permits from Colombia).

So, what do we do? Do we turn back to the US or do we continue into South America?

So, long story short:
to travel in South America for 5-6 months (otherwise we'll stand to lose our green cards) and pay almost $14000 to ship our car back and forth (including plane tickets) and maybe not have enough time to see all the sights ... doesn't seem worth the trouble. It's best if we return to the US and plan to spend a year sometime in the future down in South America.
Although it's still tempting to do it now ... ;-)

Monday April 21: Puerto Amirante to Boquete, Panama

We left the Caribbean Ocean this morning in the rain and headed south; across the central mountains/volcanoes; towards the Pacific Ocean. About halfway, as we crossed over the highest mountains, the rain stopped. Looking at the landscape on both sides of the mountains, the Caribbean side is definitely a lot wetter!

It took us about 2.5 hours total to reach the mountain town (or should I say 'tourist town') of Boquete. We asked a hotel in town if we could camp there, which was OK: "Pension Topas", owned by a German. We're paying $12 per night; WiFi; water; electricity; showers; central and quiet location in town.

In the afternoon, we explored the town. As can be expected, many tourists here.
Also, many 'missing' posters for the 2 Dutch girls who recently disappeared while staying in Boquete. Three weeks later they are still not found.

So far, we love Boquete, if not for the climate alone. Both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts had temperatures around 32 C (90 F) when we were there earlier today. In Boquete on the other hand; the town being high in the mountains; it was 22 C (71 F) this afternoon and 18 C (67 F) at night.
Boquete has lots of coffee plantations and is known as the "valley of the flowers". We are definitely visiting at the right time of year: there's flowers blooming everywhere!

Sunday April 20: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Right in front of the coast at Puerto Amirante are the islands known as "Bocas del Toro". Supposedly they are Panama's number one tourist destination/attraction, so we decided to take a day trip out to the islands today.

We took a water taxi ($12 each; 20 minutes) to the biggest island: Isla Colon. This island has the biggest town which is also the provincial capital; Bocas del Toro; where the water taxi dropped us off.
The water taxi ride is nice as you go past other small islands and the ocean water is so clear you can see the ocean floor in some places.


Water taxi ride to Bocas del Toro

The town was originally built by the United Fruit Company (early 20th century) but today it is 100% a tourist town. Lots of hotels, restaurants and tour companies.
We spent the day exploring the town. It looks like a typical carribean town, situated on the waterfront. Many tourists here, including many yachts anchored around the islands.

In the afternoon, we took a water taxi back to the mainland. It was quite busy to get back, as today is the final day of the Semanta Santa week and it looked like half of the island was trying to leave!

We spent another night parked at the fire station in Puerto Amirante. Luckily we had electrical hookups so we could use our airconditioning. I admit: it's definitely a luxury item to have whilst camping, but it sure feels nice to turn it on, especially in a hot and humid climate ...

Saturday April 19: Punta Uva, Costa Rica to Puerto Amirante, Panama

We decided to leave the beach this morning and cross the nearby border into Panama today. Since it's still "Semana Santa", we hoped the border crossing would be less busy.
It took us about an hour to exit Costa Rica (there was a pretty long line to get your passports stamped).

It took us 3 hours to enter Panama, which was partly our own fault ...
Entering Panama pretty much follows the same routine as entering other Central American countries does: first you drive through a car wash looking thing which 'fumigates' your car (=kills the insects on the car); then you go to "migracion" to get your passport stamped; then "seguros" to purchase car insurance; then "aduana" for your car import papers and finally the agricultural office for Sophie's papers.

Well, the lady at the car insurance office typed an error on our paperwork, which we didn't notice but which was caught at customs ("aduana"); which meant we had to go back to the car insurance office for a correction ... where it not that the lady had already left for lunch by then. Hence, 3 hours total to enter Panama which should have otherwise only taken us about 1 - 1.5 hours.

Haichong did have some trouble getting Sophie's paperwork. When she paid for the dog permit ($16), the customs officer didn't give her enough change (he was $4 short). When she complained, he started making some unnecessary copies which he then claimed cost $4! Haichong complained to another official and a military guy and all was handled promptly. They didn't like the bribe/swindling attempt anymore than Haichong did.

All in all, the border crossing was pretty relaxed. No 'helpers' here, only young children offering to 'watch your car' while you got your paperwork processed. Sounds a bit like mob practices: you pay me to watch your car and make sure nothing bad happens to it while you're gone. What happens if you don't pay? (which we didn't by the way)

We ate local food at a nearby town, did some grocery shopping and filled up our gas tank. Panama is a lot cheaper compared to Costa Rica. We each paid $3 for a lunch plate; $0.6c for a large drink in a restaurant.
Diesel costs $3.75 per gallon here which is the lowest we paid so far on this trip through Central America.

In the afternoon, we pulled into the town of Puerto Amirante and camped at the local fire station ($5; water; electricity; cold shower).
We're sleeping next to the Chiquita shipping harbor, where trucks arrive filled with banana's. Today, we drove through many banana plantations.


A Chiquita cargo ship in the Puerto Amirante harbor

We spoke to a local police officer and an American who lives here (Jehovah's witness). Apparently, locals here make about $1 per hour ...
It's no wonder that most people here live in houses without windows; built out of wooden planks; with trash everywhere ... a BIG difference with the standard of living in Costa Rica (which is closer to the USA and European standard of living).

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April 11 - 19: Costa Rica

Friday April 18: Punta Uva, Costa Rica

We spent the day relaxing on the beach. Again lots of day tourists, but at night you're all alone.
There's some snorkeling on the Punta Uva beaches closer to town, but it's not that great as the coral reefs here are not protected and have been trampled by swimmers.

On our evening walk with Sophie, we saw a sloth walking up a tree (Sophie was barking like crazy).

Thursday April 17: Heliconia Island to Punta Uva, Costa Rica

Down in Costa Rica, the rain season has already started. We can verify that this is the case: on our trip so far, we've only had rain maybe once or twice (in over 3 months!), but here in Costa Rica, we've had some rain almost every day.
Not too bad though: mostly some light rain in late afternoon, which helps cool down the temperature.

Before leaving Heliconia Island this morning, we walked around the island again in the hopes of finding one of Costa Rica's most famous animals, a poison-dart frog.
These frogs are tiny; about 2 cm in size; and their skin has poison (so you need to wash your hands in case you touch them).

The hotel's owner; Carolien; told us these frogs live all around these areas in Costa Rica and she sees them frequently. However, after searching and searching through the plants, we couldn't find any ...
Carolien told us she could hear them and helped us in the search. After a few minutes of searching (I guess she knows where to look), she found two! They are amazing little animals: very small frogs, with a red body and blue legs. Carolien fittingly calls them "blue jeans frogs". I was able to take a few pictures of the frogs before they disappeared.

We finally left the island around 9 AM and headed towards the Carribean coast. We passed the small town of Puerto Viejo; in the southeast corner of Costa Rica; and camped on the beach at Punta Uva.
The beaches here range from black (volcanic) sand to grey sand. Punta Uva supposedly has the nicest beaches of the area so we camped here for a few days, for free right on the beach (no facilities).
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the beaches. Lots of Costa Rican tourists here at this time, as it's still "Semana Santa" (holy week).

Wednesday April 16: Arenal to Heliconia Island, Costa Rica

We left Arenal this morning on our way to the Carribean coast. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see the Arenal volcano erupt.
The road passes through the central mountains and is very hilly, but surprisingly in great condition. We expected to have to go south into the capital; San Jose; and then east via the recently built highway that passes through Braulio Carrilio national park, but luckily, we could avoid San Jose all together by taking the road north of the city.
On our last trip to Costa Rica several years ago, we drove through San Jose at night and it wasn't something we wanted to repeat! San Jose is a typical Central American city, which to us means that there's not much to see or do, and very confusing roads (no street signs; no big highways to avoid having to drive through the city center).

Around lunch time, as Haichong was driving, I was reading the Lonely Planet and read that a Dutch couple ownes a hotel in the mountain area we were driving through. We stopped and asked if it was OK to park our camper there for the night, which was no problem: "Heliconia Island", an island formed by 2 rivers circling the hotel.

The Lonely Planet describes the island as "Costa Rica's most beautiful garden". The island is manicured by the Dutch owners and their gardener, and they have trails going through the gardens of tropical plants.
They charge $10 per person to explore the gardens, so we paid $20 for the two of us, which included our overnight camping spot (no facilities).

Click here for our pictures of Heliconia Island

On our walk around the island, we saw a sloth ("luiaard") sleeping up in a tree and we heard many howler monkeys across the river. On our evening walk with Sophie, we saw an oppossum.

Monday April 14 - Tuesday April 15: Volcano Arenal / La Fortuna, Costa Rica

We slept in on Monday morning (8:30 AM!) and were awakened by national park personnel: we had to move our 'big car' as the parking lot was already filling up! It is "semana santa" after all and almost everyone in Central America is on vacation and taking day trips.
We got ready quickly and drove a dirt road through pretty rolling hills and lots of "finca's" (farms). We arrived in La Fortuna an hour or two later and checked into a real campground: "thermales Los Laureles". This area, next to an active volcano (Arenal), is famous for the volcano and for its many hot springs (there's many hotel / resorts around here).

It's been a while since we've been to an actual campground. Lots of Costa Ricans are camping here in tents during semana santa.
They charge $8 per night, which includes water; showers; electricity (if you park close to the central building) and WiFi (if you park close enough to the hot springs next door). The hot springs next door (thermales) aren't included in the camping price: they charge $12 per person extra.
A great place to stay with beautiful view towards volcano Arenal, a few kilometers to the southwest.

On Tuesday, we relaxed at the campground and hiked around in the area. Great views of the volcano even though the top is mostly hidden in the clouds. Moisture from the Carribean ocean is responsible for that; the Pacific side of the central mountain range has much less cloud cover.

Sunday April 13: Volcano Tenorio national park, Costa Rica

We drove the PanAmerican highway into the city of Liberia this morning and stocked up on groceries. Sticker shock!
We had heard that Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America and after shopping for groceries, there is no question about it. For example, four small bottles of sparkling water: $8; one can of Coca-Cola: $1.25. Both purchased at a big supermarket.
Compared to the previous 3 months of buying products in Nicaragua, El Salvador or Guatemala, this is a BIG difference.

On the other hand, you do notice the difference between Costa Rica and the other Central American countries.
When you drive through Costa Rica, you notice how clean and beautiful the country is. No trash along the roads as you see around towns in other Central American countries; the houses are in much nicer condition; the scenery in general is more beautiful with lots of mountains and green hillsides. And, of course, lots of gringo's (Americans and other tourists) here which no doubt drives up pricing.

After grocery shopping, we drove up into the central 'cordillera' (mountain range) again and took a (bad) dirt road to Volcano Tenorio national park.

We again camped on the parking area of the national park. The national parks charge a $20 entry fee but they do allow you to camp for free (no facilities).

We hiked the 3 km trail to a waterfall. This part of the river that flows through here; the 'rio Celeste'; is famous for its blue water created by minerals dissolved in the water. Amazing how blue the water is at the waterfall.

Click here for our pictures of Volcan Tenorio

Saturday April 12: Rincon de la Vieja national park, Costa Rica

We got up early and drove the dirt road to the national park. Rincon de la Vieja contains several volcanoes. National parks in Costa Rica don't allow dogs, but luckily the big parking lot is outside of the park so Sophie could wait for us in the camper in the parking area.

This park is famous as a 'mini-Yellowstone': it contains geothermal features (hot springs, bubbling mud pots and fumaroles; no geysers). As we've seen geothermal features before (in Yellowstone NP, Lassen NP), we decided to skip that section and instead take the trail to the highest waterfall in the park: "catarata la Cangreja".

Click here for our pictures of Rincon de la Vieja

A 10 km hike into the mountains through forests with great views along the way. The waterfall itself makes the hike worthwhile: a high vertical waterfall coming down from the cliffs, in a jungle area. Beautiful!
We went swimming and you can climb the rocks to stand under the waterfall. Highly recommended.
During the hike to and from the falls, we saw several small animals (looking like giant cavia's).

Once we got back to the parking lot in the afternoon, we asked the park ranger if we could spend the night there which was no problem. Around 4:30 PM the national park closes, after which you're all alone. Very quiet and safe in the middle of nature.

Friday April 11: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua to Rincon de la Vieja national park, Costa Rica

After 2 days on the beach, it was time to move on. (not really, but we want to keep moving as there's more to come)
We drove the dirt road back into San Juan del Sur and then headed southeast on the PanAmerican highway to the border.

We arrived at the border around 10:30 AM and left the area at 3 PM ...
It took 2 hours just to go through the formalities needed to exit Nicaragua; then an hour wait until the car insurance lady returned from her lunch (on the Costa Rican side); and then several more steps to bring our car into Costa Rica.
Have I mentioned before that we are not big fans of the border crossings between these countries?

We headed into Costa Rica and had a choice to make where to go. The country has the Pacific coast on the left; the string of mountains/volcanoes in the middle; and the Carribean coast on the right).
We have visited Costa Rica before on a trip a few years ago, during which we drove around the country and saw most of the highlights (volcano Arenal, Santa Elena / Monteverde Cloud Forest, Manuel Antonio NP, Carrara NP, Orosi valley, volcano Irazu, ...). On this current trip, we're planning to see the interesting things that we missed.

As we've been to several beaches in Costa Rica on the earlier trip, we headed into the central mountains. First stop: Rincon de la Vieja national park. We drove into the mountains and slept at a B&B (supposedly owned by a Belgian lady!) called "Arome de campo". They allow camping but charge the rather hefty fee of $20 per night (no electricity or water; WiFi available when you walk up the hill to the B&B). It was getting dark so we didn't have another option but to stay here for the night.

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April 4 - 11: Nicaragua

Thursday April 10: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Relaxing day at the beach. The beach has great volcanic rocks.
Every morning and evening, howler monkeys come to the camping area.

Click here for our pictures of San Juan del Sur

We're trying to figure out: stay here or go? Starting this Saturday, Central American countries celebrate "Semana Santa": "Easter week". It's an entire week where (almost) everyone gets off work and heads either to a town/city to take part in the church services, processions ... or, the non-religious head to the beach to party. In other words, almost all of the places we would be interested in visiting, will be very busy. Not sure if we want to stay here on the beach and wait it out ... or head into Costa Rica and continue the trip.

Some downtime so here are the Google Maps of our trip so far:


Part 1: Texas > Mexico > Belize


Part 2: Belize > Guatemala > El Salvador > Honduras > Nicaragua

Wednesday April 9: Volcano Masaya to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

This morning at sunrise, we thought we heard a "coughing" sound coming out of the forest. Turns out it was a group of capuchin (white-faced) monkeys coming to say 'hi' as they were swinging around in the trees around our camper!

Click here for our pictures of Masaya national park

We left the national park around 8 AM and drove through the "pueblos blancos" (white towns). In the old town of Catarina we went to the viewpoint (mirador) to see the "Laguna apoyo": a big lake with the city of Granada in the background.

Afterwards, we drove the PanAmerican highway southeast towards the ocean town of San Juan del Sur.
To be in a quieter location (after all, there was a huge cruise ship docked in the harbor of San Juan del Sur), we camped a few miles northwest of the town in what looks like a surf camp: lots of young Americans staying here in tents or in the hostel.
Good location to camp: oceanfront with a great breeze; and nice (almost) deserted beaches to explore on foot.

As we are making our way through Nicaragua, there is the ever returning dilemma: what do you see and what do you skip?
When you visit just Nicaragua, you would probably make a different to-do list then when you're traveling through so many countries on 1 trip like we are.
After all, how many volcanoes can you visit? How many crater lakes or lagoons can you go see? How many beaches?
As opposed to having 1 guide book per country (like we do: we carry all the Lonely Planet books for these countries with that specific country's highlights listed), it would definitely be more convenient to have 1 guide book that covers this entire area and, independent of 'borders' between countries, would simply list 'the nicest volcanoes', 'the nicest beaches', ... for ALL of Central America.
For example, are Granada and other colonial towns throughout Central America worth a lot of your time if you've already spent weeks exploring Antigua (Guatemala) and San Miguel (Mexico)?
Are Isla de Ometepe and other waterfront volcanoes worth a lot of your time, or a big detour, if you've spent a long time at Lake Atitlan (Guatemala) and get to see so many different shaped volcanoes as you drive anyway?

On the other hand, no two places are the same and each place has something unique to see.
And there's our dilemma ... and to add to this: rain season is starting in May so that definitely adds some pressure to get south in time.

Tuesday April 8: Granada to Volcano Masaya, Nicaragua

On Tuesday, we explored the rest of the colonial town, situated next to the huge Lake Nicaragua. The town itself is pretty big but the old (restored) colonial center isn't that big so you can see most of it in a few hours of walking.

The town itself reminded us of San Miguel (Mexico) and Antigua (Guatemala): nicely restored colonial towns filled with old churches, squares and small streets. Like Antigua, Granada has several volcanoes in the vicinity and visible from town.
Both San Miguel and Antigua have a great advantage over Granada however: their altitude and cool mountain air. Granada sits at 40m; almost sea level; and is hot. The breeze from Lake Nicaragua does provide some (much needed) relief.
When you travel though Central America this time of year, you can count on hot weater; unless if you can escape up to higher elevations (like up a volcano or into the highlands with its cloud forests).

Click here for our pictures of Granada

After visiting Granada, we left the town in the middle of the afternoon and headed 30 minutes outside of Granada into "Volcano Masaya national park".
This is an active volcano with a constant stream of gases escaping from the crater, which last erupted in 2001.

We drove up to the crater rim and hiked around there. The crater gases are toxic and you definitely feel it on your breath if the wind brings them to you for too long.
From the crater rim, you have a good view into the crater and onto the surrounding scenery; including another (dormant) volcano.
We stayed at the crater rim until sunset. The reason being that at sunset, the inhabitants of the crater walls return to their homes (=holes in the volcano's crater walls): "chocoyos" or green parakeets live in the crater walls, seemingly unharmed by the toxic gases. We saw several groups of parakeets fly into the crater from the surrounding forest.

The national park allows overnight camping at the visitor's center parking lot so we drove down there after sunset. We were joined by another couple from France in their RV. No facilities here ($8 entrance fee + $4 camping fee; no water; no electricity; no showers; no WiFi).

Monday, April 7: Granada, Nicaragua

On Monday, both of us had stomach aches so we took it easy today. We hung around the campsite and did laundry.

Sunday, April 6: Las Penitas to Granada, Nicaragua

We left the beach this morning and headed towards Central America's oldest (European) city: Granada, founded by the Spaniards in 1524 (by Francisco Cordoba, who gave his name to the Nicaraguan currency: the Cordoba).
The Red Cross in Granada allows camping on their grounds so we camped here for a few nights: they first charged us 50 Cordobas per night ($2); then said it was $80 because our Dodge truck is big; then charged an extra 100 Cordobas ($4) to hookup to electricity. This isn't the first time on this trip that we noticed that prices change depending on who you ask. And even after you pay, pricing is still prone to changes!
Besides us, there was one German couple (on their way south to Argentina) camping here: Click here for their website. Even though their camper was about our size; they're driving a Landrover with slide-in truck camper similar to ours; they paid 50 Cordobas. Go figure ... However, at least it's going to a good cause here (the Red Cross).

The Red Cross campground's location is great: 10 minutes away from the Central Park and only a few minutes away from the lake.

In the afternoon, we walked to Lake Nicaragua, located 200m from the Red Cross campground.
Too bad there's no swimming here. The beach (in the city!) is used by cows and horses as a pasture.

Saturday, April 5: Las Penitas, Nicaragua

We spent the entire day on the beach, walking and swimming. At night, we had the local specialty ("plato tipico") of fried fish.

In the morning, a TV crew from Nicaragua's Channel 8 was walking around on the beach and they asked us to say a few things for the camera like "Channel 8 is Nicaragua's best TV station". In return, we received a Channel 8 beach towel! Unfortunately, we didn't get to see whether we made it onto the TV; they said they would air our recording in the evening but we didn't have access to a TV.

Friday, April 4: Choluteca, Honduras to Las Penitas, Nicaragua

We filled up the water tank this morning and continued our drive through Honduras.
As usual, the GPS expected a quick trip into Nicaragua, however, in reality it takes much longer than expected. Many animals on the road (cows, horses, dogs, ...) including carts pulled by a donkey or an ox. Add to that the questionable condition of the PanAmerican highway (as the driver, you get to play the game of avoiding deep potholes at high speeds) and it's easy to understand that your trip will take considerably longer.

Before driving through Honduras, we had heard of other overlanders encountering many checkpoints in Honduras. We only saw one and were waived through.

We reached the Nicaraguan border at 10 AM. Leaving Honduras at this border is easy: all offices (immigration; car and Sophie) are in one building; how convenient. I wish other borders in Central America would learn a lesson or two from this crossing.
So far, crossing the many borders has definitely been the least pleasant aspect of the trip. Two hours minimum at every border; dealing with the many helpers; money changers; etc. You really gain a new appreciation for the ease of travel you encounter in Europe or the US.

Then, into Nicaragua. We got our passports stamped; the car import and Sophie's papers filled out; and we bought car insurance at the border from a lady who was sitting at a small desk, located outside, next to the parking lot ($12 for 1 month; we gave her 100 Guatemalan Quetzales which she accepted).

We headed into Nicaragua on the PanAmerican highway (CA-3). Before reaching the colonial town of Leon, we found a Tropigas to fill our empty propane tank and filled our RV with groceries, and then headed towards the beach near Leon: the small beach town of Las Penitas, where we asked the "Playa Roca Hotel" if we could camp there. That was no problem for $9 per night (weak electricity; water; cold showers; WiFi).
The hotel is beachfront. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Nicaragua's Pacific beaches are famous for surfing, so the waves here are pretty powerful for swimming.
It's nice to be at the ocean again. These are our first beaches on the Pacific side since we crossed into Mexico on this trip in January. No white sands (yet?) but dark grey, due to the lava rocks and volcanoes in the area.


Comments

  • Wonderful! So no diesel problems, what about grey and black water disposal? Glad to hear you found the cure to the skunk odor. Randall

  • The last time we found a dump station for grey and black water was at the campground in Guatemala City. They're few and far between south of Mexico. Jorn

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April 3: Honduras

Thursday, April 3: Alegria, El Salvador to Choluteca, Honduras

We left the volcanic crater this morning, thinking to stop for the night in the southeastern town of San Miguel (El Salvador). However, we arrived in San Miguel at 9:30 AM already, so we decided to keep on going ... into Honduras.

We arrived at the border crossing El Amatillo (along the PanAmerican highway) at 11 AM.
Upon arriving, you are literally swarmed with 'helpers': grown men here (in the past, it's usually been children in our experience) who want to assist you in crossing the border in exchange for a small fee. We were able to say 'no' repeatedly and they finally backed off.
First we canceled the El Salvador car import papers; went through El Salvador immigration and the agricultural office to put a stamp on Sophie's papers.

Then, the Honduras border. Here we did enlist a helper ($10), as we read that especially the office for Sophie's papers can be hard to find. And it is!
We got our passports stamped and had the car paperwork done. During the process, many copies were made of several papers. By the time this was done, it was 11:53 AM. Our helper informed us that everyone goes to lunch at 12 PM for an hour or hour and a half!
Strangely enough, the agricultural office ("SEPA") for Sophie's paperwork isn't in the same building or even the same area for that matter ... it required us to drive to the border crossing for the big commercial trucks. We got there just in time and luckily, our helper knew the guy working there. A few minutes and a few dollars later, Sophie's papers were in order (even though the officer didn't even bother to go see Sophie who was waiting for us in the car).

We left the border around 1 PM and headed southeast on the PanAmerican highway (CA-1). We ate at a small restaurant along the way and arrived in the town of Choluteca at 3 PM.

We had read on other Overlanders' trip reports that a hotel in town allows RVs to camp: "Hotel y Hacienda Gualiqueme".
We found the hotel and spent the night there. Very expensive place for Central America: $20 per night; electricity (with a long cord); water (available in the parking lot area to fill up your tank); pool; WiFi.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool. Nice hotel and pool. Very hot here: 37 C (110 F).

Oh, at night, Sophie escaped out of our camper, chased a skunk and ... got sprayed again. Skunk vs. Sophie 2 - 0.
Luckily, after the first time (it happened earlier on this trip whilst staying at Maya Bell in Palenque, Mexico), we were better prepared. We mixed the cleaning potion (dish soap + hydrogen peroxide + baking soda) and gave Sophie a looooong cleaning. We can still smell it but it's bearable to have her with us in the camper or the car.

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March 28 - April 2: El Salvador

Wednesday, April 2: Alegria, El Salvador

Relaxing day in the crater. We walked around the lake to explore the crater and went swimming in the stinky (because of the sulphur) crater lake.

Click here for our pictures of Laguna de Alegria

This was definitely my favorite place to camp in El Salvador. Quiet; beautiful nature; cool temperatures; and only $3 per night! (no electricity; no water; no WiFi; no toilets or showers)

Tuesday, April 1: Suchitoto to Alegria, El Salvador

We got up early this morning (we couldn't sleep in because of the rising sun; a.k.a. the heat was back) and walked into Suchitoto. The town is pretty small so it doesn't take long to explore. There's a nice central plaza and surrounding streets. All in all, after having visited big colonial towns like San Miguel (Mexico) or Antigua (Guatemala), Suchitoto isn't very special.
Click here for our pictures of Suchitoto

After doing some shopping at the local market, we walked back to our camper. We didn't exactly look forward to staying an extra day in this heat so we decided to head to higher ground.

We drove the PanAmerican highway southeast and then turned to the mountain town of Alegria; actually located on the top of an extinct volcano. The town sits at 1593 meters altitude so it is considerably cooler compared to Suchitoto.

From the small town, a cobblestone road continues 2 km up to the top of the volcano where the road enters the crater which contains a small crater lake: "Laguna de Alegria".
The entry fee includes permission to stay overnight so we decided to stay here for 2 nights. We parked in the crater next to the lake. Very nice location and again, we were all alone; no other campers here.

Monday, March 31: Cerro Verde to Suchitoto, El Salvador

Once the national park opens up in the morning, visitors start to arrive. We were hoping to stay here for a few nights, but since it's not very private, we decided to head out this morning.

We drove to the town of Suchitoto, located about 50 kilometers north of San Salvador. The town is an old colonial town with cobblestone streets situated next to a big lake: lake Suchitlan.
We camped at a local restaurant next to the lake: "El Mangal". We paid $8 for the night (water; cold showers; swimming pool; no WiFi; electricity is available if you have a really long cord).
From the campsite, you have a good lake view. Unfortunately, there's no direct lake access or possibility to walk down with Sophie and go swimming.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the pool. A big difference with Juayua and Cerro Verde is the altitude: this area is very low and thus much warmer. MUCH warmer; the heat in Suchitoto reminded us of the Summer heat in Texas: about 40 C during the day and not much cooler at night.
Our campsite didn't provide any shade, so it was a hot experience staying here.

Sunday, March 30: Juayua to Cerro Verde, El Salvador

We finished the ruta de las flores this morning, down to the town of Sonsonate.
There, we headed northeast towards the capital: San Salvador. After about 30 minutes of driving, we turned north into Cerro Verde national park (or as it is called in English: Volcanoes national park).

There's 3 volcanoes here. The road goes up to the top of an inactive one: Cerro Verde volcano. At the top, there's a parking area where you are allowed to stay overnight; this is where we camped for the night.
Since this was Sunday, there were plenty of day trippers, but when the park closed at 5 PM, they left and we were all alone.

Click here for our pictures of Cerro Verde national park

From the top of the volcano, you have great views of the 2 other volcanoes (one dormant one that is shaped like a traditional cyndercone volcano) and a big lake down in the valley.
There are some short hikes but you need to be accompanied by a guide: we walked one of the trails with a guide who unfortunately didn't speak English so we didn't learn much.
At night, the view is also great, with all the town and city lights in the distance and the stars overhead.

Saturday, March 29: Juayua, El Salvador

In the morning, we assessed the damage. All the offroading on Friday required us to dismount the camper from the truck (to position it correctly again) and fix the door to the storage area.
We were done around lunch time and decided to head into the small town of Juayua. The town is famous for its location along the Ruta de las Flores ("route of the flowers") and for its food festivals which are held every Saturday and Sunday.

Hugo, a friendly police man, who was staying at the campground (from the "El Salvador tourist police"), offered to ride us into town.

We spent the afternoon exploring the town and had some great local food: plenty of things to eat because of the festival.
We also bought fruits and vegetables on the market while we were in town. Afterwars, we took a small motor-taxi back to the campground. A motor-taxi (or at least, that's what I call it) is a motorcycle with a covered area in the back that holds 2-3 people (in our case: the 2 of us + Sophie).

Click here for our pictures of Juayua

In the evening, we met 2 couples that are also camping here; both Canadian couples. One of the couples, we saw earlier on our trip in San Miguel ("Desk to Glory").

Friday, March 28: Guatemala City to Juayua, El Salvador

Long day today!
We planned on crossing the border today between Guatemala and El Salvador. The GPS predicted a total of 3 hours of driving. It ended up being closer to 13 hours.

We got up early (around 7 AM) and left the campground at 8. The GPS sent us through Guatemala City; the largest city in Central America; in the middle of rush hour. Needles to say, it took us a while to drive through it and we got lost a few times. Red lights don't mean "don't go" down here; they are merely a suggestion.

There are several border crossings between Guatemala and El Salvador. Based on where we wanted to go first in El Salvador, we decided to take the central border crossing (along CA-8, "Frontera Las Chimenas").
Big mistake #1 of the day: the border crossing (an small bridge) is so low that no trucks higher than 2.2m can pass. So, we had to turn around and drive to a different border crossing ...

We drove north and joined the PanAmerican highway to the border crossing at San Cristobal. We ate "pupusas" in a small town along the way. Pupusas are actually a street food from El Salvador: it looks like a thick tortilla with a mix of cheese and beans (or meat) on the inside. Not bad, not particularly great.

We arrived at this border crossing around 2 PM. First we officially left Guatemala (exit stamp, return our car import papers, stamp Sophie's papers) and then we entered El Salvador. We didn't get an entry stamp in our passport (it's supposedly not necessary as they have an electronic system to keep track of you) and passed immigration fast.
As a traveller, you get 90 days total to spend in Guatemala - El Salvador - Honduras - Nicaragua.
Sophie's import papers went fast also. The car however was a different story. This border crossing is used by truckers, so the customs was very busy. It took about 2 hours before we received our car import papers!

Once we finally left the border area, within 10 minutes we were stopped at 2 checkpoints (one police; one army checkpoint). They checked our papers; asked what that thing is on top of our truck (the camper) and we were on our way.
We filled up on diesel in Santa Ana (a little over $4 per gallon) and then turned towards our first stop in El Salvador; the "Ruta de las Flores". This is a mountain road famous for its views and the drive through coffee plantations. We had heard that there is a campground along the "ruta", north of the town of Juayua.
We looked at the map and noticed a short cut: from the town of Turin, a road goes south straight to the campground.
Big mistake #2 of the day.

The short cut started OK with a dirt road through small towns. However, after a few kilometers, the road went into the mountains and got worse and worse. Steep uphill and in very bad condition with rocks and deep holes.
After bouncing around for about an hour, it started getting dark. The road dead-ended at a gate that said "private property". In other words: we had to turn around and drive all the way back north to Turin!

Shortly after we turned around it got dark and there we were: on a mountain "road", bouncing around at 5 km/h. To make matters worse, two of the camper tie-downs fell off. Luckily, I noticed; otherwise we would have lost them.

We finally reached Turin again by 8 PM and headed west on the Ruta de las Flores, trying to find a place to spend the night. This proved to be quite a challenge so we decided to keep going to try and reach the campground.
The campground was supposed to be a few kilometers north of the town of Juayua, about halfway the ruta de las flores.
Once we reached the area, the GPS wanted to take us on a short cut. Big mistake #3 of the day.

We spent a full hour to drive a few kilometers; again, bouncing around on very narrow, overgrown dirt roads in very bad condition.
We finally reached the campground an hour later and had to honk and shout a while for them to open the security gate and let us in: "Portezuelo Park".
A long day of driving and bouncing around, but, we made it to El Salvador!

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March 27 - 28: Lake Atitlan to Guatemala City

Thursday, March 27: Lake Atitlan to Guatemala City

After a week of relaxing at Lake Atitlan, we left this morning and headed, via the PanAmerican highway (CA-1), to Guatemala City.
It's about a 3 hour drive through the mountains on a good road: the PanAmerican has 2 lanes each way here (as opposed to 1 lane each way in different areas). When we arrived at Guatemala City, we went grocery shopping in big supermarkets and then headed to the campground.

The campground is actually a waterpark which allows you to camp on a grassy field. We paid $20 (water, electricity, sewer dump, no WiFi) for the night but the good news is that this included access to the waterpark!
We spent the rest of the afternoon on the waterpark slides and in the thermal pools (there are many volcanoes in this area and thus natural hot springs).
A good way to spend our final day in Guatemala.

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March 20 - 26: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

March 21 - 26: Lake Atitlan

We're staying at Lake Atitlan; relaxing; and occasionally walking into town to eat out or do some grocery shopping. Lots of street vendors in town as Panajachel is the most developed 'tourist' town on the lake.
The only downside of staying here? Small biting black flies. Nonetheless, we had fun staying here and relaxing at the pool with beautiful lake views.

Click here for our pictures of Lake Atitlan

March 20: Antigua to Lake Atitlan

I got up early on Thursday morning to take pictures of Antigua's streets, with the volcano in the background. Usually, the volcanoes are covered in clouds so you have to get up early (around sunrise) for your best chance to see them.
After I got back to the campground around 9 AM, we left Antigua and headed northwest towards Lake Atitlan.

We drove on the "PanAmerican highway" for the first time on this trip, between Antigua and Lake Atitlan. The town on the way to the lake (Sololá) has a Friday market, so we decided to take the drive today (Thursday) as small towns are hard enough to pass through, even without a market in its streets!

Lake Atitlan is described frequently as the "most beautiful lake in the world". An accurate description as far as we are concerned; at least until we find a more pretty lake.

The lake is situated in a caldera and, like Antigua, has several volcanoes around it. Also similar to Antigua: the great climate of this "highlands" region. You stay here at 1.500 meters altitude so even though it's warm during the day, it cools off at night. A welcome difference from the heat and humidity of the jungle.

We drove to the town of Panajachel; on the border of the lake; and checked into the campground at hotel Vision Azul. The campground is basically a grassy field that is lakefront. Very pretty with views across the lake towards the 3 high volcanoes from our camper. Cost per night $14 USD; including swimming in the lake or in the pool; showers; WiFi.


Comments

  • Absolutely beautiful. Looking forward to pics and comments on El Salvador. Any problems yet with the diesel in your 2007 truck?

  • Thanks! Knock on wood, no diesel problems yet with the Dodge 6.7L.

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March 16 - 19: Antigua, Guatemala

March 17 - 19: Antigua

We spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the old town of Antigua.
The campground is located in the middle of town so it's perfectly located. As soon as you walk out of the police base / campground, you're in the middle of the old city.

Click here for our pictures of Antigua

Antigua reminded us a lot of San Miguel in Mexico: old colonial towns with row houses in bright colors and cobblestone streets. It's a perfect city to spend a few days and explore, as all the sights are within walking distance of the campground. All the buildings look old; no modern houses here as the town's architecture is protected.
The big difference with a town like San Miguel? Antigua is surrounded by 3 volcanoes and has regular earthquake activity (which I experienced on my first trip here, 8 or 9 years ago, on a company trip).

Lots of tourists here as can be expected. On the campground, we were joined by a few other RV's from Switzerland, France and Germany.

March 16: Rio Dulce to Antigua

Bring earplugs when you decide to camp at Bruno's: this being the center of town, there was loud music playing until late at night on Saturday evening and again early on Sunday morning. Luckily, we were planning on leaving early so were up anyway.

We crossed the large bridge and headed southwest towards Guatemala City.
About an hour south of Rio Dulce, we drove through many miles of banana trees (owned by the "United Fruit Company") and we visited the Mayan ruins at Quirigua. Like the Mayan ruins just across the border here (the Copan ruins in Honduras), they are famous for "stelae": large stone columns (monoliths), decorated with carvings. Supposedly, it was tradition for every ruler to have his own stela.
The tallest stela here is actually also the tallest Mayan stela in the Americas: 8 meters tall (plus 3 meters buried underground, as foundation) and weighing in at 60.000 kg!
Other than the 10 or so stelae, there are some ruins (like a ball court) but the stelae are definitely the main attraction.

Click here for our pictures of Rio Dulce and the Mayan ruins at Quirigua

As you head southwest towards Guatemala City, the road goes through beautiful mountain scenery and the climate gets dryer and less lush (less jungle). Guatemala's topography consists of low lands at the Pacific Ocean in the west, low lands in the east towards Belize and the high lands in between, with lots of mountains and volcanoes.
Along the way, we would have liked to take the detour north to go see the famous pools at "Semuc Champey" (near the city of Coban in north central Guatemala), but decided it was too big of a detour: especially on these kind of roads, it would be a 2 or 3 day detour with lots of driving.

We arrived in the colonial town of Antigua; about an hour west of Guatemala City; in late afternoon and camped at the "tourist police" campground. The police department in charge of keeping tourists safe has its base in the old center of Antigua and they allow tourists to camp on their base for free (up to 5 days)!

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March 14 - 15: Rio Dulce, Guatemala

March 15: Rio Dulce

Relaxing day at the marina. In the morning, we walked into town for some shopping.

In the afternoon, Hani and Sarah ("Adventures in Skyhorse") arrived here.

What did I say on the blog here a few weeks ago; that Sophie is the sweetest dog? Well, today, while visiting with Hani and Sarah (they were staying with their RV on a lot next to Bruno's), Sophie started playing with their 2 dogs but got distracted by the chickens running around freely ... and she chased and killed a chicken! Obviously, the owner wasn't pleased and we paid for the chicken (50 Quetzales; approximately $6).

March 14: El Remate to Rio Dulce

We left El Remate around 9 AM. Before we could leave the area and head south, we had some things to do: fill up on diesel (the price is similar to Mexico; a little over $4 USD per gallon), go grocery shopping and fill our RV's empty propane tank. The first two were no problem: just west of El Remate is the city of Santa Elena (and Flores) so there are lots of gas stations and supermarkets.
However, it took us over an hour to find the place where we could refill the propane tank. Unfortunately, neither of us speak very good Spanish, so each time we asked for directions, we did get a little closer in the right direction but only 1 or 2 streets before we were lost again. So, it took over an hour of driving through the small city streets and stopping to ask for directions about 10 times to find the local "TropiGas".

We finally left the city around lunch time and headed south. We had a very nice lunch in a small town along the way.
The drive south is surprisingly nice: we expected a long drive through flat jungle, but actually this part of Guatemala is very hilly. No rolling hills but very steep, small hills covered in jungle vegetation. Very different topography from what we have encountered so far.

At 4 PM, we arrived in the town of Rio Dulce. It's located at the largest lake in Guatemala; lake Izabal; and at the start of a river that goes east to the Carribean sea. Even though you'd expect to be in the jungle, Rio Dulce is actually a harbor town!
Apparently many international boaters live here on their boat in the harbor. It's supposedly the safest place in the Carribean as it's best protected against hurricanes. Who knew a river in Guatemala is a boater's favorite!?

We camped at a marina: "Bruno's", which has space for 1 or 2 small RV's. Waterfront (of course), pool, showers and WiFi: $10 USD per night. The town's main shopping area is in the street in front of the marina.


Comments

  • I have enjoyed every post on your travel blog. I first saw your thread on Airforums and have been following it from the beginning. It looks like the camping adventure that we all dream about. Also, your photos are beautiful! Rick in Mississippi

  • Thanks! Now if I could only find a decent WiFi connection to upload more pictures :-) Jorn

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March 11 - 13: El Remate, Guatemala

March 13: El Remate, Guatemala

Relaxing day spent at the pool and walking around El Remate for some grocery shopping.

In the afternoon, Hani and Sarah (from "Adventures in Skyhorse") arrived at the hotel here in their RV; we met them earlier on the trip in Teotihuacan.

March 12: El Remate, Guatemala (Tikal)

We visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal today.
The ruins are located in a wildlife preserve so dogs are not allowed. We left Sophie in the camper and, at 6:30 AM, we took a minibus ("collective") into the park.

We walked around in the ruins for 4 hours; this is a huge place! At its peak, Tikal was 62 square km. Like other ruins in the general area (like Palenque), Tikal is located in the jungle and most of the buildings and temples are overgrown with vegetation.

Click here for our pictures of Tikal

They have excavated many of the temples (which look like pyramids). The tallest Mayan pyramid anywhere stands here in Tikal: "temple IV", about 70 meters high.

Besides "temple IV", other temples (pyramids) are also impressive to visit. You're allowed to climb some of them.

Whilst walking around amongst the ruins, we saw a lot of wildlife: several groups of spider monkeys, a snake (which I think was a fer-de-lance snake), turkeys and colorful parrots.

Tikal is definitely worth a visit if you want to see Mayan ruins: the area here is very large compared to other ruins (like Palenque or Chichen Itza) and where other places usually only have 1 pyramid, Tikal has many.

We returned to our camper around lunch time and spent the afternoon relaxing at the pool and in the lake.
On our evening walk with Sophie next to the lake, we almost ran into a snake. Scary.

March 11: San Ignacio, Belize to El Remate, Guatemala

We left San Ignacio and arrived at the border around 9 AM. On the Belizean side, we had our passports stamped (exit stamps), handed in our car import papers and exchanged some money with people who are walking around with bundles of cash in their hands (1 Belize dollar = 3.40 Quetzales).
Then we drove into Guatemala. First, you drive through what looks like a carwash. It's actually a fumigation area where they spray your car (top to bottom). After we paid for the required fumigation, we had Sophie's papers checked and stamped (we showed them the vet's certificate from Chetumal).
Then we went into the immigration building to have our passports stamped (entry stamp) and to process the car import papers.
All in all, it took about 1.5 hours for the entire process; not too bad. The entire atmosphere was much more relaxed compared to entering Mexico or Belize.

As soon as you drive into Guatemala, you notice you're in a different country: for example, women, sitting next to the street, are preparing tortilla's by hand and baking them over a wood fire.
We stopped in some small towns for some groceries (tortilla's, bread, some fruit and vegetables) and drove west for around 1.5 hours until we reached the small town of El Remate.

El Remate is one of the nearest towns to the national park of Tikal: the biggest and most famous Mayan ruins in Central America.
We went to hotel restaurant El Muelle in El Remate to ask if we could stay there with our RV for a few days and it was no problem. $14 USD per night ($7 per person) with electrical hookup, water available, cold showers, WiFi, pool and lakefront.
The rest of the day was spent swimming in the lake and in the pool. Very nice location; very pretty lake views.

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March 9 - 10: San Ignacio, Belize

Monday March 10: San Ignacio

Relaxing day at the Log Cab-Inn resort. We spent the day at the pool.
It's Spring Break in the USA which is noticeable here: many young Americans staying here at the resort.

Sunday March 9: Community Baboon Sanctuary to San Ignacio

Before we left, we walked into the jungle again but unfortunately didn't see any monkeys; even though we definitely heard many as there was a lot of howling going on.

We drove south and took the 'western highway', the other paved road which goes between Belize City and the western border with Guatemala.
About an hour down the road, we visited the Belize Zoo. This zoo only houses rescued animals and all animals live in large, jungle-filled enclosures.


Spider monkey in the Belize Zoo

Interesting what type of animals you can encounter in the jungles of Belize: from deadly snakes (boa constrictor and fer-de-lance) to tapirs to 5 different cats (puma, jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay).

Click here for our pictures of the Belize Zoo

We ate along the way and arrived in the town of San Ignacio; in western Belize; in early afternoon.
The road into town crosses a wooden bridge over a river. To our surprise, it seemed that everyone in town was hanging out here. The temperature was hot as usual (even though it's officially Winter here) and this being Sunday, everyone was hanging out in the river. It reminded us of what you see in Texan towns like Wimberley in Summer. We joined them and cooled off in the river.

The RV campground listed in the Church's book was closed, so we drove into some local resorts to ask if we could park there for the night. The "Log Cab-Inn" resort allowed us to stay for $10 USD: very nice as it also includes use of the facilities like the pool and WiFi.


Comments

  • We loved the Belize Zoo too! As a wildlife photographer we normally do not visit animals in captivity, but heard good reports on this zoo. Checked it out and the animals live in their natural environment and are sometimes even hard to find in the vegetation. We even saw a tourist couple that took a guide into the Zoo to point out the animals to them. Keep the stories coming, love Claudia and PJ

  • Thanks! Yeah, we were kinda hesitant to visit the zoo, especially after seeing the entry ticket price for foreigners (what a difference compared to what locals pay), but we're glad we did. We loved the spider monkeys! Jorn

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March 8: Community Baboon Sanctuary, Belize

March 8: Sarteneja to the Community Baboon Sanctuary

After getting a lot of useful information on Central America from Barry; born in Zimbabwe but currently living in Costa Rica; we left Backpacker's Paradise around 10 AM.

We were considering staying another day, but even though the beach in Sarteneja looks nice and white, it's actually pretty muddy (you sink in) so we decided to continue on our trip.

Click here for our pictures of Sarteneja

No hand-cranked ferries today as we headed west (on the same pot-holed dirt road that we came in on) and then south towards the town of Orange Walk. The town is located on the paved road between the northern border and Belize City, but is pretty small actually which is to be expected considering the entire country of Belize has under three hundred thousand citizens!
The Lonely Planet guide book recommends a local bakery in Orange Walk: "Panificadora La Popular". We stopped by to pick up some pastries: tasty, but maybe we made some poor choices as they didn't taste very special to us.

We continued driving on the paved road towards Belize City and then headed west into an area known as the "Community Baboon Sanctuary". This is an area, consisting of jungle and 5 villages, in which the protected black howler monkey lives. The howler monkeys were incorrectly identified as baboons a long time ago, hence the name given to the area.

We stopped at the visitor center and took the 1 hour tour. It was quiet so we were lucky that it was just us and the tour guide. We walked into the jungle and within minutes, the guide had found a group of monkeys moving through the trees, including one female with a baby on her back.
It's great to see wild monkeys up close, especially howler monkeys.

Click here for our pictures of the howler monkeys

In the past (in Palenque, or on an earlier trip in Costa Rica), we had only seen howler monkeys swinging overhead way up high in the trees. Here in the Sanctuary, the trees are so low that the monkeys are swinging within a few meters.


Comments

  • I feel really blond, but the name Baboon Sanctuary in a Howler Monkey reserve never ringed a bell to me. Of course howler monkeys are not baboons! greetz, Claudia

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March 7: Sarteneja, Belize

March 7, 2014: Corozal to Sarteneja

We left Corozal in the morning and headed east. Belize only has 3 paved roads: one from the northern border to Belize City; one from Belize City to the western border with Guatemala; and one from Belize City down to the most southern point reachable by road, Punta Gorda.
Needless to say that we only drove on dirt roads today. Bad dirt roads through the jungle with lots of potholes.

After about an hour of driving east on the dirt roads, we reached a river. No bridge so how do we get to the other side? Via a small ferry which holds up to 4 cars, hand-powered!


On the ferry

The ferry operator rides on the ferry with you and is responsible for manually turning the wheel that is connected to a cable, which makes the ferry cross the river very slowly. Eco-friendly yes, but a pretty tough and physical job doing this all day; especially in this hot and humid climate.

We arrived at the ocean-front Mayan ruins of Cerros mid morning.

Click here for our pictures of the Cerros ruins and the ferry boats

These ruins are pretty remote and we were the only visitors. This Mayan town was built a few hundred years before Christ and is in pretty bad shape. Most of the buildings are overgrown with jungle. There's one pyramid which you can climb, which gives you a good view of the surroundings; and a nicely restored building right next to the ocean.
We spent about an hour walking around and then continued on.

Shortly after we left the ruins, we came across another river with another hand-cranked ferry. The dirt road goes through the Shipstern nature reserve: we saw a coatimundi cross the road.
Around lunch time, we arrived in the small town of Sarteneja, at the northeastern corner of Belize.
We parked our truck at the "Backpacker's paradise" campground: a 27 acre piece of jungle, right outside of town, with WiFi!

In the afternoon, we walked into the town. The location is beautiful: right on the Carribean sea with white sand.

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March 6: Corozal, Belize

March 6, 2014: Chetumal, Mexico to Corozal, Belize

We made it to Belize!
Barely ...

We left the Chetumal campground around 9 AM and, after a stop at the local supermarket and RadioShack (to get new batteries for our electrical multimeter), headed to the vet in Chetumal for Sophie's new health certificate. The vet charged $17 USD to issue a health certificate. Funny thing is, the vet didn't even look at Sophie! The front desk person looked over Sophie's paperwork from the vet in the US and then drafted the new health certificate. That works for us I guess; all we need is the new health certificate.

Onto the border crossing, just west of Chetumal.
On the Mexican side, we handed over our passports and immigration papers. The officer stamped our passports and told us that we should have gotten a similar stamp in our passports when we entered Mexico. Maybe the immigration officer in Nuevo Laredo forgot; no big deal (we thought).
Next stop: the Banjercito to return the car import papers, including the windshield sticker.

We then drove a few kilometers to reach Belize. Once there, we went inside to handle immigration first. What a big deal this proved to be!

The Belizean immigration officer noticed the missing entry stamp for Mexico (why does he care; we're not sure) and wouldn't let us into Belize unless we paid him $50. Only other option? Return to Nuevo Laredo to get the stamp! Crazy. After trying to be reasonable and show him our other paperwork we received when entering Mexico; including stamps; he continued to say that he only cared about the missing stamp in our passports: pay $50 or drive back to Nuevo Laredo.
I guess we must have been annoyed at that time and making a lot of noise, since the officer's colleague leaned over to see what was going on there. She told us she would see what she could do.

A few minutes later; after the other officer who was dealing with us had left; we returned to the lady's booth. She stamped our passports and we could get onto the next step. Turned out that the other officer was trying to get the $50 as a bribe!

Next step: Sophie's import papers. They were OK luckily; no bribes requested here.
We went onto the next step, which was to import our truck. Also no problems here.
Then, with all of the paperwork in our hands, we had to drive the car through customs. They took away our eggs, 1 orange and 2 onions.
The final step was to stop at a small building behind customs to get car insurance. We paid $23 USD for the 2 weeks that we're thinking about staying in Belize.

We spoke to the insurance agent about our experience with the first officer and he confirmed what we were thinking: the immigration officer was trying to get a bribe. He said corruption is everywhere in Belize. Hope this is the first and last time we get to deal with it ...

A few kilometers south of the border is the small ocean front town of Corozal. We checked into the local campground here: "Carribean Village".
In the afternoon, we explored the town on foot. The town is located on the same bay as Chetumal further north. It's the Carribean, but there's no white beaches or turquoise water here.
Not much difference visible yet from Mexico. The biggest differences so far are the people (there's more a mix of different colors here than in Mexico) and the language (English is the official language in Belize).


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March 3 - 5, 2014 : Chetumal

Tuesday, March 5, 2014: Chetumal

I was able to upload all the pictures of our trip so far, so the gallery is up-to-date!

Click here for our pictures of the campground at Chetumal

Good WiFi is hard to find here. Looking back; when taking a long road trip through Mexico; it's definitely a good idea to buy a Telcel USB stick for your laptop, which allows you to have wireless internet access in most places where you have cell phone reception.

We're at the campground, waiting on Sophie's import papers for Belize.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014: Chetumal

Relaxing day on the campground, other than a French Canadian accusing our dog Sophie (the sweetest dog ever to roam the planet) of being 'aggressive'. Turns out he's the leader of an RV caravan; staying at the campground here and comprising of several French Canadians; and he thinks he saw Sophie bark at one his 'clients'. What is it with groups of people and thinking that they own the place?
Many RVers who want to come down to Mexico actually join up with a group; an RV caravan; for safety.

We spent the day swimming, sitting in the sun a little too long and helping fellow campers from upstate New York deal with their RV's battery issue (Tom and Karen).
The WiFi connection is pretty good here so I was able to upload more pictures: check the gallery page.

Monday, March 3, 2014: Bacalar to Chetumal

We left the campground this morning and drove south next to the lagoon.

We stopped at the 'pueblo magico' of Bacalar: a small town located at the shore of the big lagoon.
We walked around the historical town center with a big plaza and fort overlooking the lagoon. The natural scenery is nice but the town itself was a little disappointing. There are old buildings but not maintained; at least not like the other 'pueblo magico' of Izamal which we visited recently.
We found an internet café on the main plaza in Bacalar and did our 2013 taxes online, which had to be filed to the IRS before we're likely to return to the US from our trip.

Before lunch time, we headed further south. We were thinking of driving to the west to visit the Mayan ruins at Calakmul, but unfortunately we couldn't find out (via internet or phone) whether Sophie, our dog, is allowed to stay at the campground, since Calakmul is located in a wildlife preserve.
So, we headed east into the city of Chetumal, located on the border between Mexico and Belize.

A few months ago, while researching the trip, we had found a campground in this area called "Gringo Dave's", so we stopped there first. Unfortunately, the few campsites available here didn't have any shade trees. Also, no hookups, and the place was overrun by Mexican day tourists. So we headed to the big campground in town: "Yah-ha", a little north of the city, right on the Carribean Ocean.
We didn't regret it. This campground looks like heaven. We are camped right next to the ocean, with water behind us as well as to the left and right of our camper. They have electrical hookup; water is available; WiFi is available at the restaurant in the campground; and all of this for $200 pesos per night ($15 USD).

Depending on what we find out about the possibility of taking our dog to Calakmul (in Mexico), we are likely to stay here until we can cross into Belize. That can take a few days as we only filed Sophie's import permit this morning; and it can take supposedly around 7 business days to get an answer. Once we have the permit to take Sophie into Belize, we also have to take her to the vet in Chetumal to get an updated health certificate.


Comments

  • When we were staying in the RV park of Chetumal we were the only ones with another befriended couple. We had parked with a decent space in between our campers. Then a caravan came in and they all wanted to park ocean front. They managed to squeeze two RV's in between us and our friends, with their slide outs almost touching our campers! After they all plugged in somebody started to complain about the electricity. It was not enough amps to keep his fake fire place going!!!! Why do you need a fire place when you are parked ocean front and can watch the sun setting. But we still think it is a great RV park. love from the Dutchies Claudia and PJ

  • Yeah, it's one of our favorite campgrounds so far. Unfortunately it's on the direct route to the Riviera Maya ... Jorn

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March 1 - 2: Bacalar

Sunday, March 2, 2014: Bacalar

We relaxed on the campground today. We explored the area around the campground on foot and went swimming in the lake.
Not many mosquitos here. Actually, so far on this trip, the only bad mosquito area has been Villahermosa. Other than that, it's been good (especially compared to the mosquitos you encounter up in Canada or Alaska during the summer months).

Saturday, March 1, 2014: Tulum to Bacalar

It proved again to be a tough decision this morning to leave this campground. But, if we ever want to get to Panama before the rain season starts, we do have to keep moving ...
We've been traveling now for more than a month and a half, and we haven't even left Mexico yet! Very surprising how big Mexico is and how much variety there is to do and see here.

When we walked on the beach one last time this morning, we saw a big turtle walk across the beach into the sea: nice!
We left Xpu-Ha around 10 AM and headed south, along Hwy. 307. We passed Tulum and reached the 'Laguna Bacalar' around lunch time. About 30 km north of the town of Bacalar, we turned into a dirt road and after 3 km of driving, reached our next destination: 'Laguna Azul', a remote campground right on the lake. Very quiet, with several palapa's and tropical scenery.
Very cheap, especially compared to Xpu-Ha: $11 USD per night, no hookups or WiFi.

We relaxed in the hammocks the rest of the day.
We saw a big praying mantis on our evening walk.

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February 27 - 28: Riviera Maya

Friday, February 28, 2014: Xpu-Ha

We spent Friday on the beach; swimming and snorkeling.
Snorkeling is unexpectedly nice here. In front of the beach are dark patches in the ocean, which turned out to be coral reefs. It's not as great as the coral reefs in other places, like Roatan or the Virgin Islands, but it's well worth it. You get to see colorful fish in all sizes and different types of coral.
We used Haichong's underwater camera to try and take some pictures of the coral. See the gallery for the results; not easy to come up with good shots!

Click here for our pictures of Xpu-Ha (Riviera Maya)

Thursday, February 27, 2014: Cenote Suytun to the Riviera Maya (Xpu-Ha)

Tough decision this morning: stay longer at the cenote or leave? When we saw some rain clouds rolling in, we decided to get going. We already visited Cancun and most of the area (including Isla Mujeres, the Riviera Maya, Tulum and Xel-Ha) a few years ago, so we decided to skip Cancun on this roadtrip.

We headed southeast to the town of Tulum and then northeast along the coastline to the Xpu-Ha campground.
It's officially called a campground but it's actually not much more than a dirt road leading to the beach, and there's some room under the palm trees to park your RV. Pretty expensive here: 400 mexican pesos (300 for 2 people and 100 for the dog) which is $30 USD, for no hookups or WiFi. But then again, you're right in the middle of the Riviera Maya here, surrounded by giant tourist resorts.

The location however is hard to beat! You park on the white sand, 20 meters from the ocean with turquoise water. Very friendly neighbors, such as Canadians Mas and JoAnne.
We relaxed the rest of the day on the beach. Very pretty scenery here: the Carribean coast is much nicer than the Gulf coast.

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February 25 - 26: Cenote Suytun

Wednesday, February 26, 2014: Cenote Suytun

We relaxed at the campground on Wednesday. We went swimming in the cenote and spent the rest of the day laying in the hammocks at the swimming pool. Very quiet and relaxing here.

Click here for our pictures of cenote Suytun

Tour buses (on their way from Cancun to Chichen Itza) do stop here, so it's best to go into the cenote when there's no tour buses around: you'll be all alone.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014: Uxmal to Cenote Suytun

We headed northeast today; via Merida again; to the small 'pueblo magico' of Izamal.
The name 'pueblo magico' is given to some well conserved historical towns (like Izamal) and means 'magical town'.

We really enjoyed visiting this town. Apparently, the Pope visited this town in the early 90s and the town was restored for the occasion. The entire town center is painted yellow; very nice.
The central plaza has a convent which is actually built on top of an old Mayan temple.

Click her for our pictures of Izamal

We parked the truck in the plaza and explored the town on foot for several hours, including lunch in the local market.

We both 'fell of the wagon' and ate chicken for lunch. Not out of desire but out of necessity unfortunately: there were no vegetarian or even seafood options for lunch. Mexicans do like their meat.
The good thing about this experience? While traveling around in Mexico, you frequently see vendors selling the BBQ chicken and pork (pollo asado, carne asado, ...) and it smells great; even to us vegetarians (or pescetarians)!

However, now that we had to eat the BBQ chicken for lunch here in Izamal, it reminded us that, really, meat doesn't taste that well. Once you get used to eating like a vegetarian, you realize that dishes where vegetables are the protein, are so much more tasty compared to a big piece of meat.
It almost reminded me of the experience where everything tastes so much better after you quit smoking. A similar thing can be said about stopping with eating big chunks of animals.

We left Izamal in early afternoon and headed east. We were planning on sleeping in Piste; next to the famous ruins at Chichen Itza; but when we saw the neglected campgrounds there, we decided to keep driving east.
We've already visited Chichen Itza a few years ago, so there was no reason to stay there.

We ended up driving an hour extra to sleep a few kilometers east of the city of Valladolid, on a big property with a cenote.
A 'cenote' is a limestone cavern with an underground lake or river in it. The overnight camping price (250 Mexican pesos = $19 USD, no hookups or WiFi) included unlimited access to the cenote, so we went to explore it right after we arrived.
It is beautiful! A big cave, with a hole in the ceiling through which light falls into the cave; with a lake at the bottom, filled with clear water and lots of fish.
We went swimming in the cenote which felt really good: the temperature in the cave is much lower compared to the heat above ground.


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February 23 - 24: Uxmal

Monday, February 24, 2014: Uxmal

We relaxed on the campground during the day and spent the afternoon at the pool of a nearby hotel. We were also able to use their WiFi signal whilst at the pool, so the blog is up-to-date again.
I do have a lot of pictures to upload however (since Cholula until Uxmal); but that won't happen until we have a better WiFi connection available.

Today, one other RV'er arrived. So far, most of the campgrounds we've stayed at, it was just us staying there. We met one Mexican (Ignacio) at the Palenque campground; other than that, all foreigners (Canada / Germany / France / Netherlands / USA / ...).

The reason we wanted to stay at Uxmal was the "light and sound show", which happens each night at the ruins. We've seen several ruins already on this trip, but none had the evening show.
Around 7 PM, after dark, we walked into the ruins. Uxmal is smaller compared to others like Palenque, but still has a nice main pyramid.

Click here to see our pictures of the show at Uxmal

We sat down on the steps of one of the temples; together with a bunch of (mainly) European tourists; and watched the 45 minute show. The light portion of the show consists of lighting the ruins with different colors. Nothing very spectacular.
The sound portion is the telling of a Mayan story; which is in Spanish, so if you don't speak fluent Spanish, you will get bored ... like we were 5 minutes into the show. Definitely buy the 'translator' at the ticket booth.

Sunday, February 23, 2014: Merida to Celestun to Uxmal

We left Merida around 8:30 am this morning and headed west towards the small oceanfront town of Celestun. The town is located next to a nature preserve, where flamingo's live.
Celestun being a small town, the road leading to the town is small, narrow and passes lots of small villages with even more topes. Additionally, this being Sunday, every small village had their Sunday market. In other words, it took us a lot longer than expected to reach Celestun. After 2 hours of driving, we drove into the nature preserve's parking lot.

We took a one and a half hour boat tour into the preserve. It's definitely worth it: we saw thousands of flamingo's! We also saw a baby alligator in the mangrove swamps (or was it a crocodile?) and lots of other birds (like pelicans, kingfishers, ...).

Click here for our pictures of Celestun

While we were on the boat tour, a local Mexican boy offered to keep an eye on our car (for security). He did a good job so we gave him 10 pesos (75c USD).

In early afternoon, we headed southeast passing many small towns again. We had a good seafood lunch in one of the towns (ceviche) and arrived at our next destination in late afternoon, Uxmal.

Uxmal is famous for Mayan ruins. We set up our RV at the parking lot next to the ruins. They allow overnight camping here; dry-camping with no hookups. Cost per night 10 USD.

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February 21 - 22: Merida

Saturday, February 22, 2014: Merida

We took a taxi into downtown Merida early this morning.
Today was definitely a long and tiring day: we walked around in the colonial center of Merida the entire day, until 7 pm.
We visited the central plaza with the cathedral; the large market (Mercado Municipal Lucas de Galvez) where we had a delicious seafood lunch; and many small plaza's and neighborhoods.

Click here for our pictures of Merida

The last part of the day was spent looking for a street vendor that sold the local specialty, "Marquesita's".

This is a thin pancake-like roll, filled with items of your choice (jam, cheese, Nutella, ...). Very tasty.
Apparently, Marquesita's are easy to find at the central plaza on Sunday's (when they close off the central square and many food vendors set up their stands there), but on other days, are everything but easy to find!

Friday, February 21, 2014: Campeche to Merida

We left Club Nautico early morning and drove into the city. We spent a few hours visiting the colonial city center of Campeche. The town was built by the Spanish in the 16th century, including a wall around the city to protect against pirate attacks.
We walked around the town and visited most of the colonial center, including the large plaza and a pirate museum which gives you access to walk on top of the city walls (although the view from up there isn't that great).
Campeche's colonial center is a national monument; and it's nice; but we weren't that impressed. Compared to other historical towns we visited on this trip, the others are nicer (like San Miguel and Guanajuato).

On the drive out of Campeche, we did grocery shopping at the local Walmart. We try to shop in local stores whenever we can, but for some items it's convenient to go to a large grocery store (even though the large grocery stores are more expensive compared to the small stores, strangely enough).

After 2 hours of driving, in late afernoon, we arrived in the biggest city of the Yucatan: Merida. More than one million people live here in the sweltering heat. In Winter (=now), daytime temperatures hover around 35 C (95 F) and at night it 'cools down' to 21 C (75 F).
We checked into the only campground in Merida: "Rainbow RV", just outside of the city center, along a boulevard filled with large American stores like Home Depot, AutoZone, Sam's Club, Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, etc.
Price per night 19 USD (electric, water, sewer).

We went to Home Depot to buy a new electrical extension cord (we mysteriously lost the old one) and went to AutoZone to buy a battery charger for our RV's battery.

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February 19 - 20: Campeche

Thursday, February 20, 2014: Campeche

Another relaxing day today. We spent part of the day on the beach and the afternoon at the pool. Not too many mosquitos here.

Click here for our pictures of Campeche (mostly Club Nautico)


The pool at Club Nautico

Wednesday, February 19, 2014: Isla Aguada to Campeche

The campground owner in Isla Aguada agreed to cover (part of?) the costs to fix the RV; although the repairs will most likely have to wait until we get back to the USA, as experienced RV mechanics or even RV parts are hard to find in Mexico.
Basically, both the converter and the microwave are broken. There might be a possibility that they can be fixed, or they will need to be replaced all together. In the meantime, until we can get them fixed, the converter won't be charging the RV battery when we are hooked up to electricity on campgrounds. The RV battery will only get charged by the car's alternator (whilst driving) or if we can hook it up to a battery charger (which we don't have but might be able to find in the biggest city in this area: Merida).

We left Isla Aguada in the morning and filled our tank with diesel.
The road to our next destination followed the coast line (highway 180): a very empty but pretty road.


The inside of a palm thatch roof (frequently used here)

We arrived in the city of Campeche after 2 hours of driving and found our next campground: "Club Nautico", a few miles outside of the city. This has to be the most beautiful campground we've stayed at in our RV career!

It's basically a combination of campground and a country club. The campground looks like a very nice USA campground with private RV spaces; 30 / 50 amp hookups; water and sewer. Price per night 26 USD.

The country club has a large building with showers; gym; negative edge swimming pool, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico; white sand beach with palapa's. The RV price includes access to the country club.

We relaxed the rest of the day at the swimming pool. Very nice: 30 C with blue skies.

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February 17 - 18: Isla Aguada

February 18, 2014: Isla Aguada

We walked around town in the morning and had lunch there: fresh fish, pretty good.

Click here for our pictures of Isla Aguada

After lunch, the electrician came back to look at our RV; so far without any results. This is a really small town, so little or no parts are available here. Plus, this is Mexico, so it's hard to find any experienced electrician that knows how to work on an RV, as you hardly see RV's down here. We don't have high hopes that our RV will get fixed here; or even until we get back to the US; but since it's the campground's responsibility to offer 110V and not the appliance destroying 230V, we feel the owner owes us some kind of compensation, which would definitely be the case if this were to happen up in the US ... but this is Mexico. Let's see.

In the afternoon, we went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and watched the fishermen's boats arrive with their catch. Lots of stingray's in their nets. Haichong bought a big, fresh fish from them.

February 17, 2014: Palenque to Isla Aguada

We left Palenque in the morning. Before we left town, we did some quick grocery shopping: we found hydrogen peroxide but no baking soda ... and unfortunately, Sophie's mouth is still quite stinky.

We headed north towards the Gulf of Mexico. Once we hit the coastal road (Hwy. 180), we were very pleasantly surprised by the nice views: pretty white beaches, clear water, palm trees. We weren't expecting this until further south along the Carribean beaches.

We arrived in the small town (/island) of Isla Aguada in early afternoon. There's only campground in this area: "Freedom Shores".
Be careful if you use your GPS to guide you here: both Garmin GPS as Microsoft Streets & Maps sends you the wrong way, over a toll bridge. If you're coming into town from the north, do not pass the toll booth but turn left right before the toll booth (so you avoid paying expensive tolls).

The campground is not cheap (23 USD per night) but it does have a gorgeous beach front location, hot showers, (slow) WiFi and also unfortunately a bunch of mosquitos. The town itself has several small grocery stores and other shops (like tortilleria's) but there's not much to see or do here.

We did have a bad thing happen to the RV here: after plugging in the electric hookup, the microwave died. Upon further inspection, the campground electrical outlet wasn't outputting the usual 110V but ... 230V! Crazy. This destroyed our microwave and our RV's converter!

We obviously complained to the campground's owner who luckily for us, speaks English. She called the electrician who fixed the electrical outlet; of course, too late for our converter and microwave...

It's been exactly 1 month today since we crossed the border into Mexico! I was expecting we would be in Belize or Guatemala by now. Surprising how big Mexico is and how many interesting things there are to see; and we haven't even visited the western section yet (western coastline next to the Sea of Cortez and Baja California), which we will hopefully be able to do on the drive back towards the US.


Comments

  • Weet niet of het U kan helpen .... ik had erbij moeten zijn .... :-) http://www.heartlandowners.org/archive/index.php/t-34724.html

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February 12 - 16: Palenque

February 16, 2014: Palenque

Our last day at the Mayabell campground: sunny and perfect temperatures. We prepared the camper for our departure tomorrow and relaxed the rest of the day at the swimming pool.

February 15, 2014: Palenque

We relaxed at the campground today.
This has definitely been one of our favorite campgrounds this far: tropical, warm environment; no mosquitos; jungle scenery; monkeys; swimming pool; palapas; right next to the ruins.


The pool at Maya Bell

Another camper recommended a mix of hydrogen peroxide with baking soda and soap as the ideal remedy for skunk odors. Unfortunately, our small first aid kit doesn't contain hydrogen peroxide and there's no pharmacy nearby. We'll have to be patient until we can find it on our way out of here in a few days.

February 14, 2014: Palenque

We woke up early this morning so we could leave to visit the ruins around 8am. Luckily the ruins are only a 200 meter walk away from the campground. The Mayabell campground is actually the closest place to stay to the ruins.

The Mayan ruins at Palenque are believed to have been built between approx. 200 - 800 AD and are located on the top of a hill, surrounded by (and partially taken over by) the jungle. The Mayans who lived here were believed to have been in competition (war) with neighboring Mayan states, such as Calakmul (a few hours to the east) and Tikal (southeast of here, across the border in Guatemala).
The ruins are protected in a national park and see around 1000 visitors per day! That's quite a lot considering the remoteness of this area: it's hours away from the nearest city (Villahermosa) and many more hours away from the top destinations in this part of Mexico (Cancun, Chichen Itza, Tulum, Merida). 99% Of the visitors to Palenque arrive by tourbus, as is obvious by the lack of cars on the ruins' parking lot and the large number of buses dropping people off each morning.
We tried to go early to beat the crowds, but only partially succeeded, as the ruins open at 8am but the museum where you buy your tickets (to get into the ruins on foot via the southern entrance) only opens at 9am ... And, by 10am, most of the daily visitors have arrived.

We explored the ruins for a few hours this morning. The location is beautiful: hundreds of buildings, including a few pyramids, in the jungle. Some cleaned up, others still partially covered by the vegetation.

Even though these ruins are believed to be younger than those in Teotihuacan, their condition is worse because of the jungle environment here.
On our way out, we saw the waterfalls and the queen's bath: a pretty natural pool near the cascades.
Our last stop before heading back to the campground was the site's museum.

Click here for our pictures of Palenque

We relaxed at the campground in the afternoon by the swimming pool.
On our evening walk with Sophie, the following happened: a skunk came running out of the bushes; Sophie tried to bite it and ... got sprayed right in the face by the skunk!! Amazingly stinky. We washed her face 3x with different soaps, but it still smells. Hopefully it'll subside over the following days ...

February 13, 2014: Palenque

We woke up this morning with good and bad news.
The bad news: a roof leak on our new RV. It had been raining all night and we had drops of water coming down in the bed area. Once the rain stopped later in the morning, we climbed up onto the roof and found that a seam had no sealant on it. Must have been an oversight during construction. We put some silicone on it, so hopefully this was the area that caused the leak and our fix is adequate.

The good news: we woke up with the sound of the howler monkeys.
The sound is pretty scary actually: it sounds like a beast howling in the jungle.

It rained on and off the entire day. We relaxed at the campsite.

February 12, 2014: Villahermosa to Palenque

We stocked up on groceries this morning at the local Walmart in Villahermosa: necessary, since we're heading southeast to Palenque, which is pretty much located in the middle of nowhere. Whenever possible, we try to shop locally at small shops, but sometimes a big convenience store is more ... convenient.

We left Villahermosa around 10am and reached Palenque around lunch town.
Many police and military checkpoints along the way: this area, located in the state of Chiapas, is the base for the guerilla movement known as the Zapatista's. They are not known for their love of tourists, so it feels safe to see police and military everywhere.

We checked into campground Mayabell: along the road to the ruins and about 6 km from the nearest small town.
They charge about $15 per night for electrical and water hookup; hot showers but no WiFi unfortunately.

The campground is very nicely located at the edge of the jungle: lots of colorful birds and ... monkeys!
We spent the afternoon at the swimming pool (which is actually formed by a dam of the river) and saw several howler monkeys swinging in the trees; high overhead.

So far so good: the climate is nicer here compared to Villahermosa. Even though it's a wet jungle here, the humidity isn't too bad, the temperature drops a little at night and there are few mosquitoes (knock on wood).


Comments

  • Hee you lazy bums, if you had walked two kilometers uphill to the real entrance, you could have gone in at 8 am. The south entrance is for when you have visited the ruins and you can get out there to have an easy stroll back to the campground. ;) Dutchie Claudia

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February 10 - 11: Villahermosa

February 11, 2014: Villahermosa

We took a taxi into the city this morning. The main reason for our stay in Villahermosa was to visit the "La Venta" museum: a museum that shows the archeological finds from the nearby town of La Venta.

La Venta is the town where thousands of years ago (supposedly, as archeologists aren't sure) the people known as the Olmecs lived. They lived prior to the civilization that built Teotihuacan.
They left behind several giant stone heads; 3 of which are on display here at the museum in Villahermosa.

But ... when we arrived at the museum this morning, it was closed for maintenance for the entire week!
Lucky for us however is that the museum exhibits are outdoors. When you take a walk in the park, you get to see one of the giant stone heads, so at least our trip wasn't completely wasted.

While walking around the park, we also got to meet some of the local wildlife: we saw 4 coatimundi's (regarded as Latin America's version of the raccoon, although it doesn't look very similar to me) and 2 crocodiles floating in the lake. Who knew there are wild crocs living in the middle of a city!?

In the afternoon, we took a taxi back to the campground and went swimming in the waterpark again.

Click here for our pictures of Villahermosa

February 10, 2014: Catemaco to Villahermosa

We left this morning on the supposedly 4 hour drive; according to the GPS; to Villahermosa.
As usual, this being Mexico, it actually took us 6 hours. Lots of small towns with lots of topes (speed bumps) and several stretches of road construction.

Along the way, we needed to refill the RV's propane tank. Almost every good sized town in Mexico has a 'gas' place (propane/butane), usually on the big road right outside of town. When we stopped at one, the attendant tried to refill our tank, but was unsuccessful. Per his explanation in Spanish, the tank hookup was 'americano' and didn't fit his hose ...
We were getting a little worried since the propane gas tank is what keeps our fridge working!
However, in our research prior to this trip, we hadn't found anything about different sized propane tank hookups between the US and Central America, so we thought we'd keep trying. Finally, the 3rd store we tried was able to refill our tank.

As the "Lonely Planet" guide book writes: "Villahermosa is a hot, flat and humid city".
That description is right on the money.
Villahermosa means 'beautiful city' in Spanish; not sure who gave it this name but we didn't think it was a good name.

We checked into a campground right outside of the city, at waterpark "El Gordo". Basically, you are allowed to park your RV on the parking lot in front of the waterpark; a nice grassy area with electrical hookup.
They charge around $20 per night and that includes access to the waterpark, so that was nice. Sophie was even allowed to go in with us!
The only negatives about this 'campground'? Lots of mosquitoes at night and no WiFi.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the waterpark cooling off.


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February 7 - 9, 2014: Catemaco

February 9: Catemaco (Los Tuxtles)

This morning, we got up a little early to head down to the big river behind the campground.
I wanted to take pictures of the many birds around here and of the fishermen on the river. After spending a few hours observing the birds, we went into town for lunch.

The risk of being a pescetarian in a restaurant: I ordered a shrimp skewer but the shrimp came wrapped in bacon ...

We walked around in town and by the lake. Very scenic environment with the lake surrounded by jungle covered mountains (or hills?).

Click here for our pictures of Catemaco and the local wildlife

February 8: Catemaco (Los Tuxtles)

We relaxed on the campground today and explored the town further.

This area is famous for a snack called "tegogolos": fresh water snails served in a ceviche-like sauce. Very tasty!

February 7: Anton Lizardo to Catemaco

We said goodbye to the stranded couple this morning and left Coco Aventura. We headed east, following the coastline into a hilly area called "los tuxtles". A wet, jungle-like environment about half-way between Veracruz and Quetzalcoalcas.

It took us about 2.5 hours to reach the small town of Catemaco, nicely situated next to a lake.
We checked into the local campground, run by an American who has been living here for the past 11 years. Besides us, there's 2 older couples in big RV's spending the winter here.
The campground is one of the nicest ones we've seen in Mexico this far: a nice grassy area; swimming pool; WiFi; right next to a river (with lots of birds) and a 5 minute walk to the lake and the town.

In the afternoon, we walked around in the town. It's not as pretty as other colonial towns like San Miguel, but it's a nice little town and the lake views are great.
Lots of vendors try to sell us their boat tour on the lake, which includes a visit to one of the small islands on the lake where wild (Asian) monkeys live!
As we're hopefully going to be seeing many wild monkeys on this trip, we're not likely going to pay to see monkeys here.


Comments

  • You;re right about paying to see the monkeys. Better to wait for the Palenque, belize or Costa Rica areas. Here's a tip: buy a couple of cheap bikes to throw on or in the camper. So much easier to see the sites and get around these towns. Tallman

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February 5 - 6: Anton Lizardo (Veracruz)

Thursday, Feb 6: Anton Lizardo

We relaxed at the campground today. Unfortunately it was too windy to go swimming but at least we had some sun.
It's a nice campground, with swimming pool, palapa's, cabana's ... but pretty windy. According to the owner, this area gets windy in wintertime.

There was one other couple staying here in an RV (a retired couple from Delaware). Unfortunately, they had engine issues and were waiting on parts to arrive from up in the States: they'd been here for about 10 days already stranded, but, finally heard that their parts were due to arrive soon.

Wednesday, Feb 5: Cholula to Veracruz / Anton Lizardo

We got up early and left Cholula on Wednesday morning. We wanted to get going early enough to beat the rush hour traffic, but that didn't work out well.
Cholula forms one city with Puebla (Mexico's 4th biggest city). Puebla is famous for its Volkswagen factory (where the original Beetle was made until a few years ago) and indeed, in morning rush hour, 90% of cars on the road are VW!

We headed east from Cholula towards the ocean. So far, coming down from the Texas border (Laredo) towards Mexico City, had meant driving through central Mexico on the 'altiplano' (high lands).
Finally driving east towards the ocean meant leaving the high central area to descend to sea level. The drive is beautiful. Snowy volcanoes and the dry altiplano turns into a jungle-like environment as you get closer to the coast.
We did have our share of slow traffic as we passed many road crews. It's all toll road from Cholula to Veracruz (on the coast), but due to the road work along the way, it still took us about 4.5 hours to reach the coast.

We arrived in Veracruz in early afternoon and called the "El Rey" RV park (as described in the Church's "Mexican Camping" book), only to find out that it wasn't opening for another month!
The owner sent us 1 km down the road, to another hotel on the beach: "Coco Aventura"; apparently owned by the same people.
We setup our camper here, on the sand in between the palm trees.

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February 3 - 4, 2014: Cholula

Tuesday, Feb 4: Cholula

We visited the town of Cholula today: a "pueblo magico", which means that it's a nicely preserved colonial town.

Click here for our pictures of Cholula

It's about a 20 minute walk from the campground to reach downtown and the biggest pyramid in the world: at the base (1/4 mile each side), Cholula's pyramid is bigger than Cheops in Egypt or the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan!

However, the pyramid at Cholula is not really visible or well-preserved ... it's buried under a mountain of dirt.
Apparently built around the same time as Teotihuacan, by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, it was supposedly already buried. So what did the Spaniards do? They built a catholic church right on the top of the hill!

We first walked up the hill (in which the pyramid is buried) to see the church. It's a pretty high hill and from up there, you have a great view over the city.
Afterwards, we went inside the pyramid: over the years, archeologists dug out 5 km of tunnels. About 250 m of these tunnels is accessible. The tunnels are very low and narrow: not a good place for someone with claustrophobia (like myself).

Puebla is also famous for the Mexican national dish: a chocolaty sauce called "mole poblano", which we had for lunch here on the "zocalo" (large central plaza). Not bad. Haichong liked it a lot better than I did.

In the afternoon we explored the historical city center of Cholula. Nice old buildings, painted in different colors. Many churches and even a Franciscan library with old books dating back to the 17th century.

We walked back to our campsite in late afternoon and did some grocery shopping along the way.

Monday, Feb 3: Teotihuacan to Cholula

We were all ready to go around 10am this morning and then found out that we were not legally allowed to drive until 11am!
As mentioned earlier, the area in and around Mexico City is a "hoy no circular" zone: this means that on all weekdays, no cars with foreign license plates are allowed on the roads between 5am - 11am; plus, depending on the last number of your license plate, there is 1 day per week on which you are not allowed to drive at all (which is Wednesday for our license plate).
So, we waited another hour on the campground before we could leave at 11am ...

We left town by driving by the pyramids one last time and then headed southeast by using the toll roads (40-D and 150-D). As usual, empty roads which allow you to advance fast (as opposed to the 'free' highways, which pass through small towns with lots of speed bumps).
Nice views along the way of the two volcanoes east of Mexico City (one covered in snow).

We arrived in the city of Cholula (next to the city of Puebla) around lunch time and set up our camper at the only campground in town: "Trailer park Las Americas".
One other RV here (an Alaskan couple who we met before at the campground in Teotihuacan).

In the afternoon, we explored the area around the campground. These are the suburbs of Cholula, so not many old buildings. There are a lot of big box stores within walking distance (Sam's Club, big grocery store, etc.).
The only -partially- interesting thing we found on our walk was a local cemetery: most graves are built above ground in nice small buildings. Different from what we're used to seeing.

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January 30 - February 2, 2014: Teotihuacan

Sunday, Feb 2: San Juan Teotihuacan

Another lazy day. Actually, we're both trying to stay awake after last night's fireworks! Today is a religious holiday here and lots of women are carrying fake babies (dolls) around town.
For the holiday, they also had church services in the middle of the night. You'd think they keep it quiet to let people sleep but no ... they ring the church bells every few hours plus light up a lot of fireworks (loud bangs), and they had a music band play after the fireworks!
Today is the holiday so we're hoping it'll be quiet tonight.

For lunch, we walked around in the town here. Lots of street vendors because of the holiday. Haichong ate a seafood cocktail and I had a pastry filled with shrimp. Not bad, not great.

In late afternoon, I was able to use the slow WiFi again to upload our pictures of Guanajuato: click here

We looked after the 2 dogs of two travelers; Hani and Sarah from Key West, Florida (our neighbors on the campground); who were visiting Mexico City today. Like us, they're planning to travel down to Panama: click here for their website.

Other travelers we met again here are Toby & Chloe (click here for their website) and Sam & Erica (click here for their website). We had met both couples briefly in San Miguel before: both of them are on their way to Argentina.

Saturday, Feb 1: San Juan Teotihuacan

We took it easy today and relaxed on the campsite in the warm sun.
Before lunch, we joined our neighbor; Dirk from the couple behind 2nomads.nl; on a shopping trip to the local supermarket.

In the afternoon, I was able to use the slow campground WiFi connection to upload our Teotihuacan pictures: click here.

Friday, Jan 31: San Juan Teotihuacan

We visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan today.


Detail in the hall of columns

Since dogs are not allowed at the site, we left Sophie in the RV on the campground.

The site of Teotihuacan is big: from south to north, it's about 3 km (2 miles). We took a taxi to drop us off at gate 3 but he actually dropped us off at gate 1: at the 'bottom' of the site.

We entered the site around 9 AM and on the south end, visited the citadel, which contains the temple of Quetzalcoatl.
We made our way north, along the "way of the dead" towards gate 2 and the famous "pyramid of the sun": the biggest pyramid on site. This pyramid has the same base as the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt (other similarities exist).
The entire site is at 2.000 meters altitude so, combined with the strong sun, it's quite a work-out to climb the Pyramid of the Sun!


Standing on top of the Pyramid of the Sun, looking out towards the Pyramid of the Moon

Afterwards, we made our way north to the "pyramid of the moon".

We've visited different pyramids on earlier trips (like Chichen Itza, Copa and Tulum) but, since I read Graham Hancock's books, these pyramids were on my list of 'must-see' items.
It's definitely an impressive sight and (as opposed to Chichen Itza) it's great that you're still allowed here to climb on top of the pyramid (of the sun).

In early afternoon, we exited the site at gate 3 (at the most northern end) and we took a taxi back into town (30 pesos = $2.50 USD).
Teotihuacan was presumably built after Christ was born by an ancient civilization who lived before the Aztecs. For more info, click here.

In the afternoon, we walked around in the town and did some grocery shopping.

A final note for today: Mexicans love fire works. Unfortunately.
It seems that wherever you go, they come up with some reason to have fire works. We barely slept last night because of loud bangs all night: apparently this town is celebrating a religious event this Sunday (February 2) and fire works go hand in hand with celebrating the event.
Sophie is very scared of fire works, so obviously it's not very fun to hear loud bangs throughout the night...

Thursday, Jan 30: Queretaro to San Juan Teotihuacan

We left Queretaro in the morning and drove several toll roads (expensive but quiet) to reach the small town of San Juan Teotihuacan by lunch time.
A few kilometers northeast of Mexico City, this town is famous for its pyramids: the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

Ever since I read the books of Graham Hancock, I wanted to visit this place.
- book: "Fingerprints of the Gods"
- YouTube video: (if you don't want to watch the entire video, fast forward to 1h 26m)

We checked into the local RV campground: "Teotihuacan RV and Trailer park".
Lots of internationals staying here in their (custom made, many expedition-ready) RV's. Our neighbors are a dutch couple who have been traveling around the world in their custom Toyota Landcruiser since 2005! (click here for their website)
We also see other travelers again who we saw before at the campground in San Miguel de Allende (some of them on their way to Panama; others on their way to Argentina).

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January 26 - 29, 2014: Guanajuato

Wednesday, Jan 29: Guanajuato to Queretaro

This morning, we left Guanajuato. It was interesting again to drive the big truck through the small town streets, barely fitting inside the tunnels ...
We reached the town of Queretaro by early afternoon. Along the way, we passed one military checkpoint but were waved through.

We are sleeping just north of Queretaro, at the Jiriquilla Inn: a hotel with a big campground in the back.
We relaxed this afternoon at the hotel pool. Too cold to swim but still nice. The weather has been great so far on the trip: around 25 C during the day (75-80 F) and cool at night. Not a drop of rain yet, always sunny.

No one else here at the campground. Just one what looks like an American RV, which is stored here.
Camping really isn't popular amongst Mexicans it seems ...

We're planning on staying here just for the night (as there are no things we want to see in this area) and tomorrow drive to the area north of Mexico City.
The reason we couldn't drive straight to Mexico City today is that our license plate ends in the number '3', and on Wednesdays, cars with that final number in their plate are not allowed to drive in that area. They're trying to fight the pollution in Mexico City so are coming up with all kinds of ways to keep cars off the roads.

Tuesday, Jan 28: Guanajuato

The campground hostess turned on the gas to heat the water yesterday, so we have hot showers now!

We relaxed at the campground and visited the historic town center again in the afternoon.


Having lunch at the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato

Guanajuato is a nice town but we like San Miguel better. Most of the highlights of Guanajuato are located along two main 'east-west' roads (Juarez and 28 Septiembre); both with pretty heavy traffic. Guanajuato is a university town so there's definitely more people in town. San Miguel is quieter and, at least it seems, better taken care of (better preserved). And of course, the campground in San Miguel is much nicer compared to Morrill in Guanajuato.
That being said: Morrill is a great option for being 'in town'. For the past 3 days, it's been just us, no other campers here.

To see our pictures of Guanajuato: click here.

Monday, Jan 27: Guanajuato

Today, we visited the historic center of Guanajuato.
It's about a 10 minute walk downhill from the Morrill campground, followed by a 5 minute walk through a tunnel ("Santa Fe tunnel"), to reach the historic downtown.
Along the way are many small grocery stores: very convenient to buy freshly made corn tortilla's and salsa (which we did on the way back up to the campground in the afternoon).

The historic center of Guanajuato is centered around a virtual square: from the Mercado Hidalgo in the lower left corner, to the Plaza de la Jardin and the Plaza de la Paz in the lower right corner, and the university in the upper right corner. It takes about 1 hour to walk around without stopping.

Our first stop for the day was the "Mercado Hidalgo": a big building in which many vendors sell their wares.
We ate a 'tostado ceviche' here as a snack: a tostado (basically a crunchy, small tortilla) covered with ceviche. Very tasty!

Afterwards, we continued on to the Plaza de la Paz and Plaza de la Jardin: both small plaza's with a church. The Plaza de la Jardin also houses the famous 'Teatro Jardin'.


Guanajuato

Behind the Plaza de la Jardin, I took the cable car ("funicular") up to the top of a hill, where a statue overlooks the city. Great views from here.

We passed by the university buildings and headed back to the Mercado Hidalgo in early afternoon to have lunch. We ate some more tostado's, this time covered with octopus ("pulpo") and shrimp ("camaron").

On the way back up to the campground in late afternoon, we stopped by several small grocery stores. Word to the wise: when you travel to Mexico with your dog, try to bring dog food with you from the US! Dog food (especially 'wet food') is very expensive here; around $2 to $4 per can.

Sunday, Jan 26: San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato

We got up early and left the campground in San Miguel around 9:30. Too bad that our weeklong stay here has come to an end, as this is a really nice town with a great campground with great international neighbors. But, if we ever want to get to Panama, we have to get moving again.

Before heading west to the colonial town of Guanajuato, we visited the small town of Atotonilco, 10 minutes north of San Miguel.

Atotonilco has a famous church, which forms a Unesco World Heritage Site together with the town of San Miguel. The church is called the "Sistine chapel of the Americas": the ceilings are covered in elaborate, beautiful drawings.
After visiting the church, we walked around on the Sunday market and ate some unidentified but tasty snacks (greasy tortillas with cheese and vegetables).

We left Atotonilco around lunch time and headed west towards Guanajuato. Our GPS sent us on a short cut which ended up being a bumpy dirt road, before joining the 'main road' between San Miguel and Guanajuato: a 2 lane narrow road, through small towns.
We arrived in Guanajuato about 2 hours later. The town is located inbetween hills and I doubt there is any flat land here. All roads are narrow and hilly, with lots of traffic. Not exactly the kind of roads you want to be driving a big truck on! Several times, Haichong had to get out of the car to make sure I wasn't going to hit something.
As the saying goes: when you're driving, it's best to have a small RV; but when you're parked in one spot for a long time, you wish you had a big RV with all the space and luxuries ...
No RV is perfect; every type of RV has good and bad things about it.

We drove through town and turned onto the scenic ring road (the 'panoramico'). I was expecting a highway, but instead, got a very narrow road again. To make matters worse, because of the hilly environment, there are many tunnels and bridges in town ... barely high enough for us! But ... we made it. We're staying at the only campground in town (=within walking distance of the historic downtown area): Morrill Trailer Park.
$14 per night, cold showers, no WiFi and a very dangerous looking 15 amp electrical hookup (our voltage meter shows 140-150v instead of 110v).
The campground is basically a series of small flat areas on a hillside. If you have a big RV (= bigger than a truck camper), do not try to come here ...
The benefit of being on the hillside however is that you have a nice view from the campground. Lots of colorful houses built up the different hillsides. A negative is that all city sounds/noises echo between the hillsides, including lots of barking dogs.


Our RV at Morrill campground in Guanajuato

Altitude of the campground is 2.000 meters (6,700 ft): hot during the day, cold at night.
The rest of the afternoon, we explored the area around the campground and bought some groceries at small stores.
Because of the altitude and the fact that no road is flat, it's pretty tiring to walk around here!


Comments

  • Very nice blog, welcome to Mexico! Keep up the good work and maybe some day we will meet. mexicoruss!

  • Why didn't you go to the mummy museum??? You missed the best, greetz Claudia

  • Thanks! Claudia, we thought about it long and hard... :-) In the end, since it wasn't convenient with our dog and since we've seen other mummies and the Bodies exhibit in Las Vegas, we decided against it ..

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January 16 - 25, 2014: US border to San Miguel de Allende

Saturday, Jan 25: San Miguel de Allende

Our final day in San Miguel. In the morning, we filled up our fresh water tank on the RV for the first time since we crossed the border into Mexico. We used a water filter to keep out sediment, but most likely, it won't be safe to drink so going forward we'll only be able to use the RV water for showers and doing dishes (unless we boil it, which makes it safe to drink again).

We walked to the central plaza in the afternoon. Many tourists and Mexicans watching the dancing on the square.


Music band on plaza Jardin

We're planning on traveling to the colonial town of Guanajuato on Sunday, where we probably won't have WiFi on the campground, so it can take a few days until I can update the blog again.

Friday, Jan 24: San Miguel de Allende

Ever since we left for Alaska back in May '13, I'd been trying to convince Haichong to do our laundry by hand (preferably at a river, somewhere in the wild). Today was the first time that we actually did our laundry by hand, at the campground. However, looking at how inexpensive it is to have a laundry business do it for you here in Mexico ... it might not be worth the trouble.

We went for a walk around town in the afternoon and bought some groceries at small, local stores.
As long as you avoid tourist stores (which can be recognized by English language on the menu or signs), you can find things at good prices. Shop where the locals shop (and hope they don't charge you the 'gringo price'). The same goes for restaurants: you can buy something on a tourist street but walk one block away, and the same item, in a restaurant where locals eat, costs only half of the price!


Street view

We do expect that San Miguel, in general, is an expensive town for Mexico. We won't know for sure until we traveled to more areas, but the fact that so many North Americans are retiring in San Miguel is definitely pushing up prices. For example, when you look at the average housing price in San Miguel, prices are up to par with those in the US! For example, a normal 2 bedroom house easily costs $500 - 600,000 USD here! There's no way that locals (who make about $1,000 per month) can afford to buy a house at those prices. Which is a shame ...

Thursday, Jan 23: San Miguel de Allende

We relaxed at the RV park until early afternoon and headed out into town in early evening. The town is very nicely lit up at night and I wanted to go out to take some evening pictures.


Plaza de Jardin at night

On one of the plazas they were having a market. Lots of vendors selling hand-made clothing which seems to be a common thing found throughout Latin America as I saw the same clothes for sale in Guatemala a few years back.
Amazing the kind of food you can find here: one vendor was selling fried grasshoppers! Oh, and the secret is out: before we became vegetarians, we have eaten the Mexican BBQ chicken ('pollo asado') in the past and loved it, but always wondered how they made it taste so good. Today at the market we found out that they put a special mix of spices on the chicken called 'mole' (which is available in many different flavors, to marinate meats).
At the market, we had a sugary snack which reminded me of the belgian 'smoutebollen'.


The Mexican version of 'smoutebollen'

A few streets away from the tourist plaza's, we found a local indoor market where Mexicans shop. Here also lots of unfamiliar sights and smells, including big pieces of raw pork skin for sale. And a butcher who was making ground beef right in front of your eyes by grinding actual beef ... unlike regular US and European butcher shops where who knows what gets put in there.

Wednesday, Jan 22: San Miguel de Allende

Today, we visited the large park in the old town ("parque Juarez"): very green with lots of palm trees.
Afterwards, we walked up one of the many hills in town to a place with a great view over the old town, including the bull ring ("plaza de toros"), which we hadn't seen yet. This bull ring is the oldest in Latin America: it dates back 300 years and is (unfortunately) still in use today.

We tasted some chocolate in a small shop. I had no idea that Mexico grows its own cocoa beans! Apparently, they grow mainly in the nearby state of Tabasco. Very tasty!

In the evening, after dinner, we went to the nearby church to take some pictures after dark.


Plaza de San Antonio at night

Tuesday, Jan 21: San Miguel de Allende

This morning at 11, there was a parade going through the city with the local military, police and school children. We went to see the parade and the rest of the day, as we walked around in the city, we saw pieces of the parade passing through the old city center streets.

So far, we've been successful in eating food that we don't know: yesterday at lunch time we ate tamales (vegetable and cheese paste, wrapped inside leaves of plantains) and today at lunch time we ate sandwiches with avocado and fried cheese. Both were very tasty!
It's not easy finding vegetarian food here: most dishes; especially street food; include pork (chicharron), beef (carne) or chicken (pollo). Now, the chicken grilled on charcoal is definitely delicious and smells amazing (we had it on previous trips to Mexico) ... but since we are now vegetarians (with the occasional eating of seafood; I guess officially it's called "pescetarians"), we avoid eating meat. And, so far, with some searching, have been able to find very tasty vegetarian meals.

After we arrived back at the campground in late afternoon, I uploaded some of the pictures so far of San Miguel de Allende: click here for pictures of San Miguel de Allende.


Plaza de San Antonio, San Miguel de Allende

Monday, Jan 20: San Miguel de Allende

We extended our stay here to a week so we'll be staying in San Miguel de Allende until Sunday, Jan 26.

Today, we walked through the old town all day: cobblestone streets, lots of plazas, churches, old architecture; very beautiful and a great example of what one might expect 'old Mexico' to look like.
The city of San Miguel de Allende was actually voted to be the "best city in the world" in 2013! [Website]
It was voted number 1 thanks to its "great atmosphere, excellent restaurants, culture and ambiance galore. The lack of traffic lights and billboards makes the region romantically and historically beautiful, and the city itself offers a traditional feeling of a small town in the heart of Mexico."

For us, it's great to be able to stay at a campground right in the middle of all of this. That's definitely a luxury you don't frequently have when RV'ing, since most campgrounds are located outside of cities (where the land is cheaper and there's more room for big RV's).
Also, there are lots of other international travelers staying here at the campground (many in exotic looking 4x4 RV's) so it's great to get tips about traveling in the area.

The weather is also great by the way: 28 C and blue skies during the day and (because of the altitude) 5 C at night.


View towards San Miguel de Allende

Sunday, Jan 19: Matehuala to San Miguel de Allende

We left Matehuala in the morning and headed south towards the town of San Luis Potosi via highway 57. When we arrived however, the 2 campgrounds described in the guide book were nowhere to be found ... Both campgrounds' phones were not working and when we arrived at their location, there was nothing there ... I guess things changed in the 4 years since the guide book was written!

Now, our very limited experience of RV'ing in Mexico so far (it's been 2 full days!) has shown us that RV'ing down here is nothing like RV'ing up in the USA or Canada: most of the campgrounds in Mexico are not 'really' campgrounds, but parking spaces behind a hotel; also, electrical hook-ups are usually 15 amp and not the usual 30 / 50 amp needed by the bigger RV's; wild-camping ("boondocking") isn't highly recommended down here because of safety concerns; and of course, the water down here isn't safe to drink so a water hook-up at the campground isn't very useful anyway.

So, we decided to leave San Luis Potosi after having lunch and head further south towards the city of Queretaro. Along the way, while reading the Lonely Planet guide book, we changed our minds and headed southwest, into the mountains, to the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.

This town is very beautiful with old cobblestone streets and plazas with old churches. Most of the historic town dates back to the 15th century, when the Spaniards arrived here.
1.800 Meters altitude (5,900 feet) in the mountains: nice during the day, chilly at night.

We found a campground in the middle of the old town; very tight to drive with the truck in the old and narrow cobblestone streets! We're staying at the "San Miguel de Allende RV park". [RV park website]
We're thinking of staying here a few days to explore the old town.

Saturday, Jan 18: Saltillo to Matehuala

Sophie's stomach was bad all night so we didn't get much sleep. We finally got up around 7 to go outside to walk her.
We left Saltillo around 8:30. We were wondering why traffic was so good, until we realized it was Saturday today. That might have also explained why none of the big grocery stores were open yet (they have an H-E-B here).

We headed south on highway 57 through the mountains; a nice road. The first portion was again a toll road ($10), after this it was a free highway all the way south to the town of Matehuala. Along the way, we passed one military check point (they were friendly and let us pass).

Upon arrival in Matehuala, we went to the local grocery store: Wal-Mart!
On this trip, our goal is to never buy a product that we 'know': a good way to have some adventures with our food! So far so good; we only bought local brands and foods, including local (unknown to us) fruits.
Unfortunately, even at Wal-Mart, we didn't find vegetarian meat replacements, so for now we'll have to do with what we still have in our fridge from the US grocery stores and with some other meat replacements like mushrooms.

Not easy by the way to drive around in the small town streets: one time we came upon a tunnel with a height of 2 meters ... way too low for our truck & camper, so we had to turn on our 4 blinkers and drive backwards.


Our camper at hotel Las Palmas in Matehuala

We checked into the campground at the hotel Las Palmas in Matehuala in early afternoon. After lunch, we explored the grounds and played mini-golf. Nice weather, lots of palm trees.
Very quiet, with just one other camper (the Germans in their unimog!).

Friday, Jan 17: US border to Saltillo, Mexico

We got up early this morning; around 6:30; in order to get to the border as early as possible.
We left the campground a little before 8 and drove to the "Columbia" border crossing, northwest of the city of Laredo. We read that this border crossing is the best option with an RV, especially since it's outside of the city and much less busy compared to the 2 border crossings in Laredo.

We arrived at the border crossing around 8:30 and to our surprise were all alone there! No line, no people in sight!
We crossed into Mexico and stopped at the immigration office. Plenty of parking for the truck and we went inside to take care of the necessary paperwork.
We received a 90 day tourist visa and an import permit for our car (at the "banjercito" office). Mexico is pretty strict about taking your car outside of the country with you when you leave, so they ask for a $400 deposit that they will only return to you when you leave the country and when you turn in your "departure permit".

Even though there were no other tourists at the immigration or banjercito offices, it still took us about an hour before we could leave. Final stop: Mexican customs.
The customs officer looked inside our truck camper but didn't even open up the fridge. There was some confusion as to whether the slide-in truck camper needed an extra import permit, but the officer soon learned that the truck camper is considered to be an "accessory" of the truck so no separate permit is needed.

When we were finally leaving the border area, we noticed one other RV that had arrived: a Mercedes Unimog driven by an older German couple.

We took hwy. 2 to avoid the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo and headed south on hwy. 85 towards Monterrey.
Half-way we drove a short section of toll road (Hwy. 85D) to avoid some towns along the way. Mexican toll roads are considered to be the most expensive in the world! We paid $20 to drive the short section of toll road.

Just north of Monterrey, we headed west on Hwy. 40 to the city of Saltillo. We avoided taking the toll road (40D) which actually runs parallel to the free Hwy. 40.
The free road is actually in pretty good shape and traffic isn't bad.

We arrived in Saltillo in early afternoon and checked into Hotel Imperial, which runs a small RV park in the back (gated and guarded), with electrical hook-up. Definitely not cheap for Mexico: $35 per night.

After settling in, we explored the area around the hotel; which has some stores; and relaxed by sitting in the sun at the RV park.
Oh, and when we arrived back at the RV park from our walk in the afternoon, guess who was checking in: the same German couple we saw at the border this morning! I guess the RV park options in Mexico are really very limited, or they must be using the same travel guide as us. ("Mexican Camping" by Mike and Terri Church)
Tonight, besides our truck camper and the German Unimog, there's 2 other truck campers spending the night here (Canadians).

The weather is nice during the day and chilly at night. Good thing we can run the electric heater in the RV overnight. We're not in the Tropics yet.
The scenery is very 'Texas-like' in the border area but changes to hills and mountains the closer you get to Monterrey. It's a very dry climate here with lots of cactii.
The culture of course is very different from the USA. You can definitely tell you've entered Central America!

As usual, for some iphone pictures taken along the way or in the campgrounds, check my Facebook account at www.facebook.com/jorn.vango.

Thursday, Jan 16: San Antonio, TX to Laredo, TX

After the final preparations, we left San Antonio (much later than planned) in late afternoon, in the middle of rush hour.
We drove for 3 hours until we arrived in the border area and slept at the "Lake Casa Blanca state park" in Laredo (still in Texas). A nice state park with a campground next to a big lake, although we didn't get to enjoy it much since it was already after dark when we arrived.


Comments

  • The sugary "smoutebollen" are called churros and can be found in any Hispanic country. We we're on vacation in Spain, it's one of those things on our agenda: eat churros! :-) Bart L

  • Your blog is hard for me to read in gray tone. Where did you rent the RV? Security issues at all? Do you have protection of any kinds with you? Thanks..

  • We bought an RV for the trip. Not sure if you can rent one as some countries down here in central America have no or little car insurance available, so it could get expensive to get insurance through a rental company. The only protection we carry with us is pepper spray and our dog ... no issues so far! Jorn

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January 1 - 16, 2014

We have made our decision: extend!

We're getting ready for the trip and are working on updating the website. More info to follow soon.

What happened since we arrived in San Antonio?
We sold the Jeep Commander in late December and we sold the Airstream on January 7!
Since the trip through Central America will likely require a car and camper combination that will be able to drive on narrower and rougher roads, we decided to go with a pick-up truck and slide-in truck camper combination.

We bought the following:
2008 Dodge Ram 3500 with the 6.7L diesel engine, 4x4 and dual rear wheel drive
2014 Livin Lite Camp Lite slide-in truck camper 8.6

We're hoping to leave San Antonio on our trip through Central America sometime around January 15.


Comments

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Saturday, December 1 - 31, 2013

Our big road trip has come to an end (or has it?).

It's been an amazing experience. 21.832 km (13,646 miles) of driving through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Canada (Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon). 7 Months of traveling (211 days)!
We consider ourselves lucky that we didn't have technical breakdowns to the car or Airstream. The repairs we did along the way include new tires and brakes on the Jeep and new tires on the Airstream, a new converter in the Airstream; and of course, we still have to fix the broken window on the Airstream.

Now we're staying in San Antonio with Haichong's parents and are busy cleaning the Jeep and Airstream, plus decide what to do next ... settle or extend the trip?


Comments

  • Enjoy the New Year 2014... have done some parts of the North Western US-states but the vango roadtrip was truly amazing!!! Best regards, RefractorPhill

  • Je blog leest als een boek: ik waan me even in Mexico als ik jullie verhalen lees ... geweldig!

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