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Charging across Central America - News - bespk

Charging across Central America

Posted on Friday, 21st December 2012 by Eunice

We left Oaxaca on the day of the fiesta of the Virgin Mary (9/12/12).  The whole of the  previous night had been punctuated by the sound of large rockets exploding and loud music all around.  Not conducive to any form of sleep or ‘bon homie’ and left us both feeling battle weary.  It seemed a shame to miss the fiesta.   We followed a truck, bulging with family members and goodies for their own party heading towards Mitla.
Oaxaca lies in a valley and is surrounded by mountains on all sides; consequently our journey south was another long step climb and descent through more forests of cacti.  The road twisted its way through the mountains with many hairpin bends. This combined with the heavily laden trucks added to the drama and we were not surprised to come across branches on the road (3rd world warning triangle) and an overturned truck.  The valley floors are heavily cultivated, growing vegetables and maize with the hillsides full of agave plantations to supply the many Mescal factories along the route.
After a long days driving we finally descended onto the coastal plain and headed towards the city of Santa Domingo Tehuantepec.  We were only stopped by the police twice and managed to deal with the intervention in Spanish without too many blank looks.  A big improvement!  Being Saturday night, the centre of town was throbbing, and there was not a hotel to be seen, so we drove back to the only Auto hotel we had seen, passing the amazing metallic statue that stands guard at the start of the City.  This offered basic, relatively clean accommodation, a refreshing warm shower and there was a restaurant next door.
We had dinner and breakfast here listening to English Christmas Carols, sung in various forms – the King Singers, Kings College Cambridge, James Gallway and traditional Celtic Folk Music.  All designed to make us feel at home.  The Christmas tree and room decorations are traditional, but plentiful and the whole room was bursting with flashing lights and sound.  We left heading for Tonula.  The journey was far less arduous as the road was relatively flat with the Sierra Madre Mountains to our left. 
Apart from where we entered and exited populated areas; the going was smooth and this was probably one of the better roads we have encountered in Southern Mexico.  The points of excitement were the number of roadside fires; a good way of keeping the vegetation down; but completely unattended. Then the large forest of windmills we drove through (Don Quixote would have been in heaven) and the young runners along the roadside carrying burning torches in the hot midday sun, which we understand had something to do with the celebrations over the weekend; a kind of pilgrimage
Whilst Guy checked over the car and altered the ignition timing slightly, Eunice kept  him hydrated with local beer, while she improved her Spanish by watching Walt Disney films on the TV in the bar of the hotel we finally decided to stay in.  There are plenty of hotels in Tonula, many offering rooms at an hourly rate.  Apart from that the town did not appear to have too much to offer, but we may have missed something.
Our last stop in Mexico was Tapachula, about 20 miles from the Guatemalan border, We were both suffering from the strain of being back on the road again, the anxiety of crossing into the unknown and the frustrations of waiting for Insurance; which Guy has been trying to arrange with his man in Texas for some time.  However this was a good opportunity to practice our Spanish, so has some positives.  There is also a large Wal-Mart close by – good for stocking up on supplies that we are running out of. (Especially travel sweets).
Having got no further with the car insurance the following day, we decided to risk it, bite the bullet and head for the border at Cuidad Hidalgo.  Well they can certainly see us coming.  We managed to negotiate the first part ourselves, but were advised that there was a problem as they needed to contact Ensenada about our entry visas. Then having had our passports stamped, we tried to retrieve the money for the temporary importation of the car into Mexico that we paid for in Le Paz. We had been informed we could reclaim a large chunk of the money at the border.  But no; It would mean having to go back to the bank in Tapachula, and as our passports have been stamped this was not possible.  A good Christmas present for the Mexican Government.
Feeling rather vulnerable (and stupid), we put the car through the fumigation, where it is sprayed with some toxic chemical.  The guy doing this wearing a gas mask, whilst we sit in the car with the side screens closed – not much defence!  We have now been befriended by Carlos, who is going to help us across the border.  He is very helpful and talks Guy through the steps, whilst Eunice stays with the car, which is attracting a lot of attention; everyone wants a photograph, flier and information.  After two hours, with Carlos’ help (at a price of course) we are through the border and out the other side into what seems like a completely different and much poorer world.
Guatemala is a beautiful country with lush vegetation and heavily cultivated for the fruit and sugar cane industry.  The main manufacturers here are Coca-Cola, Pepsi and of course sugar producers, as well as del Monte, and the banana exporters.  Our journey was punctuated by long stops whilst we waited for the huge, overladen Lorries carrying the sugar cane to leave the fields.  It seems they and the buses have priority here and this leads to long delays.  As the sun began to set and the air filled with wood smoke for the cooking fires, men left the fields wielding their heavy knives we both felt that we needed to stop, but could find nothing so continued to drive until we came to the town of Escuintla. This was about 2 hours of night driving; scary.
As we entered the town; loud, chest vibrating music emanated from a roadside discothèque, to which hoards of people were flocking.  Having driven around the town in the dark, we finally came across a hotel – allegedly the best in town, with a room.  Frankly neither of us cared at this point, so the cold shower, accompanied by the large cockroach wasn’t too bad.  The food was good – anything tastes ok when you haven’t eaten since breakfast, but sleep was fitful, due to the large trucks using their engine breaks and causing the building to tremble.
And so to El Salvador;  as we drove towards the border a man on a motorbike pulled up alongside us and offered to help us across – surprise, surprise.  This was George and to his credit he was really helpful.  We had problems due in part to the fact that the car is right hand drive and despite its age is illegal in El Salvador, even though they acknowledge that it is a classic.  We have three choices: 1. Go back to Guatemala, 2. Provide some Quantitive Easing, if this is accepted, 3. Get through El Salvador in 24 hours.  So we parted with some more dollars, got our permit and drove into El Salvador.  Only three and a half hours.  George meanwhile has worked out our route and promised to get his friend Ron to help us on the other side.
We stopped not so far from the border in a small surfing town on the coast called Mitza, where down a long dirt track we found the Mitza Point Resort, where George offers an amazing oasis of peace and tranquillity. With good accommodation, hot showers, beautiful facilities and amazing food (lobster tails and carrot salad), as well as a long walk down the beach in the sunset; just what we needed.  There is some joy in all of this travelling after all.  We were early to bed, both feeling exhausted and knowing that the next day was going to be gruelling as we still had over 200 miles to do to get out of the country.
It was not an auspicious start; when the alarm clock didn’t go off, breakfast took slightly longer than expected, the minutes ticked by and Guy entered into his Victor mood.  And so we drove and drove.  Navigation is not easy here as the roads do not have many signs and the map we had was inaccurate.  Consequently we got lost twice, had to stop to ask directions and turn round.  Also in our haste we  hit several large potholes and a couple of topes.  The roads were awful and we came across a small girl, about five or six, with a large shovel, trying to fill potholes and begging money from drivers.  When it comes to the poverty scale, we think El Salvador is even poorer than Guatemala.
We finally arrived at the border (El Amantillo) at about 2.40 pm, our deadline being 2.18, and by the time we had driven to the head of the long queue of commercial vehicles we are 20 minutes late for our deadline.   We now have a $1200 dollar fine to pay unless we can negotiate our way out of it.   We have also been met by Ron (George’s friend, his buddy Oscar, who speaks English and later joined by another man whose name we never found out). They are going to help!!  We are sent to the Customs Post where they will deal with our case.  So we wait.  We have two broken spokes on a wheel and use this as a bargaining tool.
Fortunately one of the officials is quite sympathetic and tells us to write a letter stating that this is the reason for being late.  The letter is written (at a price) and we wait.  A large lorry is brought into the area and cordoned off.  They have found a stash of heroin and hoards of police, army, customs men and press surround it and pull the vehicle to pieces.  And we wait.  By now it is getting dark and Eunice is left in the parking area whilst Guy is in the Customs Post with his three minders.  It is a fact that the most unpleasant creatures emerge after dark.  The lorry is now stripped down, the media have finished so they can deal with us.  It is now 10pm.
Finally we have the papers, have been excused the fine and can cross the border.  What we do have is three hungry minders who see this as an opportunity to exploit the situation and they (and allegedly others) want a proportion of the money they have saved us.  Give them their due; they have stuck with us throughout.  Eunice was all for sleeping in the car and waiting until the morning to cross the border, but Guy had had enough by now and clearly lost his cool.  They wanted cash before we could have our papers and as we didn’t have enough. Guy was taken off in a Tuk- Tuk and then a taxi to a cash point, 25 miles back into Guatemala.  Fortunately the cash point would not give him the amount of money they asked for so they had to settle for what they are offered. The cost of the taxi is also deducted from their stash too. There is some justice after all. 
It is now after midnight and we have a further 25 miles to go before the nearest hotel.  The air is cooler, which helps to chill frayed tempers. We are despite everything safe, having broken all the rules laid down for travellers; hungry as breakfast was at 7.00.  We find a hotel just after 1.00 and discover the room has a bath. Things seem good until we realise there is no hot water.  The end of a day, to remember, in hell.
In the cold light of day Honduras looks okay and the roads seem a bit better. We head south east towards the city of Choleteca, and then due east up into the mountains, initially planning to stop in San Marcos de Colfin before crossing the border the following day. Along the roadside there are people selling iguanas, parrots and toucans.  The vistas are spectacular as we climb and the roads generally good, apart from several large areas that have disappeared in landslides.  There are far fewer cars here and most of the transport is on foot, horse or bicycle or if you need to go further afield by bus or in the open back of a pick-up. There is nowhere to stay in San Marcos and having bought petrol we decide to head for the border into Nicaragua which is only a few miles away.  It is about midday.
You have guessed it.  As we drove up to the border there is a man who can help us?  How much?  This question is never answered.  He is however extremely helpful and we are across into Nicaragua, helped by yet another man in less than one and a half hours and for considerably less than we had paid previously.  There was one hitch however.  It is a legal requirement to have insurance in Nicaragua and we found we were about to part company with our Nicaraguan friend before this was achieved.  It was with great deal of trust (or stupidity) that we gave him $100 dollars, our papers and he returned to the officials to finalise this.  For several anxious minutes we wondered if we would ever see him again, but thankfully he returned and only demanded $5 more than his friend in Honduras.
Nicaragua is heaven compared to the previous three days travelling and seems comparatively civilised, lush green and productive.  There are schools in almost every town and large co-operatives growing tobacco for snuff and cigars.  The workers are housed in long wooden huts similar to those used by the early settlers in Northern America.  The roadside stalls are fully of exotic fruit: the most enormous papayas I have ever seen.
We drove to the town of Estelí, as the relatives of our friends the Bamford’s are here and we had hoped to catch up with them.  What we had not taken into account was that this was the weekend of their annual equine fiesta and every hotel in the town was sold out.  We managed to find a room in the Hotel Mery, where the kind proprietoress let us use a small room, which we don’t think was normally available for quests.  We were able to change to a bigger room the following day.
As with all fiestas in Central America it seems loud noise is essential and as we walked through the main square we experienced a severe dose of sonic cardiac massage.  Then along came the horses in every shape and form: the beautifully groomed and arrogant, the prancing, dancing ones striking their hooves on the tarmac to the beat of the drums, and the scruffy too.  They were all there.  As were the crowds of people, firecrackers etc., The British health and Safety would have had a stroke.  After three hours standing and watching we had had enough and retreated to a restaurant for dinner and to plan the following day.
We decided to head south towards the border with Costa Rica and see if we can find somewhere lovely to stay over Christmas.  We left Estelí with fond farewells and prayers for our safety.  All very touching.  We were even allowed to attempt to do our laundry at the hotel (until the water pressure dropped) as all of our clothes were filthy.   Our journey here was uneventful, and we passed through a large plateau on which rice is the main crop, past stalls selling brightly coloured hammocks and of course more poor birds captured for sale. We arrived in Granada, a beautiful colonial city on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, full of outstanding buildings, but very touristy.

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