March 16 through April 2, 2022
“Travel is glamourous only in restrospect.” Paul Theroux
We had heard enough about the crazy heat and humidity of Central America to feel anxious about living in a camper with no air conditioning, and El Salvador welcomed us with hot and steamy weather. I climbed on the roof of Francine to raise power lines so that we could pull into a campground on the ocean for our first night. It turned out to be less than glamourous with a mixture of broken glass and dog feces on the sand leading to the beach, a disgusting “toilet,” and warnings that anything left outside our camper would get stolen (even dirty towels). The sunset was a gorgeous pink, but one night was enough for us. We asked six people at various local businesses if they could make change so we could pay the campground. No one wanted to help us. It was frustrating and we did not have a good first impression of El Salvador.
A chief life lesson, that has become more evident through travel, is the importance of not judging people or places by the first impression. In the following days we encountered kindness and beautiful scenery. We learned that if we initiated a smile we always got one in return, along with an energetic wave. It felt to us like people were shy but responded whole-heartedly if we greeted them. Big burly guards armed with machine guns would feel intimidating, but would yell “Hola, Buenos Dias!” as we passed. Bus drivers would even stop in the street to let us cross while we were walking.
One day we were struggling to navigate the skinny streets of Suchitoto to get to the Peace Center to camp. We got stuck down a narrow street and several cars were honking at us. One small sedan packed full of a family stopped and asked if they could help. The father parked his car in the middle of the street to block traffic so that we could get turned in the right direction. He then had us follow him while he led us to our destination. Once we arrived, Will held out his hand to give him Canada pins (he has a stash of these to give to people along the way). The father adamantly refused because he thought Will was trying to pay him. When he realized it was just pins, he gave us a big smile and handed the pins to his kids.
For a country that has had its share of recent turmoil and violence, the people were the nicest we have encountered. The same was true for Sister Peggy, an American nun who had moved to El Salvador over twenty years ago. She runs the Peace Center, which is a beautiful property with a music school, museum, café, rooms, and gardens. She allowed us to camp in the parking lot in exchange for a donation to the school. When she arrived at the center decades prior, it was in shambles. The previous nuns suddenly abandoned it at the start of the civil war when they found dead bodies left outside the gate one morning as a threat. Sister Peggy said the classrooms still had the attendance on the chalkboard, and it was eerie to see how abruptly they had fled. She has turned this place into a peaceful destination for students and travellers from all over the world.
A few days into our El Salvador travels we reconnected with Melanie and Benoit, the French Canadian couple we had met on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (Benoit was the one who put a for sale sign on Francine). They had rented a big house on the ocean for a month and invited us to over to spend a day hanging out in the pool. We enjoyed pina coladas in coconut shells and fresh lobster with them, loving how easy El Salvador makes these luxuries budget friendly! We reminisced travel stories and talked of the adventures to come. As with all friends we meet along the way, it is hard to say good-bye when we don’t know if our paths will cross again.
We had a bit of a headache/hangover the next morning when we left to drive to Santa Ana Volcano (those pina coladas were excellent!) We arrived, rehydrated and breathed in the fresh air as we hiked up the large stratovolcano and took in the scenery. It is the highest volcano in the country and from the top we took in spectacular views of neighboring calderas and volcanos, and an incredible emerald green crater lake in the center. At the bottom we rewarded ourselves with pupusas in the company of a friendly goat.
We moved quickly through El Salvador, and much time was spent researching and preparing to cross the land borders to Honduras and Nicaragua in one day. We weren’t thrilled about driving an American plated car through Honduras, and we had time constraints to meet friends who were flying into Costa Rica.
We were not planning to drive into San Salvador as cities are not always friendly to rigs like Francine. However, Nicaragua required a PCR COVID test for entry and San Salvador was the only place in the country where we could get the test. Fortunately, for $20 the Intercontinental Hotel in the city allowed us to park and camp in their parking lot and use their facilities. An Office Depot was within walking distance, and there we printed documents and made 150 copies of various papers to ensure we were prepared for both borders. We stumbled through several confusing online forms for entry into each country and felt our stress levels rise with anticipation of the crossings. We got our negative COVID test results and had wine to try and numb the fact that we had tallied up over $600 in COVID tests in the first six months of travel.
We spent our last night in El Salvador on the beach in Playa El Cuco near the border. Despite our anxiousness, we tried to relax while chatting with other travelers over beers and tacos.
We woke up at 4:30 am on March 23rd and hit the road to drive to the border at El Amatillo. We received our exit stamps in El Salvador and crossed into Honduras at 7am. We were directed to drive off road in front of a building, make tuktuks move, and bypass miles and miles of trucks to get to the aduana (customs). A guy ran ahead of us and then told us he needed $20 for leading us. It was ridiculous and when we refused to pay him, he hit Francine. We went to immigration and paid $3 each for entrance and $35 for the temporary import permit for the vehicle (that would spend a few hours in the country). By 8 am we were driving through Honduras.
The journey through Honduras was only 78 miles. In that short distance we passed 7 police check points, 1 national guard check point, 2 speed traps and 5 military checkpoints. Fortunately, we made it through with no issues, and arrived to get our Honduras exit stamp by 10:30 am. All paperwork was completed by 11 am, and we once again passed miles of trucks to pass through to Nicaragua. We had heard nightmares about the Nicaragua border crossing, but to our pleasant surprise it took a little over an hour, and they did not require us to have our vehicle x-rayed (that process can take hours). The longest wait was for an official in a light blue shirt to arrive and scan a couple bags. While we were waiting, we bumped into an Irish guy we had passed on a walk in Suchitoto. We exchanged numbers and little did we know we would leapfrog with him through the next few countries, and that he’d become our dear friend we lovingly call “Irish John.”
We were delighted with how smooth the border crossings went. Within eight ours we rolled into the town of Leon in Nicaragua. We were tired, relieved, and very hot. The only place we could find to camp for the night was the back of a muffler shop. Have I mentioned how glamourous our travel is?
The heat only intensified in Nicaragua. Neither of us had ever felt so hot nor sweated so much! Our energy would be completely zapped and motivation to do anything active disappeared. Walking was a difficult chore that left us drenched in perspiration. I have no idea how women leave their hair down and wear makeup in these climates, but plenty of them walk around looking gorgeous. I never felt completely healthy throughout these countries. Exercise was essentially out of the question, and if I did attempt to workout I felt insanely out of shape. Sleeping was miserable at best. We would lie on top of the sheets, trying not to touch one another, and argue over who got to sleep closest to our little 12-volt fan. Top it off with easing the discomfort daily with cool beers and seltzers, and we were not beacons of health.
The muffler shop was a close walk to the center of Leon, a city full of history and art. We soaked it all in, sweating as we strolled! We found a friendly bartender at a hostel where we chatted about life in the country over local beers. Similar to El Salvador, the turmoil and violence are not far removed from the present. It is as if you can still feel it in the air. However, the government in Nica is like a dynasty. The current president is an old man who is not that popular, but he has a life term and his wife will take over when he passes away. It is another story of wealthy politicians ruling and being out of touch with the average citizen. As recent as 2018 some students who protested the government wound up dead. I was surprised that chatting with the bartender reminded me of speaking with a woman our age in Beijing back in 2017. Both were cautious about what they would say to us in fear of being overheard by someone who would turn them in for speaking against the government.
You get a sense of the history, good and bad, walking through Leon. One pedestrian street pays tribute to students who lost their lives in protests, and many other notable people throughout their history. Controversial political graffiti covers walls around this area. Only a few blocks from there you find the incredible Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz Gurdián, with an incredible selection of art by famous artists from all over the world, and cafes full of expats working remotely. It was an interesting vibe that left a memorable mark.
From Leon we travelled the bumpy road to Cerro Negro, a black volcano that is a popular place for tourists to board or sled down. Francine muscled it up to the base of the volcano to camp and we had the magical place to ourselves for the night. We arrived in time to watch the last group of people sled down. We opted to climb up on our own for sunset and sunrise. We would catch our breath, look around in awe at the views, and then run/ski down like crazy children kicking up volcanic ash and rocks as we laughed and launched our old legs down the steep terrain. We returned to Francine with faces full of dirt and shoes full of rocks!
The town of Granada was the next stop. It was going to be a short stop, but we ended up staying three nights. We were exhausted from the heat and had too much fun meeting up with Irish John. We camped in the gated driveway of an American expat who provided great recommendations and hooked us up with a veggie peddler who sold us a large assortment of vegetables for $3.
Granada had recently been a popular tourist and expat destination full of bars, restaurants, and accommodation. However, the combination of COVID and the tumultuous government have hit the place hard. I had saved several destinations on a map that I wanted to check out, but when we arrived to many they were either shut down or open but completely empty. We did succeed in finding some great food and bars with Irish John, the most memorable being a Magician Lounge. Experience has taught us you can always count on the Irish for good and comical times!
We escaped to cooler weather and lake breezes on nearby Laguna de Apoyo for a couple nights. Every now and again on our travels we feel a bit of burnout and need some time to be completely lazy to recharge. It sounds crazy, but being constantly on the move and planning every step of every day while not speaking the language can get exhausting. I needed a day at the lake to lay in the camper and watch Netflix. The next morning I was rejuvenated and woke to do yoga on a platform overlooking the water. I was mystified by the consistent and soft roar that sounded like packs of zombies approaching. I later realized it was the sound of howler monkeys in the trees. The sound reverberated all around, which was crazy given the small size of these creatures!
We kept moving to the volcanic island of Ometepe. The ferry across was sketchy for poor old Francine who was secured with humble straps, but she made it and endured a very slow and bumpy drive to a natural water hole for the night. The place closed at 5 pm so we had it to ourselves to swim and hike the trails through plantain forests, where we dodged the biggest snake we’d ever seen in the wild.
We found a picturesque free beach camp on Playa Maderas and then parked outside a hostel in San Juan del Sur for our last night in Nica. We played in the waves, taunted a crab, hiked up to a monument and cooled off with the local seltzers. Will even found a Canadian themed bar, so he enjoyed a ceasar while I shopped around town.
This may have been the most uncomfortable stretch of the trip given the heat, our dirty bodies and an ant invasion at one point along the way. However, in retrospect it was pretty great and possibly even a bit glamourous :).