Monday, 14 March 2016

The land of volcanoes and beyond

I'm aware that I maybe came across a little negative in my last post, but really I didn't mean to be. This has been an amazing trip and every day we see something new and exciting. That said, it's not fun every second of every day and every now and then the 'hard work' element of a trip like this comes to the fore, usually at a border crossing where half a dozen people are virtually hanging off your shirt sleeve insisting you must pay them to help you, or when we've inadvertently ridden down a wrong way street for the third time in half an hour and have to wrestle the bikes around in heavy traffic. Crossing into El Salvador was like a breath of fresh air. Immediately we were on smooth, sweeping pavement, heading off into the unknown. So many people skip El Salvador simply because you don't have to go through it. It's a very small country, a mere sliver along the southern edge of Honduras, but what it lacks in size it makes up in it's stunning scenery.

Getting into El Salvador was undoubtedly the easiest border yet. Nothing to pay, no insurance required, we just had to hand over the usual papers and then take a seat in the shade under a conveniently placed gazebo and wait. Quick it wasn't, but it wasn't a problem.

Upon leaving the border we decided to head down to the coast as we had plenty of time before nightfall. We were both enjoying not being on Guatemalan roads any longer, when we came upon the first town we had to pass, Ahuachapan. It was a Saturday so traffic was a little heavy. Then we came upon the reason - it was carnival day. Clowns, carnival queens, minions (everywhere we go there are minions), even batman and spiderman were in attendance. We tried a couple of side roads to bypass it but it soon became clear that we weren't going anywhere, so we parked up and enjoyed the parade. An hour later there was still no end in sight and with daylight hours running out, a local kid came to our aid and led us on his bike out of town, pointing us in the direction of the coast before waving us goodbye. My first impressions of this country and its people were good.

It still took some time to get out of town and along the way I discovered that I'd inadvertently stepped in some discarded bubble gum, which with the extreme heat served to stick my left foot firmly to the footpeg. It certainly made gear changes interesting. It was well past sunset when we rolled into a little dirt road town on the south coast. At first I was unsure that there actually was anywhere to stay there, but as we reached the end of the road a lady came running into the road waving her arms and indicating to us to come and look at her cabinas, clearly delighted to see customers. The room was basic and came complete with resident bats, but comfortable enough once we'd rigged up the mosquito net and the beach was beautiful.

The following morning we rode along the coast and we're struck by just how similar it is to Hwy 1 in California. But without the prices. El Salvador isn't exactly cheap, but it's not expensive either. Over the week that followed we wandered randomly, sometimes along the coast, occasionally inland a little more, enjoying what was, yet again, a place completely different to everywhere else in Central America. What we found was several small tourist hubs, mostly surf locations along the beach, but in between vast areas of undeveloped space. One place we stayed at, a hostel in the surf town of El Tunco, was exactly what the Dodo should be if someone made the effort required. Unfortunately though it lacked atmosphere and after a couple of nights we moved on.

We also visited San Salvador. Always in the tip ten lists of most dangerous cities in the world, we decided it was worth a look as we were there. The city itself is very much like any other larger Latin American city - busy, noisy and overpopulated. Evan had read about a military history museum and after several circuits of the city we finally found it. The gates were guarded by heavily armed soldiers who eyed us suspiciously as we rode up, but soon waved us through the gate when we explained what we were there to see. The museum is housed inside the city barracks and entering was like being in Cuba all over again. Not a visitor in sight and no sign that they had had any visitors for quite some time, yet the staff there went about their business as if it was a normal day at the office. With no designated parking area apparent we parked our bikes next to a row of tanks and spent the next couple of hours wandering around on our own, completely undisturbed. A couple of highlights here were the original Popemobile used during the two papal visits in the 80's and 90's and a topographical map of the whole of El Salvador which we spent several minutes looking at and planning our route to the Honduras border.

As we'll have a return journey, we skipped straight through Honduras on this occasion, only two hours to the Nicaraguan border. It didn't mean we were imune to having to pay the extortionate $35 Honduran vehicle import fee though, or complete the mountain of paperwork that was required to obtain said permit. Honduras really does have the most ridiculous entry requirements of all the Central American countries. They also do not allow re-entry on the same permit so it'll be $35 on our return trip too. And they wonder why tourists don't go there. Anyway, it was a largely uneventful ride through, aside for nearly being taken out by a rampaging cow running straight down the road towards me.

We made it to the Nicaraguan border around 3pm, but what with the second round of paperwork and the fact that no-one in these places is EVER in any hurry to get things done, we were into the last hour of daylight as we finally rode into Nicaragua. Our aim had been to get to Esteli, but we only made it to Somoto before nightfall.

It was good to be back in Nicaragua, but it also meant that I was back in places I'd been before. Upon leaving Somoto we spent a night in Esteli before leaving again and playing tag with a group of mostly Costa Rican plated Harleys, down some of the fastest roads we'd ridden for months. Beautiful landscapes, past Volcan Momotombo which was visibly smoking in the distance on our way to Leon and our first experience of places being full.

We arrived in the searing early afternoon heat and instead of riding around the narrow, busy streets, I went to find a place to stay on foot while Evan stayed with the bikes. Not an easy task as it turned out as hostel after hostel apologetically advised me they were full. Eventually I found a nice enough little place, but it had no parking for the bikes. There was a restricted access parking area not too far away, but the area seemed OK so we opted to park them outside the hostel.

It turned out our visit to Leon coincided exactly with the celebrations marking 100 years since the death of famous Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario and we noticed that there was an increased security presence in the town square. Upon speaking to some local people we discovered that the President was due to visit that evening for a church service in the cathedral, the largest one in Central America, and that there would be a free concert there the night after. We hadn't really planned to stay a second night but ended up doing so anyway after Evan drank some mango juice that was off and was sick for most of the following day.

It was interesting to see what goes into a Presidential visit in Nicaragua. By the time Daniel Ortega arrived the numbers of security guards and police nearly matched the number of spectators. Eventually the motorcade pulled up in front of the cathedral along with a decoy procession from a different direction, both flanked by police riders on V-stroms which was a nice touch. Talking to locals it seems the President wasn't hugely popular, most were just there out of curiosity it seemed. A downside of the Ruben Dario celebrations, held in Leon as this is where the poet is entombed in the cathedral, was that the roof of the cathedral wasn't open to the public while we were there. A shame, because the otherworldly landscape up there and the views of the surrounding volcanoes really is jawdropping.

After Leon we headed towards Volcan Masaya National Park to check out the possibility of camping there and doing a night hike. It appeared when we arrived there that the gates are only open at certain times so we decided to go and check out Laguna Apoyo instead and return later. It was shortly after this at a hunting store down the road that we had our random meeting with Alfonso.

Alfonso is 78 years old and is originally from Managua, but has lived for many years in North Carolina, working for large environmental corporations. He was back in Nica for a few months in order to oversee the sale of a ranch he owns in Rivas. Upon discovering we were on a motorcycle trip he got very excited and reached for his filofax, out if which he pulled several photos. It transpired that he and his first wife had ridden BMW airheads across the US in the late 60's, quite a feat at the time and he had photos to show us of the bikes and a later Goldwing he subsequently owned. After telling the security guy at the strip mall to guard our bikes he insisted that we go back to his house with him for drinks and that we'd be more than welcome to stay with him as his guest if we'd like. It's random meetings like this that make travelling so worthwhile.

We didn't take him up on his kind offer at that time, instead we headed for Granada that evening, only to find yet again that it was almost dark and everything but the high end hotels were full. An Aussie guy outside a hostel kindly looked us up some hostels that had rooms available on his wifi connection and so I set off with a local guy 'Jeremy' in tow, insistent that he could show me where these places were. Normally I'm totally against encouraging the coyotes, but on this occasion he proved very useful, when after discounting a couple of hostels as not suitable (I can see why they still had beds available!) he found us a room right in town with bike parking in the lobby for just $16 a night. I didn't begrudge giving him a few dollars for some food, although it pissed me off when he asked for even more. That seems to be a typical trait down here though. Less so in some places, but very much the case in Nicaragua.

Granada hasn't changed much. We sat and watched the Superbowl on tourist Street and enjoyed a few mojitos and the following day explored the city. We climbed the church tower to take the opportunity to look out over the city. We climbed the cathedral tower and watched an artist painting a new mural inside on the ceiling. Granada really is a beautifully maintained city for the most part, or so we thought until we wandered into the market area. Markets in Latin America are very different to those back home. Live animals, fresh (and not so fresh) fruits and vegetables and a variety of meats are mixed in amongst household goods, clothing, cheap imported Chinese tat and kids toys. You name it, they probably have it. Granada market takes hygiene to a whole new level though. If you saw how raw meat was presented and traded you'd think twice about eating anywhere in the town!

Upon leaving Granada we headed south, this time with a destination planned. For the majority of this trip we've not planned our route at all. Quite often we have the 'where do you want to go?' discussion as we sit drinking coffee at a service station on route to who knows where. Today though we were heading for Popoyo beach to meet Shannon, another Canadian and ADV poster who had been riding a rental bike around Nica for a couple of weeks after completing one of the crazy Ometepe races the week before.

The road to Popoyo shows yellow on Google maps so we were a little surprised when we determined that the road leading away from the main PanAm highway was little more than a dirt track. Still, it was definitely the right road so off we went. After an hour of dodging rocks, sliding on gravel down steep slopes and avoiding a multitude of rogue animals we arrived at Magnific Rock, a higher-standard-than-we're-used-to establishment perched high on the cliffs at Popoyo. Here we met Shannon and exchanged stories from the road over lunch all the while blown away by the stunning panoramic views from the windows of the restaurant. We enquired about the cost of a room, but at $80 a night we couldn't justify it and so we set up our tent at a little campground we'd passed a few yards back down the road. That evening after a few more mojitos we walked along the beach to Popoyo proper for some dinner. On our return the beach was covered with a huge moving carpet of hermit crabs, a memorable experience to witness.

Our last stop in Nicaragua on our journey south was San Juan del Sur. It was midweek so a good time to visit, avoiding the weekend debauchery in what used to be a sleepy fishing village. We found a basic room in a little hostel with parking out back and made ourselves comfortable for a couple of days. The dirt road to Popoyo reminded me just how badly I needed to do something about a problem I've been having with my front brake that has been getting progressively worse. One of the rotors has become warped and this means even very gentle braking results in the front brake pads grabbing the disc. As a result I've become less and less comfortable braking on loose ground, even more so on hills. We decided, with the help of a mechanic friend of the hostel owner to swap the rotors, thus reversing the direction they rotate in the hope this might lessen the problem until I can pick up a new rotor in the US. It was a nice idea, but unfortunately made little difference.

Later that day we had another chance meeting with a Canadian couple halfway through their trip to Argentina on KLR's. They were in San Juan dealing a property deal and kindly invited us to dinner the following night. With another craving for sushi, we found a nice little place inntown that evening and hadn't been sitting there five minutes when who should come walking by but Shaun, the guy with the KLR who'd generously shared his cabin with us on the Baja ferry! We joined us for dinner and we enjoyed catching up on where we'd all been in the months since we'd last met.

Costa Rica we skipped through fairly quickly on the way south. And on the way north too actually. I'm sure plenty of people will disagree with me, but I feel very much the same as I do about Southern California about it. I just don't like it much. I'm not saying there aren't some beautiful places there if you get off the beaten track, but on balance there's far more I don't like. High prices, obnoxious tourists and ex-pats and a constant drain on your budget no matter how cheaply we tried to do things. One small oasis we found though was a little finca owned by a Swiss woman right by the Penas Blancas border. A wonderful little oasis in the jungle and exceptionally helpful people. Lots of wildlife too - crocs in the river, spider monkeys in the trees and less welcome, tics between my toes after a long woodland hike. Otherwise the metal 'Se acceptan American Express' sign above every town name sign pretty much summed up Costa Rica for me.

By the time we made it to Panama I was well in need of some new experiences. I love Central America but a lot of the places we'd spent the last few weeks were places I'd been before. Panama would prove to be just what I was looking for.

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