11th – 17th September
Well, in preparation for our two border crossings we left the hotel at 0730 am saying goodbye to the friendly staff at the Inter Continental who had looked after us very well indeed. Taking the road out of town we were stopped by the police – a check and a look at our warning triangle and fire extinguisher did the trick and we were soon on our way. The road was better today – not so many potholes but as we got further outside of San Salvador we had the usual, ox carts, pigs and cattle wandering along the side and the usual crashed/broken down trucks. We spotted the corn drying alongside the road again – bet Steven wished he could do this instead of using the drier 24 hours a day!
Despite our early start, we got stuck for over an hour in road works which meant that we did not arrive at our first border at El Amatillo until 11.40 – and Brian had told us we would be in the pool in Granada by 4pm – don’t think so some how! There was the usual clamour of helpers but today it was the turn of Jose. First problem was that the officials all go for lunch between 12 noon and 1 – so that was the start of a very frustrating 3 hours. Despite having all of the correct paperwork and having imported our vehicle previously into Honduras, they insisted that our “title document” or registration as we know it was incorrect. It took a lot of patience and the odd BUNG or two but finally we made it through with another one to go. Our guidebook told us that the border at El Espino closed at 5pm but Jose said it was open 24 hours a day – fingers crossed we left with 3 hours to get there hoping he was right.
This border crossing is high in a mountain pass and, as we didn’t see many vehicles coming the other way, we started to worry that it would indeed be closed before we got there. This would be another problem, as the “friendly” Hondurans had only given us a permit for one day in their country. As we climbed the winding road, we met two laughing policemen, who promptly stopped and smiling asked us for 20$ each for a drink! They were happy with 1$ and we were happy to hear that the border was indeed a 24 hour crossing. It was only 5.35pm but already dusk was setting in. None of these places look very welcoming in the dark and the people standing around all look decidedly “shifty” – no offence Colin. It cost us 2$ to exit Honduras – a bargain after the cost of entry!
Entering Nicaragua was not so bad, finally got through at around 6.30pm after an inspection of the vehicle and surprise surprise a BUNG at the final hurdle or we would have had to have a full inspection – everything out of the vehicle. Not a good idea in the dark and rain. Well Brian we certainly did not make it to Granada and we broke the “don’t drive at night rule” for the first time since we left the rally. Over the pass we had reached over 2,600 meters and could definitely see a great improvement in the performance of the Toyota. Driving down was a bit hairy – main problem was no street lights, people and bicycle on road, police checks and the road dropping off the side into flood drains – a bit of a doddle really! At 8pm we finally pulled into the Hotel Panama in Estelli – not a wonderful looking place but had secure parking and was directly opposite a military barracks. A small room of only about 12’ x 12’ but very welcoming after a long long day!
JC braved the shower the next morning – despite the bare electrics. Went to the local Toyota dealer to try for a service but the security was so tight we couldn’t even find the way in. The place was like Fort Knox, huge metal gates, high walls topped with barbed wire – scarey! Driving out of Estrelli we passed a vehicle that definitely needed an altitude compensator. The poor passenger sat on the top was engulfed in fumes. The sun came out and with no border crossings to worry about today, we took our time and enjoyed the lush green mountainous landscape. Today, instead of corn drying along the roadside it’s coffee and the crop is rice – have to keep the farmers updated you know!
At 10.30 we finally made our way back into Granada, after a couple of months travelling. I think we are definitely different travelers now than the last time we were here. Back in May, we had all had some concerns about the safety of the place and wandering around on our own. This time it looked positively serene after some of the places we have been stuck in! Didn’t stay at the Colonial Rick, stayed at the Hotel Palazzo Colon next door to the Alhambra. No restaurant but good parking and excellent rooms around a central courtyard with a small pool – the perfect place to relax and recover from borders before setting off to another one! Had a drink at the Amsterdam Café and thought of young Dave – didn’t see the Dutch girl though but thought we spotted Charles? It doesn’t seem to be so hot here and there were definitely less flies when we went down by the lake. As we had promised the owner, we went back to “The Third Eye” for dinner. Eventually she remembered who we were – how can anyone forget Coxy and we spent a pleasant evening chatting with her about her business and giving her advice on her divorce – with 3 between us we must have some good tips to pass on.
Andy Rodgers birthday – the BIG 50 – hope you had a good one mate. It was great to talk to you yesterday – we’ll raise a glass or two to you tonight! With trepidation, we left the hotel heading for another border crossing. We had heard of big delays at the border yesterday for various reasons, - computers down – Independence Day Celebrations etc. etc but Lester, today’s little helper, was a star. Despite the Independence Day Celebrations, which involves a torch – rather like an Olympic torch being passed from country to country in Central America ( they all have the same Independence Day – except for Panama) lots of runners, cyclists, buses, horseback riders and general flag waving and merriment he got us through in just under an hour. As we waited for him one of the other boys came up to us and asked “Where’s your friend Paul in the Land Rover” He remembered when we all came through – I don’t suppose they would ever forget really – it must have been a great money making opportunity for them when we all came through together!
Lester handed us over to his Costa Rican “amigo” and we headed through to deal with more paperwork to import the vehicle into Costa Rica. On the way through we spotted 4 brand new New Holland Combines – one of them even on a blue and yellow truck – there must be some money around here somewhere. This border was no different, people everywhere, queueing for immigration, queueing for buses and the usual money changers and helpers. One hour – usual bungs, no inspection, no passport queue – great. Only one more border to go before we reach Panama!
Happy to be on our way, we then got caught up in the torch bearing procession. Cars full of people, bicycles, flags all running over 2 lanes – thankfully all going in the same direction as us! Very slow progress – we could have saved ourselves a couple of bungs and waited in customs. In 2.5 hours we only did about 30kms and then we were told it would take another 2 hours to get to Liberia – the place where we will turn off and head to the coast. Never mind though everyone was happy smiling, drinking, pipping their horns, waving their flags and its not often that we get to drive in what was in effect a national parade. Lots of people were calling us and asking us about our trip wishing us Feliz Viaje – one guy was driving from Miami to Brazil on his own or as he said “Me and God”. All along the route, when we passed through villages, families were out watching and celebrating together.
The girls had fun too.................... Spectators all along the route...... Thank goodness - our turn off after 2.5 hours....
We stayed at Coco Bay Hotel, had a great dinner at the Papaguay Seafood restaurant – you can’t get any fresher than this we were only about 100 metres from the ocean. The next morning as we were checking out, Luis, at reception, was reading our website. JC thought at first that we were on CCTV or something – it was quite weird but good to know that we stir up peoples interest – and to see that Luis has left us a message and will keep watching! So just to prove we were there – here’s some photographs for you Luis.
What a drive today – Brian had warned us that it might be a bit rough in places in the rainy season and the guide book recommended a 4WD in the rainy season for the road which took us out along the coast of the peninsular. It was sand and gravel with evidence of heavy wind and rains all along. There were trees blown over in our path, flooded rivers, bridges that had been washed away and no road signs! It was like green laning in the worst weather without a friendly tulip map to help you along! After asking a two men on horseback (the best way to get around here), a motorcyclist and a couple of kids we were finally on the right track. We had expected to drive alongside of the ocean but that was not the case after driving 117kms of mud, sand and gravel we finally got our first glimpse of the beach – covered in buzzards looking for turtle eggs! - not pretty. On our way down this “track” we crossed Latitude 9 degrees North – which means that it won’t be long before we are half way.
Maybe we should have turned back?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? A bit better and help with the way..
Now he will definitely think he is Indiana Jones...........................................................
All this way for a beach full of buzzards! Nearly half way.................. ???Crazy Brits????
After 151 kms of serious driving we finally hit tarmac and took the last 5kms into Samara out stop for the night. What a day – I am soooo glad that JC was driving. He and Geoff would have had some fun with this. At least we didn’t have to use the winch and the Toyota kept singing along even through one of the deeper river crossings.
Hotel Samara Beach – very good value, especially when you pay in “folding” including breakfast, good clean rooms and pool. As we had our supper at a local pizza place outside, there was a procession of children with lanterns and then later two young horses just wandered down the main street, in this small village full of surfers – sorry no camera with me.
All along our road yesterday we kept seeing signs for big hotels and gated communities being developed but we saw no evidence of this anywhere except for the odd very large fancy gates of the “gated communities” I would say something needs to be done about the roads before any of that will get done. It is a strange mixture of feelings really – the tourism will bring employment and money into what looks to be some very poor areas but will also damage the unique environment and wildlife in the area – so what to do???
As JC gave the vehicle a good once over after yesterday, we could hear the sound of drums and music again. This time I had the camera with me and got some good shots of the local band, the majorettes and the school children in their smart uniforms, all waving their flags. Especially liked the little guy in his sun glasses – no uniform – just having a great time banging his drums!!
We walked down to the beach but JC decided he didn’t think he would have a go at surfing! Beautiful beach with a reef just off shore.
After a bit more of the dirt road, we finally hit the major paved road and crossed the longest bridge in Costa Rica – 780 metres and donated to the country by the Taiwanese. JC tempted by some empanadas being sold at the bridge car park by a young Costa Rican lad who really earned his 1$ by talking to us about the Queen and Scotland – in Spanish that is and the empanadas were fantastic – pity he didn’t have any cheese or beans!
Made it back into San Jose – very different feeling than when we came in last time to get the windows toughened and tinted. We knew where we were going and got straight to our hotel who also welcomed us back. The following morning we ran straight into the early morning rush hour. Just like being at home - nose to tail traffic. We stopped at a local Pennzoil station to change the engine oil and filters, check all levels and grease propshaft and check that all generally OK. (Hope you are impressed Paul!) The boys were very helpful and the Toyota deserved a good drink after the trials of the “coast road”. All set now for the pass at Cerro la Muerte (Death Mountain). At 3451metres that will be the true test of the altitude compensator.
To measure the elevation, we switched on the Garmin and a very posh voice told us to “ Go 8,551kms North East to your destination”. Assume she meant Well Cottage???? Climbing up Death Mountain the road was badly damaged after the rains and down to one lane, in places following a landslide. TV cameras were there – famous again!
Over the top we were above the clouds at 3,353 metres. It was raining and the temperature was only 14C. JC happy with the performance of the vehicle – still misses a little bit and smoking when we start descending but a 100% improvement – many thanks to Mauricius, Roberto and Brian for all their help. What we could do with would be a diesel mechanic at the top of the mountain to give it a quick tweak! Glad we were heading back down but it’s still raining. Just the weather for the acres of pineapples and sugar cane growing along the roadside. No wonder everything here is so green and succulent, it’s raining most of the day with temperatures of 24 – 26, except of course up in the mountains. With some people living in wooden shacks, I wonder how they manage to keep things dry and look so clean and well presented, especially the school children in their pristine white shirts. Not much evidence of damp proof course here!
We are heading toward Panama with a vengeance now and break the night driving rule again to make it to Golfito about 75kms from the border. It was only just after 6pm when we finally got there but pitch dark. One thing we have learned here is that there is not a lot of dusk. It goes from daylight to dark very quickly. Golfito was formerly a large banana exporting town where one of the big fruit companies invested lots of money in the past, building houses and schools. Sadly due to the low prices and industrial action, they withdrew and have left a strange town in two halves. One half with what were obviously the homes of the banana barons – colonial style buildings and the other with the slightly run down wooden places with metal roofs – quite bizarre – you could almost draw a line between the “haves” and the “have not as much”. In the dark it was difficult to find our hotel which was located behind the huge free zone here, but a friendly taxi driver led us there and with a blink of his indicator drove off – WOT NO TIP – we were amazed! Decent hotel – only problem – no tonic! Denise had to join JC and drink Heineken!
As we left Golfito, we came to a road works with the usual “flag man”. He waved and pointed to his flag. Had we misunderstood his signal to stop or go? He came across and presented JC with the flag – are we in a relay – no. It transpired that we were the last vehicle through and had to carry the flag and hand it over to the “flag man” at the other side so that he could let oncoming traffic through. Clever eh – when you don’t have a radio?
The following day it was raining again and we were heading for our final border in Central America, crossing into Panama. It had only taken us three weeks to get from Mike’s place in Dallas and that was with a few rest days on the way. If it seems like we have rushed through since we left USA, we have, we saw most of the main sites whilst travelling with the rally and our aim now is to get to South America as soon as possible. The people of Costa Rica have been fantastic all along the route, friendly and helpful a real pleasure to meet.
With the usual trepidation, we got to the border by 9am, expecting the usual hassle but, with a little help, we were out of Costa Rica and into Panama by 10.30 – a record for this trip and very very civilized – no beggars, no hawkers, people spoke English and were polite – wonderful we are back in Panama. We left here on 1st May and have returned on 17th September – a round trip of 4.5 months and 23,000 miles. It’s good to be back, especially with fuel at only 390 cents per litre. At the border we had met two bikers from Alberta going to Buenos Aires – the first real overlanders we have talked to. As we all left the heavens opened and it rained most of the way. We were very glad that we were in our trusty Toyota and not on a bike! On the road from David, we thought about all you rally guys and remembering when we left Chris Wray at the side of the road, with Paul and Nikki, with a broken water pump and Jill travelled with us to Boquette snoring all the way! Seemed like a very long time ago and the road definitely looks different – much, much greener. We made it into Panama at around 6:15pm, over the Bridge of The Americas and straight into our old hotel like a homing pigeon.
Tomorrow the next stage of our adventure will start, when we prepare to ship the Toyota to Ecuador. We have had mixed reports and various horror stories but with the help of Adrian Holmes and Nora Castillo we have a meeting tomorrow with a shipping agent. Not sure how long we will be here. Keep your fingers crossed.
Thanks for all the messages last week, makes it all worthwhile. Particularly from Mick who has finally learned to use the computer. That’s him and JD now from Coxy’s - what’s happened to the rest of you shower, including the office wallahs? Corry and Gerry – thanks for your message – John has got rid of a load of stuff onto floppies – only he remembers what they were. Archie – Great Uncle John now has another excuse to photograph even more trucks and tractors.
Keep your messages coming! Will let you know how we get on in our next update - not sure when that will be though.
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