Wednesday, May 15, 2013


After a few days in northwestern Nicaragua (Somoto Canyon and Esteli), we made a beeline to the coast for some surf.  We stopped at a town called El Transito, and instead of surf, we found a really sketchy little fishing town with one very aggressive drunk. That night, we asked to park at a hotel and they told us it would be $5. In the morning the owner asked us for $15 more. There may have been a misunderstanding about using the bathrooms and shower, but I don't think we used $15 worth of water.  We left Transito with a bad taste in our mouth, to be sure.

We drove 6 hours south to a surf spot some friends had raved about called El Astillero.  Here, we stayed almost 2 weeks.  It's a beautiful location where not many tourists visit.  The neighbors of our hostel had a mom and dad cat with 3 kittens.  We stopped by to gawk at them everyday.

Mama-kitty with her orange and white kitten

El Astillero beach and surf point

Astillero is pretty close to Costa Rica, but because we wanted to cross the border on a Sunday, we backtracked a bit to visit Laguna de Apoyo.  It's a giant lake in the crater of an inactive volcano.  It's 1200 feet deep! I was happy to get my fresh-water swimming fix and enjoy the amazing views for a couple of days.

Good morning Laguna de Apoyo

During our time in Nicaragua, I read-up on some Nicaraguan history.  One thing I didn't need the books to tell me -- Nicaragua is poor. Outside of the few big cities, people live in huts built out of wood, mud, plastic, bamboo, etc. How does that feel during the rainy season?  There aren't many cars so people use ox/horse-drawn carts or public transportation. People cohabitate with their animals much more than any other Central American country. We saw pigs and chickens walking in and out of what appeared to be people's "houses".  When we visited the pretty colonial town of Granada, we were bombarded with sad, starving people begging us for money. We have experienced this in all countries (except Australia and New Zealand) but the scene in Granada felt more desperate and sad to me. Why is Nicaragua so poor?

Granada, Nicaragua. We camped at the town square without any problems.

Here is my dumbed down version of a few events that have greatly influenced present day Nicaragua: 43 years (1936–1979) of a corrupt U.S.-sponsored dictatorship that was passed down among family members. People who were pissed off about the resulting inequality, corruption, and starvation instigated a civil war.  The civil war caused massive damage to the country, but ended up with a democratically elected president from the opposition.  The new government was very left-leaning which pissed off the U.S. Therefore the U.S. withheld all aid to Nicaragua, would not trade with them, and funded those who opposed the government  (the "Contras"). In 1980, the U.S. congress forbade the government from continuing to fund the Contras. The government ignored the congressional mandate and secretly sold weapons to Iran to gain funds to divert to the Contras (Iran-Contra Affair).  In essence, Nicaragua spent 35 years of it's recent history bogged down with civil war and the U.S. opposition to it's government.  It's hard to fund education, health, and infrastructure when all of your resources are spent on war.

"Nicaraguans Are Dying To Be Saved From: A popular, democratically elected government, land for those who work it, illiteracy reduced from 52% to 12%, publicly debated constitution  night school for workers, subsidized housing, free health care, free child car, free medical training, political pluralism, paid maternity leave and job security, etc..."

The good news is that education and health care are more readily available now. Also, tourism has risen more than 70% in the last ten years. The country has stabilized politically and people are beginning to take notice of the stunning landscape and history of Nicaragua. We expect lots of changes by the time we pass back through.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Somoto Canyon, The Most Non-Touristy Tourist Destination in Nicaragua

When we crossed into Nicaragua we chose the route through El Espino. This took us right to The Somoto Canyon.  This limestone canyon, which the Rio Coco passes through, was relatively unknown by outsiders until just recently. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience this natural wonder before it got overrun by backpackers and international tourists.

As we approached the Somoto Canyon we saw a sign advertising tourist information.  We pulled into the village and a young man approached us.  We followed him to a mud-walled house, where we got information about a guided tour through the canyon.  We had hoped to do it ourselves, but as all tourist guides will tell you, "That is dangerous! You will get lost or hurt or ...". We talked the guy down from $20 to $15/person for the 5-hour guided tour. We parked in his yard for the night, which was the size of El Tigre. It was sweltering hot and we had nowhere to hang out except in the truck while we waited for night to fall.  The kids from the house and neighborhood set up camp about 10 feet away from the truck. They stared at the truck trying to get a glimpse of us inside all afternoon and evening. A little awkward.

The tour-guide family welcomed us into their mud-house for conversation.  The ceilings were about 8 feet tall, the floor was dirt, and their only furniture was plastic chairs. We decided that we would pay $20/person. These people needed the extra $10 more than anyone we have met.

The tour itself was fantastic. Since it was the end of the dry season, we worried that the water level was going to be too low, but it wasn't a problem. We hiked, jumped, and swam down the canyon where at times the walls were only 10 feet apart. Afterwards, we walked back to our truck.  We felt this was the best way to do it, rather than walking/swimming up the canyon - who wants to swim up stream?  We lucked out by passing the up-river village first. For anyone planning to do the Somoto Canyon, know that the "ranger" station and most of the tour guides are situated downriver. You will need to drive 3 km towards the Honduras border to find the up-river village (the sign says "Guias Turistico Tapacalli").

Friday, May 3, 2013

Overland Truck Security Part II

Scott has taken the security of our truck and our belongings to a whole new level.  About once a month, we read about fellow overlanders getting their stuff stolen. Usually, it is by simply breaking a window, or popping a lock (often times in crowded parking lots). Some of the more recent break-ins that I can remember include: 30forThirty, CapitolSouthbound, and ToArgentinaBlog.

This is a continuation of our original post about Overland Security. Since the last post, Scott has added a steel bar across our side window (pictured below).  This enables us to keep the window open for circulation even when we're away from the truck. In the event someone tries to climbing though the window, they would have a very hard time fitting.

With the hot weather in Central America, we found that we need to keep the driver's and passenger's windows open for air circulation.  We put a screen in the windows to keep the bugs out.  To keep the would-be thieves out, Scott installed 2 cross-cables in each window.  If someone reaches through to unlock the doors, or break the windows, they still won't be able to open the doors, as they are cabled together through the steering wheel (detailed in our first security post).  Without cable cutters, the only way in is climbing through the cross-cabled window. A small kid might pull it off, but the visual effect should be a deterrent in itself. After all, the only way out is the same as the way in.

We upgraded our Beware-of-Dog sign from clip-art to an official sign from Auto Zone. The sign is garnering a lot of attention lately. People on the street, campground owners, security guards, and even soldiers with M-16's ask about our dog. When we tell them we don't actually have a dog, they seem to think it's a great idea. Although, sometimes, it seems like they're still apprehensive, like they're not convinced that we don't really have a dog, which is just the way we like it.

We've also added another item to the nightly routine.  Scott keeps a newly purchased air horn next to the can of mace, both within easy reach while we sleep.

Every time we get out of the truck, I ask myself, is there anything not securely hidden that would cause a serious headache if stolen (i.e. charging cables, inverter, camera battery, etc).  If so, we put it in our secure hiding spot. Outside of this, we know there are things in the truck that will get stolen if someone breaks in. We don't have a secure hiding spot for our clothes, shoes, tools, Scott's guitar and amp, nor our food and booze, but maybe it's best to leave out a few sacrificial items so that the would-be thieves don't linger and dig deep for the good stuff.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Crossing Through Honduras in a Day

We've read that Honduras has the highest recorded murder rate in the world and some of the most corrupt police in Central America.  Many overlanders who find themselves near the Pacific coast of El Salvador (and also Honduras) cross through Honduras in ONE DAY.  This means two border crossings in a day.  Hey, why not, let's give it a try.

A few days before the border-hopping we relaxed in the El Salvador mountains at a place called Las Veranas near the Rio Sapo

With step-by-step instructions from PanAmNotes and LifeRemotely, we crossed from El Salvador to Honduras and then to Nicaragua. We did it on a Sunday when things were more mellow.  Contrary to what we expected, the El Salvador/Honduras border crossing at Amatillo was clean and relatively fast. We even got to sit in an air-conditioned room while we waited to pay $40 (!!) for our vehicle permit. We had read that while crossing through Honduras, we would encounter up to 10 police stops.  We saw 3 and were stopped at only one.  The police officer asked us for our vehicle paperwork and then let us on our way. That was it!  All of the hassle came from a tout trying to "help" us at the Nicaraguan border which was really no big deal. He decided to follow us through our vehicle permit process. All he did was repeat what the officials Spanish! He couldn't even translate to English. What was the point? We struggle with Spanish, not hearing. When it was over, he demanded money.  I gave him 25 cents.  It was a long, hot day but nothing out of the ordinary.

Easy 2.5-hour drive through Honduras

The hassle factor went up a bit when we got into Nicaragua. We've been stopped twice by police in Nicaragua and these guys were definitely fishing for something to nail us on. One of them tried to tell Scott his passport was expired by pointing to the "Date of Issue". Wow, how stupid does he think we are?

As for Honduras, when we drive back, we will most certainly visit for more than a day.
Welcome to Nicaragua - common ox-drawn carts