Saturday, 18 December 2010


Christmas special bumper edition - A lot can happen in two weeks – and it's ALL good :)

Tikal was spectacular. Set in quite dense tropical jungle Tikal's iconic pyramids soar above the jungle canopy. (Tracy helped me with that bit!) Again, I could write quite a lot about them or you could just look at the photos.

Tikals pyramids rise about the jungle - impressive

Tracy ALWAYS has to go the edge.

Dom doesn't like heights.

No idea why they built them so steep

When we got back to the bike an American came over eager to meet the fellow Alaskan who had ridden down on a BMW. He was disappointed to find out that I was British, although he hid it well. We had two nights in Flores and met a (some might say yet another) Canadian on a BMW Dakar. He was from Victoria, Vancouver Island and had lived in Rye, East Sussex. We had a good old chat with him, swapped a few stories and pieces of advice and then went our separate ways. He was heading down to Guatemala City and we were just going three hours down the road to Rio Dulce.

Rio Dulce was nothing special in itself but nearby were two attractions that we both got really quite excited about. (You must remember I've a History teacher and have just been in the US for two months). Three miles down an excellent new road from Rio Dulce is, presumably, Guatemalas only Castle. Castlion San Felipe was build in the 17th Century to ward off nasty pirates (who over powered it in 1686). Really it's more of a fort than a castle but it was quite exciting to find this in the middle of Guatemala. Tracy says it's like a little Toy Zorro castle (whilst doing Zorro style swishes with her arm – I have no idea what she is going on about; I think it might be malaria)

The History teacher happy to see a Castle - sad I know.

Toy Zorro???

Half an hour further down the road we came to Finca El Paraiso. A wide hot waterfall drops 12 m into a cool pool. Neither of us had been in a hot spring waterfall before and it was great to get such a warm power shower. We stopped for the night across the road in a farm next to the lake. The farmer had built a few cabins by the water and we were made to feel at home. We told them we were vegetarians and they cooked us up some lovely tortillas, with eggs, re-fried beans, cheese and sour cream. Washed down with Guatemalan beer. Great end to a great day.

Hot spring waterfall

Our accommodation near the hot spring waterfall

Total gridlock - Guatemala

New day – new country. Having spent three months in just two countries it seemed a little weird to be leaving Guatemala having just arrived but countries in this part of the world are small and we're on a
bit of a tight schedule to make it to Costa Rica and the Sloths by December 21st. So, we moved on to Honduras.

I've been reading several bikers blogs and they all complain about the central American border crossings. Chaos, bribery, heat/rain and three to four hours to cross. I think they all chose the wrong crossing points. We crossed into Honduras at Copan and it took an hour. Absolutely no hassle or bribery and as no one else was crossing we had the place to ourselves. The Honduran border people were friendly and helpful, even if I were interrupting the Champions League football match that was on the telly – another pleasant crossing. (The thing is, most bikers stick to the Pan-American highway. Its the shortest route through Central America and they are in a hurry to get to South America. So they cross at major borders points with lots and lots of other people, and hence big queues. Bad move.)

Honduran border - not exactly busy

First stop in Honduras was Copan Ruinas. The third and final Mayan ruins we would visit. Whilst Palenque and Tikal might fight it out for splendour and architectural supremacy (and Palenque wins on cost) Copan has sculptures and hieroglyphics. It is also the least visited of the three and although there weren't many people at Palenque or Tikal we pretty much had Copan to ourselves.

Dom in the "Ball court"

The famous Hieroglyphic stairway

This is what it used to look like

The ruins are a short walk from the pretty town of the same name which was home for two days. The town, with its red tiled roofed buildings and steep cobbled streets was very picturesque and that along with some excellent coffee shops and restaurant makes it a travellers mecca. (One café even had banoffee pie on the menu and I was well miffed when they said they didn't actually have any) Honduras is famous for its cigars and bananas (its the original Banana Republic after all) and every little shop was stocked to the rafters with cigars. They also had some lovely Mayan masks for sale. We've seen these all the way from Mexico City to here and Tracy is getting a little fed up with not being able to buy any – the joy of motorbike travel – no souvenirs.

Honduras hit the news late last year when a revolution ousted the president and tourism just died. Things seem to be picking up again now and we were made to feel very welcome. It's a little ironic really that Honduras should be the one central American country to be rocked by revolution recentl,y as in the 80s it was the bastion of stability and USA backed capitalism as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua all experienced uprisings and coups. The USA, and Reagan in particular, bolstered Honduras democracy and aided anti-left groups from El Salvador and Nicaragua (the infamous Contra affair – remember Oliver North?) from bases in Honduras.

Therefore Honduras has much more of an “American” feel to it. There are Wendy's. McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts etc. Slightly weird to see these again having left the land of fast food two months ago. Is this why Hondurans seem a little larger than Guatemalans? Perhaps not as although there are lots of these fast food places they are certainly not cheap and few Hondurans frequent them.

Isn't the Lonely Planet fantastic. What on earth would we do without it? When we left Copan we had one aim in mind for that day. Beer. An American beer enthusiast has built a brewery and hotel in the middle of the jungle near a lake. So, six hours after leaving Copan we were booking into D and D brewery. We were shown into one room which had a jacuzzi. We were asked if we wanted to see a cheaper room. I said yes and then looked at Tracy and realised that the right answer was no. We took the jacuzzi room! (£25)

That night we had Apricot beer with hops bought from Stowe Market England. 

A bike and a brewery

Apricot beer - interesting

So, Honduras isn't massively different to Guatemala. Still lots of happy people, animals on the road and jungle everywhere. The roads in Honduras seem OK so far, but occasionally there are some HUGE potholes that would really put an end to the trip. Frustratingly one of the highlights of Honduras are the Bay islands – fantastic diving but its currently rainy season up there so we have a reason to return...

I thought I'd just write a little bit on what our average day on the road is like. Hopefully we're up and on the road by 9 a.m. Tracy doesn't do breakfast so I usually have to try to find a cup of coffee somewhere. Unless we're going slow when we sometimes have breakfast. A typical “local” breakfast would involve eggs. Usually scrambled with tomatoes, chillies and onion. In Mexico this is called Huevos Mexicana, (colours of the Mexican flag – green, red, white) Coffee in Mexico and Honduras has been good, Guatemala tended to be of the Nescafe variety.

We usually try to cover 200 miles or there abouts in a day. This can take between 4 and 7 hours in this part of the world. We don't stop for lunch as such but we do stop a few times, usually at petrol stations (there are no lay-bys here!) Therefore we arrive at out destination between 2 and 5. Have a look around if there is anything to see and then have a rest in our room – write blog, read book, plan next day, wash socks, use internet if we have it, sometimes I even look at the bike and check the wheels are still there or something technical like that. I've particularly got into BBC podcasts on this trip and subscribe to about five of them, Today we listened to “In our time” and learnt about Cleopatra; 30 minutes of BBC news from Newspod, and I sneaked in half an hour of football news from Radio 5 live whilst Tracy was snoozing :)

Early evening we go out to eat. Easy in touristy places as vegetarians are catered for, not so easy in other places, and especially hard in coastal villages where its seafood or nothing. We've had one total no show and ended up buying some bread and cheese and taking it back to our room. The cheese was horrible. And as I type this we've just had a disappointing pizza that took an hour to arrive and, well, it'll be a blessing if it stays down.

Then it's back to our room. I downloaded series one and two of Six Feet Under before I left the UK and we're working our way through it. I can't believe I missed this first time round, it's great. Of course most rooms we stay in have TV and occasionally we watch CNN or some average US comedy. We're both reading the third Stieg Larsson book at the moment as well and at 700 pages it's taking some doing.

So, that's our average day. Thought you'd like to know.

I've not mentioned the bike recently and that's a good thing! She's running well and the new tyres are fantastic. The final drive oil needs changing every 12,000 miles and that's due soon so I'll have to decide whether to get it done in Costa Rica or wait for Panama but apart from that everything is great with the bike. I must also report too that I'm getting some money back from Alaska Rider. I wrote to them a while ago explaining that I was a little unhappy with the problems I'd had with the bike and that really they shouldn't have happened (New drive, triple clamp) Phil replied and we had a little chat and he has sent me a cheque to cover part of the costs. Decent of him, as he could have just ignored my email. So, thanks Phil.

I remember buying lots of expensive Sandinista friendly Nicaraguan coffee when I was a student and donating to “War on Want”. Now I was going to Nicaragua to see what they'd done with my money...

Crossing the border with our Kiwi friends

Oh, you should be guarding the bikes!

Saturday 11th December we crossed into Nicaragua – with friends! When we got to the Honduran border town we met a Kiwi couple on two motorbikes. Following day we rode across the border with them. And it was yet another easy border crossing. Busier than the previous ones and we did get a little hassle from some “helpers” but there being four of us we soon sorted it all out ourselves. Chris, Alan and I went off to exit Honduras and enter Nicaragua whilst Tracy guarded the bikes (and got her boots cleaned). In all it took just over an hour and a half on a sunny saturday morning and then we were on our way riding through Nicaragua – first stop the Sandinista stronghold town on Esteli.

Little did we know that Esteli was holding some sort of fiesta that night and finding somewhere to stay wasn't easy. One place was full and another only had one room. Eventually we found another place and although it was OK it was probably the least nice place we've slept. (Tracy felt the need to sleep in her sleeping bag liner the bed was that bad – no warm water – noisy neighbours enjoying there Saturday night out if you catch my drift) and at $15 a night it wasn't that good a deal either. Nevermind we made up for it a few nights later as you'll see.

Now, like most people from the UK my age I'm sure, I associate Nicaragua more than any other country in this part of the world with revolution, class struggle and protest. As far as countries go I remember it as the cause celeb of 1980s UK protest. I was a student in the late 1980s and Nicaragua was one of those places left wing British students banged on about. Now I've got a much better understanding of why and it just makes me wish I'd banged on about it a bit more back then. I'm afraid I'm going to go off on one now...

The USA has always seen Central and South America as it's sphere of influence, (known as the Monroe Doctrine after the US President). Nicaragua has been no exception to this and throughout the 20th Century America has had a hand in guiding (and selecting) Nicaraguan governments. In the 1920s and 30s in particular the USA dominated Nicaraguan politics installing and ousting governments as it saw fit. In 1933 the US marines headed home from Nicaragua having handed over power to the US trained Conservative Guardia Nacional led by Somoza. The following year Somoza engineered the assassination of his Liberal opponent, Augusto C Sandino; this resulted in Somoza becoming President and de facto dictator by 1937.

Thus began two decades of oppression. Somoza became an internationally recognised and notorious dictator amassing huge person wealth whilst the people of Nicaragua remained poor. Somoza supported the USA (the CIA used Nicaragua as a launchpad for missions in Guatemala and the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961 (Bay of Pigs). In return successive US Governments supported Somoza. Somoza was assassinated in 1956 but succeeded by his elder son (Luis Somoza Debayle) who was himself succeeded by his younger brother (Anastasio Somoza Debayle).

Opposition to the Somoza dynasty grew in Nicaragua in the 1960s and various groups merged to form the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional. FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). Led by Lopez and old fighting partner of Sandino. Poverty, inequality and the corruption and embezzlement of the Somoza family fuelled support for the FSLN. Then a massive earthquake struck Managua in 1972. Over 6000 people died and 300,000 were made homeless. International aid poured in and Anastasio Somoza stole it! This was the last straw for Nicaragua and even the small but influential middle classes and business people turned against the corrupt regime. By 1974 opposition was widespread. The assassination of one of the leaders of the opposition, Chamorro in 1978 led to a general strike and the FSLN occupied the National Palace. By early 1979 the Sandinistas were ready for their final offensive and Somoza knew it. On July 17th 1979 as the Sandinistas entered Managua Somoza resigned and fled the country. (He was assassinated the following year in Paraguay). 1979 was a busy year for America as it was also in this year that Pinochet, backed by the CIA, assassinated Allende in Chile, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.
In 1980 Daniel Ortega Saavedra became effective leader of Nicaragua and the Sandinista set about righting the wrongs of the Somoza years. I will not pretend the Sandinista were perfect. They ruled by decree and committed human rights abuses themselves but they did at least spend some of the countries money on health care and education.
Unbelievably (unless you are familiar with the way US policy works in Latin America), the Carter administration, in 1979, tried to salvage its influence in Nicaragua by offering aid to the Sandinistas. However, by 1980 America was becoming concerned with the increasing number of Cuban and Soviet advisers in Nicaragua and allegations that the Sandinistas were beginning to provide arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.

And, of course, 1980 means President Reagan. In short Reagan funded the anti-Sandinistas (known as Contras – based in Honduras). The CIA planned to mine Nicaraguan harbours – revealed in 1984 and declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. America initiated a Cuban style embargo of Nicaragua in 1985. All this, of course, played into Ortega's hands and he and the Sandinistas became quite popular in Nicaragua (Hadn't the US learnt ANYTHING from the way it had tried to deal with Castro and Cuba?). Reagan certainly hadn't and even wanted to go further (After all he had just invaded the British protectorate( and HUGELY threatening island) of Granada in 1985. Even the US Congress thought Reagan was going too far and rejected further military aid for the Contras in 1985. Story over? No! Reagan (oops sorry Reagan didn't know about this did he!) Oliver North orchestrated an ambitious plan where by the CIA illegally sold weapons to IRAN (so they could keep fighting Iraq who America was also selling weapons too) and diverted the proceeds to the Contras. The infamous Iran-Contra affair. Still makes my blood boil. America tries to Impeach Clinton for having an affair but nothing happened to Reagan over this! Reagan makes George W Bush look like an amateur.

Rant over... Thank you for indulging me

So, what have they done to the country since the 1980s?

They seem to have spent lots of money on the roads. They are excellent. I'm sure off the beaten track they aren't so good but the main road from Esteli to Granada (which becomes the Pan-Americana – the first time we've come across this road) is excellent. 

I covered the 110 miles in two hours. Finding somewhere to stay in Granada was much harder. We have the Lonely Planets “Central America on a shoestring” and whilst it is excellent it only mentions cheap places to stay. Nothing wrong with that, except cheap places seldom have secure parking. Leaving Tracy to guard the bike again I headed off around town to look for somewhere suitable, with little luck. I found some cheap ($15-20) places but no parking and some expensive hotels ($80-100), but nothing in between. After our experience at Esteli we opted to upgrade and stay in an expensive place but only for one night, not the two nights we had originally pencilled in for Granada. The place we stayed in was connected to a small Chocolate Museum and made some really wonderful hot chocolate by the way! Our room ($79) included an all you can eat breakfast, use of the pool and a free massage. So, we used the pool in the afternoon, got up early for a big breakfast and then had a massage before checking out. And, boy did we need a massage. We both came out saying that was great and how the masseur had spent ages on our backs. Riding the bike had taken its toll and I felt so much better for having had some bloke beat me up a little (No comments please)

Then I asked if I could put my bike in the secure parking lot (one of the reasons we'd booked in). They couldn't find the key and I had to leave the bike on the street - breaking the first rule in biking through the Americas. NEVER leave your bike on the street. I did (having put it's invisibilty cloak on) and it was still there in the morning.

Although Granada was a very pretty colonial town we wanted to “get away from it” a little so headed 10 miles up the road to Laguna de Apoyo, a Volcanic crater lake. The LP mentioned the “Monkey Hut” as a cool place to stay and I'd even phoned them the previous day to check that they had space. We arrived at midday to find they were full (except for the dorm beds but we've reached that age when...). Luckily there was a new place next door. The owner was still painting the “Dive Centre” sign on the front wall. He'd got as far as “DIVE CENT” and I introduced myself by suggesting he put the R before the E. (I had established that he was North American first). He said we could stay although they weren't really open and no one else was staying and he offered up the lake side master room, usually $50 for $30. We were going to stay just one night, we opted for two. And ended up there for three nights. Tim (the owner was super friendly and helpful. He made us feel right at home, gave us bowls of fruit, and took us on a little trip to a secret hot spring he knows. Tracy had fun playing in the hot mud. Tim's place (Apoyo Dive Centre – he's not open for diving but when he is it would be quite something to dive a fresh water crater lake) is new and therefore not in the guide books yet. I'm sure it will be and if anyone is reading this blog and in the area. Go stay with Tim – all in all it's the best place we've stayed in the whole of Central America. 

Tim - our host at Laguna Apoyo

In the evening we went on a night tour up a volcano. Quite good fun and although we had been promised that we would see the glow of the lava and we didn't we did get to walk through a lava tunnel and see hundreds of fruit bats as they emerged from their cave at dusk.

On one of our days in Nicaragua Tracy went ziplining.....

Thursday 16th December we left Tim and Nicaragua and crossed into Costa Rica. This turned out to be the quite a frustrating crossing and certainly our worst. It wasn't exactly hell on earth but there were no signs and the place was huge. In the end it was so much easier to get a helper although I hate doing it. On the Nicaraguan side it took almost two hours to exit the country and on the Costa Rican side just over half an hour to get us and the bike sin. Costa Rica has been the first country that has insisted on Tracy actually standing in a queue and handing her passport over. Every other border I've gone in with two passports and Tracy could have been anyone. Costa Rica was going to be different....

Having crossed we took the Pan American highway (nothing more than a single lane asphalt road with little traffic) an hour to Liberia and then split off West to Playa de Coco. That's where we are now. On the pacific coast for the first time since picking Tracy up a month ago. Today we went diving (very large Sting Rays, lots and lots of Puffer Fish) and tomorrow we head for the hills to see some Costa Rican wildlife. Costa Rica, so far, looks exactly like you'd expect it and is much more Americanized and expensive than the rest of Central America.A bit of a shock after the last month. People speak English here and prices are often in $s.

Stats. - When we got to Granada I crossed into my 20th week and passed the 20,000 mile mark. That's the distance from the UK to Australia and back! Another 5000 miles and I'll have circumnavigated the equator.

Sorry this blog was so long – little wi-fi in Honduras/Nicaragua. Next week we'll be with the Sloths and I post our initial thoughts just before Christmas.

Happy holidays...

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