Skipping (Through) Central America- Part 1
We don’t like travelling fast. In fact, the longer we’ve been on the road, the slower we seem to move. We went into Guatemala planning to actually skip the rest of Central America; not because we were afraid, or because we didn’t think it was worth seeing, simply because we didn’t feel like we had the time to enjoy it fully. We’d already spent more time than we planned in Mexico and Belize, and wanted to make sure we had enough time to really soak in Guatemala.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t arrange shipping from Mexico or Belize, and so we decided to drive to Panama anyway. About this time, Taylor was offered a great opportunity to work back in Oregon. It was an excellent chance to make some cash and help extend our travels, but also meant our already dwindling timeline would be further slashed.
We left Guatemala on June 3rd. We had already booked our flight home for June 25th (yep, yesterday.. Hello from Oregon- Ed.) giving us a little over two weeks to drive 653 miles and cross 4 international borders. Of course, 22 days is plenty to simply make the trip from one point to another, but that’s just not what we’re about. Those four borders represent four individual countries; El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. All beautiful countries with awesome food, bustling cities, stunning natural beauty, and welcoming people just waiting for us to get to know them. Typically, we’d spend a couple weeks to a month in each. Since we simply didn’t have the time to explore them the way we felt they deserved, we decided to shift our focus a bit.
Since leaving, we’ve not spent as much time with other overlanders as we thought we would. We have certainly met many wonderful people, especially since our 5 weeks in San Marcos and the Overlander Paradise that is Chez Pierre. Our impromptu trip South gave us the opportunity to meet up with a few travelers we’d met earlier, as well as few who we considered friends, but had only met online. Until now we’ve taken a pretty laissez-fair approach to coming across other travelers, but for our run to Costa-Rica we sent messages and made plans.
EL Salvador and The Vagabroads
We didn’t know what to expect from this little country South of Guatemala. We knew most members of the infamous MS-13 originate from the capital San Salvador and that, like a majority of Central America, the country had been ravaged by civil war within our lifetimes. We also knew we could expect papusas, beaches, and the only “widely” available craft beer South of Mexico: Cadejo. We also knew our internet-friends Sunny and Karen of the Vagabroads were on their way back North from Costa Rica and were willing to meet up with us.
After a long and slow, but uneventful border crossing, we rolled into El Salvador to smiles and waves from everyone who noticed us. Still a bit nervous despite the welcome, we pulled into a local pay-by-the-hour “auto hotel” and explained in our broken Spanish that we didn’t need a room, just the chance to park inside their walled area for the night. The sweet young couple running the place happily obliged, but not before trying to convince us to take one of their “deluxe” rooms with A/C for a similar price. They didn’t seem to be up-selling us. I think they truly wanted to make sure we spent a comfortable night and felt welcome as guests in their country.
We wandered beyond the walls and into the little border town and picked up some street food from a kindly older couple cooking and selling dinner in their front yard. The price? $1usd and some gentle ribbing aimed at our Spanish accompanied by huge smiles.
We’ve been following the Vagabroads since a few months before they set off on their own adventure South from Nashville TN. They are the only travelers who we watched go from preparation to life on the road. I still remember the giddy, nervous feeling I got as they pulled away from the curb in their Land Cruiser for a world unknown while we were still deciding on a camper.
Like I said before; I considered them “internet” friends, communicating often online and following each other’s adventures closely, but until El Salvador we’d never met in real life. Taylor and I aren’t really big city people, and we’d planned to give San Salvador a wide berth, but when they girls shot us a message and invited us to join them there, we bit the bullet and headed in.
San Salvador was nothing like we expected. Of course. I know there are rough sections, but the city we saw was orderly, organized, and metropolitan. Street signs made sense and traffic flowed well. Stocking up at a high-end grocery store downtown we were surprised to see not only the excellent local craft beer, but a good selection of American micro brews to boot.
We met up with Sunny and Karin at their hotel for lunch. As with most other overlanders, we hit it off immediately. Our lunch date turned into three nights camped in their hotel parking lot, spending our days cooking, eating, working, and just talking. They also let me check out their ultra cool 80 series Land Cruiser, which is seriously magazine ready. Our two rigs made for a pretty imposing presence parked in the small lot of their sheik hotel.
The Vagabroads are two incredible, inspiring women. Their planned 18 month trip has become their lifestyle. They are two of the most enterprising overlanders we’ve met; making connections and gaining followers, selling locally sourced items back home, and assembling interviews and photographs of fellow travelers for future projects. Their drive to survive inspires us to look for more opportunities around us as we travel. We could have spent weeks with Sunny and Karin, assuming they’d have us, but had to move South, closer and closer to our flight home.
Honduras and The Fresh Faced Guy at the border
For some reason, a majority overlanders driving the Pan American Highway skip through Honduras. Many people choose to cross the border from El Salvador early in the morning, drive through the country’s small coastal pan-handle, and then exit into Nicaragua all in the same day. We had heard of people doing this, but hadn’t heard many convincing reasons why. There have been the usual reports of petty crime and even armed robbery, but those things don’t appear to be more common in Honduras than its similarly impoverished Northern neighbors El Salvador and Guatemala.
The country also appears to have its share of beautiful countryside and friendly locals to meet. There are high, forested mountains, cascading waterfalls, sandy beaches, and even a brewery or two. Those of our friends who were able to give the country a chance really enjoyed the time they spent exploring what Honduras had to offer.
It seems the country gets largely skipped due to a combination of the perceived danger it represents, and because most PanAm travelers follow the coast South (or North) and to truly explore Honduras you’d have to detour from the coast and head inland to where the bulk is located.
Early on in our planning, Taylor and I decided that we’d give Honduras a fair chance. We had every intention to spend at least a week there. Unfortunately, our constricted time frame and the dates we’d scheduled to meet up with other travelers left us with little time to give the country our attention either. All our high-minded original intentions to give the Honduras a fair shake left us feeling guilty as we slunk between its borders.
To make matters worse, we received an invite from a local university student to have a beer and do some camping in the Honduran mountains. This is exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for in our trip and would ordinarily jump on the opportunity without question. We agonized over turning down his invitation to explore Honduras through the eyes of a local.
We spent only one night, but the people we met and country we saw were indeed friendly and beautiful. We never felt unsafe and were welcomed by everyone we met. Heart-breakingly though, every single person we met from border officials to locals in the town we stayed in asked us if we were simply passing through to Nicaragua. We ached to tell them no, that we were there to wring from our time there everything their country had to offer, but had ourselves jumped onto the train of Honduras skippers. No one seemed angry or upset, just ever so slightly saddened and resigned to the position of their home as a conduit to somewhere else.
Pulling up to the very last Honduran border check before crossing into Nicaragua, we felt a touch of relief; we’d finally made it through and wouldn’t have to face the shame any longer. Unfortunately for us, a line of brightly uniformed, fresh faced university students stood waiting to question us after we’d been cleared to exit the country. Equipped with iPads and enough English to get by, they questioned tourists about their stay.
We were interviewed by an earnest young man equipped with an iPad containing the most dreaded questions we’ve faced at a border so far. Questions on why we’d come to Honduras, how many days we were in the country, and which of its natural and civil wonders we’d enjoyed. In that moment we wanted nothing more than to answer “Yes! We DID visit the beach. We DID snorkel, hike, mountain bike, zip-line, and shop in the markets. Of course, we visited the mountains, the Mayan ruins, and the colonial cities!” Instead we apologized and made excuses. He politely took down our responses, and wished us happy travels in neighboring Nicaragua.