We have been in Central America for almost three months and tomorrow we leave to return to Mexico (which is not part of Central America but instead part of North America). We have covered about 4000 miles and managed to take 3 separate weeks off plus a few more stints of 3-4 days in one place, so the pace has been slower. These are my overriding impressions of the region having traveled through all 7 countries (some faster than others).
We arrived in Belize back in December for just two nights. We had a great night in a bungalow right on the beach. Unable to access the islands (cayes) that the country is famous for, because of the bike, we saw a different side of the country to most tourists. We were shocked by how poor it is in the north. Nothing seems to have been built since the British left. People seem to have nothing but they are very warm and friendly. It was great to be in an English speaking country.
Next was Guatemala, which we visited twice (as we did all countries except Belize and Panama). We both loved it here. We started in Tikal in the northern jungle. We visited the famous Mayan ruin. It was OK but I would not go back. Mayan ruins are not as impressive or ancient as those in Egypt, which I have visited many times. We then rode across the highlands. We got wet and cold and we saw some lovely mountain scenery and some wonderfully atmospheric Mayan villages, where women still wear traditional dress. We stayed at Lake Atitlan for Christmas. This lake encircled by volcanoes is very special and somewhere I would return. We stayed in the colonial city of Antigua, twice. We loved it there. We also saw the El Fuego volcano erupting at nighttime and we celebrated New Year’s Eve in the main square with new friends. We were shocked by the number of big guns seen everywhere in Guatemala and the stories of locals being robbed at gunpoint. Even the corner shop seems to have an armed guard. This is a real shame. We enjoyed the cooler climate of Guatemala. We found Guatemala more expensive than we expected. Much more so than southern Mexico.
We hightailed it through El Salvador and Honduras twice due to security fears. The capital cities of each have the highest murder rates in the world. In the cities and towns, these countries look just like the rest of Central America but I would not want to be caught on the road at night. We spent a total of 4 hours in Honduras and paid $80 in border fees for the privilege. Crossing two borders in one day (twice) is hard work but doable. We don’t regret not having stayed longer.
Nicaragua is a place to fall in love with. The socialist politics appeal to us. Yes the people are poor-you see a lot of horse and bullock drawn carts in the countryside but everywhere is clean and homes seem well built and people are well dressed. They grow a lot of fruit and veg as well as coffee and people look well fed. There is a slower pace of life there and the weather is very hot. The people are cheerful and welcoming. We felt very comfortable there. We spent time in the northern highlands and also quite a number of days in Granada, as well as a couple of days neat the capital Managua, to do bike business, and two nights is Leon. Granada was one of my favourite places of the trip so far-a place to fall in love with and return to. The grand architecture with an unmistakable, languid, Central America feel was really intoxicating. We loved the local food here. Breakfast each day was gallo pinto (fried rice and red beans) and fried plantain (like an unripe banana). We never got tired of eating it. Nicaragua was cheapest country in the region, from our perspective, but still not as cheap as southern Mexico.
We spent almost a month in Costa Rica all together. We travelled to three of the four corners, northern and southern Pacific coast and southern Caribbean coast and into the highlands. The highlights for me were the unspoiled Pacific beaches (which Dave found a little too unspoiled) and the wildlife. I had a mental list of the wildlife I wanted to see and with the exception of a sloth (which Dave saw when I was not with him-damn) I saw everything I wanted, without having to hire a guide or trek into the jungle. Most was seen from my chair on my porch or from the back of the bike. I saw many hummingbirds; iguanas; howler and capuchin monkeys; a jungle rat; pelicans; scarlet macaws; coatimundis; green parakeets; toucans; huge blue butterflies and many, many other bird species. My favorites included watching two hummingbirds mate (yes really, they do it on the ground); watching tiny capuchin monkeys negotiating their path through the trees in my garden and seeing over twenty scarlet macaws in one tree. I also loved walking along empty beaches, watching surfers at sunset, bathing in tidal pools and watching the sunrise over the ocean every morning for a week, from my bed.
Costa Rica is more expensive than elsewhere in the region. Petrol costs double what it does in neighbouring countries. Imported food is horribly expensive-US$7 for a large bag of crisps (chips)-but is you buy local and cook for yourself or eat in local cafes called sodas, it is still fairly reasonable. There are some stunning places to stay, both on the coast and in the hills and most seem to be run by expats from the USA; Germany or Switzerland. Although we were excited to ride in the highlands, roads can be quite congested with traffic and we did not really enjoy the riding much. Along the coast, it is very hot and humid and it does feel at times that you cannot escape the heat. Air conditioning is very expensive to run. For this reason, I am not sure I could live there.
By the time we reached Panama, we had a case of travel fatigue. Moving on constantly can be quite wearing and sometimes you lose your enthusiasm. This is what happened here. We ended up speeding through the country to get to Panama City (resulting in a speeding fine and a flat tyre). We spent 10 days in Panama City where we did very little except recharge our batteries, before we headed back. We ate well in Panama City and did a little shopping and also went to the cinema. Eating out was pretty expensive. Most places in Central America add tax and a 10% tip to the bill so the bill is always more than you think it will be. I am sure Panama has a lot to offer but we were not in the right mood to explore it. The heat/humidity was a factor here plus the fact that travel is always via the mind-numbingly boring PanAmerican Highway, with secondary roads taking you into the hills or to the coast. We visited a couple of hill towns, including the famous Boquete-we were underwhelmed.
Other highlights of Central America-sipping coconut juice at the side of the road from a pipa fria (chilled coconut); learning how to really enjoy a hammock; grappling with so many weird currencies like Quetzales, Cordobos, Colones (which we called cojones) and Balboas (clearly name after Rocky); enjoying so many different beers Gall0 (literally Cock beer), Tona, Imperial, Atlas and Belkin (Tona in Nicaragua was our favourite). Speaking terrible Spanish has been enjoyable -Dave still does not know the difference between veinte (20) and treinte (30) and I have more than once asked for cocaine instead of a coconut -and this will continue for another week or so in Mexico.
So Mexico here we come. We are very excited to be back in Mexico and heading north to the USA. We have decided not to go back via Baja California, as we had planned but to explore the northern highlands of the mainland around the Copper Canyon and then cross the US border into Arizona. We should be in Tuscon or Phoenix in about 2 weeks.