Tuesday 22nd August, Las Peñitas, Nicaragua
I started writing this last Friday – it is now Tuesday.
On Friday, we had just arrived in Flores, Guatemala. This is a pretty old town literally on a lake, where Daughter No 1 Helena spent a week last year. It seems a small world all of a sudden. Since then we have left Guatemala, crossed Honduras and are now separately in Nicaragua. More of that in a bit.
Leaving Mexico seemed like a good point to reflect on and record some observations on the nature of the countries we have visited so far, and although I won’t bore any readers still with us with all the details, it does seem strange that Mexico has had such a bad press of late (in certain circles) while the inhabitants of the USA are still being fed rhetoric about being “The greatest country on Earth” (no offense intended; most powerful to be sure, but in my own opinion greatness requires concerns for the wellbeing of all the country’s citizens, and a responsible use of influence for the benefit of the planet and its inhabitants everywhere). Mexico is relatively poor, it’s true, and a long way from being a contender for the top spot. But it is clearly developing, and has a vibrant and optimistic air. To be sure, crime petty and organised is a major problem and will be hard to solve; not everything is good. Almost everywhere we went, we saw black pickup trucks with 3 or 4 police in the back dressed in black from head to foot including black balaclavas to prevent their identification, brandishing automatic weapons. They certainly look menacing but were in large part reassuring for us. We are not their prey (we hoped!). We also encountered happy and enthusiastic people, out partying in the streets, again almost everywhere.
And so we rushed through Mexico short of time and slightly unnerved by concerns of safety. A rest day in Palenque allowed us to visit the extraordinary Mayan ruins there.
Just a couple of days before we left Mexico we heard reports of an Irish guy shot dead near Acapulco, a route that had tempted us but with a reputation for being unsafe. Apparently he had tried to stop someone grabbing his girlfriend’s bag through their car window and was shot dead for his pains. People’s concerns for our safety were apparently not misplaced. But by and large it seems like a happy country. I want to like it, despite its problems. I wish them well.
Our final encounter with Mexico was of course at the border as we left for Guatemala. There are several steps to border crossings in Central America; the same basic processes are required at each one. Firstly, you need to officially export the vehicle from the country you are leaving. On arrival in that country it was necessary to obtain a temporary import permit (TIP). For Mexico this entailed paying a US $400 deposit, in addition to a US $40 fee. So at the Guatemala border the first step is to go to the Adouana bank to get the TIP cancelled (after inspection of the bike to ensure the VIN tallies with the paperwork). This bit was easy and pleasant – the customs / bank clerk cheerful and helpful. According to him, we were done with Mexico and could head to the Guatemala side. So on we went on our bikes down a roadway separated by a barrier in the middle, past a building on the left – the other side of the barrier – at which we were hailed by some guys in uniform. So we had to find a way through the barrier to find out what was up. This, it transpired, was the immigration post at which we were supposed to get exit stamps in our passport, and pay US $30 for the privilege. Well, with the office on the wrong side of the road, no markings, and across a central barrier to boot how were we to know? In a state with heavy police presence an and officialdom everywhere, give a chap a cap and braid and the result is predictable. Taken one by one into a small office to have the cash extracted, and to answer the question from an unsmiling smooth-faced youth of no more than 23 years why we had been attempting to leave Mexico without paying our fee? This had no traction as even he knew full well that the position and lack of signage meant that there was no way we could have guessed what we had to do. But it had the desired effect of making us pay up our US $30 each without further complaint. Except, that is, for Ian who pleaded no cash and eventually got away with paying less, but with threats that he could never return to Mexico.
On the Guatemala side we were greeted in a mobile shack of an office with big welcoming smiles, lots of tapping information into computers of course but all done with good humour. We didn’t really mind that we had to traipse 400 yards to a shanty trading post to get a load of photocopies, change some USD to Guatemalan Quetzales with unofficial black marketeers (there is no bank or ATM and payment is only in Quetzales purchased at usurious rates), then 400 yards back with the photocopies to the friendly chap in his office; more tapping into the computer (with Georgie’s help as document translator) before sending us off to pay for our TIPs at a different mobile shack – this required another 400 yard foray back to the money changers to get the required Quetzales. Getting wiser now, we managed to get a better rate by playing one money changer against another – probably only saved 2 or 3 USD on an $80 transaction but worth it for the satisfaction. Back to office no 2 to pay with our newly obtained Quetzales and then to office no 1 with payment receipt to actually get the TIPs. I think we had to visit the immigration shed first to get ourselves stamped in, but I have forgotten the details of that. Oh, and we had to pay another few USD to get our bikes sprayed with an insecticide too.
As Wallace might have said to Grommet – what a palaver! But on the Guatemala side it was all done with smiles and humour and we set off with light spirits and good first impressions.
By now we were well into the tropics, with lush broad-leaved greenery and palm trees; huge banana plantations line the road. It is certainly a poorer country than Mexico but well kempt. Small motorbikes and scooters are the principle mode of transport. It has a Caribbean feel. And armed police were conspicuous by their absence.
After two nights in Guatemala we crossed into Honduras, via a similar but far better organised border crossing where Georgie’s Spanish again helped smooth our way, and we proceeded not without a little bit of trepidation. This is the country that we had been advised has little to offer us, best to get across it as quickly as possible. Looking up some facts at breakfast we learned that Honduras has about half the GDP per head than Guatemala, and one of the lowest HDI scores. It also has the highest murder rate of any country in the world – according to Wikipedia. Gulp.
So the plan was one night in the middle of the country then a dash to the Nicaraguan border next day. We booked rooms at somewhere that looked safe in the right area, and off we went. What a surprise awaited us! To start with Honduras had great roads almost all the way through, and extensive evidence of new roads being built. There was little litter, houses were poor of course, but well maintained. No rusting vehicles abandoned everywhere. And gorgeous scenery too.
Our chosen hotel was Honduyate, on Lago Yojoa. Pleasant and clean, with a bar on the lake and a simple but good restaurant where we encountered the owner, Richard. Richard is a British émigré, having moved here 40 years ago after a career in banking. It seemed he was as interested in us as we were in him and we had an excellent evening swapping stories and learning a little more about the present day Honduras. The current President has tried hard to make real changes, principally by enforcing payment of taxes due in order to raise the revenue available to spend on infrastructure – hence the plethora of new roads etc. This is not universally popular of course with large sections of the populace who may not need roads and resent paying tax; one can only hope that health care and education facilities are being developed as well in order for people to see the benefits. If the current government is successful, Honduras could be a country to watch. We loved it – which shows just how far wrong our preconceptions can be.
To finish, an update on where we are now. I have taken a couple of days RnR to spend some time with Georgina on a beach. I’m writing this from Las Penitas, watching the Pacific surf entertaining a handful of beautiful people on boards. Tomorrow we go to Managua where I will leave Georgie to have more adventures traveling on her own for a few days in Nicaragua and Costa Rica before she heads home. Tom and Ian have pressed on in order to deliver Aoife to San Jose in Costa Rica, from where she will begin her travel home. I will re-join them in Panama at the end of the week, and then we all get the Stahlratte sailing boat on Sunday. I think.