The turquoise blue waters surrounding the cayes of Belize gave us a chance to flex our paddles before we jumped back into the Scenic. Heading west towards the more temperate area of the Maya Mountains, we visited sacred caves and took sandy tracks to ancient cities. Crossing the border into Guatemala, the condition of the roads was our harbinger of things to come...
We were about to cross into Belize from Mexico, and we decided to withdraw some cash-just to be on the safe side.
The man was waiting for us as we came out of the bank, perspiration dripping from under his baseball cap. He looked desperate and on the verge of a breakdown. He greeted us timidly as we approach the Scenic. "Is this your car?" he asked, and upon our positive answer he let out a huge sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness. I saw the car and I was hoping the owners would be foreigners. You see, I need assistance, I don't speak Spanish, and well, I am plain frantic. I have just hitchhiked all the way from Escarcega, a hole if you ask me, where I had to leave my wife and two kids. We came to Mexico as a gift from my church-I am a minister in Chicago, and we were on our way to Cancun by bus, from where we were going to fly home. We changed buses in Mexico City, our luggage did not. Everything was in the luggage: Credit cards, tickets, clothes, passports. I came here in hopes that there is an office to help tourists. Do you know of any?"
We looked at each other. No.
"Well, maybe there is a church that could help?"
Yes, possibly. It was getting late, however, and most offices were closed. "Could you help me? I hate to ask, I realize travelers such as yourselves have budgets to uphold..." Oh geez. The last thing we wanted to do is give money to a stranger.
"I am out of my mind. Look, here. I will give you my wife's wedding ring as collateral. As soon as we get back to the U.S., I will put the money into your account. Please, you are my only hope. I need to get back tonight. My wife is diabetic, my kids are sick, and if I don't return, they will worry."
"Bus tickets back to Acapulco for four people," he said. "And food?," we asked. "If you could, that would be too kind." His story was too absurd not to be true. The fact that my father is a minister, and that two of my sisters are diabetic, was too much of a coincidence. Giving him a few hundred dollars, we took him to the corner, from where he hitched a ride back to his family. With tears in his eyes, he thanked us graciously, shaking our hands firmly. We felt we had done a good deed.
One week later, we discovered the phone number and address were fake, the ring zirconium, the money never returned. So much for border towns.
Belize is a minuscule country, approximately the size of Wales. We'd heard it is a bastion of wildlife, nature, and beauty. Driving towards Orange Walk, the second largest city (14,000 inhabitants), we imagined grove-lined streets swaying in the wind, British-colonial wooden houses reflecting the evening sun. We ended up staying in a concrete block the size of a prison cell, eating at the only restaurant that was open: Chinese.
Belize is a mix of ethnicities, the majority being Creoles, descendants of African slaves and British pirates; followed by Mestizos, mixed European and Central American heritage; the indigenous Maya; and the Garifuna, who come from South American Indian and African descent. As we soon discovered, Belize also has a rather large population of Chinese residents and the majority of shops and restaurants that are always open tend to be theirs, especially during holiday weekends.
Perhaps because of our recent dupe, or perhaps because of the recent headlines of looting and riots in the capital city, we were on edge. With the car covered in stickers, we were too conspicuous for any would-be thief, and we made our way in and out of the capital quickly. Heading to the coast to get some use out of our kayak and to enjoy the crystal-clear waters of Tobacco Caye just off the coast from Dangriga, we felt as if we'd entered a ghost town. The streets were deserted, shops closed...ah yes, the holidays. We ate Chinese noodles once again, and after dinner the streets started to come to life. The music of Punta rock, drumming with calls and responses from other drummers, filled the night air and the chatter of locals in the streets kept up a lively air. Welcome to the Caribbean!
We should have known it was going to be rough. The battered, rutted roads leading into Guatemala from the border made it seem as if we were driving into a war zone. Dodging potholes and stones, we can only hope it will improve. Then the road stops and a wide river confronted us. Did we make a wrong turn? We got out and asked. "No, you need to wait for the ferry. It will be over in a few minutes." What ferry? That piece of scrap metal being pulled over on a line? Clanging on the bank, announcing its arrival, stuffed corner-to-corner with vehicles, we had little choice, so we piled on.
When taking heed of local information, a grain of salt is always needed. Five kilometers turns into 20, and a "good" road is often terrible. We wanted to take a shortcut. To reach the Cuchumatanes Range in the western part of Guatemala, we had two choices: The long way, which would take us completely south before looping around to the west to head north again; or we could drive directly west. We opted for the latter, having heard it was a beautiful rugged road that would take us high into the cloud forests-and not often traveled by tourists. At the start, the road was badly rutted from torrential rains, but as we climbed, the road smoothed out, though we had the feeling we were clinging to the side of a cliff. It wound its way up and around the mountains, our only company the small villages and the trucks we pass filled with rocks, almost too large to be able to pass side by side. We took it slow. Our rear shocks were shot and in desperate need of repair, and we didn't want to bottom out.
The Scenic stopped suddenly, veering slightly to the left. "What? Flat tire?" We jumped out of the car, almost afraid to look. The front left wheel was completely torn from the suspension arm, while streams of transmission fluid ran down the hill like blood from a broken heart. Our culprit was a loose bolt, not having been tightened down properly or just plainly forgotten. Imagine if we'd been going faster.
We were in the middle of nowhere, on a tight curve on the side of a cliff, it started to rain, and night was coming. No cell phone, no communication, nada. After a quick assessment of our choices, we realized we didn't have many. Laurent would go back into town (40 km away!), and I would stay with the Scenic. But how to get back? A bumbling yellow truck suddenly appears, and it was Pollo Lindo (Beautiful Chicken) to the rescue: "No worries, I will get you where you need to go. These frozen chickens need to get delivered to Coban, and there you'll find a mechanic."
Four hours later, the tow truck arrived with Laurent sitting happily in the front seat. First thought: How is that little thing going to tow both the Scenic and the trailer? Second thought: How are they going to turn this thing around on the narrow rocky road? No worries. Max, our driver, had the experience. "I tow cars from this road several times a week." Hitching the Scenic to the back, he took off to turn around further down the road, leaving us in the pouring rain. Ten minutes later, we started to wonder where he is. Ten minutes after that, he arrived, our nerves almost shattered. Attaching the trailer to the back, we now had the difficult task of returning in the black of night with both the Scenic and the trailer wiggling behind the tow truck on the slippery, steep, winding rocky road.
A Pleasant Surprise
Entering El Salvador was a confrontation of fear and misperception. Images loomed of a country beset with problems: Recovery from a brutal 12-year civil war, dangers of earthquakes and hurricanes, gang violence that pervades every town and city, a proliferation of weapons and drugs. Newspaper headlines scream with the latest macabre murder and daily, and weekly and monthly indices on the number of deaths by assault, knife, or gun are listed on page two of the newspapers. Our first impression was of high population density and decent roads-the former we had read about, the latter coming as a complete surprise, as was much of the country itself.
Tucked away between Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and fronted by the Pacific Ocean, this tiny country of only 21,040 square meters holds 6.3 million people, making it the most densely populated of Central America. With a strong work ethic, Salvadorans have taken their country from the devastation of civil war to almost the top of the economic ladder in Central America, and with over 1 million Salvadorans in the U.S., remittances from abroad certainly make their contribution.
Following the Ruta de las Flores (Route of the Flowers), we wound our way towards the towns of Nahuizalco, Salcoatitan, Juayua, and Apaneca, all known for their coffee-growing plantations that spread between them like a blanket of green. In the distance, Cerro Verde rises some 2,000 meters above sea level, inviting us to its top for views of the surrounding volcanoes and Lago Coatepeque. The Scenic, now repaired, pounded the dirt tracks until we finally landed in Suchitoto, a colonial town where we took a few days to savor the pleasures and tranquility of life in this country that has much to offer the traveler who is willing to scratch below the surface.
From the magnificent ruins of Copan, we headed north to the second largest city in Honduras, San Pedro de Sula. Veering south, and missing the well-known tourist attractions of the Bay Islands to the north on the Caribbean, we cut diagonally across the country to stop by the tranquil lake of Yojoa, the modernizing capital of Tegucigalpa, and the pine-smelling village of Valle de Angeles. Nicaragua was next, and we whipped through the country under an ever-increasing time schedule pressuring us to get to Panama. By the time we arrived in Costa Rica, we needed a break, albeit short and sweet.
Costa Rica is quite a change for us. It was clear that this country relies heavily on tourism. Service levels rise considerably, as well as the prices, and even if we are thankful for the change, being in the midst of communities of retirees from Canada and the U.S. makes us feel like we are not in a foreign country! Costa Rica has worked hard towards conservation and "eco-tourism," and with over 27 percent of its land protected, it is a delight for anyone seeking a bit of adventure and nature. From canopy ziplines, active volcanoes, oversized surf waves, and jungle walks, to just plain chilling out, living la pura vida (pure life) is never too difficult.
After a short stay in Liberia, a town that is reminiscent of any small town in the States, we began to climb up to Laguna de Arenal and the dirt track that follows its edge until settling in at Orosi. Located to the east of the capital, this sleepy village is nestled in a river valley known for resplendent mountain vistas, colonial churches, hot springs, and a lake. Finding a small cabin in which to stay, our days began to the sound of birds chirping and ended with the silence of dusk. It was the perfect place to recuperate for four days, our little slice of la pura vida.
Agents And Canals
Zipping into Panama, our all-consuming thought was how to find a ship on which to place the Scenic to Ecuador. Starting in Costa Rica, we'd begun to contact and ask for quotes from various shipping companies and agents we'd found. The prices differ radically. Some include most costs, while others include only a few costs. It was never very clear, and until we arrived in Panama City, there was no way we were going to fork over any cash until we met the company.
Deciding to go with the cheapest company, we made an appointment to check them out. A young woman was in charge of our account, extremely friendly, very kind, but it was obvious she had never done this before. Things started to sour when she introduced us to a man with whom we would pass through the police check and customs. It was clear he had never done this before, either. We eventually took the prudent course and settled on a deal with another, experienced, shipper.
What a difference. Manuel, assigned to be our assistant, met us at our hotel to take us to customs and the police. Within three hours, everything was finished, stress-free, and in three days he would pick us up again to take us to the port of Colon, where we would load the Scenic into a container, seal her up and be on our way. Door to door service! This was a good thing, since we weren't too keen to be on the docks, or in the city of Colon, which is known for its crime, by ourselves. To boot, when we asked Manuel if it would be possible to make a trip to the canal before heading to the port, he smiled broadly and said, "Certainly! We will make a day of it!" With pregnant wife in tow, Manual met us at 9:00 a.m. sharp, dressed to the nines, and ready to go.
The Panama Canal is a magnificent work of human engineering, cutting 80 kilometers from the Atlantic side in Colon across the Continental Divide to the Pacific Side of Panama City. With a set of three immense double locks, the 14,000 ships that pass through here yearly cross the artificial lake of Lago Gatun and also travel through the Gaillard Cut, a 14-km cut through the rock and shale of the isthmian mountains. It is quite a sight to see a 900-foot-long ship being moved through the locks as they slowly climb or descend (depending on their direction) with the volume of water-and a staggering 52 million gallons of fresh water is released to the ocean with the passage of each ship. Soon the Scenic would pass through here. (Ironically, it is cheaper to seal the car in a container on the Atlantic side and send it through the canal to the Pacific side than to have the car shipped directly from Panama City. We still don't understand why.)
When we arrived at the port, the container was waiting, one lone small box in comparison to the stacks of containers that flanked it. The admin guys surrounded the container, checking off boxes, and making sure it was packed correctly. Laurent inspected the seal to his satisfaction, Manuel handed us our papers, and we watched as the Scenic was lifted like a noodle between two chopsticks to its pre-boarding location on the docks. It would be one week before would see her again.