Drive the Americas

We got some emails from people asking us for a new post. Sorry everyone – we have gotten behind, but we have an excuse. No, not an excuse that an excellent swell showed up in Nicaragua and we have been out surfing. No, we have not been spending time lazing around a pool, or honing our Spanish speaking skills with the locals. We have been working.

Working, you ask? What legal work could a bunch of Norte Americanos with a 90 day Visa be doing in Nicaragua? We have been working on creating a website for other travelers driving the Americas. You can work from anywhere in the world on a website. Not too easy from Nicaragua though. Imagine how tricky the digital commute can be in a country where the electricity goes out at least once a day. Hard to see the keyboard let alone get on the internet when your house is lit by candles. Even when the power is up the internet connection often disappears or slows to the speed of a dial-up connection for hours at a time. (My apologies for any of you poor souls still on dial-up out there – according to Google Analytics, 1.52% of our traffic is still coming from dial-up).

Inspired by the lack of information about driving through Mexico, Central, and South America, we have banded together with our fellow road-trippers, Tom and Kelsey, to create an online resource for like-minded travelers. For the last two weeks we rented a sweet two bedroom condo near Playa Madera in San Juan del Sur here in Nicaragua and worked feverishly to put together a website called Drive the Americas. Fueled by banana-watermelon smoothies and delicious home cooked meals, we hope this website will be a useful guide for people driving the Pan-American Highway. We promise to leave our very biased opinions about Honduras to ourselves, or at least to this blog :)

You can:

  1. Sign up at www.drivetheamericas.com
  2. Join our Facebook group
  3. Join our Flickr group

Be sure to send us your comments, and contribute your experiences and information to help us make drivetheamericas.com the best, most up-to-date source of information for people traveling North, Central, and South America by car! Oh, by the way, you might have realized that I am ‘blogmoting’ our new site here. Remember that you heard the word ‘blogmoting’ here first.

Next on the agenda: driving into Costa Rica, looking for that sweet point break to surf, stay tuned…

Holidays with friends, Nica style

As Chris’s club foot and moon face shrank back to normal size, we were really excited to have our first visitors from the US join us in Granada for a week. Driving to the Managua airport to pick up our friend Laurie, the first to arrive, was a bit of an adventure. You might think that the capital city of a country as well as its only international airport would have some road signs indicating the correct direction, but then you wouldn’t be in Nicaragua. After many wrong turns, we had the metal Honda emblem ripped off the back of our car while the windows were being washed at a stoplight, and got directions from a 10-year old girl selling ducks at an intersection to finally make our way to Managua International Airport. Steve successfully navigated the Managua airport on his own the next day, and luckily he did not have to resort to using his Spanish flashcards to communicate with the cab driver.

The four of us wandered the colonial streets of Granada, explored some old churches, enjoyed a horse-drawn cart ride to better see the city, ate some lovely meals in pillared courtyards filled with tropical flowers, and lounged around our hotel pool while chowing down on Christmas cookies that my mom and sister had sent to me using Laurie as their mule. We also took a bone-jarring 4WD drive up the steep slopes of nearby volcan Mombacho to explore the cloud forests covering the peak and peer into the dormant volcanic craters. However, due to split pea soup fog, all we managed to see was a sloth hanging from the branches of a tree. Much more exciting was the zip-line trip we took through the jungle canopy. The local guides whooped and hollered as we sped from tree to tree, snapping on our safety harnesses and pushing us off the platforms with glee.
The four of us wanted to check out the beaches at San Juan de Sur, but renting a car or taking a bus to our next destination was too expensive for our tastes. Instead, we kicked it Nica style and drove with Steve and Chris laying in the back of our car with the hatchback open . I know, I know, the real Nica style is having 10 people packed in the back of a pickup truck, but you have to give us an A for effort.

With all that money saved on bus rides, we decided to splurge when we arrived in San Juan del Sur and rent a sweet condo in the hills looking down on the turquoise horse-shoe shaped bay. It was still a steal by United States standards, but for us budget travelers having three infinity pools along with a private deck equipped with a bar and rocking chairs was heaven. We enjoyed two days lounging on the beach and by the pool and playing poker while sharing litros of Tona, the Nicaraguan beer. We then headed back to celebrate the New Year in Granada. Steve and Laurie were great sports and stayed out quite late considering they were catching a 4 am taxi to the Managua airport the next morning.


Crazy zig zag around Nicaragua

When we left El Tunco in El Salvador for Nicaragua, we knew we were in for a painful experience. A 40 mile section of Honduras stood between us and Nicauragua, and given our last experience with corrupt border officials and police there, we were in for a grueling day fighting crowds and avoiding bribes. Armed with our previous experience, we were not shocked by the chaos and disorder that ruled at the El Salvador-Honduras border. 40 miles later the crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua was largely uneventful, as we received our car import permit for free and purchased Nicaraguan car insurance at the border. We breathed a sigh of relief as Honduras disappeared into the distance behind us and the volcanoes of Nicaragua loomed ahead.
We were very underwhelmed by Masachapa and Pochomil, the first beaches we encountered in Nicaragua. Ramshackle shanties and half assembled thatched-roof huts ringed the beaches, and the restaurant and hotel owners seemed to have learned their sales tactics from the Honduran border. We were chased down the sandy street by men waving menus and shouting the dinner specials. After losing the crowd following the car, we found an overpriced dump of a hotel and stayed the night, hoping that the beaches further south would be more appetizing.

On our drive south, we learned some valuable lessons about how to avoid bribing the Nicaraguan police when they pull you over for some bogus reason. Whether it was speeding, passing, or not having an orange safety triangle, we almost enjoy interacting with the police at this point. They are always friendly as they sadly explain that we have violated some law and will now have to pay a fine. Unfortunately they explain, this means they will have to keep our license and we will have to drive to some distant town the next day to pay a fine in order to retrieve our license. Because this particular police officer is a good guy though, he will offer us the very reasonable alternative of paying him directly to avoid the inconvenience of waiting a day and driving around. Knowing that we haven’t been speeding, passing, and the triangle excuse may be bogus, we play along and state that we would be perfectly happy to retrieve our license and pay the fine the next day. This sends the police officer into a state of confusion, causing him to ask if we understood what he said. He then pulls his last trick out of his hat, and whips out a pad of paper as if to write a ticket. We just sit there serenely, nodding, and wait for him to give up and hand us back our license when he realizes we have called his bluff. Works like a charm. We have probably been pulled over 10 times in the last 2 weeks, and this has worked every time.

We had high hopes for San Juan del Sur, a beach town in southern Nicaragua close to the Costa Rica border, as the Lonely Planet guides described it as slightly ‘vacuous and gringofied.’ In general for beach towns, we have found that this signifies the availability of a variety of nice restaurants, hotel options, and usually a beautiful location. While the town was pleasant and we were looking forward to several days of sun and surf, our stay there was cut short by two unrelated and unfortunate events. First, Chris had a bizarre infection that caused his foot to swell up alarmingly, which we refered to as ‘club foot’ for the next few weeks. Without an appointment, we paid $1.50 and waited only 15 minutes to see the local doctor, who prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, rest and ice. Later that night, his eyes swelled halfway shut making him look like a freak of nature. Second, we befriended a local restaurant owner who helped us translate the Spanish legalese in our Nicaraguan insurance document, and we found out that our car was dangerously underinsured by the policy we had purchased at the border. After calling the Nicaraguan insurance office the next morning to try to purchase sufficient coverage, we had to rush to Managua. To buy sufficient insurance, the Nicaraguan insurance company had to see our car in person, and was closing for the Christmas holiday in three hours. Two and a half tense hours later, we navigated our way through the un-named streets of Managua, frantically asking directions from the locals, and interrupted the holiday party of the insurance company. They were very gracious, quickly wrote us an excellent policy, and turned off the lights behind us as we left the building. Exhausted by the frantic driving and medical semi-emergencies, we found a lovely hotel in Granada with swimming pool, AC, and cable TV, and happily lazed around for two days while awaiting the arrival of our friends Laurie and Steve from the Unites States.