Somehow we had acquired a ‘helper’. Amongst the melee of the border crossing, with its arm-waving communication and crushing hordes of Spanish-speaking locals each vying for our business, we had scored a young Nicaraguan man who was not going to be put off.
Already we had passed hundreds of trucks, their drivers either sitting or standing around in groups smoking, yarning or swinging in their hammocks, which were slung underneath their trucks to escape the burning tropical sun. For them, the border crossing could take up to a week, so we hurried past and crowded the border post with a smattering of other cars and hundreds of locals, all pushing, shoving, yelling and waving papers in the faces of officials.
We had managed to exit Costa Rica under our own steam with a throng of would-be helpers following us through ‘no man’s land’ to the Nicaraguan side of the border. Now we had a helper whether we liked it or not. His price? $10. Needless to say we accepted graciously.
Taking me by the arm, our newfound friend led us to the immigration officer to have our passports stamped, then on to a customs officer to have our vehicle papers checked, and finally to an inspection point where our vehicles were hurriedly inspected — but only after paying a US$20 fee. Then it was off to buy compulsory vehicle insurance ($50) and then to another building to get a temporary import permit ($40). With an exit stamp on our border control paperwork issued by the police as we had entered the area, we headed for the exit only to be stopped by an irate policeman. Nowhere in our reams of paperwork was our camper trailer mentioned, so we turned back into the hubbub of people and buildings and started the whole process all over again for the Track Trailer T-van.
By this stage in our around-the-world sojourn we were used to border crossings and this one, having taken just over two hours, was smack bang in the middle of the timeframe we normally allotted to such officialdom.
Just three weeks earlier our vehicles had arrived in Colon at the southern end of Central America by ship from Cartagena in Colombia, bypassing the famed and now no-go, drug-infested and rebel-run region, the Darien Gap. Once in Panama City we had taken our vehicles to the local ARB dealer for some well-deserved service and repair work. With that behind us we headed north and soon crossed the spine of mountains that runs down the isthmus of Central America towards the Caribbean Sea.
BEST LAID PLANS
Our plan seemed simple enough; head to the port of Chiriqui Grande, catch a ferry to the islands and enjoy a few days lazing in the sun on some deserted island beach. Almost immediately our plan began to go awry.
First, there was nothing ‘grand’ about Chiriqui Grande at all — it was a seedy, smelly dump. But more importantly for us, there were no boats heading to the islands. We tried another town 50km further on and, after waiting for over a day for the ferry to sail, discovered somebody had suddenly cancelled it.
We gave up and wandered north into Costa Rica, passing impressive volcanoes as we hummed along the Trans American Highway before turning off onto a side road and camping under shady trees in the Santa Rosa National Park.
We then crossed the border into Nicaragua, and after a couple of days of paddling canoes among the everglades of Lago Nicaragua (the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world) and exploring the back blocks of the nearby historic city of Granada, we headed for Honduras.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise by now that a road trip through Central America often becomes a blur of border crossings and money exchanges. If there is anywhere in the world that needs a ‘commonwealth of states’, this is it.
AN ANCIENT CIVILISATION
We bypassed El Salvador (no right-hand-drive vehicles allowed) and headed into the mountainous country of Honduras, which is dotted with beautiful lakes and the scattered ruins of the long-gone mighty Maya empire. Picking out a couple of the best ruins to visit, we headed for the once great city of Copán, which is now being resurrected out of the jungle.
The Maya (not to be confused with the Incas or the Aztecs) dominated what we know as southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and northern Honduras between 400AD and 900AD, give or take a generation or two. They left behind a vast array of temples and cities, most of which are yet to be dug up.
Copán and Tikal across the border in Guatemala are considered two of the most important and spectacular Maya sites; we preferred Tikal. Its setting amongst a vast sweep of jungle is spectacular, while its main temples, jutting above the jungle canopy, are truly awe-inspiring.
POSTCARDS FROM BELIZE
With our history lessons behind us — and after poking down some back roads in Guatemala — we headed for the only official English-speaking country in South or Central America; tiny, poor and corrupt Belize. Camping in the relative protection of the secure compound of the Yacht Club, we explored the city before leaving our vehicle and camper and heading to the fabled islands offshore.
Here you’ll find the postcard scenes Belize is known for, with a huge barrier reef second only in length to our Great Barrier Reef. We enjoyed a week of sun, sand and snorkelling with the marine life before returning to the mainland and heading north to Mexico.
Officially North America begins as you enter Mexico’s southern border, but little changes except the currency, the wellbeing of the people and the age and condition of the infrastructure, all of which are better in Mexico — just don’t measure it against Aussie norms. Still, we didn’t dally too long, heading north to the Gulf Coast and then west to the Pacific coast and Acapulco.
We then caught the overnight ferry to La Paz near the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and were immediately surprised at the almost unbelievable change of scenery. For weeks previous we had wandered down roads lined by open green paddocks and along tracks hemmed in by dark jungle. Now the corrugated dirt roads twisted and turned amongst dune-coloured, sparsely clad hills that bordered an emerald blue sea. We fell in love with it immediately.
The Baja Peninsula, or Baja California, stretches south for over 1600km from the border of the USA and is the second-longest peninsula in the world. On the Pacific (western) coast the cold Californian current brings a richness of sea life, including the annual grey whale migration. This ancient pilgrimage culminates with the whales giving birth in the large shallow lagoons that dot the Baja coast, making the shallow waters a whale watcher’s nirvana.
The east coast of Baja is bordered by the Gulf of California, but we preferred its more swashbuckling name, the Sea of Cortez. Saltier and warmer than the west coast but just as rich in sea life, the calm waters of the gulf are a fishing, diving and kite-boarding Mecca. We sampled the snorkelling at a couple of spots along the coast, paddled our inflatable canoe along the coast of El Coyote and went fishing out from Bahia de Los Angeles. It was fantastic.
MEGA FLORA AND FAUNA
As we caught baitfish just 400m from the boat ramp, a 9m whale shark swam under the boat. But it didn’t stop there; as we headed to the fishing grounds we were escorted part of the way by two pods of fast-moving fin whales and a group of dolphins. As we hooked up with some tough muscular yellowtail, a bloody big sea lion came in to steal the show, his speed through the water quickly overtaking our cranking reels. Amongst a mass of different wheeling and diving seabirds we trolled for mahi mahi, or dolphin fish, their spiralling antics and flashes of colour when hooked making them one hell of a fish to catch.
While the vegetation on land was sparse it was no less amazing; a botanical wonderland despite its dryness. Of the 1200 species of cacti, the cardon cactus is the biggest in the world and is almost totally restricted to just a few areas on Baja. Growing to 20m tall and as many tonnes, they can store over a tonne of water in their trunks and limbs and live for more than 300 years.
When we stopped to check out a forest of these giants, nearby was another strange endemic desert plant — the boojum — which looks more like a gigantic brown-coloured carrot jammed into the ground than anything else. Still, any resemblance to a carrot quickly dissipates as you get closer, its mass of long thorns keeping any intruder away from the trunk of the plant — which only grows at a rate of about a foot every 10 years.
A day or so later and further up the Gulf Coast we found ourselves camped at Playa el Coyote on a sweep of white sand dotted with the occasional palm tree and hemmed in by two rocky, cactus-studded headlands. Palm beach shelters and basic toilet facilities mean you have to pay a few dollars to stay here, but the lack of power and water keeps many RVers at bay. We stayed a couple of days revelling in the warm water, snorkelling, swimming and canoeing at every opportunity; it was pure magic and it was bloody hard to tear ourselves away.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
Our journey, however, was fast coming to an end. Five days later we crossed the Mexican/USA border at the tumultuous Tijuana border crossing, reputedly the busiest land border in the world. Last year they processed something like 10 million vehicles and over 35 million people!
The wild west of the USA and the vastness of the Arctic were next on our travelling agenda, but first we’d leave our vehicle and camper trailer in LA, travel home for a few months, before returning to continue our journey to the far shores of North America.
MAYAN OR MAYA?
Why do you sometimes see it written ‘Mayan’, and other times ‘Maya’? That’s a bloody good question, we thought, so we Googled it. Turns out ‘Maya’ is correct, despite ‘Mayan’ being more common. The latter is apparently only used when referring to language. For example, “We visited Maya temples and learnt about Maya culture, but we still can’t speak any Mayan languages”. Who knew?
ALL SORTS OF OVERLANDERS
We’ve met all sorts of overlanders: walking, riding bicycles, on motorbikes, and in cars, 4WDs or trucks. Some had spent a fortune on their home on wheels while others had scraped a few bucks together and bought whatever they could afford. Importantly, they were out there living their dream!
In Bolivia we met Jon, one of the few Americans we’ve met outside of North America. Jon left his home state of Oregon eight years ago and started walking south. In Mexico, five years ago, he picked up a donkey, and ‘Judas’ has been his constant travelling companion since. It’s been a hell of a walk and the pair still had a year or two to go, but Jon remains one of the most memorable people we have ever met.
Another younger couple — Argentinians we met in Colombia — were heading north to Alaska. Their old sedan with roof racks wasn’t fancy by any means, but they were having an absolute ball.
Then there was the older German couple — both real characters. They had been travelling in South America for over 10 years in what was a pretty old Iveco van, and previous to that had spent 20 years criss-crossing Africa and Asia.
There’s quite a community of overlanders out there. Once you become part of it, it is hard to leave and most talk of what their next adventure will be. They call it the travel bug, and it bites hard!
Baja and Mexico are extremely easy to get to once you are in the USA. South of Mexico there are plenty of borders to keep you amused … and frustrated. Still, they are easier than many other borders we’ve experienced around the world.
Buying or hiring an RV
Buying a second-hand vehicle or hiring a camper is easy in the US. Check out www.cruiseamerica.com for rigs to hire or buy. Vehicles, especially second-hand ones, are a lot cheaper than in Oz. Buying gives you a lot more freedom as travelling beyond Mexico in a US-registered hire vehicle is difficult, if not impossible.
You would have heard the stories, but Baja is safer than most other regions of Mexico. We had absolutely no trouble in any of the countries we travelled through.
You will be stopped at military and police checkpoints — learn to take them in your stride as only rarely will you get hit up for a bribe!
There are a lot of campgrounds in Mexico, and as you go south they become more rustic and cheaper, but also scarcer.
If you want to read more or find out how to do such a trip yourself, visit www.guidebooks.com.au and follow the links to Americas Overland.
Originally published in Camper Trailer Australia #63, March/April 2013.