Panting in Peru

imageLandscapes should not change as dramatically as they have from Macarã, our Ecuadorian border town crossing, to the Peruvian coastal town of Huanchaco.  Perched in the lower southern highlands of Ecuador, Macarã is neck deep in lush native South American bush. Not long after the border into Peru the lush mountain ranges lose moisture and are replaced by gigantic sand dunes and rock as far as the eye can see, some of which resembled a scene in Star Wars.  We felt like we were back driving the wild west of Kenya or Tanzania. The stark, harsh landscapes, mud huts and villages strewn over the vast nothingness.

imageWe progressed into a headwind to the Pacific Ocean, we had not seen the Pacific since Panama City. During the afternoon we drove up the main drag of Huanchaco, our overnight stop at a beach side car park complete with a ‘paid for’ 24 hour guard. The beautiful white sand of Huanchaco, with a lazy left off the pier lures local & foreign surfers in steamers and beach ready bikini girls to its beach. Our days had been long since the border and we unanimously wanted a decent restaurant meal and a cold local beer. Our first Peruvian meal, complete with frosty Cusqueña Cerveza, was at the first restaurant that had a sunny beer garden. We devouring a ‘meat fest’ which included the obligatory ‘salad and sopa’ (soup) and our first taste of the fluffy alpaca! It wasn’t long before the salt air started calling and made our way to the beach front for a few days at the ocean!

imageThe beach side car park was pretty hard to miss and we completed a lap of the beach in Troy. Restaurants and beach side apartments lined the northern end of the street while young Peruvians on the fire water, hanging out beside cars peppered the south stretch towards town. We carefully selected a site that ticked as many boxes, as can be ticked for a public parking lot, and after finding and paying a local security guard a few Soles to keep an eye out during the night we set chairs facing west and settled in for another Pacific sunset.

imageIn this part of Peru the midday weather offers sun, sun and sun but during the afternoon the weather is for cold and wet, typical Peruvian coastal weather.The sandy coastline rises from the cold Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes and without not so much as a blade of lifeless grass in some areas. From the foothills the hills soar before reaching far & high up into the mountains of the Andes. The barren coastal topography of mist, sand & rock and mountain after mountain continues for thousands of kilometers along the Peruvian Northern and Southern coast and extends short of Santiago, Chile.

imageThis was not the typical Peru we were expecting and the when we awoke to early morning fog/ mist/ thick low cloud and decided to leave the cold, misty, sandy coast for the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca and the mountain town of Caraz. The Cordillera Blanca, Spanish for “White Range”, is a mountain range in the Ancash Region of Peru and part of the larger Andes range. It includes 33 major peaks over 5,500 metres (18,040 ft) high in an area 21 kilometers wide and 180 kilometers long. We were keen to trek deep in to Peru and felt like some adventure in Troy after the last 10 days of solid driving and not much exploration in Ecuador.

imageWe left the coast, after a shopping fest in our last big chain supermarket, stocking up on all things imported and expensive. The drive turned from smooth tar to gravel and then dirt and we had reached the Canyon De Pato. The mostly rocky canyon was formed by the river where the north end of the Cordillera Negra range (to the west) converges with the Cordillera Blanca mountain range (to the east). These two Andean ridges run generally parallel for nearly 140 km from south of the city of Huaraz northward to the Cañón; The highway along this entire route is unpaved and has 35 one-lane tunnels before it emerges onto the western face of the Cordillera Negra high above the town of Huallanca.

imageThis particular canyon was our route up and into the snow-capped Andes, something we had not seen before and were rugged up, ugg boots on ready to spy these beauties for ourselves. After 3-4 hours of driving and winding through this spectacular sheer cliffs and sharp mountain peaks we started scouting our Canyon bush camp for a night in the wild. We had two GPS way points for camping were stored in the Garmin, but we didn’t count on them both having been washed away by landslides, but we did have a plan C, the mountain town of Caraz that was only an hour away. The climbing further into the canyon eventually brought us to small mountain town and our first real obstacle of the dying afternoon. The only bridge in town, which we need to cross, was being replaced and looked far from being finished. There is nothing quite like driving a very long & remote road to a bridge that should be there, but isn’t  Russ had a quick chat to the lead engineer, who spoke English, and explained to Russ how to get to the alternative route and up our last mountain. The alternative route was a bonafide goat track from start to finish and under the imagesetting sun, perfect conditions for another decent adrenaline rush for both of us. We were assured that the track was best traveled now, on dusk, because bus, taxi and general traffic was done for the day. In saying that, now picture an oncoming, downhill truck, us and a single lane mountain track in the dark. After two of these encounters my balls feel bigger and we still don’t know how close we came to driving off the edge.

imageDarkness and the track in our headlights gave way to lifeless mud huts and then into a small rural town at the top of the mountain, we drove past a farmer’s pub in full swing and had to bust through and out run drunken local farmers trying to grab on for a lift and certain pain or embarrassment. A bewildered, but helpful, Policiá directed us toward Caraz until a fork in the road that threw us straight into a game of paper, scissors or rock. A nice taxi driver just so happened to drive past in his truck not more than 30 seconds later and happened to be going our way, lead on Amigo.  The Hostel took a bit of finding in the dark, I winged a parked tuk tuk’s side mirror outside the local discotek/ tradition pan pipe music ho-down and we were finally able to shut off the engine and pop up for the night and hour or so after dark.

imageThe next morning Anna had found us a lake high up in the Cordilleras, we took stock of where we were and then drove high into the mountains of the Huascaran National Park and up to Laguna Paron. This was the first time we had seen snow-capped mountains and needless to say coming from Aussie we were very excited to be there. Laguna Paron is simply stunning, the lake is nestled beneath Peru’s highest peaks and it is fed directly from an adjacent glacier. When mornings are still the reflections of the mountains across the lake rival the same scene anywhere else in the world. Laguna Peron itself is at 12000 ft, the surrounding peaks summit up to 22 000 ft.

imageGetting to the lake itself was no problem except for the skinny one horse (donkey) mountain road and outrageously steep switch backs barely large enough for a 4×4 truck. The road up wound through local farms, complete with hill side crops of corn, maize and lots of other green stuff. After we drove through the Park gates the crops gave way to bush as we climbed further up and into the clouds. The road crested to a small plateau as we breached the cloud layer and finally, far above us in the afternoon sunshine, there was the Cordillera Blanca in all of its Andean splendor. To quickly digress, as a person who knows a bit about roads, it is worth a mention when a mountain road is carved through rock up a mountain and the impact of the construction is negligible to the surrounding environment, this is one such road.

imageWe arrived in the mid-afternoon amid blue skies and sunshine. We settled in and contemplated a bit of tanning time but by the time we set the chairs the clouds had rolled over, the temperature had plummeted and it was no longer sociable to sit outside. After 5 or so minutes of persevering we moved inside for shelter which is just as well because no sooner had we mover in then it started to rain and I’m not talking any ordinary rain, but Peruvian Andean freezing cold nearly ice rain. The camper internal thermometer swung toward the zeros so we set the couch with blankets and pillows and hunkered down in warmth and watched a bit of telly. The last time we had been at a lake was in Columbia where we experienced altitude illness, this was as high as we had been and even going for a pee took effort, we have never huffed and puffed lying down in front of TV as we did that night. The night was freezing and inside the camper it may have been slightly colder, we had layers on for bed and snuggled in our super cosy and comfortable bed and panted ourselves to sleep. Its nights like these we reflect on our time with a roof tent in Africa, and marvel at our home on wheels. Being tucked inside our Penthouse with all the comforts of our apartment in Bronte we smile at how much we love our life on the road. ‘Turn the furnace up Russ!’

imageThe next morning the sun was out and not a cloud in the sky, and as usual not a sole to be seen. The mountains looked close enough to touch but we knew better than to attempt to walk up another mountain and tucked our boots further to the back of the shoe cupboard. After our morning brews it was decided to move camp to another location further along the Cordilleras. At the next Park gate we told that the fees had increased to crazy tourist price park entry fee and the guards had a chuckle at Russ after he told them he had to talk to the girl about these high fees before paying, apparently Peru mountain rangers don’t need to discuss the big issues with the wife. We decided to save our cash and proceeded to a Private Lodge for well-earned rest and relaxation. The drive from Laguna Peron to the lodge, via the expensive National Park, was simply stunning, snow-capped peak after snow-capped peak could be seen before we again climbed to our Inn and rest stop for a few days.

imageThe Way Inn is high up in the foothills of the Cordilleras with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. Rain was threatening on the trail up and as we drove into the lodge it began to spit, not long after the drizzle came and then the rain in a steady cadence. Our idyllic mountain side retreat, complete with sweeping alpine vistas was not to be as the weather closed in and the cold also became wet. Not to be beaten we set the couch and settled in for a few cosy days off watching movies, playing cards and doing nothing and just marveling at the tranquility of the Cordillera Blanca’s.

imageThe next stop on the route is Lima, Peru’s capital on the coast, so we set the GPS to Lima and put the pedal to the metal. A few towns into the journey an old lady had a huge steaming pot of something good, good turned out to be pork on a spit sliced appropriately and served in a bread roll with a funky spicy salad. Absolutely delicious and at 1 Peruvian Sole each a dead set bargain, 20 please.

imageThe descent in altitude was felt immediately, Russ was no longer panting when adjusting the electric side mirrors and we were able to climb in and out of the truck without taking a breather half way in. The drive down to Lima from the Cordilleras is a truly spectacular road, the descent seemed to last all day and the landscape slowly morphed from snow to sand.

After the peace, tranquility and huge space of the Cordillera Mountains, Lima was like driving into the truly crazy mad Mombasa traffic, but on steroids. It’s hard to say which city we have driven in has the worst/ mad/ crazy driving in the world, Bangkok? Nairobi? Brisbane when it rains? All we can say is we’ve never experienced anything like driving in Lima…Russ loved it and Anna just closes her eyes and hums along to the music.

imageThe route to the Miraflores, a beach side suburb of Lima and our next stop, was never more confusing and chaotic as it was that afternoon, we cocked up our navigation only once, before miraculously navigating our way through the heaving, antisocial, shithouse Lima peak hour traffic to the Hostel as if on rails. We pulled into the Hitch Hikers Hostel, which was only just large enough to park us, and suddenly found ourselves boxed into a concrete urban jungle, far from the snow and mountains.

Check out the Panting in Peru Pics: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.508826142486496.1073741833.319040084798437&type=1

The Equatorial Ecuador…Cheap gas but no time

DSC_5641On the eve of Good Friday we were very close to the Colombia/ Ecuador border and decided to push on and camp the night at a suggested hotel some 500m from the border. The sun had set and darkness quickly descended on us, driving after dark is something we do not like to do. The road twisted and turned high up amongist the escarpments and the truck drivers executed even more dangerous maneuvers in the dark as they did during the day. We finally approached the border town of Ipiales at around 7 pm and floundered around for a bit trying to find the wayward hotel after our GPS had a google maps moment and led us up the garden path. We asked local after local for directions to the frontera where the hotel was located and with a bit of Spanglish, luck and luck we finally saw the hotel sign and pulled in with relief that we had made it. Feeling more than a little jaded Russ did his usual thing at reception in getting us sorted for our car park camping. His usual ‘thumbs up’ signal on return was replaced with a frown and the big thumbs down. After animated negotiations with a manager who changed her mind minute by minute, the end result was no camping and top dollar only for a hotel room for the night, happy Easter! Russ told her to jam it where the sun doesn’t shine, albeit politely with the help of another guest who translated it for him verbatim. We again hit the road again and found a huge truck park not 200m from the hotel where truck owners can park for the night in a secure compound. We were greeted by the owners, a family complete with kids, dogs and sheep. For a small fee he agreed to let us park up next to the trucks and buses, (and sheep) and camp securely for the night. We can’t say this was our most glamorous spot, but in desperate times, it calls for desperate measures! Feeling exhausted and frazzled we ate our spag Bol in silence and hit bed early in prep for our Good Friday border crossing.

imageWe hope being a holiday, and an Easter holiday at that our crossing into Ecuador might be quick and painless and we were right. Our shortest crossing yet of 55 mins. We passed through immigration & customs on both side with no queues or hassles. By 10am we were free to go and ready to charge through our 16th country, Ecuador!

imageWith our big haul ahead to Argentina we made the decision to skip any touring in this country and agreed on only 2 stops. Like all the other overlanders before us we could not pass up stopping in Otavalo, South Americas market capital. The Saturday markets are famous for all things woolen  alpaca, leather etc and at a very cheap price. We took the chance to do some early Christmas shopping and stock up on alpaca scarfs for everyone 🙂 After finding our camp for the weekend we tuned into relax mode, plugged in our batteries and hit the markets with a big list and empty backpack. This traditional little town was fascinating to observe on market day. Ladies in traditional dress, men in the local hats and imagefamilies from all around hawking their wares. Brightly colored fabrics were scattered everywhere, fluffy hats and matching scarfs, socks for every size were sprawled on every table and the poncho selection was overwhelming. After 4 hours wondering the huge sprawling stalls we had enough shopping and were ready to retire to camp, stoke a fire and enjoy a night under the stars.

imageWe packed up the camper after a well earned few days off and hit the road towards  Quito, the Ecuadorian capital city and home to family friends Clara and Jaime who had invited us to visit and stay the night and enjoy their company and a meal. We spent a lovely night meeting and chatting to our new friends. Clara proudly gave us a tropical fruit lesson complete with taste tastings. We felt ready to hit the Mercado with a whole new buying confidence. After a cosy night sleep we awoke to a traditional Colombian style breakfast, scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, served with homemade traditional bread, topped off with a cup of real hot chocolate!

imageJamie and Clara lived in an amazing adobe cluster of houses, imaging a smurf house the size of an English country mansion. We explored the vast property and marveled at the unique architecture, spaces and colors. With many thanks given to our most awesome hosts we set off south with a big drive ahead.

From Quito our plan was to head straight towards the border, a mere 700kms away. We would bypass all the attractions along the way in anticipation of crossing into Peru and having more time to explore our next 4 big countries.

imageThe 3 days drive was long and hard. The roads were mountainous and stunning to pass through. The towering mountains and never-ending valleys were breathtaking to admire as we flew through village after village to the remote border town of Macara. We camped  at gas stations and lived on road side roasted pork. We went to sleep in anticipation of our first camp in Peru and a nice hot shower!

imageThe last big country we had  traversed through was Mexico and after all of the relatively small central American countries we had driven through we were excited to be at the  border of another huge and exciting country. We were nearly ready to hit Peru!

imageWe arrived at the border early, ready to put a few kilometers between the border and us, exiting Ecuador was painless and very quick… Entering Peru was quick and painless but the temporary vehicle permit  was another matter. The senior DIAN (bloke who issues the temporary vehicle permit) official didn’t look a day under 87 years old, complete with coke bottle lens glasses and IT skills to match. There was another younger… More competent official there but it wasn’t his computer day today. After 90 minutes of two finger typing, cocking up my vehicle details and general ‘don’t really know what the heck I’m doing’ mouse clicking I’m silently pleading to the younger chap to take over and get me out of here, by the pained expression on his face he heard me but as I said it was not his day on imagesthe computer and grandpa was not going to let a computed defeat him. The computer did eventually defeat him and we settled on a hand written amendment to my vehicle permit complete with, finger prints, highlighter and every stamp on offer in office. With vehicle permit in hand we were pointed in the direction of Lima and let loose in Peru in search of Incas!

Check out the Ecuador pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.503944372974673.1073741832.319040084798437&type=1

Restorations and Explorations in Colombia

DSC_4087The first person to stop was a motorcycle Policiá, finally one when you need one. He parked on the verge opposite us and strode over with purpose. After the obligatory ‘do you speak English? No, do you speak Española’ conversation the Officer motioned for us to set our emergency triangles, and finally we could show a Policiá  our brand new shiny triangles, albeit not in a vehicle check point as we had been expecting since crossing into Mexico… we were almost going to show him our fire extinguisher but thought better of it. 

DSC_4090The second person to stop happened to be a short, but stocky, Official Highway roadside assist bloke. He called his mate who pulled up shortly after in his tilt tray truck. The tilt tray driver was likely the largest bloke we had seen yet and Russ had by then formulated a plan to lift the roof back onto the camper. With the aid of the tilt tray, giant man, short arse and Russ the roof was lifted back onto the camper and secured with every ratchet strap we owned, 8 ratchet straps to be precise. The giant and his dwarf mate took us to a nearby fibreglass/ plastics workshop who took one look and shook their heads in a firm no. By this time it was getting late, we were stressed & exhausted to say the least and accommodation for the night was in order. Our new mates took us to an ‘economical’ hotel, which turned out to be anything but economical and we bit the bullet parked up in the car park and paid for the night.

imageAfter gathered whatever clothing we could without disturbing the tie-downs we slowly walked into the overpriced hotel and into our ‘sea view’ room which also overlooked the car park, including a bird’s eye view of Troy and Penthouse, roof damaged and strapped on. It was a very emotional sight, the heartbreaking realisation of what had just happened and a glimpse of the unknown road to recovery. We’ve had our share of curve ball vehicle problems during our Global Safari, mainly in Africa, we always manage to overcome and move forward but this went straight to the ‘Good luck mate’ folder. The $100 per night was another slap in the face as we felt it all slipping away and wondered how we would get out of this crushing situation. The previous day we had met a Bogota family on the beach at Tayrona, temporarily living in Santa Marta which is a northern port town on the Caribbean. They had been curious of our rig and we exchanged emails with the hopes of meeting them again in Bogota. Our only contact in Santa Marta was this family and we had no other choice than to call the head of the family, Don Francisco, and see if they could assist us in any way.

imageThe kindness of strangers is sometimes mind boggling. Generosity of time, assistance and general concern can be truly humbling. After a short Spanglish call, Francisco told us ‘not to worry, we will help you sort it all out, no problem’. We met again that night and the next morning we were to move in with David, Wendy and Maria their daughter, which we did. The camper was completely emptied and shortly after we began the rounds of carpenters to begin repairs. Francisco and David did all the talking, Francisco being a Senior Civil Engineer and David being another very smart cookie, the repair sequence, materials, manpower and repair location was negotiated at a very fair and very local price. Over the next sweltering Santa Marta week the damaged crap American utility grade particle boards were replaced with infinitely stronger and more durable cedar planks, Russ also bolted the roof to the vertical stanchions, replaced the old wood screws, so the roof can  never lift off again. At the end of each long sweaty day we had a room in a home, meals with the family and all said and done, we could not have got back on the road without their help. For this we thank you and we hope one day to repay the favour.

imageThe repair itself was;

  1. Russ doing all the work for 12 hours a day
  2. Anna manning the cab all day in +45°C heat
  3. Local carpenters replacing timbers better than new at USD$25/ day for 3 days
  4. Frustration at the carpenters when they decided they knew better than Russ and were made to dismantle their work and finish it correctly – F****n priceless
  5. Materials USD$75
  6. Street workshop outside Uncles furniture shop – free
  7. Passer-by experts asking what the roof is and then offering repair advice – free
  8. Fatal drive by shooting a few doors down on the last afternoon – free adrenaline rush
  9. Finally finishing the repair – worth every penny

imageAfter an enormous sigh of relief we finally cracked ear to ear grins for the first time that week. Looking at the roof back in place again we finally felt whole again and with everything in penthouse in full working order once more we gingerly set off south albeit with a safety strap in place purely as a safety precaution. A new appreciation for our home on wheels made us think about the continent ahead and that nothing can stop us getting to Argentina. Motto: Never stop trying, never give up!

imageWe retraced our route beside the Eastern Andes route and drove south through Boyaca and the Santander highlands and were well rewarded as the scenery change dramatically as we weaved through deep gorges and soaring mountains to our first stop, Chicamocha NP. Setting up in the car park under the watchful eyes of the Policiá, we admired our surroundings high in the mountains overlooking a spectacular canyon and flowing Rio or river. The cable car across the valley was on the tourist list and we mounted up and descended deep into the Valley, the hills towering above us as we pondered on what’s to come. This was just the beginning.

imageThe next day we continued to climb in altitude and peaked at 3204m AMSL (Above mean sea level) (approx. 9600 ft) at our destination Lago De Tota. Short of oxygen and rasping for breath we navigated our way around the lake through the small villages and spring onion farms disturbing the peace with our loud V8 truck & cruising past the bewildered locals. Our presence did not go unnoticed. The area is nearly untouched and well off the tourist trail and when we arrived at the white sand Andean beach campsite, we realised we were one of a very select few foreign overlanders to make it here, the caretaker and park manager admired our rig as we were directed to the empty camping area and welcomed with free camping. The usual Spanish inquisition was held, who what and where. For the first time in months, maybe even since Sacramento, California, it was cold. The more gain in altitude we made the colder it became and the temperature dropped dramatically. Typically we tend to drive from a temperate climate to a cooler one and turning up in shorts, singlet and sandals must have seemed odd to the poncho clad locals. We popped the camper up & immediately rummaged through our kit and pulled out everything MacPac, hug boots and our down jackets last worn summiting Mt Kenya at 15000 ft. It was a very very cool relief from sweltering heat of the Caribbean. There is nothing better than the fresh, clean mountain air… except the dull headache that comes from acute altitude sickness. Breaking out our extra duvet (Thanks California Dave) we slept like babies under our double duvet and extra blanket. Russ made a roaring fire and we cozied up to it enjoying rum and surprisingly cold ambient temperature coke. After a few days of lake lounging the headaches had set in more than we expected and it was time to hit the road to lower altitudes and oxygen.

imageSlowly we weaved our way down to the beautiful colonial town of Villa De Leyva, a village preserved in its entirety with flagstone stone roads and white washed buildings. Camera at the ready and walking shoes on, we started on a leisurely paced afternoon of wondering the streets and soaking in the charm of this old town. The church bells clanged proudly as we stood in the main plaza, overshadowed by mountains and surrounding hills. Our next stop was to be the city of Bogota and as we relaxed in our countryside campsite, we enjoyed the tranquillity of the small Colombian historical town before the assault of the capital of Colombia and thrown back into a big city.

imageAs overlanders, we relying on secure campsites and safe parking for ourselves and our truck, we tend to shy off big cities, often skirting the edges or passing through only for a brief time and very rarely for the night. Certainly not for a weekend on the tiles. However, we found our timing to Bogota to be impeccable and slotted perfectly with Russ’s old friend Shane and his beautiful Fiancée Juilanna, being in town for the first time in years. The offer was thrown for us to stay with them and we eagerly accepted a weekend with a local family plus the insight into the Bogota lifestyle. With a population of 7.4million Colombia’s capital city is sophisticated, vibrant and oozes urban kool and is nestled against a chilly Andean mountain range. To say we were excited is an understatement, we were super excited to experience our first big city, with locals, and as we pulled up outside the apartment we swore we could have been in the lower north shore of Sydney. Troy was given pole position front and centre outside of the apartments security box and we packed our weekend bag, locked the camper up and stepped inside for a weekend away!

imageStepping out into Zona Rosa, the social hub of Bogota, was not what we expected. The beautiful and sexy people were immersed in restaurants and bars, this modern playground was one that would fit into any first world city… and then some. The beer flowed cold & fast, the hips swayed seductively as Latin and western music pumped loudly from every venue. We were treated to a culinary delight at a restaurant like no other, think of a venue where every food group is covered, scatter liberally with live music and then amplify it. Our hosts proudly gathered a taster from each food counter and laid on a feast to indulge us in the local delicacies we would not have ever known. The flavours were divine and we our taste buds were on over with new sensations. Now, must remember the dishes names for future reference?

We had indulged in a little extra Spanish practise in preparation for our weekend with locals, but as we grazed on dinner, my Spanish questions were replied in to English and Russ introduced himself repeatedly in spanglish only to repeatedly be replied to “Hi Russ, my name is …” The family and friends seemed to speak better English than any other Latin Americans so far. Colombia is the first county we have been to that actually teaches English in school for year one. The conversation flowed easier and we enjoyed getting to know these new friends on a more personal level.

The night wore on and the party people decided to hit up the hot spot in town, Andres DC, which can only be described as a bar and restaurant crossed with Ibiza/Pasha/theatrics and general craziness. The approach is to drink Aquivy by the bottle, shared by shots all round, move your hips to the latest Latin hits and socialise with the hot and hip people of Bogota. We enjoyed the place so much we did a double hitter and repeated the whole night again on Saturday, after a day of exploring the old city. With our guides at the ready and a plan formulated we took off for a day of site seeing. A cable car ride up to the towering Cerro De Monserrate for sweeping views of the capital and then walking the old city snapping the street art and local life. Viewing a daunting place like Bogota through the eyes of a local was absolute magic. We thank our hosts Shane, Julianna and her mother Leica and family for your warm hospitality and sharing your city with us.

imageSunday morning was a little dusty, the sign of a good weekend had. Dumping our bags in the back we set the GSP for the Desert and attempted to navigate our way out of this hectic city. After several wrong turns and tussles with roadblocks we finally found our parallel (thanks Nidd’s) and were on the highway south and joined the other 7.4 million Bogotarians leaving the city for Semana Santa (the Holy week). We eventually slowed to a crawl and with 300 odd kms ahead we eased back into our seats, nursed our hangovers and patiently pushed our way through the jam of cars, Colombian style or East African Style, take your pick. The day felt like the longest day on the road ever and I thank the person who invented air-conditioning. As the sun set we finally arrived on Mars aka Deserto De La Tatacoa, Colombia’s tiniest desert.

imageOur last desert experience was in Baja Sur, Mexico and we were wowed with the brutal, stark beauty of the desert. Colombia’s smaller desert was not too far behind in the impressive stakes. The striking landscape and eroded cliffs & valleys sculptured by the mechanical weathering of infrequent rains and wind. The semi-arid, dry tropical forests are something of a natural wonder. Naturally we found the perfect camp overlooking the vista and parked off for the day, under tarp awning hiding from the 50°C desert heat until the stars and full moon appeared keeping us bathed in moonlight as we talked the hours away discussing the solar system, outer space and little green & purple men. Entirely appropriate conversation for the location.

imageLeaving the desert we drove further south, there were a few more stops planned before we hit the Ecuadorian border. The first being a visit to San Agustin, a town nestled in the middle of two adjacent river valleys. Surrounded by volcanic peaks which some 5000 years ago blasted volcanic rock over great distances. This rock, irresistible to local sculptors some 600 years ago, carved 500 life sized statues leaving behind these grand monuments to herald their passing. Having bypassed so many other ancient ruins thus far we decided to visit and set aside the morning to trek through the various archaeological sights. There are some truly impressive statues and tombs, completely restored and preserved, the park was a mystical place in spectacular landscape and a great historical treasure for Colombia.

imageThe topography was becoming more fascinating the further south we drove, the dramatic surroundings were starting to become distracting to the drivers eye. Our daily routes seem to be taking longer and the actual driving hours seem to be increasing. We are starting to become weary and strained from our time on the road, as the roads deteriorate Russ’s limit of driving vision reduces to 30 or 40 feet in front of the truck, dodging road craters and selecting the best driving line to avoid rim smashing potholes. The best highway by far is the Carretera Pan Americano and we feel like getting out and kissing the road, like the Pope does when he exits an aircraft, every time we re-join it (for the record we think the Pope has a fear of flying and kisses the tarmac in thanks of a successful landing, just saying that’s our opinion only)

imageAfter perusing our trusty lonely planet it seems there is a 24 hour thermal hot springs near the town of Coconuco. Anna jumped off the page and screamed ‘relaxation!’ fresh from our discovery of an ancient civilisation we continued on the long and winding and did we say long road towards a night of hot pools and sulphur. We finally found the hot springs car park at the end of the road (albeit after asking for directions multiple times and receiving the same response every time), we were the only foreign tourists and we quickly hit the pools, feeling the thermal warmth penetrate to our bones we sunk deep into the steaming waters. Surrounded by rum soaked Colombians and probing eyes we sipped our beer and soaked our weary bodies, 4 hours later we retreated to bed wrinkly and smell of sulphur which revived fond memories of Rotorua, New Zealand.

imageEight months has passed since we left Australian shores, bound for Africa and beyond. The tally stands at 240 days on the road. We have passed through to 15 countries, driven through 11 and crossed 5 continents. The next 4 months will bring the remainder of South America and some extremely exciting locations. We are now approaching the Ecuadorian border on our last day in Colombia, we drive through the highlands which is still as dramatic as ever.

The Colombian Government recognised the economic importance of tourism, domestic and foreign, some years 5 ago and has gone to great lengths to ensure the security of its citizens and country, this was evident everywhere we went.

imageMy mate Shane told me that the Colombians are the Fijians of the Americas, if you have ever visited Fiji or know a Fijian you will know them to be the friendliest people on earth, this is absolutely true of Colombia and its people and has been proven to us time and time again. We have had people drive past us yelling ‘welcome to Colombia’ in English, complete strangers have approached us and said exactly the same thing, the Policiá have even said this to us, and every single person has truly meant it. We have only one thing to say about Colombia and that is ‘Travel to Colombia, you will not be disappointed’. The people make the country and the country is truly fantastic, this country is safe and it rocks. Viva la Colombia.

Check out the Colombia Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.498871223481988.1073741830.319040084798437&type=1

Street art of Bogota: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.498912890144488.1073741831.319040084798437&type=1

Darien who?

Men tug on winch cables to inch a Land Rover up a steep jungle ridge.International airports can be an integral necessity when travelling from one country to the next, especially when large bodies of water or land separate you from your destination. Our need to use an international airport was a little different and involved a 100 km or so of rivers & jungle. The Pan American Highway ends in Panama and restarts 100 km further south in Colombia. This gap is known as the ‘Darien Gap’, we don’t know who this ‘Darien’ chap is but we do know that the gap is a very hostile, very dangerous swampy jungle haven for bandidos and guerrillas and also separated us from our next continent. I was keen to have a crack at the gap and save our shipping container cash for shopping or rum until I learnt the British Army had crossed it, over a couple of months, with complete logistical, mechanical, tactical and likely divine support… OK I hadn’t figured out the river crossings yet but we’ve got 4×4, a thumping V8, air conditioning, sandwiches and a map.

imagesWe walked into an airport for the first time in 4 months, despite having traveled through 7 Central American countries it was a strange yet familiar feeling. Lugging backpacks to the counter, queuing with other overdressed jet setters and waiting at the crowded boarding gate we were sharply reminded of the monotony of air travel as opposed to our rugged adventures dodging chicken buses  trucks and touts at overland borders.

The flight from Panama City to Cartegena was forced on us when loading Troy into a container suddenly became a reality. Originally we were to sail to Colombia but we literally ran out of time to make a booking on a sail boat and hit the high seas through the San Blas Islands en route to Colombia, a much more exciting travel option. As we were served a stale chicken roll and a juice box shortly after take-off, we sighed and thought of Troy! Plus the flight was dry, boo, nothing like orange juice or water to quench a thirst only cerveza can quench.

images (1)After a stopover in Bogota to change flights for our domestic to Cartegena we were hit with realization we would be on foot for the next week. The weather in Cartegena was 35° C and high humidity, this was going to be a long week! We landed with an Aeroflot worthy thud, the 1st year apprentice pilot announced “Welcome to Cartegena  and we grudgingly grabbed our luggage and join the herd exiting the airport to the cab queue and ultimately our hotel. The heat slapped us in the face like a set of post-match footy socks as we scanned the taxi dash for the air con button, not a chance and the windows came down as again we aren’t in Troy and it’s time to suck it up.

imageFan in hand and camera set to action we head off for our first day of sightseeing in Cartegena  A fairy tale city of romance, legends, and epic battles. The old city is superbly preserved, beautifully set within an impressive 13 km of centuries old fortified colonial stonewalls. Having read and heard the city was a fascinating place to explore we were not disappointed. The heat was truly oppressive and we managed to stroll the streets one by one, soaking up the character and architecture of every building. We explored churches, Convents, forts and plazas. This most photogenic town tells a different story around every corner and our captured images could likely whisper a million tales.

DSC_3870We missed Troy, Penthouse and being on the road, but we also once again enjoyed the small life luxuries, like our own bathroom, flushing toilets, cable TV and high-speed Wi-Fi. We admit to a few days off, shut away in the cool of our room watching movie after movie, remaining in pj’s from AM to PM. Unlike in Boquete, Panama we had an excuse for our laziness in the form of street food tummy bug, having our very own toilet was a blessing!

imageOur thoughts often turned to Troy, alone on the container ship sailing the Caribbean seas, braving the elements. We pondered on his safety and egged him on for an early arrival into the ports of Cartegena  Then we finally got the call, the ship had landed and Russ could start the 2 day process of getting him, unloaded, cleared and processed into Colombia. We would like to say this was a breeze, as we could for Panama, however the process is slow. English speaking Colombian shipping agents are non-existent and our eagerness and frustration was high. With a rumbling belly and a sweaty brow Russ took off each day for a full 8 hours of process until on the 3rd day he triumphantly returned with Troy and Penthouse in one piece and in full working order. We had our green light to take on South America, our 5th continent. Starting with Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

imageAfter being in a sweaty smelly city on foot for a week we were keen for a few days at the beach before we hit the highways and started to explore deep and wide and all that Colombia has to offer. After a full day of driving north we arrived at our destination, Tayrona, on sunset and listened to the sound of waves as we cracked our first beer and celebrated being back on the road. The weather was gloomy and the sun refused to make an appearance, but we decided to relax none the less. It felt good sleeping in our bed and cooking in our kitchen again. With our camp chairs set into the white sand we plotted the map and marked our destinations, the options for adventure and exploration are endless, but we settled on a route and loaded up the GPS with way points  The next day we were ready to hit the highway, our first stop in the highlands as we cranked the iPod and tracked our way south, excited about the journey ahead.

DSC_4087Sometimes the feeling on the road is infectious, we grin at each other as another Monday rolls on and another 500 km’s roll by. Sometimes the glee makes us forgetful, and on this occasion Russ was the culprit, after travelling 160kms down the road and buying a roast chook for lunch we make the heavy discovery of a missing credit card. We realize that it’s still at the gas station where we refueled and with heavy hearts we turn Troy around and backtrack, hopefully to collect our precious MasterCard (Replacement No 3 so far, not wanting to make that No 4 . We are all kinds of pissed and as we grunt and moan back into the city of Santa Marta. Approximately 12 km from the gas station Russ notices something very strange out his side mirror… our duvet! This can only mean one thing and a very close inspection of the passenger side mirror confirms it, our entire roof is sitting on the highway, albeit in one piece. Half a second later a car runs straight over the top of it as Russ is skidding to a halt in the central median strip. WTF. Anna gets the ‘good news’ and the shock doesn’t strike until we get out and see penthouse roofless and our roof crushed, laying in the middle of the highway. A heartbreaking feeling slaps us, what the hell do we do now? Russ takes on the mad Colombian traffic and bravely drags the roof to the central median… the immediate emotion is similar to driving in a very remote desert, getting four flat tyres and only having two spares, how the f**k do we get out of this one.

Check out the Cartegena Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.495534887148955.1073741828.319040084798437&type=1

Check out the Colombian Caribbean Coast Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.495546797147764.1073741829.319040084798437&type=1

Panama – Miami of the South

DSCN4228It was day 210 when we crossed into Panama via the Caribbean coast and we could hardly believe that our tour through Central America was almost over. We never planned much in the way of adventures or sightseeing through this country, it was just the place we needed to get to for transporting Troy over to Colombia to start the journey through South America. But as luck would have it a very generous offer came our way from California Dave, the surfer we brought Penthouse from back in San Diego. They have a lovely holiday home up in the hills of Boquete and kindly offered us a few nights off the road and accommodation at their very fine abode. We jumped at the change to set up home, in a real house for a week and take a break from the camping, while we made the tedious preparations for shipping our vehicle.

DSC_2480We crossed into Panama and headed straight for Boquete, a quaint mountain town high in the hills. The climate was cool, the air fresh and the scenery just breath taking. For the first time in over 4mths we were living like holiday makers instead of overlanders. Fully equip house, bathroom, kitchen, washing machine and most importantly a TV and couch! We were like kids in a candy shop, washing any and everything from the camper, cooking gourmet meals and veging out for hours on end watching old movies and snuggling under a blanket on the couch. We would like to say we explore the area and got among the locals, but the temptation each day to just stay in our pj’s and hibernate was much more appealing. At a round about our half way point for the Americas leg of Global Inc Safari, this was exactly what we needed. A regroup of sorts. After 5 glorious days of normality we felt more ready than ever to take on Panama City and tackle the headache of container shipping.

We want to say a huge thanks to The Hilts for opening up and offering their home to us and look forward to returning the favor when they get down to Australia for a visit.

DSC_3163From Boquete to Panama City was our biggest days drive yet, 550 km and just under 8 hrs solid driving. Not even a lunch stop thanks to Anna’s homemade chicken rolls to go! Just before dusk we arrived at our destination of the Balboa Yacht club, a popular free camping spot for other overlanders preparing to make the crossing to Colombia. Our shipping partner Stefan was already parked up and waiting for us when we rolled through the car park, as we turned off the engine and left our air conditioned cab the heat and humidity hit us like a brick, this was going to be a long few days in the city. With our camping situation sorted, all for the price of a can of coke for the local police we relaxed and breathed easy to have made it this far. Each night at camp, our friendly local coppers would visit on their bikes, ask how many nights we would be there, take their free can of coke and curiously look inside our camper with amazement at our casa. A few photos here and there with the blonde in the middle and leaning on their motorbikes was enough to keep them happy and us safe and secure under their watchful eyes.

DSCN4241All in all the actual process of paperwork, police checks, inspections, customs and immigration were not really that bad, just the actual running around in the heat and driving through a manic city make the moment feel stressful and frustrating. Day one was a breeze and this left us with 2 free days up our sleeve until we needed to drive to Colon, the next city across to actually load Troy into a container and wish him Bon Voyage.

DSC_2936The first day off we decided no visit to Panama would be complete without a trip to the famous Panama Canal, at the Miraflores Locks. Russ was super excited and eager to view this engineering feat for himself, Anna who was going along for the ride was pleasantly surprised at how interesting this structure actually was. We stood high up on the viewing platform for 2 hours and watched 2 containers ships pass through the entire canal in either direction. It was actually one of the most interesting man made sights we have seen on the trip so far, well worth the visit.

DSC_2953The canal is truly one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. Stretching for 80km from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colón on the Atlantic side, the canal cuts right through the Continental Divide. The canal runs 24/7 and 365 days per year. Nearly 15,000 vessels pass through the canal each year, averaging 40 per day, taking approximately 15 mins per vessel.  Ships worldwide are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind: 305m long and 33.5m wide. Ships pay according to their weight, with the average fee around US$80,000. The highest amount, around US$200,000, was paid in 2001 by the 90,000-ton French cruise ship the lowest amount was US$0.36, paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam through.

DSC_2842The canal has three sets of double locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side. Between the locks, ships pass through a huge artificial lake, Lago Gatún, created by the Gatún Dam across the Río Chagres (when created they were the largest dam and largest artificial lake on Earth), and the Gaillard Cut, a 14km cut through the rock and shale of the isthmian mountains. With the passage of each ship, a staggering 52 million gallons of fresh water is released into the ocean. In 2006, Panamanian voters overwhelmingly endorsed an ambitious project to expand the Panama Canal. One of the biggest transportation projects in the world, this US$5.25 billion mega-project will stretch over seven years and finish in conjunction with the canal’s centennial in 2014. New locks will be 60% wider and 40% longer, and container traffic is expected to triple.

DSC_2716On our second free day we decided on a driving tour of the actual city and surrounding areas and a walk through the old quarter to see the architecture. Undoubtedly Panama City is the cosmopolitan capital in Central America. On first impression the rich and wealthy, the glamour and class, and international trade hub shines through from this 1st world city. Panama boasts historic building and architecture that bleed with a diverse history, and following an ambitious reclaim of the colonial district in recent years, it is priming itself to charm and entice visitors once again. But when you scratch the surface deeper there is the familiar poverty and life struggle from the working class and the parts of society that were left behind when Panama moved forward. We saw both sides of Panama and like all DSC_2753other Latin American countries we have visited, it has its good and bad, and it’s ups and downs. The history here runs deep and the evidence shows in the cracks in this country. But it is striving towards a better time and the money is rolling in. If you judge on a financial scale, Panama is the big brother of Central America.

DSC_3271Finally we got the green light to load the vehicles onto our container, we took of early morning and after a few hours of paperwork and customs we were directed through the shipping yard and over to our empty container. After watching Stefan and his smaller Ford Explorer drive in with ease and plenty of room, it was now our turn to get Troy and Penthouse in without hitting or banging the edges. On measurement we had about an inch to spare each side, it was always going to be tight. But with Russ’s technical driving skills in about 5 mins Troy was in, no damage done. We kissed our boy good bye and wished his luck on his maiden voyage, sadly we buckled him down and locked him in. The container was sealed and we were ready for the next step.

DSC_3289We made the mad dash to book a flight to Cartegena and make our way to South America. The next 6 countries on the list are bigger, longer and so very exciting, we can’t wait to see what this next continent brings for Global Inc Safari…See you in Colombia!

Check out the Panama pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.490843517618092.1073741827.319040084798437&type=1

Costly Costa Rica

imageQ: What do you call 4 kiwis crossing a Central American border in a Californian registered overlanding truck?

A: Choice Bro!

We were approaching our 13th country, Costa Rica, and made the usual preparations, Rola and Okki, our kiwi hitch hikers were curious and intrigued how we did our thing, having travelled on chicken buses since Mexico and had no idea what to expect when Troy rolled over a crossing. The pushy, yelling touts and aggressive locals was a buzz… at first but that soon changed after 2 hours in the baking heat while waiting for Russ to get the temporary vehicle permit. Not so glamorous after all 🙂

imageOur first impressions of Costa Rica was a dry and not particularly attractive landscape, plus it was hot and dry and hot and brown. The 150 km drive to our first nights camping near the town of Liberia was nothing to write home about and we had mixed expectations about enjoying this country. Having heard that is was overrun with tourism aka gringo’s and overpriced we had already planned to scoot through this country faster to avoid the tourist traps and save a bit of cash. Costa Rica is awash with beautiful treasures such as lush rain forests, hot jungles, all manner of adventure activities, spectacular wildlife and squandillions of different birds… and frogs too. But, these all come with a hefty US$ price tag and didn’t fall into our over landing budget, especially with many miles still to go.

imageYet again we pour over the map and plan our 5 night run through costly Costa Rica. The one big attraction was Lake Arenal and Volcan Arenal. This area is hot on the tourist route and we had coordinates for free camping, lake side front and centre. We parted ways with our new friends at Liberia after dropping them at the bus station, they were making straight to the Caribbean coast and we made plans to meet there in a few days. We took a left off the Pan-American highway and headed north into the hills and straight into crap secondary roads and eventually onto even more crappier dirt roads. We eventually reached the lakes southern shore and a fork in the road, we turned right when in hind sight it should have been left. Troy moaned and groaned a bit as we contoured Lake Arenal’s edge on a slow bush track, we could feel his unhappiness with carrying penthouse through creeks and over rocks and boulders.

imageAfter 2 hours or so on a road that just seemed to be getting worse, we reassessed the camp we were aiming for because the road wasn’t getting any shorter. We were over half way and it seemed unproductive to turn back, so we kept on despite our concern. The road may have been shit but the scenery quickly changed and became that of picturesque tranquility  Rolling green hills, flowing clear fresh water streams and wild horses and cattle cruising the tracks. Local farmers smiled and waved as we bumped on by, now we think back, the look they gave us was not curiosity but one of ‘what are these foreigners doing’ we soon found out why. All of a sudden we rounded a corner and saw a rise not fit for a tractor let alone us. The track turned into a steep wash out complete with loose gravel and river rocks so we gave it our best shot and failed. We rolled back down and turned around not wanting to crack or break anything for the sake of proving a point and resigned ourselves to a 2 hour backtrack to find another camp. As it turned out the left hand track was a lot better and we made great time, we even found a cool pub.We can at least say we have fully explored the Lake Arenal area, twice over! And there are worse places to back track through.

imageWe finally made it to camp before dusk, after making another wrong turn thanks to the GPS, we stumbled onto a yacht club perched on the banks of the lake. Camping was allowed and once again we had the entire grounds to ourselves. Where are all the people????  Parking as close to the edge as we dared we watched the sun set behind the most perfect volcano we had seen yet, it truly was one of the most picturesque camping spots we have camped in. Whipping up a spaghetti Bol and cracking a cold beer, we smiled at each other at the toughness of the day!

imageDeciding we had had enough of the rough roads we headed away from the lake and back towards the major highways. The next adventure was to be searching for toucans and Macaws in the town of Siquirres on Costa Rica’s Bird route. This area is full of lush jungles, sprawling rain forest and an abundance of bird life. As usual the camping grounds were non-existence and Russ put on his finest charm, talking up the managers and scoring us a spot inside Gavilan Eco lodge, all once again for the price of a beer. With the place empty we parked up, plugged in the power and set up under the patio listening to the night sounds of the Costa Rican jungle. Coming from Australia we are used to the sounds of the tropics, but it seemed more exotic sounding, maybe it’s because the frogs chirp in Spanish not English.

imageNext morning we were up early, walking shoes on and we hit the trials. On the hunt for anything wild. An hour later, feeling rather disappointed with the lack of spotting’s Anna, out of the corner of her eye, spotted a critter pop out of a hole in the tree and scramble up the trunk of its host tree. Not knowing what he or she was we stared in amazement as it ran up and down the trunk and then back into its hole, all the while keeping a keen eye on us. He was a curios and cute little fella and only now do we know he was a local opossum and not quite the exotic animal we had hoped for. The trail came to an end and with only one sighting we put our hopes on the Caribbean coast to see more of the creatures that reside in this country.

imageDriving east towards the ocean the scenery was changed dramatically. The towering trees were replaced by swaying palms. The faces became darker and the look more African/Jamaican. Patriotic country flags were over shadowed by reggae flags. Dreadlocks and braids was the hairstyle of the day and short skirts and boardies were the clothes of choice. Finally, after driving all the way down through Central America, we saw the Caribbean coast!

imageNot once has anywhere in Latin American looked even remotely like Africa. That was until we were rolled into Cahuita, just north of the popular Puerto Veijo. We had flashbacks of the east Kenyan coastline. The same faces and the same scenery. It brought back a lot of good memories and we felt energized to explore this little pocket of the world. Same problem as usual, camping or lack of it in this highly populated tourist town, we rolled into the nicest hotel in town and set up camp in the car park, again with the best view in the house. We weren’t required to buy beer or food for camping so we settled in for a few days of sun, sand and sloths. We think the last time we paid for camping was back in El Salvador! It’s either Russ’s charm, Troy’s good looks or the Central Americans are just too kind.

imageWe had found our slice of paradise, the hot tropical waters and palm lined shores are spectacular, and everything we had imagined the Caribbean coast to be. This was our first time to the Caribbean Sea and parked up, threw on the togs and raced to the ocean, ‘last one in’s a loser’! I think we know who won! We did see two familiar people walking back from their day in the coastal national park, our kiwi friends Rola and Okki, full of smiles and ‘hola amigo’s’. It was back into social time and we hit the local street in search of seafood gumbo, local rum and live music. The small main drag was alive with tourists and a loud, energetic vibe was pumping from all the bars. We set up for happy hour, orders cocktails and soaked up the Cuban infused sounds of the local band. Good times Caribbean styles.

imageThis area boasts a rather special place called Cahuita National park, a 13km stretch of coastal walk through lush rain forest and filled with wildlife. This was our chance to tick the boxes with exotic animals, and tick we did. Barefoot in boardies and Bikini we slowly meandered the trail for over 7 hours, there and back. We were in a world of our own, it had this enchanted forest feel that we had not felt since the Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Our final days animal spotting tally was 13 sloths, 5 raccoon’s  2 red squirrels, dozens of spider and white monkeys, blue crabs, butterflies, spiders and giant ants. Successful spotting day!

imageWe could have spent a month in this place, it has everything we look for in paradise. Warm blue water, white clean sand, hot days, balmy nights, cheap food and beer and a relaxed beach lifestyle. We can see why older retired travelers parked off here for good, this place is a gem!

All of a sudden we were approaching our last country in Central America and South America seems so very close. As we made our way to Panama it hit us we were ready to cross to continent No 6. It’s been just on 200 days since we left home and our journey through Africa seems so long ago. Time sure does fly when you are having fun, and it seems to go even faster when you are having the time our your lives!

Check out the Costa Rican Pics: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.490147817687662.1073741826.319040084798437&type=1

Never ending Nicaragua

imageWe woke to a beautiful sunset over the rolling green hills after our first camping night in Nicaragua. Our friendly French neighbors  which we had met at the border, also camped with us and we shared a morning chat about our plans whilst in the town of Estelí. A cigar tour and horse riding topped the list as well as volcano hikes, this area seemed to have it all. As previously mentioned in Kenya, our hiking days are over and the idea sampling the sights by horseback held merit. First on the list was to check out the local Tobacco plantations and find ourselves a cigar factory tour.

imageWe found ourselves a guide and spent an afternoon discovering how to make a great cigar and what the tobacco industry means to Esteli and Nicaragua. We quickly realized we knew zero about cigars or tobacco and spent the next couple of hours learning about this most lucrative industry.

imageWe were guided through the entire process, from how the plants are grown and what leaves are used where to putting the finishing touches on the final leaf of the finest Nicaraguan cigar, ready to export to the world and to Cuba of all places.

Some of the interesting facts we learnt:

  • 80% of the locals from the Estelí region are gainfully employed thanks to the tobacco industry, some of who have worked in the same factory for over 40+ years.
  • Nicaragua rolls some of the most highly sort after cigars in the world
  • The land in the Estelí area is some of the best in the world for tobacco growing conditions, which has led to overseas factories buying land and generating production from this area, including the Cubans
  • Woman only are employed to ‘Finish’ the cigars, due to their delicate hands…hello…of course!
  • Cigars at the factory were $2 each, overseas the same cigar will sell for over $20
  • The process of rolling a cigar takes around 25 minutes, excluding leaf curing, sorting & grading
  • A vacuum machine is used to audit batches of cigars for ‘draw’ or smoke ability
  • Factory staff smoke cigarettes while rolling cigars, but the old ladies proudly suck on stooges
  • Somewhere in the world an industry leader is going to smoke our crap ‘tourist rolled’ cigars and its fantastic
  • You can and will turn green smoking a cigar the size of your forearm

imageAfter we walked through the process, step by step, we were then invited to attempt our very own cigar. Needless to say we were up for the challenge and although our bungled attempts were giggled at by the staring girl workers, Russ managed to get his passed and onto the processing tray, we still speculate on which sucker brought the cigar and that he will never know it was made by a less than amateur. Even though neither of us smoke cigars, we both decided it would be rude to not participate in the final taste testing. So our guide gathered up a selection of the finest and we got a cracking lighting these puppies up. Small ones, large ones, light ones, heavy ones, Russ got in there on all of them, and after half an hour of puff puff pass, the green on the face set in and it was time to leave.

imageNext on the list was Horseback riding! We had heard of an area around Estelí called the Mira Flores, this is a mountain where the flora changes with each rise in altitude.  Apparently there is no better way of exploring a countryside that on horseback… apparently. We drove to the community of El Coyote first thing in the morning and parked at our guide’s house and waited for the days transport to arrive. With our Spanglish and his zero English, we wondered how much information about the area we would get on this trip. Anna was full of excitement and ready to gallop, Russ, hoping that his fifth horse ride ever would end in an 80% fall off rate… to date it stood at 100%.

imageWatching as he was hoisted up onto Lupe aka Racer/ Phar Lap, it appeared Russ was not confident in all things! We set of through the country side and the chorus of “Hi ho silver” took on a whole new meaning. Our guide jabbered away in Spanish, pointed to various trees, plants, and hills, we smiled and were back to the familiar repetitive “Si Si, ok Si” It is amazing how much you can learn from just pointing, hand and face signals and general nodding.

imageWe rode up the spectacular landscape to the top of a hill that overlooked the entire Mira flora valley, the views were breathtaking. Our guide pointed out his family home, his brothers, sisters and parents homes, all located in on a substantial block of land had been in the family for ever and he hoped one day his son would take over from him. It was awesome to see the proudness in his eyes and the tradition of their life style.

imageRuss seemed to be getting the hang of this horse riding thing and every now and then the guide would give Lupe aka Racer/ Phar Lap a light whip on the rump and we would be off, a trot then a gallop, Russ’s arms and knees flailing like a rag doll all the while crying out “whoa racer whoa”. I think for entertainment factor we got our monies worth.

imageAfter visiting a waterfall and going for a swim in a freezing cold swimming hole it was time to head back to the homestead and walk terra firma once more. Bums throbbing we waddled back to Troy and made our way back down to camp. Sitting in the truck on the way back made us wish we had brought those travel bum doughnuts that were on sale in Kathmandu at Bondi Junction. Think the road to recovery might be a slow one.

imageDebating had begun as to where and for how long we would spend in Nicaragua. So far we were loving it and there seemed so much more to see and explore. With time ticking we decided on a volcano, an island and a beach, all of which had been highly recommended. The volcano was first up. Volcan Masaya is one of the only active volcanoes where you can drive the rim and walk to the edge. You can’t go past and active volcano! We arrived early and were promptly given a hard hat each and an English rundown of the dos and don’ts in the park. The most interesting note was to spend no more than 15mins around the crater and avoid breathing the sulfurous and noxious gasses. We found this quite amusing because when we did get to the top we saw the local vendors selling fruit and horse rides, they are there all day every day and use their shirts to filter out the ‘bad gasses’. imageWe don our shiny yellow hats and commence our drive up, passing the old lava fields that line the road and national park around us. It was only a year ago that Masaya exploded and rained molten lava & hot ash onto the surrounding area killing a few and wounding many. And here we were, off to the top with just our hard hats and a smile. Occupational health and Safety is alive and kicking in Latin America… not.

image

It was quite a sight to see, even though the lava pool couldn’t be seen due to the billowing gasses, the energy you feel standing looking down the barrel of something so large, active and alive is confronting. The crater itself is deep and large, leaning over to look in leaves you with a sense of insignificance and mortality. Volcano’s will do this to you I guess.

imageThe walk around the other dormant craters gave way to a spectacular view of the area and panoramic shots of the surrounding lakes, towns and rolling hills. It was lush, yet rugged, and the starkness of the volcanic rock gave it a prehistoric Martian feel. Our camp was off the volcano and on the other side of the lava fields and as so many times before we spent the night alone in the camping area and enjoying having the place to ourselves. We stoked a small fire and toasted a beer to past days and times to come. Waking early to the big and bold sunrise we packed up and said goodbye to the spider monkeys playing in the trees next to Troy. The night watchman approached as we started to drive of and gently probed us for payment or as cash gift for no real explanation, we politely declined and headed out the park and toward the coast, destination Isla De Ometepe.

imageIsla De Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, it consists of 2 matching volcano’s at each end of the island, it’s a rare site to see, both looming heights right next to each other. We needed to take a small vehicle ferry over and after a 30 minutes of debating the new ‘Ferry Tax’ being applied to our fees, we reversed Troy boy down the rickety ferry ramp and into pole position on the ferry. The trip over was beautiful, the large cone shapes getting larger and larger in our view, we did a quick read up in the lonely planet and set the GPS for the north side lake beaches. We spent a weekend on the island, soaking up the unique island life lifestyle, slowing our pace to match the local ways. Apart from the dump trucks Troy was easily the largest and loudest vehicle on the island. As we cruised down the small, local streets with our looming size and noisy exhaust with a hole in it, heads turned at every direction and we were met with stares, smiles and waves. The people on Isla De Ometepe were extremely friendly and happy. We love this about beach and island life, hang 10 really fits the bill.

imageAs with most of the destination in Central America, campgrounds are far and few between, restaurant car parks or abandoned hotels are the usual locations to set up safely for the night. Isla De Ometepe was no exception, and it appeared even harder with the dirt road and lack of cars and car parks. But we managed to luck in and the local hospitality shined though, both nights we approached larger hotels and asked politely about camping in their grounds, both time we were met with a “no problem, no charge, just buy a beer” One even directed us right to the front of their lake side location and told us to set up on the water’s edge. We were not complaining! Our days on the island were spent exploring the rugged roads, spying on the local life, swimming in the lake and soaking in fresh water thermal springs. The beauty here was stunning and the vistas under sunset were on par with some of the best we have seen in the world. Nicaragua is just tick, tick and tick so far!

imageOur last stop was to hit the pacific coast and head to the well know Matilda s which lays 16 odd kilometers north of Playa del Sur (or Playa del Sewer to local gringos). Time for the sun on the skin and sea salt in the hair. We plugged in the GPS coordinates for a recommended beach camp and as we jigged along the long, dusty dirt road hoped there was a well worth reward at the end. We were not let down, this place was a paradise, the blue waters, piped waves and white smooth sand. It hit all our requirements for staying more than a night, so we set up the camper front and center and settled in for 3 nights. As we were tucking into our rice and beans, voices could be heard that were very familiar, 2 strong kiwi accents stood out from a nearby chatter and we quickly hovered to make conversation, our first kiwis we had met on the road, it felt like home. IMG_2827We proceeded to spend the next few days soaking up the heat of the day and passing the nights around our lantern sharing bottles of rum. We trekked to the top of the cliffs for sunset over the pristine surrounding Bahia and reminisced about Kiwiland as we listened to old skool tunes pumping from the local Canadian resident’s tent. Conversations flowed easily and we decided these 2 crazy Kats should hit the road with us and we offered for them to hitch a ride over the next border and head into Costa Rica with us. Deal done, we all stowed into Troy and hit the road reluctantly.

imageWe all had the same feeling, Nicaragua was spectacular and by far one of our favorite countries we had all visited so far, none of us wanted to leave and could have easily spent another week in that same spot. We wanted Nicaragua to be never-ending, it’s a hidden gem in Central America and we had fallen in love with every part of this country. We can’t recommend this place enough for a visit and with all it has to offer, we know we will be back, but for now it’s time to keep moving and head to costly Costa Rica and back onto the Americano tourist trail…

 Check out the Nicaragua pics : http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.489815831054194.1073741825.319040084798437&type=3