Central America; Part 2

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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

Introductory part on Central America; see Part 1

….Nicaragua – Honduras

The effort to cross the border coming from Costa Rica into Nicaragua was considerable and many illogical checks were made. Of course, some amount of money had to be laid out again and again for some paper. And also at this border; don’t skip a step or take the wrong approach, you would have to return to the starting position immediately. But, although we left the camp at the end, we were able to leave the border station before various early risers in our group and enter the Nicaraguan traffic hustle and bustle.

Road manners were a bit rougher again and the law of the strongest was made clear to us right at the beginning of the first kilometres of driving. It was also a corresponding step backwards; from the wealthy country of Costa Rica to a country where money is no longer available for everything. Instead, there were many police and military patrols everywhere, which in this chaos immediately raised some fears about the security situation in Nicaragua. After the security concerns, there was also the omnipresent rubbish; for us, it was again an immersion into another time and circumstances. But the recent past made the country what it is today and what we felt it to be every day.

In Granada in Lago de Nicaragua, we immediately settled down for a few nights by the lake and explored this beautiful city by horse-drawn carriage. Despite the surrounding chaotic conditions, we experienced this city from its most beautiful side. Plundered and destroyed several times, it has been rebuilt again and again and has kept its charm until today. It’s actually amazing; Nicaraguans would also like it to be like this, but in the evenings at the lake, after the barbecue, the rubbish is disposed of in the back of the forest.

Instead of barbecuing and spending the evening at Lake Nicaragua, we drove up to the volcano “Masaya”, which consists of various craters and one of which keeps spitting fire. The sun dipped into the clouds prematurely, but the natural spectacle on the crater rim was still very impressive. When it was finally really dark, the glowing lava could be seen from the visitor platform. In other countries, with such a restless volcano, mass tourism to the crater rim would have been stopped long ago. No, not here in Nicaragua, where after the last eruption and removal of the rocks, visitors were allowed again.

For the onward journey, we were advised to drive generously around Managua – the capital – because the security situation in the city cannot be guaranteed by the security forces in certain neighbourhoods. Whether this refers to the people or only to the earthquake risk, I (Tom) will leave it open. With some respect, we nevertheless drove through the city to the “Lago de Managua” and left it on the west side. Although we would not necessarily like to drive through the western part of the city at night, we never felt unsafe and were surprised by the cleanliness of the city.

According to our roadbook, we would have spent our next night at the lake of the same name. However, a public festival and the high water level of the lake put an end to this plan and the tour guide directed us to the next planned campsite. We had other plans and wanted to spend the night somewhere in the bush on the way around the volcano “Momotombo”. Unfortunately, the park ranger denied us access to the road leading around the volcano because we did not have a permit. This would be available in the last town, but on this Sunday afternoon the office was definitely closed due to the folk festival. We were all sure of that.

Gritting our teeth, we returned to the asphalt ribbon and followed it through the vast countryside. After many kilometres, we were already suffering from tar jitters and turned off onto a side road. We can certainly reach Estelí in another way than by speeding. But we soon realised from the setting sun that such shortcuts often take longer than we had hoped, and it was time to look for a camp for the coming night, which is usually not easy along a road. Fences blocked possible access almost everywhere, or settlements stood in the immediate vicinity. Somehow we found a wonderful place for the night and what surprised us was that most of the people waved at us and were probably even positive about what we were doing.

It was only a few kilometres to Estelí, but gravel roads take their toll and the beautiful landscape made us stop again and again for photos. The drive over this “Cordillera” was almost like a balm for the heart, which was immediately undone when we arrived in Estelí. Thanks to the cigar factories, Estelí is a rich town, which presumably attracts many people who settle in wretched houses on the outskirts. Next to the shanties were neatly kept cigar factories, secured like fortresses from the outside world.

When we visited such a factory, where usually more than 1,000 people earn their living, we were informed that there was a strong smell of ammonia in the factory halls and that sensitive people should refrain from visiting. Yes, the smell was very strong, but the fermentation of the tobacco leaves inevitably produces this smell and the whole leaves have to be shifted several times during this process. When asked by Chantal, the guide assured us that there were no health problems, which is clearly contradicted by other sources. Surprisingly, only very young people work in this factory and pregnant women were also involved in the piecework. We were not particularly surprised that only about 10% of the sales price was left with the manufacturer. A clear indication that the cigars are only produced in low-wage countries where health protection plays a subordinate role by law. In any case, we were glad to leave the factory gates behind us and breathe better air.

Our way led back up into the hilly mountainous country to the border station “Las Manos” with renewed waiting for some papers and stamps. Thanks to a public holiday, the waiting line of trucks was relatively short and the crowd at the top of the pass not too big. Nevertheless, patience was the order of the day and the sun shone down mercilessly on the waiting people. After disinfecting the car, the gate to Honduras opened.

Instead of driving along the main road with its countless potholes, we soon turned off and followed a gravel road in a westerly direction. This was probably a lot easier to drive than the main road, where trucks of all ages struggled up the steep ramps, groaning. Thanks to this shortcut, we reached the much-praised and picturesque town of Yuscarán. It was really beautiful around the central square. But the traffic and the completely parked-up square immediately ruined the pretty ambience. What a pity!

We wanted to drive through the Moloch “Tegucigalpa” in our hearts, but decided at short notice to bypass this city somehow, as the traffic gridlock was imminent; it was closing time and people wanted to get out of the city and some holiday was also coming up. We also followed this line of cars in a westerly direction out of the urban area onto the next hill.

At Lago de Yojoa we wanted to meet up with the group again, but before that we wanted to visit the surrounding mountains. This mountain track was an off-roader’s dream, but we miscalculated so much that we only reached our destination after dark. After the beautiful experience far away from any hustle and bustle, the night drive was a learning experience: in countries like this, you shouldn’t drive on the road at night!

Although we had firmly resolved to avoid any driving on roads at night, we fought the clock again the following day. On our chosen route via secondary roads towards the day’s destination, closures challenged Chantal’s navigation and forced us to take long detours. As an absurdity, the interruptions are only signalled at the appropriate place, so that there were also long return journeys. In any case, the sun disappeared behind a mountain far before our destination in “Copán Ruinas” and the falling darkness again made our journey difficult. But I (Tom) really wanted to get to “Copán”, as we did not want to miss a guided tour of the Mayan ruins the following day.

The well-preserved ruins of “Copán” were the first Mayan site we visited and the local guide gave us many explanations worth knowing about this past culture. We were also amazed by the hieroglyphic staircase, where the whole history of this place was depicted in pictures. There was no other way of transmitting events or knowledge in this culture. Why this place, where several thousand people once lived, was suddenly abandoned is still a mystery today. However, conjectures point to ecological reasons in the foreground, that due to over cultivation and too many people, the whole kingdom eventually dissolved itself. Perhaps this is something that is more relevant than ever in our time. Even our achievements can be recaptured by nature and buried under the earth.

In the small town of “Copán Ruinas” itself, we experienced the start of the Easter holiday with a procession and a lot of commerce around the whole story. Here, too, the local traders put personal business before religious matters and use the many tourists who have travelled here for their cause.

No sooner had we got used to Honduras than we found ourselves at the border to Guatemala. What was new at this border was that we had to leave the customs building again and again between the various steps in order to make photocopies for the border officials in some shop. Also, certain amounts of money had to be transferred immediately. Without copies and transfers, no further progress would have been possible.

Chantal & Tom/April 2023

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