Frontera, frontera, frontera, frontera!!

We caught an early morning taxi from the hotel in Liberia to the terminal.There was no boot in the tiny,red cab so our bags had to be packed into the front passenger seat. The driver,  a lovely man, even turned on his meter before being asked and charged us the correct fare.  Initially, most taxi drivers refused to use the meter until we threatened to walk away. This guy was a gent.

‘The border is only two hours away by bus, but be careful! There are many thieves. You need to watch out’ He warned, placing his index finger under his eye to emphasise the point.

I promised him I would and handed over the four dollar fare.

‘Your bus is the blue one ! Be careful with the small man’ he shouted , pointing  at Darragh.

 His concern was endearing but unnerving. How bad could the border be.

We were immediately surrounded by unofficial ‘helpers’, who told us the bus would leave in twenty minutes. They told us the fare and offered to change our last few Cost Rican Colones to Nicaraguan Cordobas.

The rate offered was derisory, so I preferred to hold onto the cash and gift it to some southbound travellers in Granada, than hand it over to these sharks.

We searched for shade, even at this early hour the sun was scorching. We sat, shuffling from seat to seat avoiding the sun and spoke about Granada.

It was hard to believe we were so close. Reaching Granada meant so much to us. Firstly,we had achieved our target of travelling from Ushuaia ,the very tip of South America,to Granada in Central America. There were a few hairy, scary moments but we had arrived safe and sound. 

Sometimes along the way,our options were a bit dodgy but at those times Nan made sure to remind me  ‘this is your family Billy’. Just in case I didn’t know! 

But I got the message loud and clear. No risks, get us safely to Granada or else!!

I was relieved to be nearly there and we were all happy that today would be our last journey, we were sick to the teeth of buses and now on Central America’s  chicken buses,travel was becoming a lot more complicated.

But, of course we were living our dream.  We had always wanted to return to Granada, to live for a while in its antique timelessness and hopefully find  La Doña’s house again.

La Doña was an eighty year old widow by the time we had the good fortune to meet her so she would ,no doubt, no longer be living there.But perhaps, we could find and visit the house and meet her family or whoever lived in her home now.

In any case, our dreams of returning to Granada were becoming a reality and we were excited to think that we would soon see those magnificent old colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs and brightly painted facades. Tonight we would stroll the wonderful Parque Central, through trees alive with thousands of birds. All these years later we still remembered the park and the glorious evening birdsong.Hopefully, we would love it as much this time as before.

We couldn’t wait to see the house which would be home for the next month. We had rented an old colonial casona in the heart of Granada, across from Iglesia Guadeloupe. Old World style for a while. 

My reveries were interrupted by a high-pitched singing voice ‘ frontera, frontera, frontera, frontera’

The border bus was revving up and our money-changing ‘helpers’ approached again. We refused their offers to carry our bags, instead kicking into our familiar routine . 

“2 bags each, front and back

Nothing left behind.

Dale, Vamos!”


Nearing Nicaragua

 We are nearing Nicaragua, going to Granada, the colonial city on the lake we loved on our last trip seventeen years ago.We studied Spanish then, staying with a local lady, La Doña Sofia.

 I remember her sitting gracefully in her Nicaraguan rocking chair, woven wicker on mahogany. Each night we sat talking, on those comfortable chairs, on the street outside the living room. The streets were quiet and the lighting dim ,and it was hot, so hot, even at night. We wore shorts and t-shirts  but she was elegant, carefully made-up, wearing smartly tailored outfits set off by a string of pearls.

She complained about the corrupt government. The Sandinistas were just as bad too,she said, those revolutionaries who took over from the dictator Somosa. Life in Nicaragua didn’t get any better after the revolution she said. 

One evening, we sat outside, rocking, staring up at a full moon.

‘Are you going to Casa Tres Mundos tonight? There is a Sandinista folk musician playing’

‘No’ we answered. Knowing her politics we thought it a wise response but anyway we were broke, blowing our budget on Spanish  lessons.

‘You should go, he’s very famous, not that I like his philosophy.’

Throughout the evening, she reminded us and when we weren’t moving, it must have dawned on her that we had no money. She lifted herself out of the chair, limped along the floral tiles through the dark rooms  and returned,clutching crisp cordobas.She handed over the full cost of the tickets, dismissing our refusals.

 ‘My gift to you ‘,she said. ‘Go and tell me what you think’

She motioned up the street, calling a nearby horse and trap to come and collect us 

It’s our abiding memory  of Granada.  Those political conversations in rocking chairs, La Doña’s kindness and the clip-clop of horses in moonlight. That’s why we’re going back.

All aboard Santana by D. Illustrator

We left our lovely colonial/modern appartment first thing in the morning and then tried to look for breakfast. 
Eventually we found a nice place where I had French toast and Mom had pancakes. Dad just had a coffee.
We then got a taxi to the port, met all of our companions who were going to be on the catamaran with us ( Stefan, Maya,Jens,Tithia, Harry, Laura, Andrea, Natalie, Sylvianne, Florian, Andre, Marc, Christian and Mirco). They were all very nice.

 Then our captain, Fernando picked us up in groups with his speedboat to bring us to the boat.

 We got a small cabin under the deck on the port of the boat, it was very hot down there, but we had privacy which was the important thing.
After we settled in and had our dinner, Fernando hauled up the anchor because the machine wasn’t working very well.  
So we were off! There’s no point in telling about the two days in open sea because we did absolutely nothing except for burning ourselves on the deck.

When we finally got to the first island of the San Blas I changed into my swimming togs, then after a brilliantly prepared breakfast by Fernando’s girlfriend Sofia and a quick talk from our captain I grabbed a snorkel and mask, jumped into the water off the side of the boat and started swimming for shore. 
Before I got there I got stuck in a mini-reef.  Fortunately I was quite light so the waves brought me in unscathed.  My Dad and Marc who had come with us got stuck in the reef and got a few sea urchin spines stuck in their hands, it took my Mom around half an hour to get the wretched thing out of Dad’s hand later on. 

After that incident we walked around the island and went snorkelling in a place where the water was very clear. We met up with Harry and Laura there who said that they saw a stingray!
After a while we had lunch with a Kuna, one of the members of the native tribe of the San Blas islands. We had a “dorado” fish that Fernando caught and gutted right before my eyes and with some  coconut water still inside the coconut afterwards. It was delicious!

 When we got up to go, the Kuna came over and started dancing with me. Everyone made jokes about me staying on the island for the rest of my life!!
When I finally got away from her, Fernando told me that she especially likes small boys who come to the island.
I then did some more snorkelling before swimming back to the boat to stay there for the rest of the day.
The next day we sailed to another, more touristy island.  The water was really nice and there was also a shipwreck that you could snorkel over. I immediately made my way there.
When I got to the shipwreck I saw a lot of different types of colourful tropical fish, when I went over to the other side of the wreck I was terrified of what I saw. Two big barracudas were circling the sunken ship. I swam as fast as I could away from them. You should’ve seen their teeth!! My Dad and I then went to another reef which was really good as well.

After a good night’s sleep for once, and an excellent breakfast we sailed to another island, I swam to shore to see what it was like but it was very smelly, the water wasn’t as clear as the other islands and there was rubbish all over the place.After a while Sylvianne brought me over to the other side of the island where it was much nicer and there were lots of starfish too! It was great! I picked one up as well and it was a bit weird. I put it back after a few seconds because I didn’t want to be disturbing it.
That day went by very quickly. The next day, our last day on the San Blas islands was very good as well, Fernando went after breakfast to do the immigration, then after lunch we said goodbye to our very kind captain and to Sofia as well, we then got on a speedboat that would bring us to the mainland.
After a quick ride through the sea and up a bit of a river through a small piece of the Darien gap, we parted with our fourteen new friends and got a jeep to our hostel in Panama City.


 Long road north, the Panamerican Highway.

We pull in from the Panamericana to a roadside motel in Northern Costa Rica, to break our run to the Nicaraguan border.  The hotel has an impressive array of international flags, drooping listlessly, outside on poles twisted by the heat. An officious man at the desk  welcomes us with a ‘have a nice day’ before telling us to sit and wait until 2pm to check in.

The hotel is empty but our young receptionist is adhering to the rule book, so we sit,sweating opposite him, and listen to the streamed music. 80’s ballads on panpipes. First The Scorpions’ ‘Down to Gorky Park’ then ‘Lady in Red’and ‘Heaven’.

It is too hot and we are too tired to move. Monday morning, not quite ten o clock , but we have travelled far and seen enough, we’ve been on the move since five,on a bone-shaking bus ride from Monteverde. 

The journey was a roller coaster ride, down winding,dirt tracks unfit for vehicles then slowly, slowly chugging to the top again before dropping gradually down the mountain side to the highway junction below.

Our fellow passengers slept soundly. Mainly American college students who had been visiting or volunteering at Monteverde’s wild life attractions. We’d lived among them for a few days , met them by day at the Butterfly Farm, the Serpentarium and the Bat Sanctuary and again by night at the Taco House. They loved Darragh’s  excitement at finally seeing  an eyelash viper.

We were impressed with them. Bright kids with an interest in biology, just starting out on life’s adventures. Their infectious enthusiasm for the environment and wildlife inspired us,especially Darragh who loved their stories about smuggling beloved bug collections into college dorms and repairing tarantulas’ broken exoskeletons with crazy glue.

Up on the mountain sits a large slice of Americana, with plenty of diners to cater for the American palate with prices aimed at the American wallet. Costa Rica is full of US tourists who enjoy the pristine forests , beautiful quetzal birds and breakfast waffles served with smiles.

The bus  eventually reached the main road and the driver, delighted to be back on asphalt, quickly deposited us at the roadside and sped off south, leaving us behind with a belch of fumes. We would have to wait for the next northward bound bus

 Darragh left out a shout, he had forgotten his glasses aboard, but it was too late the bus was on its way to San Jose.There was nothing we could do.

Despite the loss of the specs, I felt good to be back on the Panamericana. This 30,000 km network of roads, running from Alaska to Argentina, had been the main setting for most of our American adventure. In Buenos Aires, we travelled the Panamericana every morning to school on Moni’s bus and we’ve been pretty much following it since.
We’re not the only ones. When friends hear about our trip and tell us we’re brave, we tell them about others on amazing adventures, we’ve met along the highway. People like Daniel and Polly ,from the UK,overlanding from Argentina to Alaska ,on a vintage BMW motorbike,who have matched us stride for stride as we’ve travelled from Tierra del Fuego.

Or Jens and Gerda ,from Germany, travelling around Panama and Costa Rica for seven weeks. Both are seventy-seven years old, although Gerda told us she was exactly one month younger. Both are incredibly fit and have been taking the same rattling rides as us, while trekking the National Parks.

They sat with us for hours in the hostel. Jens lean, fit and talkative told us all about their travels around the world. Gerda, quieter, less confident of her English kept grasping Jens hand ‘ Tell them about Nepal, Jens. Tell them about the mountains’ 

Jens and Gerda have spent their lives climbing mountains and now they tell us that three generations of their family go trekking together each summer.

In the hotel lobby, the pan-pipe classics continue with Elton John’s Nikita when eventually our receptionist relents and checks us in early.   The room is clean and comfortable and gives us a chance to relax before tomorrow’s final leg.

 I am dreading the trip to Granada, we’ll take a local bus to the border, walk with backpacks through immigration, customs and crowds of hawkers, money changers and crooks that populate the Nicarguan frontier.

Once across, we’re not sure how we will get to Granada. It’s not going to be straightforward , probably squeezing ,with all our bags, onto a local crowded chicken bus or two for the last final stretch of our long road north on the Panamericana.


Taxis,vans and catamarans!

It’s 6am in the historic lobby of Gran Hotel Costa Rica. It’s empty now except for me and the bell boys; it cleared out quickly  with a large group of Texans from Trinity Lutheran Church just boarding a waiting van and other private drivers collecting day trippers to explore volcanoes and national parks.

I sit, writing on an old couch where JFK sat during his stay in the hotel in March 1963. The beautifully patterned ceramic tiles, chandeliers and furniture are untouched since his stay; unfortunatly so are the upstairs carpets and bedrooms. I could call it ramshackle but let’s settle for old world charm.

It’s a nice setting to start writing again, we’ve been so busy, I’ve been distracted, fallen off the wagon, written nothing. We’ve been clocking up the miles, spent two days on open seas on a catamaran sailing from South to Central America, taken speedboats, jeeps, buses and countless taxis to get here to San Jose where we are only eight hours from our final Latin American destination Granada, Nicaragua where we’ll stay a month.

Getting here, we’ve  passed countless car crashes, been involved in one ourselves and narrowly missed another. As well as been thrown off the bus at the Panamanian border and of course been bitten by lots of insects; each variety leaving a different bump. As I write, the 10cm line of sand fly bites on my upper thigh is itching like hell.

But, we’ve had the most incredible time.Swimming over shipwrecks,snorkelling with baracudas on coral reefs, sailing from one palm-treed sandy Carribean cay to another.

Meeting the most wonderful people on the way.The fabulous Colombian couple from Medellín, Oscar and Piedad,who accompanied us to Tayrona National Park ,rented a Caribbean beach-front hut with us and bought us drinks and exotic fruit while they told us all about life in Colombia.

Just so you know, Colombia is friendly and safe. It is wonderfully varied, from cool highland mountains to tropical, jungly lowlands. It has everything, modern exciting cities, Caribbean and Pacific coasts ,delicious  food and fresh juices. It’s worth a visit!

We’ve met wonderful travellers enroute like our fourteen shipmates on the good ship Santana who were fun to be with. They were aunts and uncles for Darragh; swimming, snorkelling and diving with him and playing card games around the cramped dining table every night.

We’ve been blessed to meet wonderfully, helpful people on the road like our Argentine Captain Fernando and Sofia the cook.  So nice to meet Argentinains again,we knew we were among friends!

Others too,like the professional young doctor in the dilapidated clinic in the Casco Viejo of Panama City who gave me antibiotics for a leg cut that just wouldn’t clear up, in the heat and humidity here. Of course, five days snorkelling didn’t help much, especially when the fish were nibbling at my scab. Seriously! Not a nice feeling.

Then there was the other helpful, courteous doctor in Paso Canoas who wrote a supporting letter to allow us cross into Costa Rica after border police refused our entry, insisting on evidence of yellow fever vaccination after our trip to Colombia.

We’ve meet kind, cheerful chatty taxi drivers and of course others who wanted to rip us off. You always have to check the price before you sit into a Latin American taxi but in Panama City, the answer  I usually got when I asked how much it would be was ‘ How much will you pay?’  The serious negotiation began then.
Anyway, we’ve negotiated our way here to JFK’s couch in the lobby of Gran Hotel Costa Rica. It’s been a long trip, an amazing adventure and we feel a sense of achievement to have travelled up from Cape Horn.

I’ll fill you in on all the details some other time but now I’m heading for some Central American rice and beans for breakfast.