We had visited all 50 States and flown to Central America a few times so it was fitting that we should explore the rest of this continent. And now that we had plenty of time, a motorhome trip to Panama seemed like a practical idea, even though neither of us had ever driven one before. A quick RV trip on the freeway from Houston to California and back hardly prepared us for the conditions of Central America.
On several flying vacations to Central America we had fallen in love with the land and the people. By traveling in an RV, we hoped to meet the locals beyond the well-traveled tourist paths and to experience their life as it really is. We also wanted to sharpen our Spanish skills.
I visited the consulates of each Central American country and lined up the documents necessary to get the motorhome, our dog and us to Panama and back. We needed the title and registration of the vehicle, and passports that were good for at least six months. The dog needed her rabies shots and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certificate of Health completed by her vet and verified by an officer of the USDA. We took credit cards from two separate accounts. This turned out to be most fortuitous as we were still able to use mine after John lost his and had to cancel it. ATM machines are readily available in large towns and cash is essential for general purchases and at most gas stations.
Friends kept telling us how dangerous Central America was. Our answer was to take sensible precautions and bring along our dog. Brindle is a 40-pound mixed breed and hardly a formidable animal. However, in Central America dogs are seldom pets; they are either strays or guard dogs. Brindle barked and that was enough to keep the RV safe even when we were gone all day.
Other precautions meant that we didn’t wear jewelry other than beads purchased locally, avoided large cities, and always asked permission before camping for the night. Central America has few formal campsites so travelers need to boondock. Gas stations are readily available and have 24-hour guards eager to watch your rig for a tip. Some of our best encounters occurred when we asked local establishments if we could park nearby. We were always made welcome and felt safe next to a business, however small. In Honduras we asked Alba, the proprietor of a refrescaria, a little stall selling banana chips and sodas, and before we knew it, her husband had pulled up the fence posts so we could drive onto their property.
The day John quit work we set off in our motorhome for Brownsville on the Texas-Mexico border. I had a map of Central America, under plastic, covering the table. We ate dinner while shifting our plates from one country to another as we outlined our route.
Nine days later we reached Chiapas in southern Mexico. Central America is composed of seven countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize. As we drove through Mexico toward Central America, the character of the country and the people changed. We had reached the land of the Maya. The women wore traditional huipils over dark wrap-around skirts. The huipil is a rectangle of woven and intricately embroidered fabric with a hole cut for the head. The patterns distinguish the villages and families from one another.
The Mayan church of San Sebastian in San Juan Chamula is high in the Chiapas mountains. When you enter, the first impact is of light. Thousands of candles of all sizes flicker in the gloom. Families sit in groups on a floor that is covered in a deep layer of pine needles. Shafts of sunlight angle down, cutting through the drifting smoke and illuminating a mother nursing her baby and another with her child sleeping on her lap. Statues line the perimeter, but they can hardly be seen for the brilliantly colored ribbons cascading around them and the profusion of white flowers stacked before them. No photography is permitted, as Mayans fear the camera will steal their spirits.
In Guatemala, just south of Quetzaltenengo, we met the Tzul family. They invited us into their home to share the traditional Mayan drink of hot chocolate. I admired the purple and yellow corn that was drying under the eaves and immediately el papa gathered some for us. Fortunately I kept packets of vegetable and flower seeds in my pocket for just such an occasion, so I was able to reciprocate.
Seeds and pens were probably the best received gifts we carried. Soccer balls were welcomed at the schools where we camped, and everyone wanted postcards from home.
A church school in Santa Ana, El Salvador, provided us with a friendly camping place. While John and Brindle were out for their morning constitutional there was a tapping at the door. There were three girls. “Nos gustaria conocerle (We want to get to know you),” one said. How could anyone resist? I showed them the motorhome and they showed us the school. Then the bell rang and their professor asked if we would talk to the class about our travels. All this and I hadn’t even brushed my teeth!
In Nicaragua we parked on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, and watched cattle walk past for a drink. Granada, the intermittent capital in the 1800s, is filled with colonial edifices painted in rich pastels and trimmed in white. This is no relic of the past. These beautifully preserved buildings are alive with industry. It was here we encountered one of our food challenges. John ordered French toast from the menu, and received two hot dog buns served with jam. Sitting overlooking Parque Colón, with a brilliant sky overhead and a good cup of coffee, even a hot dog bun for breakfast is good.
One of Christopher Columbus’ ships hit a coral reef just off the tranquil beach of Trujillo, Honduras. The crew limped ashore, making this the spot where Columbus first touched the mainland of the continent. The sleepy town, founded in 1525, was the first capital of Honduras. An American named William Walker, who made himself president of Nicaragua in1856, was executed here for trying to add Honduras to his domain. So much history to contemplate with your feet in white sand washed by gentle waves.
Panama was a country that surprised us with the diversity of its people. Tolé Indians live in the highlands and are known for their bead making. We stumbled into their village looking for a camping place and arrived in the middle of their saint’s day fiesta. The women and girls wore long colorful dresses with big loose collars and short sleeves. There was a bullfight in progress. In a corner of a small ring were two men on long-eared mules. The bullfighter wore jeans with no shirt, and waved a red plastic raincoat at the animal. The creature was unimpressed. The spectators were doing all they could to excite the animal and make it charge. It made a couple of passes, and then stood looking around at the crowd. The animal had no killer instinct. I then noticed that this well-kept beast with its great horns was a cow! Later she joined the rest of the herd as they wandered past the motorhome, which we had parked on the village commons.
When we drove across the Bridge of The Americas over the Panama Canal I gave out a holler that woke the dog. We had made it. Two days later we were on a yacht working as line handlers for our passage through the canal. I had approached a couple of yacht owners and they welcomed our assistance. We were doing them a favor. I couldn’t believe our good fortune.
Belize is another amazing contrast with its heritage of British slaves whose descendants have retained that language and culture. We swam in Five Blues Lake, which really was five shades of blue, and went tubing on an underground river to see ancient Mayan sacrificial sites.
Our journey to Panama and back to Houston had taken 99 days. People had told us that we couldn’t do it; it wasn’t safe. We met only friendly, welcoming people. Well, there were a couple of police who wanted “mordida,” but they were always pleasant and the only threat was to return to the city to pay a fine there. I said “no” and they gave in, whereas John either paid up or negotiated.
Yes, there were some rough roads. More than once we could only travel ten miles in 1 1/2 hours. We had six flat tires, but the locals were ever ready to repair them for a couple of dollars.
The border crossings can be a test of patience, but RVers have their cool private retreat. The charges to cross a border averaged $30 and the formalities took from 45 minutes to four hours. You just need patience and a handful of ballpoint pens to donate to the officials.
All our expenses, including border fees, gas, souvenirs, and attending a language school, came to $8,420. That includes the $900 that John spent on communications, as he couldn’t cut the cord with the U.S. Our Web site www.99DaysToPanama.com contains details of our expenses.
We returned home in the early hours of our ninety-ninth day. We had driven 8,398 miles through eight countries and are looking forward to returning this month.
John and Harriet Halkyard, authors of 99 Days to Panama, live in Houston, Texas.