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Monday, March 29, 2010

Antigua, Guatemala to Granada, Nicaragua

Due to Seth getting sick and the need to replace his rear wheel, we stayed one extra day in Antigua. To tell the truth it really didn't take much of an excuse to extend our stay at Anne's beautiful home while enjoying Francisca's incredible cooking. Seth and I spent most of this day relaxing and preparing our gear for the next push into El Salvador while Chris, not knowing the meaning of the word relax, took the opportunity to go on one last hike in the beautiful hills surrounding Antigua. His final day of exploring and sightseeing turned out to be quite a bit more eventful than he had planned. I have asked him to recount the events that took place during this final evening because it makes one hell of a good story and that's what this blog is all about. So, please welcome our first guest writer, Mr. Chris Zwolinski:

“You remember Brigette, who rode with us on our 16 hour marathon trip from Placencia, Belize by boat, bus, boat, bus, breakdown, new bus, and taxi to Antigua? She and I went the following day up to the Pacaya volcano and saw an absolutely stunning display of lava, even getting to roast marshmallows in a flow beside us. The next day, after going to the vendors market, we decided to go up to the Cerra del Cruz, or hill of the cross, where there is a good view of the city. It is a common place to visit, and you can either hike up there on a very wide concrete path and steps through the forest, or drive up on the other side. It is frequented by tourists and locals alike, although it is well known that you should not hike up without a police escort. But after a great review by a local gentleman who assured us that it was very safe these days with the Tourist Police patrolling the area, we decided that we could hike up on our own.

Another girl, Judith, from the hostel where Brigette was staying had joined us for the day, to the market, coffee shop, and now to go up the hill, which was uneventful. In fact, I was surprised at how short a walk it is. We were up and overlooking Antigua in less than fifteen minutes. There were a few locals there, sitting in the grass or on the concrete wall that curves below the giant cross. And above that, in the parking lot, several of the tourist police were sitting around talking.We only stayed ten minutes before starting our walk down. Now, as I describe this, I should have seen it all coming. We passed two guys sitting beside the path, then a third guy slowly walking. Ages between 17 and 22. When the two guys started walking down a cement water drain path to cut off time on the path, I remember thinking what a great set-up this would be for a theft, but that was all I thought.
 Now, with the girls ahead of me talking, and the three strangers behind me, the next thing I know there was an arm around my neck and as I turned to respond my heel caught the curb and we both fell backwards. As I struggled to retain this guy, the other two ran forward. Brigitte told me later that they had the knife, about a five inch swithblade, and told them they would kill them if they didn't give up their backpacks. Brigitte ran downhill and was yelling for help. (She told me later that her initial thought was, first and foremost: safety. And secondly: "No way in hell are they going to get my iPod Touch!!")

Judith had a burlap handbag and lost it to them in the first seconds. I wasn't there to witness that, but when the other two guys came back to me, I was still on the ground trying to gain control. The one guy holding the bag in one hand and a knife in the other, yelled at me several times: "la muchilla y nada mas!!" (your backpack and nothing else) so I reached out with my left hand and grabbed a hold of the bag. My right hand still wrapped around this guys neck. But, it didn't take much, and both guys standing were able to wrestle the bag out of my hand and take off running. Somehow, the guy that I thought I had secured, wiggled out from underneath me and took off as well, but was not successful in taking my pack.Shit!!! I got up and took off running after them, but they were gone through the woods in no time at all. As they disappeared from sight, I had neither her bag, nor the one guy I thought I had a chokehold on. And then struck the harsh reality that I am not twenty years old anymore.

After all of this, the police who heard the yelling came down the hill. I combed through the woods hoping that they might have dropped something. The police stayed on the path, where no thief would ever stay.
As it turns out, none of the three of us got hurt, except for more of the cuts on my knees that seems to be perpetual. Judith lost a camera, about $3 in Quetzales, and a guide-book. (the same guide book that tells you not to go up the hill alone). And in the struggle, all five of the huge avocados that I bought at the market were found smashed beyond use inside my backpack. Enough to make a person angry.
The police gave us a ride back to the hostel and wanted to know if we wanted to file a report. A report? Really? I mean, how would I describe the guys? Three Latin American males between the ages of 17 and 22? Gee, that certainly narrows down the suspect list.

Officially, no thefts have occurred in the years since the tourist police force has been formed about 8 years ago. But then, if nobody reports it, it has never occurred.
So, a couple of drinks at the pub, and my final evening in Antigua was over. Don't tell my Mom, OK?”
It is very important to note that what happened to Chris during our final evening in Antigua has not influenced our positive feelings towards Guatemala and the majority of the experiences we enjoyed there. 99.9% of the people we met and interacted with in both Antigua and the rest of Guatemala were extremely friendly and excessively hospitable. As in many places around the world including many places in the United States shit can happen and occasionally it does. Luckily, Guatemalans are relatively small people and Chris is a beast who wrestles Grizzly bears back in Alaska for exercise. I can just imagine the three thieves looking at one another after escaping from Chris's wrath and saying, “Dios Mio! What was up with that crazy gringo?”
So all is well that ends well and Chris got away with just a couple of skinned knees, which he manages to do on his own about every 4-5 days anyway, and the girl who would not stop complaining got her camera stolen, which works out splendidly because she now has something else to complain about as I heard she was running low on material. All joking aside we are very thankful that nobody was hurt and we can move onto El Salvador looking forward to a whole new set of adventures.
With our new companion, Tracy, we put in a full day of about 100km and made it about 60km from the El Salvadorian border. This was no easy day of cycling for any of us after being off the bikes for an entire month. The day was especially hard for both Seth who was still very sick and Tracy who endured two flat tires and some serious issues with her chain. After a late start that morning and numerous stops throughout the day we arrived at a small town with one hotel just before dark. The rooms turned out to be ridiculously overpriced so I negotiated with the owner to allow us to camp out next to the pool on little grass field. This actually turned out to be even better than the rooms and we got a decent night of sleep.

The next day did not turn out much better for poor Tracy as she suffered through another 3 flat tires and was almost not allowed access into El Salvador. She had already been in the C4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) for 88 days and you are only allowed 90 before you have to leave these four countries. After much fuss they granted her entry with the condition that she had to report to the immigration office in San Salvador within 2 days. That night we camped out on the beach at Playa Metalillo under a beautiful little palapa. As soon as we got there we all sprinted for the water as we had not seen the Pacific in months and had not yet adjusted to the intense heat of El Salvador. I am not really sure if one ever does adjust to this kind of heat. At the time of writing this I have been here for here for over 10 days and am still doing some pretty serious adjusting.

By the following morning I had caught Seth's cold and was not looking forward to another day of riding in 100+ degree heat. Tracy was also not looking forward to another big day and she decided to stay in the neighboring town of Acajutla and take a bus to San Salvador the following day. Our time with Tracy was short lived but we were glad we could escort her across the border and wish her the best of luck in her travels.

The destination for that evening was Playa El Tunco which Seth's friend Justin Dodd claimed was one of his favorite beach towns in Central America. Getting there that day was nothing short of dreadful as the heat was unbearable and the terrain was classic up and down coastal riding. Nonetheless we made it there and decided to take the following day off to relax and allow Seth and me to get over our colds. We did in fact enjoy our time in El Tunco very much along with hundreds of other El Salvadorians on vacation. The place was packed but mostly with local tourists and very few foreigners. We did however meet an Irish couple, Martin and Nessa, who started cycling in Cancun and plan to make the entire trip to Argentina. They also decided to join us on our May 10th Panama to Columbia sailing trip with about 10 of our friends from the US. They will be a great addition to this adventure and they seemed very excited to be included.


I finally checked my email on our day off and discovered a very long thread of emails between our new one woman promotion team, Ana Huson, and what seemed like half of the population of El Salvador. I discovered that in our mere two days of being in El Salvador we had already missed two of the houses that Ana had set up for us to stay at. Luckily she had yet another spot lined up for us directly next to El Tunco in La Libertad. The plan was to meet up with Ana's sister Marta at about 6:30PM in Sunzal and she would escort us to the new spot. We never expect much when people do us favors and we are always more than appreciative when even the most meager of accommodations are offered to us. Which is why when we walk into a place like the house that Ana and Marta lined up for us we can't help but feel like we won the lottery. What's more is that the entire time Marta and her husband, Quique, were showing us around the house they kept assuring us that if we didn't like the place we could move to a private club on another beach the following day. The house is a beautiful two story 4 bedroom home that had enormous 9 foot glass bifold doors which open to an immaculately landscaped yard with a huge pool and a picturesque ocean view. Needless to say we we had no desire to move anywhere and were very excited to have a few extra days to relax on the beach.

Two days later we heard from Marta that Ana who had arranged another television interview on a morning program called Viva La Manana. After this interview we headed over to the newspaper La Prensa Grafica and did another interview which was published in an article the following day. With all of our press completed we prepared to move to the next beach house that Ana had set up for us in Costa Del Sol. We finally got a little bit smarter and got a jump on the sun by leaving while it was still dark around 5:00AM. Unfortunately, we didn't really think about the fact that we would finish the ride by 9:00AM and we were not supposed to meet Quique and Rodrigo until about 3:00PM. However waiting around in the shade beats riding in that kind of heat any day. Once again our friends hooked us up with yet another incredible house, this time located between an estuary and the Pacific Ocean on a long peninsula similar to Placencia. Quique and his two sons drove over a hour and a half simply to make sure we got into the house and show us around the property before returning back to their restaurant, Tre Fretelli, in San Salvador. The level of hospitality that has been extended to us during our time in El Salvador is truly inspiring and really says a lot about this wonderful country and people that live in it.

Speaking of hospitable people, our new friend and interpreter from the aforementioned newspaper interview, Luis, and his buddy Limon also drove over an hour from San Salvador to treat us to dinner in Costa Del Sol. Dinner was excellent but we were even more excited about the invitation that Limon extended to us to go fishing in the estuary on Friday, then again on his boat in the ocean on Saturday, then meeting up with Luis and hanging out at his lake house on Sunday. After thinking that we would be back in the sweltering heat cycling south the following day this was a very pleasant surprise. The next day we met up with Limon's contact in Costa Del Sol who took us fishing all over the estuary where we trolled the mangrove shorelines. Although we had a few hits and an impressive hook-up on Seth's fly rod, we were unable to land any fish.
The following day Luis returned to pick us up and informed us that there had been a change of plans. He told us that Limon had something even better lined up for the weekend and that he was extremely bummed that he could not join us because of a wedding he had previously committed to. He dropped us off at Limon's office in San Salvador where we were updated on the new plans. Instead of heading to Metalillo where Limon has his boat and beach house, we were headed out to Marina Las Barillas to meet his cousin Luis (Pipe) and his wife Kitty whose family owns the marina and surrounding plantations. It is never good to hear that a fishing trip has been canceled but little did we know that we would have one of the most eventful weekends of our entire trip. The plan was to head out to the marina where we would be shuttled on a boat to their remote house out on the bay. Because we did not get to the marina until later in the evening it was decided that we would stay in a couple of the rental condos in the marina which were nicer than anything we could have imagined. Here we met some more of Luis and Limon's friends and prepared for our action packed schedule.

First thing in the morning we were on the water fishing and this time had some better luck as we landed a number of good size jacks while trolling behind a shrimping boat. Luis had never landed a single fish in his life which rapidly changed as he reeled in two jacks at the same time on the same Rapala lure. As soon as we finished fishing we got a quick bite to eat then headed back out on the water with a huge pontoon party boat followed by a smaller skiff which we used for water skiing. Our destination was a secluded beach accessible only by watercraft where we enjoyed waterskiing and a few cocktails while watching the sunset.
We were woken up the next morning by Luis who had rounded up three brand new 4-wheelers along with the manger of the entire estate to tour us around all of the various plantations. Luis explained to us that after the Civil War in El Salvador all of the land was taken from any person owning more than 200 acres and redistributed to the people. Many of the new landowners were unable to utilize and produce anything on their newly acquired real estate causing the overall production in El Salvador to decrease significantly. Kitty's family is in the process of re-acquiring much of the land that was taken from them after the war. Luckily, we were able to tour much of this land on the 4-wheelers and saw some amazing scenery.

After checking out the various plantations and crops we were taken to a small house amongst a number of banana trees. The man who owned this house had managed much of the surrounding land for decades and was infamous for his ability to call a troop of about 30 monkeys by screaming the name of the alpha male, “PANCHO!” Within about 60 seconds monkeys could be seen diverging on our location from all directions led by their fearless leader, Pancho, who walked directly up to the old man and snatched a ripe banana out of his hand. Many of the troop followed Pancho's lead and took the bananas from our hands and devoured them while swinging around above our heads.

After the 4-runners we quickly got a bite to eat and were back out on the water, this time using kayaks to navigate through a maze of narrow mangrove channels. After the kayaking we finally said our good-byes to everyone and headed back to San Salvador with Limon to meet up with Luis for dinner.

We can't thank Pipe and Kitty enough for showing us one hell of a weekend and extending us an invitation to a truly magical place. What I find so inspiring about our time in El Salvador is that all of these invitations, hook ups, and connections were offered to us by people that really had no clue who we even were. What's more is that we were rarely asked how we knew the host or why we were even there. To tell you the truth it would have been a hard question to answer considering by the end of our time in El Salvador the “chain of connections” was almost longer than I could remember. It was enough for everyone that we met, that someone they knew had asked them to show us a good time and in turn treated us like we had been friends our entire lives. And furthermore, setting us with all of their friends living in countries south of El Salvador.

The plan was to stay the night at Limon's place in San Salvador then get a ride back out to Costa Del Sol the following day but Seth became extremely ill from a bad case of food poisoning. We were forced to stay another night in San Salvador and thank God that we had Limon's air conditioned apartment or Seth would have been in serious trouble. This did however allow Chris and I the time to do another interview with the other major newspaper in El Salvador. After sleeping for a day and a half Seth felt well enough to make it back to the beach house in Costa Del Sol and we set out at 5.30AM the following morning. This turned out to be a very bad decision as it was not more than about 30 miles into the day when Seth started throwing up off the side of his bike every couple of miles. By this time however we were in between towns and had to push on to our intended destination of Usulutan. Unfortunately this meant that Seth had to put in a nearly 70 mile day while feeling worse than he had on the entire trip.
We decided we would stop every 10 miles or so to give Seth a much needed break and allow him the luxury of throwing up in a toilet rather than off the side of his bike. During one such stop Seth was curled up sleeping on the ground behind a gas station while Chris and I were picking mangoes and talking to two security guards sporting sawed-off shotguns. They saw that Chris had a camera and wanted him to take their pictures. My personal favorite is the one of this guy multitasking the duties of watering the lawn and guarding the register.

By this time the temperature had reached about 100 degrees and was even hotter on the black asphalt road. The town of Usulutan was still about 10 miles away and Seth pushed on without complaining. When we finally arrived we immediately started asking for the nearest hotel and prayed that they had a room with AC so that Seth could get some relief from the heat. Of course we get 10 different sets of directions to hotels that didn't exist and Seth was looking like he was on the verge of passing out. At one point we were surrounded my a mob of people all yelling different directions while some lunatic was screaming in Chris's ear and repeating everything he was saying while dancing around like a maniac. Meanwhile Seth was sitting on the side of the road with his head between his legs trying to stay conscious and I was viewing the whole scene in disbelief. I could not help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. I only wish I had taken a picture of the transvestite that was prancing around Chris and mimicking his every word. We finally escaped the mob and Chris's new admirer and continued south down the highway after unsuccessfully scouring the town.

Further south we finally came upon a drive-in motel called The Nevada Hotel. We were forced to settle on a room that had a single bed for the three of us and I knew we were in for a treat when the negotiations started with rates by the hour. I finally worked out a deal to stay for 2 nights, or 36 hours, as there was no way Seth was going anywhere the following morning. We even got the guy to throw another mattress in the little love dungeon. All Seth cared about was the fact that the room had AC, a private bathroom, and all of the free hardcore porn he could handle. Gotta love it when there is a toilet paper dispenser directly next to the head of the bed and the entire room is tiled for easy hose down cleaning. Good thing we didn't have a blacklight!
While Seth recovered back to life, Chris and I spent the following two days walking around the town of Usulutan where we stuck out like sore thumbs wherever we went. I ate 4 straight meals at the same pupusaria where all the food I could eat including drinks would come out to just under 2 bucks (pupusas are national specialty in El Salvador). By the second night the owner came up to the table and actually started speaking to us in English. He informed me that he used to work in LA as a delivery man for those blow up castles that little kids rent for their birthday parties. He now owns 6 different pupusarias in El Salvador and is also the director of the local red cross. We talked for over an hour and he treated us to all the pupusas and hot chocolate we could handle. He could not figure out what the hell we were doing hanging out in Usulutan. Mind you this is no small town with a population of over 350,000 and this guy said he had noticed us every time we walked by. He informed us that they don't get many North American tourists hanging around for multi-day vacations. The entirety of our conversion took place amongst the occasional small drug deal that he nonchalantly excused himself to complete outside the front door of his restaurant. Very nice man.
After two nights of luxury living in the Nevada Drive-In Sex Motel, Seth was ready to roll and we headed south for the Honduras border. The only highlight of this crossing was catching a guy trying to steal something off my bike while I was talking to immigration. Luckily I could see him and his buddy setting the whole thing up as one of them tried to block my line of site and the other sneak his hand into my handlebar bag. I immediately confronted the man who was closer to the size of a 12 year old boy and he quickly removed his hand from my bag and scurried off. Our short time in Honduras was characterized by scorching hot days, a pleasant night in Choluteca, and being chased by more kids screaming GRINGO than all of the other countries combined. This was hilarious and it was as if they could sense us coming from miles away. No matter what these kids were doing the second they saw us they would explode into a chorus of gringo chants. While most of the kids preferred to just scream the word chaotically, occasionally we would be treated with a slow and harmonious number that always gave us that little extra push.

After two days and one night in Honduras we entered Nicaragua and made it to the town of Chinandega by about 3PM. Earlier that day we stopped at a small roadside tienda to get some cold water and had to step over a number of fine gentelmen sleeping of a mid day hangover. Seth made a new friend with one of the individuals who was not yet quite hungover and rather still much in the prime of his intoxication. He insisted on pulling Seth's face down just inches from his own so he could whisper undecipherable secrets into Seth's ear. He would follow up each one of these secrets by putting a finger up to his lips and loudly hissing shhhhhhhh! After this continued for about 10 straight minutes Seth was ready to move on but apparently his new friend still had some more top secret info to disclose. When I looked back Seth's buddy had a firm grip on the back of his bike and was sprinting after him as fast as he could until his little legs could no longer keep up and he stumbled down on the side of the road. As we made our escape I could see the man in my rear view mirror holding his finger to his lips reiterating the importance of Seth's discretion. Never a dull moment in Central America.
As we cycled around Chinandega looking for some reasonably priced lodging we were stopped by an older gentlemen running after us with a cocktail glass in hand. We stopped and he insisted that we join him for a drink in his friends house just up the street. We figured that our search for accommodations could wait and we decided to join the man and his friends for a drink. 2 bottles of Flor de Cana rum later and we were invited to stay for dinner which we gladly accepted as we were starving. We were also invited to sleep on the floor of their home which we also gladly accepted as we still did not have a place to stay. We were even invited out to a local salsa club where we made fools out of ourselves while dancing early into the morning. The following day our new friend and host wanted to take us out to the beach and show us around but we decided to push forward to Leon. Once again we were astounded by the generosity of complete strangers.

Leon is a cool city and we stayed in a popular spot called Bigfoot Hostal. I have never in my life seen a city with so many churches and cathedrals. We could not go more than two blocks without being confronted by yet another large holy establishment.

The following day we made it to Managua and met up with Limon and Luis's good friend, Javier. Javier picked us up and treated us to drinks and dinner where we swapped fishing stories for hours. It was immediately evident that we were going to get along with this guy as he clearly loves to fish as much as we do. He even set up a trip to take us fishing on his boat in Lake Nicaragua for Rainbow Bass which Seth and I have never before fished for. Javier met us in Granada two days later and we set out for the marina where he keeps his boat only a short distance from where we were staying. He brought along his buddy Juan who had joined the adventure last second and headed out on the water still wearing his slacks and oxford button up shirt.

Lago Nicaragua is a very unique lake that I cannot really relate to anything I have ever seen. The lake is surrounded by massive volcanoes that deposited huge pieces of rock into lake which created a long archipelago of islands that are privately owned and boast beautiful and luxurious vacation homes. We even stopped at the island and home that Juan's wife's family owns which is nothing short of spectacular. After touring around the islands for a while we headed out to Javier's favorite local fishing hole and it did not take long to get into some nice Rainbows. As I knew we would be fishing for bass I made the veteran call of trimming my beard into a Southern style lip slug. It is a scientific fact that all species of bass are more likely to hit a lure if the fisherman holding the rod is rocking a stache. It was NO coincidence that I caught the biggest fish of the trip. Although as my buddy Craig pointed out I look more like Freddie Mercury than a Southern hick.

We returned to Granada with our catch and had a sports bar cook it up in the local style and I can honestly say it was some of the best fish I have ever eaten. We even got to watch UW lose in the Sweet 16 which was the only bad part of the meal. Javier surprised us by extending his generosity even further with an invitation to his birthday party the following night at his house in Managua. Luis had warned us in El Salvador that his Nicaraguan friends could throw some serious parties so we knew this was an invitation we could not pass up.

The next day we caught a bus back to Managua and arrived at Javier's house around 9PM. His house, like all the other houses we have visited amongst this network of friends, is absolutely beautiful and the party was out held out around the pool. The night was fully catered including a whole pig roasting over an open flame on a hand rotated spit. The food was delicious and the party lasted until about 5 in the morning with music blaring so loud that a similar party in the US would have probably been broken up by a SWAT team.
After a late check out from our hotel the following morning we caught the bus back to Granada and checked back into the hostal where our bikes were being stored. Today we signed up for a week of some much needed Spanish classes and will be doing 4 hours of one on one tutoring for the next 5 days. We also said farewell to our great friend Chris who will be ending his trip and flying home out of San Jose, Costa Rica in about one week. We were very sorry to see our traveling companion of the last two months leave but we look forward to possibly seeing him again in South America.

As for moving forward we are very excited about some upcoming events in Costa Rica including invitations to stay in a number of sure to be beautiful homes in the Nicoya Peninsula. In addition our good friend and biggest supporter Mr. Bill Walton has arranged for us to stay in his favorite lodge in Dominical. MOST importantly 10 of our closest friends from California and Washington will be joining us in Panama City to sail to Cartegena via the remote and pristine San Blas Islands.

Sure to be some good times and hopefully some great stories.


Anonymous said...

Seth, me and Pete Back...sitting in SLO over a beer during Easter weekend perusing your blog, checkin' out your pics...realizing you are living life to its fullest! Setting a fine example! Plus...we are envious as hell!

Sean said...

That was the greatest story I have ever read... Incredible fellas, see you guys soon!


Anonymous said...

Great stories of Central America. Glad to have been part of it. When the movie comes out, make sure Vinicio del Toro, plays my part LOL... Limon and I look forward to 2011, ALASKA! Keep safe cowboys.. LM

jim m said...

Seth, FINALLY somehow I get an e-mail.... WHAT A TRIP!!! Great stories, great adventure. Good luck all the way. I'll be thinking of you. Jim Musante (from the short cross USA trip) lol

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