San Salvador, Capital of El Salvador

Daniel, my guide, is with me most of the time travelling from east El Salvador. He's very helpful and informative, going out of his way to give things a local flavour when he can.  He loves his pupusas. San Salvador is Daniel’s home and birthplace and I ask him to take me to a chemist there for a top up of stomach pills. We are teleported to a different world; I could swear we are in the USA. Rows of glitzy malls overflowing with bargain hunters and crammed car parks. Well, it is Boxing Day.

And it’s a very long day. We've been eating at street stalls - chicken soup and tortillas- and later hot churros, (sausage like doughnut strings). We round it all off, at Daniel’s instigation, with a visit to a famous pupusaria district and stroll round the plaza. The trees have had every imaginable Christmas light possible thrown over them. Underneath, a fair is in full swing. The atmosphere is great. Relaxed, warm and welcoming, everyone always greets everyone else and there will nearly always be a smile. There are just a handful of other tourists around - mainly American or Italian.

There are only 1000 international tourists a year, so the locals haven’t yet become indifferent and cynical.

Joya Ceren - Mayan Remains and Santa Ana

Next day is devoted to archaeological ruins - a Mayan farm at Joya Ceren complete with shaman’s residence and sauna dating from 600 AD ( the Mesoamerican Pompeii) and a smallish Mayan pyramid, though it’s the tallest in El Salvador. (I didn't even know the Mayans got as far as Salvador).

The town of Santa Ana, for the imposing cathedral and more pastel colonial architecture. there's a lot of traffic here again. The highlight is lunch in an upmarket restaurant, with a view over the Santa Ana volcano and iridescent Lake Coatapeque. The meat is beef, but imported. There's surprisingly little agriculture here, considering the fertile soil.

Ataco, El Salvador

Another little colonial gem of a hotel in another little colonial gem of a town. Ataco (like the Colombian Ataco) is in the centre of the coffee region (the coffee crop is also in decline).  It’s relatively chilly here up in the mountains compared to the thirty degrees it's running everywhere else. The town is slightly less chi chi than Suchitito and more vibrant, with huge vivid murals on many of the walls. These mainly originate from the guerrilla wars and are heavily political and educational.

The hotel is a triumph of style over substance. I’ve been given another ornately furnished suite complete with four poster and internal open window to a bathtub. However, there's still no hot water and the plug fit properly anyway; neither will it come out so I can put in my own. There's no light by the bed to read by, although you can switch on lights that illuminate little decorative niches with rose arrangements. There are no windows that open to the outside, just one through which I can see the hotel receptionist - so curtains closed - and the room is on the corner of the plaza. I'm regaled with conversation, trucks unloading, dogs barking, firecrackers and the church bells all night.

El Imposible National Park

A day trip from Ataco takes me to El Imposible National Park, perched above the Pacific Ocean, on the border with Guatemala. The park’s name alludes to a nasty pass at the summit where mules carrying coffee beans had to be led across a precarious bridge, often blindfolded, as it was so terrifying. Today is very windy and all the birds are hiding. A few malachite butterflies emerge to add some interest and justify the outing.

Ruta des Flores

Ataco is the gateway to the turistico Ruta Del Flores which we take en route to another beach at El Sunzal and the end of my tour of El Salvador. Bright Bougainvillea lines the road which winds through more spectacular volcanoes and colonial towns still being restored after their various quake buffetings, each with its own plaza and market. Sadly, we’re no longer allowed to see the tropical glass houses in case we bring in disease. Though my guide has me scrambling over balconies in town squares 'for the best views'.

El Sunzal - Pacific Breakers and Firecrackers in El Salvador

The beaches here are black volcanic sand, partially covered in smooth pumice pebbles and the consistent rollers on the ‘point break’ (whatever that means), are a surfers’ paradise. However, this also means that the bay is far from pretty, precarious to stroll on and not very safe for swimming. Never mind. I have my own private sundeck, with views over the Pacific, the weather is still good and they make a cracking caipirinha.

New Year’s Eve. Daniel has told me there won’t be many firecrackers as no-one will have any money left. That’s not quite accurate and there are proper fireworks too.

El Salvador is certainly a country of contrasts. Either American and manicured or typical Latin American street life, colourful, and a little grubby. There's litter on the highways verges and spoiling the beautiful sandy beaches. And everywhere you go smiling, hardworking people.

Firecrackers in El Salvador

I've flown to El Salvador from Paraguay. There are frequent stops along the road for pictures of volcanoes (already) and to avoid the cattle ambling back to the ranches at the end of the day. The first overnight is in the little port town of La Union, facing onto the Gulf of Fonseca and Honduras. You can also just see the mountains of Nicaragua poking up in the distance. There have been a few wars fought in this bay. There are several mini naval vessels moored here - just in case.

The little town straddles a hilltop and Christmas has definitely arrived. Hardly a sign in Uruguay, some trees and greetings in Argentina, strange cribs in Paraguay and the full works here. Trees, cribs, street stalls and music - albeit with a Latin bent. Christmas Eve is the big fiesta and everyone is out buying new clothes in the market - and firecrackers - for the party.

There are whole markets full of crackers, some of them 25 metres long. The latter are the most colourful and have prices to match - one hundred dollars. (This is very much an American fuelled economy. The currency is dollars and nearly three million Salvadorians out of eight million work in the USA, either legally or illegally. The money they send home-remesas- is the country's main source of income.  Some return and build shiny new houses alongside their crumbling ancestral homes creating envy and exciting aspirations for the rest of the population). The firecracker markets are strategically situated adjacent to the fire station (bomberos - great name).

A Nativity

La Union plaza is bestrewn with lights. There is a large tree sheltering the obligatory crib scene, countless little booths selling the ubiquitous dulce and heaps of other Christmas goodies. Most of the townspeople form the audience for the nativity enactment in front of the church. This too has a Latin twist, as most of the participants wear straw cowboy hats and the script is mainly improvised to hoots of laughter. My guide cum driver, Daniel, decides I need to be told   what’s going on. ‘Well you see Jose and Maria arrive in Bethlehem. Maria is going to have a baby but they can't find anywhere to stay….’

Pupusas - the National Dish of El Salvador

There's seemingly a pupusaria on every corner.  These are little open air restaurants or small cafes that serve the national dish, pupusa. Pupusas are corn tortillas grilled with a huge variety of fillings and favourites are cheese, refried beans and pork. I’m not allowed ham, says Daniel– it’s not popular. Some flowers that look like carnations are. Two pupusas fill me up. These and a drink cost one dollar seventy cents. I’m definitely going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Balmy La Union

The next morning a boat ride along the gulf and round a couple of islands. The air is balmy and it's blissful watching the pelicans doing cargo plane impressions, skimming across the water and the odd osprey swooping above them. The water is warm and there's a hammock on the sandy beach. Next, lobster lunch at a sea horse decorated beachside restaurant with views back over the bay. Paradise indeed.

Christmas at Suchitito

El Salvador is known as the país de la media hora – the half-an-hour country – because everything is close. It is only the size of Wales and is a densely populated semi industrialised country, in huge contrast to Paraguay which has the same population.  I am soon zipping about all over the place, for the most part on two lane highways.  First, across to Suchitito, the best preserved little colonial town above an artificial lake. This is the Ring of Fire and earthquakes have destroyed the older buildings in most of the towns. Restaurants with stunning views across the misty lake to more volcanoes (nine still active), red tiled roofs and pastel washed houses with chi chi art galleries and museums.

My hotel is of the same genre, a two hundred year old mansion, all wood panelling, wrought iron and antiques. My rooms are almost the same floor area as my flat at home. I’m told that the Queen of Spain used them when she visited. There's a huge walk in blue tiled bath, though sadly I can't use it as hot water for washing in El Salvador is as yet unknown - it's all lukewarm. There's even a wall fountain that gushes when I push the switch.  This is less of a novelty when I hit the wrong button in the middle of the night.

 I’m so tired I sleep through all the firecrackers on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is a relaxing day for most as they recover from last night’s hangover. The locals are queuing for boat trips out on the lake in little wooden tubs that have to mow their way through rafts of water hyacinths.

Cerro Verde - Nature's Firecrackers in El Salvador

On December 26th we join more holiday makers and go out rambling on two of the big volcanoes. Both have views to die for.  From the top of Cerro Verde there is a huge crater lake with little islands bobbing. Our road runs perilously round the rim. In the other direction is the most perfect volcanic cone standing isolated and perfectly posed for pictures. It’s now dormant but its name, acquired in the eighteenth century, is Lighthouse of El Salvador. The day begins with clear blue skies, but it is a bank holiday and there are car loads of trippers blocking the narrow volcano tracks. So naturally the clouds come rolling in and there's a deluge.

El Boqueron

We manage to make the second visit, to El Boquerón, without getting drenched and still with reasonably clear views. Though a shot of moonshine from one of the local stalls is called for to stave off the chill. Here, to one side, is a view down into a crater within which nestles a secondary cinnamon cone. To the west, a view of the city of San Salvador and suburbs stretching across to yet another shimmering lake and witch’s hat cone.

On to western El Salvador.

Getting into El Salvador

En route to El Salvador, at Lima Airport (from Paraguay), someone is bored and devises a game of musical chairs. We are made to change gates twice as all the planes arrive at different locations to those indicated on the board. There are swarms of people crossing paths as they up sticks and trundle their belongings across the terminal in response to whoever is barking orders over the tannoy.

The next twenty four hours are delightful as if to compensate. El Salvador is serene, beautiful and friendly.  (You need to discount the armed guards and security men posted on every corner or sightseeing stop.) Volcano cones tower over fields of spiky sugar cane and the little lagoons are full of egrets, roseate spoonbills and herons scuttling along, their every action reflected back to them.

A Brief History of El Salvador

  • The oldest evidence of humans in El Salvador come from cave paintings dating back to at least 6000 BC. A series of Pre-Columbian civilisations left their mark on El Salvador, most notably the Olmecs and Mayans. The Mayans evacuated El Salvador sometime in the fifth or sixth century, when the Ilopango Volcano erupted, decimating the population.
  • The Pipil people were the first new migrants, post-Ilopango, to arrive in El Salvador, in the eleventh century. They named their land Cuzcatlan and were dominating the region when the Spanish arrived 400 years later. Cuzcatlan is still used as an alternate name for El Salvador. It took four years, for Spanish forces to finally conquer the Pipils, in 1528,
  • El Salvador was initially incorporated it into the Viceroyalty of New Spain, ruled from Mexico City. Then, iin 1609, the area was declared part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
  • El Salvador attained independence in 1821, well sort of, The country was forcibly incorporated into the First Mexican Empire. It left that and joined the Federal Republic of Central America two year later. That federation dissolved in 1841, and El Salvador finally became a sovereign state, (although there was a short-lived union with Honduras and Nicaragua called the Greater Republic of Central America, - 1895 to 1898.
  • Since then El Salvador has endured considerable turbulence: coups, revolts, a succession of authoritarian rulers and a civil war.
  • Today, there is a more stable multiparty constitutional republic

Facts and Factoids

  • El Salvador, (The Saviour) is a tiny country - the size of Wales - so you can get to anywhere pretty quickly, traffic permitting.
  • But it’s really densely populated
  • El Salvador is full of volcanoes but there is much disagreement about exactly how many (about 23) or which of these are active (5-22). Count them and see what you think.
  • Try the  national food, the pupusa – a type of stuffed tortilla - very cheap, quick and delicious
  • The people love firecrackers - they're noisy!

Is El Salvador a Poor Country?

The currency here is the USD. The greatest source of income comes from money sent back to the country by Salvadorians working in the USA. The increasing urbanisation (60 percent live in towns and cities) means a lack of resources in rural areas where levels of poverty are high.

Is It Safe to Go to El Salvador?

Last time I travelled to Central America El Salvador, and especially the capital, San Salvador, was deemed to be off limits because of internal conflict and violence. Whilst there is now embryonic tourism, El Salvador still has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. Violence between gangs is common and while most gang violence occurs away from tourists and visitors, advice says no location is completely safe.

What To See in El Salvador

  • I got round the whole country in two sections - East El Salvador and West El Salvador.
  • The scenery is amazing - especially the volcanoes - and inbetween these are the picturesque colonial towns
  • There's also plenty of surf on the beaches

Arriving in Paraguay

Well, it's very different from Buenos Aires here in Paraguay. From the plane, the patchwork of agricultural Uruguay around the giant Plate Delta gradually gives way to the brightest green bush, networked with aquamarine meandering rivers, ox bow lakes and elliptical lagoons. To the east of the Paraguay river (Región Oriental) are grassy plains, to the west, Región Occidental or Chaco, which is mostly low, marshy plains.

Landing in Asuncion, I've left the three lane motorways of Argentina and Uruguay. for single lane tracks. There are shacks lining the road and corrugated roofs hidden all round the city and below the more affluent blocks of downtown. It's humid and stiflingly hot.

The Gran Hotel del Paraguay

The Gran Hotel del Paraguay has illusions of by-gone grandeur. It was the country home of an Irish lady, the paramour of dictator Solano Lopez in the late nineteenth century. Its restaurant – highly embellished ceilings and chandeliers - was once the ballroom, the country's first.

The red and white painted courtyards and fountains are still charming. But the room I'm allocated is a little cell overlooking a noisy car park. After reconnoitring, I decide I've been given a bum deal and request a move. I'm now off one of the charming courtyards. It's still baking hot at nine in the evening. And I'm having to fend off mosquitoes.  But I have a margarita.

A Brief History of Paraguay

  • Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1524, and in 1537 established the city of Asunción, the first capital of the Governorate of the Río de la Plata. During the seventeenth century, Paraguay became the focus of Jesuit missions, where the native Guaraní people were converted to Christianity and introduced to European culture. in 1767, the Jesuits were expelled and Paraguay increasingly became a peripheral colony.
  • The local population was more than decimated in the nineteenth century, by the Three Alliance War against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Paraguay didn't come out if it very well - it's billed as one of the bloodiest wars ever. They lost forty percent of their land and nearly all their young people. This was the culmination of a series of authoritarian governments characterized by nationalist, isolationist and protectionist policies.
  • A succession of military dictators, followed until Paraguay became a democratic republic in 1989.

Asuncion

Only one day to see everything, with BBB - blisters, bad back and bowels (gut rot to boot today). A whistle-stop tour of Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.  Because it was the first capital of the Governorate of the Río de la Plata, it is known as 'The Mother of Cities'. Nearly half of Asuncion's population live here.

Asunción is a sprawl of factories, low rise housing and slaughter houses along the river. All the expansion means that the centre of town is now nowhere near downtown. The old city clings to the water, though that’s now been through two incarnations. It was the River Plate, then the Parana, now the Paraguay. Or should that be the other way round? Just a little further up the river is the confluence with the Pilcomayo River. The ports here are extremely important - they give Paraguay access to the Atlantic Ocean

First stop is another pink palace, the López Palace, the seat of government housing the president’s offices. It was white, until recently. Nearby, the National Pantheon of Heroes has a mausoleum and plaques commemorating Paraguayan historical figures. The Independence House Museum is a small whitewashed building. (Independence was won in the early nineteenth century.)

We also take in some ritzy shops, a lot of embassies, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption complex (it's huge) and the graveyard. The ornate cemeteries are always a must-see in Spanish colonial cities. Then we wander along the sandy beach, by the river. This is surprisingly inviting and is where the locals gravitate, in their leisure time. I get lost, walking on my own, naturally. . It's grubby and there is litter everywhere, but fortunately the locals are friendly.

Conmebal

Much more interesting, is my trip out to the big ' Blue Lake' and the lakeside towns of Aregua and San Bernadino.

On the way east, near the airport, we pass the edifice that is locally most worshipped - the headquarters of the South American Football Confederation in the city of Luque, in metropolitan Asuncion,. Appropriately, given all the latest news, it’s called Conmebal. My guide tells me that the Paraguayan football team were paid to throw their most famous match against England, so that we would have to play Argentina – and suffer the Hand of God.

Aregua

Well, my guide calls this the Blue Lake. Apparently, it's actually called Ypacaraí Lake. This area is very Spanish colonial in atmosphere - there are a large number of people of Guarani heritage still and they mostly speak that language too. (Unlike Uruguay and Argentina where nearly all the indigenous peoples were 'eradicated ', as they say in the guide books). The Blue Lake is tranquil - though not so blue close up. Aregua has the usual colonial low mud houses and cobbles, always delightful. and my guidebook tells me it's known as the City of Strawberries, because of its many strawberry farms. But it is unique for another reason. The pottery here is - well - astonishing.

The locals take Christmas very seriously (following the Jesuit conversions in the seventeenth century) and everyone buys a straw crib and decorates it with clay figurines; most of those figurines come from Aregua. The whole town is lined with bright stalls. There are the usual familiar crib figures, Joseph, Mary, shepherds etc.  Lots of sheep and donkeys and other animals you would expect, mixed in with parrots and giraffes. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Huge statues of Christ the Redeemer, surrounded by frogs with red hats on (they're lucky I'm told) and so it goes on. Kitsch isn't really the word. Maybe bizarre - each to his own!

Facts and Factoids

  • Paraguay is very much a developing country. Six and a half million people, fourteen million cattle.
  • This is another country that claims to be Little Switzerland, as it’s landlocked. (one of only two such countries in South America). But there isn't a mountain in sight.
  • It's also sometimes dubbed The Heart of South America, for obvious reasons.

San Bernadino

On the far side of the lake, San Bernardino has an interesting history. It was founded in 1881 by some Germans who emigrated on the promise of free land, after the Three Alliance War.

The town was renamed after Saint Bernard to honour Bernardino Caballero, president of Paraguay between 1880 and 1886. A must see on the tourist itinerary is the Hotel del Lago, where the National Socialist German Dr. Bernhard Förster spent the last six weeks of his life, before committing suicide on June 3, 1889 by taking an overdose of strychnine. Inspired by a letter from Richard Wagner and his own anti-Semitism, he had travelled to Paraguay to attempt to create a model German settlement, Nueva Germania with his wife Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (sister of the philosopher) and several German families.

The remaining Germans lived on the lake happily until they were ejected at the end of World War II - Paraguay didn't want to offend new friend, the USA. The Hotel de Lago is very quiet, but they allow me to sneak into the dining room and look at the old black and white photographs on the wall. I'm driven back to Asuncion along the lakeside.

El Salvador next.

Antigua, Guatemala

Two visits. to Antigua, which is a great base for exploring Guatemala. One in the Easter holidays, going onto Belize and another coming from Honduras. So, what am I looking forward to? Spanish colonial architecture and 37 volcanoes, three of them active.

The city of Antigua was the third capital city of Guatemala, according to the Spanish conquistadores. But it was then named Santiago de los Caballeros, as previous capitals had been. It functioned as the seat of the Spanish Empire, reaching up to southern Mexico and was home to many churches and religious orders, including the Jesuits. .However it suffered badly from earthquakes, as well as the odd volcanic eruption. It was eventually ordered abandoned in 1773, After that it was referred to as La Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala).

Antigua has survived, despite this. With its rich but battered colonial heritage and stunning setting, it claims to be one of the most picturesque colonial towns in Central America. I won’t dispute that. It’s beguiling, built in a beautiful valley between three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. There are churches, ruined and restored, baroque buildings and museums, as well as markets, shops and street hawkers galore. It has a shabby chic and crumbling pastel beauty and it's one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Another church tower, a carving, a glimpse of one of the three volcanoes.

Guatemala - in a Nutshell

  • Guatemala is famous for its gorgeous landscapes and historical heritage. The name 'Guatemala' originates from a word meaning 'place of many trees’. Modern day Guatemala was home to the core of the Maya civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica.
  • In the sixteenth century, most of this area was conquered by the Spanish and ruled by them. until Guatemala attained independence in 1821. Succeeding decades were turbulent, as Guatemala first became part of the Federal Republic of Central America, and was then ruled by a series of dictators. backed by the United Fruit Company (of banana republic fame) and the United States government.
  • In 1944, a pro-democratic military coup, took place, to be followed by a U.S. backed military coup in 1954 and another dictatorship. The bloody conflict that followed was not resolved until 1996. 200,000 people died, and at least 400 villages were wiped off the map. More than half of Guatemalans are descendants of the indigenous Maya peoples, who suffered badly during the civil war. Since then, Guatemala has achieved both economic growth and successful democratic elections, although it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty and crime.
  • Guatemala has been dubbed the 'Land of Eternal Spring' due to its invigorating climate.
  • There are more than 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, but only three are active: Fuego, Pacaya and Santiaguito. The tallest however, is Tajumulco ( 4, 202 metres).
  • Chocolate is an important export and Guatemalans invented the first ever chocolate bar.
  • But coffee is Guatemala's largest export
  • On All Saints Day Guatemalans honour their dead by flying kites.

Semana Santa

It’s the week before Easter (Semana Santa) and Passion Sunday processions are taking place. The gaudy, bewigged saints, Jesus and Mary, have been removed from their dusty niches in the cathedral and are out parading the streets, hauled by struggling youths in purple hooded robes. The strain shows on their faces and the air is heavy with incense, wafted by those who drew the easier jobs. The girls’ role is to fill the many churches with the most intricate of floral arrangements and produce the most gorgeous elaborate carpets of flowers in the streets. These are trampled and left in total disarray as the processions pass. I am more distraught at the destruction than the carpet makers seem to be. It’s all utterly fascinating.

Panajachel, Guatemala

Panajachel sits on the shores of spectacular Lago de Atitlan. There are excellent views of the volcanoes on the boat trip across the lake, itself is an old caldera. This is an old Spanish settlement, but one of its most important tourist sites is the wooden effigy of Maximon, a god/saint (no-one is quite sure which) of the Mayan religion. He has a large cigar in his mouth (one of many donations or bribes) and numerous ties round his neck (also donations). Maximon is interesting. A sign says that  petitions should be accompanied by gifts of alcohol, cigarettes, and cigars. Legend has it that one day, while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they became so enraged they cut off his arms and legs. He is also known, more peacefully, as St Simon.

Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is an obligatory visit from Antigua. It has a world famous open-air craft market and an indoor food market, both bustling and infinitely colourful. It’s also a hotchpotch of indigenous Maya culture and Catholicism.

The 16th-century Santo Tomás Apostol Church is used for both Catholic worship and Maya rituals. Herbs, petals, wool and wood arranged in careful symbolic patterns emit plenty of smoke as I clamber up the steps. In special cases, they burn a chicken for the gods The church is built atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform, and the steps remain venerated . Each of the 18 stairs stands for one month of the Maya calendar year.

There’s also the Maya shrine of Pascual Abaj picturesquely situated on a hilltop to the south. This home to an ancient and venerated carved stone. Writing on the stone records the doings of a king named Tohil. There are rituals and a lot more smoke there.

Guatemala City

I’m warned  not to go there!

Tikkal, Guatemala

This is the iconic Mayan site. Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that eventually became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Buildings at the site dat back as far as the fourth century BC, However, Tikal reached its height during the so called Classic Period, (200 to 900 AD) . Eventually, the population declined, culminating in the site's abandonment, by the end of the tenth century. It's even believed that some of the more important buildings were burned. The site was 'rediscovered' in the nineteenth century, though it was relatively inaccessible, being buried in the jungle. A small air strip was built in 1951.

Tikal is huge and impressive and well worth the effort, though it’s tiring (and dangerous) climbing up the many stairs, for the (worthwhile) views. The roads, which now exist, are terrible and there’s plenty of earthquake damage evident - huge rents in the tarmac. Over the border and into Belize.

Tegucigalpa, Capital of Honduras

My tour group cross the border from Nicaragua into Honduras and continue to the capital, Tegucigalpa (great name). Our guide says of Tegucigalpa: ‘its ideal location must have made it a pleasant respite from the oppressive heat of the coastal regions’. Nevertheless, it’s deemed too dangerous to visit. We're flying out to the Bay Islands.

It’s a small airport and there’s some debate amongst the ground staff, about which plane we will be taking. (Or whether there is actually a plane for us at all.) Eventually, we meander out onto the tarmac and I scramble onto the diminutive prop aircraft that has been pointed out, just after the pilot. ‘Where are we going?’ he asks.

Facts and Factoids

  • The five stars on the Honduran flag represent the five countries of Central America. The middle star represents Honduras, because it’s the only country that touches four of the other countries.
  • More than three-quarters of the land area of Honduras is mountainous; lowlands are found only along the coasts and in the several river valleys
  • There has been ongoing political instability. in Honduras, so this is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. More than 50% of the people (known as Catrachos/Catrachas) live below the poverty line.
  • Honduras was the first country to ban smoking in your own home, in 2011. It isn’t actually illegal to smoke in your own home, but if a visitor or a family member complains, it could result in a visit from the police and a US$311 fine.

Roatan

The beautiful Bay Islands are reputed to be home to some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. There are three islands, lying some 50 kilometres off the Honduran coast. The blonde haired, blue eyed Hondurans here are direct descendants of the British Pirates, who lived on the islands over 500 years ago. The Bay Islands are covered with palm fringed lanes. Macaws, toucans and parrots lurk in the trees. It’s a little slice of Caribbean paradise.

For the next two nights, we are based on Roatan, the largest of the islands. It’s a perfect haven of colonial shabby chic, with little bars on overwater piers. The offshore reefs, are part of the chain that run up to Mexico, second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef itself. Whilst the snorkelling isn’t exactly ’second to none’ as advertised, it’s definitely worth the time. Guide Pierre is in his element. He can stay horizontal on the beach, or in the bars.

A Brief History of Honduras

  • This is another ex Spanish speaking, ex Spanish colony, Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Honduras. His first words were: “Thank God we got out of these great depths!” And so the country was named 'Honduras' (Great Depths).
  • It remained in the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, with silver mining a key factor. African slaves were brought in to replace indentured labourers, who were prey to disease and not always amenable to their working conditions. Independence, initially came, in 1821, as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico), from which it formally declared independence in 1821.
  • Wikipedia says:' Although Honduras eventually adopted the name Republic of Honduras, the unionist ideal never waned, and Honduras was one of the Central American countries that pushed the hardest for a policy of regional unity.' There have been almost nearly 300 small internal rebellions and civil wars in the country, including some changes of régime, since independence.
  • In 1904, the American author O'Henry coined the term Banana Republic in his satirical stories, Cabbages and Kings to describe the exploitation of Honduras (and neighbouring countries) by U.S. corporations, such as The United Fruit Company. Every so often the US army dropped in to support them. For a time, the country economy was dependent on just the one export - by 1929, Honduras was the main exporter of bananas in the world.

Copan, Honduras

After two idyllic days we head back to the mainland and the ‘magnificent’ Mayan ruins of Copan. I’m quoting from the guidebooks again. Copan, near the Atlantic coast, is the most informative and biggest of the Mayan sites in Honduras, but the Mayan civilisation was, for the most part, inhabiting the western parts of the country. Copan was the capital city of a major kingdom from the fifth to ninth centuries AD. However, the city was in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples. Caught between two pre Columbian civilisations, once powerful Copan, after 2,000 years of occupation, declined in the early tenth century.

Copan is not huge, like Tikkal in Guatemala, but it’s impressive. The entire UNESCO World Heritage Site (pre UNESCO obviously) was bought from a local farmer, by American explorer, John Stephens for US $50 and excavated in the nineteenth century. He had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in the United States. It has, supposedly, the greatest collection of Mayan sculpture anywhere in Meso-America. Among the five plazas is the Ceremonial Plaza, an impressive stadium with richly sculptured monoliths and altars. The Hieroglyphic Stairway is composed of 2500 individual glyphs; its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes. And there are real birds and snakes peeping out from under the stones.

Copan Ruinas is a lovely village of adobe buildings, adjacent to the ruins themselves and is well equipped for tourists, with some atmospheric pubs and restaurants - griddled steaks are good. The waitresses entertain the punters by balancing pots on their heads. And there’s a butterfly garden too.

Next stop, Guatemala

Ometepe, Nicaragua

Crossing the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua this morning. Our tour vehicle now, is an old yellow, American school bus. Ashort drive brings my tour group to San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca). This is the departure point for ferries to Ometepe Island. The name Ometepe means 'two hills” and as the ferry (complete with beer, dispensed by the captain while his mate steers, and hammocks) draws near, we get an increasingly clear view of the two volcanoes connected by an isthmus. Two perfect cones, Little and Large (or Concepción and Maderas).

Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and highly polluted, with sewage, but still home to numerous fish species. Even sharks live here. It was first thought this was a freshwater species, but zoologists later discovered that the sharks travel to and from the lake, to the sea, using the river system and jumping the rapids, like salmon.

We have free time to explore on our own. This involves searching out pre-Colombian petroglyphs, carved by the indigenous people, visiting the Charco Verde Nature Reserve and scouring the canopy for howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots, sloths and hawks or lounging on the black sand beaches, drinking in the stunning views across the lake.

Artistry in Action

It’s come to our attention that passenger Artist has been concerned that sometimes her room is inferior to those allocated to others. My rooms have been bit hit or miss, but it seems to come out evens overall. Artist is less sure and it appears that she has been hijacking Leon and demanding he show her the rooms before the keys are issued, so she can have first pick. Naturally, there is a furore at this news and Leon is beginning to look a little pale.

Facts and Factoids

  • Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America.
  • Nicaragua has 19 volcanos - seven of them are still currently active.
  • Around 18% of the country’s total land mass has been dedicated to 78 national parks and protected areas. Nicaragua has the second largest rainforest in the Americas (the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve), after the Amazon rainforest.
  • So it's not surprising that Nicaragua is growing increasingly important, as a tourist destination.
  • The national dish of Nicaragua is Gallo Pinto - the traditional dish of rice and beans. (Gallo Pinto translates to spotted rooster, representing the dark beans against the white rice.)
  • Nicaragua is one of five countries in the world where abortion is illegal, with no exceptions.

Granada, Nicaragua

We return by boat to San Jorge, this morning and from there drive to Granada. This is an atmospheric and colourful gem, situated at the foot of Mombacho Volcano, on the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. It was the first Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba and named after the Spanish city.

We are indulged with a walking tour of the baroque and renaissance buildings (mainly churches of course). The red and yellow cathedral towers above the city and the bell tower of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes, has to be climbed, for its views across town, where we can see the cathedral..

We also fit in visits to the Parque Central, the monument to the war of independence, the plaza and the convent of San Francisco. Perhaps surprisingly, the convent is home to a large collection of native American stone sculptures. And then, we are taken to a tobacco factory, to see the giant local cigars being produced.

There are myriad narrow lanes and alleyways, cobbled streets, horse carts galore. This is Leon’s home town and he disappears for a well-earned day off. It is a marathon tour and just getting us all through the border posts and check points (official and unofficial)is a major endeavour. So, today, we are led languidly by a Frenchman, Pierre, who is so laid back he is horizontal.

Our hotel is a delightful colonial palace on the corner of the main square. You can see the whole world clatter by in horse-drawn carriages, from the terrace bar. Much better than Starbucks.

Las Isletas

Then, I take to Lake Nicaragua again. Las Isletas are a cluster of 365 (that number again) tiny islands in the shadow of Mombacho. The boat nips us past holiday homes. more howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots and local fishermen, casting their nets.

The lake has also been at the centre of politics. According to some sources, a trans American canal would actually have been cheaper and easier via Lake Nicaragua, - less actual land to dig out. It was seriously considered (see Panama). But the Americans were hand in glove with Panama and not at all keen on the plans. One of the reasons they supported Ortega and other opposition against the Sandinistas.

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua National Park

We set off for the old colonial capital of Leon, via the market town of Masaya (and its attendant volcano). Masaya is Nicaragua's first National Park. It includes two volcanoes (one the most active in the country) and five craters and glowing lava is promised, though it does not materialise. We have to be content with lava tubes and a steepish climb, up steps. Up top, the caldera belches smoke and gas. The absence of trees on the slopes of the mountain provides 360 degree views of the area. The car park, where we have left the bus has signs that read: ‘Park your vehicle facing the exit’

A Brief History of Nicaragua

  • Nicaragua remained in the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, until attaining independence, initially as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico) Nicaragua definitively became an independent republic in 1838.
  • Since Nicaraguan independence, politics has been fiery and government contested for much of the time, with several coups and military dictatorships. The USA has been heavily involved and actually occupied the country from 1909-1933. They were particularly concerned to oppose the building of a Nicaraguan Canal to oppose the Panama Canal. The overlapping Somoza regime (dictatorship) lasted until 1979. This overlapped, in its turn, with the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led into the Contra War of the 1980s. The USA continued to be heavily involved, at one point illegally supporting the Contra rebels, fighting against the left wing Sandinistas regime. Both sides were accused of human rights violations, murder, torture, rape and mass executions. 30,000 were killed. The Sandinistas, despite further accusations of sham democracy, are still in power, with Ortega, the president, in his third term.

Managua and Leon

Next, the current Nicaraguan capital of Managua. We’re told there will be a short tour to see Managua's ‘curious, if somewhat unorthodox, charm’. This rings alarm bells and fortunately, the trip doesn’t last long. Managua was badly damaged in the 1972 earthquake, and is still, gradually, being rebuilt. There isn't much to see. except for the shell of the cathedral.

Leon, however, lies in the shadow of the Cordillera de los Maribios Mountains. It is today considered the intellectual centre of Nicaragua. It was the capital for 200 years. It’s also the namesake of our guide, who is today complaining of nausea and stomach pains.

Yet another walking tour, yet another Plaza del las Armas, yet another cathedral (arguably the largest in Central America and a UNESCO heritage site). There's also the Sandinista Murals. The city of Leon was home to the revolution that shaped Nicaragua's future. Since then it has played a crucial part in the social and political history of the country. It’s an interesting account of the country's turbulent history and a thoughtful counterpoint to the friendly welcome of the people.

Next day, we're off north, over the border. Or we try to. Eventually, we realise that our late departure is due to the absence of our guide. The driver makes umpteen phone calls and finally announces that Leon has been taken into hospital with stress. Pierre has been summoned to act as replacement, but he will be some time.

When we reconvene, three hours later, it is apparent that Pierre is still suffering from the after effects of indulging in some kind of recreational experimentation with plants or chemicals. Horizontal mode is more or less permanent for the rest of the day.

Next stop, Honduras.

Sarapiqui, Costa Rica

Our tour group is travelling from Panama to Guatemala. It's a long day’s drive from Panama, crossing the border to Costa Rica into the Caribbean lowlands and the town of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui. (Artist is in the front seat again). Puerto Viejo lies at the confluence of two rivers sandwiched between two mountain ranges, so it functions as a trading centre for travellers. A mooch around reveals a little market and a motley collection of shops. Heaps of good piled on the floor like a jumble sale or, bizarrely, hundreds of cans of spam stacked on shelves.

Sarapiqui is one of several up and coming tourist destinations in Costa Rica, where outdoor adventure holidays are exploding. Compared to other South American countries Costa Rica has done well, since independence from Spain, when it was the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. (Initially, as part of the First Mexican Empire and next, the Federal Republic of Central America). There was a brief civil war in 1948 and then Costa Rica permanently abolished its army.

An early morning boat ride along the Sarapiqui River, out of town, at La Selva is peaceful, though frustrating. Various lizards, iguana and birds preen themselves on sundry branches, as we drift along, sidling just enough to make photography difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately, there's lunch at a restaurant where a large mess of iguanas (another superb collective noun) snooze happily in the trees outside.

Costa Rica, The Rich Coast - in a Nutshell

  • Costa Rica's official language is Spanish, because it was a Spanish colony. (The name Costa Rica means Rich Coast - the local people were wearing a lot of gold when the Spanish arrived.) It remained on the periphery of the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, until attaining independence, initially as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico), from which it formally declared independence in 1847. Following a brief Civil War in 1948, Costa Rica permanently abolished its army in 1949. So, it is one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army.
  • More than 25% of Costa Rican land is protected national parks and refuges. Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species, which represents nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. Of these 500,000 species, a little more than 300,000 are insects.
  • Costa Ricans refer to themselves as “Ticos” (males) and “Ticas” (females). Foreigners are often called “Gringos” (males) and “Gringas” (females).
  • Costa Rican women do not take their husbands’ last name when they get married. They keep their maiden name for life, along with their mother’s maiden name.
  • Costa Rica is a major tourist hot spot in central America. But watch out for your belongings in San Jose - I had my daypack stolen there the first time I came to Costa Rica.

Arenal, Costa Rica

The classic cone of Arenal is enticingly visible for most of the next day’s journey, starkly barren and scarred by lava flows. Arenal is currently one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world (depending on which list you read). It has its own national park and is over 1600 metres high.

We skirt fertile farmlands, rich with a diversity of tropical crops, to our hotel at La Fortuna. Here, I’m housed in a little bungalow in the grounds, with beautiful tropical gardens and a great view of the mountain. Arenal is reasonably cooperative during our night visit, with rumbling worthy of a giant and amazing red splashes of lava catapulting into the sky. It growls gently until I drift off to sleep, but next morning I’m awoken by a huge roar. I leap out of bed, wrap a sheet round me (it's too hot to sleep with anything on), grab my camera and run outside for my own private eruption performance, complete with puffs of pink ash. It lasts over half an hour. (Arenal stopped erupting in 2010 and is now classified as dormant.)

La Fortuna is a tourist mecca, boasting La Catarata de la Fortuna waterfall, several resorts with natural hot springs, whitewater rafting, hanging bridges, a "sky tram," zip-lines, mountain biking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, ATV and dirt bike rentals, "butterfly farms," cavern tours, bungee jumping, a swimming hole, and canyoneering.

We spend the day scrambling over huge boulders in lava fields and wandering in the rainforest in the national park. There’s an astonishing variety of natural wonders to admire en route, mesmerising patterns artistically drilled into leaves, frilly lizards, enormous spiders, more red frogs, hairy tree trunks, and lustrous birds. Our guides hold viewer and telescopes steady so that we can see clearly or photograph. Artist is always head of the queue. I don’t know how she does it. I can’t see her actually manhandle anyone, but she always manages to elbow her way through, is consistently  at the front of the line for the bus and is glued to the guide at all times, in case she misses anything.

La Fortuna Spa

After such an exciting day a girls’ visit to a spa to relax in the hot springs is very acceptable. It’s comfortably warm, with fountains and falls, but it doesn’t pay to look too closely at the green rimmed pools. Polish Bozena, a real character,  keeps us entertained. She's brought a cocktail and cigarettes in with her.

Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve, Costa Rica

Next, we climb into the mountains of Costa Rica (guess who’s in the front seat?) to the farmore temperate Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is lauded in guidebooks for its ‘staggering diversity of flora and fauna; 2,000 species of plant, 400 species of birds and 100 different species of mammals’ so I have high expectations. And I’m not disappointed as again, there is an incredible variety of wildlife to be seen. Humming birds, an emerald vine snake, huge ferns, epiphytes, bromeliads, woolly insects and all manner of other exotica, some of it very odd indeed, all make an appearance.

This is one of the last remaining places in Central America where the famous, resplendent quetzal is occasionally sighted and the happy guide does manage to track one down. It’s only easily discernible though a telescope on a tripod, but there’s a clear shot and semblance of a photo, where we can see the amazing iridescent colours. (After we have waited for Artist and prayed that the rare bird won’t take off while she is perfecting her shots.)

The long tail for which the quetzal is famous (and famously pursued for trade in pre-Columbian America) is not there, however. It’s not the mating season and it’s been discarded, as being too cumbersome. We also get to see the equally shy three-wattled bellbird, but he refuses to stick more than his beak over the edge of his nest. Where was all this wildlife hiding last time I visited Costa Rica - keeping warm maybe ?

The rest of the day is given over to ‘amazing optional activities', which include sliding down wires through the canopy, walking on suspension bridges strung at canopy height, or more sedately, a very rickety chair lift through the canopy. I decide the latter is the (relatively) safest option.

Rincon de la Vieja

We continue our journey, through velvety mountains, to Rincon de la Vieja, located close to the Nicaraguan border. This is another active volcanic area, with lush vegetation and a plethora of  lagoons and craters, punctuated with steaming vents and pools of boiling mud. It’s still raining on and off, and the ground is extraordinarily muddy. I view the hot springs and the Rio Blanco Canyon climb and swing from a distance, and decline the offer of horse riding. I spend a very happy afternoon with my camera and the many extraordinarily vivid flowers and butterflies in the fields around the hotel. An enormous toad keeps me company. The wildlife in Costa Rica is truly amazing.

Nicaragua next.

A Tour of Central America

Nearly a month, in the company of a group of strangers travelling northwards through Central America to Guatemala. This may - or may not - be interesting. Amongst our group, assembling in Panama, are some single females, one lovely idiosyncratic Polish lady, several teachers, (it’s the school holidays), one honeymoon couple, one artist from Brighton with her henpecked partner and a chemist from South Africa, who is partial to beer and describes himself as a cantankerous old bastard. Our guide is a young Nicaraguan called Leon, tending to roly-poly.

A Brief History of Panama

  • Panama was of course, a Spanish colony and then, firstly, part of the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada (Colombia), Ecuador, and Venezuela.
  • After Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Nueva Granada (including the region now known as Panama), became the Republic of Colombia.
  • With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903.
  • Government from then on was turbulent, with corruption and military dictatorship. Most notable was the Noriega Regime, This military dictatorship, (initially supported by America and operating on behalf of the CIA in the region) was not only responsible for human rights abuses, murder and torture, but it was running a parallel criminal economy, providing revenues from drugs and money laundering. It later added the smuggling of Chinese immigrants to the USA. The latter apparently made about 200 million dollars.
  • Citing 'Operation Just Cause' the Americans (under George Bush) returned to Panama in in December 1989, remaining until the end of January 1990. Noriega was ousted, between 500-4000 civilians were killed, (reports differ) and, in principle, democracy was restored.

The Panama Canal

And what better place to start than the Panama Canal? Though to be honest, the Miraflores Locks outside Panama City are a little disappointing. There’s not much happening and it’s just a larger version of the Shoreham Harbour Locks I used to navigate, as a child, on my way to the beach. It’s cloudy, steamy and threatening to rain (it is the rainy season after all). Eventually, a large freighter arrives and takes an age to manoeuvre through.

The history and statistics around this ‘engineering miracle’ are much more interesting. This forty-eight mile canal was first seriously attempted by Ferdinand de Lesseps, (who built the much longer Suez Canal), on behalf of the French, in 1889. It cost in excess of 20,000 lives and 800,000 French investors were wiped out. The USA took over, by which time they had encouraged Panama's independence from Colombia and adopted the country as a protectorate.

An option to build a canal through Nicaragua was actually considered by many to be cheaper and less challenging, but the USA pushed ahead. It took 10 years to carve out the rainforest and hillside, dam lakes and build locks. Another 5,600 workers died and it was finished in 1914. The canal territory was only transferred to Panamanian ownership in 1977 and the canal itself, not till 1999.

The canal is of huge economic and political importance, of course; the alternative route round Cape Horn is 8,000 miles. It’s also a massive source of revenue. The average toll is around US$54,000, and the mean number of ships passing through each day is 40. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on April 14, 2010 to the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl. They paid US$375,600.

Panama City

Capital and largest city Panama City is home to nearly half the country's four million or so inhabitants. A hot and sticky walk round 'Casco Viejo', the heart of colonial Panama City, all Spanish plazas and colonial buildings. Some are picturesquely semi-ruined, the gaps in the walls framing the sky. There are scatterings of little shops selling (of course) Panama hats, which have at least, to be tried on. They were introduced to protect the canal workers and they're actually made in Ecuador.

Across the bay, is the total contrast of the skyscrapers of the modern business area. There are ramparts built, to fend off marauders, encircling the promontory.

Facts and Factoids

  • Panama is an isthmus, bridging two continents, with its southern tip nestling in South America.
  • At its narrowest point, Panama is only 30 miles wide. This is the only country in the world where you can watch the sun rise and set from the same highest point, the top of Volcán Barú.
  • Panama is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the world, having over 1,500 species of birds, 500 species of mammals, 400 species of reptiles, and 800 species of amphibians. The Panamanian golden frog is the national animal of Panama. It's considered good luck , even though it produce a nerve toxin which has serious implications for any predators.

Bridge of the Americas

I'm finding Panama a little disorientating. When you have a good look at a map you can see it's actually an east-west ribbon of land, in the centre of the continent. It's really odd to be in America, with oceans to the south and north.

The views of another landmark, the 'Bridge of the Americas', reinforce this disorientation. Balboa, on the edge of the city, has a municipal park where you look across to this road bridge, completed in 1962 at a cost of US$20 million. It spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, carrying Route 1 on to the infamous Darien Gap and connecting the north and south American land masses. Panama is in a prime trading position on the north (ish ) end of the isthmus, receiving any goods that make it through the rainforest. There's a 66 mile gap in the Pan American Highway here. Environmental concerns are cited as a reason for non -completion, in addition to difficult terrain.

Boquete

A bus (Artist and her husband have grabbed the front seat) through beautiful lush countryside, via the city of David (that sounds like a lift from the Bible), to Panama's southwest Chiriqui Province. This is a high volcanic region, replete with coffee, bananas and sugarcane. Onto a little hotel, near the town of Boquete, which turns out to be a naturalist’s heaven. There are gushing streams, bright birds, assorted butterflies, tiny red frogs and exotic flowers at every turn. It seems that this is also a realtor’s heaven. The area is rapidly becoming the Retirement Capital of the World. The climate is good, it’s cheap and beautiful and there are billboards slapped all over the surrounding hills telling us so.

Bocas Del Toro

Today, we’re taking a boat south to a sprinkle of typically Caribbean islands.  The small town of Bocas de Toro, on Isla Colon, is a pocket paradise of boardwalks and houses on stilts. The weather still isn’t being especially kind, but we take a boat trip in the spectacular Parque Nacional Marino at Isla Bastimentos. The dolphins reward us with a dazzling display.  

The beaches, swathed with palm trees, would be equally dazzling too, if it wasn’t raining. The sea visibility hasn’t been affected, however, and the snorkelling reveals some multi coloured coral, though we’re all shivering by the time we’ve finished.  There's wild life too, to cheer us up: sloths lolling in the beach-side trees and more teeny frogs, but this time freckled with black spots. Who knew that Panama was a land of such diversity?

Next, the bus to Costa Rica.

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.