~ Blonde Gator
Archive for the ‘Road Trip’ Category
Two weeks ago, the Iguana Man & I snuck out of town for a few days….and headed down to the fabulous Florida Keys, where we stayed at the very adequate La Siesta Resort in Islamorada. On the whole, I’d give it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. The views were beautiful, the facility, while old, was fresh and tidy (the marina rocked, wish I’d known about this place when I had a boat), the staff was just fine, but for the money (hint: $18 Daily Resort Fee), they SHOULD have provided coffee filters, dish soap & a kitchen sponge, a working telephone, and a nicer “complimentary breakfast” than stale grocery donuts.
I can’t complain about the view, however (Atlantic side):
The grounds were all meticulously manicured, and the staff “chained” the sand every day. There was an odd little black bird who was nesting in the sawed off palm trunk on the right side of the hammock (obviously recent hurricane damage), we had a great time watching her antics.
The pool is quite spectacular…and huge! A perfect pool for families…it’s a large “Figure 8″, divided by a volleyball net, and has a basketball net at the far (deep) left end. The right end is shallow, a huge walk-in (shallowest water is about 6″) expanse of water, suitable for waders of many varieties.
We basically just hung out, caught some rays, read some books…and occasionally ventured out for a meal. We drove down to Marathon to the Cracked Conch Cafe, which has been there for 30+ years. I had the conch sampler (must have their conch fingers, best ever)….and we also got two orders of take-out red conch chowder to bring home for Blonde Mom. Highly recommend (although it is not in the least bit fancy if you’re interested in “Le Dining”).
Alas, it was raining cats and dogs the morning of our last day, so we pulled up stakes early and headed north. We were hoping for one final morning like this one:
We’ll be sure to return soon…..some days one just needs to kick back and watch the water to recharge the old batteries.
~ Blonde Gator
We’ve been enjoying the most fabulous hospitality and PERFECT Chamber of Commerce weather here in Black Mountain, North Carolina. 40′s at night, upper 70′s during the day, and not a cloud in the sky. I took these today around the homestead.
We’re all ready for the Gator game tomorrow, the chili is made, Blonde Mom is here (we picked her up this a.m. from her visit with her brother), and the Gator gear is ready.
Road tripping on home Sunday morning, hope to avoid this tropical mess that’s currently brewing in South Florida.
~ Blonde Gator
Well, I’ve been goofing off long enough, and it’s time to get back to the blog. I unfortunately didn’t keep up with our adventures while on the road, but I still have plenty of great stories to share.
One of the questions we were asked early on in the trip is “how are you planning for lodging?” To tell the truth, we didn’t. We more or less picked our “get to” destination each morning, and then let the chips fall where they may. We also tried to pick an end point each day that ensured we didn’t have to drive after dark…in the States we made it from Ft. Lauderdale to Pensacola (about 650 miles) in one day. In Central America, depending upon the country and roads, we typically shot for 200 – 350 miles a day. In Mexico, there are autopistas where you can average 75 mph, and in Guatemala & Honduras, sometimes 25 mph is a good clip. It all depends.
Our lodgings ran the gamut from really cheap (but clean) for $12 (including parking), to high end and fabulous (where they washed the car in the morning) for about $70. Everywhere we stayed we either had on-site secure parking, or secure (paid) parking within a few blocks. The thing you need to know about hotels in Central America is that they are not like hotels here. They are not big stand-alone buildings (although they do have some American-style places like that). They are usually in a city (and the road signs and hotel signs are practically non-existant)…mixed in with residential and commercial areas.
We tried very hard to drive only until 3:30 or so each day so as not to over drive the daylight. We (mostly me….for insisting we go just “a little bit farther”) missed the stop-early-enough-to-find-a-nice-place-to-stay mark a couple of times. Fortunately, there were no disastrous consequences, but alot of annoyance. The other thing we found was that the locals are not adept at giving concise directions, which also caused a couple of after-dark lashing about moments. It’s kind of a hunt and peck to find the one and only hotel in town, and the darkness (and in one instance fog) doesn’t help one iota. In the larger towns we usually had a choice of accomodations, but often times the one we’d prefer was full. If I had one thing to do over, it would be to build in a 45 minute buffer to the “must stop now” time each day, and never break that rule.
It is quite usual in Central America to ask to see the accomodations before deciding to stay for the night, so we’d often check a couple of different places before deciding where to hang it up for the night. I don’t recall ever seeing dirty accomodations, but sometimes we’d pass, mainly due to stairs, no air conditioning, a “marital bed” (full size), or inadequate parking. The other unusual thing about hotels is that they often have family rooms, a big bed, multiple twins, and hammocks for the kidlets.
And now, to the point of this story. In Central America, they have this quaint custom called the “autohotel”….which I suppose we nortamericanos would call a hot sheet joint. When you’re on the road, there is plenty of colorful advertising for the upcoming autohotels….usually neon colors and lots of hearts involved. We met some kids on our way down who had stayed in an autohotel on their way back to the States, with two babies in tow. The husband wasn’t quite aware of what the concept was all about, but thought it was pretty cool he didn’t have to pay for a whole night!!
On our first trip to Costa Rica, it was explained to us that the autohotel is a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment….for married couples to get away from their big families for a few hours of privacy, or, more covertly, for dating couples (all of the old catholic mores apply, although the younger generation has thrown the “proper appearances” thing to the wind, apparently).
Well, on our travels, we checked out a couple of these autohotels when we were running out of lodging options, but managed to find superior accomodations until our next to last night out of the U.S. After a long drive from the interior, we made it through Tampico (me again saying “just a bit further”, knowing that the big, American style hotels on the main drag were going to be expensive) to the north side of town, where I figured there would be plenty of small, family style places that would have been just fine for an overnight stop. Wrong I was!
The poor Iguana Man was on his last nerve after driving all day, so we stopped at an autohotel. The set-up is thus (for almost all of them we passed on our trip): a walled compound (sometimes with a manned gate)….you drive in, and there are two story “rooms”…the bottom is a garage door, so you pull into an open unit, the man gets out and closes the garage door. This allows for anonymity. You go upstairs to the room (and take your bags if you are staying overnight, LOL). There’s a little pass-through in the door, and after a bit, a person knocks on your door, asks how long you’d like the room, and you pay.
The autohotel room we had was very nice, rather sexy in its furnishings, and, unfortunately it also came with X-rated television, when all I really wanted was mindless dumb nothing programming. It also had a little mini-bar. Oh yes, and it was short on plugs and without internet for the computers…but hey, I don’t think our stay was what they had in mind! However, it was perfectly adequate for an overnight stop when all you want is a comfortable bed and a good supply of hot water.
The hotels on our trip were really rather a fun part of the adventure. For the most part, the desk staff personnel all spoke English, and were intrigued at the crazy gringos driving through their countries. To a person, they were all overwhelmingly happy to accomodate us (unlike some of the surly desk clerks here in the U.S.). I could tell you about individual hotels, and the people we met, and perhaps I shall do that yet. We met some incredibly lovely people that way on our travels, from the desk clerk who made sure the cook came in early for our breakfast, to the floor polisher who happily recited the local historical and tourist sites until we had to politely break free. I really miss that part of being on the road.
~ Blonde Gator
Note to readers: I should have known better than to use the word “sexy”…you should see some of the idiot comments I’m getting here. But lucky for you, I have full moderation on, and they will never see the comment section. Also, my pal Gio showed me how to filter for certain words, so those ugly e-mails never even hit my moderate queue.
Anyway, I thought it was a funny story and an interesting Latin American cultural detail, so I’m leaving my post exactly as is.
I just happened to notice this linked on Drudge.
Iguana Man has been insistent that we maintain a schedule in regard to applying the OFF (containing DEET at 7% or better)…and after only one or two bites, I agree wholeheartedly.
Senor Iguana has contracted Dengue once….which, he says, is more than enough for a life time. Troublesome, though, that it is making its way back to Florida.
We’ve also been vigilent about spraying our room(s) with bug spray to ensure all of the critters are dead (I got my blood sucked almost dry in Honduras on the way down, ish!).
A word to the wise…..one can’t be too careful!
<edit> An update….seems Dengue is the real deal…here’s an article to help you with precautions.
~ Blonde Gator
So you can see what the “mountain” trip looked like….it was truly gorgeous.
The HD camcorder took these stills…I’m not thrilled with them, I have been having problems with the focus and I don’t care for the size of these pictures. The videos are amazing (although there are still problems with the anti-shake feature on the camera). But when I think back to the first “camcorders”….LOL, fifteen pounds of battery slung over one’s shoulder and a camcorder the size of a twelve-pack.
I’m not James Cameron…but we’ve purchased some software and I hope to have videos available soon.
Next up, Copan Ruins in Honduras. Amazing stuff.
~ Blonde Gator
P.S. Sitting in our “office” on the patio outside of our room….the World Cup is obviously on and the cheers from around town are quite amusing.
We pull up stakes tomorrow and head north. The XTerra is all clean, as are most of the clothes (hoping for a sunny day today as I’ve become a big fan of line drying….particularly for sheets…yet something else to do when I get home, but I digress).
It’s going to be a shocker to get back on the road again, although road tripping is alot of fun. I’m going to Dominic and Maria the most, and of course we’ll miss the rent-a-dog, who arrived at 6:00 a.m. this morning, and Igs (the young male iguana) who keeps us constantly amused. We’ve settled into a very cozy existence here in Costa Rica, I’m wishing we could stay forever, but as Blonde Mom says “tomorrow’s another day, Scarlette”.
We’ve revised our packing methodology for the trip back. (Note to self, next time, bring fewer clothes). We’ve divested ourselves of some “stuff” (printer, DVD player, beach chairs), which should help….and didn’t really collect too much replacement “stuff”, although I am bringing home my bottle of Costa Rican honey. We’re once again going to have the “go rats” box, w/the electric kettle and french press, fig newtons and other munchies. I’m reserving judgement on the “new packing” until we’re actually done with it, though.
I’ve (kind of) learned how to use the video camera, although with the HD format, it will require some software and some time at home before I can post them here in a usable format. I have enough video of the iguanas for a short which I shall title “Leapin’ Lizards”. The camera takes stills as well, but I’m just not as good at it with the HD as I was with my camera (which we will replace in Houston when we get there)….so bear w/me on the photo stuff.
~ Blonde Gator
Last night I met a lovely couple, Jeanne and Paul, who did the entire PanAmerican Highway trip several years ago…..from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia!! Here is an account of their trip….as well as their website. This area of Costa Rica captured their attention as it did ours, as they now own a beautiful treehouse home here.
As I said earlier, if you’ve ever thought of doing the “big” road trip, no matter how big or small…..do it! It’s an experience you’ll never forget. Time to get off the couch.
~ Blonde Gator
Looking back on our trip, there are some things we did well, and others we didn’t quite get right…in no particular order, I’ll try to sum them up.
GPS. Don’t leave home w/o it!!! Ours is a Garmin, handheld, and worth its weight in gold.
New Tires (when old tires were quite okay). +5,000
Not Overplanning, and Building in Extra Days to Explore/Goof Off ~ +5,000
Packing. -500. We packed as we would for an airplane trip….Clothes in our big bags, toiletries, bathing suits, etc. in smaller bags. Big error. We should have packed all LONG TERM stuff (clothes & toiletries) in the big bags, so we could have left them in the truck….and one small bag each, w/ a week’s worth of clothes, bathing suits, and immediately necessary toiletries. Less hauling, packing and unpacking.
Kitchen Gear. +1,000. For the most part, a great choice. We’re very well appointed in our current lodging, but I still appreciate my GOOD knife, kitchen shears, good omelet pan, and food processor. My gigantic roaster won’t even fit in the oven (LOL….come to find out PORK is the most expensive meat here…no pork enchiladas for a while, alas). Having the French Press, Electric Kettle, Thermos, and Cooler available on a daily basis was brilliant….water and ice are available everywhere to supplement this gear (Go-Rations). Keep in an easily accesible place. Plastic ziplocs were good, keep some handy, and a good stash in the long term storage…a boxful of plastic storage containers, not so great (available here).
Iguana Man packed a “car box”….w/oil filters, window cleaner, tools, shop rags, etc. Very useful. Numerous times. Also, we brought the little hand held vac, w/ charger. A Godsend. Don’t forget it.
Things to do better: Pack unnecessary stuff (like video camera), books, etc….in the “big boxes”…not required until we stop. Pack “stuff” like beach chairs, dive fins, & umbrellas on TOP of the car. Remember about secure parking, etc….but they are a nuisance inside the car, not too expensive if they get lifted.
Go Bag: This was a last minute addition….basically my old standby “beach bag”….which contained a bunch of sunscreen, coozie cups, and a corkscrew/bottle opener. GREAT MOVE (lose the sunscreen). The bottle opener was invaluable for many things, and once we lost the sunscreen, we repacked it with extra cigs, candy bars, and TOILET PAPER. That is an imperative on a trip like this…and it must be accesible. Don’t leave it packed in your big bag (like I did at first). Coozie Cups rock!
MOST IMPORTANT THING I FORGOT TO PACK: A rubber tub mat. Everyone south of the border apparently thinks beautiful glossy tile is just the ticket for the shower and bathroom floor….and it looks to me like a great way to break your ass! I’d give anyone $200 right now to FedEx me one or five. Pack in your travel bag, and have a spare or two!!!!
Other than that, the only thing I forgot to pack was Blonde Mom & the Empress….although I spoke to them earlier, and life in Florida is apparently still fine. Cheers!
~ Blonde Gator
Well, since I haven’t kept up the travelogue as well as I ought to have, I shall work backwards from our final destination. We stayed at the end of the line in a small little town in Honduras, close to the border, last Friday night. There was a surprisingly large and well maintained hotel there, I suspect it is cow country and they have meetings of ranchers, etc. Our intention was to get up early, get through the border, and get as close to Costa Rica as we could. Which we did.
We arrived at the border of Honduras/Nicaragua at about 7:00 a.m. All of these borders have formalities both leaving and entering. So, we went through the Honduran side, which took a couple of minutes….with the requisite beggars and “border guides” pestering us, per usual.
We got to the Nicaraguan side, and the Nicaraguan officiales were most upset at some poor little Honduran farmer, they had his pick up truck in parts on the side of the road. We never did find out what the problem was. The officiale who spoke to us got a little horsey, Iguana Man asked him something in Spanish, to which he got the snotty equivalent of “I’m Nicaraguan, not American!!!”….which had nothing at all to do with anything. Iguana Man rolled his eyes at me and pretended not to understand, so as not to ruffle his macho feathers any further.
We proceeded to the next building (everything is in a separate little building, unmarked, of course…as you drive from one to the next all of the little border guides try to “guide” you…hoping for a little propina..tip), and paid our two dollars or whatnot, and got two little cardboard disks….on to the next building, turned in the disks, and we were in Nicaragua.
I now know the meaning of dirt poor. I didn’t really take many pictures as the poverty was very distressing. The only thing in abundance (and in good repair) was rock walls. The roads were not bad, inasmuch as there is barely any traffic in the country (nor in Managua for that matter, but more later). Two lane macadam, with a small but adequate shoulder, not many potholes, and thankfully no topes/tumulos (speed bumps)….the bane of Mexico & Guatemala.
We decided that Saturday must be cow-moving day. We saw a variation of this theme numerous times. Note the bus in the front, we think it was a German Tourist bus, as it appeared to have European tags on the front! Hard to say from the photo, though. There are two buses waiting for the vaceros to get their cows across….the lead cow was recalcitrant so it was a little touch and go for a while. You just have to wait and be patient, and once they get where they’re supposed to be, move along! Iguana Man says they’re very dangerous, even though they look docile, if scared they’ll jump forward (unlike a horse) and likely land on your hood (not to mention the hassle w/ the locals if “you” damage their livestock)…..so proceed with caution.
We made pretty good time once we got into the valleys where the roads became straight and narrow…and then we saw the lake and on to Managua. Which for a capital city, of 1.8 million people, had less traffic than I’d ever imagined….although there were no lack of horse drawn carts on the main drag (4 lane road)….again, the street signs are non-existant (or conveniently behind a tree)….at a big intersection, we saw this:
Take a good look at that. Freaky, huh? Well….check out the truck…it was full of Policia Nationales…a couple jumped out and headed on down the road. They turned left, and we kept on going….soon realizing that we should have turned where they did to stay on CA1 (Pan Am Highway)….our GPS was not happy, and we just kept hooking to the left and right until the Garmin had us back on track. At which point we happily saw this:
We made it to a great little town down south, called Rivas….alas as it was Easter Eve, there were no rooms at the nice inn (Nicaro Hotel)….but we did have a great steak dinner there. We found a fellow who’d just opened his hotel, Marcel, he was super friendly, but the accomodations were not quite complete, i.e. no shower head and agua caliente (hot water) not yet hooked up….so we boogied early the next morning (Easter Day)….the Costa Rica border was just down the road.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Yet another windfarm! This one only cost $95M.
This windfarm had all turbofans functional, it was quite a sight. They ends of the blades must be moving at least 70 mph….the wind was coming perpendicularly from our left, and the shadows of the moving blades were rapidly leaving our car in the dust, at which point we were doing maybe 60 mph.
There is a big island just east of Rivas, that has twin (active apparently) volcanic peaks, one of which reaches almost 7,000 feet. The tourism industy in this area is on the move, and there it’s a place I wouldn’t mind exploring further….lakes and islands are my thing. Except for crossing the border….
We reached the Nicaragua/Costa Rican border by 7:15, and after a couple of minutes, things didn’t look too bad as there were only about 3 cars in front of us. We had to go to the requisite two unmarked buildings, then we went through the “decontamination” device (which dripped 3 drops of something on us)….and made a left to the passport exit stamping station. PANDEMONIUM! There must have been forty buses, and every bus passenger in a line that had no end, five or six deep, with all of their luggage, standing in line.
At which point, we gave it up and decided to use one of the “border guides”….the one we found spoke good English (had lived in Atlanta, go figure)….and off he & Iguana Man went to pay a little “propina” to get our passports stamped. It was kind of funny, “no Mr. Iguana Man, take that bill and fold it in the passport like this”. All the while, I stayed in the car “guarding” our stuff. A big American got out of line and yelled at the kids leaning on his truck next to our XT….he said he had a couple of businesses in both Panama & Nicaragua, and made the crossing at least 5x a month…and estimated it would be at least 5 hours on the Nicaraguan side of the border and 3-4 on the CR side.
There was a bit of a problem with the Florida Disabled Veteran tag for some odd reason, but once it was explained, that seemed to be okay. There was also a slight delay as the first place of “accellerated stamping” wasn’t available. More delay.
Then another trot to who knows where, and Iguana Man came back with the head of the operation, who looked at my picture and looked at me, turned on his heel w/o saying a word, and left. Our border guide then introduced us to his CR counterpart, and after another hour or so….we were through. Cost about $60, and saved about 7 hours. It would have taken even less time had the officiale filling out the paperwork put the correct date in, also she mistook a “5″ for an “S” on our VIN number. NOTE TO EVERYONE….double and triple check the dates and VIN numbers, always. This was just a slight delay, and the border guide handled it.
I was always kind of worried about going through Nicaragua…but it wasn’t bad at all. We got stopped several times by the road stop cops, but they just checked the papers (one guy wanted water…note…carry extra bottles). The people we met, hotel workers, waiters, farmacia clerks, etc. were all very nice and happy to see Americans, it was just some of the officiales who had a bit of a ‘tude. I’d imagine that will change as tourism increases. I’d love to explore the Lake Nicaragua region, I read somewhere years ago that they have fresh water sharks. So, we shall have to see…that border crossing was insanity. We’re kind of thinking of booking a tour to Boca del Toros in Panama for our 90 day Costa Rican “time out”…we shall see.
Anyway, we got into CR by about 10:00 a.m….and since I had been “guarding” the car and was in the driver’s seat, I drove. It was great. At our first “road stop” (up by the Nicaraguan border, we’d driven up that way on our first trip so we knew it was there)….the only thing we were asked was “you really drove from FLORIDA?”….and a big friendly smile, and Pura Vida! (national saying here…look it up).
Once we hit the “big town” of Liberia I knew exactly where we were….stopped at the ATM to replenish funds (more about that later, I’m chewing on the Iguana Man to contribute more here, and that’s on his list of topics)….and we headed on down the road. And here we are.
Okay…off to check out a long term rental this afternoon, and then perhaps a jaunt to the beach…we need to stop at the ferreteria (hardware store) and get some rope for the hammoca we bought in Puerto Escondido. I have my GATOR beach chair….and an umbrella, and a cooler, and big beach towels….I’m ready.
Later, Gator fans.
~ Blonde Gator