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The Little Green Bus

A Diary of Larry and Loralee Brown's Driving Adventure to the tip of South America

Loading the van on a ship
Mexico to Panama

April 23:
Well, we said, "If we hadn't killed each other by Panama, we would keep going." We're both alive and well in Panama City. This is the most fascinating place you can imagine. We had some good advice from the guy who put us up in Boquete on where to go for camping and so in literally 10 minutes time, we pulled up to the gates of the Pedro Miguel Boat Club where we are now camped until we arrange shipping for the car. We are camped a stone's throw from the second set of locks from the Pacific, we watch the ships go through, the tugs working to line them up for the locks, it is just amazing. We have a tentative date to ride on a sailboat as line handlers for the 28th or 29th of April. This boat is only going from here to the Balboa locks so we still hope to find a way to traverse the whole canal. We hope to visit the San Blas Islands while we are here and then to fly to meet the car. We are thinking about shipping the car to Peru instead of Ecuador. They tell us it can take 2-3 weeks to get it cleared from the port once it is unloaded in Guayaquil. We will know in a few days and will pass the word. Here's Larry!! Hi Everyone, We have met some interesting people here in Panama. Our benefactor in Boquete, Richard, was born here. His folks were from the States, so he has dual citizenship. He was a marine in Vietnam and then returned to the Canal Zone to work as a police officer, among other things. Richard helped us enormously. He recommended the Pedro Miguel Boat Club and he also recommended a good VW mechanic in Santiago, about half way between Boquete and Panama City. On the way to find the mechanic, I met Bob, an expatriat from the UK, who has a pub in Santiago. Nothing would do but we had to spend the evening as almost the only customers in Bob's very nice restaurant. We also parked the van in the back yard and spent the night there. We were surmizing on the way down from Santiago to Panama City that Bob is feeling the economic impact of the withdrawal of the US military from Panama and probably the treaty that turned over the canal to the Panamanians too. Anyway, Bob helped us find the mechanic, who spent a couple of hours tinkering with the car making it run better than ever. He also helped us with a couple of bits and pieces that we needed. He had a half dozen VW parts cars around that were the source of that. We went in for an oil filler cap (a potato just didn't work!) and we came out with a complete tune up for $30.00! I may send the pieces of the old engine to this man, if we can still find them in Guaymas, Mexico. WE are fulfilling a dream that we set out on when I heard that the canal was being turned over to the Panamanians. I am grateful that it is still functioning--this is Latin America, after all. Maintenance is culturally not a high priority. Nevertheless, it is still working and very large ships pass by at all hours of the day and night. It is truly fascinating! All the best, Larry & Loralee

April 15:
Wow, so far Panama has been good to us. We left Caro's house in San Jose and drove only about 70 Kilometers to a recommended place where camping was available and a chane to view Quetzales. The Quetzal is a rare and beautiful bird found in the highlands of Central America. When we visited the rain forest 8 years ago, we didn't see even one and were disappointed. This time we saw! We pulled into the park in the afternoon and hiked up to the lookout. There we saw breath taking scenery, and the beloved Quetzal. One flew right across in front of us, thrilling us completely. We then went into the lodge where we enjoyed the fire, yes it was cool in the mountains, and were served a delicous dinner of rainbow trout. We camped for the night and at 6:30 in the morning, joined the son of the owner for a brief walk into the forest. There we were entertained by one female and two male Quetzales. They were putting on quite a show for each other much to our delight. We saw them picking the wild avacados,spitting out the seeds, flying from tree to tree etc. Wow, a life-lifting moment never to be forgotten. From there we drove along the coast to a little beach called Playa Ventana, named for holes in the rocks where the waves came through. It was beautiful but the mosquitos, though we didn't see them, were definitly hungry! From there, you guessed it another border crossing. Much waiting in lines, etc. but we made it. Once into Panama, we drove as far East as David and turned North into the mountains. This is our last chance to stay cool for a while as the rest of Panama will be hot and sticky. We are in Boquete. Today we took a drive into the area of the Volcano Baru. Very beautiful! Coffee growing area!! Water falls and creeks and lush green everywhere. Wild Impatiens growing everywhere and people line their property with Hibiscus hedges. Bouganvilla everywhere and tropical vegitation with huge leaves. Ok have I painted the picture for you or is it one of those "guess you had to be there" kind of places. From here we will spend some time wandering around Panama before we head to Panama City to arrange shipping for the car. Most of you probably know, we aren't planning to drive in Colombia and so will ship to Ecuador or Peru from Panama. A couple of you have asked us about how the war has affected us. We may have addressed this before, but we are asked by virtually everyone that we meet--what do you think about the war? That is about it. We try to stay informed about what is happening, but that is not possible on a day-to-day basis. We catch CNN in Spanish and sometimes in English. We can take about a half hour of that and that is enough to keep us up to speed. We have had no anti-American expressions of any kind. Everyone is happy to meet us and because we speak the language, I think people are genuinely pleased to know us. Even the bureaucrats at the border crossings are people and we try to laugh with them and it seems to go better. Another question from Chuck and Marlene was about the "Mexican Washing Machine" that they used when they did their Copper Canyon trip. It consists of a bucket or large tupper ware type container with a top. Put the laundry in with soap and water and travel for a day and out comes clean albeit wet clothes. Unfortunately, we just haven't the room for the bucket, so we are using more conventional means for keeping our clothes clean. (Loralee calls it a sink and a scrub brush) See ya later, Love from Loralee and Larry

April 12:
Hi folks, You last heard from us in Granada I think. Granada was nice, in much the same way as Antigua. They get enough tourists to have nice services, but relatively unspoiled culturally speaking. From Granada, we back-tracked alittle to see a volcano and some ruins. Leon was our destination but I got the brilliant idea to head to Pochomil, described as a beach community where locals go to vacation. Don't bother trying to find it on a map, you won't, and we know the reason. The following description may contain graphic information, parental descretion is advised!! We were very hot and sticky when we arrived into this "community" and hoped to find a hotel. We were met by about 30 guys, all trying to convince us to check out their place. They literally mobbed the car. Finally, in desperation we followed one.He led us into a shaded parking space and assured us there would be no charge for camping, just what we purchased to eat and drink. The "restaurant" of course is shade canopies on the beach. There was however, no security of anykind and hundreds of people. From there we checked out a few more places and finally decided on Johanna´s Hospedaje (Hostel)That, translated of course, means bathroom down the hall. While we waited for the room to be ready, we took a walk down a garbage strewn beach to cool off. We sat and had a beer and then came back to the "place". It's called a restaurant and hostle so we asked about dinner. "Oh sure,sure, sit right here" they say and they quickly bring out a barely able-to-stand-up table, threw a cloth over it. After ordering, we noticed the car parked behine where we were sitting was running. The exhaust was coming our way. We asked the "waiter", he said, "The senora, she drinks,"she was plastered, and sitting in her car with the air conditioning running. While we ate dinner, a little boy with an almost dead bird sat on the curb and played with the poor helpless thing. After the dishes were cleared away, we sat for awhile, watching the people go by etc. and up comes someone in a old Toyota pickup. As soon as he shut of the engine, the lights dimmed and went out. Then he tried to start in again but no go, so they pushed it backwards up a little hill to try and start it comming down. Second try got them on their way. About this time, the Senora came out of her car and plopped in a chair. We realized that she was the matron of the fine establishment as she sent her kid running for another cold beer. Then she began singing loudly to the tunes, well, somewhere near tunes, from the speaker. About this time, we came into our room and checked out the bathroom/shower situation. Well, since the water is turned off at night, we found 2 barrels of water and a pan for dipping, this to suffice for a shower and flushing. We got our "Wipes" out of the car and called it a day!Hmmm, are we having fun yet??? Well, the volcano and the ruins were worth the detour. The volcano is active though dorment. We were asked to park facing out for quick escape. The crater belches out toxic gasses and if the wind changes, everyone has to leave quickly! Well the wind didn't change and the craters within the crater were something to see. In Leon Viejo, we saw ruins that have just recently been uncovered and work is underway to preserve and restore the site. The beheaded remains of Cordova, the man for whom the Nicaraquan currency is named, were found at this site. We crossed the border into Costa Rica and decided we are becoming somewhat accustomed to the routine. It only took about an hour and a half this time. From there we drove to a National Park campground with showers and even toilet paper. I'll turn this over to Larry, Bye for now, Loralee Loralee mentioned the mess that the beach in Pochomil was. We have for years remembered our somewhat negative experience with the beaches in Puerto Rico, where we did language training in the Peace Corps. The beaches were littered with beer cans and other junk. Well, the plastic bottles of soda and water are doing no favors for the rest of Latin America. What a mess! Interestingly as Semana Santa approaches (Easter Week) many of the communities make an effort to clean things up. But it is basically a cultural thing to throw garbage out of car or bus windows or just drop it if you are outdoors. A friend hypothosized that it had to do with being a basic agrarian life style and having pigs and chickens to clean up after them. I don't know about that, but it does bug me to see much of this beautiful country filling up with trash. A brief rap about driving in Latin America. The VW is working pretty well these days and doing what we expect of it. But, it is not a high speed vehicle by any means. We have loaded our propane tanks on the roof and have packed probably way too much stuff in the space between the steel roof of the car and the fiberglas pop top. So it is prettytop heavy, or at least it feels that way when you drive. So we drive slowly. We are seldom able to drive more than 55, often much slower. Wind has an amazing effect on the car, so when it is blowing, we slow down even more. So we get passed by Hyundai Excels and Toyota and Nissan diesel pickups and we all know how slow they are! In Mexico they use speed bumps or topes to keep you slowed down and they are very effective. The suspension of the VW is very stiff and it launches off of the bumps if you are going too fast! I am sure that we have had it airborne several times when we came upon bumps that we didn't expect. Not good for a 35 year old car, but oh, well.What we are encountering in Central America is that frequently the highways are not in good shape, so we spend a lot of time dodging huge chuck holes. Ah, for a road crew that knows how to do an APWA patching job! For the most part, the main Pan American highway is in pretty good shape. So far, Costa Rica has the worst sections of it. I have heard that Ecuador isn't very good either. All righty then, we are about to leave our friend's house in San Jose. Actually our daughter, Jenna, lived here with Caroline Carpio and her sister Ginny when Jenna was a student at the University of Costa Rica on exchange from Davis. Jenna gave us directions to Caro's house and we basically drove right to it. Today we need to fill up one of our propane tanks and then head out toward the pacific coast again. WE hope to find a campground out there somewhere. Caro's boy friend Pedro gave us some ideas. He used to work for a travel agency. We hope all is well. WE appreciate the emails from all of you, although we don'ttry to answer each one every time. thanks for sending them. Love to all, L&L

April 4:
Well, hello, a couple of days and a couple of countries later! For people who are weary of border crossing nightmares, we seem to be experiencing our share of them. We just have to take what comes in that respect I guess. From La Union, El Salvador we headed for the border all geared up to make it happen smoothly. You pretty much have to hire a guide to take you through the process for two reasons. One, you can't figure it out yourselves because there are no signs, or directions or anything. You have to go to no less that 6 or 7 stations for this stamp or that fee or whatever. Second, the guide types won't leave you alone until one is hired and even then, three or four others will hang around being "helpful" in hopes of realizing a little tip. We discovered quickly that the permit we had to cross El Salvador was for "transito" not "turismo" which meant we were supposed to cross the country and exit in 12 hours. Well, two night later, we paid the fine of $25 and started across Honduras. However, we were supposed to exit Honduras in 7 hours and the border closed for the night at 5 pm so we made like a bread truck and hauled buns for the next and even more fun border crossing. We finally got the wrong type of permit changed to right type and we can stay in Nicaragua as long as we want!! Sheesh. We are now in Granada on Lake Nicaragua and are finding it a quaint and interesting city. We are camped on the property of the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) for a donation of whatever we want to pay. We have walked to town, gone to the bank, shopped for stuff we can't buy, no room, and as soon as we finish here will take a horse drawn wagon to the lake shore to see what's up there. Tomorrow we plan to take a boat trip to the islands just off shore and then we'll move on. We plan to backtrack alittle to see the area around Leon and then on to Costa Rica. We're experiencing quite a bit of humidity but here in the highlands, a breeze is usually blowing and thats a good thing!! More Later, keep those cards and letters (e-mail) coming, we love to get them. Love, L and L

April 2:
Hello friends and family, As anticipated, our border crossing into El Salvador from Guatemala went much smoother. We were prepared with a combination of more patience with the process, more money and more copies of every document that we carry. It worked OK, but it does take a lot of time. They use the border stations as part of their full employment plan, you know? first impressions of El Salvador were pretty positive. We stayed toward the coast to avoid going throught the capital. We have made a practice of avoiding the largest of the cities because they are so hard to get through efficiently. We keep getting lost and the traffic is really nasty for the most part. As we traveled along the coast highway we noticed that most of the homes and farms seemed a little more prosperous than in Guatemala. There were road crews working on installing storm drains along the highway and several times we came to crews that were overlaying the road or patching it--actually doing a pretty good job, too. But the further east we got, the poorer it became. Once we crossed the highway that leads to the international airport, the road surface and the homes and farms seemed to deteriorate quickly. there are a lot of people in this country and so the clear spaces between towns are few and far between. Lots of livestock on the road, too. Several herds of cattle just kind of moseying along crossing where they want to. Very bucolic, in a way. We spent one night in Sonsonate in a very nice and expensive hotel. We had been looking for the Hotel Agape, that supports social programs through the Catholic church, but the hotel was full, so we went to another. It was very comfortable. Last night it was more adventurous. We are in La Union, which is a seedy town according to our tour book. Well the best hotel in the book was Hotel San Francisco and it was pretty rough. The best parts of it were the hammock, the fan and we watched the news on WB11 TV in English from New York. It was right downtown and pretty noisy until about 11:00, but then things settled down. Not much of great interest to see in El Salvador, so we will leave and head into Honduras and probably spend more time in Honduras on our return leg, avoiding el Salvador altogether. We wish you all the best, L&L

March 30:
Hello everyone, We are staying in one of our favorite places in the world. Antigua Guatemala is the ancient capital of the old Central American republic, after independence from Spain. It is a beautiful, old colonial style city. It has a very college town kind of ambience. Lots of neat hotels, restaurants and shops. And it is very laid back as far as attitudes. Lots of visitors from all over. This is a very popular place to learn Spanish and people come literally from all over the world to do it. We are camped in a beautiful park like setting at the rear entrance to a very nice hotel. We found the place through the local tourism office here in Antigua. It has been very relaxing and healing after a few days on the road and a horrendous border crossing into Guatemala. Those of you who have travelled have an idea of the stress that can be involved and we managed to complicate it somewhat through our own naivete. Suffice to say, we are going to try another approach with the next move into El Salvador. We were looking briefly at the map the other day and if we were to push we could make it to Panama in 9 or 10 days. The question would be why? Since we are planning to return home through this same country we will probably not do an extensive stay in any one place, but we would like to make our trip somewhat leisurely in its pace, you know? We managed to follow a recommendation from our Sanborn's travel log for a beautiful hotel in Coatepeque, Guatemala. It's about 26 miles inside the border and it was very welcome. The best thing about it was that everything, except the hot water heater for the shower, worked. We had a lovely dinner in the dining room and then repaired to our little cabaña where we watched an amazing lightning storm and it rained like crazy. We briefly watched some TV, but were worn out from the border crossing and hit the hay early. From Coatepeque we continued along the coast to Escuintal where we turned inland directly toward Antigua. We climbed virtually the whole way. I am not sure what elevation we are at, but the car was tired when we got into town. We have managed to deal with some culture shock things while we were here. Just needed a break and a little theraputic writing to help see things clearly again. We have stayed three nights and plan to move on tomorrow, Monday. We have clean clothes, a fresh supply of water and we will load up on fruit and veggies at the market in the morning on the way out of town. Hi folks, Loralee here. Just a few observations to add. This such an interesting city. So ancient in so many ways. Many old churches dating back to 1600's that are in ruins due to many earthquakes over the years. It is a walled city, it that whole blocks are enclosed in walls with big wooden doors. When you can see into the doorways, you see beautiful courtyards, bougainvillas etc. and houses with walls 2 feet thick. In contrast, we see people in traditional guatamalan dress, sitting on the curb talking on a cell phone! There is of cours a McDonald's and a Burger King here to but fortunately, they are cleverly disquised by old buildings and don't spoils the view! The busses are painted the very brightest of color combinations available, lots of fringe, baby booties hanging in the windshield and very impressisve horns! From camp we can hear the ayudantes (helpers) calling "Guate, Guate" which means they are going to Guatamala City. The paint job on Piolin is actually quite in fasion in Latin America, we saw a VW bus painted red on the bottom instead of green like ours! Speaking of VW's, nothing has fallen off of ours in several days so I guess we'll move on. Love to all, Loralee and Larry