Travel Log Days 13-17: Island Life

Getting up at 5am was nothing new for us at this point, but doing it with 20 other people milling about was new entirely. The hostel Mamallena was begrudgingly alive as folks were packing the last of their things and making themselves pancakes in the communal kitchen. Unfortunately the coffee pot had just been emptied by the time we got into the kitchen and our drivers arrived just as we finished loading a new one. Everyone filed outside where three trucks (one of them an 80 series Land Cruiser!) were waiting to take us up to Carti, where the boat was anchored. They strapped our packs to the top of the cars and we climbed in, our soon to be boat mates alongside. Although the drive boasted some great jungle views and steep climbs, most people slept in what was a quiet three hour drive across the country to the Atlantic. We finally crested a ridge and could see the ocean in the distance, but our descent stopped abruptly at a small shelter next to a river, no ocean in sight. To get to our boat, we had to take smaller boats down the river and into the ocean. Unknowingly they charged us an additional boat fee, but we thankfully had cash on hand, and we set off towards the MS Independence.


Thar she blows, the MS Independence

Thar she blows, the MS Independence

Our home for the next 5 days was the MS Independence, a large sailboat, about 85 feet in length, that was built in the 1960s. Once everyone was on board captain Michel welcomed us on board with a goodluck toast of rum and fruit juice before going of the rules and how to operate the ship’s pump toilet. The salty Slovenian finished his explanation before his wife and 2nd in command Majo led us to our bunks. We had read online that the best cabin was on the front upper deck and had requested it in our reservation, but instead we were given the front lower deck room. The difference was distinct. Grant and I were to share not only a room with two others, but also a mattress – the top bunk of the already cramped cabin. Oh well. In the end, we slept on one of the mats on the open deck every single night. We dropped off our stuff in the room and went to explore the ship. They had managed to accommodate rooms for 30 people including the crew, and we inched through the cramped corridors to get a feel for the layout. The rooms were tiny but there was plenty of deck space for everyone to sprawl out and enjoy their (semi) personal space.


Straight chillin'

Straight chillin’

If it was going to a cramped 4 days, we figured it was a good idea to get to know our fellow passengers, and we certainly lucked out in that regard. It was a wonderful group of people and we couldn’t have asked for a better group to spend the journey with. There were folks from London, Manchester, Wales, Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland, an Australian couple, an American couple, a pair of Canadians, an Israeli, and a Japanese motorcyclist. Everyone had their own reasons for traveling and their own paths lined out, but for a few days at least, we were all on the same path.

The shipmates!

The shipmates!


With introductions out of the way, we we went to the front of the boat to watch the scenery move past. Before long the ship came its first stopping point between two of the small islands we had been watching slowly grow bigger as we left our initial anchorage. We were gazing off the bow when we heard the first few splashes as people were jumping off the side of the boat. By the time we had our bathing suits on and got to the ladder, a few people had already hit the shore, and we wasted no time getting in and swimming over ourselves. Now, I’m not in completely terrible shape, but after spending two weeks in the car, a 60 meter swim wasn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. I was never a great swimmer in the first place, and was out of breath when I finally trudged up on the sand, but the work was worth it. We lounged on the beach and swam in the clear water, as the locals sat a few yards back and watched us. They had tried to make us pay them to use their beach, but when we clearly had no money with us after the swim, the quickly gave up, and even let us play with an adorable baby pig.

Not bad.

Not bad.

It was another long swim back to the boat, but this time lunch was waiting for us. As we sat around the wooden table on the top deck, we picked up anchor and headed out once again. This would turn out to be the theme of boat ride. Swim, lounge, eat, swim, lounge, eat. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing. And don’t forget about the nighttime activities. It quickly became obvious that we had made one key mistake before the voyage. Each other passenger had brought their own stash of alcohol for the trip! All we had were a few bottles of water, we didn’t realize it was going to be a party boat. Thankfully, Majo came to our rescue with her on board “shop.” We were the first to purchase a few beers and a bottle of terrible-yet-delicious Ron Abuelo rum, but we certainly weren’t the last. After a cookout on the beach and some evening beach volleyball, we cracked into he collective stores of booze and played cards and an eclectic variety of drinking games long into the night. We had been on vacation ever since we left the US, but this was the first time it actually felt like it!


Hello, this is Patrick. (Photo cred Matt Robinson)

Hello, this is Patrick. (Photo cred Matt Robinson)

The next two days were heaven. We went snorkeling in a shallow reef, tried to climb palm trees for their coconuts, played soccer golf on the beach, and drank beers while floating in the ocean on an assortment of floatable devices. We even had a bonfire on one of the islands, and ended up sleeping on the beach. It was a sobering swim back to the boat the following morning, but an experience I won’t soon forget. Of all of the experiences of the boat, the final day was the one that will stick with me forever. On the last day at see, we crossed the final 200 miles of open water to Cartegena, Colombia without stopping. I had been on the water before, but never on the open sea in an 85 footer. We left the islands at three in the morning, but it was later that day that the reality set in. Large swells rocked the boat up and down, constantly shifting the deck as we tried to stay still on it. I don’t get seasick easily, but I was tested on this ride. I may have been fine at first, but after all day on deck, I started to feel a little bit of a headache creep in. Others fared far worse than I did, but luckily Grant and I came through relatively unscathed, except for the worst sunburn I have ever had on my life…


Ain't no party like a San Blas beach party! (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

Ain’t no party like a San Blas beach party! (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

The rocking on the deck was rough, but it was the crampedness of the ship that made it worse. There was nowhere to go and nothing really to do at sea, so we read when we could and slept when we weren’t reading. This made us all feel more than a little cooped up, so when Michel stopped the boat and told us to jump in, we didn’t hesitate. Jumping in was a blessing, albeit an incredibly surreal one. We were swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, and thousands of feet above anything resembling solid ground. The waves propelled us up and gently dropped us down again, a journey of 8 to 10 feet each time. More disconcerting was the fact that the boat made the same trip, each time seeming like it would crash down upon us before correcting itself as the swell shifted. It was amazing, terrifying, and ultimately necessary, as we entered the boat refreshed and ready to tackle the final stretch at sea. One more night sleeping under the stars on the deck and we awoke with land in site! A pod of dolphins seemed to herald our arrival and followed the boat for some twenty minutes as we entered the port. We had survived the opera rise and the ordeal of the MS Independence, and we were ready to go see a man (ok, several men) about a car.

Now that's a good looking pod (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

Now that’s a good looking pod (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

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Travel Log Days 10-12: Panamaniam Port Paperwork

It took us forever to get the import permit, but we finally got across the border into Panama before noon. It was our last border crossing in Central America and we were eager to reach the milestone. Blasting some Van Halen (I’m sure you can guess which song), we headed down the highway towards Panama City. The drive was uneventful, and before we knew it we were crossing the the canal on the magnificent yet deceptively-named Bridge of the Americas. The bridge does not cross over into Colombia as it might suggest, and the border is actually much further to the southeast. In reality, there are no bridges into Colombia, only the Darien Gap. This 150 mile strip of land is the only thing connecting Central and South America, and is filled with mountains, swamps, dangerous wildlife, and, if the rumors are true, Colombian FARC rebels. Driving through is impossible, and getting past it would consume our coming days in the country.


The Panama Canal


We pulled into the Balboa Yacht Club, our de facto home base in Panama, just in time for dinner. Overland forums online had recommended the club for its free parking, showers, and internet, the one condition being you eat at their restaurant. It seemed like a fair deal so we went straight there to set up camp. They had us park down the road a ways, but we found a spot under a shady mango tree and went to go eat. The food was decent and the beer was cold, and more importantly, the wifi was fast. We hung around after eating to surf the web before finally seeking out the showers. Unfortunately, we were adamantly denied the opportunity. We were told quite matter-of-factly that we couldn’t use the showers unless we owned a yacht harbored there. We explained we had driven and were only staying for a few days, but despite our internet assurances, the answer was still no. A few days longer without a shower was fine enough, but you’d think they would at least want their restaurant patrons smelling good!


Our campsite outside the Balboa Yacht Club

The next morning we roll out of the back of the car at 7am to meet Amy, our shipping agent, and to head to the police station to start filling out paperwork. We followed her through the crazy streets of Panama City before pulling into a gravel lot surrounded by barbed wire. This was the police car yard we found out, and had to wait there to get the car inspected. In the meantime, Grant had to run next door to a sketchy office building to fill out a few forms and make what seemed like hundreds of photocopies of every document possible. When he returned we waited for about an hour and finally and man in his mid fifties emerged with a clipboard and asked to check the Vin number and look under the hood. The whole “inspection” took about ten minutes, despite the hour and a half wait, and then we were on our way back to the yacht club, done with shipping preparation at least for the day.

Back at our “camp” we set about reorganizing the car and packing what clean clothes we had left for when we finally had to leave our “home”. We also gave her an oil change in the parking lot, a well deserved (read: needed) bit of maintenance after completing the first 5000 miles of our journey. We left briefly to go make some more copies and get one more form in order, and finally returned to the Balboa’s restaurant for dinner. The following morning we were getting up even earlier to follow Amy to the port of Colon, where we would be loading the car onto the boat and saying farewell for the voyage to South America.


Just us and the big rigs

The drive from Pacific to Atlantic didn’t take too long thanks to Panama’s skinny shape, but we passed through thick jungle and over a few big lakes before arriving at the port. On the way we were passed by brand new Hyundais, unmarked with plastic still on their seats. We guessed they were headed to the Atlantic as well, switching ships to avoid the steep tolls of the Panama Canal. The ports were massive and impossible to navigate, but thankfully Amy knew he lay of the land and led us to the customs building. Inside, a small room was crammed full of desks and although no one seemed to be doing any work, we had to wait 20 minutes for someone to beckon us over. More paperwork, more photocopies, more waiting. Finally we got the necessary stamps and our bill of landing and it was time to say goodbye.

Grant had to go into the shipyard by himself so I was forced to wait with our stuff outside. A nice local who was directing traffic came and took a break next to me under the shade and we made small talk while Grant handled the car. He lived in Colon, had visited Texas, and had great prices on cocaine. I almost laughed when he offered it to me, half in genuine humor and half out of utter disbelief. A military officer with a wiry german shepherd were no more than 30 feet away sniffing out cars and this guy was offering me drugs as freely as someone offers up a smile. Naturally I declined his offer, and he went right back on to directing trucks into port. By now Grant was finishing up with the car and handing over the keys. We were led to believe we were the ones who drove into the container, but apparently that was not the case. I felt uncomfortable leaving he car -still packed with all of our supplies – in the hands of complete strangers, but Amy assured us it would be fine.


Hostel Mamallena in Panama City

Still hesitant, we finally let go and exited the port. We did everything necessary on our end, and now the ‘Cruiser’s voyage to Colombia was out of our hands. We climbed in Amy’s car (which was originally bought in Durham, NC!) and headed back to Panama City. Amy dropped us off at a hostel, Mamallena, and we said goodbye. It was weird being without the car, but at least the hostel had a shower. Finally clean, we ate some ramen noodles and watched a few movies with our fellow travelers before going to bed early. The next morning we had a boat of our own to get on.

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Travel Log days 8-9: Rumble in the Jungle

The final hurdle out of Nicaragua was the border crossing. Entering Costa Rica was easy enough, but leaving Nicaragua was full of hoops to jump through. First migracion then aduana, then everywhere in between as we had to seek out the proper forms and signatures. We finally got our paperwork in order and after a few hours were headed towards the Pacific coast. We saw plenty of surfboards on passing cars and couldn’t wait to hit the beach. Unfortunately,  we were still a few hours out. We pulled into Dominical, Costa Rica on the back end of a wild rain storm. You couldn’t see a thing other than the outline of the road and the surrounding green of the jungle, but somehow we found the small pull – off just as the rain let up. We drove down the steep hill and passed a few beach bars and a soccer field, locals and gringos alike milling about the streets. We pulled by them and headed towards the beach. It was a gorgeous locale, albeit still a bit grey, with low hanging green trees covering the beach right up to the sand line. A few surfers were watching the waves as we got out for a quick walk, and then we headed towards town for a bite to eat. 


The beach at Dominical.



Our campsite the next morning. No more fog!

That’s where we found Tortilla Flats, a beach bar admittedly aimed at American tourists, but one that still boasted great food and a local charm. We had house nachos and a lengthy discussion over which Costa Rica beer was the best with our bartender. They were mostly the same, but we learned that their perception of a “dark” beer was far lighter than our own standard. Either way, we posted up for a bit and caught up on highlights from that afternoon’s Champion’s League final. We had missed the actual game due to our heavy driving schedule, but the highlights alone did not disappoint. I had hoped for an Atletico victory, but Real turned it on in overtime and deservedly achieved their decima. The night wound on and a few loud drunk Americans began to fill the bar. There was a dance party that night, and as more locals began to arrive we chatted with Jordan, a Dominical native and surf instructor. We had just discovered that we had an extra day to spend in Costa Rica due to a delayed Panamanian port schedule, so he gave us some tips on what we should do the following day. We took his advice – though not that in picking up Costa Rican women – and marked a nearby waterfall on our map for the next day. The party was just heating up, but we retired to the car and drifted off to sleep to the undeniable beat of regatone in the distance.


Climbing rocks near Playa Dominicalito.

We “slept in” until around eight the next morning and took a stroll down the beach. Just outside of town a large river met the ocean, so we watched the two waters merge, then returned to Tortilla Flats for some desayuno. After eating one of the best breakfast burritos I have ever had, we said goodbye to Dominical and relocated down the road to Dominicalito, an amazing beach just off of a point in the Pacific. We climbed about on the rocks and took a refreshing (and much needed) wash in the ocean. Our next stop was the waterfall Jordan had told us about. It was poorly marked and the people we asked each had their own vague recollection of where it was, but we finally turned down a gravel side road, forded a small river, and we found it. The falls were tucked away in the jungle and served as a secluded swimming spot for the surrounding locals. We didn’t take a turn on the giant rope swing, opting instead to rock hop down the river and explore some of the jungle. Grant was the first to slip, soaking his tennis shoes in the cool, clear water, but we trekked on through the wilderness and quickly were out of site from the falls. We eventually found a small path leading up into the hills, and saw a secondary falls coming down the back side. It had been gerry-rigged with a pipe system to supply water to the houses below, and by following the rubber tube we got a fantastic view at the top. Heading back to the car, my flip flops finally have way, and I crashed to the rocky ground. Apart from embarrassing, I also had my camera in tow. Disaster was imminent. By some miracle I managed to throw up my right hand as I fell, keeping the camera safe from most of the water, and getting a nice bruise on my hip in the process. With my right side soaked and the camera safe, we got back in the car and headed out with the windows down.


The local waterfall at Pozo Azul.

A few hours later we turned off the highway again. We had planned to stay the night at another national park deep in the jungle. To get there, we followed a gravel road and then a dirt road as we wound through small houses and farms. And then it stopped.  The clearly marked road led us to one last farm, and then ended abruptly courtesy of a large wooden fence. We got out and looked for a different path, but apart from a nearby river,  there didn’t appear to be one. When we were out wandering around, I noticed a solitary figure watching us from the farm. I waved. Grant waved. Nothing. Finally we yelled an hola and the figure began slowly lumbering our way. The farmer told us that the road was closed for the season. The river was in fact the road, but due to higher water levels,  he informed us, you needed four wheel drive to make it. Well we had four wheel drive and when he saw the car, the man said we would be fine, and we crossed the first section. The water wasn’t too high for the car, but the real issue was sand and gravel that comprised the riverbed. Fortunately, we could make out other tire tracks on the various banks, and quickly picked up on the proper lines to take. After the first few switchbacks across the water, we were feeling good.


Parque Nacional Piedras Blanca’s…. The sign, at least.

Crossing rivers is a lot of fun. You find the line, gain speed, and jet across the water as the wake you create rises on either side. We forgot to roll the windows up and caught a few splashes of water as we passed, a refreshing mistake in the humid jungle air. We trekked on, following the tracks as they made their way upstream. There was no end in sight, and worse, no signs to indicate, well, anything. By now the sun was rapidly setting and we were anxious to find the park and stop for the night. Maybe it was that anxiousness that made us misread the track and get stuck in a hole. We started just fine across the bank, but hugged the left side river bank too tightly, and as a result found ourselves trapped in a deeper pool of water with the tires spinning aimlessly in the gravel below. I don’t mind getting stuck, but when it’s getting dark and you’re in the middle of the jungle with no one else around, it gets a little stressful. I was very concerned but Grant marshaled us through the ordeal. We trudged through the water and found a large tree on the bank, and set up the wench. Our front right tire was off the ground, so with me hanging on to the side if the car as a counter weight, we managed to wench and gas our way out. After finally getting out of our trap was dark and we decided to set up camp right there on the bank. Ironically, the entrance to the park was on the other side of that same bank, but of course it too was blocked by a fence,  and despite lights being on, no one came to see what was going on. We sat outside reading and avoiding bugs, trying to relax after our brief ordeal, but the sound of something large breaking a log in the jungle around us sent us quickly into the car. It was a muggy night, but sleep came soon and our Costa Rica adventure came to a close.

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Travel Log day 7: Lots of driving,No entiendo?

We hit the Honduras border around 7:30am, and the whole hour and a half drive there we were mentally preparing for what was next. From most accounts, Honduras is a horror story. Bad roads, corrupt police, and chaotic border operations highlight the questionable reputation that Honduras holds with overlanders. We exited El Salvador without much difficulty and pulled into customs. Naturally the bank wasn’t open until eight, so we had to hang out in the muggy heat for things to continue. Other than some poorly marked buildings, and things going veeeeeery slowly, getting the vehicle permits and getting into Honduras wasn’t too bad. The first obstacle was crossed, but now we had to drive through it. Here we go. When we passed through our first police checkpoint, we almost passed out from holding our breath. When we got to the front of the line we were ready for nearly anything, but instead faced the last thing we expected: a smile and a handshake. We made through Honduras in just a few hours and zero incidents. Maybe the country caught on that tourists like to visit countries where they can travel without being harassed…


A long day with lots of planning

Nicaragua on the other hand, was a different story. Border shenanigans aside (and there were a few) the transition was relatively painless. The roads were a bit better and we were getting used to the heat, and after the perfect passage through Honduras, we were feeling good. That’s when the first police stop occurred. We were waived down to the side of the road and promptly informed that we had “failed to stop” at a previous checkpoint. We remembered full and well the previous stop, and had given the officer a thumbs up as he waved us through. That thumbs up was likely our undoing, and sensing some obvious gringos, they were going for the kill. The show they put on was Oscar worthy. It was good cop, bad cop, ambivalent cop, and less bad cop. We probably dealt with five different officers, each with their own explanation as to why we owed them exorbitant amounts of money. They took our documents and Grant’s license and refused to return it until we paid up. Fortunately, we were more or less ready than this and had our counter offensive ready. So we played dumb. Grant pretended to not know what they were saying and added lots of “I’m sorry” and “I don’t understands” and surprisingly it worked. In the end, they were far from subtle about asking for a bribe. After twenty minutes they told us to get in the car and give them our cash. We should have refused the blatant transgression, but it was only about ten dollars, and we were anxious to get the hell out of Managua.


We never got inside! Nice guard and safe campground, though.

By the time we stopped for the night we would be stopped twice more, yet again for vague and bogus reasons. This time though, we were well versed in the “no entiendo” defense and got out with only our time being spent on the corrupt police. We finally got out of dodge and headed to our campsite, but thanks to hanging out with our new police friends, it was after dark and the park had just closed. We explained our situation and they still would not let us in, but the man at the front gate was extremely nice and understanding and offered to let us park just outside the main gate near the guard house. It wasn’t perfect, but we pulled the car into some tree cover and set up camp. It was Costa Rica in the morning, and I think I speak for both of us when I say we were unsatisfied with our experience in Nicaragua. I hope we can spend more time there in the future and be proven wrong!

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Trip Log Day 6: Volcanoes and Ruins


It was well after dark when we pulled into Ahuachapan. It was a small town but the restaurants and street side bars seemed to be bustling. I sat in the car and watched the square as Grant went inside to check in to our hotel. La Casa de Mamapan is a small hotel in the middle of town where we were to stay the night and begin our first rest day. No 4am start this time! We could sleep in, enjoy actual beds, and air conditioning. We climbed in bed and watched a mix of equally terrible El Salvadorian and American television before quickly falling asleep.


Town square in Ahuachapan, El Salvador

We woke up around eight, a pretty late hour considering our schedule thus far. It was hard to leave the comfort of  the beds, but another luxury coaxed us out: showers. Newly clean and with the freshest of clothes, we found breakfast at a local pastry shop nearby. We drank our coffee and used their wifi to look up our next stop, the ruins of Tazumal. Though small in comparison to its Yucatan counterparts, Tazumal was a sight to see. The impressive temple ruins shot up within the small town, and was the tallest building around us, silhouetted against the blue sky. We walked around the temple grounds and would have ascended if not for a few ropes clearly blocking the way. They were in the process  of restoring the original walls and we had to settle for the outside view, which did not disappoint.


Mayan/Toltec ruins at Tazumal

Leaving the ruins, we met another overlander headed the opposite direction as us. Tonny was riding his motorcycle north to Guatemala and had also stopped to see the ruins. We chatted briefly and snapped a few pics, then hopped back in the Land Cruiser and continued on. We were going to a rainforest, a parque nacional, high up in the mountains. The ride up to Cerro Verde was a climb steadily up into the mist, and as we climbed , the forest seemed to get thicker. At the top we found a flat parking area surrounded by wooden shacks we could barely make out in the fog. With zero signs to follow we found what appeared to be a trailhead and followed it into the forest. What we found at the end can only be described as Jurassic Park. A once luxurious though now abandoned complex sprawled out before us, surrounded by jungle and shrouded by mist. We wound through the corridors and terraces outside of the old lodge and peeked though the windows as we passed, finally exiting the way we came, careful to scan the horizon for prowling velociraptors. We left the facility and found a small trail leading off from the main area. We took it down the far side of the mountain and into the actual rainforest. The emphasis here is on rain. It started to pour almost immediately as we entered the  jungle. It was supposed to be a nature walk with scenic overlooks, but it was too foggy to see anything at all, and the rain quickly soaked through our jackets.


Cerro Verde rain forest

We had to hop a fence to get back to the parking lot, but once we got there the rain had finally let up. We each changed clothes into a dry set and grabbed some lunch at one of the wooden shacks nearby. It was a chicken and cabbage concoction served on a bread roll and we wolfed down our meal and hit the road once more. It was a “rest” day, but we still had some driving to do to make sure we stayed on course. After a few more hours in the mountains,we pulled into our campsite for the night outside of the tiny town of Alegria.


Camp at an old volcano crater lake

Camp at an old volcano crater lake

The campsite was an old volcano top that had filled with water and formed a lake in the center. Apart from a few locals playing soccer in the field contained withy the crater (seriously, soccer in a volcano? Sign me up) we were the only people there. We set up the car and went for a quick romp in the surrounding jungle. We scrambled up some rocks and even a tree and got a great view of our “private” volcano. Just beautiful. We warmed some soup and treated ourselves to some Oreos, then it was off to bed. The rest day had been a huge success, especially with the trials the following two days would bring.

Laguna de Alegria, near San Miguel, El Salvador

Laguna de Alegria, near San Miguel, El Salvador

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Trip Log, Days 4-5: Borderlands


Rancho San Nicolas outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

We hit the road when it was still dark out and made our way off the volcan and set a course south. We were headed for Rancho San Nicolas, a small RV park and campsite In San Cristobal de las Casas, a few hours from the Guatemala border. After winding through the town in roads a little tight for a Land Cruiser, we made it to el rancho. There, we met a collection of other overlanders on various stages of their own respective journeys. Groups from Texas and Switzerland alike were both coming and going along the Panamerican Highway.  We set up camp and shared a beer with JR,  a California native who had quit his job, rented out his house, and hit the road with a few buddies, planning to make his way south for as long as they could afford to keep going. With the sun long set, we said farewell and climbed into our bed for the night.


Fellow overlanders!

Again out before sunrise, we hit the Guatemala border at 7:30 am. We had missed the Mexican aduana (customs) and had to pull a quick u turn to get our documents for the car in order to leave the country. With permit in hand we crossed the border only to wait yet again for our passports to get stamped and to process the new car permit. After a little over an hour, we were given the so called “green light” and we pressed through the small town and into Guatemala.  Our first uncharted border went relatively smoothly.  Country number three was under way.



Mexico-Guatemalan border at El Amatillo

Guatemala is a beautiful country. The drive in from Mexico skirted through the mountains,  passing through small towns scattered in between the jungle and the cliffs. The highway followed a river along a mountain valley, and we curved our way on through the country. Apart from the beautiful scenery, we were also excited to see an abundance of old Land Cruisers on the road and parked alongside. FJ40s and FJ70s were quite common, so we felt right at home on the road. Unfortunately, this is as good as Guatemala got. Passing through the capital we encountered heavy traffic, considerably stalling our arrival at the next border.  We decided to press on and try to get into El Salvador, despite the hour getting a little late. The process at the border seemed easy enough, and after waving off the “helpers” an official – or so we thought – helped us get to the right offices so we could get across quickly. With that finished,  we were told the customs in El Salvador was closed for the night, but we could pay the entry fee on the Guatemalan side and it would be fine. We were inherently skeptical and debated with the man, who claimed he was a customs secretary. We counted out the money and demanded a receipt, and when he would not provide one we grabbed the money back. But we were nervous about the border closing and tired after a full day of driving. We handed over the cash and got an “official” signature before crossing the bridge to El Salvador. Lesson learned: go with your gut. They weren’t officials at all, only scammers quick to capitalize on unsure tourists passing through. El Salvador was open well into the night and customs didn’t even have an import fee. The El Salvadorian officials were sympathetic and very helpful getting us through to their country. Upon exiting they told us we needed to grab a cold beer in town, something to sooth the burn after being swindled. With a wave and some broken Spanish, we told the officials genuinely that El Salvador was far superior to its western neighbor. Guatemala left us with a bad taste in our mouth, but we had still made substantial progress.  Pulling into town, we had crossed two borders and three countries in one long day. With a “rest” day ahead of us, the trip was moving along as planned and we were making progress through Central America.




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Trip Log, Days 0-3: Durham, Mexico, Graduation

After months (years?) of arduous planning, our journey finally began on Saturday, May 17th, 2014. David was in town the previous weekend to help get everything organized and to test pack the truck, but had to get back to Boston for a little ceremony known commonly as “graduating from college.” I would be undertaking the first two days of driving alone.



Extra gas and spare parts. A tight fit.

After double and triple checking everything with the help of my beautiful and  wonderful girlfriend, I said goodbye to her and to Durham, NC at 9:30 am and started driving south. My first stop was a small state recreation area in Mississippi. I made it there by 10:30 pm, only to find it full of boy scouts! I found a quiet spot to set up camp without bothering them too much and slept.



David’s graduation.

Early the next morning I began heading toward Laredo, TX, where David was flying down to meet me and the meat of our odyssey would really start. On the way I got this picture in a text. Congratulations, David, on graduating from Tufts University!



BrazilDrive’s #1 fan.

I picked him up from the airport in Laredo late that night, and we got a few hours of sleep in our hotel room before heading across the Rio Grande and into Mexico at 5:00 am. In a short 13 hours on very nice, but expensive toll roads, we would be at our campsite in La Maliniche National Park, outside of Puebla. It was dark by the time we arrived, and would still be dark when we left the next morning, but our adventure had begun.



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World Cup Preview: As We See It


In the final days before we depart, the weather is finally nice in Medford, Massachusetts. The biting cold and freezing winds have seemingly vanished for Spring, but the memories of all of the god forsaken snow I have shoveled is enough to make any venture south seem like a dream come true, especially when South America is the destination. Warmer weather and a nice vacation are great, but it’s not exactly what you think. Most people assume BrazilDrive is just about two crazy brothers pursuing their crazy dream adventure, and to an extent, it is. But what often get’s overlooked is the event we’re actually going to: the World Cup. Adventure and exotic locations are nice, but this trip would never have existed if it weren’t for our unrequited, obsessive love of soccer. Having played soccer for basically as long as we could stand, Grant and I have traveled far and wide to pursue our love of the sport. All of North Carolina, the East Coast, even Germany, Spain, and South Africa, soccer has led us on many adventures before, and now it is taking us on another.

Our playing careers are mostly deceased, but our love for the sport is ever growing. I am a devout supporter of Liverpool FC and can often be found early Saturday mornings streaming games online. Although Grant tactfully (read: annoyingly) claims to support Everton, he does not really have a team. He claims it would be a betrayal to his Green Bay Packers, but I think he just can’t be decisive. He loves teams for players, and will scour rosters in search of the next young star, regularly emerging with a new go-to team when we play FIFA. My passion is more channeled while his is far ranging, but our unbridled love of soccer is the same. But that’s enough about us. Let’s talk tourney.


Grant’s Picks:

Winner: Brazil

Busts: England

Dark Horse: Belgium

Most Intriguing: USA

It’s hard not to consider Brazil favorites in this tournament. The current number one team in the world is in fantastic form at the moment and will be even more motivated to win it all on home soil. Coming off of a Confederations Cup win – including a mastery of reigning champions Spain – they will be chomping at the bit to get to the final. Everyone sings Neymar’s praises (and deservedly so), but you can’t overlook the immense talent on this team. Oscar, Hulk, Paulinho, and Thiago Silva are just a few of the big names Brazil has to offer. With Scolari at the helm and a pretty easy group, a finals run seems inevitable.


What is there to say about England. The nation that boasts the best league* in the world has struggled to make a statement in the World Cup over the past few tournaments, and look unlikely to turn it around. This year they are caught in a transitional period of sorts. The old guard that has been so consistent in the Three Lions kit is showing their age, while the new rank of youngsters have incredible potential, but have not yet proven themselves on the international stage. Do you stick with Ashley Cole, or finally give the fantastic Leighton Baines a shot? And what about Luke Shaw? John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are out, so who holds down the center-half? Sterling and Sturridge, or Rooney and Johnson? England has a wealth of talent but is left with too many questions. Facing the likes of Uruguay and Italy in the group stage, it seems unlikely that Roy Hodgson has the answers.

*Open to debate


Grant and I have debated whether they actually count as a dark horse, but Belgium is nonetheless an exciting team going into the group stages. After not featuring in the 2010 tournament, Belgium dominated their qualifying group by nine points to storm into Brazil. The perfect combination of young talent and players experienced in top-flight leagues, look to see Belgium progress out of the group stages and make a run in the finals. Grant has been singing Eden Hazards praises since his days at Lille, and he has more than lived up to the hype at Chelsea. Backed up by Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, and a take-you-pick striking option of Romelu Lukaku or Christian Beneteke (pending a return from injury), you’ve got a young team with more than enough firepower to send a strong message of their arrival in Brazil.


This is an important tournament for the United States. Soccer is on the rise in the states. The talent in the MLS has vastly improved in the last few years and the number of domestic players we have playing abroad is more than ever, all culminating in a strong qualifying campaign that sent us to Brazil in terrific form. Since then, however, things have not been quite as smooth. Being drawn into the “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and regular American World Cup dream destroyers, Ghana was the first bit of bad luck, but the form of the team has also come under question. Friendly wins over Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina last year showed the promise that this team carries, but since then losses to Austria and Ukraine and a draw to Scotland shows just how far we still have to go. Jurgen Klinsman certainly has the team moving in the right direction, but how they will fare at the World Cup is a mystery. If Jozy Altidore can overcome his embarrassing form at Sunderland, and if Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley’s returns to the MLS can prove fruitful, the Yanks could have a shot at surprise emergence from Group G. On paper, the odds are not exactly in our favor, but sometimes being the underdog is the motivation a team needs.


David’s Picks:

Winner: Germany

Busts: Netherlands

Dark Horse: Bosnia-Herzegovina

Most Intriguing: France

In my opinion, Germany is the best team in this tournament. You do not need to look much further than Bayern Munich’s success over the past few seasons, as well as that of their rival Borussia Dortmund. Since the 2010 tournament, these two teams between them have 4 Bundesliga titles, 3 Champions League final appearances, and one Champions League trophy. Considering that the majority of the German national team rosters hail from these two clubs, it will be near impossible for the Germans to not have a good run in Brazil. With Bastian Schweinsteiger anchoring midfield, flanked by the undeniable talent of Mario Götze, Marco Reus, and Mesut Özil, Germany boasts one of the most exciting teams to watch. Veterans Philip Lahm and Miroslav Klose will provide the extra experience as the repeat third-place finishers in 2006 and 2010 look to close in on an appearance in the finals.


As much as it pains me to say it, I believe that the Netherlands will be a bust in Brazil. Ever since I purchased my bright orange jersey in the fourth grade, I have always cheered on the Oranje in the international circuit. My hopes were raised and dashed in 2010, but I fear the runners-up in Johannesburg will not repeat their success in this edition. Similar to England, the Dutch are blessed with a wealth of young talent, but the question arises: give the kids a chance, or put your money on the veterans? Arjen Robben leads the list of shoe-ins for the team, as does Robin van Persie. But a rather dismal season at United puts the striker’s form into question. Still, the presence of impressive young talent like Memphis Depay and Bruno Martins Indi will keep them in the mix, likely advancing out of group play. Unfortunately, finding the balance between young and old is delicate, and Louis van Gaal might be too distracted by his flirting with United to make the necessary adjustments.


Bosnia-Herzegovina is my wild card. This is their first ever World Cup, and despite being large underdogs, they have the potential to make something of their time on the world stage. They impressed in qualifying, took the US to the brink in a friendly, and overall have performed admirably from such a small nation. Despite its size, you only need to look at the roster to understand why they pose such a threat. On either end of the pitch they boast two Premier League stars in Asmir Begovic and Edin Dzeko, prolifically stopping and scoring goals respectively. To fill in the gaps, Emir Spahic marshals the back line, while Sejad Salihovic and Miralem Pjanic orchestrate from midfield. With Argentina, Iran, and Nigeria in their group, it is likely that Bosnia-Herzegovina will advance with the number two spot. With a little luck, they may be able to muster a run into the knockout stages.


The US definitely will be receiving my undivided attention during the tournament, but for me, the most intriguing team in this tournament is France. The biggest controversy of South Africa was the very public implosion of the French team. Internal tension between players and then-coach Raymond Domenech spill out of the dressing room and onto, well, everything. Players refused to practice, the media had a field day, and France’s football – despite a talented team – was awful. That, however, was 2010. This campaign has seen a transformation of French football. The old guard has been almost completely replaced, making room for a number of new French stars who have made quite a statement. Pogba and Matuidi provide one of the most menacing holding midfield duos in the tournament, and with an attack of Ribery, Cabaye, Valbuena, and Benzema, the French will be a force to be reckoned with. The combination of young and old seem to work in their favor, but only time will tell if they can overcome the stigma of 2010 and make a statement in Brazil.

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Baja Mexico: Part 4


Morning comes early when you’re sleeping in a car, but the transition to getting on the road gets a bit easier as you go on. At this point, we had perfected the process of sliding awkwardly from the platform into the front seats, where we had set our clothes out the previous night. Avoiding entering the cold morning air, we quickly found, was pretty crucial to a non-grumpy morning. I’d say cheerful, but even when you love road trips, six AM starts to the day aren’t always fun.


            The next stretch of road led us to San Ignacio, the name of both a small town, and the laguna nearby. Another missed sign and a u-turn later, we exited Route 1 and headed through town. As we expected, the pavement quickly disappeared and a long and winding dirt road emerged before us, but this time we knew that goal that lay before us: whales. We knew the Baja was famous for its whale watching, and being the beginning of the season, we had planned to stop somewhere along the way to catch a glimpse of these wonderful creatures. Word of mouth (let’s be honest, it was Ernie) had steered us in the direction of Campo Cortez, an ecotourism camp on the Laguna San Ignacio, a favorite mating and breeding ground of Mexican grey whales.


            The dirt road continued away from town for several miles as it headed – as far as we could tell – towards the ocean. It was no problem for the ‘Cruiser, and we quickly overtook a silver Prius making they’re way down the path. We waved as they let us pass, and we continued our way down the road. At the end of the road, a series of small shacks and buildings scattered the beach. Small boats and crab pots lined their borders, and a few dogs lazed about in the shade. We stopped and got out, following a sign for whale watching, and approached an old man sitting on his porch. In his broken Spanish, Grant discerned that we were in fact at the laguna, but the campo was a further ways down the beach. Fifteen kilometers down the beach. We’re all for finding new roads, but this was kind of ridiculous.


Finding (dirt) roads.

On we went, down the road while ospreys flew by overhead and mounds of salt formed in the drying water that had pooled in the ditches below. Before too long we passed the same silver Prius from before, but this time we swallowed our pride and decided to ask for advice. That’s how we met Dave and Marta, a couple driving down from California for a long weekend, and our eventual boat mates. They were taking a short vacation to celebrate Marta’s birthday and were also headed to Campo Cortez, and fortunately, they were a bit more prepared than we were, giving us directions on down the road. They also had actual reservation at the camp. Not planning is both the beauty and the pitfall of spontaneous exploration, but after some polite negotiation and the incredible welcoming of our new friends, we hopped on a brightly colored boat and jetted off into the laguna.










The worst part about whale watching is the apprehension. Camera in tow, our eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of life, our gazes darting back and forth to ensure we wouldn’t miss anything. Every slight wave crest or spray of water grabbed our attention, but just as we were ready to scream, “WHALE,” it quickly dissipated and we were resigned to our impatient scanning. Even a pod of dolphins and a few sea lions did little to hold our attention – albeit apart from the initial excited glance. We were after a bigger quarry. We should have just listened to Maldo. Our guide and boat captain had been navigating these waters for several decades, and if anyone knew where to find a whale, it was he. It was like he could sense them coming. Without lifting a hand from the onboard motor, he nodded his head toward the right and uttered a soft “There.”

DSC_0558 DSC_0628








As we gazed to the patch of blue where he was pointing, bubbles began to materialize and a blob of grey mass began to emerge. It was a mating couple. Not fifteen feet from our tiny boat the duo surfaced and submerged, putting on a show for the four of us. What can I say about whales? Monstrous and gentle at the same time, the remaining hour we spent was just breathtaking. We followed the couple for some time before finally leaving them to their honeymoon. It was their territory, after all, we were just visiting tourists.

After returning to shore, we bid farewell to our boat-mates and got back into the car. We had another few hours of driving ahead of us and were running well behind schedule, though we would both agree it was a detour well worth the extra time. The next section of the drive was inland, so we traded scenic beaches and cliffs for desert and cacti as we headed back towards the Pacific. We had to get to Guerrero Negro by nightfall and the sun was rapidly fading. We got to town right as the sun set behind the ocean, but the campsite we had scoped out on the map didn’t seem to exist. We had found impromptu sleeping places before, but this was the first time we had to do it in the dark. Channeling his best adventuring spirit, Grant had an idea. Passing through a military base on the outskirts of town, he steered the Cruiser off of the highway down a small dirt road headed off into a dark field. Sure enough, he navigated our way to a sandy hill and found a perfect nook away from the road to pull in to: we had found our campsite.


Little coyote in camp.

It was nice to wake up away from civilization the next morning. We were only a few miles from town, but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere when we made breakfast and packed up camp. A quick gas and ATM pit stop and we were headed further north, this time actually into the wilderness. We were headed to Coco’s Corner, small outpost in the middle of the desert ran by a boisterous double amputee. Imagine the tackiest restaurant you have ever been to and multiply that by ten and you can get an idea of the décor of this checkpoint for the Baja Rally. Surrounded by notes, postcards, and women’s underwear of all sizes and varieties, we couldn’t refuse Coco’s insistence to have a beer and take a load off. But as with all adventures, we still had a long way to go, so we finished our cans, snapped a few pics, and waved as we left Coco gesturing enthusiastically at one of his cohorts.

DSC_0670 DSC_0666

We drove over rocks, sand, and dirt as we made our way further north in search of the highway. After finally making it back onto a paved road, it was time to make a decision. Do we head west and meet back up with Route 1, or do we take a gamble and follow yet another dirt road north to find a national park for our last night? Another military checkpoint had put us behind schedule yet again, so the highway was tempting, but we’re explorers, damnitt. If you ever have the choice between dirt and pavement, well, you know.


We crept into Laguna Hanson after dark and made our way to what appeared to be a ranger station. It was completely deserted except for one attendant who seemed quite confused by our presence. He sheepishly gave us the OK to camp in the park and headed back to his heated cabin, probably just shocked as to why anyone would want to camp in the middle of winter. And it was quite cold. Our one complaint about sleeping in the car was that it was too hot for the sleeping bags, but that night we wished we had brought a blanket.

The next morning we finally saw the park in light, and boy were we impressed. Massive rocks jutted up from all sides, forming these grand outcrops all around us. We wasted no time eating breakfast so we could scramble on top of them and climb our way about. The views were stunning. In all the desert of the Baja, this laguna had trees, our first real glimpse of greenery on the trip. It was like a little oasis hidden away in the north. Naturally, my camera died after getting a single picture of the laguna, so you will have to use your imagination (or a Google search….). We wanted to stay longer and climb more rocks, but deadlines have the tendency to creep up on you, and we still had plenty to do. We were headed to Mexicali to cross the border back in to the States, and from there, a cannon-ball run from California to North Carolina. We had plenty of highway ahead of us, but here was one final dirt road out of the park. With the car packed up and iPod blaring, we enjoyed every curve and bump.


…Man’s battle with nature will never end. But is it really a battle? Like Sisyphus and his boulder, we build roads, tunnels, and canals, shaping nature to our will. But these are only temporary. Nature will always roll our boulder down the hill at the end of the day. So don’t fight it. Don’t make it a battle, make it a challenge: instead of adapting nature, adapt to it. That’s what is so beautiful about the Baja. It is rugged and unforgiving, yet somehow welcoming and comfortable. Life shouldn’t exist here, yet it thrives. Towns sprout up where they can find water, dried up river beds become roads, and even the goats find food wherever it is available. The desolace of the Baja is it’s beauty. Nature has already won, yet the Baja manages to achieve a wonderful existence on the fringe of defeat. So don’t be upset. Your boulder is always going to fall down the hill. Just try to enjoy the view while you’re at the top.

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Baja Mexico: Part 3

As an international relations major, I spend the vast majority of my time reading about various countries and writing essays examining them inside and out. It’s kind of ironic, then, that I can’t find the free time to write one more – about a place I’ve personally done the research for no less. Call it extended reflection or procrastination, but either way this article is pretty behind schedule. Sorry readers (mostly Grant) for the delay, but I hope it will be worth the wait.


San Javier, Riverbed Rambling, Punta Chivato

I always liked mountain roads. Something about the way they zig and zag back and forth as they climb in elevation fascinates me. I guess it shows nature’s persisting victory over man, that try as we might, rock and sand will outlast pavement and concrete, tunnels will crumble, and mountains will remain immortal. Yet even with our insignificance, the desire to try to overcome the force that is nature never goes away. It’s the impossible mismatch that forces us on, making every switchback more uncomfortable and exhilarating than the last. Knowing nature will outlast, this victory is even more ephemeral, and the discomfort this gives makes it all the more exciting. We were pioneers carefully skirting the edge between humanity and nature. Literally. I mean, parts of the road weren’t even there…



With a stomach full of soggy oatmeal and watered-down coffee, we packed up the car and set out from our beachfront suite. Following Ernie’s advice, we decided to leave the coast and head inland to the misiòn San Javier. After consulting a group of accommodating construction workers, we were able to find the poorly marked road that was far more vivid on our map than in actuality. We knew in advance that it would take us roughly an hour to get to the mission from Loreto, so we took our time meandering through the mountains and just enjoying the view. It took some coaxing, but I managed to convince Grant to not take every side road down the cliffs under the condition that we would stop and explore on the way back. He reluctantly agreed, but would later admit that he might have been a bit over ambitious with some of route choices.


He wanted to go down that. I kind of did too.

Once we ascended the mountain, the road settled into a plateau and a small river began to emerge before our eyes. The rocky riverbed we had been crossing over and the winding valley it had carved out was finally showing signs of life. We knew we were getting close. At this time of year the river was little more than a series of small pools slowly drying up from a combination of the sun and wandering cattle, but you could see its impact in the foliage spring up around us. The cactus and parched looking shrubs and trees were starting to become lush and green – a sight we honestly hadn’t seen much of outside of the towns we passed through


From the greenery a small town slowly emerged winding down into a small valley. Framed by the surrounding cliffs, the misiòn San Javier was placed at the center of the town around a small cobble stone road. The town, let alone the mission stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise barren land. The site was founded in 1699 by Jesuit missionaries, the actual mission not being constructed for some fifty years later. It is a breathtaking architectural triumph to build something so beautiful in the middle of nowhere. It helps when you “liberate” an indigenous people of their heathen ways to help them serve your god. As Jesuit control of the region spread, the native Cochimi people rapidly declined. There’s something here about the irony of creating so much death while preaching life, but it’s two in the morning and I’ve had enough meditation for one day.


Misiòn San Javier

Leaving the mission, we retraced our footsteps and headed back to Loreto. Honoring my promise to Grant, we took several detours we had skipped earlier, and the results, well, varied. The first detour saw us getting stuck down a rather steep and sandy hill which we thought was a road. It wasn’t. Some quick thinking and far from standard recovery procedures got us out just fine, and we were on our way, albeit slightly rattled.


A slightly-more-than-three-point turn


Nailed it.










The next detour proved far more fruitful. The trickinling river we had been winding along next to previously was finally dried up, and its bed became a highly interesting (and recommended) makeshift highway. A quick deflate of the tires and we were on our way. Used by adventurers and construction workers alike taking advantage of the dry season, the riverbed was a mix of tight curves and open expanses, and a far more enjoyable hike than our earlier experiment. Following a wayward dump truck we hopped out of the bed on an unassuming ramp hidden behind a few scraggly tress. A quick jaunt through a junkyard and some enterprising goats and we were back on Route 1 headed to Punta Chivato.




Where we’re going we don’t need roads.









“Just take the first paved road you see outside of Mulegé.” Our de facto Baja guide Ernie told us of a sweet campsite on the coast along our planned route, and gave explicit directions to get there. Punta Chivato did not appear on any of our maps, nor did any roads outside of Mulegé, but if we had learned anything from our short time on the Baja, it’s that word of mouth trumps a map nine times out of ten. And thus far, Ernie was batting one thousand.


The beach provides.


So does the box of food in our trunk.









“Paved road” was a bit of a misnomer, but after a beautiful drive up the coast past the Bahia de Concepción and through Mulegé, we located the turn in question. It was paved, sure, but only for a bout forty feet. The turn in question was coupled with several small houses and buildings, but the asphalt quickly turned into stone, and then into sand as we followed more poor signage down the path. After twenty minutes or so we emerged over a hill and saw why Ernie insisted we stop. A clear, sprawling beach hidden by the dunes stretched out before us. The sparse population of unfinished housing developments did little to corrupt the beauty of the beach. We drove the car a little ways down and set up camp on the sand. As the sun set between the mountains behind us, we finished our Pacificos and climbed into our trunk-top nest.




Part 4 (the end!) is coming soon. Keep an eye out.

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