El Salvador was difficult to leave. With its cliffs, warm ocean waters, soft sands, pupusas and modern capital city, it had all of the makings for a long-term or even permanent stay. There is no telling how long we may have lingered if not for a housesit in the southern zone of Costa Rica that we had secured.
Housesitting is one of the tools we learned to use for more affordable and interesting travel. Essentially, there are websites that you subscribe to that allow you to connect with families that need people to watch their homes while they are away. Sometimes this involves taking care of pets or pools and gardens, but usually it’s just maintaining a presence in the home.
The downside: there were two countries between El Salvador and Costa Rica—Honduras and Nicaragua—and we had roughly 7 weeks to get thru them.
We made the decision to explore Honduras on our route home, and for the first time, we crossed more than one international border in a single day, reaching Nicaragua late in the afternoon. On our way to the border, we also experienced our first real shakedown by the local police. We had been stopped and harassed before but had always been able to quickly diffuse the situation, usually with laughter. This was different.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t scary, we weren’t being threatened, but this police officer was standing his ground and insisting that we were breaking a variety of laws. We weren’t. In these situations, the most important rules are that you are in no hurry and that you speak as little Spanish as possible. Once again, this proved to be the right strategy, and we went on our way, reaching the border with little delay.
To this point in our trip, we had experienced heat—sweaty, sticky, heat. What we had not experienced was the standing-at-the-gates-of-hell-begging-to-be-let-in-to-escape-the-heat kind of heat that we found in Nicaragua. Y’all, it was HOT.
Nicaragua is home to the famed “ring of fire,” a giant circle of active volcanoes. Our first night was spent camping next to the youngest active volcano in Central America, Cerro Negro. The next morning, a grueling hike on steamy, black gravel brought us to the top, where we put on heat-resistant suits and rode heavy wooden boards (volcano boarding) back to the bottom. It was a bucket-list experience, one that I’m glad we did and that I probably don’t need to do again.
We made the most of our short time in Nicaragua, visiting several volcanoes and many beaches along the famed Mosquito Coast. For the second time on our journey, we camped among howler monkeys. Nicaraguan howler monkeys were smaller and less aggressive than the howlers we had encountered in southern Mexico, but they
were more abundant. It was hard to walk under any tree without fear of a monkey urinating in your direction.
The tourist centers of Nicaragua are the sleepy, surf town of San Juan Del Sur (SJDS) and the colonial city of Granada. SJDS is breathtaking, with warm blue waters and surrounding cliffs lit up by hillside homes. We tried our hand again at surfing and were not much better at it.
In SJDS we came face to face with crocodiles for the first time since Belize and had to abandon several potential campsites because of hand-scrawled signs saying things in Spanish like “Lagartos Peligroso!” or “Dangerous Lizards!” We knew what that meant.
In Granada, we stayed at a grand hotel owned by an elderly American woman who spent her free time traveling by motorcycle through Mongolia and creating independent films. Granada, an artist mecca, has a healthy gay community, complete with a gaggle of drag queens passing by us towards a party we became eager to find.
In Nicaragua, no matter where we went, there was music playing, the smells of traditional foods in the air, neighbors socializing, senior citizens sitting in rocking chairs on the sidewalks, all side-by-side with abject poverty – the result of a people egregiously neglected by their own government. It was the first place we encountered where being poor truly equated to poverty and hopelessness.
Finally, we headed south again, to Costa Rica. We had been to Costa Rica previously, on short vacations. It was the country that inspired us to travel thru the rest of Central America. Coming back felt like the closing of a circle—a return to the beginning.
Costa Rica never disappoints. Although it has a touristy, the real Costa Rica is as vibrant with local culture and can be as inexpensive as many of the other countries we had visited. Within seconds of crossing the border, the leaves became greener, the air became cooler, and the roadside tropical fruits became more abundant.
We were excited about the house sit in Costa Rica because it was a mansion, with a pool, on a jungle mountain, overlooking the ocean—by far, our fanciest housesit to date. But we had a few weeks left to explore before needing to head south.
We began on the Nicoya Peninsula. I contacted a guy that I had been following on Instagram, a Costa Rican overlander named Christopher. I suggested to him that we go camping together at his favorite off the beaten path spots.
Christopher spoke very little English and we, very poor Spanish but despite this fact and him knowing nothing about us, he drove four hours to meet us the next day, and we spent the next several days camping in some of the most beautiful and memorable places of our trip.
This is the biggest distinction between the people we met in Central America and the United States: there is an openness and trustfulness that we, as a culture, simply do not have. So many times, we pulled up to the home of a stranger and asked if we could camp in their yard for a night, and never once were we turned away. Often, we were invited inside for dinner and given Wi-Fi passwords or a plug to charge our laptops. The hospitality was endless.
After our time on the Nicoya, we headed for the city of San José. Before this journey, we had paid close attention to the safety warnings and advice of others to stay clear of San Jose, but now we had learned that those warnings are almost never accurate and often meant missing out on the best experiences. San José was no exception. IT IS A GREAT CITY. It has a vibrant restaurant and art scene, with more than forty gay bars and dance clubs and gay couples openly holding hands on the street.
From San Jose we did the surrounding, more well known tourist activities like Arenal Volcano and Lake, the cloud forest at Montevideo, and Manuel Antonio, another LGBTQ hotspot where we stayed at an all gay resort called the Villa Roca. Although catering predominantly to men, when we showed up we were welcomed and immediately became the belles of the ball.
Oh, and there were more crocodiles. Costa Rica is the wildlife epicenter of Central America. Scarlet macaws fill the skies and treetops, iguanas run in and out of buildings at will, sloths are regularly seen hanging from electrical wires. Toucans zoom past your face like fighter jets heading to battle. And monkeys GALORE: white-faced capuchins, small squirrel monkeys, playful spider monkeys, and, of course, howler monkeys.
Finally, we reached our destination of Dominicál. Dominicál features beautiful beaches and is heavily populated with Americans into new age, “conscious” philosophies and practices.
As I’ve said before, this trip was a unique opportunity to explore the parts of yourself that the real world has so little patience for. While in Dominicál, we did a lot of yoga, lathered ourselves in volcanic blue clay, and swam in crystal clear rivers, and I participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony that changed my life (for the better). We also tried, at the prompting of our raw-vegan chef housemate, a completely raw diet. I was cynical but after seven weeks of eating this way, with the abundant tropical fruits and vegetables of Costa Rica, I can say I’ve never felt healthier.
Before leaving Costa Rica, we traveled to the Caribbean side of the country, Puerto Viejo, with all of the islander, rasta culture of Belize, but none of the sketchiness. From there, we ventured down to Bocas del Toro in Panama, where we stayed in a jungle treehouse overlooking crystal blue waters.
Upon our return to Costa Rica, we went to the Bahia de Drake, a peninsula and protected area that can only be reached by boat. We spent a total of 90 days in Costa Rica and two weeks in Panama. Having breathed in more freedom and personal growth than I can explain, we were not ready to leave. We tried everything to extend our car import permit for a longer stay but it proved impossible. With the Darien Gap between us and South America, the only thing left to do was turn around, head north and do it all again.
To learn more about our journey and upcoming adventures (Canada and South America are next up!), please follow us on instagram @thevagabroads, or check out our website www.vagabroads.com. We have a book coming out next month called I Can. I Will: Women Overlanding the World, which can be purchased through the website.