The Americas with Tubby Explorer: Part 16

Story by Jack Stuhler with an introduction by Paul May.

Jack Stuhler, the founder of Eezi-Awn, is an adventurous man and has spent his entire life exploring the African Continent. After driving from Johannesburg to the UK through the middle east in the early 1999, Jack set his sights on the Americas. He prepared a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series Troopy by the name of Tubby for his journey and shipped it to South America. With his significant other, Margaret, their epic journey from Ushuaia to Dead Horse Alaska took over 18 months to complete in 2004/2005. They later returned south to Houston, and shipped Tubby home. Quite impressive for a couple in their 60s. Their adventures are an inspiration for us all.


Entering Central America and subsequently Nicaragua with your own vehicle is NOT a simplistic matter, there are many channels one has to go though which are time consuming and frustrating so it is better to engage a ‘guide’, in our case a youngster (12 years old), who knew the system off by heart.  He guided us from point A to B to C etc. etc. and ninety minutes later we had driven through a fumigation bay, been screened by the Policia, issued a temporary import permit and insurance for our wheels, passed through immigration, been handed a small piece of paper with all the required stamped authorizations to continue into Nicaragua – skinned of $37 for documentation including a small fee for our ‘guide’.  It could have been most intimidating if you had to slog through the whole process by yourself – hiring somebody who knows the rigmarole is a trick I learnt when I trekked through Africa – past experience is sometimes a blessing in disguise!!!


Barrelling along the Interamericana we soon realised we had entered another world, one in which time, stood still. Horse drawn carts and oxcarts are still used to haul supplies.  Nicaragua being one of the poorest countries in the Americas, 70% of the folk living below the breadline due to decades of internal strife having decimated the economy which only now seems to be emerging out of the doldrums.  Today Nicaragua is a democratic country and indeed one of the safest places to visit on the continent.  We soon found out that the Nicos are renowned for their friendliness and compared with many Latin Americans, extremely informal. The strangest phenomenon about the Nicos is that not like the rest of Latin America, baseball instead of ‘futbol’ (soccer) is their national sport, obviously inherited from the time of the American occupation.


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Zooming along, we made our way north – not much traffic, we soon found ourselves cruising into Granada.  Few places can match the charm and beauty and setting in the shadows of Volcan Mambacho, this the oldest Colonial settlement in the Americas established in 1524.  A city of nostalgia and romance, a place to relax, take a stroll along narrow streets lined with brightly multicoloured buildings ever so often a glance beyond intricately carved hardwood doors with lush courtyards surrounded by rooms with high ceilings and lovely interiors – a legacy of yesteryear. In days gone bye of Brigantines and Schooners, British and French pirates used to sail up the San Juan River from the Caribbean, cross Lago Nicaragua and raid Granada, loot the town in order to replenish their supplies.


Wrenching ourselves out of Granada we headed towards another marvellous setting, a crater lake, Laguna de Apoya formed 2,000 years ago when the volcano exploded, firstly ascending up to the edge of the extinct volcano rim and then a steep descent into and down to the waterline and the ‘Monkey Hut’, a rustic abode set at the water’s edge, the  accommodation amongst huge trees and extremely tall coconut palms – absolutely ‘tranquilo’.  From the balcony overlooking the azure blue lake the rim towering all around – 390m high, the crater 6 kms in diameter – purportedly the deepest well in Nicaragua.  Swimming in the lake the water tasted slightly salty.


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For a day’s outing we took off in the Landcruiser back up the rim drove towards Nacional Parque Volcan Masaya one of the most active in the Americas surrounded by rugged landscape and a stunning view over the great lake valley.  The volcano last erupted on April 23rd 2001, there were some injuries and several vehicles standing in the parking lot were severely damaged by falling stones.  After all it could explode at any time!!!  As a matter of fact when we entered the Parque we were handed a ‘Safety Notice’ which partly read ‘It is recommended you don’t stay for more than 20 minutes lest you inhale the toxic gases which could cause nausea etc.’ Staring into the crater with the wind on our backs was not a problem and the last recommendation was to park your vehicle with the rear facing the gaping hole should it be required to make a (quick) fast getaway. Felt better when we had been and seen, actually slightly relieved when we left – ha!ha!


It is always inevitable, we come across a little bit of heaven, a place to hang and chill out and before long it is time, yes time to vamoose out of there packing our gear into ‘Old Faithful’, starting back up the rim towards Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and then on CA1, the Panamericana, northeast passing through the mountainous area we found men selling lorokeets, parrots and squirrels along the roadside.  These are obviously taken out of their nests at a very young age as the birds were still covered in down.  Sad to see these creatures lost to nature forever.


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We dearly would have loved to linger longer in Nicaragua, the people, the country and the tranquillity grows on you.  With heavy hearts we continued towards Ocotal near the border with Honduras and eventually the majestic Mayan ruins of Copan.


Another border, another crossing and another take, couldn’t believe it – $8 for the two of us to leave Nicaragua, $8 to enter Honduras plus $48 for Tubby’s papers (temporary import permit) yes!!!!  It went on and on and except for the Toyota’s document we got no receipts whatsoever.  Rather than question the system, it was better to let sleeping dogs lie, the authorities at the borders could turn nasty and refuse exit or entry whichever way the wind blew.


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Once we were on carretera CA1 towards Tigucigalpa pronounced ‘Tee-goos-ee-galpa’ it was a roller-coaster uphill, downhill drive ducking and diving around potholes along the way northwards to the capital referred to by the Hondurans as Tegus (Tee-goos) meaning Silver Hill, named as such when the Spanish founded the city in 1578 as a mining centre for gold and silver.  Margaret observed at how much wealthier it was on the Honduran side as to Nicaragua, a country which has been ravaged by internal strife and wars.  In Honduras the wealth was visually evident, late model cars on the roads and the buildings reasonably modern and more substantial.


We decided to by-pass the city as it was genuinely chaotic, cramped, crowded and aesthetically had nothing to offer so we stuck and I literally mean stuck to the highway passing through on the western side of Tegus.  The traffic was bumper to bumper, Margaret with her feet through the floor.  My motto was “If you can’t beat them, join ‘em”, become aggressive and drive like a Honduran driver once behind the wheel of his car would not give an inch but with Tubby’s overwhelming size it was simple.  “Who would dare play chicken with this monster? Only a fool!!” An hour later having edged our way ahead slowly but surely we left the perimeter of Tegus with its idiotic Saturday morning traffic.


The road north was a marvellous new macadamised surface, the Landcruiser beetling along at 80 kph, the maximum permissible speed. Our digs for that night a tiny room, hardly big enough to swing a cat, however spotless and comfortable.  No sooner had we consumed a most scrumptious ‘desayuno’ (breakfast) of maize tortillas, mashed beans, eggs, fried tomato and coffee we set off north again and then west of north in the direction of the tiny village of Copan and the majestic Ruins of Copan an ancient city of the Mayan Civilization, the starting point of our adventure to explore a series of these ancient cities and the descendants of these peoples who still inhabit northern Honduras, eastern Guatemala and eastern Mexico.


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Entering the Ruinas Copan and walking the walk, Margaret and I climbed up stairs to high points overlooking this majestic site, then down again viewing pyramids and numerous stelae on terra firma, stone carvings of yesteryear.  One Royal family came to rule Copan 426 to 435 AD led by the mysterious King Mah Kina Yax Luk Mo (Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw).  The collapse of the Copan civilisation has been a mystery until recently when archaeologists began to understand what happened.  It transpires that in its heyday the population grew at an alarming rate, agriculture could not keep up with demand and in no time the resources were not sufficient forcing the folk to move further afield.  Huge areas were deforested creating massive erosion further decimating agricultural production and leading to flooding during the rainy season. Slowly but surely the inhabitants succumbed to malnutrition and infectious diseases plus decreased lifespan, life ebbed out of Copan.  However the city and its environs were not abandoned overnight, it took another 100-200 years by which time the farmers had departed and the jungle reclaimed Copan.


It was only re-discovered March 8, 1576 when Diego Garcia de Palacios, a representative of Spain’s King Felipe II who lived in Guatemala travelled through the region. Apparently only five families were living at Copan at the time and they knew nothing of the history of the ruins.  Taking no notice of the site it was almost three centuries later when another Spaniard visited the site and made the first map of the area in which the ruins are situated.  These maps and report stimulated two Americans, John L Stephens and F Catherwood to visit the site in 1839.  One of the men published a book about Copan and the other illustrated it. Even today the history of the ruins continue to unfold.  Margaret and I were absolutely content to amble along and marvel at the remnants left behind by such an ancient civilization – The Maya.


The next day we were off to Guatemala and the Ruinas of Tikal. Crossing the border from Honduras into Guatemala was a breeze as far as costs were concerned ‘a steal’ – two bucks for our exit stamp, nil for entry and five for a temporary import permit.  No sooner had we left the border post, we noticed another overlander  (from the UK) coming towards us completely kitted out with Eezi-Awn equipment.  A quick U turn and we followed them back up the hill.


The occupants stepped out of their Landy and we made ourselves known.  Co-incidentally they were driving north to south, Alaska to Patagonia, a short chat and we were on our way again whilst they were to clear Immigration and Customs going south.


Virtually free-wheeling into the valley we hit the west to east main road leading from Guatemala City towards the Caribbean, eventually reaching our turn off north passing through Rio Dulce a quaint village situated on an estuary, marinas at the water’s edge either side of the bridge leading to our destination for the night.


Reaching the shores of Lago de Peten Itza we pulled into Flores on a peninsula jutting into the lake, over-nighting in an hospedaje, the Landcruiser parked out front and safe.  Leaving mid morning we continued northwards via a small village Ixlu eventually cruising into Parque Nacional Tikal and a camping site.  The hot sun and high humidity was too much to bear, so we relaxed in the shade of the trees underneath which we had set up camp.  Thank goodness there was a gentle breeze to help cool off against the stifling heat.


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Late afternoon and an uphill walk, PT at its best, perspiration pouring off me, at last we arrived at the top of the hill and got our first glance of the Ancient City of Tikal (the setting for the American ‘Survivor’ programme). Tikal a city of Mayan skyscrapers (steep-sided temples) towering above the tropical jungle canopy of north-east Guatemala. These mega structures and surrounding buildings date from 300 BC.  However it only became an important Mayan centre from AD300 onwards.  It was governed by a powerful dynasty of rulers from about the 1st Century AD until AD869 with the last known ruler Hasan Chan K’Awill II.  In the later part of the 8th century the fortunes of Tikal declined and the site finally abandoned in the 10th Century lastly to be reclaimed by the jungle only to be rediscovered in 1848 by Ambrosio Tut the Governor of the Province of Peten, Guatemala, bordering onto Belize in the east.


Margaret and I wandered through the Great Plaza dominated at each end by the tall structures of the Temple of the Great Jaguars and the Temple of Masks.  Makes one feel so Lilliputian walking amongst these monoliths.  We kept on going uphill eventually reaching the base of highest temple at 69m jutting above the treeline, The Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent with a wooden staircase leading to a shelf three-quarter way up.  Margaret’s curiosity got the better of her and up she went to a ‘mirador’ overlooking the canopy of trees and the other temples protruding above the vegetation visible in the late afternoon sunset. The sun had set when Margaret returned from the lofty heights and believe me it was a long, long walk back to our campsite arriving in total darkness.  Thank goodness for our Coleman rechargeable lamp!! A huge pineapple for supper, our loftroom beckoning, we turned in for the night the noises of the jungle lulling us to sleep.


The surroundings were misty as we rose at five in the morning, the howler monkeys and birds becoming more vocal as the day grew long.  We set off back up the hill again, the site of the ruins are so vast and if one does the full circuit it is in extent of 6 miles.  The previous afternoon we had spent three hours exploring the area and it was time to peruse other buildings within the complex. It leaves much to the imagination as to how the ancients built their huge cities e.g. the Pyramids of Egypt, the Incan Citadel of Machu Picchu, plus the mud structures of Chan Chan in Peru and now the skyscraper Temples of Tikal and the relatively short span of time in which they were constructed.


Two weary, weary adventurers trudged downhill to our campsite too glad for words to call it a day.  Just over three weeks in this part of the world and we were ready to roll on into our fifth country in Central America – Belize.  Let’s see what it holds for us!!!


Talk to you soon


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