August 1, 2015, marked the beginning of our 8th month on the Pan American trail. Of those 8 months, 7 were spent living in our Westy in Mexico and Central America. Gregor and I had perfected the art of living and working in the van through ever-changing conditions in a predominantly Spanish-speaking world. We were loving nomadic life and we felt unstoppable.
All of that changed in August.
Three Countries in One Day
We entered Nicaragua on the 1st of August, excited to explore a new country after spending two pleasant weeks in El Salvador. We heard that the beaches of Nicaragua were awesome and the colonial towns were not to be missed. We also heard that Nicaragua had excellent eco-tourist destinations similar to Costa Rica, only much cheaper and less touristy. It must be a traveller’s paradise, we thought.
We decided to motor through Honduras in favour of spending a month in Nicaragua, since we had already visited Honduras a few years ago and only had 30 days left on our CA-4 tourist permit.
Like many overlanders before us, we drove from El Salvador to Honduras to Nicaragua in one day. Our chosen route required us to cross two borders.
Before the big border crossing day, we got a cheap hotel room in San Miguel, El Salvador, to research all the Immigration and Customs logistics and to make the many, many required photocopies of all our travel documents (we brought a portable printer/photocopier with us).
Thanks to the instructional articles written by Martin and Nicole of My Overland Adventure, we were prepared to push mounds of paperwork all the way to Nicaragua.
The dual border crossing process normally takes 6-8 hours. Despite our early start (6:45 am at the first border), it took us 12 hours!
We didn’t know that Salvadorans like to go to Nicaragua for their San Salvador holiday week (which kicked off on August 1). So we shared our dual border crossing with about a hundred vacationing Salvadorans bound for Nicaragua. Of those 12 hours between borders, 8 hours were spent sweating in Immigration and Customs line-ups.
We saw the two sides of humanity at those borders.
- On the bad side: People pushing to cut in line, touts fast-tracking “paying customers” to the front, people yelling at border officials, border officials leaving for lunch – all at the same time.
- On the good side: People relieving disabled seniors and pregnant women by sending them to the front of the queue, families keeping their spirits up in the unbearable heat, strangers cheering for other strangers who triumphantly walked out of the immigration building waving a fist full of completed paperwork in the air.
We finished at 6:45 pm, sweaty, hungry, and exhausted. Gregor drove to the city of Leon, Nicaragua, on a severely pot-holed highway in the dark – and in the rain. It was a terrifying drive, but we made it safely and found a hotel with secure parking that night.
Gregor and I spent the next day exploring the streets of Leon and getting our bearings in the new country.
For about two weeks following the epic border crossing, Gregor and I just didn’t feel right. We both felt under the weather and over-tired, despite getting about 9 hours of sleep every night.
By mid-August, we were both getting irritated by seemingly small things and were feeling lazier than normal.
Our morning coffee conversations started to sound like this:
Janice: What do you want to do today?
Gregor: I don’t know, what do YOU want to do today?
Janice: Well, I don’t really want to do anything.
Gregor: Me neither.
Janice: But we should probably do something.
Gregor: [exasperated] Well, what do you want to DO?
Janice: [frustrated] I don’t KNOW, what do YOU want to do?
And so it went on, until one of us couldn’t stand it any longer and finally got up to do a chore – like prepare breakfast, or clean up the van, or prep some gear for a day trip. And then the other would feel the pressure and reluctantly join in, sighing and grunting and making a big show of actually “doing something”.
We knew we were off kilter, but we didn’t know why. Still, we continued to explore Nicaragua, taking in the sights along the way.
Chilling Out at Laguna Apoyo
Laguna Apoyo is located only an hour from Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. It’s a clean, warm freshwater lake with no motorized boats on it – ideal for swimming and lounging.
For $26 CAD/$20 USD per night, we camped in the hostel parking lot and had access to beach chairs, kayaks, floating tubes, a lakeside restaurant-bar, clean showers, and fast wifi. It was a pretty good place to get some work done, but neither of us really felt like working.
Anniversary in Grenada
On August 8, we celebrated 17 years of marriage in the colonial city of Grenada.
Grenada is a beautiful city, but the place felt somewhat “sketchy”. It doesn’t really show in the photos, but the streets had an air of edginess.
We didn’t really find the people in Grenada to be particularly friendly. As we sat at an outdoor cafe drinking anniversary sangrias, we were approached by several relentless street kids who kept pushing their handicrafts across our table and just wouldn’t take no for answer. If it wasn’t my anniversary and if I wasn’t buzzed from drink, I probably would have blown my top on those kids.
Isla Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua that is formed by two volcanoes: Concepción and Maderas. We were able to ferry Lucky onto the island and drive its entire perimeter without any troubles.
Isla Ometepe has a lot natural attractions aside from its volcanoes. These include beaches, mineral springs, waterfalls, organic farms, and diverse wildlife.
Despite the growing tourism industry, there are many poor families on the island. For example, teachers on the island make less than $200 USD a month.
In the town of Merida, there is a pre-school called the Bilingual School of Ometepe. Here, the kids have the opportunity to learn English so that they can have a better future in tourism. They also learn about the benefits of recycling – the school walls are made of recycled garbage packed in plastic water bottles.
Every afternoon, tropical rain poured on the island – straight down, sometimes in sheets. Welcome to rainy season in Central America.
Gregor found a little kitten shivering all alone, drenched by the rain. He warmed the kitty up and then put him in a safe spot where Mama Cat could find him again.
Hitting the Wall
As we drifted through Nicaragua, we ran into a lot of the same things that we saw throughout the rest of Central America: chaotic street markets, run-down stores and houses, and questionable driving practices.
By late-August, the once “interesting and quirky” norms of Central American culture just became “downright irritating”.
We were tired of seeing piles of garbage and dog poop in otherwise gorgeous natural landscapes. Tired of having unclean facilities in places where we would expect the opposite. Tired of being woken up by packs of barking dogs throughout the night and incessantly crowing roosters in the morning.
Sweating buckets each day and swatting flies each night was getting old. So was dodging maniac drivers and indifferent pedestrians on the road. We had enough of villagers staring at us, vendors shoving their wares in our faces, and people getting into our personal space.
We didn’t want to eat yet another regional incarnation of chicken, beans, and rice. Or white bread. Or white processed cheese.
The emaciated stray dogs, the begging children and seniors, the cranked-up pop songs blaring from over-amplified speakers – we were tired of that, too.
We were also tired of paying for services but not receiving them due to circumstances beyond the underpaid employee’s control:
“Sorry, the power went out.”
“We can’t process your purchase, computer system is down.”
“Router is broken, no wifi.”
“Pump is broken, no running water.”
“Sorry, we ran out of chicken” (Really? But the only things on your menu are chicken dishes!)
During our time in Nicaragua, it seemed like we had an irritating event occur every few days. Each time, we sucked it up and kept moving on, hoping to find something that would make us love Nicaragua the way other people loved it. After all, the country had a lot of beautiful sites, diverse terrain, and interesting wildlife.
Despite Nicaragua’s beauty, it just didn’t draw us in and give us the warm fuzzies like other places did. Granted, Nicaragua is still recovering from years of civil war, corruption, and gang violence. But other Central American countries are doing the same and they appear to be somewhat more organized and friendly.
No matter how hard we tried, we just didn’t love Nicaragua. We only kinda liked it.
Gregor and I started to wonder: If everyone loved Nicaragua and we didn’t, then it must be us, right?
We didn’t miss home and we weren’t bored of traveling.
We weren’t sick of each other and we still loved the van.
So why were we feeling so unmotivated and underwhelmed?
We shared our feelings with our overlanding friends, John and Paula, who were also traveling in Nicaragua in August.
They talked about a phenomenon experienced by overlanders known as the “burn-out” phase. It occurs at around the 7th or 8th month on the road, and is associated with feelings of weariness, irritability, anxiety, and/or depression.
Moving around every few days in a foreign country and living/working in a confined space for long periods of time invites a special kind of stress to those of us who are programmed to settle. After a while, the stress piles up and the feelings of burn-out creep in. The stress is a little bit like being overworked on the job. If the stress goes unchecked, the burn-out takes over and life can go sideways.
Before this Pan-American trip, the longest that Gregor and I lived on the road was 6 months (in a white Westfalia van back in 2008). Now we were hitting a wall at 8 months. The burn-out theory made perfect sense. It was such a relief to know that we weren’t the only ones experiencing the madness!
As Paula says about overlanding: “It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, people!”
[Well, it’s mostly rainbows, with occasional unicorns :-)]
We don’t have to love every moment of our nomadic life. We just need to accept the fact that we don’t love every moment of our nomadic life.
For the Record
I’m posting this article from a parking spot at Arenal Backpackers Hostel in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Gregor and I just completed our 8th month on the road and are starting our 9th. With Nicaragua behind us and Costa Rica ahead of us, we’re keeping an open mind.
Still, we wonder:
If we had visited Nicaragua earlier in our trip, would we have enjoyed it more? Maybe.
Would we come back to the country and give it another chance? Probably not.
For the record, we did have fun times and interesting experiences in Nicaragua. Here are some pictures to prove it…
We partied on Isla Ometepe with the young folks at Finca Magdelena hostel:
Gregor and I both learned to surf for the first time ever at Playa Maderas:
We scoffed at the rain and turned Lucky into a laundry drying machine:
This kick-started my obsession with photographing line-dried laundry:
Gregor and I are very blessed to be able to discover the world through the windshield of our van. We’re also very fortunate to have a community that continues to support us in our journey. Special thanks to John and Paula, for sharing their perspectives and helping us to “keep it real” on the road 🙂
OK, Costa Rica, we’re comin’ in hot so let’s see what you got!