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Driving to Panama

Potential snowbirds, your balmy winter dream can become a reality

by Harriet Halkyard
Montiverdi Cloud Forest, Costa Rica.
The cloud forests of Costa Rica are mystical with flowers and bromeliads growing from the trees and occasionally falling to the ground beside you. Montiverdi Cloud Forest, Costa Rica. — Photo courtesy of Harriet Halkyard

Have you dreamed of sitting in front of your RV on a Caribbean beach? This dream can become a reality this winter if you head south like we did.

On the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula is Belize—the northernmost country in Central America. Many people know that it is an English speaking country with coral reefs, but not so well known are the sacrificial limestone caves. We sat in inner tubes and drifted into caves around stalagmites and stalactites carved with the features of ancient idols. Two thousand years ago, Mayan woman came here to make sacrifices at little fires and then smashed the pots to release the spirits in the hopes that their wish to become pregnant would be granted.

Through the jungle canopy

Continuing southeast we drove into Guatemala and visited one of the largest of the Mayan temples at Tikal. Some RVers have dry-camped in the parking lot and tell stories of waking up to the screech of monkeys climbing the jungle overhead. We camped elsewhere as we had our dog with us, but we did climb to the top of a temple that offered magnificent views of other temples rising through the jungle canopy. We also watched the locals who still come to light small fires and pay homage as their ancestors have done for centuries.

Further south in Quetzaltenango, in the Guatemalan highlands, we lived with a family and took a total immersion Spanish course. Five hours of one-on-one instruction and full food and board only cost about $175 US a week. You can hardly stay at home for that price! Being immersed in the culture was special and we thoroughly enjoyed going to the market with the family. We took excursions in our motorhome up winding pine-lined roads to colourful market towns like Chichicastenango, where locals sold their woven fabrics alongside bananas, masks, flowers and goats.

Lush greenery

We left the light frost of the Guatemalan Highlands and headed to the tropical lowlands. We drove down gentle gradients with grassy slopes dotted with trees that added rich emerald patches of shadow. Green hills faded into soft blue ridges in the distance that melted into sky. As we descended it became hotter and humid. The coffee groves gave way to corn and tobacco, which in turn yielded to sugar cane and bananas.

The Caribbean coast of Honduras is full of history and pirate stories, tropical fruit and beaches with the occasional coconut palm leaning towards the silver sand. We parked our rig for free behind the Christopher Columbus hotel, next to the airstrip Ollie North built in Trujillo. The beach was deserted and clean with lounge chairs waiting in the shade of palapas where we enjoyed the best pi?a coladas in Central America. The locals claim Trujillo is where Christopher Columbus limped ashore with a ship badly damaged after hitting the coral reef, making this the first place he touched on the mainland of America. The Spanish shipped gold home from here when they could get it past the British buccaneers.

Exploring the communities

We walked the couple of kilometres into town. People were milling about the square sucking frozen juice from bags a local entrepreneur was selling from a battered cooler. There was a small market and a church with the date 1525 engraved in the stone.

We could have lingered but we had our hearts set on reaching the Panama Canal and we had Nicaragua and Costa Rica to cross first. Distances are short—all seven countries of Central America could almost fit into British Columbia twice—however road conditions required us to drive slowly.

Costa Rica is worthy of its reputation as an eco-destination. We watched volcanoes dribbling hot lava, swam in pristine streams, hot and cold. We meandered through rain forests under orchids and bromeliads and over bridges strung across canyons so we looked down on the jungle. On one occasion we got completely lost driving a damp dirt side road that sliced through the ultimate jungle that reached so high it was as though the clumps of green at the top were in a different world.

Onward to Panama

Panama was our ultimate goal and we cheered as we crossed the Bridge of the Americas. Imagine our excitement when we secured our passage through the Canal for free. We inquired at the Balboa Yacht Club if there were any boats needing line handlers as we knew each yacht must have four in order to make the transit. A couple of days later we were sailing through the Canal, occasionally leaping up to secure the yacht to a tug or other craft when we reached a lock. It took us twelve hours to transit the Canal and an hour and a half by taxi back to our motorhome.

The next day sitting under a palm tree on the Caribbean I had to turn down a fisherman because the lobster he offered was too big for any pot on our rig!

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