Currency: U.S. dollar
Road Conditions: poor
Fees: $10 per person to enter
We can’t do El Salvador much justice—we breezed through it in favor of spending more time in Nicaragua, which we had heard amazing things about. El Salvador is very inexpensive, and we were able to find beautiful beach spots. In the small beach towns that weren’t inundated with tourism, it was easy to find business owners with properties near the beach that were willing to let us stay the night in their secure parking for a few dollars. One of these where we stayed for a few night was called Tortuga Verde. We didn’t have as much luck in the touristy surf spots. The disparity in wealth seemed more visible here than many other places—notable surf towns had Quiksilver and Roxy stores, while the next town down the road was simply rundown palapas and houses.
If you missed our previous Central America writeup, one of the most important things we found we needed was secure parking. In Nicaragua, in some smaller towns, we were able to get away with parking openly on the beach because there was no one around, and not much going on. But if you’re in a heavily trafficked tourist area, locals will emphasize again and again that the need for secure parking.
Hazards: petty crime, turtle pirates
Can’t miss: best pupusas, coconuts for days
Currency: Cordoba, 26/$1 exchange rate
Road Conditions: poor, but improving
Fees: about $12 per person to enter, $3 to exit
Wow—Nica. The best beach camping of our travels, hands down. Beautiful views, and absolutely free. We avoided many of the major cities. When we arrived in Leon, a popular colonial town, we immediately drove to Leon’s weekend beach spot called Penitas about 20 minutes away. This is where we found great camping near a notable rock called El Pena de Tigre and other overlanders from Belgium, who ended up giving us the coordinates of camping spots they’d found further south. Penitas is popular for surfing, with lots of board rentals nearby.
Our other favorite was spot was Playa Gigante, north of Rivas. The small town nearest to the spot we found was called Gigante. It’s not as crowded or as well known as more popular beaches to the south like those near San Juan del Sur—but it is developed with wealthy vacation homes. There are a handful of hostels and many surf rental options. Again, so, so, so beautiful. Gushing, yes. We’ll move on.
As a side adventure, Madison went on a trip to the island of Ometepe and had a blast. It’s an island made from two volcanoes in the middle of the giant brackish Lago Nicaragua. It’s isolated, alternative, and gorgeous. The boat, which accepts cars and large vehicles, leaves frequently from Rivas on the mainland and goes to the main port of Mayogalpa on the island. There are a lot of tranquil hostels and fincas to choose from, and places for an overlanding rig here or there. Go to the island with your overlanding rig if you can, because transportation on Ometepe is more expensive than anywhere else in the entire trip. To get from Mayogalpa to a hostel around just one of the volcanoes is $30 in a cab. Hiking, exploring, horseback riding, biking, and motorcycling abound.
When we stayed in the popular backpacker town of San Juan del Sur, we took a tip from other overlanders and camped north of town at a large bridge modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge. While we were out at bars down the street, one of us was always in or around the van. The nightlife there is active and fun, but again, a little risky. Our friends were mugged somewhat unsuccessfully the night before we arrived while they were out partying.
Joel: Tiger Rock//Parker: Playa Colorado//Aidan: Tiger Rock//Madison: Isla Ometepe
Hazards: petty crime, $4 Flor de Cana
Currency: U.S. dollar and Colones. 525/$1 exchange rate
Road Conditions: good
Costa Rica was another country we breezed through, mostly because it is so expensive: in some places, more than the U.S. It’s highly developed by expats, and they have a larger presence there than Tikas or Tikos (how Costa Ricans refer to themselves), which was a little disappointing to us. That being said, the beaches really did hold up, and it was easy to see why everyone wants to be there. Like Nicaragua, there are small beach communities away from big cities that provide camping options. Petty crime is very, very common, and we were told being robbed is “a rite of passage.” We were stolen from the first night while asleep in our van. A known thief from the area reached in through an open door, covered by a screen, and took some cash and an iPhone. That night we had broken some of our own rules about staying safe, and we paid for it. Our favorite area was near the town of Uvita, called Bahia Ballena. We visited Arenal to find that the volcano hadn’t gone off for two years.
Joel: Arenal Brewing Co. // Parker: Bowie’s Point //Aidan: Golfito and the overlook//Madison: Uvita’s beaches
Hazards: major and petty theft, Rudy the Aforementioned Known Thief, price gouging
Currency: U.S. dollar and Balboas, used interchangeably. 1/$1 exchange rate.
Road Conditions: good
Fees: $11 to exit
Panama! The spot of the grand departure from Central America! The northern part of the country offered up its share of isolated beach camping, our go-to.
By the time we arrived in Panama we were in a hurry to find the offices of the new Ferry Express in Panama City. It’s currently the cheapest way to get yourself and your car to South America while avoiding the Darien. While we sorted out everything needed for the boat, which I’ll explain more about in a moment, we camped each night at the Balboa Yacht Club, a bizarre yet safe and well-known option for overlanders in Panama City. It’s outside of the main, heavily trafficked parts of the city, on a peninsula near the mouth of the canal. It’s a small, dead-end road area surrounded by a few lots near a nice hotel and the Yacht Club. We used the Internet, bathroom, and spigot at the Yacht Club’s open-air restaurant and no one seemed to care. At one point there were 5-6 overlanding rigs there, all awaiting news about the ferry.
Ferry Express is very new, around since October of last year, so experiences with the company so far have varied. There’s been some back and forth about shipping cars, so contacting the company ahead of time and checking back often is important if you’re considering this option. The paperwork needed involves visits to two separate buildings that were kind of like the Panamanian DMV, and an office of the police (as well as the Ferry Express office, where they explain all the documents needed) for a car inspection and a few signatures. It’s time-consuming and will take most of the day, and there’s no way around it. To ship our van, it was $300 for the car and $100 for each of us. A cabin with a bathroom and a bed for each of us was an extra $80. We were advised to be at the port in Colon (about an hour away from Panama City) at 8 am the morning of departure, for a boarding time of 5 pm. There was one more inspection done by Colombian officials with drug dogs before the van could go on the boat. It was actually 9 pm by the time we boarded. The process is still a mess, on both the Panamanian and Colombian sides. The boat itself is enormous and really nice for being billed as a ferry. There are bars, cafeterias, and even a musician or two performing. The ride took about 18 hours, and our cabin was clean and comfortable.
When we arrived at the port in Cartagena, there was another few hours of waiting until someone who was qualified to look at our car and the documents we’d taken care of in Panama City had time to do so.
Joel: Kalu Yala//Parker: Panama City skate park//Aidan: Balboa Yacht Club//Madison: Casco Viejo in Panama City
Hazards: the “bad” neighborhood—you’ll know it by the police blockades (we didn’t take it seriously and got mugged), flooded roads in the City, horrible traffic, muggers and other petty crime
We’ll talk about camping in Cartagena next time with the Colombia/Ecuador episode!