Having crossed the North American continent in late 2015, the GLA Adventure now heads further south – and, as the names of places get harder to pronounce, the locations get ever more exotic...
My nine year-old daughter and I often play an interactive globe game that shouts out names of obscure countries at you, leaving you to pinpoint them on a miniaturised orb that mimics our planet. The most fun ensues when exotic names have to be scouted, such as Guatemala or Nicaragua – in this case, on a strip of land that snakes its way south from the USA to South America. Who knew it was exactly this landmass that I’d be covering on the GLA Adventure.
The North American leg was complete in early November, following an exciting journey from New York to San Francisco over a couple of weeks. To refresh your memory, we’re driving these two India-made machines around the world – having already completed all of Europe and some parts of Africa. After covering over 5,000 kilometres in the US, it was now time to head further South – specifically, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
The cars had been trucked to Tucson, Arizona, where the team picked them up and drove across the border to Mexico. I met them in Chihuahua City, the capital of Chihuahua State, a little over 500 kilometres south of the US-Mexico border.
When you think of Mexico, the first things that come to mind are sombreros, mariachi bands, tequila, and tacos! Needless to say, there’s a lot more to Mexican culture than these clichés – something that we had hoped to uncover during our drive through the entire length of this beautiful country.
For me, it all started with a spectacular sunrise at the Chihuahua dam. The tourism authorities met us before the crack of dawn (literally) and escorted us to the dam to get the perfect view of the city. And what a start it was to this leg of the GLA Adventure – where we found the people exceedingly friendly and willing to go out of their way to help, but the red tape was insurmountable in some parts (as you’ll read later on).
From Chihuahua, we headed 450 kilometres south to the abandoned mining town of Ojuela – which, replete with a famous suspension bridge, looked like it was straight out of the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The terrain is stark and rugged, and the views absolutely spectacular. Watching the sunset from Puente de Ojuela (puente means bridge), capped off a pretty surreal first day – not least because of the beautiful landscape, but also because I got a bit of a shock the first time I saw our security detail. The tourism departments of Chihuahua and Chiapas states provided us security through some parts of our journey – essentially to ensure that our rather conspicuous machines didn’t attract any untoward attention. Personally, I have to say that I never felt the need for any extra security – especially since every few kilometres we would come across the Federal Police on patrol with armed officers harnessed to the back of their massive V8-powered American pick-ups. In fact, between the Federales, the State Police, and a few army patrols that we came across on the highway, it certainly appears as though Mexico has among the most well equipped armed forces in the world – well, ground forces anyway! It was a little disconcerting all the same the first time I saw our very own pick-up with plain clothes State Police officers – about four of them – all packing serious heat! The weapon of choice appears to be automatic assault rifles. Every 30 kilometres or so, we would swap one detail for another, but I have to say that whatever little time we spent with these folks – Federal or State Police – the language barrier aside, they came across as being the friendliest police force in the world. Perhaps also the fastest – you see, we had some trouble keeping up with their V8-powered machines on occasion.
The following day we headed further south to San Luis Potosi, which had an incredibly quaint and historic town centre with small parks and narrow cobblestone streets. Our objective was to head to the centre of town and shoot the cars in front of the beautiful Teatro de la Paz and Museo Nacional de la Mascara – i.e. the theatre, which is one of the four main theatres in Mexico, and the National Mask Museum. A local police officer was kind enough to help us navigate through the many curious looking pedestrians as we manoeuvred the cars onto the sidewalk and from there into the main square. The National Mask Museum has a permanent exhibit of masks from across the world, which highlights the importance of this art form across cultures and throughout the ages. We even found a section dedicated to Indian masks, which included a Ganesh, Surya (the Sun God), and a Kathakali mask! What are the odds of coming across this lot in Mexico?
Even more interesting was a visit to a Lucha Libre wrestling gym next. This is a form of professional wrestling that’s very popular in Mexico. The wrestlers all wear masks, and take on an individual persona bestowed on them by the mask. And while that may sound a little far fetched, when I spoke with one of the wrestlers (who had given us a demonstration) he appeared very sincere in his belief that many of the moves he had shown us – such as somersaulting off the top rope, both into and out of the ring – are only possible when he’s in character and protected by his mask. And, sure, there’s an element of choreography in the show they put on, but what can’t be denied is the athleticism required to perform in the ring – this was further demonstrated by the young kids who spent hours in our presence relentlessly training to perfect their craft.
The next day, we drove 400 kilometres further south to Mexico City, and we came across something that we hadn’t encountered thus far on this trip – traffic, the trademark of all big cities all over the world! If nothing else, the GLA Adventure has certainly proved this to be true. We had just one night in Mexico City, and we intended to make the most of it. For the evening, we headed to Guadalajara de Noche in Plaza Garibaldi – the musical epicentre of Mexico City, and a tourist hotspot. Finally, we were able to indulge all the clichés that we brought with us to Mexico – Mariachi brands, sombreros, and tacos, all in one go. I have to say, though, that the band was pretty good. And I also have to admit that I felt a little left out. You see, most of the other tourists were from other Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America and they sang along with the band with great gusto while we were left to simply tap our feet in recognition of their musical talent. We even saw a cockfight and a man who was pretty handy with a lasso – so pretty much the entire medieval Mexican experience.
The following day, a 900-kilometre drive lay ahead of us. Our destination was a picturesque city in a small valley – San Cristobal de las Casas. Another beautiful and quaint city, after San Luis Potosi, and this one had the added advantage of being surrounded by mountains on all sides. We were delayed by a puncture en route, and also indulged in a luxury on the GLA Adventure – lunch! It was a great meal at the Mexican equivalent of a roadside dhaba. And while the meal was satisfying, it meant that we only made it to our hotel in San Cristobal by midnight. The next day we had an early start too, since we had another 400 kilometres to cover – all in the hills – and a border crossing to contend with as well. But we couldn’t leave San Cristobal without first trying some of its famous coffee, which is exported all over the world. So we headed to a coffee museum in the heart of town, which looked more like a coffee house somewhere in Cochin. The shots of espresso from different blends were exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, even chewing on the coffee beans whole was pretty effective in spurring us into action. On our departure, we were each handed a small bag of chocolate covered coffee beans – which is just what we needed to keep us going for the rest of our journey that day.
As we made our way to the Mexico-Guatemala border by about lunch, we had to say goodbye to our Mexican police escort. Our Guatemalan escort was waiting on the other side of a metal gate in a crowded market that constitutes the border. At each border crossing, we had to first get the cars stamped out, then the equipment, and, lastly, ourselves. Of course, we had to follow the same procedure on the other side of the border each time as well – in reverse of course, stamping in the gear, the cars, and ourselves via customs and immigration.
Countries all over the world try so hard to project themselves as friendly tourist destinations, and yet immigrations officers – the first people you encounter when you enter a country – are typically the most unfriendly and unwelcoming lot you’ll ever encounter. I wonder why that’s a paradox that no country I’ve ever been to has been able to address.
Of course, the immigration officers at the Mexico-Guatemala land border don’t see folks in right-hand drive cars with Indian passports coming through everyday, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by the certainty with which the immigration officer we first encountered told us we couldn’t enter the country. Fortunately, for us, he changed his tune after exchanging a few heated words with our local fixer who had informed their office about our arrival beforehand. So, he would let us through – but not before his geriatric colleague went through each page of our respective passports, and decided to take a nap each time he flipped to a new page. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. Perhaps that explains why it took six hours to clear the border. And, on this side of the border, our police escort went from 5.0 litre Hemi-powered Dodge trucks to a diesel powered Toyota Hilux. Plus, the roads weren’t quite as good, so our progress was slow. The only saving grace was a hot dog at a petrol pump, which kept us going till our arrival at the hotel in Panajachel in the wee hours of the morning.
It wasn’t until the next day that we realised the sheer beauty of our surroundings. Panajachel has a population of just 15,000, and is a popular tourist spot on the Northeast shore of Lake Atitlan. Needless to say, we instantly fell in love with the clear blue waters of the lake – and, in turn, Guatemala. Our journey in Guatemala that day was a mere 100-kilometres to another beautiful city – Antigua, which was once the capital of Guatemala. We were headed to meet a local businessman named Mario Sueiras, who makes armoured cars for a living. But that’s not why we were paying him a visit, we were there to gawk at his car collection – which, to name just a few of his machines, includes a Ford GT40, Shelby Cobra, Mustang GT 350, Chevrolet Corvette (the first four generations no less), Pontiac GTO, Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Camaro Z28, Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 912, 356B, and Ferrari 308. Oh, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, all his cars are the choicest vintage of each marque and in absolutely impeccable shape. He was kind enough to let us sit in all his cars and he even started his Cobra for us, which was deafening and thrilling in equal measure. He declined to start the GT40, as he said it was too loud! I can’t imagine anything being louder than the Cobra, so I don’t blame him. In fact, he couldn’t have been warmer and more welcoming if he had tried. The true mark of a real collector is his or her passion for their beauties of course, but also the sense that they’re merely caretakers of an unforgettable part of motoring history – and that’s exactly the sense that you get from Mario. Our visit to his home was certainly one of the highlights of the entire trip. All told, a longer visit to Guatemala is most definitely required.
The next day, it was time for another border crossing and another country – Honduras. And if we thought that the Guatemala border was bad, we hadn’t seen anything yet. At first, the delay didn’t seem too out of the ordinary – we had, after all, been prepared for a half-dozen hours of twiddling our thumbs. But when six hours turned to ten, and everyone shut shop and went home, we knew something wasn’t quite right. Apparently, the Tourism Department had instructed the Customs Department to ensure that we enter the country through a particular provision in the law – something that would take customs up to forty-eight hours to process the paperwork. Wonderful!
Many calls were made, and various opinions sought, but by 10pm there was nothing to be done. Fortunately, the crew and the cars were allowed through, but we had to leave our equipment behind. So, we loaded it all into one of the cars and left it at the border under the supervision of the border police. By then even our police escort were fed up of waiting and had left, so we went to the small town of Copan to spend the night – which was just ten kilometres from the border.
It was an inspired decision as it turned out. You see, while our local fixer went back to the border bright and early to find a way to clear our equipment, we went to the archaeological sight of a Mayan civilization that absolutely blew us away. Known as Copan Ruinas, this is a one square kilometre site that’s been painstakingly excavated over the past several decades – with work continuing till today. It was the seat of power for a powerful Mayan kingdom between 400 and 800 AD, which consisted of homes, temples, ballparks, and areas for congregation. The carvings on the various sculptures are amazingly intricate, considering that there’s no record of them ever using any iron. The site is looked after by a local team of archaeologists who have devoted their lives to the preservation of the site. One of the archaeologists, who was kind enough to show us around, says that his home is inadvertently built by rocks that were shaped by the Mayans – and not just his, but also the Mayors and most likely the majority of the locals. You see, before the excavation of this site, they would collect stones from the banks of the river – which were miraculously shaped into squares and very easy to use in construction. They have since, of course, diverted the course of the river to prevent any more of the site from being washed away downstream. They now have teams of experts that come in from all over the world to help them with the restoration. Amazingly, the plumbing at the site – designed by the Mayans thousands of years ago – still works today. This is an area that’s prone to flooding, and yet they’ve never had a problem at the site. And, looking at the sheer scale of the site, and the incredible detail of the carvings, you can’t help but think that the Mayans knew a great deal more than we give them credit for. .
As much as we would have loved to spend more time learning about the Mayans, it was time to head back to the border. Fortunately, we were informed that the Tourism Minister had spoken with the Customs Minister and they had been able to find a solution – despite the fact that the tourism department apparently had some unpaid dues to customs. We were finally given the green light by late evening, and this time our police escort was kind enough to hang around – which is fortunate since we had almost 400 kilometres to cover (again at night) to the Honduran Capital, Tegucigalpa.
But before heading to the capital, we had to go via the city of Comayagua. You see, our stay in Copan was unscheduled. We were meant to spend the night in Comayagua, but the trouble at the border meant that we had to cancel at the last minute. The hotel was kind enough to offer us a cash refund, which meant a slight detour en route to Tegucigalpa to pick it up. The trouble was that our police escort was going painfully slow. We waited until we got past San Pedro Sula, which is known as the most violent place in the world, before we ditched our escort and carried on at a slightly more brisk pace. We got to Comayagua by midnight, at which point it was largely deserted. So when we were pulled over on a small side street, the last thing we expected was for four armed men in black commando outfits – with black balaclavas covering their faces – to jump out and take their positions at the four corners of both cars with their guns trained. Fortunately, it was a police officer who approached the cars next. After a short conversation with our local fixer, they dropped their guns and slowly escorted us out of town.
From Tegucigalpa, it was straight to the Nicaraguan border – after braving morning rush-hour in the Honduran Capital of course. Fortunately, this border crossing didn’t throw up any surprises. A few hours to navigate through the paperwork, but nothing out of the ordinary meant that we were in Nicaragua by lunchtime. As soon as we crossed the border, things seemed to get a lot more relaxed. We had no more police escort to contend with, and the roads were absolutely epic. I was in the GLA, and both Ouseph (from Evo magazine) and I really enjoyed wringing the necks of the GL and GLA – which, I have to say, save for the odd tyre puncture, performed flawlessly throughout. We reached our night-halt at Leon in time for dinner for a change, and we finally felt like we were in the Caribbean. Leon may be the second largest city in Nicaragua, but it felt small and intimate with lots of life on the streets as people were spilling out of the many bars and restaurants. We had to call it a night early though, because, naturally, we had an early start the next day.
The next morning, an old Toyota Land Cruiser came to escort us to our destination for the first part of the day. It had the words Volcanoboard.com in big, bold letters on both front doors – we knew then that it was going to be a good day. We drove 20 kilometres East to Cerro Negro, which is the youngest volcano in Central America, and one that’s also the most active in the region – having erupted 23 times since its birth in 1850. The last eruption was in 1999, so, despite our luck being what it is, the chances of an imminent eruption were few and far between – especially since they constantly monitor seismic activity in the volcano. It was a beautiful sight, to see this jet-black mountain stand in sheer contrast to everything around it. It was an even better sight from on top of the volcano, from where the views were simply spectacular. 100km/h winds meant that I, for one, almost got blown off the mountain during our hour long trek up the volcano – especially since we had these wooden planks strapped to our backs, which weren’t doing much for our aerodynamic efficiency.
Volcano boarding, as it turns out, is quite simple really. You hike up, in this case for an hour, and slide down in under a minute. The things we do for an adrenaline rush! The technique is simple – you sit on the board and lean back as much as possible to ensure the greatest speed on the descent. You use your feet on either side of the board to slow you down when needed, and guide you along the way whenever possible. Of course, Ouseph and I decided to race down. He got the better start, but then wiped out after picking up too much speed. I chuckled as I overtook him, and then proceeded to follow in his footsteps. I had lifted my feet off the ground to gain maximum speed, but I couldn’t quite steer as effectively as I needed and wiped out as well. We both got back on and made it all the way down, but he got the better of me in the end. Volcano boarding – you gotta love it!
After we dusted ourselves off, and Ouseph did some dune bashing in the four-wheel drive GL, we set off for our five-hour drive to Penas Blancas – the Costa Rican border.
We arrived at the border just after sunset, with adrenalin still gushing through our veins. It took just an hour to clear the Nicaraguan border, since they didn’t need to check our equipment piece-by-piece. We felt like we were really on a roll, but this endorphin rush didn’t last very long. As we drove into the Costa Rican side of the border and parked outside the customs office, we encountered a sullen customs official who informed our local fixer that our cars wouldn’t be allowed into the country. They had banned the import of right-hand drive cars, effective immediately, and there was no way he could let us through. Lady luck, it seemed, had finally deserted us.
We couldn’t turn back to Nicaragua, because – since the time we entered the country the day before – apparently they had also instituted the same law. We had no choice but to surrender our cars to the customs department, and leave them in their yard for the night. By the time we got the paperwork sorted and cars dropped off, it was past midnight. We rented two cabs – one a pick up truck to carry all the equipment – and headed to the coastal town of La Cruz for the night. It may have been only 20 kilometres away, but it took over an hour to get there since the roads were pretty much non-existent. With our cars abandoned, the mood couldn’t have got more sombre if we had tried.
The next morning we awoke to gale force winds, but at least we had the Pacific to lift our spirits. Ouseph and I decided to take a nap on the beach while our fearless leader, Poro – the director of this leg of the GLA Adventure – and our fixer tried to move mountains to free our machines. They failed!
This time, we hired a minibus to take us to the nearest city – Liberia – so that we could rent two cars in order to at least stay mobile. The plan was for one team to keep going to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, while the other backtracked to the border to have our cars loaded onto a truck to be taken to the Costa Rica-Panama border. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans...
We drove out of the parking lot of the rental agency in our two Suzuki Vitaras and straight into a McDonalds parking lot. We had barely unwrapped our burgers when someone called us outside. Apparently they saw someone taking two bags out of one of our cars. And so it was – on one of the busiest street corners of the city, in broad daylight, with security and CCTV cameras watching – we had been robbed.
The rear three-quarter glass had been broken, the door opened, and a camera bag and another knapsack had been stolen. With it, the passport and wallet of our cinematographer was gone as well. The police were immediately on the scene. Apparently the security guard had taken a loo break, and there were no immediate leads. At the police station, they dusted for prints but found none. To view the CCTV footage they would have needed a warrant, and seeing that it was now 5pm on a Friday they weren’t especially keen on getting one. And so it was case closed.
The nearest Indian Embassy was in Panama, but they were incredibly helpful. They initiated the process of issuing a temporary passport as soon as they got a copy of the police report. We were able to have the Mercs loaded onto the truck and have them sent to Panama without being present, and replace one violated Vitara with another that had all its windowpanes intact. Thank god for small mercies.
We then drove to the capital San Jose, and made it just in time to get a much-needed stiff drink at the bar of the hotel before it closed for the night. The next morning, passport size photos and original forms were couriered to the Indian Embassy in Panama, and we headed to Caribbean for some much-needed R&R. As we drove through lush Costa Rican rainforest, we tried to get our minds off being Mercs-less, and also missing some camera equipment, a laptop, and, most importantly, a passport of one of our crew. We drowned our sorrows in some wonderful Costa Rican hospitality and Caribbean spirit at the beautiful beach town of Puerto Viejo. The next day, a Sunday, we visited the local sloth sanctuary, which is actually highly recommended, and got some surfing lessons as well. And what a rush it was, riding the waves – even it was only for a few seconds. Adrenalin and endorphins, just what the doctor ordered once again!
The next day, bright and early, it was time to backtrack and head back to San Jose once again. We had a meeting with a man by the name of Carlos Rodriguez – a man who virtually single-handedly revived racing in Costa Rica. He bought the La Guacima race track, just outside San Jose, to save it from going under – and only recently sold it to the La Nacion newspaper. At present, he’s racing in the brand new Costa Rican touring car championship. They run space-frame chassis, built in the US (much like NASCAR), that are clothed in silhouette bodies to resemble standard road cars – such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Suzuki Ciaz, Hyundai Elantra, and the like – while the underpinnings are all the same. Every car on the grid is powered by a 5.7-litre Chevy crate engine that produces 350bhp, and sends that power to the rear wheels via a four-speed race transmission. The racing is loud, close, and the driver makes all the difference. At the same time, the OEMs get great publicity – so everyone’s happy. And it won’t break the bank either – a stroke of genius if you ask me. Now, if only the OEM’s in India wouldn’t be petrified to race each other on the track – or at least pretend to do so – we could actually create a great looking and sounding race series that offers close racing and provides a great spectacle.
Anyway, enough fantasy. For us, it was time to get back down to earth and start thinking about how we could possibly cross into Panama with one missing passport. A 7-hour drive – thanks to a bad accident on the highway – took us to Golfito, close to the Panamanian border, for the night. The next day, we were all due to converge at the border – us, with our Vitaras, our cars in a truck, and letters from the Indian Embassy addressed to immigration officials in Costa Rica and Panama, which were being flown in to the nearest airport by a colleague of our local fixer. All the pieces were in place, but we neglected to keep in mind that our luck had run its course. Panama not only refused to let in our cinematographer, but the rest of us as well. They said our documents and visas couldn’t be verified at a land border, since they weren’t connected to a central server, and that we would have to fly into Panama – not drive in! After a few more frantic calls to the Indian Embassy – and another full day down the drain – Panama finally agreed to let most of us in. But our cinematographer would have to head back to San Jose and wait for a fresh passport in the mail before he could go any further. We could finally enter Panama, but now it was too late to clear our cars at customs – so we would have to spend the night at David, an hour from the border. This is also where we had to collect our cars the next day, so that we could actually drive to our final destination of this leg – the Panama Canal in Panama City.
But it wasn’t to be. Another full day came and went, and the paperwork to clear our cars couldn’t be completed. The red tape in this part of the world, it seems, is truly insurmountable. Eventually, we had to truck the cars all the way to Panama – and send them straight to the freight forwarders to ship them to Brisbane for the next leg. I caught the last flight out of David to Panama City in time to make my flight to India the following morning. The rest of the crew rented yet another car to drive to Panama City, and we were united one final time in the lobby of our hotel in Panama City as they drove in and I headed out in the wee hours of the morning. There we were, reunited, but shattered – men broken by the bureaucracy of Central America. But, then, we’re no strangers to bureaucracy ourselves – and what is it that they say, “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”
Well, not only were we stronger, but richer as well. Sure, we may have been down a wallet, a passport, and some equipment, but we had gained a lifetime of experience in just a couple of weeks. And that’s priceless. The places we had seen would remain etched in our minds forever, the people we had met would have a place in our hearts always, and the experiences we had served to endow us with instant wisdom. And that’s the beauty of travel and adventure. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be memorable. And if it were easy, it wouldn’t be an adventure. And it most certainly wouldn’t be the GLA Adventure!
I hope you’re enjoying watching the show and reading about our travels as much as we’re enjoying bringing them to you. Of course, we do have to keep reminding ourselves that what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger! That is the phrase, isn’t it?