We have been back for a few days. We’ve done laundry and put away our suitcases, and our tanned face our fading, but I still find little bits of sand in the bottom of the laundry basket and I smile. We needed this vacation. We needed time away as a family where we weren’t juggling life and work and ministry and a thousand little decisions about our future. We needed the simplicity that comes from being away, where our biggest decisions for the day were, where to get lunch and whose turn it was to sing Old MacDonald? This vacation invited rest and play and…lets be honest, lots and lots of driving.
This past season has been a challenging one. One friend of mine said the year after each of her children were born was the hardest in their marriage. That made sense to me. Of course having a child has been one of the best choices we’ve ever made, I also think we weren’t totally prepared for how it would change us. Gerber and Me, that is. Becoming parents has challenged us and changed us. And add into that mix two unique cultures and two very different ways of growing up and you can say we’ve had a lot to work through.
We knew we needed a break. One thing that has always been easy in our marriage is travel. We both love to travel and our travel-style (spend-less-on-hotels-more-on-activities) meshes well. Originally we thought it would be great to drive from Guatemala to Panama, covering aaallllll of Central America. But then we remembered our sweet, active 1-year-old who is not exactly found of the carseat, so we reconsidered.
Instead we spent a little over 10 days driving through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
If you’re thinking of traveling through Central America here’s my quick recap: Air-conditioning is a must. The beaches get better the further south you go. And be patient at border crossings. There, done and done.
If you’re wanting the longer, play-by-play of where we went, where we stayed and what we ate, keep reading. But warning, it’s long. 🙂
We loaded up our truck early Monday morning and made reservations for the first place and then planned on figuring out the rest as we went. (September is a slow season is most of Central America, so this worked. If you’re traveling anytime from Nov-April, better to plan ahead!) We made it into El Salvador, after 2 hours at the border. Apparently our plastic boxes in the back of the truck seemed very suspicion. We arrived at La Tortuga Verde in El Coco, the most southern part of Salvador, and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I signed in happy relief.
A small part of my heart will always feel at home with my toes in the sand and the sound of waves. And although we have the beaches in Guatemala, it never really feels like the beaches I remember in California. But this was perfect.
Our hotel (one-step above a hostel) was literally on the sand. You walk out of your room and touch the sand. The restaurant sits on the sand and every table has an ocean view. This was great, except we quickly learned that Elena doesn’t really like the sand. Ha. The food was good, service great. And our simple, but adequate room had AC and a screened in porch with 2 hammocks. We’d put Elena to bed by 7ish and then hang out in the hammocks. We spent the day rotating between the beach, the pool and the hammocks. It was lovely.
Then we loaded up again and made plans to cross the Honduran and Nicaraguan borders. When you cross the border driving, you actually cross the border of the country you’re leaving (and turn in a bunch of paper work, get a stamp in your passport and maybe pay a multa) and then you wait to cross the border of the country you’re entering. Border crossings were not our favorite. We couldn’t find much to see/do in this southern part of Honduras so we drove straight through to Nicaragua.
(photo credit thanks to google images and elnuevodiario.com.ni)
We made it to Leon, where we found a nice hotel with breakfast included and 2 blocks from the central square. Apparently there are beaches and some cool volcanoes to see around Leon, but given the heat we just stayed one night. After all day in the car we walked down to the central park at dusk. Neither one of us brought our phones or camera, but for a second it felt like we were in a plaza in Europe. By far one of the most stunning plazuelas I’ve been to Central America. Elena was entertained by the agua in the fountain, Geber I walked behind her, holding hands as she squealed with delight running around the open space.
In the morning we did a tour of the cathedral, apparently the biggest in Central America and got to walk on the top of the roof. It was designed with a special mixture of chalk and egg whites to form this white plaster. You even had to take off your shoes to walk on top! No joke. Elena enjoyed the view from the ergo, sleeping through the whole tour. We took advantage of the sleeping child, grabbed smoothies and hopped back in to car.
Next stop, Granada. We had heard wonderful things about this town, which is a sister-city to Antigua. It’s quite a bit bigger and not as “picturesque” feeling, but there is a 1-mile pedestrian only street, with outdoor dining, small cafes and live music that quickly became our favorite.
La Calzada, it’s called. It starts at central park and ends at the Lago de Nicaragua. If you’ve ever been to Barcelona, it feels just like Las Ramblas or for my Santa Barbara friends, it would be like State Street, but smaller and no cars or stoplights… or Abercrombie.
We ate at this place recommended by a friend of mine and may have gone back the next day for drinks and snacks. It was kid friendly, had hammocks inside and a gorgeous garden with a fountain. (agua!) Can you tell what things entertained our daughter?!
We found the best little gelato place owned by a man from France. And spent lots of time walking up and down this street. By the end of the night Gerber was pushing the stroller and I was carrying Elena in the ergo. As he hauled the empty stroller up the flight of stairs at the hotel he said, “Well, at least we have a stroller to push the diaper bag?” Ha. Has there ever been a truer statement?! We learned a lot traveling with a wee-one. Elena usually can only handle the stroller for about 20 min and only then, if there is something to look at, otherwise she wants to be down and walking. Active one, that girl. I don’t know where she gets it??
We stayed at this place, which was ok, kind of a quirky style in one the oldest still standing mansions in Granada. The silver lining was a wonderful breakfast buffet with French toast, eggs to your gusto, and crepes. We did a lot of juggling, eating and chasing after a toddler, while trying to get a few pieces of food in her system. Most places in Central America don’t have high chairs (which we has assumed), but what we didn’t realize was how distracted and hard it would be to feed our little one without anyway to strap her down. By far, the best part of the hotel was the 30 min message that was included for each night you stay!
Since we had a car we spent one day exploring the area just outside of town. We had heard about Lago Apoyo (which is kind of comparable to Lake Atitlan, but much, much cleaner!) It’s right in the middle of a reserve so Nicaragua has done much to protect this little gem, especially consider how polluted the much larger Lago de Nicaragua is.
We spent a day here, at the Laguna Beach Club, and kind of wish we would have spent a few nights there as well. It was delightful: warm water, best fish I had on the whole trip, a little grassy area and hammocks built into the side of a hillside.
Elena is down to one nap a day right around 12pm, so I just held her wherever we were. I mean how much better does it get, holding a sleeping baby, reclining in a hammock overlooking water. I got to read and rest and Gerber went to kayak. Win win. I will say given her natural inclination to nap while being held, she’s a pretty easy traveler. Hold her, nurse her and she can sleep anywhere 🙂 We didn’t even travel with a pack N play, just a camping pad because our little one still sleeps better on the floor.
We loaded up again. And by “we” I really mean Gerber. Bless him. He must have loaded and un-loaded our stuff and taken off and on the monster size wheels of the bob like a 100 times. #husbandoftheyear
(If you made it this far, you either must really love traveling or are just scrolling down to see more cute pictures of Elena.)
Next stop was San Juan del Sur, originally we booked this little hotelito for 2 nights, but we ended up staying for 5 days! It was simple, clean, had a wonderful ocean breeze and was less than 1/2 a block from the beach.
We’d wake up early, thanks to our adorable alarm clock and the first words out of her mouth, “agua?” agua?” So we’d throw on our swimsuits and walk down to the beach. We did morning beach walks most days, and sunset swims. The water was always warm, the sand soft and the surrounding cliffs and boats in the harbor made me take gazillions of sunset pictures.
We’d come back to our hotel in time for breakfast and then decide which beach to explore for the day. We spent one morning here, where Gerber rented a surfboard and tried surfing for the first time. I held Elena, who decided to take a 2- hour nap (she never takes TWO-hour naps!) listening to the sound of the crashing waves. I think I need to sit by the ocean every afternoon. It would greatly improve our nap situation over here.
Then another day we drove north to this beach and found a great hotel where we had use of the pool and patio and beach access as long we ordered lunch at the restaurant. If you’re vising Nicaragua and don’t have a car you can take a shuttle to all of these places. My friend Brooke lives there and had tons of great recommendations. You can check out her website San Juan Live for more info.
In the afternoon we’d usually walk along the “boardwalk” – just a strip of restaurants and surf shops and get smoothies.
Sunsets in San Juan are like a call to prayer. Everyone turns their chairs and their gaze to watch the colors dance across the sky as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s breath taking, really. It invites a moment to pause. To stop doing everything else and just sit. And be. And watch. There were no other distractions, nothing else demanding our attention, there was no 3G, no meetings, no dinner to cook, just the simple joy of watching the sunset.
Sometimes I feel closest to God watching the sun set over the water.
There was one evening I sat on the sand watching the two loves of my life play in the shallow breaks of the waves. I realized in the past year one of the things that has brought me the greatest joy, is seeing Gerber father Elena. He loves her fiercely and cares for her with tenderness only a father can give his daughter. She laughs with him more than any other. And as I watched them run back forth, trying to not let the water touch them, this new love washed over me. Like a fresh start of parenting and marriage, with a renewed dose of grace and gratitude.
One afternoon we splurged and asked our friend for a babysitter recommendation and left Elena in good hands, so we could try paddle boarding. We rented two boards and after we managed to get over the waves, we paddled around the harbor in between boats and along the coastline for an hour. I may have gotten the arm workout of the century, but well worth it. At one point we managed to both sit down and face the sunset. Gerber grabbed on to my paddle and pulled my and my board close to his. We smiled. It was the perfect amount of new-ness and adventure, and just a tad scary to be out so far away from shore. It had been along time since we did something new and fun together.
San Juan stole our hearts. The laid back lifestyle, the amazing beaches, the beautiful sunsets and the affordable beach-style living are all pluses! We even pondered staying longer, but decided we needed a place with a kitchen so we could do some meals at home for Elena and for our budget. But we couldn’t find a place to rent. So we vowed to come back.
I have always wanted a little place to call our own, or a place to say, “This is where our family goes on vacation. This is where we go to recharge, to play and to rest.” And I think San Juan could be that place for us. It’s a long drive, but doable, even with a toddler!
After we packed up (yet again), we made our way back toward Managua, where we stopped to visit some friends who had moved from Guatemala. We originally we’re going to just stop for lunch…but ended up staying the night. I like friends like that. They opened up their home and their life and let us live right along with them for 24 hours.
They have two kids, and Elena had more toys then she knew what to do with. They are also a bicultural couple- he’s from Minnesota and she’s from Guatemala- and they are a bit ahead of us in the journey of parenting and marriage and ministry. It was a joy just talking with them and realizing, oh, ok good…so this is normal? We hope to see them next time we’re in Nicaragua.
We left their home at 10:30am and started driving. We knew we had three border crossings ahead of us and weren’t sure how far we’d get. We were going to stop in El Salvador, spend one more night by the beach and then head home. But after 9 hours in the car, Elena fell asleep in my arms. (I know I know, you can all gasp now. Car seats are not required here 🙂 So we decided to just keep driving and avoid one more night un-packing and re-packing the car. After a quick stop for some tacos, and a bathroom break we made it home after 15 hours. Tired, but grateful.
Traveling has a way of doing that…filling you up, giving you lots of be grateful for and making you slightly exhausted.
Gerber and I have traveled often, but this was our first time traveling as a family. And in many ways we are still learning how to be a family-of-three. We are re-learning how to be husband and wife and mom and dad. How to be us, with her.
Traveling with a little one changes things for sure. We worked around her schedule and needs, which meant most nights we were in our hotel room by 7pm. One of us would head out and bring back dinner and then we’d sit on the floor in the dark, eating dinner with plastic forks, pointing and whispering and trying not to laugh. It was simple, some might say ridiculous, but we were together. We went to sleep early because our days started when the sun came in. We learned to reorient our expectations and plans based not on what we wanted to do, but what we could all three realistically do or enjoy or handle. And maybe that’s what a lot of the first year of parenthood is about, about re-orienting and re-arranging your expectations and plans.
Now we just need a few days to recover from our vacation, right? Isn’t that how it always is?