Amid a fleet of RV trailers camped out at the Belén Trailer Park in San Antonio de Belén, west of San José, Barbara Gutmann, 73, from Santa Barbara, California, leans in as if about to divulge a little-known secret, lightly taps my knee and says with steady ease, “You gotta be aware – that’s important.”
“Yeah, you have to be smart down here, you really do,” adds Annie Lastar, 62, of Anacortes, Washington.
“But also I think a trip like this is all about getting to know people and enjoying each other … so while we need to take care of ourselves, we also need to keep our minds open,” Gutmann stresses.
Gutmann and Lastar and their husbands Jim and John, along with 14 other couples from the United States and Canada, all between the ages of 52 and 83, are spending more than two months on a trek that would seem more common among adventureseeking college graduates. But instead of traipsing around with bags the size and weight of refrigerators on their backs, they’re traveling in a little more comfort – in personalized RV trailers complete with home comforts, such as hot water, laptops with Internet access, large-screen TVs and their spouses by their sides.
The group of 36 adventurers will leave its tire tracks throughout Central America on a 78-day voyage from Pharr, Texas, all the way to the Embera indigenous community near Panama City, before starting back north.
The stops and points of interest that fill their lengthy itinerary are all planned out by the U.S. RV tour company Adventure Caravans, based in Livingston, Texas. The Central American tour is one of the longest offered, and costs almost $8,000 per couple. It was in Texas that the group members met for the first time, back in December, for a two-day orientation and a few get-to-know-you sessions before they started their engines Jan. 10.
Former U.S. Navy consultants Bob Mohar and LuAnn Patterson, both 52, are the dynamic duo who are the “wagonmasters” of the group. As wagonmasters, they’ve signed themselves up for a truckload of responsibilities that at times feels more like work than vacation, Patterson says.
They are the leaders of the pack, sending messages throughout the group on road updates or pit stops, through the CB radio system that connects all 18 trailers, or “rigs.”
“We keep things going, arrange the tours and basically keep everyone organized,” Patterson says. “Sometimes one of them might want to wander off and use the bathroom or something, and while they don’t always like being told what to do, we’ve gotta do it. It can be tough keeping track of a group this size.”
Propped in the front window of Mohar and Patterson’s RV is a key element in keeping the group up-to-date: a whiteboard showing the next day’s departure time and meeting schedule, written in red marker, as well as suggestions to check oil, transmission and tire pressure.
Between organizing tours and guides, keeping track of paperwork, attending to late-night calls for help and doing their best to deal with any errant problems, the trip can be more work than vacation for the wagonmasters.
However, in the midst of their ninth caravan trip and third to Costa Rica, the two are seasoned travelers, who, in exchange for all their planning and attentiveness, get a pretty good deal with a free trip and daily stipend from Adventure Caravans to help with travel expenses.
Logistics, Logistics To avoid clogging up the roads with its overwhelming fleet of 18 trailers, each between 25 and 40 feet long, the caravan is staggered in groups of four RVs traveling 15 minutes apart. They reconvene at border crossings to make the lengthy process of checking papers go a bit smoother.
“At the Costa Rican border (with Nicaragua), it took us about six hours – that was really terrible,” Mohar recalls. “There seems to be just no interest in efficiency whatsoever at most of these borders.”
During an afternoon social that was a casual collection of fold-out chairs, mixed nuts and beer, Keith Thistle, 55, from Newfoundland, Canada, talks about a bordercrossing-time pool the group set up to try to make a little fun out of the lengthy ordeals.
Most of the group participates, chipping in $1 per guess, with the winnings given to the closest guesser. To date, their shortest border crossing, from Mexico to Belize, lasted two hours and one minute, Thistle says with a chuckle.
“I think more people would drive here if the border relations were better,” Mohar says. “That’s a real downfall in such a tourism-focused country (like Costa Rica).”
Mohar describes the hassles the group has experienced with border officials insisting on verification that every RV is registered. He says they’re afraid the group will try to sell their vehicles once inside the country, a suspicion he immediately dispels.
“Look at us, look at our group; our story should be pretty believable,” he insists.
Mohar and Patterson have also experienced some unexpected drama with local tour guides they’ve hired this year and in years past.
“We had one travel agency (in Mexico) that we contacted two months ahead of time … and when we arrived, they had gone out of business. That was a pain,” Patterson says of last year’s trip.
This year, they’ve had smooth driving with the tour operators so far and are especially happy with Tam Travel of Costa Rica, which has been “topnotch and very professional,” Patterson and Mohar agree, with a look of relief.
This is the 41st day of the group’s trip, which on average has consisted of about 140 miles of travel a day. It’s a rest day, and the group is happy to have it, after nearly a month straight of touring through the Maya ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, and the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and tripping around the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, by horse and buggy.
Thus far, Central America hasn’t appeared very camper-friendly, according to group members, with only a handful of places for the campers to stay. Mohar says that at the end of the day, they usually just look for a hotel parking lot or fuel stop to park themselves for a night’s rest.
“There’s this campground (BelénTrailer Park) and one down in Panama, but that’s pretty much it for us,”Mohar says.
This is their seventh and final day at BelénTrailer Park, which costs each RV a mere $16 per night. Campgrounds are preferable, Mohar says, because they are more secluded, secure areas to stay.
Lastar recalls how one morning, about a week earlier in Nicaragua, the caravan woke to a group of unexpected visitors in its parking lot.
“There was a group of young Nicaraguans sitting on the side of the road early in the morning, just waiting for the chance to do a job for us,” she says. “They washed our big RVs, with one of the kids even crawling underneath to wash the wheels and underside.
I couldn’t believe it!”
The eager young Nicaraguans asked for $8 per car wash, which Gutmann says usually costs at least $45 in the United States.
“But they were so happy to have an extra $8 in their pockets, because most don’t make more than $1.50 per day,” Lastar adds.
As the afternoon rolls on in San Antonio de Belén, a group of couples convenes outside one of the RVs. Arlene Szabo, 62, of the Virgin Islands, brings over a delicious snack of crackers and cream cheese topped with cocktail sauce and baby shrimp, which she proudly exclaims she bought earlier that day on her first trip to San José’s Central Market, a popular place to buy inexpensive, fresh food, as well as clothing and jewelry.
While munching on crackers and dip, Lastar points over to a nearby chair heaped with brightly patterned fabric.
“You see all that fabric there? We’ve got a bunch of quilters in the group here, so one of the women went out today and bought enough for all of us to use,” Lastar says. “It’s such a thoughtful group.”
The laugher and chatter build as the group shares stories about fumbling with Spanish, past experiences and inside jokes.
“It’s a strange group from all over, but a good mix; we get along like family,” says Rod “Dirtbag” Jones, 59, from Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The next morning, the group plans to embark for San Isidro de El General, a crossroads town in the Southern Zone on the Inter-American Highway, before heading on to Panama, where they’ll stay for seven days, mostly in Panama City near the Panama Canal – a highly anticipated stop for most on the trip.
But for now, the camper caravan is enjoying the moment, with a sociable afternoon in Costa Rica’s Central Valley.
Two others shuffle over to join the group.
“Why are we having a social tonight?” one asks.
“I didn’t know we were having a social – it wasn’t on the board – but all right, sure…” the other comments, looking eager to get his hands on some of the munchies and a cold drink.