Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels
Gratitude

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Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

Thinking about traveling in Central America? Do it, it’s awesome! 🙂 Before the overcast Seattle sky sucks away all of my travel tan, I thought I’d share some of my favorite backpacker-friendly places to rest your weary head in Central America.

As a solo backpacker, where you stay has a huge impact on who you meet and how you interact with a place. I stayed in a bunch of hostels in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but coming up with my top five was EASY. There are a few that stand out in my mind as utterly fantastic experiences, where a wonderfully-run hostel environment teed up awesome experiences and connections.

First, let me share a little about what I believe makes a great hostel, in order of importance:

1) Social scene: I want someplace with a bustling common room filled with my awesome fellow travelers. Let’s form a crew and have a blast for the next few days. That said, you don’t attract other badass travelers without the next three requirements…
2) Setting and grounds: Rooms and grounds should be clean, bright, and beautiful. Be it in the city, up a mountain, or on a beach, the surrounding location should be both breathtaking and convenient.
3) Amenities: I’m a backpacker; I aint got no money, honey! I want as many of these freebies as possible: drinking water, breakfast, wifi, kitchen access, movies, and social activities.
4) Caring management: Hostels are often a labor of love, and people who actually love running them and love backpackers do the best job.
*) Cost: This is a no brainer, so I’m not even going to truly count it but it is an important criteria. All of these fit into the backpacker budget, ranging from $3.50-$14 USD per night for a dorm bed.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to my top five favorite hostels in Central America:

Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin, Guatemala
$4 USD for a dorm bed
I heard about this place on literally Day One as a must-go spot and it did not disappoint. My three nights (the perfect amount of time) at Zephyr were KILLER fun. A party hostel at its finest. Two things make this hostel: the spectacularly beautiful natural setting and awesome other travelers who all hang together on hostel tours. Located in central Guatemala near the Semuc Champey national park, Zephyr is perched atop a peak overlooking the hills and river. The grounds are spectacular.

Overlooking the hills.
More palapas being built as new dorms.
Chilling in the open-air main lounge after a day of tubing.

It takes effort to travel to, but the cool kids come here. Shuttles are offered to Lanquin from hostels in Antigua, Tikal, and surely other hubs like Guat City, but the ride is a twisty one through the mountains. There is much fun to be had on inexpensive group tours, which everyone does: Semuc Champey for swimming and caving, then booze tubing down the river.

Everyone all loaded up in the back of a pickup truck for a bumpy ride down to Semuc Champey.
The gorgeous pools of Semuc Champey national park.
What better way to relax than a day of tubing and beer with friends?

There’s no wifi and very limited internet access, so everyone hangs out together in the common spaces. Games and drinking rule the night. You are at the mercy of the bar for most of your drinks and meals (breakfast is not included); expect standard Guatemalan hostel gringo food options. Pizza is their specialty. Be sure to check out the semi-enclosed showers with views of the mountains to experience the natural beauty more privately. It can be raucous and a little rough around the edges but overall I had an utter blast here. It is a special spot that stole my heart a bit. Find the full story of my Lanquin/Zephyr experience here.

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Yuma’s House, Caye Caulker, Belize
$14 USD for a dorm bed
Oh, Yuma’s. Yuma’s is the longest time I spent in any hostel, two and a half weeks. Right off the beach, it is well run, bright, smartly appointed, and clean. The rules and management can seem strict at first, but it is all to protect the experience of responsible guests and management actually cares a lot. In fact, excellent management, facilities, and guests are what make Yuma’s special in my book. Most definitely get reservations well in advance as Yuma’s fills up often!

Yuma’s as seen from walking the beach.
Yuma’s courtyard, guests only inside the orange fence.
Yuma’s dock, my fave place to catch the sunrise.

The kitchens are clean and well equipped–a huge plus for me–for when you crave something other than bbq or fry jack. The common areas are a great place to hang out, scattered with chairs, hammocks, and swinging benches. The six-bunk dorms are comfy, cooled by fans and ocean breezes. Private rooms are also available. Quiet hours are enforced by a night watchman, as diver guests are often getting up extremely early the next morning headed for the Blue Hole.

It is a chill place where you and your new crew of friends (over the course of two plus weeks, I rotated through three full crews) can easily slip into the Caye Caulker mantra of “go slow”. The slow life is oh so good. I took my Open Water course here and got good at day drinking at the Split. There’s a sweet rhythm to Yuma’s and Caye Caulker that is enchanting. After not too long, it felt like home. Read more about my Caye Caulker experience here.

Sunset happy hour at the Split with the crew… an essential part of every day.
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La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna (on Lake Atitlan), Guatemala
$3.50 USD for a dorm bed
The Iguana is peaceful, homey, and friendly. It’s a great place to take a load off and chill around Lake Atitlan; far superior to any place in San Pedro, IMHO. There is a convivial spirit that permeates the hostel and just made me happy being there. I intended to stay just a night or two, but found the Iguana so relaxing that I stayed a whole week. The restaurant, balcony, and patio area is gorgeous. Right on the shores of the lake, the common areas offer awesome views of the opposite volcanoes.

Just a few steps from the Santa Cruz dock.
View of Lake Atitlan from my fave breakfast couch on the restaurant patio.

One of the awesome things about the Iguana is that is isn’t just a hostel. There are bunks but also private rooms and cabanas–so people of all ages and travel budgets can stay here comfortably–and activities that feel more like a relaxed resort. It’s a very versatile and pleasing place. I stayed in the open-air dorm, in the attic bed in Castillo.

My dorm. I was up in the tippy top bunk. 🙂
There is a full restaurant and bar, plus other services and activities are available on site too. There is a spa on site with reasonably priced facials (I got one and loved it) and massages. Yoga happens often in the mornings, there’s a well-stocked movie room, private Spanish lessons can be arranged, they were piloting trivia night when I was there, and best of all there is a dive shop: ATI divers. They do high altitude diving, Open Water courses, and more. Internet at Iguana is limited; there is no wifi and wired computers are sequestered in a side room for a fee.
3-course family meals are served in the dining room every night. Santa Cruz is a small town with limited dining options, but there are other hotels nearby that do a similar prix-fixe meal deal. But I often liked to stay at the Iguana (even though I never dug the soup course) for the social aspect. It’s where most people at the hostel go and hanging in the dining space is a great place to meet new friends. One of the owners, Dave, often makes musical appearances at the weekend costume party. Ask to hear his signature: the Chicken Bus Song! Read more about my Lake Atitlan experience here.
Waiting for dinner time…
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Oasis, Granada, Nicaragua
$9 USD for a dorm bed
Stepping into Oasis is just what it sounds like: beautiful, relaxing, and filled with little extras that make a traveler smile. The central courtyard is filled with greenery and rimmed with hammocks, swings, and lounging spots. The architecture, furniture, and marble floors bring you to an old and classy colonial Granada. Centrally located near the main square, it’s the perfect base to explore this charming city.

Who wouldn’t want to hang out here?

Amenities abound. Find free filtered water at a spigot near the communal kitchen (which has a blender… handy for making rum smoothies!). A movie library and book swap are available if you need entertainment. At the free breakfast, unlimited pancakes are doled out by the plateful accompanied by fruit and coffee. Off the breakfast courtyard is a small, shallow pool if you want to go for a dip.

The dorms are spacious with the tallest bunks I have ever seen and ceilings up to the sky. Private rooms are available, but the ones I saw were stuffy and small compared to the beautiful dorms. It’s a large hostel (easy to make new friends!) with people of all ages and background, including numerous families. A great place to stay. Read more about my time in Granada here.

Awesome dorms. Even with railing up top so you can’t fall off!
—–

Nomadas, Merida, Mexico
$11 USD for a dorm bed
Nomadas was my first hostel experience on the trip and I still remember it fondly. The helpful and kind staff assisted this day-one traveler with everything she needed and more. It is *the* place for backpackers to stay in Merida, but I would also recommend it to people who don’t usually stay in hostels also.

I stayed in a double bed in the large, airy female dorm just off the main courtyard. Private rooms are also available. Everything is brightly colored, clean, and well-kept. Nomadas is full to the brim with freebies: free breakfast (bread, cereal, fruit, coffee), water, computers and wifi, salsa dancing classes, morning yoga, Mexican folk singer in the evening, and cooking classes (love!!) multiple times a week.

Central courtyard, with communal kitchen through the right archway.
Escape the sun in the spacious women’s dorm.

A stand-out feature of this hostel is its pool, with hammocks draped leisurely over the shallow end. It is the perfect way to spend a hot Yucatan afternoon after a day out in the city sight seeing. It makes you forget you are in the middle of a city. Nomadas was welcoming and friendly; I’d recommend it as a beautiful refuge in Merida. Read more about my Merida experience here.

Ahh, the pool! Image from tripadvisor.com
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Best wishes in planning your trip to Central America. I hope you enjoy staying at all of these hostels as much as I did!

Pro tip: all of these places do fill up, especially Zephyr and Yuma’s. I know it’s not the typical backpacker way, but I *highly* recommend making reservations even just a few days in advance for all these places. A little bit of planning goes a long way and you won’t regret it. 🙂

A week on Long Caye with Huracan Diving

Back in April, I was lucky enough to meet the lovely staff of Huracan Diving when they were all vacationing in Caye Caulker. They had a warm familial spirit and welcomed me into their group immediately, adopting me for an evening. As my travels continued in Central America, I stayed in touch with my new friends and when the road led me back up to Belize in June I came by their island paradise on Long Caye out in the Lighthouse Reef for a visit.
Hellooooo Long Caye! *

Most visitors who come to Long Caye have one primary activity in mind: diving. And Huracan is a prime place for a Belizian diving holiday (check out their stellar reviews on TripAdvisor). Run by Ruth Devacht (be sure to take her up on one of her signature coconut caprianhas!), it’s a place that perfectly mixes excellent personalized service with homeyness. She thinks of everything when considering how to make guests’ experiences great. Consider the condiments at breakfast: spreads like Nutella and Vegemite to give travelers around the world a taste of home. It is not a five-star luxury resort, but this four bedroom guest house is a beautiful and relaxing home away from home.

Huracan lodge. Home sweet home. *

Being a diver myself, I was stoked to check out what I had been told was the best diving in Belize. I was not disappointed; the diving around Long Caye, Hat Caye, and Half Moon Caye is indeed all pretty fantastic. I dove eight times in six days, with one day off to go kiteboarding (more on this below!). The gear, service, boats, and staff were all top-notch. No need to take my word for it: the head guide and dive instructor Jerome just won Belize’s tour guide of the year award.

This is why Long Caye kicks everyone else’s butt for diving Lighthouse Reef.

Because dive sites are so close, there is either three one-tank dives per day or two in the morning and one in the afternoon, at 8am, 11am, and 3pm. Of course, one of the major attractions in Lighthouse Caye is the Blue Hole, which was a blast. You can read the story of my Blue Hole Day here. The diving staff includes multiple divemasters–Jerome, Ruth, Ryan, and Jhoanna–who are all awesome, listen to the kind of places and diving activities you like, and plan dives according to your interests. The reef is absolutely stunning, with so much healthy sea life and gorgeous scenery.

Heading out to the boat.

Our chariot.
Divemaster and swim-through queen Ruth giving a briefing.
Diving the reef. *
Diver diver, are you okay? Most definitely!

I put together a quick video with a mash-up of some of my favorite moments from my dives. While we did see big stuff like reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, and turtles, I really like normal reefy creatures so that is what I put in my video. My very favorite is the sharpnose pufferfish (the hummingbird of the sea)! As you’ll see, I also adore barrel sponges. Yes, I’m a little weird.

My favorite: sharpnose pufferfish! *

Surface intervals are also a special daily occasion at Huracan. When diving out at Hat Caye or Half Moon Caye you can take your fruit or candy bar snack and go ashore to explore the islands. When diving just off Long Caye, the boat returns home to freshly baked treats waiting at the lodge.

A gorgeous arrival on Half Moon Caye.
The red-footed booby in his natural–and only–habitat on Half Moon Caye.
The old Half Moon Caye lighthouse, slowly being claimed by the sea.

The remote location and “go slow” island rhythm of life can easily lead to a pattern: eat, sleep, dive. But I didn’t stop there. There are a bunch of other things to do! Ryan was my ready willing and able tour guide and fun partner. We kayaked, snorkeled, biked, and last but not least he taught me the basics of kiteboarding–his specialty. Check out the video below for some of the highlights. Included is a sequence I like to call “Erin the Christmas tree worm TERRORIZER!”. 😛

Biking the boardwalk over the mangroves that make up the majority of the island.

Fishermen off the west dock on a calm evening.

Ryan is the instructor at Huracan Kiteboarding and there was no way I was leaving the island without a lesson. Ryan was clear, kind, and patient as he walked me through the gear set up, safety, and kite control technique. We launched the kite and he demonstrated some basic kite movement and control, which explaining the theory behind where the kite should be positioned in the air, how I should steer by moving the bar left and right, and adjust power/control by moving the bar up and down. He handed the bar over to me, hooking in my chicken loop, and I tried my hand at flying. It was really cool! The kite is powerful if you want it to be, but quickly you get a feel for comfortably keeping it under control. I graduated to body dragging, using the kite to pull me through the water. Wheee! Super fun. I had more trouble doing this with only one hand, but crashing meant he got to teach me about water launches. 😛 On day one, I didn’t quite make it up on a board, but I was pretty tickled by playing with the massive kite. Totally a blast. Needless to say, I did not make it through nearly as many books as I planned.

Gear check!

Getting ready for a water launch!
Flying the kite–booyah. So much fun!
When I did manage to sneak away with a book, the adirondacks at the end of the dock were my favorite reading spot.
Kickin’ back for an afternoon read.

Huracan works on an all-inclusive basis: your package includes diving, accommodation, meals, snacks, and some beverages. The main house has four guest rooms, so accommodates eight guests maximum. When I was there, there were two other guests plus the staff. That’s it. Virtually a private vacation. The house feels warm and comfortable. Everyone has their private space, but eats and chills out together often in the sunny dining room.

Our eating and hang out space. *
One of the four guest rooms. *
En suite bathroom. *
The entry way and center of the lodge. *
Just a normal island clothes line. Wish I could wear candy-colored bikinis every day!

Their new chef Shannon did an awesome job of keeping us all happy and well-fed, cooking a variety of tasty things with that good home-cooked feel. We were spoiled by a beautiful breakfast spread every morning, the meals throughout the day were delicious and hearty, and there were frequent snacks timed perfectly with our diving schedule. Food is life to me and one of my very favorite things, and I felt very taken care of.

A typical breakfast spread with everything to make the start of anyone’s day kick-ass.
Yum!!
Lunch: Chef’s salad, while filling up the ol’ log book after a morning dive.

My favorite: stew chicken, rice ‘n beans, fried plantain, and potato salad.

Shrimp fettuchini alfredo. I spiked mine with Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce. 🙂
Lobster night!
Our awesome chef Shannon, hard at work.
Very important shipment from the mainland!

But what makes a real difference is the people. Especially on a small island, it is important to have good company with positive energy. Ruth and her crew have that in spades. They are a welcoming bunch who treat each other like family and welcome you in as one of them too. After spending a day diving, exploring, chilling, and generally having fun, we kicked back in the living room together most evenings before hitting the hay. Hey, we’ve got to get up and go diving tomorrow morning! One of my favorites was a new game Ryan taught me: Rummikub. He whooped my butt for two days straight before I got a win off him!

Learned how to play Rummikub–super fun! Ryan executing his trademarked rearranging strategy.
Silly face photo contest with my new little friend.
Hostess with the mostest joining in!

All in all, I had a lovely visit exploring Lighthouse Reef and spending time with everyone at Huracan Diving, a homey little oasis. So much fun in so many different ways. It’s a special place and visiting was a treat and a joy. Thank you all for having me and for a wonderful week!

Send off party.

Thank you for such a lovely visit!


* Photos from http://www.huracandiving.com

Blue Hole Day

Ah, the day many a diver waits for when visiting Belize: Blue Hole Day. The Blue Hole is one of, if not THE, most iconic dive sites in Belize. Unlike most of the reef diving that goes on around here, the Blue Hole is a flooded cenote way out in the Lighthouse Reef. It is 1000 feet across and 150 meters deep, was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, and is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its fame, the Blue Hole received mixed reviews from many divers I encountered, mostly due to the fact that it is just a deep blue hole without the “prettiness” of the reef. But I’ve been diving the reef in Belize and Utila for thirty-odd dives now, so welcomed something different. I was curious what I would think but had an inkling I would dig it.
The Blue Hole, arial view. Image credit http://www.atlasobscura.com

I celebrated Blue Hole Day on Long Caye with my friends at Huracan Diving, where I stayed for a week. Upon waking up at 6am with that same “it’s my birthday!” feeling of holiday specialness, I was immediately confronted by a dilemma: my blue bikini was still wet from hanging outside in the rain. I could of course wear my dry pink bikini but that would be so off theme for Blue Hole Day! I shared my problem with Jerome and Ryan over first breakfast (more on this later) and both voted there actually was no dilemma because whatever I wore was going to get wet on the boat anyway. I took that as two votes for blue. 😛

Yay for Blue Hole Day! (note the bikini choice)
Yum… no better way to start the day than first breakfast!

Huracan Diving on Long Caye is in the unusual situation of being located very close to the Blue Hole, within the same reef in fact. Most people stay further away in Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye and must get up very early then take a two-plus hour boat ride to get to Blue Hole, usually arriving about 8am, followed by two dives at Half Moon Caye (these people always rave about). It’s a huge day trip! But at Huracan we were was just fifteen minutes away and took multiple trips to nearby Half Moon Caye on different days, so we could take it easy. We got up at a reasonable hour, had first breakfast, departed Long Caye at 7am, and were the first ones at Blue Hole by a long shot. Diving early and without crowds is always better, especially when there is silt that can be kicked up and destroy visibility. As my friend Nick would say, winning!

This is why Long Caye kicks everyone else’s butt on Blue Hole Day and diving Lighthouse Reef anytime.

Our divemaster Jerome briefed us once we anchored at the south side inside the Blue Hole. From the boat we could just barely see the reef edge that is so distinct in arial photos. We went over our dive plan with particular interest paid to going deep; to reach the stalactites we would be maxing out the depth limits for recreational diving so received reminders on maintaining neutral buoyancy at depth, ascent path and timing, the possibility of additional safety stops if needed, and awareness of possible nitrogen narcosis.

What’s inside the hole. Source: Google Images

Down we went, equalizing like normal down to the edge of the reef at about 30 feet. From there it was a sheer drop down. We regrouped, then descended into the dark blue. It was an easy sinking descent to our max depth of 43 meters, a new personal record for me. At that depth, we reached the stalactite overhang. Approaching them, my mind began to race with excitement, wondering if I was tinged with narcosis, but I slowed my breathing and calmed down. From there we saw reef sharks lazily swimming beneath us. We wove in between the stalactites, encrusted with sea life, and I knew for certain then and there I was going to adore cenote diving for sure. Happily, I did flips for the camera, perhaps a little narked out after all. (And yes, I did notice shortly after the flips that my backup second stage had come loose and fixed it…) The whole ambiance was one of adventure and otherworldliness. I loved it.

The deeper you dive the more quickly you use up your air supply, so on a deep dive you can only spend a little time down at depth then take the majority of your time slowly and safely ascending. We spent about ten minutes from jumping off the boat, descending, and swimming the stalactites before beginning our twenty-five minute ascent. On the slow way up we worked our way out of decomp, saw more reef sharks, and enjoyed the view of the blue deep. We took our normal safety stop at fifteen feet at the top reef, and all was well. As we returned to the boat and got ready to depart, a second boat just arrived from Caye Caukler was just being briefed. We were in and out before anyone else.

A little deeper than we’re *technically* supposed to go…

Another glorious thing about Blue Hole Day at Huracan? Double breakfasts! One at 6am beforehand and one at 9am upon returning. I was psyched after a great dive, quick boat ride home, hot shower, and clean clothes that continued my fashion theme. The gang gathered for second breakfast (including pancakes with nutella+chunky peanut butter for me!) and a log book debrief. We were pretty happy after a great morning of diving.

Log bookin’ it up with the gang over second breakfast.

After the adventure of the morning I took it easy for the rest of the day. To add to the happy times we had stew chicken with rice and beans for lunch! Afterwards, Ryan and I spent the afternoon kayaking, snorkelling, having fun with his new GoPro video camera, and scaring the bejesus out of Christmas tree worms and the spots off Flamingo Tongues (two of my favorite creatures!) at the shallow reef just off the coast near the Long Caye west dock. That night we ate shrimp, drank Belikin, and I finally got my first win against Ryan in Rummikub. Heart Blue Hole Day!

Happy blue diver.

Get me to the boat on time: five countries in 56 hours by land, air, and sea

With one more month left in Central America and having reached my southern-most destination, it was time to turn around and head north towards my exit in Cancun. I would be revisiting Belize and Mexico to meet up with friends I had met along the way and dive Lighthouse Reef in Belize and cenotes in Mexico.

First stop: Long Caye in Belize to visit some lovely people I met three months ago in Caye Caulker who run a guest house out in the Lighthouse Reef that I would describe as a diving retreat. Long Caye is a small island with a permanent population of only about twenty people and is without regular transport; there was one boat I *must* make if I wanted to make it there. My deadline was set: Wednesday at 2pm I had to be on a dock in Belize City. To get there from Granada, Nicaragua would be a three-day travel blitz through five countries; I was under no illusions that I would have time for sight seeing along the way. It was another epic journey, this time executed on my own without a buddy, and surprisingly enjoyable despite the serial early mornings.

Three days, five countries, over 700 miles via bus, plane, taxi, and boat.

My original plan was to fly directly from Managua, Nicaragua to Belize City, Belize. But this plan was thwarted by a malfunctioning airline website resulting in a sudden drastic price increase. I decided to go by land instead, purchased a bus ticket, but then–unconfident with the Guatemalan bus system’s ability to get me from Guatemala City to Belize City in under 24 hours–I opted to shill out some extra cash for a short plane flight to insure I reached my destination on time. More expensive, but hey, it worked.

Thus it began:

DAY ONE, Monday
  • 3:30 am: Woke after a fitful sleep; I was up every hour because I don’t have a reliable alarm clock and did not trust the hostel night watchman to wake me at the appropriate time. My taxi reservation had been lost just hours before and there was doubt whether or not it would actually arrive. Had more bizarre lucid dreams–a habit of mine on this trip–which weren’t helped by a dormmate with a strong stutter who approached my top bunk in the middle of the night and started talking to me. (He was already on my bad side: earlier that evening when I lost my bus ticket and was frantically going through my stuff, he lectured me on not getting stressed out, saying all the things a stressed out person does NOT want to hear. I’m sure he meant well, but good god his attempt at late-night conversation was disorienting!)
  • 3:45 am: Taxi did arrive on time (yay!) and drove me one hour to Managua, Nicaragua.
  • 5:30 am: Caught my TICA bus from Managua to Guatemala City. This bus ride would take two days. TICA bus is the way to travel; they execute travel so smoothly. With comfortable space and provisions, the ride was pleasant. I alternated between sleeping, reading/writing, and enjoying the view of the countryside. I had two seats to myself, my travel pillow, blanket, loungey clothes, snacks, and a huge stack of books mostly procured from Lucha Libro in Granada, including:
    • For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway
    • Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez
    • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle
    • A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle
    • Pride and Prejudice, Austin
    • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin
    • The Trial and Death of Socrates, Plato
    • I, Claudius, Graves
    • Common Sense, Paine
Oh, TICA bus, you need some english speaking proof-readers…
  • Over the next twelve hours on the bus, we left Nicaragua, crossed into Honduras, then into El Salvador. I had a whole different emotional reaction to travel this trip. The first times I entered both Guatemala and Honduras I felt an element of fear. I didn’t know what it would be like and had images of potential danger dancing in my head. This time, I felt safe on the TICA bus (they know how to seamlessly do a border crossing) and nostalgic for my time already spent in Honduras. I was happy to return, even just passing through for a short period. El Salvador was new, but I still felt secure; I know how to make these transits now.
  • 2:00 pm: Rest stop. Discovered El Salvador uses US dollars as their primary currency. Sweet! This makes things easier: instead of different currencies here and there, I can use USD the whole way to Belize!
  • 6:00 pm: Arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador. Driving through downtown, I was surprised how lame San Salvador is; it reminded me of San Pedro Sula in that it is FILLED with shiny plastic American chain fast food (what I hesitate to call) restaurants. Nothing special whatsoever that I saw. No charm, all neon.
  • 8:00 pm: I had designs for a papusa dinner, but those went out the window fast with a late night arrival in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Instead, after some internet time sorting out logistics for the following day, I ended up eating pizza and drinking cool red wine out of a champagne flute at an over-air conditioned Italian restaurant just across the street from my hostel.
DAY TWO, Tuesday
  • 4:15 am: Awoke after another night of dreaming people were in my empty dorm talking to me. (WTF crazy brain? Just let me sleep already!!) Took a taxi to the TICA bus station for leg number two.
  • 6:00 am: Caught the TICA bus to Guatemala City. Still had two seats to myself, so comfyness continued. Read a little, slept LOTS.
  • 10:00 am: Crossed the border into Guatemala and found papusas! Just a few cents apiece, I got myself a small plate for second breakfast.
Papusas in Guatemala, just over the border.
  • I was immediately happy to be back in Guatemala. On my first run through back in April, I didn’t fully appreciate the vibrancy of the culture and people. Instead of plastic lawn ornaments like in El Salvador, bunches of flowers are sold on the side of the highway. The landscape feels lush and green and friendly. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.
  • 12:30 pm: Arrived in Guatemala City and immediately took a taxi to my hostel. I actually *liked* driving through Guatemala City, which you are not supposed to as it is notoriously dangerous and charmless. Even though most tienda business is conducted behind iron grates for safety, that Guatemalan flare was still there. I picked up four bottles of Quetzalteca, my favorite cheap Guatemalan spirit, then hunkered in at the hostel for the night, eating a dinner of pan fried english muffins with peanut butter and bananas.
That didn’t last long…
DAY THREE, Wednesday
  • 4:30 am: Woke early once more and took a shuttle to the airport, arriving the recommended 1.5 hours before departure. I was the first person at the minuscule domestic terminal, it took two seconds to check me in, and then I slept on a bench for an hour and twenty minutes. Ugh. There is nothing I hate more than getting to the airport way too early. Don’t get me wrong, I never arrive late enough to miss flights, but being there so early is an unnecessary waste of time that drives me nuts.
  • 6:30 am: On a backdrop of beautiful Guatemalan volcanoes and rolling hills, finally departed on TAG flight to Flores, Guatemala.
That beautiful Guatemalan landscape.
  • 7:15 am: Arrived in Flores. During customs inspection discover that my stuffed-to-the-max backpack had busted open at the seams in three places. D’oh! Luckily my rain cover kept things mostly in place for the rest of this trip. I was super amused to see the Belikin beer ad printed on the back of my Tropic Air boarding pass. Can’t wait to get me a bottle of stout!
Belikin pride!

  • 9:00 am: Departed on Tropic Air flight to Belize City. It was a teeny tiny propeller plane with room only for six passengers. Being the only single, they asked if I wanted to sit up front in the copilot’s spot. Um, how about yes absolutely?!
Our little propeller plane.
They should have given me a co-pilot hat!
All the stuff I could have touched and totally screwed us all over.
  • 9:45 am: Landed at Belize City airport, gathered my luggage, and went out to the curb to find a transfer to downtown. All taxis charged $25–outrageous!! I figured there must be a better way, but apparently no buses go to the airport (really? I still find this hard to believe…) I did discover a shuttle to the Princess Hotel, where my boat was departing from. I hitched a ride. The driver told me he is waiting for another flight and we will leave in 10-15 minutes.
  • 11:30 am: Shuttle FINALLY leaves the airport after over an hour of collecting 7 other people on 3 different flights. All but the last passengers were peeved.
  • 11:45 am: Arrived in Belize City proper. Acquired stewed pork plate for lunch, patching material for imminent backpack repair, and special request items for peeps on Long Caye. Searched for a Belikin singlet that did NOT say “You better Belize it!” on the back. Was unsuccessful.
  • 1:00 pm: Stormy weather hit. The seas looked rough and you could not see past the edge of dock. Looking out at the water made me think about how two weeks ago some people I knew got lost at sea in Honduras between Roatan and Utila. They were miraculously found after four day adrift, but after hearing that story I was a smidge leery of boat travel, even though my situation and theirs was absolutely nothing alike. I was in the good hands of capable crew who knew the conditions and area.
Not my ideal vessel for inclement weather…
  • 2:00 pm: The weather leveled off, rain mostly subsided, and the small uncovered boat left on schedule. I huddled in the back, sharing a giant yellow raincoat with another guest as we road into a light rain. After just a few minutes, the rain stopped and the ride became much more pleasant. We crossed the open blue, the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll, and the last leg of ocean until we entered Lighthouse Reef.
  • 4:00 pm: I arrived on Long Caye, safe and sound and on schedule! I happily took a welcome coconut caipirinha from my hostess Ruth. An excellent beginning to a week of chilling out.
Hello Long Caye. Nice to meet you. 🙂
Woohoo! Made it. Time to kick back and enjoy the island lifestyle.
It was a long trip, but I actually really enjoyed it. I covered a lot of ground over those three days and got to see hours of beautiful scenery during transit. I also felt very confident and secure the whole time, and am happy to have the travel scene of Central America down. I enjoyed feeling independent and capable. Sometimes it is all about the journey, no? It does feel weird to be making my final moves towards departure in three weeks. Trying not to think about it!!

Where has all the rum cake gone?

Just add rum!
Source: Google Images

Since leaving Belize I have missed rum cake. The Utilan bakeries don’t carry it, and no other sweets will do. But I still have a big bottle of rum left over from Roatan… too bad the hotel doesn’t have a kitchen.

I didn’t let that stop me. All you really need is cake and rum, right? I bought Bimbo panquecitos–premade vanilla pound cake–in hopes of easy poor man’s rum cake. Back at the hotel, my friends Nico and Doug invited me for poolside rum and I decided it was the perfect time for an experiment.

The guys were up to be guinea pigs. I split open the mini pound cakes and drizzled them with rum. Simple as that. A little stronger than a rum syrup but turns out it works pretty well, and I think is a WAY better way to imbibe rum than with Coke or pineapple. While munching, we about talked intense diving, Nico educated the old people about the latest in social media apps, and the boys sang Disney songs which was kind of awesome.

I still have proper baking ambitions though–you know, the kind that involve an actual oven–and suddenly opportunity as well. So, there are lots of guys staying for a month or longer doing their divemaster certification who rent apartments instead of staying in the dorms. And it turns out, shockingly enough, that every last one of them is up for me coming over to cook in their kitchen. I’m already kicking around dinner ideas for three different bachelor pad dinner parties… and rum cake is most definitely on the menu. Think I should start a catering service or become the Cake Lady of Utila!!

Say what you mean, mean what you say. I’m a woman of my word, especially when it comes to food. Tonight: baking a chocolate oreo and a red velvet cake for a birthday party.

The road from Belize to Utila: it can’t be *that* hard, right?

The diving mecca of Utila in Honduras is a staple on the backpacking route, so you would think getting there would be a solved problem. But every travel resource says the same: it is a long journey without an easy solution. At Yuma’s in Caye Caulker, I first learned just how much a challenge it might pose: they had a laminated three-page instruction manual for the trip. The recommended route was a multiday mix of ferries and buses that run at awkward times, many only one day a week. And not the day of the week I wanted. Oi.

In the end, I took my time and completed the trip over four travel days in one week with overnight stays in Punto Gorda, La Ceiba, and a detour to Roatan. Thus begins my epic journey:

On Wednesday, I started from San Ignacio in Belize on the western border with Guatemala. Given all the scheduling trouble with Belize-Honduras water crossings, I decided to make my way south by land instead. I intended to visit Placencia (a Belize beach town on the central coast), continue to Rio Dulce in Guatemala (the only big Guat mainstay I didn’t hit already), then cross by land into Honduras, and finally boat to Utila.

But intentions are worth little on the road and this trip was fraught with impulse decisions. I did NOTHING I planned. During a five minute stop at the bus junction to Placencia, I decided to keep moving south. Turns out it was a good decision: whale sharks–the big reason to visit this time of year–were decidedly absent. I instead went to Punto Gorda (bus $4Bz San Ignacio->Belmopan, $19Bz Belmopan->Punto Gorda), the sleepy southern entry/exit point for Belize.

Arriving at the hostel, I immediately ran into my friend Joanne in her signature electric orange Gallo tank top. We have been each other’s inadvertent shadows since Xela; over the past six weeks we have reconnected by chance five times! I am so happy we spent the time to get to know each other better over a delectable dinner of spaghetti carbonara way back in Antigua at meeting #2. She is a fellow blogger and I was delighted to find her on the porch reading my blog as I walked up. She told me she was planning to cross to Utila on Friday, would feel safer with company, and would I like to go. I stewed over the thought for the night. Usually my travel days are a solo affair but entering Honduras with a companion felt WAY better. I decided to forgo Rio Dulce and do the trip with Joanne for both my own comfort and as something I could give her.

We spent Thursday afternoon powwowing logistics. Mainland Honduras has a reputation for being the sketchiest place in Central America and by land there is no way to avoid passing through San Pedro Sula, the most dangerous city in the world with 169 murders per 100,000, averaging 3.3 killings per day. It’s mostly gangs and drug cartels, but there is also the occasional tourist who foolishly refuses to give up their SLR. Our strategy was to start early in the morning and move as quickly as possible. Electronics were tucked away, money was stashed in multiple pockets, water and travel snacks were procured. After doing our research, we came up with the Friday plan:

The route. Doesn’t look too bad….
  • 9:30 am: Ferry from Punto Gorda, Belize to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.($50Bz)
  • 10:45 am: Arrive in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Transfer to private taxi to 2nd immigration office on the Guatemala/Honduras border. (50Q)
  • 11:30 am: Transfer to Maya Norte bus to San Pedro Sula. (about $10USD) Cross the border.
  • 2:30 pm: Arrive in San Pedro Sula Terminal. Transfer bus to La Ceiba. If we get stuck in San Pedro overnight, take a taxi and stay at La Hammocka. No going out at night.
  • 6:30 pm: Arrive in La Ceiba. Taxi to El Hotel Estadio and hunker in for the night.
  • 8:00 am: Taxi to ferry terminal 8km east of town.
  • 9:00 am: Boat to Utila. ($30USD)

How did it *actually* happen?

    • Leaving Belize, the exit station was plastered with PSA posters about human trafficking and how you have the right to seek asylum if you fear to return to your home country. Whoa. We paid our $37.50 exit tax and headed to the dock. The Punto Gorda ferry ($50Bz/$25USD), a small vessel seating only about 20, departed slightly late. The seas during the one-hour ride to Puerto Barrios were smooth. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, ate a peanut bar (the first of many that day), and felt the wind in my hair. We were on our way.
    • We arrived in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala and were immediately offered direct minibus service to La Ceiba (200Q/$25USD each). Simultaneously, we became acquainted with a fellow traveler, Doron, who became our companion and Spanish-speaking advocate. We made a split decision to go off book and travel direct as we thought it would save time. Daylight on a travel day is precious and the driver said we should reach La Ceiba by 4:30pm, which is astonishingly fast. (That should have been our first clue…) We hopped in the minibus and started chatting away, optimistic we might reach La Ceiba in time for the afternoon ferry. I only had Belize dollars on hand and with all the border crossings I quickly ran up a tab with my amiable and currency-versatile associates.
    • At the second Guatemalan immigration post, the driver kicked us from the shuttle and began loading our gear onto a large Maya Norte coach bus. This was the exact same cheaper option we had originally planned on doing, not the direct private ride we thought we had signed up for. He was essentially trying to charge us quadruple the going rate for transport to the bus stop. Doron expressed our discontent. “It’s not direct if there are TWO BUSES!” But in the end, getting ripped off a little was better than an escalated conflict, so we compromised and paid him 200Q ($7USD each, an outrageous price) for driving the three of us that first 45-minute leg.
    • We purchased continuing bus tickets (100Q/$13USD) from the newly-arrived legit Maya Norte bus driver and boarded at 12:15pm. It was a true comfortable coach, the likes of which I had not seen since Mexico. We crossed the Honduran border ($3USD entry fee) with ease; my border agent didn’t seem to like me even though I empathized that her visa stamp handle sucked and they should give her a better one. The ride flew by with reading, napping, more peanut bars, and excellent conversation about books, travel, history, family, and a little fundraising thrown in for good measure.
    • We arrived in San Pedro Sula at 3:30pm, found a connection to La Ceiba immediately ($7USD each), and were out by 3:45pm. Twenty minutes after departing the station, the bus was stopped by armed police. They had everyone step outside, separated the women from the men (this felt uncomfortable), and frisked all non-white men for weapons. Everyone was deemed clean so we continued on our way. Out of the city, the view from my open window was a beautiful rolling tropical jungle countryside.
  • We arrived in La Ceiba at 7:30pm, violating my rule of not arriving anywhere after dark. Our trio immediately found a taxi (50 limpera/$2.50USD each) and drove to the hotel Joanne and I had booked. We were ushered quickly in off the street; the hotel had padlocked gates, barred windows, and barbed wire fencing. There were no shops in sight that looked open and we were famished after a full day without proper food. Our hotel owner drove us ($1USD each) to the rooftop Expatriates Bar, which was hopping. We ate enormous plates of food (including the biggest fish sandwich I have ever seen!), cheersed our first Honduran beers, and listened to a house band play a mix of oldies and Island standards with SoCal/Tex-Mex Spanglish pronunciation. True to the name, white people filled the bar, ranging from us backpackers to a woman in her 60s wearing pearls and a white cardigan over her shoulders who must have arrived via private yacht. One older man in the audience was very into the music; he brought his own percussion section (“now he has a tambourine!!”), played along, shook his booty to Elvis, and sang karaoke. Such an unexpected first night! Welcome to Honduras…
  • On Saturday, after waking to find we were *indeed* in Honduras, our hotel owner drove us to the docks (50 Lmp/$2.50USD each) and I decided at the last possible minute to visit Utila’s sister Bay Island first. We took the massive proper ferry across to Roatan ($600 Lmp/$30USD one way) at 9:30am. Each ferry ticket came with a complimentary tablet of Dramamine. An usher offered industrial-looking barf bags as well. I ate the tablet, declined the bag, and had no problem with motion sickness on the crossing. Aboard we watched a perfectly serendipitous soccer match. Go Lilywhites!
Ferry to Roatan, first class A+ all the way!
Image from http://www.roatanferry.com/
  • After spending a few days in Roatan (more on this soon), I secured a spot on a Wednesday 1pm charter boat ($50USD), the Lady Julia, and made the final crossing to Utila. There are surprisingly no direct ferries between the two islands, so the options are charter boat, flying, or ferrying back to the mainland. Even charters that go often don’t run on a set schedule, so one must keep calling captains until you find one headed in the right direction. I had to push my departure an extra day because no boats were going on Tuesday, but in my flexible case it was a pleasure to stay a little longer. The crossing took nearly 3 hours and was a rocky ride. I came off feeling queasy, but finally in Utila. Success!
The Lady Julia, heading out of Half Moon Bay, Roatan.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Totals from Punto Gorda
Cost: $125.50 travel to Roatan + $50 charter to Utila + $13.50 hotel in La Ceiba = $189
Active travel time: 13 hours to Roatan + 3 hour charter to Utila = 16 hours
Mileage: approximately 290 miles to Roatan + 30 miles to Utila = approx 320 miles

All in all it was one hell of a trip. Long, with way too many transfers, but safety did end up feeling manageable. It was still most definitely a good idea to go with company. Now that I have finally made it to Utila, I think I’m going to stay for a while. (Especially knowing the trek to Nicaragua is another two-day trip in my future…) Advanced Open Water, here I come!