My introduction to Nicaragua: León

It’s been a while since I explored a new place, let alone a new country. My first stop in Nicaragua was León. I looked forward to the return to a city, new street food other than baleadas, and rock bottom prices. I realized upon crossing the border that this is the last new country I intend to visit on my trip.

León is a small-feeling city, with surprisingly chill energy. I stayed at Bigfoot Hostel in the center of town, and most of hostel life revolved around novel day trips like cock fighting and volcano boarding followed by partying at night. While fun, it feels cliche and a little silly, very gringo path again. I found it somewhat difficult to connect with the city. I spent a few hours a day wandering the city core but never felt like I got the spirit. One thing I have been disappointed in is my lack of learning about Latin American history. I had hoped to do some of that here in León but failed miserably due to museum closures and late returns from day trips.

The city has elements of pretty, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful so far. I am actually a little surprised that I am not more enchanted. My experience in León has felt fragmented… I think I am going through a bit of Utila detox and having a little trouble bonding with new things and adjusting expectations.

Parque Central. Lions are (unsurprisingly, I suppose) EVERYWHERE in this city!

Iglesia de San Francisco, dusted by volcanic ash.
Another view on a clearer day. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
The cathedral. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

My first night I went out in search of street food for dinner. I was surprised by how difficult it was to track down anything that was not a hamburger, hot dog, or pizza. Frustration! During the day I found chicken plates (C$90/$3.75USD) served up outside the main market and flavored shave ice (C$12/$0.50USD) off Parque Central easily.

Now that’s what I’m talking about…

 

I wondered what she had in her cart… turns out it was a block of ice, waiting to be shaved.

 

Excited to dig in!
Shave ice with dulce de leche sauce. Mmm….

Nicaragua is known to be quite safe, and I do feel secure here. However, it is also just behind Belize in the frequency of cat calls and attention noises (whistles, clicking, etc) I receive walking down the street. It is noticeable and not my favorite. It doesn’t make me feel unsafe, but it is a bother.

Physical goods are indeed quite cheap! I’ve already stocked up on a few replacement items and some new beachy dresses for Mexico.

Something I did not anticipate: the beginning of the rainy season. This put a damper on overnight volcano trekking plans, which was a huge shame. Oh well, there are other volcanoes to climb, and I’m sure we’ll find one to tackle!

Unfolding Utila

I spent four days in Utila getting settled, choosing a dive shop, taking care of some life admin, and getting a few more fun dives under my belt before starting my Advanced Open Water course. My energy and inspiration level was low and I wasn’t digging what Utila was selling.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest you improve your life and do so.
Source: Google Images

Sometimes you need someone else’s love of a place to open your eyes. Like how Bill Bryson’s deeply affectionate account In a Sunburned Country *completely* turned around my interest in Australia 180 degrees.

My guide in Utila became my fellow diver (and, though not made official with a log book autograph, I counted him as my buddy), Edwin. A native of Honduras’ capital city Tegucigalpa visiting from his now-home in Miami to surprise his family for Mother’s Day, he was a bright ray of sunshine. Utila was his place. A place he had been coming for years, first learned to dive, knew people, had some of his fondest memories, and deeply loved. He was purely happy to be back and it showed. And he was kind enough to share his island and his company with me. When experiencing it through his enthusiastic eyes it was impossible to not be affected.

I like piña liquados…

My regular readers may have noticed a pattern in my travels: the way to this girl’s heart is through her stomach. After our second day of diving together, we grabbed lunch of super baleadas and fried plantains covered with ground pork, cabbage, and other typical taco toppings. When I asked him about must-eats around the island the day quickly snowballed. First, we went to Reef Cinema (also the site of a kick ass book shop!) for the best smoothies in town. Even though we just finished eating, we then had get some sopa de caracol (conch soup), *the* dish he emphatically said I must try. Diving is hungry work!

He tracked some down and I learned that sopa de caracol is also the name of a breakout hit 90s Honduran punta/pop song akin to the Macarena, the video of which is FANTASTIC! Look at those outfits… Our soup was cooked fresh especially for us for by a Garifuna woman, who left her restaurant to purchase the conch immediately after we ordered it. Laced with curry, lime, cilantro, and hot sauce with huge hunks of conch, plantains, carrot, and mazapan fruit, it was incredible.

Sopa de caracol, wow!

Over all the tastiness of the day, we talked non-stop about careers, management, family, environmentalism, education, San Francisco and Miami, food, diving, and his dreams to improve Honduras. His bright and optimistic, yet realistic and grounded, outlook was inspiring.

On tap for the evening was a triple header at the soccer field, a community fundraiser and all around happening good time. Travel pro tip: If there are handwritten fliers plastered all over town advertising any special local event, GO! The posters said festivities went from 4-9pm, which apparently meant 6-11pm. We showed up just after 5pm (even when I’m late I’m early!) and while waiting outside the field (we beat the players there!) nibbled on mangoes dressed with chili, salt, and vinegar purchased from the basket of a woman’s bike.

Sour and sweet mangos!


The game was a gathering event for the whole town; the stands were full and it was a super fun localesque experience. There were three matches: two teenage exhibition matches (one girls, one boys), and the equivalent of a minor league Honduran team, the Utila Pirates taking on a rival from the mainland.

I kept accidentally cheering for the wrong team…

We met up with some other friends there and enjoyed the lovely spectacle of the match together. The teenage teams ran about semi-chaotically the pitch. A DJ played dance music. Over the far fence, spectators without tickets–who were later scolded publicly by the DJ–watched, cheered, and threw fireworks onto the field. The announcer for the professional match called the opposing goalie names and said with gusto all sorts of other ridiculousness, as a minor league announcer always should. A travel show/documentary team filmed the scene for a pilot project they are putting together on the Bay Islands. (If they cut it right, you should be able to see me in the stands!) Small children were everywhere climbing over and under spectators. One cutie gave her mom/aunt/grandma a particularly focused and forceful hair brushing right in front of us; I couldn’t stop laughing. We ate–you knew this was coming!–a dinner of bbq chicken, tortillas, beans, and coleslaw, then topped it off with a helping of tres leches. Mmm… The Pirates won and everyone left happy.

Happy fans. Go Pirates!

From there, we took to the town. First Tranquilo, which has become my favorite night spot on the island, where I drank the coldest beer of my life on the second story of their dock and we left minus one pair of sunglasses. Next we hit the iconic Treetanic where Edwin reconnected with old Utila buddies and I took in the unusually bedazzled and beautiful atmosphere. And what late night would be complete without a post-midnight snack at the baleada stand smack in the center of town off the main the dock? Up far too late for a morning dive.

A detail of steps leading into Treetanic during the daytime, only a glimpse of the art that covers this enormous bar.

Since that lovely day, I have more whole-heartedly embraced the Utila spirit (minus the drug culture). I have opened my eyes to the emerald green hummingbirds that inhabit the island (and actually LAND on branches and perches!), let go of my frustrations about street traffic, thrown myself into diving, built more social connections with cool people, ran into old friends from previous stops on my trip, discovered a rockin’ book shop, and been happy giving the food scene a closer look. Expect blog posts on all of these topics soon. Now, when the dive boat is headed back to shore and the coastline of Utila town comes into sight, I smile.

Unexpectedly luxurious Roatan

*Heart* Roatan!

WARNING: this post may come across as braggy and contains a far too many pictures of sunsets, tasty food, and me smiling in a bikini. I blame Roatan, because it is pretty awesome.

Roatan, the largest of the Honduran Bay Islands, felt like a holiday from my trip. Serious tourist vibe here, in a good way! I detoured there for a few days before heading to the more backpacking-diver-centric island of Utila. It was sooo nice! Roatan was immediately classy. Walking off the ferry dock, tourists are greeted by manicured palm trees and a fleet of brand new sparkling white taxis. I was surprised how much it reminded me of Hawaii. English is so widely spoken and I never knew whether to attempt my crap Spanish (a month in Belize has made me regress) or not.

Roatan is 37 miles long and filled with resorts and vacation properties. I spent my entire time there on the western tip between the friendly Roatan Backpackers Hostel in Sandy Bay, town in West End, and beach sunsets in West Bay. Transport on the island was easy; taxis can either be hired privately or on a collectivo basis (20 Lm from Sandy Bay to West End) and water taxis are a pleasure to ride to West Bay (60 Lm).

I was accompanied by the perpetually nomadic bibliophile and linguist, Doron. A pleasure to chat with about virtually everything from the get-go, I now have far too many book recommendations (not that there really is such a thing!) to take with me. His literary addiction was infectious. I dropped three books from my pack (Wizard’s First Rule, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and The Short Stories of Vladamir Nabokov) but picked up four (Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, The More Than Complete Hitchhikers Guide by Douglas Adams, After Dark by Haruki Murakami, and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver). So many stories ahead of me!

We both had a penchant towards fine dining and splurged on fantastic food. Even though it seemed at times like “hemorrhaging money”, it actually wasn’t that bad: a three course meal with drinks, tax, and tip consistently came in at $20-25USD per person. Totally doable every now and then. Or every day on Roatan. 😛 I just learned a new term for the type of traveler I may be: a flashpacker!

The first night, a search for sushi (which sadly never did come to fruition) instead led to Entre Pisco & Nazc, a Peruvian restaurant where we dined on seafood salad with real green (no iceberg to be found here!), creamy lobster lasagna, and chocolate cheesecake topped with mint and a blackberry. It set the tone for four days of top notch food.

On the first full day we ventured into town and discovered the peacefully perfect Half Moon Bay in West End. We happily split the day between snorkeling the reef, finding the sunken mini-submarine, lounging and reading, eating lobster and shrimp at the Crazy Mango, and playing on the water slide. I had absolutely no hang time and truly attempted not to flash anyone but despite my best efforts cannot claim success.

Lunching decadently and loving it. *
Lobster slathered in garlic butter. *

After a day of playing in the water and reading on the beach, I was ready to find some night life. And there were rumors flying around about crab races happening that very night. I got the scoop: Bananarama in West Bay was THE place to be. Done and done! We popped on a water taxi and went hunting for action.

The water taxi pulled right up to the shore and let us off. West Bay is an long resorty and relaxed beach; it is land of the sandy boulevard, waterfront lounges, wealthy families on vacation, and the most playful bulldog puppy ever.

Beautiful West End shore near sunset.

I love how on this trip, especially in beachy locals, attending to the sunset becomes an imperative. Back in the states, I rarely ever left my house simply to go view a sunset. In the Caribbean it is a must do event every day. And life is more beautiful for the habit.

Beauty to end the day. *

Bananarama actually was in fact the place to be. It was filled with white people excited about crab races, myself included. Unfortunately, they did little to publicize how to buy a crab because they didn’t need to; they sold out before I could get my hands on one. For the race, they dumped a bucket of tiny crabs in the center of a circle drawn in the sand and the first crab to reach the edge won. It was over remarkably quickly. After, we ate pizza, drank beer, talked, and laughed. We never did hear “Do You Like Pina Coladas?” from the house band… I really should have made that happen. Ah, regrets.

Crab race! And me kissing one plucked from the winner’s circle.

Earlier in the day I had been disappointed when the one ice cream stand in West End was closed, but this was about to be rectified with avengence. So much about this ice cream experience blew my mind. From the square (!!!) ice cream scroop to the confusing pricing structure to the deliciousness, all made it rather mystical. We ended up with six scoops of three flavors in a waffle cone for $2.50. What’s that? I think it’s a cone full of awesome.

Ice cream astonishment!
It’s my birthday and anniversary!

On day two I encountered the biggest bummer of the trip: dealing with identity theft. I spent a downer morning on the phone with multiple financial institutions listening to crappy hold music trying to get everything straight. In the end, it all got sorted but it was unpleasant to feel violated like that.

After that sucky morning, I was walking down the main drag looking for my friends who were already out and about and I passed numerous dive shops. I stepped into one to check the time and instead got the skinny on how easy it was to sign up to dive that day: $40 and I’d be out in the reef within the hour. It is so bizarre to me that now I can, on a whim, say hmm, yes, I believe I would like to spend an hour breathing underwater this afternoon. Diving is so amazing! After finding my peeps (including the newly arrived Hunter and Nikki who I would really enjoy hanging with later), I ditched them for an hour and dove Moonlight. Only 3 minutes by boat from shore, the site was beautiful, a turtle swam right up to my face, and I had my picture taken for the first time underwater.

Checking out the Moonlight reef. Photo courtesy of a My Little Pony riding a Carebear.
Sunset off of West Bay, post my afternoon under the sea. *

I linked back up with the group for dinner and we were deliciously responsible. You may not know this, but the gorgeous and deadly lionfish are a scourge on the reef and there is a effort by environmentalists to encourage local people here to catch and eat them to decrease the population. Let me say, this is a tasty way to help the reef. My lionfish tacos at the Cannibal Cafe were KILLER.

I’ll help take the lionfish down a notch any day.

After discussions of favorite trivia questions with Doron the night before at Bananarama, I had made finding a pub quiz a priority. They really are my favorite! And find one I did: Music trivia Mondays with Scott C at La Buena Vida. All the cool kids in town were there including friends from the hostel and my dive buddies. They formed rival teams and I threatened them all with big talk of our trivia prowess. I found the trivia format very very fun. Our very chill (I’m going to guess Hawaiian) quiz master led us through 42 pop song name and artist identifications. Unfortunately there was no classical music for me to impress everyone with my knowledge of! There were a mix of good songs I knew and could sing along to, puzzlers that drew controversy within the team, and new-to-me stuff I liked including Everclear’s AM Radio which I was still bopping to the next morning. Oh, and did I mention the rum? I did a LOT of sit-dancing.

Never Trust a Lyin’ Fish, #3 in trivia but #1 in fun. *
My contribution to the team was to trash talk and sit-dance lots. It added to the fun factor. *
The boys’ singing made Nikki plug her ears and me giggle. (jk, we were both doing each of those things anyways!)

On day three, the last day, we went used book shopping, got my diving log book signed and stamped (documentation is very important!), and then out to West Bay for snorkeling. It was a beautiful day for a swim and out in the reef there were glorious things to see: large chum right at the shore, a gorgeous reef with tons of fish, a pink sea anemone, a spotted eel, and the biggest lobster I have ever seen.

Happily heading back to West End. *
Finding our perfect snorkel spot. *
My final lovely, lovely Roatan sunset.

To me, there is no better way to cap a trip off than a splendid last meal. This we had in spades: fantastic bruschetta (pronounced with a sharp “sch”, naturally), brie and caramelized onion crepes, Indian shrimp curry, Thai beef noodles, a multitude of desserts, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at Nice n’ Spicy, a place Doron and I had walked by before and been intoxicated by the smell. It lived up to everything we hoped — an amazing meal and end to the visit to Roatan!

Mmm, curry! I got distracted by condiments.
Delectable and ready to dive in. *
After already eating three desserts, the owner sent us free pistachio ice cream crepes. Excellent friends and food–who could ask for more? *

* Photos courtesy of Doron Klemer. 

Belizian food might be my favorite

Even tastier eaten off a dock!

The cuisine is Belize has been awesome. My mouth and stomach are in heaven every time I eat their Sunday supper standard: stew chicken, rice & beans, and coleslaw. Totally my favorite and I ate a plate (or two!) of it every day. Because hey, I’m on holiday! I have already given accolades to the cuisine in previous posts–taking my first bites of Belizian food with my friend Maggie and exploring the Caye Caulker food scene–but I must devote some attention to some of the fundamentals of my perfect Belizian meal.

Rice & beans is the base of most plate dishes and it is something I plan to incorporate into my cooking repertoire when I have a kitchen again. It isn’t just rice mixed with beans. Oh, no, it is far more than that. White rice and kidney beans are actually cooked together along with spices, sometimes meat, sometimes coconut, giving the rice a red tinge and more full flavor profile. It is hearty and delish! Along with some spicy chicken, coleslaw, and a Belikin… magnifique!

Pretty much the perfect lunch.

A ubiquitous condiment on all Belizian tables is Marie Sharp’s habanero hot sauce. Made in Belize, it is a delicious and all-natural sauce with a base of carrots instead of tomatoes. But the number one ingredient is always habanero mash. I developed an addiction.

And you cannot come to Belize without going crazy for Belikin. The beer of a nation, there is no choice. I am a huge fan of the Belikin stout, in the same heavy brown bottle as the beer but identifiable by the bright blue bottle cap. Interestingly, Guinness Stout is also brewed here in Belize, but a different recipe than other brews of Guinness available in the US or Europe. It has the silky mouthfeel as normal Guinness, but a decidedly sharp taste that I found weird. Only ordered it once, then switched back to good ol’ Belikin stout.

As an addendum, I must say that inland Latin American flavors shine as well. In San Ignacio, I ate killer El Salvadorean papusas stuffed with a pork-bean paste at the Saturday market and drank the best horchata of my life at a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall in town. The horchata was like imbibing manna; every sip made me shiver. It was that good. Oh Belize, how are you so wonderfully delicious? Good thing I am coming back later in the summer. 🙂

Papusa!

Erin’s Caye Caulker food scene manifesto

Caye Caulker has felt more like a home than any other place on my journey yet. Something that surprised me: a thriving cheap food scene. And, as I would with any home town, I have the food beat down. It is of course small, but just big enough to give a medium-term traveler the perfect amount to wrap her head/mouth around. I was there for two weeks–that’s over 50 meals and snacks. And I have opinions. Take a deep breath; I hope you’re hungry. Here we go.

BREAKFAST

There are many excellent options for the budget traveler to start the day with. I’ll start with the classic and cliche Belizian delicacy, the fry jack. A savory fried dough stuffed with eggs, beans, cheese, ham, chicken, and any combination thereof, it is a filling and cheap ($2-4Bz; the exchange rate is $2Bz::$1USD) way to start the day. Many restaurants serve fry jack as a side like toast, but if you’re serious you need to head to Get Hooked Up, a bait and tackle stand that serves fry jack out of their back window in the morning. Join the cult. It’s on Middle Street across from the bank.

NOM!
Get hooked up with fry jack!

But say you get sick of fried dough. I did. My fave pre-dive breakfast: Glenda’s cinnamon rolls. Perfect for take away and just $1Bz each, so what if they are kind of wimpy? Two do the trick and keep you fueled through a morning of diving. If you want to kick it up many notches in deliciousness, get their breakfast sandwich ($7Bz), so worth it! Seriously. On the love child of a bun and a biscuit, it’s a tasty morsel with egg, fresh tomato, fried cured meat, melty processed cheese, and hot sauce. DELISH. Find Glenda’s on Back Street, one block past Sid’s. (Caye Caulker Bakery is another possibility for breads and pastries, but IMHO they are not as good.)

Glenda’s bakery.
Glenda’s breakfast sandwich, a mouthful of yum.

Another option, for a moderate step up in price, is Amor y Cafe. With a chill open-air coffee house feel, they serve up a tasty tomato and cream cheese on toasted multigrain toast-biscuit-bagel ($8Bz) and a good unsweetened ice tea ($3Bz). Yeah, I said it, MULTIGRAIN. Whoa…

An odd breakfast phenomena are the taco trucks ($1Bz corn, $1.50Bz flour) that come out early in the morning on the south part of Front Street. I’ve looked for them later in the day but they disappear. Haven’t tried too hard to track them down though, as I have heard rumors of food poisoning.

For all you health nuts, there are plentiful fruit and vegetable stands around the island. Fresh juice is the way to go (1L for $5Bz). I recommend pineapple, lime, or grapefruit. Stay away from the watermelon juice–it all tastes funny. Quality of produce does differ from stand to stand however. I found the stand next to Get Hooked Up to be consistently overripe on the border of going bad. My favorite was the stand just across from the basketball court.

Pick the pineapple juice!

LUNCH

Lunch tends to be significantly cheaper than dinner, so if you are on a budget I recommend eating out during the day and cooking at night. I preferred Belizian stewed chicken dishes because they were tasty and usually the cheapest plate meal. I always strayed from Front Street, which can be more than double the price than a comparable dish just a few blocks down on Middle.

Hot sauce galore.

Meldy’s on Middle Street serves a solid plate of stewed chicken with rice & beans and coleslaw ($7Bz). Watch out for the habanero pickled onion condiment on the table; not only is it way spicy but also inedibly overly salted. Use the ubiquitous Marie Sharp hot sauce instead.

Kitty-corner from Meldy’s, Sid’s is famous for their plate-o-fried chicken ($9Bz). A massive crispy half chicken with two sides, it is a huge and cheap meal good for lunch or dinner. I also had some pretty good conch fingers ($12Bz), but goodness-to-price wasn’t close to the fried chicken. Follow the signs to find them on Middle Street, mid-town.

On my first day in Caye Caulker, my friend Gina and I were walking town hunting for an early dinner. Everywhere seemed closed or way too expensive. Until we found a shabby looking house with a handwritten menu on a piece of cardboard posted outside. We wandered through the open front door into the living room and begged to be fed. Our hostess/cook looked at the pots on her stove and told us she had one dish ready. We enthusiastically agreed to whatever she was serving. I received a ginormous plate of hearty stewed chicken and meatballs ($8Bz). Gina got heart, liver, and a foot. We couldn’t decide which of us she liked more. On the way out, I asked what johnny cakes were (listed on her breakfast menu). She proceeded to give me a demonstration, make us a pack for take away, and would not accept any money. They are essentially breakfast sandwiches on a dense, dry biscuit. I was initially intrigued but later found they fell flat. (Could be excellent drenched in honey and butter though…) Still, I greatly appreciate her generosity and the gesture.

Knock knock? Feed us please!
Hungry Gina happily digging in.

Fast food Chinese restaurants litter downtown Caye Caulker. The one favored by my hostel mates was Pirates, across from Chang’s grocery on Middle. But I have to say, Chinese restaurants are not my pick in general. (Tyler, I hope we can still be friends!) Plus, no coleslaw!? In my book, coleslaw is a key component in a Belizian meal, lack of which is instant grounds for restaurant rejection. I do however respect their legit panko-breaded chicken fingers ($13Bz).

Going diving to Turneffe Atoll or Lighthouse Reef? You’re going to be gone all day and get lunch on the boat. Belize Dive Services provides a delicious sweet and spicy stewed chicken lunch. I asked if we could have second lunch on the ride back from Turneffe and kicked myself later when I realized I forgot to take home the leftovers.

SNACKS

What about happy hour snacks? Very important when day drinking at the Split. If you see a dude wheeling a cart down the street with industrial looking containers, 50% it’s construction supplies and 50% it’s tamales. Ask. On the street and at the Split you’ll find dudes with carts or coolers filled with tamales ($5Bz), beef patties (2 for $6Bz), curry chicken pies ($4Bz), cashews ($10Bz), or coconut tarts ($4Bz). Most of these I think are a rip-off. In Belmopan the same coconut tarts are sold at the bus station for $1Bz. $4-6Bz for a few bites? Come on! I can practically get a full plate of stew chicken for that. Unless you smile real pretty and bargain down to half price for the broken ones! 😉 (Pro tip: smiling real pretty AWAYS helps! As does saying please and thank you. Take it from a development professional.)

Another good spot: 88 Degrees West, the restaurant at the Belize Diving Services dive shop. Their food is high quality and, if you catch the right time, not too expensive. I recommend their Taco Tuesdays ($2Bz). I also had celebratory conch curry ($18Bz) there on my first day of dive class that was the best conch I had on the island. They also have a great blackened chicken sandwich ($20Bz). Wing Thursday is okay but the meat wasn’t as tender as it should be; after all this stewed chicken, I like my poultry falling off the bone please. Dry just doesn’t cut it.

DINNER 

For dinner, even though it is killer touristy, it is super way fun to do a barbeque crawl down Front Street. Saturday night is the night to do it; that’s when the most bbq outfits are set up and grilling for anyone who wants to come by for a bite. My friend Ryan was game enough to go halfsies with me and we did very well if I do say so myself. Our crawl began with a bbq chicken plate ($10Bz) from Otis and Paula’s bbq stand (only there on Saturday); I thought this was the tastiest bit of the lot.

Super delicious, plus a little toe action.
Mmmm… barbeque.

We moved on to bbq and spicy garlic shrimp skewers ($5Bz each) from a man up on Front Street near the Split whose sign says he is there “most days from lunch til dusk”. I saw him this one time in all of two weeks and I walked that drag constantly. But he serves up a tasty little morsel when you can find him.

Our third plate was the most disappointing: King Kabob. Don’t be fooled. He overmarkets himself and has a skimpy overcooked product. He charges an outrageous $10-15Bz for one skewer he has cooked the shit out of and pithy sides. His sign says “with vegetables!”. Yeah, that  means the two pieces of bell pepper on your lonely miserable single skewer. We had one lousy conch kabob. Apparently the key to conch is tenderizing it before cooking; I think he neglects this step because it was like eating an old tire. In the end, we had one last piece and no one wanted it. Sad face. Really his claim to fame is that he is devoted to being open for business always so gets customers who want bbq but have no other option; I give him props for this. Just don’t you be the one to take the bait and eat his overpriced unsatisfying food.

Rawr, conch!! Chewy to the max.
Watch out for this dude…
Even eating mediocre food is damn fun if you’re doing it on the end of a dock.

After sunsetting at the Split (of course), we finished the night off with the rest of our group at Fran’s “we do it with love” bbq stand. The grilled snapper ($20Bz) was the most challenging fish I have ever eaten in my life! Eating such a bony fish in the dark while drunk (complimentary rum punch = dangerous) took all of my concentration not to choke. The meat was good, but I had a severe lack of brain power to savor it. Whatever way you want to slice it though, I considered our crawl a fabulous success.

Grilled snapper and free-flowing rum punch.

Don’t want to walk and eat? Here’s a meal that is practically a bbq crawl in itself that comes to you. When my adopted tour group from the Split invited me to join them for dinner, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. We gluttonously feasted on a smorgasbord of grilled meat at Wish Willy ($30Bz) of shrimp, conch, snapper, pork, steak, chicken, and all the sides you could want. Also served with free-flowing rum punch, I must have eaten parts of a dozen different animals and they were all delicious.

Looking for someplace to impress a date? A charming spot a little different from the typical fare: Sandro’s Piccola Cucina. I split lamb shanks (decadent!), risotto, and penne amatriciana with a cute Scottish man from Aberdeen. Really a lovely place for a meal, especially with the right company.

Another unusual restaurant I would like to recommend is Freinds, serving Lebanese food. They are conveniently located mid Front Street, have good food at reasonable prices, yet their dining room always seem to be empty. We must change that, people! I had some killer babaghanoush ($7Bz) and a tasty falafel plate with hummus and tabbouleh ($10Bz). Nice to eat some fresh vegetables for a change.

Sports Bar is a fun option for trivia three nights a week. I had the cheapest thing on their menu: the hot dog with relish ($4Bz). My kick-ass team “I Can’t Belize it’s Not Butter” won first prize that night and knocked $30Bz from our bill, so I was pretty thrilled with my free hot dog and two beers. Now, how to make this into a real money-making venture…

Oh, and every single place that says it sells pizza by the slice doesn’t actually btw.

DO-IT-YOURSELF

Cooking for yourself is also an option, one that I favored to off-set the pricier dinner costs. Yuma’s has truly great kitchens and it was such a boon to be cooking for myself again. As I have mentioned, there are a handful of produce stands in downtown Caye Caulker, but you’ll find most of your pantry staples in the many Chinese groceries. They may all look similar, but in actuality have shockingly different inventories. Some specialize in cooking staples or spices, some have Latino or Asian flavors, beauty supplies, arts and crafts, gardening tools, computer accessories, etc. You can probably find whatever item you are looking for in one of the groceries if you look hard enough, but more often than not your request for a specialty item will be met with “try next shop!”.

Fresh fish is best either caught yourself (fishing poles are for rent and fishing tours happen daily) or purchased directly from a fisherman. Head to the docks in the afternoon and try to make friends; you should get a deal easy enough. In the off chance you’re unlucky there, head to the fish co-op near the power plant on Back Street.

DESSERT

Cake Lady doing her thang.

Have a sweet tooth? You’re in luck. The Cake Lady is roaming the streets from 3-9pm every day with a flat truck of, you guessed it, cakes. The first one I tried from her is by far my favorite: rum cake with a super sugary glaze ($4Bz). The coconut, chocolate coconut, and key lime pies are mediocre, as I think her other cakes might be too. She does have competition: a Cake Man who comes by earlier in the day selling pineapple cake, banana bread, and meat pies. I think his banana bread beats hers; it’s fluffier and more flavorful. He came by my hostel daily in the morning when it’s fresh and extra tempting. So I guess he counts as a possible breakfast option too! 😛

Coconut pie and PADI homework, not a bad combo.
Cake Man on his daily morning rounds past Yuma’s.

A somewhat socially sketch option that I did indulge in occasionally are bags of crazy sweet coconut fudge (more like a soft caramel sugar brittle) sold by young kids supposedly as a fundraiser for a school trip–leaving tomorrow!–that they never seem to go on…

Silly faces for ice cream!

But perhaps you need to cool off with your dessert. There are a number of ice cream stands in town. They all serve virtually the same menu, from the same ice cream maker, at the same price. I have yet to find one that is special. I mean, it’s ice cream, and it’s hot out so it is good, but not nearly as good as ice cream should be. Funny though that they are *always* out of flavors, even if you know they opened up a new tub of pistachio yesterday. Suspicious… And P.S. watch out for the rum cake at Lighthouse Ice cream. It may look moist, but there is actually shockingly little rum in it.

A menu with tons of flavors they never have in stock. I am in love with the poorly Photoshopped pic in the bottom right. Totally necessary because there aren’t *any* other pictures of kids eating ice cream ever.

LATE NIGHT

After dinner, you may take in a movie at the town’s Outdoor Cinema. If you do, I recommend bringing your own snacks as they do let in outside food (not drinks) and the popcorn they sell is crazy expensive ($6Bz).

For hanging back at the hostel, the nearby convinience store is open very late and has a good supply of frozen candy bars. In the tropics, as a chaser to my pineapple and rum juice dark chocolate Mounds bars ($2Bz) are my favorite! Cadbury dairy milk and Dove dark are close behind though.

Need a second-dinner bite while out dancing your butt off at Oceanside? There’s a solution right next door: hamburgers ($6-10Bz). Decent fast-food style, they’ve got all the hamburger bases covered and hit the spot late at night.

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Whew, you made it through! There are of course a number of higher priced places targeted at tourists and other budget spots that I did not go to. Good luck, and enjoy getting to know the food of Caye Caulker for yourself!

A whole row of restaurants I never visited.

Tikal, Tiredness, and Distractions

After another eight-hour shuttle ride I arrived in Flores, the island city base for visiting the great Mayan ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala. Flores itself is quiet, but lovely surrounded by water, docks, and sunshine. I was utterly exhausted when I arrived in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, this is not unusual for visitors in Flores as many are arriving from long bus rides (me today) and getting up extremely early in the morning for Tikal tours (me tomorrow). The social scene here was subdued as so many people were in some phase of recovery (me the whole time).
Tired as I was, I set to work planning a tour for the next day of the famous Tikal, the granddaddy of Mayan ruins. There is great debate on when and how to visit Tikal. Sunrise is generally preferred by purists and masochists as the sunrise is beautiful, it is cooler in temperature, and wildlife is more active. But it also involves a 3am departure time from Flores–ouch. Both sunrise and sunset also have an added cost (100Q/$14USD) on top of the already expensive park entry fee (150Q/$20US). Guides and transport also come into play. After weighing the options, I decided to depart the hostel at reasonable a quite 4:30am, arrive at the park just as it opens officially at 6am, and complete the tour with a guide.

The next morning we did just that. After arriving at the park, getting everyone else caffeinated and me eating coconut cookies for breakfast, we headed in. It was beautiful in the early morning and we did see and hear wildlife: toucans, howler monkeys, a bizarre relative of opossum with a long snout, and the craziest looking turkeys you would ever see.

Hello pretty bird.
Rodents of Unusual Size.
Greeting the sun.

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The site and views were indeed beautiful, Mayan ruins in the jungle and all that, but I will admit I was a little disappointed. I preferred both Palenque and Tulum over Tikal as they felt more unique and spoke to me. To be fair, Tikal carries the burden of high expectations from a lot of hype, and perhaps I was just too tired to get something truly grand out of it. I was already wooed by the Mayans in Mexico and am also afraid Angkor Wat permanently did a number on my sense of scale (“show me another two dozen each gorgeously detailed and with tons of personality, then I’ll be impressed!”). Also, while our guide was nice, he didn’t actually give me much historical perspective beyond the very basic. I really should have done more homework beforehand.

The thing about Tikal is that it actually *is* big, over 6 square miles and 3000 structures, but 80-90% is uncleared, unmapped, and unexcavated. I find this utterly amazing. See those rolling hills? Yeah, not actually natural hills, but more archaeology to be done. UPenn has been the leader of the serious excavation since 1956 and it looks like they have a lot of work ahead of them. Sim, I know you’re busy, but could you tell your people to get on this please? Kthnx.
Lots to do… better get moving Penn!
On top of pyramid IV, the tallest structure, a man approached me and asked me to be his model. He told me where to stand and to move this way and that, peering through his viewfinder to get the positioning just perfect, then handed me his camera and asked to switch places. I got curious. What exactly was he doing? (Cousin Mark, if you are reading I bet you have guessed already!) He happily enlightened me: reenacting a shot of the landing of the Millennium Falcon at the rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope. Right, I remember now! This totally made my day. With his coaching, I got the camera angle right and took a shot of him he was satisfied with. In return, he took my picture too and knew exactly what he was doing directing me. Not bad, eh?
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Semana Santa in Antigua: Alfombras

I have so far completely neglected one of the coolest and unique activities of Semana Santa: alfombras. Alfombras are beautiful temporary works of Easter street art in Antigua that people spend all night creating, exist in a finished state for mere hours or minutes, and then are sacrificed beneath the feet of the processions.

Good Friday is the day with the most processions (five) and also the greatest quantity and most elaborate alfombras, popping up throughout the day as processions weave their way through the city from 4am Friday morning to 4am Saturday. They are created by residents, their friends and families, and holy men who start laying them down in the dark of night to be ready for the first procession of the day; each alfombra is intended to be at its best when the procession arrives, so is targeted for completion just before it is destroyed.

Some travel advice says you MUST get up at 4am on Good Friday to see the alfolmbras. (Don’t even get me started on FOMO–fear of missing out–and the “best time” to see things in general.) It is true that in order to see every single alfombra you would need to get up at 4am and trace the procession routes slightly ahead of the floats for the next twenty-four hours. But I believe this to be completely too extreme. You can see plenty of wonderful alfombras by waking up at a normal hour. I made it out by 8am and saw tons!

Families gather from around the country to work together on their project; for many families it is a longstanding annual tradition to make an alfombra at a particular street location and procession time every year for decades.

These “carpets” are actually made mostly of carefully placed colored woodchips or sand. Creators stand on low bridges made of wood planks to increase their reach and precision. Stenciling is very common, though many–more often made of flowers instead of woodchips–are also laid freely by hand. They are then periodically finely sprayed with water to keep all pieces in place.

Typical alfombra creation and preservation techniques.
Stenciling in a pair of parrots, like my blog backdrop!
All children were invited to create a playdoh animal and add it to this alfombra.

Beyond the colored flat designs, 3D elements are also incorporated, most often flowers and food. One of my favorite and most elaborate was a diorama of Antigua’s Parque Central made out of bread, complete with the center mermaid fountain with water coming out of their breasts.

Parque Central, approached by a tiny procession on the right.
A model of the Good Friday procession, complete with Jesus in a casket on top.
Melon and kiwi tortugas!
Flowers flowers everywhere.

These beautiful things are the essence of temporary and exist only for a few hours, if that, before they are destroyed. A cleanup team trails the processions and immediately sweeps up the debris, but leaves behind a rainbow of confetti in the cobblestones. I found it a sweet reminder throughout the city that something beautiful, now mysterious, used to exist there.

There they go, taking out another alfombra.
Doing the dirty work as a risen Jesus recedes in the background.
A lovely echo.

P.S. You may now notice that the background wallpaper of this blog is a detail of a supremely kickass parrot alfombra from an Antigua Semana Santa past!

Semana Santa in Antigua: Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday

It is a travel lie that Semana Santa is over in Antigua after Good Friday. The number and intensity of processions may wane, but they do not end. And come on, don’t you want to know the end of the story?

On Saturday the women take center stage grieving. The Virgin of Loneliness is the only float on this day, finally full sized and only women are allowed to carry it. Her eyes and face shimmer as she weeps. That evening, I sat with a friend at a wine bar (finally, some decent wine on this trip!) under the yellow arch and clouds of incense swept in as the procession of the Virgin passed. The taste of wine with the smell of incense… ah, church.

On Easter Sunday, the public displays of penance are over and the celebration is positive and informal. One small procession celebrates the resurrected Jesus accompanied by singing and joyful music with trumpet, xylophone, and cymbals. Firecrackers set off in very close quarters to the crowd replace the clouds of incense. Semana Santa pro tip: come with prepared alternative expletives other than “Jesus!” for when you stub your toe or a firecracker goes off right next to you.

Performers in plain clothes leading the procession.
An easter lily, about to meet its trampled doom.
Firecrackers going off in the crowd.
Woot Jesus!

On Monday, I took the opportunity to see Antigua in a calmer state after most of the Semana Santa visitors had left. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and used to be the Spanish colonial capital before an earthquake devastated the city in 1773 and the capital was moved. Ruins from that time still litter the city (and are favorite necking spots for young locals). I visited the ruins of the old cathedral, just behind the current one. Tucked away in an alcove I found the white sailboat float from Good Friday and lo, the glass box tomb was empty. I love that even their storage methods are on message. The lord is risen indeed.

The ruined cathedral, reaching for the sky.
What’s that back there? Looks familiar…
Hallelujah!

Semana Santa in Antigua: Good Friday

Good Friday is when the fervor of Semana Santa peaks in Antigua. The day is packed with death, death, death. The Lenten purple robes have turned to black with the death of Jesus Christ and the mood is severe and somber. People walking along side the processions cry. At midday Jesus’ death is reenacted in the cathedral and then his corpse is carried throughout the city in multiple massive funeral processions until the dark of night.

Jesus’ body being borne out of the cathedral on a boat with a while sail.
Another funeral procession, this time Jesus’ body is locked away in a coffin reminiscent of Snow White and escorted by golden angels.
A sea of black moves with the dead lord.
Even the angels mourn.
Black and more black.

There are more processions on Good Friday than any other day by far–five–and they last longer–up to fourteen hours. You cannot help but find them seemingly everywhere you turn all day. The crowds are also intense, and serious pickpocketing is a known danger. Nothing happened to me, but a woman in my dorm had her backpack slashed even though she kept it close. Gawking and keeping your wits is tough work, but luckily street food is everywhere, much of it sugary sweet: little glazed dough-nut balls, sugared fried stars, ice cream, frozen bananas, and of course candy carts.

But what if I don’t want a regular banana later?

The final Good Friday procession passed right by my hostel window on its way out of the city at 4am Saturday morning. They moved with as much devotion and volume as during the day. Bleary-eyed, I was drawn out of bed to the window to watch. I loved that it didn’t matter what time it was; this procession was the most important thing happening in the whole city and trumped anyone trying to sleep.

Semana Santa in Antigua: Maundy Thursday

I am a lover of holidays, festivities, pageantry, and energetic crowds. In doing my research before this trip I learned that Antigua has a serious reputation for going all out for Semana Santa, or Holy Week leading up to Easter. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the city for famous city-wide parades and a week long celebration. At Lake Atitlan, I met a number of people living in Antigua who specifically left to avoid the crush. “You won’t truly experience Antigua,” they said, “only Semana Santa! It isn’t the same!” But I have known for months I wanted to be there for it. Aside from my arrival and departure, Semana Santa in Antigua was the only appointment I made for myself on this entire trip and I meant to keep it.
My first stop: Iglesia de San Francisco.
Guarding the secret back entrance!

My first full day in Antigua was Maundy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper) and that morning I set out to find the action. I began by walking towards a large church, Iglesia de San Francisco, that I had found the night before. The streets to the church was clogged as the masses gravitated towards it. When I arrive, the church plaza was FILLED with people (including many in costume) and I discovered that one of the two processions–a hallmark of Antigua Semana Santa–of the day was just 30 minutes away from departing the church. Perfect! Since I hadn’t shown up early to secure a spot in the shade, I thought no harm in exploring the grounds while I wait. Poking around the side courtyards however unintentionally led me to a back entrance and I wound up behind the altar with some other crafty viewers just as things began. Minutes after I arrived, kettle drums began to pound and I didn’t know what to expect.

The men robed in purple swayed together under the weight, barely moving forward on each beat. Truly. Guided by acolytes, it took them over twenty minutes to exit the church. This pace continues as the procession winds its way around the city center for, depending on the route, up to fifteen hours. As they crept forward, the brass and percussion band played an ominous dirge. It was grand and grave. Rarely do I ever kneel and say a prayer but I did then.

Each procession has a theme within the timeline of the passion and participants wear costumes and carry different props depending on the float. This one told the story of Jesus’ final steps before his crucifixion. Roman soldiers led the way, then placards with the stations of the cross, boys lugging a large wooden cross, incense bearers, the main float of Jesus flanked by thirty men in purple on either side, then a weeping and holy Mary followed by saints, and of course the band.

The bad guys!
Waiting their turn to join in.
The procession meets the crowd amassed outside Iglesia de San Francisco.
Men penitently bear their burden.
Mobile tympani setting the tone and pace.

After the procession passed, all the watchers moved towards the bottleneck exits of the courtyard and experienced the slow pace of movement demonstrated by the procession walkers. I broke for ice cream and to pick up my laundry (a Semana Santa miracle finding an open launderia!). But I felt comfort knowing the processions were out in the city on the move.

Orchestrating large groups of people fascinates me and this whole event looked like a challenge. Carrying the giant wooden platform is a somber act of penance that thousands of men, women, and children participate in throughout the week. The priests do an excellent job of keeping everyone on track. All participants take turns rotating positions; during each multi-hour procession there are multiple shifts and each person has a badge that specifies exactly where they are supposed to be. The physical act of guiding turns and keeping the float moving straight is also a feat of coordination. At information booths throughout the city you can get a map of the procession routes a schedule of when they will reach city landmarks. They hit those marks with impeccable precision.

Waiting their turn near the group two position.
A circuitous eleven-hour route.

I met up with the processions again just after sunset in the Park Central, one passed at 6pm and the other at 7:30pm. Dozens of harbinger incense bearers choked the air with smoke. This time, preteen boys carried Jesus on their shoulders, clearly hurting but pushing through. Women followed behind with an illuminated Mary. More participants escorted the procession of the appropriate gender for each float and held a walking vigil in parallel. It is incredible and moving how many people come together to experience and feel the story of the passion together.

Women bearing a mournful Mary.
Another Mary later, headed the opposite direction.
Can you smell the incense?