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

Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

Thinking about traveling in Central America? Do it, it’s awesome! ūüôā 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.


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.

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. ūüôā
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…

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

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. ūüôā

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, Garc√≠a M√°rquez
    • 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‚Ķ) 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. ūüôā
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!!

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.


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!

There’s something about Guatemala

Even after three weeks, I still feel like Guatemala is a mystery to me. I found it less straightforward to love initially than Mexico, but it did grow on me dearly. I visited many lovely places with truly exceptional adventure and natural beauty where I was oh so happy, yet feel like I barely scratched the surface in getting to know the real Guatemala, whatever that is.

Guatemala attracts a different kind of visitor: the longterm volunteer, the Spanish student, the intrepid traveler. Only occasionally did I meet someone who was on ‚Äúholiday‚ÄĚ. But on the flip side, I met a number of gringos who visited, fell in love with the country, and stayed. Property is cheap and tempting to buy. A number of my dorm various companions were considering succumbing or had already. Guatemala is where I began to see fellow travelers repeatedly in different places; such a treat to see a friendly face unexpectedly.

Unlike some who come to volunteer or study with a home stay, I stayed on a true blue gringo trail. I hit the major spots and virtually everywhere the tourist zone was very segregated from the local population. Most hostels were self-sustaining ecosystems so it was easy to hang back inside. For me, this started out in Xela because of safety concerns but quickly became a habit. Perhaps too much so, breaking me off from a more “authentic” experience, yet it led me to meet and spend a lot of time with some fantastic fellow backpackers. Who’s to say that isn’t just as important to my experience?

At least in Mexico I branched out to eat dinner more often. In Guatemala, lodging was CHEAP, but food was expensive. Embarrassingly, I ate virtually 100% gringo food‚ÄĒburgers, pizza, etc‚ÄĒthe whole time I was there, often just at the hostel bar with my friends. One exception to the gringoness: Guatemalan tipico breakfasts of eggs, beans, avocado, cheese, and tomato. Yum… I am going to take that home and incorporate into my life for sure.

The staff at the Black Cat Hostel in Xela forever endeared themselves to me by packing up my tipico breakfast just in time for my shuttle ride. They knew how to scramble an egg!

I leave feeling itchy in my soul and unfulfilled. I deeply enjoyed my time in Guatemala, but was it enough? Did I take advantage of the opportunities I had there? What else could I have done? Who else could I have met? Did I adventure enough? Should I have participated more in a volunteer project? Do I need to go back? I guess that is the crux of the place‚ÄĒit gets under your skin, calling like a siren for you to go deeper and stay.

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.

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

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!‚ÄĚ). 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?
p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

Lanquin and Semuc Champey: an ode to an epicly fun three days

Semuc Champey. How could you not want to jump right in?

After the bustle of Semana Santa in Antigua, it was time for more of the beautiful outdoors and what better place than Lanquin. The small town of Lanquin serves as the perfect base for exploring Semuc Champey national park, renowned for its spectacular loveliness. If you are an adventurer, move Semuc Champey to the top of your to-do list NOW.

Sometimes fun hits exactly when you really need it to. I stayed at the Zephyr Lodge, a place I had been hearing about from other travelers since literally day one in Merida. It is perched on a high ridge with breathtaking 360 degree views all around you. You could not imagine a more picturesque spot. It is a super popular hostel and was completely booked; I snagged a reservation as a thank you for delivering a passport a friend left behind in Antigua. After a rough eight-hour shuttle ride, I was welcomed with a beer, bbq, and excellent company. Couldn’t think of a better way to start the next three days.

Another gorgeous Central American breakfast view, looking down from Zephyr Lodge to the river on morning number one.
Perched on the edge.
My favorite spot off-the-beaten-track at the hostel. Who can resist a secret hammock?

On the first full day, our group from the hostel piled into the back of a blue flatbed pickup truck at 8:30am and headed for Semuc Champey. We road 11km through the jungle, jostling up and down on the crap road into the valley. I kicked off my flip flips and loved every bump and bounce in my bare feet, occasionally going mini-airborne with glee. After an hour, we arrived and took a short and steep hike up for a breathtaking view of our next stop.

Panoramic of the beautiful Semuc Champey. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
Can’t wait to go swimming!

We spent two hours frolicking below in the shallow pools. The water was a clear blue-green, which became my favorite color of the day. I particularly liked crawling on my belly over the smooth rocks covered in brown slime. Short waterfalls link the pools; all are excellent and refreshing to play in and a few make for a bumpy slide down. Tiny fish nibbled my feet as I watched everyone make their way down one large slide with a mad sharp dogleg; no one succeeded gracefully and there were many awkward dismounts, which made it that much more awesome.

So many kick ass swimming holes on this trip–unbelievable! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

From the pools, we moved on to phase two of the day: caving. It is hard to believe that the day could get better, but it does. We discarded our shoes, sarongs, and backpacks, entering the Grutas K’anba caves in swimsuits and bare feet each carrying a taper candle. As we waded into the first tunnel and the water started coming up around my legs, it was impossible not to recall Indiana Jones down in the catacombs of Venice (sans the rats).

Going deeper into the cave, we swam holding the candles alight and aloft with one hand and paddling with the other. We climbed waterfalls and ladders, felt the way carefully with our feet, and scrambled up wet ledges. Our guide leaped from the front of our group to the back with ease, taking candles from his hat to light our way. At the end of the tunnel, the men were goaded into jumping off a tall ledge into a small pit of water, supposedly free of snakes. Me and two other girls scuttled over to the opposite ledge to watch, but quickly became the target of cannonballs. On the return trip, we finished with a final blind plunge. What can you do but just have fun when the guide sticks you in a hole barely big enough to squeeze through with darkness below, points your feet directly down, takes your candle, puts your hand on a hold, says “don’t let go!” and pushes you through? Exhilarating finish. I landed with my face under another waterfall and was thrilled not to lose a contact.

I have discovered on this trip that I adore caving. Leaving the caves, I was in a state of excited bliss and knew it was a day I would remember for however long forever is to me.

Cave women, splashed by cannonballs within an inch of our lives and loving it. Photo courtesy of Amanda Dwyer.

After an intense day one exploring, chilling was in order on day two. Luckily, there was the perfect option: tubing down the river. We hopped in the water with nothing but our tubes, selves, and two big mesh bags filled with beer. It was HOT, and the water felt fantastic. We drifted down, hooking together to slow the ride, chatting, and making our way through the bags ‘o beer. With so much Aussie slang being thrown around, it was this American’s strategy to laugh and enjoy, even if I only understood half!

Ah, floating. What better way to see the river? Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
Me and two of the Aussie boys. Wheeee!! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
More fun, towards the end of our beer stash. ūüėČ Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

We got home early in the afternoon and kept the chilling going. During an afternoon siesta at the secret hammock a few drops began to fall from the sky and I prayed for it to really rain. Within an hour, the heat broke and the sky opened up. Thunder and lightening cut out the power and threatened us in the open air, wind wrecked our card game, spraying cards all over the table. And when cards isn’t working, what’s to be done? For the rest of the night, the answer was tequila shots. In the ensuing aftermath, I poorly defended the sanity of women in gender debates, danced atop broken glass, laughed hard, remained exceedingly hydrated, accidentally kicked a dog in the face (disc√ļlpame!) while playing giant Jenga, asked inappropriate questions, and assured multiple people that everything was going to be okay and they did likewise for me. We all need a little comfort sometimes. And where the hell did that hat come from? I think you just got Gautemalaed.

Awesome crew, hell of a lot of fun. It was sad to see everyone ship out in their separate ways in the morning. But that is the way of life on the road. Embracing the impermanence and accepting another beautiful experience into my life.

BEWARE: Many a traveler looses their heart in Lanquin. It is a special and odd paradise that sucks people in, as can be seen by the number of travelers that return to work for extended periods of time at the hostel for just room and board. I wasn’t bit that bad, but it was tough to leave. If I could do it all over again from the beginning, I would in a heartbeat, 100%, any day of the week. Most definitely a highlight.

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…

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.