Logistics, sorted.

Two weeks into living in Australia and, to my relief, major logistics have already been sorted:

  • Housing: Living in Fremantle with a wonderful travel buddy of mine from Central America. He has generously taken my in at his sweet new place and has been an invaluable friend and resource helping get my life set up. 
  • Connectivity: I have an Australian phone number! Just fixing this single element helped connect me to my stateside support system and feel so much more at ease. All my love to everyone back home. 
  • Transport: I’ve got myself a SmartRider card for easy transit on TransPerth busses and trains. Also, my housemate has loaned me his old beat-up push-bike, which I’ve gotten all fixed up. I’m excited to try out the lifestyle of being a bike rider, bumming around town. Now all I need is a basket!
  • Financial: I’ve got an Australian bank account. I opened a Classic Banking account with NAB that has no fees/minimums and–SURPRISE!–links to a savings account with 3.5% interest. I did a double take when I heard this news, as I like most Americans have not earned meaningful interest on a basic bank account in years. My local friends tell me rates are actually shockingly low currently, but feels pretty great to me.
  • Work: I’ve been looped into a temp office admin agency, and just accepted my first temp assignment today that will keep me working full time for the next six weeks. Feels nice to start building my new bank account.
  • Social: Meeting lots of friendly people so far, mostly through my housemate. People have been friendly and welcoming to me, and I look forward to making more connections here.
  • Recreation: There’s a proper squash club near my house, how sweet is that?! Got myself shoes and a racquet, and am psyched to pick back up an old passion of mine. I’m also curious to join a casual cricket rec league or something… that would be sweet.
Not bad for week two, hey? 🙂

I’m ready to scuff up a new pair of court shoes!

How I pay for longterm travel

The things I do for money… 🙂 Biking Billboards, at the Seattle Wedding Expo.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Tat.

Breaking away for longterm travel is more financially accessible than many people think. But people ask me “you traveled for so long, how do you pay for it?”. If it’s a priority, you can make it happen. There are lots of ways people do it, but here are a few of my tricks.

This is the obvious one: when I was working a steady job, I saved. Over three years, I lived below my means and put away over $20,000 with the intention of spending it on something big, either a trip or an apartment downpayment or a wedding (trip always being the heavy favorite! :-P). Since returning to my home town of Seattle in October 2013, I picked up some work and replenished my savings so now have the resources head off to somewhere new (Australia? Indonesia? Mexico?). I am conservative with my money (all credit cards paid off each month, no true debt), with a goal of leaving again to travel in mind.

Travel in cheap countries.
When I went abroad in February 2013, for six months I traveled in cheap countries (Central America) and kept my travel costs fairly low (I spent roughly $1,500 per month all-inclusive). I lived it up for a backpacker; I know I could bring those costs down if I tried harder.

Live cheaply when you aren’t traveling.
In America, we live in a strongly consumer culture where it is normal to buy far more than you need or use. It feels natural, but is far from necessary. It’s actually amazing how easy it is to not spend money! I used to save a decent amount (see point #1), but after returning to the US from Central America and realizing I wanted to devote more resources to travel I cut my monthly expenses by more than half. It took adjusting (I used to have Amazon packages delivered more days than not), but I rarely buy things anymore. For the most part, I live off what I already own.

The majority of my current costs are rent, food, alcohol, phone, and gasoline. For clothing, I thrift. For health care, I go to a free clinic. I go out, but usually at happy hour. For entertainment, I buy tickets sparingly, volunteer in exchange for tickets, or go to free events. I tend to spend time with people who act frugally too. I drink a lot more beer now, whereas two years ago my typical order was a $10+ cocktail or glass of wine. I eat eggs instead of meat. Not to say I don’t splurge sometimes! 😉

It won’t substantially change your life to go without a few luxuries. The experience of travel will. So save your money, clip coupons, and be happy with what you have. Recognize what things you buy are unnecessary and quit buying them!

Be thankful for the generous support of others, and look forward to treating them back.
I am blessed with kind and generous family and friends. Since being back in the US, dear ones who know I’m on a shoe-string have fed and housed me for short and long periods of time for little or no rent. It’s an incredible gift. I couldn’t be more grateful, try to repay their kindness as best I can, and look forward to gifting I can do in the future.

Think broadly about potential work. Be flexible about your timeline. 
Friends and family are a great resource in job hunting. Let people know you’re looking for work, attend events where you might make connections, and follow up on potential opportunities.

In December, I turned down two opportunities for three-month projects that paid around $10,000. I stupidly passed on both because I didn’t think I’d be in Seattle that long (she says, eight months later), didn’t want to do grunt work, and didn’t realize how tricky it would be to make meaningful money without getting locked into a multi-year job. Now I regret it. If an opportunity for decent money comes your way, be willing to change your plans. That leads me to my next point…

When you can, make some money!
Picking up extra cash is tough when you’re transient. Short-term work that pays well is scarce, yet committing to a long-term job is generally anti-travel (at least, the fun kind, typically). It’s a dilemma. In my eight months in Seattle, I picked up a number of jobs to cobble together an income. I managed to not only live net-neutral but rebuild my savings. Here are my income streams, big and small, in order of earning potential:

Contract/seasonal work in your field of expertise:
From March to June 2014, I was fortunate to work as a contract fundraiser for a music festival, which is my professional background. The job was a set, seasonal time period and paid a reasonable wage full-time. This was by far the overall most lucrative and reliable income I received in the past year. Travelers afraid of commitment, short-term (3-12 months) or project-based work in your field is where it the best buck for your time is.

What are your unique marketable skills that have the highest income potential? What industries/companies/organization might pay for you to work remotely or short-term? What will help bolster your resume for when you decide to truly return to the workforce?

Festivals, while stressful, provide seasonal employment for the wanderers.
We’re pretty much modern-day carnies.

A side note to wanderers out there: Many people on staff at the festival where I worked have regular 3ish-month gigs with festivals around the country and move along the circuit. It’s hard work, but you can too! It’s a small festival world, so once you get hooked in you can network for other festival gigs.

Part-time jobs:
Part-time or casual jobs tend to have lower hourly pay but are easier to get and leave. Good for those who are wary of committing to a job, but in my experience only pay enough cover cost of living, not generate savings. Get more than one; a few flexible part-time jobs put together like puzzle pieces make a more comprehensive schedule.

Job #1: I arrived in Seattle in late October so looked for work at local tourist attractions who might need extra help over the holidays. I got quickly hired by the Space Needle as an elevator operator team as part of their holiday relief staff. The the job was easy to secure, had no take-home stress, and I enjoyed being on-site at a landmark and sharing my Seattle joy with visitors. The downsides were low hourly pay and little control over my schedule.

Taking a break from operating the Space Needle elevators to get attacked by a giant salmon.
It doesn’t get more Seattle-y than this…

Job #2: My sister works at Biking Billboards and hooked me in with a very flexible part-time gig, doing exactly what it sounds like: biking with a billboard and doing on-the-street marketing. I enjoy it, the pay is great for casual work, have complete control over your schedule, and it is a family company that treats its employees well. As you might imagine, there are more shifts available in the good-weather months as companies market outdoors at summer concerts, fairs, and other events. In the winter, I did 1-2 rides every 1-2 weeks. In the summer, I am doing 3-4 rides each week. Each ride takes about 4 hours so it’s very part-time.

You meet the most interesting “people” handing out flyers on a street corner. Photo courtesy of @homerbassett.

Research studies:
This is one of my favorite ways of getting a little extra cash. Selling your body to science is the best! This is not a primary money-maker, but a great way to make pocket-money. Studies are random, somewhat entertaining, and pay well per hour. My primary source for local, legit studies is Craig’s List etc jobs page, which I check daily as new studies pop up all the time. You quickly get a sense of which studies are most likely to call you back. Ignore big online survey companies like Murfite that promise small amounts of money or points; they aren’t worth your time.

Studies generally come in two flavors:

  • User testing: Companies want feedback from normal people about their products. Apply for local in-person focus groups that pay cash or Amazon/Visa gift cards. Studies last 30 minutes to two hours, scheduled about a week in advance, and pay anywhere from $30-$120/hour. They’re also usually interesting! I have play-tested a MMORPG video game, made left turns in a driving simulator, given my opinion on blogging and texting applications, and had my brain activity monitored as I watched videos.
  • Medical/Psychological: In Seattle, there are legit medical studies through the University of Washington, and sometimes Fred Hutch needs healthy subjects for cancer and HIV research. I like supporting medical research, as long as my health is NEVER impacted. I have done nothing I considered too invasive nor taken any medication. I have shared my drinking and dating habits (single ladies, check out Project FRESH through the UW pays up to $320), gotten medical exams I needed anyway (ladies again, check out the HOPE study through UW pays $200 for routine female exams), and given small tissue or blood samples for drug research ($30-50 each visit). I also learned about additional studies by asking clinicians and front desk staff about other studies I might qualify for. 

Selling possessions:

When living more simply, you discover you already own a lot of crap you don’t need. I sold books and household items with resale value I could do without. My KitchenAid mixer now has a good home with a friend in California, making baked goodies I see pics of on Facebook often :-). This can be turned more into a business; I have friends who flip things they find at thrift stores and estate sales for a profit. If you have knowledge in a particular area, are able to fix things, or have an eye for spotting potential treasure, go for it!

Startups for odd-jobs:
Platforms for contracted labor have popped up everywhere in the past few years: TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, just to name a few. I haven’t found much success in this area due to basic logistical constraints: my car isn’t new enough to be a chauffeur and my house is too far from population centers to be a bike deliverer. I tried TaskRabbit while visiting in San Francisco in January 2014. I found a quick-assign task at 11pm and made $35 in two hours the next morning making kid lunches. It felt ok, but inefficient and like slave-ish labor.

I should probably try to monetize this blog more; it’s an upcoming project for me. I added a PayPal donate button earlier in 2014 (see it up there all shiny and orange at the top right!) and have received a few gifts–thank you!!

Be aware of your money.
Once you have money, what can you use to spend and watch it responsibly? I’ve always had fun managing my money. International travel makes it a little more complex. I don’t create hard budgets, but am aware of what I have and where I want to be. I use a few financial tools to help.

  • CREDIT CARDS: I use two no-annual fee credit cards with cash back.
    • Chase Freedom for 1% or 5% cash back.
    • Capital One for 1.5% cash back, no international fees, and lets you monitor your credit score–neat! 
    • I am conscious of which card is best for what circumstances and use them accordingly. In the US, I use Capital One for all purchases since it has a slightly higher cash back rate, unless my Chase card is running a special cash back deal (in April-June this year, they had 5% cash back for restaurants so I always used that card when I ate out). When traveling outside the US, I always use my Capital One card because it has zero foreign transaction fees.
  • BANK ACCOUNTS: I have two bank accounts, each serving different purposes. 
    • I have the bulk of my money in a Wells Fargo checking account, which serves as my primary domestic bank for deposits and paying bills. This account works well in the US, but has high $5 ATM withdrawal fees abroad. 
    • As an auxiliary online bank account primarily for travel, I have a Charles Schwab Investor High Yield Checking Account, linked to my Wells Fargo account so I can easily move money between the two. This account is blissfully simple: managed online, no annual fee, no account minimums, and is special because you can withdraw money from any ATM in the world for free. (Can you imagine? Not having to pay money to access your own money anywhere? A dream!) 
  • RETIREMENT: I have retirement accounts (a 503(b) with TIAA-CREF and Roth IRA with Vanguard) that I review often and rebalance a few times a year. This is where the bulk of my net worth is, so I don’t neglect it. Also, it’s good to note that a Roth IRA (though I don’t intend to use it this way) can serve as an emergency fund; principle contributions can be withdrawn any time tax and penalty free. Set up a Roth IRA in addition to your 401(k), people!
  • KNOWLEDGE: I closely watch all of my accounts together using Mint.

In conclusion…
Live cheaply, make money when you can, be aware of your money, and save save save! Then enjoy the trip of a lifetime, over and over again. Best wishes to all your bank accounts and happy traveling.

The fundraiser in me reemerges: Help support my travels! :-)

I’ve been turning over in my head ways to generate a little income from my writing. I want to keep complete control over what I write and I want it to stay from the heart. I don’t like the feel of ads and don’t have the massive traffic to make them worthwhile. But still, some money would be incredibly helpful! So I’ve decided to return to my fundraising roots, and openly and gently ask my readers for their support: I just added a “Donate” button to this blog (see it all orange and lovely in the upper right corner above all my selfies?). 
If you have enjoyed my stories and want to help me make more of them, please consider tossing me a few bucks to cover a beer or a bus ticket or a new pair of socks. Think of me as Katniss and you as my live-saving sponsor. 😉 It’s super easy: click the orange Donate button or right here to kick in a little something via Paypal. I would so appreciate it; every bit helps, I promise! And my birthday is coming up… 🙂
Thank you everyone for reading about my adventures. I love sharing them with you. I look forward to many more in the year ahead!

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! 🙂 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. 🙂
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. 🙂

Zen and the art of backpack repair

Ambition. Overconfidence. Hubris. All describe the over-stuffing of my pack as I headed for Long Caye. I would be spending a week on the remote island so wanted to bring provisions. Unfortunately, I chose heavy ones: wine, Quetzalteca, cookies, and books. All delightful, but not particularly travel friendly, especially when your bag is already stretched.

The inevitable happened. I discovered at the airport in Flores that my bag had split in four places: the top cover, near the left back strap, a snag-hole along the side, and–worst of all–an ENORMOUS 14-inch rip along the zipper that took out the entire right side of my pack. I got to work with patches, needle and thread, and my horrific sewing skills, making it up as I went along. I noticed the seams along both zippers were just about to go also, so reinforced them with bright blue tape designed to repair sails. It looks pretty ghetto close up, but so far all is holding. Cross your fingers for the rest of the trip!
Fancy new patch to cover the hole!

Blue kite tape reinforcement, glued and stitched on.

Giant side split now fully repaired with one of my better double stitches.
The question then becomes: if it does last through the end of the trip, how much more life does it have? Should I retire it or keep going?

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

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

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

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

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

Thus it began:

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

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

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!

The decision to dive

Diving was not something I thought I would do. Not on this trip, maybe not ever. Previously, I found the idea of going deep underwater somewhat scary, was under the impression it was an expensive hobby, and just didn’t feel the urge. Snorkeling was something I discovered a love of two years ago and I was satisfied with that being my window into the water. That is, until I saw those divers in Dos Ojos. Add in my increasing attraction to adventure and a longstanding interest in marine biology, and me diving now actually makes perfect sense.

Since Tulum, my curiosity and interest has grown steadily as I met divers and saw diving in action. Each time, I became more inspired and warmed to the idea, to the point of boiling over in fact. The mix of excitement, challenge, and tranquility are intriguing. As a traveler, I know throughout my life I will continue to find myself in places where diving provides another dimension of this planet to explore. Not to mix my Disney metaphores and go all reverse-Little Mermaid on you all but it really does seem like a whole new world. Learning to dive is also a very concrete accomplishment, a skill I would be proud to acquire on this trip especially. It feels part of taking risks to become and be the person I want to be. Symbolic of what I choose and can achieve on my own.

Two days ago I made the decision to do it. I weighed my options for when and how. The big question: to do it here in Belize or go to Utila in Honduras, a dive mecca with rock bottom prices. Nearly everyone on the backpacker beat seems to recommend Utila with an eye to its cheapness. However, when you factor in the money, time, and effort of traveling to Honduras and the fact that Honduras makes me nervous, spending $200 more to just do it here in the convenience and safety of Caye Caulker actually seemed smarter.

Yesterday morning I took the plunge and signed up for an open water course with Belize Diving Services. The price is $450USD, which is more expensive than most places but they have a great reputation and I think it will be money well-spent. I already have my workbook and instructional dvds that I will be studying over the next two days on my hostel’s beach-front porch, then I move into confined and open water training. In less than a week I will be a certified bubble maker, able to go places and do things! I am so very excited. 🙂

UPDATE: I thought Belize Diving Services did a great job. Seems like a well-run shop doing things right. I’ve heard sketchy things about some other diver’s more casual open water education; I like that mine was serious and thorough. Their boats, gear, and lunch aboard were all great. I’d recommend them to any diver headed to Caye Caulker.

The evolution of a pack: what does she have in her pocketses?

People got a kick out of my first post detailing the contents of my backpack, so I thought I’d give you all an update on its status on the occasion of my one month traveling anniversary (yay!!). I have made adjustments, dumping a few items and picking up many new ones as need (or more often want) be. Net, the pack has grown overall, but still not by much as most of the new items are small. Here’s the damage:


  • Safety pins
  • Stash of oatmeal cookie, peanuts, and Guatemalan dark chocolate — to keep the gummi bears company.
  • New laptop charger — mine died on day two.
  • Grapefruit spoon — total necessity! How did this not make my pack in round one?
  • Spanish-English pocket dictionary
  • Conditioner — after a week at the beach, it had to happen. All-in-one soap wasn’t cutting it.
  • Hot pink bikini — because why not.
  • Scotch tape — for scrapbooking on the road and other miscellaneous mending.
  • Lord of the Rings series
  • Purple wristwatch
  • Bottle of Chimay hot sauce — I heard Guatemalan food often lacks kick, so brought some of my own from Mexico.
  • Shadowbox, textiles, dress, and a other few trinkets -> shipping home soon
  • Amber necklace
  • Mini neon blue nail polish — again, why is this not already in my pack?!
  • Nail polish remover
  • Additional hair ties
  • Three tubes of lip balm
  • Cuticle/multi-purpose balm — because tramping is rough on the skin.
  • Body lotion 
  • Additional camera memory card
  • USB flash drive — uploading to the internet is slow so an alternative backup for photos is a must; baby computer doesn’t have much memory, and this is great for storing other traveler’s photos when we go on common adventures.


  • Loofa puff — lost almost immediately.
  • Face serum — my skin care routine has got to shit out here; serum just wasn’t necessary and it was a weird kind I didn’t like anyways that smelled like patchouli. Tossed.
  • Broken laptop charger
  • Empty sunscreen, contact solution, etc
  • Finished book: Gardens of the Moon
  • Broken headphones

Just noticed some wear and tear on my pack at the seams that has me worried; looks like I’ve been stuffing it too tightly. I think it’s time to find a post office and consider dumping a few more things. Luckily now I have safety pins if the seam does burst!