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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did it *actually* happen?

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

THE BOTTOM LINE

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

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

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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. ūüôā

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:

Adds:

  • 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.

Subtracts:

  • 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!

    Let’s do the numbers: how cheap is Mexico anyway?

    Not as cheap as you might think, but not bad. To track exactly how much I was spending, I kept a simple ledger of my expenses broken down by category. I’ve included it below for the detail-inclined, especially when it comes to finances (cough cough, Mom! :-)).

    First, a quick note on money in general. ATMs and money changers were ubiquitous. When I was there, I saw exchange rates vary from $12.5-11.2 pesos to $1 USD. At touristy places in Playa, and occasionally Tulum, prices were doubly quoted in pesos and USD. Credit cards were seldom accepted at the places I frequented, but I was able to purchase ADO bus tickets, >$50 USD purchases at shops with higher-end clientele, and once a hostel bill on credit.

    One thing I was surprised with was the obsession with exact change. Everyone always wanted exact change down to the peso; I can understand this for small items on the street but this was the case in more formal shops and restaurants across the board. It was the rare place that would change a $500 peso note (what most ATMs dispense) at all, let alone without a dirty look!

    Over 22 days in Mexico, I spent a total of $1,053 USD for an average of $47.85 USD per day. This is right under what I budgeted; I expected I could make it in Mexico on about $50/day. I heard the minimum for Mexico was $25-30 for a painfully cheap lifestyle and Lonely Planet said budget travelers should plan on $40USD/day for basics and $60-80 for more attractions and incidentals.

    My most expensive day: $121 on the last day in Tulum where I bought two expensive things–a pricey first class overnight bus ticket to Palenque and a beautiful mermaid shadowbox. My cheapest days were those without travel and minimal ticketed activities: $19.50 soaking up San Cristobal and $20.50 beach day in Tulum. Notably, my cheaper days were often my favorites.

    I was conscious of my money but didn’t scrimp painfully. I slept in dorms, usually ate cheaply/moderately or ate set menus at nicer restaurants but did have one fancy dinner out, went to attractions but did not get private tours, mostly took first class buses and public colectivos instead of taxis, didn’t buy many souvenirs but did make a few “major” purchases (my shadowbox and a dress that will look kickass in the fall with a pair of boots) when I found something I really liked.

    Without further ado, here’s the nitty gritty:

    Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 10.51.34 AM.png

    Traveler’s honor code, or lack thereof

    There really should be a traveler’s honor code. Print it on the back of everyone’s plane ticket: don’t be a jerk. I hate that people need to be reminded of this. I know we’re all living a transient communal lifestyle, so it is easy to minorly screw each other over without repercussions. Yes, you probably can steal my food and get away with it. But come on. Be better than that.

    There has been petty theft everywhere I have stayed. Communal fridges are the worst. In Merida, my cookies and beautiful leftover pollo pibil were both taken. In Villadolid, tortillas, cheese, and vegetables went missing. In Tulum, beer disappeared from the fridge on a regular basis despite the bar twenty feet away. I have yet to store food and not have some of it stolen, usually in a matter of hours. Seriously people. I know you’re not starving or actually that desperate. You seem able enough to buy cigarettes, unless those are stolen too. Grow up and buy your own damn food!

    Beyond this, I wish more respect was shown in general. Be considerate and kind. Take care of your things; don’t leave them strewn all over a room you share with other people. If you have a ridiculously loud and frequent nighttime cough, maybe take some medicine or stop chain smoking for a day. (Not just for my sake, but for your own!) Do your dishes. Put away your garbage. These are simple things, and the majority of people do them. But there are also enough who don’t to make it a problem with the hostel culture.

    Making the cut

    IMG_0750_preview.jpg
    All my worldly possessions for the next three months, grouped by theme.

    I’m no Simran, but I do love me a good packing list. I’ve been hunting down items and checking them off a spreadsheet for two weeks now. It’s fun like a puzzle scavenger hunt. Or, more literally, a¬†knapsack problem.

    It’s all about multipurpose, light, and edit edit edit. No need to carry batteries (or backup of virtually any normal thing) “just in case”. Money is for just in case. All you¬†really¬†need to travel is your passport and a credit card, everything else is nice-to-have.

    I consider myself a pretty light traveler; I’m not the kind of girl who needs a hair dryer in the morning. But I still found this a challenge. It took a couple of rounds of editing, per my own advice, before I got down to the version pictured here. Just a few last minute items and I’m ready! All told, my pack is about 80% full, a little heavier than I would like, but quite acceptable.

    Some key/tricky/special items in my pack are:

    • all-purpose soap/shampoo
    • books with high goodness&length:weight ratio
    • mini computer
    • layerable and versatile clothing
    • compressible coat [North Face Blaze Micro Hooded]. Super excited about this, my only major purchase for this trip. It packs into its pocket, is perfect for the temperature range, and weighs 10oz!
    • convertible pants [Marmot Lobos]. Light weight, super stretchy, and actually fit for a girl; I know I’m going to live in these babies.¬†Not the zip off kind, they instead roll up into capris.
    • lightweight shoes
    • sacks for compressing and grouping, making it easier to find items
    • my comfort extras:¬†compressible¬†pillow, sleep mask, ear plugs, gummi bears, favorite pens
    IMG_0753_preview.jpg
    Everything compressed down.
    IMG_0755-1 (dragged)_preview.jpg
    Packed up and ready to go!