When Xiang and I decided to work together, we vowed to take at least two annual creativity breaks abroad. When Tyler got a chance to go to Belize with his company in the fall, I suggested to Xiang that he, Olessia, and I meet Tyler and backpack around Central America. Months passed, and our startup consumed us. A week before our flight, we were both having a hard time about taking a vacation. The importance of a creativity break is never more obvious than when it feels difficult to disconnect, so we put our work on hold, loaded our backpacks, and explored Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Day 1:From Belize City to Hopkins
Our adventure began with a taxi to the chicken bus station ($25USD/$50 BZ, 3 ppl). More on chicken buses later. We planned to meet Tyler with his team at Villa Verano in Hopkins, Belize for one night before embarking on a trip to four key destinations: Utila, Copan Ruinas, San Pedro La Laguna, Antigua, and San Salvador.
The first leg to Hopkins was a 3-hour chicken bus ride for $5 USD/$10BZ each to Dangriga, Belize. Bus rides are one of my favorite ways to see a new city: ample time to sightsee/daydream, prime people watching, bus vendors hopping of and off, a glimpse into someone else's BART or Muni ride for a day.
From Dangriga, we were still 45 minutes away from Villa Verano, so we took a taxi to Hopkins ($35 USD for 3 people). On the way down a very bumpy dirt road, a truck with a white dude in the front seat approached us. I knew him instantly. It was Tyler! He had gone looking for us.
After a nice dinner of freshly caught fish on hot stones on the beach and some board games, we went to bed early in the only room we would have with air conditioning. We had an entire day of traveling ahead of us.
Day 2: Hopkins, Belize to San Pedro Sula, Honduras
We woke up in Hopkins. After being kindly dropped off by our friends at the bus stop, we caught the James chicken bus going toward Punta Gorda (10BZE/$5USD each). A group of locals kept us company while playing some excellent reggae music.
The bus driver was kind enough to drop us off right in front of where we needed to go: the Punta Gorda ferry that would take us to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala (a transfer point on our journey to Utila). After going through immigration to leave Belize ($15USD each) and buying ferry tickets ($25USD each), we walked out to take our "ferry"...
We all really enjoyed this "ferry" ride - that little boat BOOKED it on the open ocean. The speed and open air made it a comfortable ride without any queasiness - incredibly fun. When we got to Puerto Barrios, we had to cross the Guatemalan border. We caught a taxi ($35 USD, 4ppl) with a kind Guatemalan man who bought us all lychees from a road stand. When we told him our plan to take 2-3 buses and taxis to get to our final destination, San Pedro Sula (interestingly, the murder capital city of the world), he convinced us to take a taxi instead with his buddy, who could meet us at the border of Guatemala and drive us all the way to our hostel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras for $100 USD total. It was considerably more, but it was an easy choice. While the sky grew darker, fatigue and hunger were getting to us. Instead of 6-7 more hours of travel, it would take only about 2.5 hours more. Finally, we arrived at La Posada Hostel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. By the end of Day 2, we had crossed 3 borders. We had spent a lot of time in immigration and buses, but we were excited to wake up and travel to the island of Utila.
Day 3-4: Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
Covered in bed bug bites, we caught the 4am Hedman Alas bus to La Ceiba. La Posada hostel had arranged a free taxi for us to the bus station, where we took a lovely, comfortable bus ($17USD/375 Lmps) to La Ceiba Ferry, which would take us to Utila ($25USD/542 Lmps each).This ferry was the opposite of the free-flying, open-air boat we took at Punta Gorda. It was massive, dark, and enclosed its passengers. For one hour of slow, violent rocking, the moan of nausea filled the air.
At last, we debarked; the warm sunshine of Utila welcomed us.
Prototypical paradise: hot, humid, slow-paced. Utila, the smallest of the Islas de la Bahía in the Caribbean Sea, is famous for being one of the most beautiful and inexpensive destinations in the world for recreational diving. There's only one beach on Utila, since it's so small. We devoted many hours to swimming in the bathtub-warm water.
We snorkeled off an amazing dock for a few dollars per hour.
Following a yoga class as the sun went down, Xiang and Olessia went gallivanting, while Tyler and I nested in our room at Bird Paradise Hostel.
Days 5-6: Copan Ruinas
Day 5: 5:30am we caught the ferry from Utila to La Ceiba (542 Lempiras) then a taxi (40 Lps each) to the bus terminal where we bought tickets on Diana Express (225 Lmps each) back to our favorite murder capital of Honduras: San Pedro Sula. Highlight of this bus ride for me was waking up hot, thirsty, and hungry to the sounds of a few people selling ice cold agua de coco and fresh sliced mangoes. Heaven.
After we arrived in San Pedro Sula, we had to wait at this station for a couple hours before our connection to Copan Ruinas. Armed guards and TV screens depicting ominous political scandals are what I remember most about this bus station. Our bus arrived, and we began the long 5 hour trip to Copan.
Copan Ruinas is a remote, quaint, sweet cobblestone city containing the ancient Mayan city of Copan. We chose to skip famous Tikal (a journey too far north in Guatemala), so Copan satisfied our Mayan ruin demands.
Intermittent rain fell on Copan in fat droplets, falling heavily, creating rushing pools for the mini carts to race uphill against.
The next morning, we toured the ruins with this gentleman:
The ruins were fascinating. Our guide described the old ball game that was played there, pointed out where all the rituals, dwellings, and celebrations occurred, and proudly introduced us to his Copan heritage.
After, while Xiang and Olessia checked out the hot springs, Tyler and I went to the Macaw bird park and sanctuary! Beautiful long-tailed parrots and funny-looking toucans, a wonderful cause to re-introduce free-flying macaws to Copan; we adored this park.
Day 7 - 10:San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Day 7: 6am in Copan, we caught a long ride to Antigua, Guatemala ($25 US each) and found Jungle Party Hostel, where we arranged a shuttle to take us to San Pedro La Laguna, a small town on Lake Atitlan (150Q/$18 USD each). I'll never forget this ride.
We're driving in pitch blackness in pouring rain down a sloping mountain on rough, unpaved roads. Our driver, though polite to us, was a quite aggressive, high-strung character. Deep, gaping potholes, frenzied driving, our heads banging on the ceiling, bladders exploding. Nervous laughter turned to anxious silence. After about two hours, in time for our driver to make a quick alleyway drug deal, we reached San Pedro La Laguna alive. It was late Saturday night. When morning came, we were dazzled.
San Pedro La Laguna and Lake Atitlan are breathtaking. Pictures hardly do them justice.
The weather was considerably cooler, which was a nice change. Xiang and Olessia went on sunrise hikes, horseback rides, and kayaked.
We loved this town so much that we voted unanimously to stay two additional days. The hostel where we stayed, Mr. Mullet's, was fantastic. Our rooms were named "Solitary Confinement" and "Brothel." There was, in fact, a Mr. Mullet, who did have a mullet and wore lots of cheetah print. Xiang and Olessia's friend, Oliver, worked the bar at Mr. Mullet's and invited us to visit. He entertained us with tales of his recent bout of near death illness, his Guatemalan non-doctor who went only by "Eddie", and wild nights working at a party hostel in Cusco, Peru - allegedly the coolest place ever.
On Sunday, Tyler and I found Buddha Bar. The night before, Tyler was ecstatic to hear that this local bar showed all the Sunday morning NFL games. Lovely bar with great staff and good beer - met a kind local transplant from Maine who worked four months out of the year on a salmon boat in Alaska, and had a family living in Utila with whom he lived for most of the year.
San Pedro La Laguna was also the best possible place for me to fall temporarily ill - that extra bottle of Cipro I always carry came in the clutch - I was back on my feet in 6 hours after an unfortunate UTI.
We left with fond memories of Mr. Mullet's.
Day 11-13: Antigua, Guatemala
The shuttle ride back to Antigua was stopped for upwards of an hour due to construction. As you can remember from our bumpy trip to the lake town, this road construction was desperately needed. Future visitors should be comforted that great road repairs were in progress as of 9/2014. We eventually made it to Jungle Party Hostel, a great hostel for young party people. In our private room near the restroom, Tyler and I were treated to a symphony of intermittent coughing, spitting, and hurling at midnight due to too much Jungle Partying. (We are not young party people.)
If you are thinking about visiting Antigua, do it.
At Jungle Party Hostel, we learned about a daily tour of Antigua. I had to go! A few words about our tour guide, Anthony: his tour began by prepping us about our cover story, complete with laminated props - that we were being oriented as newly recruited Hari Krishna disciples - to avoid the "Antigua tour mafia" who prosecuted unofficial tour guides. Anthony showed up with a sling showcasing his personally handmade bracelets for sale, a floppy hat, and a striking Australian accent. He reported that, as a former Android programmer, he decided one day to move to Mexico indefinitely, and he was making his way over from Nicaragua and a list of other countries. A huge history and politics buff, we got a great tour of Antiguan historical sites, mermaid fountains, the first public hospital in Antigua, an art museum, the jade museum, Choco Museo, and Nimpot, a craft marketplace to support local women. We only paid a few dollars each for this awesome private tour.
Anthony and I bonded over scandalous Guatemalan politics, the plight of Claudia Paz y Paz, the war on the indigenous, and the city's discriminatory treatment of indigenous women market activity. It's a UNESCO historical site, but they aren't letting women sell in the public square like they have for hundreds of years... I wish him well on his journey to Mexico! We capped the night off with a visit to Café No Sé, "the birthplace of illegal and the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico."
The next day, we hiked Pacaya Volcano and roasted marshmallows on the volcano's steaming vents, the entire trip costing only 80Q/$10 each, offered by Jungle Party.
Later, Tyler and I took an amazing chocolate class at ChocoMuseo. We learned the process "from bean to bar" and the history of cacao. Cacao starts off as a white fruit (sweet, but bitter if you bite), next it is placed in a dark crate to ferment for about a week, then moved out to dry under the sun for a few weeks, and finally roasted before grinding or processing. The Mayans developed this process, and it is largely still used to process cacao today.
We also learned about Mayan vs. European traditions, and the production of chocolate today.
Day 14: El Salvador: La Libertad y San Salvador
We took a shuttle from Antigua to La Libertad, a coastal beach town($30 USD each). Taking the coastal route instead of the direct route through Guatemala City was an excellent decision, as we were spoiled with tropical, lush views of the countryside instead of traffic and noise of the main city. It was also comforting to see our home ocean, the Pacific, on our last couple of days.
At La Libertad, we hung out at a resort before hopping on a bus to San Salvador ($1.50 each), our last stop. A must for El Salvador, we indulged in pupusas and dramatic TV melodramas. We flew home the next morning.
Two oceans, four countries, almost every mode of transportation - in two weeks. I felt refreshed and perfectly ready to be home.
On safety: A funny flight misunderstanding led Xiang and Olessia to arrive a day earlier than we had planned. They were in Belize City on Saturday. I landed early Sunday morning. We planned to meet at the airport curb at 10am, but as I deboarded my flight, I wondered: what if they weren't there? We rarely experience the time-warping discomfort of arriving in transit, trying to meet someone, without a cell phone or any mode of contact. As I dodged the crowd of local taxi drivers ready to pounce on a young unaccompanied foreign female tourist, I searched for them, but no one was in sight. I took a breath, then decided to figure things out with an empty bladder. Appreciating the sounds of Belizean Creole, a sense of adventure grew in me in the restroom while I weighed my options: go directly to bus station or find a way to call their hostel? When I emerged again onto the humid curb, I recognized Olessia walking away and Xiang's unmistakably cool sunglasses. I called to them. Our rendezvous had gone perfectly according to plan! This seamlessness became a theme of our trip. People warned us about the dangers of traveling through Central America, the unreliability of bus lines and sketchy preying locals; fortunately, we were never cheated, stranded, or abused in the slightest by anyone during the two weeks we traveled.
Our route: our starting location was constrained to Belize, but I would not recommend starting in Belize to those who can design their trip. It was very expensive and time-consuming to travel down the Belize coast the first day, and there weren't many options: either a chicken bus or an outrageously expensive taxi. While Villa Verano was beautiful, luxury resorts are less interesting cultural destinations in my opinion, and Belize was quite expensive.
I highly recommend Guatemala as a great starting or solo country to travel: Antigua, anywhere near Lake Atitlan, especially San Pedro La Laguna, since you can visit volcanoes, ancient ruin sites, local markets (bummed we couldn't make it to Chichicastenango), hot springs, macaw birds, coffee and cacao locations, nightlife, nature reserves - all in one massive country.
While I loved our time in Utila and highly recommend if you dive or want to get away on a very small island for a while, I would understand if people skipped it. Utila's really small and hard to reach (plus, that ferry ride is pretty rough, so don't go for just 1 day). Copan Ruinas in Honduras was also beautiful and worth visiting. Skip San Pedro Sula as a destination; it's a sea of fast food chains.
1.Budget for travel. Travel costs were the most expensive aspect of our trip. If you are on a strict budget, I would limit the amount of travel and stick around one or two countries. We covered a lot of ground and enjoy long bus rides, but it was more expensive than we expected.
2.How to get on a Chicken Bus: promptly rush the back of the bus to enter through the back door, or pay someone $1US to save you a seat. These buses fill up quickly - if you do not have a seat, you will be kicked off. However, Xiang and Olessia noticed that down the road from the bus stop, the bus driver will often pick more people up. This whole process took over twenty minutes. Your bags will be stored at the back of the bus, so you may want to sit toward the back to watch them.
3.Carry cash in the correct currency for border crossings. There will be currency changers on the border, but they need to make a cut, so it's a horrible position to be in if there's no bank around. You might need to pay to enter countries by land or ferry, so carry cash. Leaving Guatemala cost us nothing. Leaving Honduras cost $3 USD/64 Lmp. Belize was the most expensive to leave: $15USD/$30BZ to leave. Entering and exiting El Salvador cost us nothing out of pocket. Belize and El Salvador accept US currency; Belize is pegged to the USD ($2BelizeDollar to $1USD); the USD is the official currency of El Salvador. Honduras uses Lempiras (21 Lps to $1USD). Guatemala uses Quetzales (7.6Q to $1USD).
4. Get your stamps. The stamp exiting Belize is quite important. A few travel companions were stopped in Guatemala on our way to El Salvador, due to the lack of the "exit stamp" - travel between Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are pretty lax, but Belize stamps were more scrutinized.
5. Diet-wise, Central America was fairly easy for two vegetarians to eat well. Save for the occasional long bus ride with only meat options at rest stops, we were able to find vegetable options. I love beans. We drank from water bottles, were fairly careful about not ever drinking or using tap water, so we didn't have any serious stomach problems.
When I return to Central America, I would love to visit Mexico, especially Palenque ruins; Leon, Nicaragua; the turtles in Costa Rica, and Cusco, Peru (thanks to Oliver).