Sunday, August 14, 2011


We leave Granada at about 8:30am and take off towards Riva-Riva-Rivas!! That's the way all the taxi and bus drivers say it. Rivas is a jumping off point for other things around it like Isla de Ometepe and San Juan del Sur. All the guide books have Isla de Ometepe as a must see thing to do in Nicaragua so we take a taxi from Rivas to the ferry a few minutes away in the nearby town of San Jorge. I can never get over the feeling that we´re being ripped off by the taxi drivers here since there is no meter in any of them. After a few minutes we´re dropped off at the ferry. Isla de Ometepe is an island made up of two volcanoes in the middle of huge Lake Nicaragua. It is Tuesday and we only have 6 days left until we need to hustle our asses off down to San Jose, Costa Rica and fly home. We talk to a guy who runs tours on the island and he tells us that taking taxis around the island can cost $30 a piece!!! WTF!! We´re suddenly getting second thoughts about the whole trip to the island. I guess they have some beaches there to swim at and you can climb the volcanoes, and there is some cool animals and hot spings, but the thought of being at the mercy of unscrupulous taxi drivers is not very reassuring. We have already climbed one volcano and we have done some jungle trekking already. Suddenly we call an audible and decide to skip the whole Isla de Ometepe all together and go to San Juan del Sur instead. Some people from back on Utila had said they really loved Del Sur, as they called it. It is right on the Pacific Ocean and at this point of the trip being on a beach on the Pacific sounds a lot better than being on a beach of a big lake. (Especially if we can´t get around with out going broke) We get a cool taxi driver who takes us all the way to Del Sur for $6 each which I think is a good deal. Right away we can tell we made the right choice. Del Sur is a small beach town, known for fishing and surfing. The town is small, but colorful, with a lot of beach restaurants and bars along with anything else a traveler might need, like laundry, internet, etc. There is a good mix of tourists, surfers, and locals and the vibe is relaxed and mellow. We check out some rooms and end up at Casa Romano, a nice hostel-hotel that is owned by a really nice family. We get a nice big clean room with a bathroom, 3 beds, and 2 high powered fans for $30/night. Right away we go down to the beach with the swim suits on to check it out. The sun is baking down pretty good and the temperature has got to be in the 90´s, but the water feels great. The beach is really scenic, there are two cliffs encircling the bay with lots of boats anchored in the harbor. A large statue of Jesus stands on one of the cliffs over looking the bay. Cramer and I swim around for awhile and body surf some big waves. One thing I have to mention here is the fact that I´m not in great shape and after almost 5 weeks of little exercise and a lot of drinking I´m looking more like the Pillsbury doughboy than ever. White, pasty, and soft. You might think I´d be tan by now, and actually I do have a beautiful farmers tan going. I just don´t see the point in lathering up my whole body to try to get a tan so usually I keep my shirt on when I´m swimming down here. I dread getting a sun burn in the tropics. Well anyway the whole point I´m trying to make here is that I´m not that fat... but in Central America I have to be considered Obese. People are all skinny, not just the locals but all the tourists too. Of course very few tourist I´ve met are Americans, so maybe that´s why. That´s kind of weird too, the lack of Americans I´ve met. I don´t know, but it seems like Europeans and Canadians are everywhere traveling for months at a time. Different priorities I guess. Well after cooling down in the Pacific for awhile we enjoy a few cold beverages at the Iguana Bar and grab some food. Later that night we stop in at a cool place a few streets off the beach called the Barrio Cafe, which has good food too. The next day we do a lot of the same stuff. We get some breakfast and take in the town a little bit more. Hit the beach to swim and cool off in the mid day heat. The town is great and everything is perfect except too much sitting around drinking and eating gets boring after awhile so we decide its time to do a tour of some kind. They do have fishing tours, zip lining, paint balling, surfing, etc. The best bang for the buck is surfing. We sign up to do a surfing lesson where they´ll take us to one of the surf beaches nearby from 11am to 6pm. The beach in town doesn´t have good surf, but ones a few miles away have some great surfing. Playa de Hermosa, Remanso, and Maderas all have good surfing. We wake up the next day and pack our stuff. We get loaded into the back of a pick up truck with another 12 people and they drive us about 30 minutes away to Playa de Hermosa. There is a surf camp there complete with a small restaurant, lots of hammocks, small huts, and plenty of trees for shade. The beach is amazingly beautiful and was even the sight for the show Survivor: Nicaragua. Alfredo is our instructor and gives us an in depth lesson. The first part is all theory and philosophy and the second part is technique and the third part is getting in the water and doing it. So after a couple of hours we´re on the boards surfing the whitewater. The wave breaks once, that´s where the good surfers are, then it gets closer to shore and breaks again, that´s where we´re surfing. Alfredo tells us surfing is one of the most addictive sports in the world, and he may be right. We´re riding these big old giant 9 and half foot boards, and we´re getting up most of the time and doing pretty well. There are other people there just hanging out tanning on the beach, and some really good surfers too. Another thing I find weird is the huge amount of Canadians surfers here. Come on Canadian surfers... really? There is a bunch of them around and they all seem pretty cool. At first I thought the surfers we kind of stuck up, but I guess I just wasn´t in the "know" then. Later when the sun goes down we all load up the pick up truck and head back to town. We´re both exhausted, but before passing out we go to a local pizza place and get some pizza. It´s been about 4 weeks or so since my last slice, and it´s really good. Even though sausage to them is a cut up hotdog... That´s just not right! The next day we´re sore and scrapped up a little, but we´re addicted now so we sign up to go back to the same beach for some more surfing. Two Canadians (from Quebec) are staying at the same place as we are named Matt and Sara, and they give us some good info on the surf scene around town. They tell us Remanso is really good for beginners and has good rolling waves. We try to do Remanso beach, but there weren´t enough people to go so there is no truck going there. It´s starting to get a bad reputation, because a lot of people get bandito-ed there. It turns out it was probably a good move as a taxi full of people got robbed as they were leaving. The second day is great too. We´ve graduated to smaller boards now (8´4") and we´re starting to get some nice long rides. There are a lot more people there today, so we can´t find any hammocks to pass out in. We each probably surf for about 4 or more hours. Stopping periodically for water and some lunch. Both Cramer and I are getting better and are really enjoying it. Unfortunately I don´t know when the next time I´ll be surfing again, so I keep going until the sun starts to set. After two days of surfing we´re both beat up pretty good. Our hands, knees, and ribs are all raw and sore plus we´re exhausted. I pound down an energy drink when we get back. Then we see a bunch of people we met surfing going to get some food so we join them. One girl is from Japan, Monami, another guy is from Germany, Julian, another guy is Indian, but from London, Sanjay, and two other girls from Britian as well, Amy and Claire. We end up at the Black Whale, which is a restaurant right by the beach. After some food and plenty of drinks we all go back to their hostel, called Casa Oro, which is where we do all the surfing trips out of. Cramer is tired and hits the sack. I decide to keep drinking with these younger people, which is never a good idea... After a few hours I come crashing back into the room, accidently unplug the fan, waking Cramer up. Then run to the toilet to pray to the porcelin god, only to pass out a moment later snoring loud enough to wake the dead. This is what Cramer told me atleast and I had the hangover to prove it. It looks like no more surfing today. The whole day I just kind of lounge around trying to recover. I grab some food and read. The final night in town we go out to find some food. We stop in at a Sushi place first to see the menu and it´s really pricey. We each just drink a beer and split a sushi roll, and that was like $20!! The Lonely Planet had recommended a place called El Colibri, so we then go there. The place is great. Cool atmosphere, great decor, good music, and the food is phenomenal. It´s an expensive night on food, but hey it´s our last night in town. After 5 days in San Juan del Sur we´re finally going to be moving on down to San Jose, Costa Rica in the morning. Del Sur has been awesome and a great place to wind down the whole trip. We were treated to some awesome sunsets at both the San Juan beach and Hermosa beach, helping us to appreciate the end of our trip with style. Both of us agree that we made the right move by by passing Isla de Ometepe. It will give me a reason to come back again. The next morning we take a taxi back to Rivas and board the Tica Bus (a nice coach bus) to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Friday, August 12, 2011


After pulling into Granada, we're dropped off next to the Parque Cental. Granada is another colonial Spanish city that has the same type of set up and architecture as Antigua. It is full of color and filled with old churches and cool looking buidings. Nestled on the edge of the enormous Lake Nicaragua, it has a population of about 110,000 and is an important city in Nicaragua both economically, politically, and historically. It was founded in 1524 by Fransciso Hernandez de Cordoba, and was one of the first cities in the Americas. It was one of the main cities for Spanish conquest of Central America, along with sister city Leon in the north and Antigua in Guatemala. The cental park is full of tall trees offering lots of shade, with a big fountain and plenty of people lounging around and others selling food and various other items. While Antigua was beautiful, it seemed almost too full of tourists. Granada on the other hand has tourists and travelers, but they don't overshadow the normal daily lives of the locals. We get a room on the main strip where there are a bunch of restaurants and bars. What's really cool is that cars aren't allowed on certain streets so there are tons of chairs and tables to sit at. It is Sunday, but Granada seems to already have one of the best vibes of any city we've been too, very chilled and relax, yet with that party atmosphere. I'd almost compare it to a New Orleans vibe. Since it's the afternoon we take a seat in front of one of the restaurants and enjoy a few drinks and take in the scene. Locals and tourists are out in full force enjoying some tasty food, cold drinks, and good friends. Suddenly with out warning we hear a bunch of people jumping up screaming and running out of the street toward the safety of the buildings. Cramer and I have no idea what the hell is happening at first we think maybe someones got a gun or something. The revolution has begun again! Even the big Nicaraguan bouncer guy squeels like a little girl and runs for cover. We finally jump up and take cover too, then we see what all the commotion is about, two huge bulls are running down the street. We didn't know it, but there is a festival going on and they released 6 bulls to run down the street.... I guess it would be nice to inform people. But that's what makes Central America fun and exciting. The bulls then dart down a side street away from the crowds and out of sight. Never a dull moment. We have been noticing hordes of people, mostly locals heading away from the city center towards the Lake. So after awhile we decide to follow the crowd and head down to the lake as well. There is a festival going on down by the lake front. It's kind of like any small city festival complete with some rides, carnival games, food, and lots of beer. It's packed and people seem to be having a great time. We hang out down there for awhile and walk back before the sun goes down. Asking around it sounds like people like to party down quite a bit on Sunday, but this weekend and the following weekend were some kind of special celebration for the town. One guy told me the next weekend would be like Mardi Gras, unfortunately we won't be around for that. We end up back on the main strip and end the night there. That night the room we have seriously must have been 95 degrees. I wake up at about 3 am and I'm burning up. The ceiling fan is directly above Cramer whose sleeping like a baby. It doens't provide any relief anyway as its just pushing around hot air. I'm starting to really miss AC. The next day the whole town must be hung over or something, because it seem like no one is open for business until after noon. We end up renting some bikes later and cruise around town. Like a lot of Central American cities, once you get out of the "touristy" areas you see the real life and the real poverty. After riding a few miles from the city center along the coast of the lake we see all kinds of locals doing their thing and lots of people living in nothing more than broken down shacks. We cruise around for about an hour and a half then go back to get some dinner. The plan now is to wake up in the morning and leave for Isla de Ometepe, which is a big island made up of two volcanoes in the middle of Laga de Nicaragua. We make it an early night and get up early to catch the chicken bus down to Rivas, where we need to take a taxi to San Jorge to catch the ferry to the island. The street in the morning on the way to the bus station is packed full of vendors selling everything you need, atleast according to them. After grabbing some fried chicken for breakfast we board the bus ready to move on. Granada was a really cool town that I think most people would love.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Onward to Nicaragua (Traveling)

Cramer and I make our way to the back of the bus and stake out the two back seats. The bus is a coach with no AC, but it has big windows so I`ll have air blasting in my face all the way to Tegucigalpa. It`s about a 7 hour drive to the capital of Honduras. The trip is comfortable and we`re treated to some great scenery out the bus window as we cruise through the Honduran countryside. Plenty of green mountains and fields. I plow through the book The Mosquito Coast, and finish it on the way down. It is a great book that seems extremely relevant with everything going on in America today, highly recommended. (I never saw the movie so I can`t comment on that.) Once we get to Tegucigalpa, Cramer wants to try and get further to Nicaragua if possible. All the British travelers are spending the night in the capital. We are not sure if its a good plan or not, but we take a taxi to another bus station. Again my bad Spanish fails me as I try to communicate with the person selling tickets . Luckily there is a woman named Patricia there who is Honduran, but also lives in the US and is able to translate for us. We are not sure if it is a good idea to go on or stay in Teg. She helps convince us to go on and we board the last little mini bus going towards the border. It will only take us as far as a little town called El Paraiso, which is about 20 minutes from the border. She talks to us the whole ride and even tries to call ahead to set up a room for us. We have people looking out for us down here! After about two hours she gets off in a town called Danli, and we continue on for a few more miles to El Paraiso before getting off. El Paraiso does not have much to see. We get in about 7:30pm and grab a very bare bones room for about $20. We hit the street to find some food and only find dark streets and closed doors. This is definitely off the ¨Gringo Triail¨ or tourist trail. Walking around town seems a little sketchy and I swear my Spanish is getting worse by the day, especially since Utila where everyone spoke English. So we go back to the place we are staying and grab a little grub before turning in early. I have not mentioned this before, but people in Central America love fried chicken. There is not many KFCs but there are tons of local and national fried chicken places. The place we are staying at also serves fried chicken and greasy fries. I am seriously craving tons of vegetables big time right now, but can not bring myself to order a salad. Also the keyboards down here are different then the ones in America too, so I am unable to use an apostrophe right now... hence the lack of contraction in this post, sorry. We wake up early the next morning at 6am and walk a few blocks to the chicken bus station. The bus will take us to the border crossing at Las Monos. About 20 minutes later we get to the border crossing. By luck there is a nice coach bus sitting at the crossing too which is waiting for all the travelers to get through immigration into Nicargua. I ask the driver if we can catch a ride and he says ok, for $10 to Managua (the capital of Nicaragua). Unbeknownst to me is that it costs $12 to enter Nicaragua. I thought we had enough money to pay to get through the border and pay for the cost of the bus. Looks like we just have enough to cross the border and with no ATMs anywhere in the vicinity, it is not looking good. I am starting to panic a little thinking we will be stuck at the border for the next few days! I did talk to a younger Spanish guy who had $20 while we were waiting to pay the immigration people... Luckily Gasper, the Spanish guy, is in the right place at the right time and somehow I convice him to loan me $20. Everything works out and we get on the air conditioned bus all the way to Managua, Nicaragua. (The capital) I am enjoying the beautiful scenery and am putting my Kindle to good use. I start reading the next book by J. Maarten Troost, Getting Stoned with Savages. When we get there about 5 or so hours later, Cramer and I get in a taxi with a German guy to find an ATM. We find one and meet back up with Gaspar to pay him back. All of us get on another small bus and continue on to Granada, the old colonial capital, which is about 45 minutes away. Finally after a day and a half of traveling we finanlly get to Granada.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Utila, Honduras

Finally arriving on Utila, we set out to find a dive shop to hook up with. Now on Utila there is about 50 different dive shops and I´m not good at making decision... Luckily Joram has already emailed someone about a place called Deep Blue Divers. That sounds like a winner to me. We head off down the street looking for the place. Utila has a long history starting with indeginous people inhabiting it and was documented on Christopher Columbus´s voyages. Over the years it was used by pirates, slave traders, treasure seekers, and others. It changed hands between the Spanish and British over the years before finally being given back to Honduras in mid 19th century. It has retained a different culture than mainland Honduras for sure. The people range from really light skin to African decent, but they all speak some kind of crazy mix of English, Spanish, and Creole. Now it seems the locals are few and far between as tourists and foreigners are everywhere. Most of the tourist and dive shops are all along one bay. The island has about 60 really good dive spots around the island and is famous for being able to see Whale Sharks. Also it is the cheapest place in the world to do the PADI open water scuba diving course. Deep Blue turns out to be a good enough place. I don´t know if all the dive shops are mostly run by British people, but Deep Blue is. We get 5 nights in a room with 3 beds with a shared bathroom, kitchen, and living room area. A bunch of other people are staying in the house too doing diving and it´s cool to meet and hear their stories. Most shops include a free stay when you sign up to do the dive course. For $270 per person we get free place to stay and diving. That´s a pretty good deal. Usually there is only 4 people per instructor, but we´re going to have 5 in our group. Cramer, Joram, me and two dready looking guys from California Raphael and Louis. They happen to be on the island for a big party called SunJam, which is a 24 hour rave type thing happening on one of the small little islands near Utila and starts in about 5 days. (Right after our dive course is over). Everyone asks us if we´re going, but since we´re running out of time and I want to save the few remaining brain cells I have it´s probably not going to happen. Our instructor is Zoe, who is a little blond british lady probably around 30 or so. She seems very good: energetic and thorough. We start by watching some videos the first day and do some book work (worksheets). This trip I´ve done more studying then I did when I was in college. But its really fun. I totally enjoyed taking Spanish lessons in Antigua (even though I´ve forgotten it all already...) and am looking forward to this as well. There is only so much eating and drinking a person can do in a day, so having something to do each day provides a nice focus. Taking classes and doing tours and stuff like that definitely make the trip alot more enjoyable. The first night Cramer, Joram and I walk down a long ways off the beated track and end up at a small oceanside bar called Rehab. It´s owned by a Canadian guy whose lived in New Orleans for a long time and his girlfriend. There is also some crazy Swedish guy working behind the bar too. These guys are quite entertaining as they bicker back and forth and pour us free tequila shots... After a few hours we head back to our room, to get ready to get into the water the following day at 1pm. One lesson here is never get really bombed if you have to dive early in the morning. Thank goodness we didn´t have to dive until after 1pm. I´m quite woozy all morning. Plus I don´t know if I´ve said this before but since there is no AC we´re usually up at 6:30 or 7. At 1:30 Zoe brings us out on the dock and introduces us to all the equipment. It is pretty funny because here are 5 big guys staring at Zoe telling us about all the diving equipment as she stands there in her tiny bikini. The instructors are certainly a different breed. They seem the have that adventurous party spirit with a little pirate thrown in, but all the ones at Deep Blue take the instruction extremely serious. Zoe finally gets us in the water and goes through a bunch of skills with us. Changing the regulator, breathing out of your buddies regulator, learning how to blow the water out of your mask, etc. She´s doing a bunch of hand signals and Cramer and I have no clue what she means half the time. When we come up from the water a bunch of people are on the dock telling us there are dolphins in the bay. I guess this is pretty rare since Zoe´s freaking out. She´s been here for months and only seen them once or something. We throw our gear on the dock and snorkel out into the bay to see them. After swimming furiously after them, we get to see a handful of them swimming around us. Not a bad way to begin the first day. Later that night we see the British people that have been doing the same trip as us, Chris and Simon, and the other couple Duncan and Steph. They´re all staying at the dive shop next door called Alton´s, another good place. The next day we´re in the water in the morning early to do more skills and by the afternoon we´re going out for our first dive. They take us to two different dive spots and we´ll be able to finally see some fish and coral. We´re all set and our equipment is good and we do our buddy checks and splosh we´re in the water. After a few more skills we cruise around checking out the reef. I feel like I´m in a little submarine or something swimming through a fish tank. It´s a strange feeling, but totally awesome. The next day is the last day of our training. We finish watching the last 2 videos and studying up on the worksheets. We get in the water in the morning for our final skills, then jump on the afternoon boat for our last 2 training dives. The first dive is in a place called Black Hills and is the best dive of the whole trip. There are huge schools of fish everywhere and some of them are pretty big. Other divers from the dive shop are out trying to spear Lionfish, which are an invasive species to the area. We finish up with some open water surface skills which suck, since its pretty rough out in the open water. I love being underwater, but being at the surface with all the equipment on is not fun. Every day after getting back from the diving I feel the walls of our room and the shower continue to sway and rock. That night we take the final written exam. It is pretty easy since we took quizzes already which had most of the same stuff on it. We pass with flying colors. Ever since the first night we´ve been only having a beer or two per night. This is no exception since our last two fun dives will be early the next morning. The morning boat leaves at 7:30am sharp. We hop aboard for our last two dives. Unfortunately Zoe isn´t on the last dive since we have now passed the class. It doesn´t seem right without her. We head to the north side of the island to a place called Ragged Cay and get in the water. For some reason the water clarity if not very good. The dive is ok, but not anything special. I´m following Raphael whose in front of me because he´s the only one I can see. I hope he knows where he´s going or we could be out to sea! Now Cookie, a big black dude who is the ship captain, is driving around trying to see if we can see a whale shark. Usually you can spot them because there are fish jumping out of the water and birds flying over head. This time we can´t spot one and head over to our next dive spot. On the way we do spot a huge school of dolphins and Cookie drives out by them. The dolphins are cruising right along side the boat and in the front, jumping out of the water and doing little spins. Cookie parks the boat infront of the dolphins and we all jump in with our fins and snorkels. Hundreds of dolphins cruise by only a few feet from us. Pretty amazing stuff. The last dive is a drift dive where they drop us off and let us drift down the reef and then pick us up in a new location. Everyone is starting to get the hang of the buoyancy thing and the visability is much better here too. For the last dive there is about 9 of us going along and its a little crowded. Plus everytime think I found a good space, Louis from our group is kicking me in the head with a flipper of something. Louis is hilarious, he´s a tall skinny Honduran rasta looking guy who lives in LA. But when he´s diving he´s in his own world. He´s spinning around twirling, then he´s upside down, then he´s at the bottom taking abunch of pictures, then suddenly he´s above you, then next to you. The dive is good and we head back to shore for our last night on Utila. We go to a place called RJ´s for dinner which is right across the street. It´s only open 3 nights a week, so it gets pretty crowded. We go over with some other people from the dive shop, Lindsey and Aaron. They live in Florida and Aaron´s been all over the world, doing work for a charity. Duncan and Steph, the Brits, stop by as well. I order the chicken dinner and proceed to wait about an hour. Cramer gets his Lemon fish right away, and I over hear a guy next to me saying he didn´t order the chicken but would eat it any way. Well looks like the waitress gave my dinner to someone else, who thought it was no big deal to eat a different dinner. Now the place is packed and they run out of chicken. Now I guess I have to have the tuna, finally mine arrives after about an hour. It´s a dog eat dog world over here or in this case a man eat another man´s dinner type of world. We then go out for a few beers to a place called Treetanica part of a bigger place called the Jade Seahorse, which is a crazy bar/art museum. The owner must be an incredible artist, because the place is huge, it sprawls out in a bunch of directions, but the bar and the area around the bar is full of glass and tile and different seating areas and structures. Imagine a bar built by an imaginative artist on acid. I wish I would have seen it during the day, but it´s still impressive at night. Check out this site for a virtual tour:
After a few beers we say farewell to our fellow travelers and hit the sack. Most of us are leaving at 6am back to La Cieba on the ferry. The next morning we´re packed and ready to go jump on the boat back to La Cieba. The water is a lot smoother this time and the boat pulls back onto the mainland about 45 minutes later. We jump into a taxi to the bus station. Joram is going back to Guatemala City and we´re heading all the way down to Tegucigulpa or further if possible so we can get into Nicaragua. We wish him well and tell him we expect a place to stay if we´re ever in the Netherlands. We board the bus to Tegucigulpa with... you guessed it the Brits! Chris, Simon, Duncan, and Steph. They´re trying to get to Nicaragua too.

Monday, August 8, 2011

3 Days 3 Cities (Antigua, Copan, and La Cieba)

Before we left Lake Atitlan, we had to make a decison about the rest of the trip. 5 weeks seems like a long time, but when traveling through foreign counties, especially a bunch of them, 5 weeks is nothing. (It still amazes me that almost every person we meet from Europe is on a 3 month, 6 month, or year trip. They definitely seem to value traveling abroad more than most Americans.) We ended up spending more time in Guatemala than we thought we would, and really we could have spent another week or two there seeing that we missed some really cool stuff. But now we had to decide if we´re going to try and go to the Bay Islands in Honduras, which are all the way on the otherside of Central America back on the Caribbean side. Or our other option would be to skip Honduras all together and go to El Salvador and Nicaragua sooner. After further contemplation we decided to head for Utila, Honduras which is one of the Bay Islands and well known for their dive shops so we could get our PADI open water scuba diving certification. To get there would be somewhat of a trick. It would require us to stop for a night in each: Antigua, Copan (Honduras), and then spend the night on the coastal town of La Cieba, before finally getting a ferry to Utila. We finally pull back into Antigua around 7pm. Since we´ve already spent about a week here we feel pretty good and know how to get around. We find a room about a block away from where we stayed before and hit the streets. We start walking down a street we didn´t go down last time and end up finding a place called Reily´s. It´s some kind of Irish pub or something. It is Friday so we both get the fish and chips which happens to be amazing. After a few beers the place is packed, it looks like this is the place to be. As luck would have it one of the only people we know in Antigua, a girl named Angela, happens to walk in the bar a little while later. She had been staying at the house we were at before for the summer and was now hanging out with some of the new people that had been there taking Spanish lessons that week. She introduces us to Steph and Duncan, two Brits who just happend to be doing pretty much the exact same trip as us too. I have a feeling we´ll be seeing them again soon. After partying it up a little we call it a night. Mostly because we don´t want to spend anymore money since we´re trying to make it to Honduras without having to take out more money. Why? Because at the borders you have to exchange your money and usually you lose out due to the exchange rate. The next day we grab breakfast and take in the last sights and sounds of Antigua. The central parque is buzzing and some local musicians are jamming away on their wooden flutes. At 2pm we take off in another mini van to Copan. Its suppose to be about 5 or 6 hours, but we spend an hour driving around Antigua picking people up before we get going. (Antigua is pretty to look at with its cobble stone streets, but it´s hell in the back of a mini van.) After 6 long hours, we finally pull into Copan at night. The thing that kind of sucks about coming into a city at night is it´s hard to get your bearings. The Lonely Planet gives some good info, but often its hard to use it when its late and to walk around an unknown city at dark. Luckily on the bus we met a girl name Carolyn who works on Utila and is heading there too. She recommends a place for us to stay at and we grab a room for about $18. Which is about normal for the places we´re staying at. Copan is small and even though many tourists/back packers go through here it´s still has a more local flavor to it than Antigua does. People are out on the street selling food and the hanging in the small central park area of town. Cramer and I go to a place called Via Via, which is a bar/restaurant and grab some dinner and a few drinks. The plan is to get up early then next day, check out the Mayan ruins right next to town and then hop on a bus to La Cieba. The next day we venture out of town on foot about a mile or so to the large Mayan ruins. The Copan site is one of the largest in Central America. On the way in we see a bunch of large colorful macaws sitting in the trees as we enter the site. We check out the ruins and walk around for a couple of hours. It is very impressive, but after seeing Tikal, it doesn´t blow us away. It would have been better if we could have seen Copan first then Tikal. At this point in the trip we´ve reached our ruin tolerace level. As awesome as they are, they´re only so many old stone buildings you can see. We pick up our laundry from the Lavandaria and make our way to the bus station. It will be another 7 hours to La Cieba, but we splurge for the Hedman Alas bus which is a super nice coach bus. With my poor Spanish skills I can´t really understand the lady when I´m trying to buy a ticket. At first I think she´s telling me we´re going to have to wait until tomorrow, then that its going to cost more, and finally that there´s only one seat left. I just stand there for about 5 minutes trying to figure out what to do, when suddenly she takes our money and everything is fine. I really need to get better at Spanish. We board the bus, not before giving our passports to them about 5 times and getting patted down repeatedly. I guess they are really protective, because they´ve had problems with bandits getting on the bus in the past and robbing people. The bus ride is smooth and there are no problems. I end up finishing the book The Sex Lives of Cannibals (which was good) on the bus and start reading The Mosquito Coast, since I´m heading into Honduras. We arrive in La Cieba at night as well. During the bus ride, we had to stop at a place called San Pedro Sula, which is a large city and a main bus transit stop. There Cramer and I meet a Dutch guy name Joram (pronounced Your-am) Whose headed to Utila as well to get his scuba diving certification. The girl we met before Carolyn gives us another recommendation for a place to stay, called Hotel La Cieba. All three of us hop in a cab. At this point everyone on the bus has been picked up by cabs and driven away. Our cab driver is a big black dude and he´s trying to start his cab and nothings happening. He´s just cranking on the starter, nothing. Finally after thinking we´re going to either have to push or walk, the thing starts. The cabbie says, "My car she´s tired." As long as she´s not too tired to get us to the hotel. The hotel is pretty decent and we get a room with 3 beds and split the cost about $8 each. Being hungry and "thirsty" we venture out into La Cieba at night. La Cieba is a pretty big city coastal city and kind of run down. There isn´t really anyone out on the streets except of few shady looking characters asking us for money. One guy offers us some booze to swill down, but we politely decline. Not finding any food we instead end up in a bar a few blocks down. Its a dark corner bar and there are a bunch of local girls in there with a few guys hanging around. We´re not quite sure if these are working girls or what, but we just order some beers and hang out. Imperial, Port Royal, Salva Vida are the main beers in Honduras and we try them all. The weirdest part about the bar was they´re cranking some super twangy ass country music. I thought they did it because we were in there and they thought Americans like country, but when I asked that they change the music they gave me dirty looks and just started singing along. Turns out our new buddy, Joram, is from the Netherlands and has been doing a internship in Guatemala City for the last few months. He has one week of vacation to go to Utila, then is going back home to the Netherlands. It´s cool to have another person to put into the mix. Joram is a good guy with a good sense of humor and it helps to have a European with us to give us a different perspective. We call it a night and head back to get some sleep as we need to be at the dock early to catch the ferry to Utila, which is a few miles off the coast. The next morning were up and ready to go. We catch a taxi to the dock and board the ferry around 8am. The ride over to Utila is far from smooth. I stand up the whole time looking forward to the horizon as the boat is beat and battered with waves. A few people run to the bathroom getting sea sick, but we finally make it about an hour later. After 3 days of traveling we´re finally in Utila, where we´ll be for the next 5 days getting our scuba license.

(Sorry no pictures right now, computers down here kind of suck)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Walking with the Saints. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

The next morning we're up and ready to go by 7:30am and head down to where the buses are suppose to be. We had a flier that says we can get a coach bus to Lake Atitlan for about $5. Of course there is no coach bus, but there is a chicken bus. We hop on board and take off down the road stopping constantly along the way. Lake Atitlan is in the highlands and the landscape continues to become more mountainous. Three and a half hours later we arrive in Panachel which is the main transit city on the lake. We've heard San Pedro La Laguna is the place to be so we get into a boat for another 45 minutes across the lake. Lake Atitlan is something out of a dream. An enormous fresh water late that is completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Clouds linger on the peaks and at times the lake seems to be in the clouds too. All along the lake there are tons of little villages all named after saints: San Pedro, San Juan, San Marcos, etc. The villages and the area are populated by the Mayan people. The women all wear the colorful traditional clothing and some of the men do too. The people seem traditional, but I can catch of glint of curiosity and laughter in many of their eyes. We pull up to San Pedro and its kind of a back packer type of town. Meaning there are quite a few small budget type hotels, restaurants and bars, tour and travel agencies, and shops lining the road immediately off the dock. Right away a guy named Juan is offering us tours around the area, kayak rental, hotels recommendations, etc. I have no problems with guys helping me, but please let me eat some breakfast and get my bearings first. We tell him we'll come down later and talk to him. Right away we see Chris and Simon, the two British guys that we see every two days where ever we go. It's hilarious, because they are going on virtually the exact same trip as us. We've seen them in Caye Caulker, San Ignacio in the ATM cave, Flores, and now here. And we even happen to be one room away at the hotel now. I expect we'll be seeing more of them along the way too. This is pretty common since many people are following the Lonely Planet guide books and most people want to see the same things when they come to Central America. We're staying at Mansion De Lago and we're on the 3rd floor with a good view of the lake and the mountains. After settling in Cramer and I go down to the Lake and rent two kayaks. Juan our buddy from before now has a new deal for us. We can use the kayaks for 2 hours each and do a tour up the mountain called Indian Nose for $18/ each. So we accept the offer and cruise out on the lake in kayaks. It's an absolutely beautiful day and the water is great. The scenery is out of this world. We paddle to one of the other villages and start to turn around. Cramer decide to go in for a swim and says the water is amazing. Suddenly the wind begins to pick up and the waves get bigger and storm clouds roll in. It seems that in Lake Atitlan, the mornings are usually pretty nice and sunny, but in the afternoons clouds roll in and they get rain. At least now during the rainy season. Just as we get back and head back to the room the rain begins to pour down. What's great about being in Antigua and Lake Atitlan is that their both in higher elevations so the temperature in both places is usually around 75 to 80 with not too much humidity. Later we walk across the street to an English Pub called the Allegre with our British chums. We pound back some Bhrava Extra (beer) and we're even treated to a local power outage as the whole town goes dark. All the bar patrons just keep drinking and the owner puts our some candles to provide some light. About an hour later the power comes back on, but soon the bar closes, because apparently they have an 11pm curfew. It turns out to be a good thing, because we have to be up early to climb at 8am. The British guys are trying to out do us so they're starting to climb at 6am. I'm on vacation, I'm not waking up at 5:30am! We meet Juan at 8am and we jump in a tuk tuk over to the next village called San Juan (Saint John). Juan's son, Nicholas, who is 17 will be our guide up the mountain. The trail proves to be quite challenging and steep. Cramer has a bad knee so he's hobbled slightly, and I'm sweating buckets. Our lack of physical fitness and the high altitude is having an impact as we huff and puff up the trail. After two and half hours of hard work we reach the peak on Indian Nose. It's like being on top of the world, looking out across the lake and seeing all the villages way down below. Some Mayan women are also on the peak doing some kind of prayers and chants. A few hours later we make it back to the hotel exhausted and famished. The whole way back all we could think about is the huge meal we're going to have. After devouring a large English style breakfast we instantly pass out from the climb. One complaint about San Pedro is that it's quite noisy. Our hotel happens to be right on the main intersection as you get off the dock and the city is very hilly. Tuk tuks taxi people around but they sound like semi trucks as they try to get up the hill right next to our hotel. The sound of cars, trucks, tuk tuks, scooters, motorcycles and their fumes seem to diminish the serenity of many of the beautiful places over here. San Pedro is definitely no exception! That night we get another great meal from an Italian guy with a tiny little restaurant that serves rotisserie chicken dinners and chicken sandwiches. Exhausted, we call it a night and try to fall asleep with the sounds of music blaring and tuk tuks revving. The next morning we decide to go over to the village of San Marcos for a night before we leave. San Marcos is the opposite of San Pedro. While all the party backpacker head for San Pedro, all the chilled out heady people go to San Marcos. It's made up of many hotels and places that specialize in meditation, yoga, message, healing, and other forms of spiritual practice. It's not nearly as built up and the places are spaced out more hidden in among the trees. Plus there are some cool restaurants/bars too. Later that night we venture out to grab some dinner. One of the places in the Lonely planet is called Blind Lemon's Restaurant. We walk over and have dinner. The place is really cool and pretty new. There isn't many people there, but we get a good dinner and start putting back some brews. Soon the owner comes out, a guy named Carlos Funk. Turns out Carlos is from somewhere near Pennsylvania and came to Guatemala 15 or so years ago. Being in the right place at the right time, he bought a bunch of land for dirt cheap (a few hundred to a few thousand). He built his restaurant and a house for himself. We start talking and Carlos is a huge fan of the blues. That's what his restaurant is named after, a guy name Blind Lemon Jefferson. He happens to be an amazing acoustic blues guitar player himself and loves playing. So Carlos pretty much plays a private concert for us and a few others. He busts out 3 different guitars and plays for nearly an hour and a half. It turns out to be a great night of music and then he has movie night too and we stay with a hand full of people and watch a movie. The next day we decide to go to Copan, Honduras. Unfortunately we didn't get up early enough for the shuttle that goes straight through. Instead we have to go back to Antigua for the night, then we can catch another bus the next day. There are a bunch of little travel agencies that operate out of peoples homes and we end up talking to a guy named Edwin. He sets us up with a ride to Antigua and lets us come into his house and watch tv with him, his wife, and daughter. (The little Mayan girls have to be some of the cutest kids in the world) We're watching all kinds of action movies from the 80's. His family also has a little restaurant too and his wife cooks us some food. We thank them for their generous hospitality and Cramer even gives Edwin his sunglasses as a gift before we leave. The crowded little mini van picks us up at 3pm and we stuff ourselves in. After 3 great days on Lake Atitlan we slowly wind ourselves up over the mountains and back down to Antigua 4 hours later.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A week in Antigua

So after almost going back to Guatemala City we get off the bus in Antigua in the middle of a parking lot that serves as the bus terminal. We´re not sure where we want to go and it´s already pretty late, around 9pm. As we´re looking for a place to stay, we end up meeting a guy named Pablo who speaks decent English. Him and is buddy Eddie ¨apparently¨ work for the city tourism board and are being extremely helpful. Of course as a traveler Cramer and I are both aprehensive about anyone helping too much. There´s usually always a catch, but both guys are genuinely good guys. They are pretty hilarious too and we end up getting a couple of beers with them, while practicing our baby like Spanish. They do know a cheap hotel nearby and they can get us set up for some Spanish classes if we want them. We decide to think it over and let them know in the morning. After thinking it over we decide it might be a good idea to get a few hours of Spanish lessons to make it easier to communicate.

The next day Eddy and Pablo take us to a house that serves as both a boarding house/hostel and the place where will be getting tutored in Spanish. The house is off one of the main streets on a side street and has about 7 rooms for rent. The family lives in the front part of the house where there is living room, dining room, a small kitchen, and a room where they sleep. If we stay in the house we also get 3 meal a day included. So basically we get 20 hours of Spanish lessons and five nights of room and board for about $180. Which sounds great since we´ve been burning through about $100/day for awhile. We accept the offer and get a pretty large room with two nice size beds. The rest of the house is populated by a rather strange cast of characters. Some have been living in the house for months, others just like us have stayed for only a week or so. Antigua is a hot bed for people all over the world to come to learn Spanish and also do volunteer work. Many of the people staying in the house are college kids from the states doing some kind of volunteer work for the summer that relates to their majors. Others are Europeans traveling, learning Spanish, or volunteering as well. It´s a pretty international mix in the house with people from Germany, USA, Switzerland, France, England, and the family from Guatemala. The guys we meet from the States are all pretty young and seem to be having a great time. It seems like a pretty cool and adventurous thing to do for a college kid to spend their summer volunteering in a foreign country. With so many college kids down here it´s a pretty big party for them almost any night of the week. Breakfast is served at 7:30am, lunch is at 1pm, and dinner is at 7:30pm. If we can´t make one of the meals we need to tell Mama, the lady of the house, so she knows not to prepare food for us. It´s pretty fun sitting down with a bunch of strangers at the dinner table for multiple meals hearing their tales of travel, sordid love affairs, and misadventures. Through out the week we hang out with various people in the house.
We begin our first lesson that very afternoon at 2pm. We´re suppose to do 5 hours of Spanish each day for 4 days. This seems like a good idea until we actually start. Now I have a little background is Spanish, taking 4 years in high school, but Cramer has no prior knowledge. My teacher is named Juan Buruillo and he´s about 57 or so. He doesn´t speak much English, but is really funny and patient. Cramer´s teacher is named Mario and he´s about 59, and was on the Guatemalan national soccer team for 15 years. Both of our teachers are excellent, but they don´t have much to work with between the two of us. Our brain´s start to melt down at about the 3 hour mark. We tell them we´re going to have to switch to 4 hours for 5 days instead. Which really turns out to be about 3 and half hours a day, because that´s all we can handle. They give us about a semester´s worth of Spanish in 18 hours or so, which is overwhelming. But they want to give us enough so we can continue studying it as we travel. The first few days Cramer and I study a little in the morning and then come back to the house for lunch at one, then do our class from 2 to about 5:30. Eat dinner at 7:30, then go roam around town for awhile before coming back and passing out fairly early to do it all over again.

Antigua is often considered one of the best cities in Guatemala if not all of Central America. It is definitely the main tourist city in Guatemala. But while there are many tourists the city stays true to its colonial and Guatemalan roots. It is fairly small, yet has a lively energetic feel. The city retains the wonderful colorful Spanish architeture complete with many old crumbling colonial churches. Many of the churches were partially destroyed during the many earthquakes that have occured over the last few hundred years there. Many volcanoes surround the city, with volcanoes Agua and Fuego, the two biggest, towering over the city. The city has cobblestone roads, wonderful restaurants, and an incredible central park. The area around central park is where most of the action takes place. People hang out here during the day and night and there are many Mayan women selling their goods, while tourists, locals, and others come and go. I can´t believe the number of awesome and cool looking restaurants and bars. Everything retains that traditional feel, yet with an updated twist. Compared to much of the other parts of Guatemala, Antigua seems to be very prosperous and foreign investors are pouring money into the bars and restaurants around town.

While we´re here people keep telling us about the festival that is taking place. The city is celebrating their patron saint, St. James, over the weekend and there will be music, dancing, food, and partying. As we walk through the streets at various times over the weekend there are student groups marching and dancing, people dressed up in costumes dancing, marching bands playing in the street, fireworks, and small parades. At night the festivities focus around the Central Parque, where food vendors are out and music is being played by a full band.

After getting burnt out a little by the Spanish we´re trying to learn, Cramer and I decide to climb one of the nearby volcanoes, Pacaya, the next day (Sunday). Our Spanish class is in the morning and then we´ll head off to the volcano around 2pm. It is about an hour away by mini van and there is a whole crew again packed in. Just about every tour we meet people from all over the world, this time is no exception. When we get to the base of the volcano there are guys trying to get us to take a horse up, I may be out of shape, but not that out of shape yet. Other kids are trying to rent us walking sticks. Cramer rents one for 3 quetzales (50 cents). We walk up with little problems other than profuse sweating, but that´s normal. The guide tells us that Pacaya exploded last year and killed a journalist. The top was blown off in a similar fashion to Mt. St. Helens, but not nearly as devastating. When we get to the highest point we can go, we begin cutting across the side of the volcano. The ground is quite treacherous, because we are walking in loose gravelly volcanic rock. After walking across the wasteland with steam pouring out of vents, similar to Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings, we stop. One of the people on the tour brought marshmellows and we will be roasting them in the vents. Immense heat is coming off certain spots on the volcano and our group enjoys the brown gooey toasty treat as a result. We head back down, not with out a little drama, as an elderly man on the tour can´t make it down. We wait until a guy on a horse rides up to bring him down. A little tired and dirty we head back to town for the night.

It´s Monday and it´s our last Spanish class. Before class we hike up to a place called Cerro de a Cruz. Which is a big hill overlooking the whole town that has a big cross up on it. It has a great view of the entire city. We finally head back down and get ready for our class. After about an hour of tutoring Cramer says it´s time to go to a restaurant or bar. We had planned on taking our teachers out for a few drinks and food, so we all say let´s do it. We end up going to a Chinese restaurant that my teacher likes. We all order a bunch of food and some liters of Gallo. (Gautemala´s #1 beer) We practice our Spanish the best we can and have a great time with our teachers. Both of us have defintely improved and we´re happy with our experience. After a few more beers and food we say farewell. Later that night we walk down by the Central Parque where we´re treated to some more great music and street food. It´s a great way to cap off the week. The next day we´re going to Lake Atitlan about 3 hours way in the highlands. The next morning at 7am we say farewell to Mama and thank her for the food and hospitality and grab the next chicken bus to Lake Atitlan.