Central America Trip Report (Very Long)
Replies: 17 - Last Post: Mar 18, 2013 7:13 PM Last Post By: backpack2
Nov 12, 2012 5:31 PM
Central America Trip Report (Very Long)Central America Trip Report
Countries Visited: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua
Duration of Trip: Three Weeks
People: Half solo/ half with a good friend whose first language is Spanish
When: August 7 – 21
Why? Fun and adventure
Belize: So, let me begin by saying my original flight on Delta Airlines from Montreal to Atlanta was cancelled. I was subsequently put on the last flight of the day to Atlanta and put up at the Sheraton for my early morning flight to Belize City. Note: Delta only provides vouchers for $6 US a meal, in general! Thus, normally, I would have been given $12 for both dinner and breakfast at the hotel. Luckily, I was able to convince the lady at the helpdesk in Atlanta for more vouchers (a total of $24), but everyone else I met received only $6 a meal, which is standard I was told. The Sheraton hotel is located about a 15 minute drive via the shuttle bus from both the domestic and international terminals. The hotel was big and the staff were friendly – especially with the overflow of guests that night. My room was spacious and very clean and the food from the restaurant, although less than spectacular, filled my belly just fine (in case you were wondering, I ordered the food to go; the kitchen closes at 11pm. A plate of fettuccine al’fredo with vegetables with fries and a soda cost ………$24.
The next day – the day I flew into Belize City – Hurricane Ernesto was supposed to be touching down within a few hours. The flight went ahead as scheduled and was quite smooth. Arriving in BC (the international airport), we walked along the tarmac and towards the departures terminal and customs (note: no pictures are allowed of the terminal. I tried taking one for posterity and my camera was nearly confiscated). Everything was smooth, and people working for the country’s tourism board were available to discuss the situation concerning Hurricane Ernesto; they were very helpful! In addition, there was a Mariachi band playing (maybe reinforcing stereotypes?) next to the baggage claims. The terminal consists of just one medium-sized room. I got money out at the ATM machine which is located just inside the front door as you leave the terminal towards the taxis (in front of you, there is a currency exchange booth).
My taxi driver, John, was very nice and we had a good chat as he drove me to the bus station (cost: $25USD or $50 Belize Dollars). I had not yet made up my mind as to whether I would go to Caye Caulker (my original plan) so I chose to go with the flow. Before reaching the bus station, I stopped by a gas station and bought a local calling card for $5 BD. What’s interesting was that I didn’t receive a card but instead a number on a piece of paper that I needed to call as well as the pin code. However, this “card” was rendered useless as upon arriving at the bus station, each of the three public telephones was out of order (and apparently had been for quite some time according to locals who laughed at my feeble attempts to make a phone call). Thus, I proceeded to walk through several of the stalls at the market adjacent to the bus station (east). There, I met many friendly locals who, I was surprised, were willing to offer me their cellphones to make a local call to Caye Caulker. I met one woman, Indie – a young woman of about 25 who works in New York State but was visiting and helping her parents run a stall in the market for the summer – who offered me her phone. She then begged me to not go to the Cayes and told me chaos would ensue the following day. Upon her insistence, I eventually decided to head west and on to San Ignacio which is located on higher ground. Indie walked with me to the bus station and helped me find a bus and made sure I was on my way! The ticket for the chicken bus cost me $11 BD and it was regular service (there is also an express which costs 4 BD more, I think). The trip took just over three hours, and I spoke to a few locals who were eager to chat; the vibe was cool, despite the circumstances!
The bus station in San Ignacio resembles more a giant dusty parking lot than an actual station. Getting off the bus, I was approached by a few peddlers trying to get me to stay at their hotel. I chose to walk up the street and speak to a few tourists. First, I checked out Hi-Et Hotel on a corner up the road. I managed to speak to the owner – Junior – who was friendly and showed me a few rooms. They are tight a fit but clean and the place had a nice atmosphere. Junior was talkative and we chatted for a few minutes about Hurricane Ernesto before I moved on. Eventually, I decided upon J&R’s Guesthouse, recommended as well in the LP guide. The place is about a 5 minute walk from the centre of town up a small hill. J&R stands for John and Rosita, a lovely elderly couple from Belize who were very accommodating! The place has five or six rooms, and a common area which is a half-covered balcony. As the LP says, hummingbirds abound in the mornings! What made this place special was how clean it was. For example, the rooms are tight (I stayed in a single and paid $20 BD) but are spotless (and are all equipped with a fan) and the washroom is cleaned almost hourly (or so it feels). A small breakfast of bread, jam, butter and tea and coffee is included. John was super nice and myself and the rest of the people staying there chilled out for three days waiting for the hurricane to pass. For nourishment, I ate mostly at the street stalls which sell, among other things, tasty tamales, or bought food from the supermarkets. I did check out Ko-Ox-Han-Nah (known locally as Han-Nah’s) based on the recommendation of other travellers. The first thing that got to me as soon as I walked in the door was soothing smell and the smoky atmosphere. The food was delicious (but don’t go expecting a huge portion – the focus at this resto is on quality rather than quantity). My meal consisted of beef with rice, beans and avocado. I paid $10 B’s. According to the owners, all of the food is organic. One day, John drove me up to Cahal Pech where some nice ruins are located. They were closed, unfortunately, due to the hurricane, so I went to the nicest hotel in town, the Cahal Pech Resort, located next to the ruins, and used their nice swimming pool for $10BD for the day. The views alone are worth the price but the rooms are rather expensive, running about $175 for a double. Earlier that day, I took a chicken bus to Xunatunich, another set of ruins. But like I mentioned, the government had closed all tourist attractions due to the hurricane. Finally, on the third day, I gave up on seeing Belize and left early in the morning for the border of Guatemala. I was too lazy to take a chicken bus so John drove me (about 30 minutes) to the border at Benque Viejo del Carmen and charged me $12 USD. I got to the border and exchanged money at a fair (read: not great) rate. Leaving Belize, there is a fee. Also, entering Guatemala as well, there is now an “unofficial” tax although, as the officer handling my passport pointed out, it’s written on the wall behind their counter for everyone to see. I paid about $10 USD and then walked across a small bridge to the town square. Be careful at night as this area is very seedy. I wouldn’t recommend going alone after the sun sets.
After crossing into Guatemala at Melchor de Mencos, I waited on a corner off the main plaza for a minibus or taxi. Instead of going to Flores, I headed to El Remate, which the LP describes as being less touristy than the former. The LP was spot on with this recommendation!
Side Story 1: It always amazes me when I visit new places what the nicest buildings are. As I got on the collectivo to El Remate, I was joined by a six year-old child along with her mother. When I asked where they were going, she simply replied “Flores.” Somewhat puzzled, I followed up by rhetorically stating “Isn’t that about two hours away? You must be staying there then?” The mother explained that her daughter had done well the past year in elementary school and, as a result, was giving her a treat in the form of pizza. Hesitantly, I followed “But four hours of travel for a pizza? It must be some place with amazing pizza. I’d really like to know the name of this restaurant, if you don’t mind.” Her response: “Pizza Hut.” I was speechless…………..
The collectivo dropped me off at the fork in the road in El Remate, near the centre of town, and I duly hitched a ride with an American expat who sold homemade baked goods in the area. He was friendly and didn’t charge me a thing. Initially, I went to the hostel Mon Ami, but it was full (apparently, a tour group of Italians would arrive later that evening) so I checked out Hospedaje Don Ernesto next door, in the direction of the town. Don Ernesto was very friendly and offered me a room in a thatched hut with a shared bathroom for $40 Q’s. I was the only person staying there that evening, which was kind of freaky as you are in the middle of the jungle and large spiders – including tarantulas – as well as many other tropical species come out during the nocturnal hours. In fact, I was too afraid to go to the toilet once in my bed. In fact, I took out my flashlight and saw a bunch of crawlers along the wall. So goes life in the jungle…..a great experience! I ate dinner at Mon Ami and met some expats from Italy and Venezuela. Originally, I had tried staying at Mon Ami but the place was full because of a tour group from Italy arriving that evening. Dinner was hot and tasty and relatively good value. I had chicken with avocado and rice for about 40 Q’s with a soda. The next morning, I visited the ruins at Tikal. The trip to Tikal cost me $300, including entrance to the park, plus an additional $40 for a nice lunch prepared by Don Ernesto. I waited opposite the hospedaje, on the side of the water, for the collectivo to pick me up at 5am. We arrived at the park just after 6am and proceeded to take the tour. You can also camp at Tikal as there are tents next to the cafeteria/ restaurant with a shared washroom. Although the ruins are very nice, what annoyed me was the general ignorance of many of the travellers (this was a common theme in Guatemala). Parts of a hurricane had just passed through and there was partial flooding the previous day yet some wore Gucci loafers and pristine dresses while walking along muddy paths in the jungle. I even heard complaints about biting mosquitoes from travellers wearing short-sleeved shirts. In addition, large walls inside the complex have defecated by graffiti (from both locals and foreigners alike). Luis the guide told me that to prevent graffiti on the walls of the ruins, the guides have tabled a proposal to make so that anyone visiting Tikal will have to with a guide. Luis told me the proposal could be in effect as early as next year. He iterated that not only would it stop people from vandalizing the ruins, but it would also provide more jobs and money for locals. Personally, I agree with him. The area itself is beautiful, lush with green and plant life. At one point, walking up one of the temples, you can see the jungle surrounding the city. The tour finished around 11:30am. However, I failed to read my ticket when I bought it the previous day and my return was at 2pm and NOT 1pm. Anyway, I was tired so I paid a bit extra to leave earlier. When I returned to El Remate, I had a swim in the lake, and thanked Don Ernesto for his hospitality, before taking the last collective at 3pm to Flores. The highlight of the stay was swimming in Lake Peten Itza; its emerald-green waters spewing sulphur and sulphites among small fish that nibble at your feet all the while thundershowers or sunlight bathe the hilly rainforest that dot the area. My favourite part of this stop was swimming in the lake; there was something therapeutic about the experience.
Side Story 2: It always amazes me when I visit new places how tourists are regarded by locals. After a short swim one late afternoon on Lake Peten Itza, I spoke to a few women under the gazebo that jutted out into the lake. I asked them their thoughts about tourists in Guatemala and about dangers for travellers. What I got wasn’t shocking to me, but it might be for others: they told me that travellers complain about being robbed as well as other dangers in Guatemala. However, they believed that many of the visitors brought the misfortune unto themselves. For example, one woman (who owned a local shop in town) explained that if she wanted to travel to Canada (my country of origin), she would save up enough money in order to travel comfortably and without worrying about “nickel-and-diming-it” so to speak. Her issue was with tourists who come to Guatemala expecting great deals and cheap prices – tourists who bargain and haggle for everything and anything. The other woman (a local shop owner as well) nodded in agreement. In fact, the two appeared to despise travellers who acted in this manner. Both iterated that when travelling to a country, at least Guatemala, visitors should expect to pay higher prices.
After having returned from the ruins, I jumped on the last bus of the day – which leaves at 3:30pm – that heads directly for Santa Elena. It passed by Don Ernesto’s heading into El Remate town. Arriving in Santa Elena from El Remate was a bit of a shock; the palatial stature of the building of the fast food joints was especially disconcerting. That Pizza Hut where the mother was taking her daughter? It was located on the lake and fronted by two faux statues of lions protecting the entrance. Anyway, after being dropped off in the middle of town, I jumped on a tuk-tuk for $8Q’s and headed to Flores where I walked around looking for a good deal to Antigua. What is interesting is that Santa Elena is where most of the locals live; Flores is a tourist zone, which is demarcated by a sign over the road as you enter. Eventually, I ended up paying about $210 Q’s for the night bus to Guatemala City. However, what I should have done is gone directly to the bus station in Santa Elena (it looks dodgy but it is actually a cool spot with a comedor – eating area – where lots of locals congregate to eat good cheap food) and bought a ticket directly from the bus company. Anyway, I travelled with King Quality on a first-class bus. However, it was not the ejecutivo service which includes food – that bus leaves from the central station in Flores at 9am; my bus departed at 9:30pm. The ride was fine and although some complained about the Arctic-like temps inside the bus, I actually enjoyed the cool; bring a sweater though! Arriving in Guatemala City at about 6am was interesting: it was a weekday and there was a lot of hustle and bustle downtown. Instead of taking a chicken bus to Antigua – my intended destination – I decided to pay $80 Q’s and go in a minibus along with a group of Canadians. The trip took just over an hour and was quite spectacular: Guatemala City is surrounded by high mountains and is situated in a bowl. GC actually reminded me of La Paz, Bolivia, save for the snow capping the peaks around the area.
In Antigua, I had booked any accommodation beforehand as I was told it was unnecessary. So after getting out of the minibus, I went to Jungle Party Hostal based on the LP’s recommendation. As soon as I walked in, I got a bad impression of the place. Why? Well, the staff actually take your passport and keep it until you check out. Second, the music in the common areas was incessant – and not even good. What made this a particular issue was that the rooms – except for the superdorms upstairs – were located around said common areas. The music is on all day and all night: think of sleeping in a local department store. Nevertheless, I got into my room and took a nap. When I woke up, I decided to leave and had no problem paying for the night as it was my own decision. With my LP guide in hand, I walked a few blocks until reaching Casa Jacaranda, where I got a bed in a 4 bed dorms for $70 Q’s, including a very nice breakfast! I stayed two nights – the second in a private room which was the same price or a few Q’s cheaper. In addition to the cool staff, there is an outdoor patio in the back and a common area with sofas and a flat-screen television. Admittedly, I didn’t do much in Antigua as I was feeling a bit down and things weren’t going my way. One excursion I had originally planned to do was climb one of the surrounding volcanoes that surround the area. A place that had been recommended to me was Ox Expeditions. I walked into their office and spoke to a man (I won’t mention his name, though). I asked about the various trips on offer and found out they even have rooms to stay, a small hostal on site. Then, my problems began. This gentleman was unable to give me specifics about each of the trips. I was interested in climbing Acatenango. Since it is a two day trip, I asked about acclimatization and the height of the first night’s camp; the man was unsure as he gave me two or three different figures, both of which seemed a bit low considering the actual height of the volcano. Having just arrived in Antigua from the jungle, I wanted enough time to acclimatize so that the trip would be an enjoyable one (and I mentioned this to him). The man told me I had nothing to worry about (I have climbed in the Atlas mountains in North Africa as well as the Andes and understand that this issue is not to taken lightly). To reassure me, this man continued talking about how many people had climbed this volcano, even those who were out of shape. Then he boasted about NOT employing local tour guides (“don’t worry, all of our guides are from Western countries”) and specified that no guides were from the area. Note: they only go when four people have signed up for a particular excursion. Before leaving the office, as I was considering my decision, he mentioned that three “hot” women had already signed up for the trip and that “I might get lucky in more ways than one.” His behaviour was rude, disgusting and he wrongly assumed that I am single. I may sound like a prude, but to think I would climb a mountain of that height to get lucky? Really? However, he was not the owner so maybe just a bad apple. For me, safety is my first concern. This man seemed to simply tell me what I wanted to hear. Wanting a second opinion, I walked a few blocks to the official tourist office where I spoke with an official agent. She told me climbing the volcano during the rainy season would not have been wise because it is always cloudy at the top. Consequently, you cannot see anything from the summit. Consequently, I am glad I did not go.
The highlight of my stay in Antigua was eating a meal at a place recommended in the LP guide; the LP got this right on! Eating at Tienda La Canche – located off one of the main plazas – was simply unreal. As you first walk in, the place just looks like a small tienda. Walk behind the cash, however, and you can see a few tables set up and further back, a kitchen. The floor is mostly dirt. I paid $15 Q’s including homemade pear juice for a meal of chicken stew with eggplant (I think) and potatoes and avocado on the side. Delicious does not begin to describe the food; more than the meal was the experience. The owners were very friendly and took the time to speak to me (in Spanish). I felt like I was in my grandmother’s kitchen.
The next day, I left at 5am for Guatemala City and subsequently, Honduras. Walking across the street from Casa Jacaranda, I got on a chicken bus ($8 Q’s). One hour later, I was in Guatemala City, this time on a weekend and the city seemed quieter.
There is no central bus station in GC; most bus companies have their own stop. I was dropped off somewhere on the outskirts of the city and had to take a rather expensive (read: $50 Q’s) taxi ride to the Rutas Orientales stop, whose station is located in Zona 15. However, this is the point where things got tricky. My goal was to get to either Honduras or El Salvador but I was undecided. Consequently, I travelled to Esquipulas ($70 Q’s), known apparently as a sort of Lourdes in Guatemala due to its’ large white Catholic church. It took about 4 hours to get to Esquipulas from GC but the journey was quite stunning. After leaving the altitude of GC behind, the road snakes down to sea level whose predominant feature is the sandstone-eque landscape, which is dotted with occasional single trees. I only stayed in Esquipulas to change buses and eventually got to Agua Caliente on the Guatemalan side of the frontier with Honduras (45 minutes and $10 Q’s). Once there, I switched into a minibus, which roamed through the dusty streets of the centro, and stopped to pick up a few passengers, one of whom was a middle-aged woman who had injured herself and could not walk and was in desperate need of medical attention – in Honduras. The trip to the border cost another $10 Q’s.
As I walked across the border to get my passport stamped, I was admittedly a bit nervous. Up to this point on my travels, I had met no one who had been to anywhere in Honduras other than the Bay Islands. Most just uttered that “it’s the murder capital of the world” and thought the country was not worth taking a chance on. I found it hard to believe. My original plan was to head to the Bay Islands for a few days of fun ‘n sun and then move south toward Trujillo and La Moskitia. Before leaving, I had been in touch with Jorge Salaverri from Ecoaventuras La Moskitia. I had inquired about heading up the Rio Patuca but he warned against doing so due to the influx and prevalence of drugs and firearms along the river. In the end, I did not go south. The heat was unbearable and travellers were few and far between. I also found LP’s Honduras’ section in their guide dated; the prices were well off and the tourism infrastructure that is spoken about in the book is non-existent (which is fine by me). I don’t know but from the sounds of it, the industry has yet to recover from the political capitulation from 2009 – 2010. The country, which I enjoyed immensely and to where I will return someday, felt very wild-west like, edgy and authentic. I also found the locals willing to speak about daily life – both good and bad.
I hopped on the expectant mini-bus which took me to Nueva Ocotepeque ($11 Lempiras). The ride took less than an hour. NO is a small place at the foot of some large mountains. In the distance, volcanoes in El Salvador can be seen. I was trying to get as close as possible to the coast in order to catch a morning boat to the Bay Islands; thus, I bought a ticket to San Pedro Sula. The road from NO winds up until reaching its summit in Santa Rosa de Copan. I could have stayed in Santa Rosa as it appeared quite nice and has, as I found out by speaking to locals on the bus, a good university. Anyway, I continued on my journey to SPS. The trip took nearly 8 hours from NO and cost $80 Lempiras. Now I have read and been told numerous times that San Pedro Sula is dodgy, dangerous and damn scary –during the day – which may give you a slight indication as to how I was feeling approaching the city at approximately 8 in the evening. Heck, even locals on the bus told me that they have guns with them.
With the haze hanging over the city like blankets of wool, I arrived at the bus station on the outskirts of town feeling hesitant. Luckily, I met two travellers on the bus and we shared a taxi together. Note: the bus station is huge and very modern. It was by far the nicest transport hub I encountered on this trip. We took a flyer and decided to head to Hotel Real, the LP’s pick. Well, the place looked more like a brothel and thus we got the heck out of there ASAP. The taxi driver wanted us to stay, and locals went in and out without keys. The receptionist appeared surprised that two travellers had pulled up wanting a room for the night. Next stop: Tamarindo Hostel. Note: the hostel has been sold and is not owned anymore by Angela Bendeck, the famous jazz singer. In another part of town, we arrived around 9pm only to find the place surrounded by large metal tangerine gates and security across the street holding machine guns. Getting out of the taxi, we all wondered “Was this the place?” It was indeed. We rang the buzzer and nice fellow came out to greet us. The taxi cost us – and yes, we paid a lot but it was late - $250 Lempiras for the entire journey. On the other hand, the air conditioned dorm at Tamarindo cost $350 Lempiras, was a godsend. Downstairs, the common room had a television and the fridge had beer for $25L’s or $20 L’s each if you bought three. After having a few beers, we needed food, so we walked a block and a half and settled on a Honduran diner, small seats and all, with a nostalgic feel that seemed like it belonged in an American soap opera more than in SPS. There were other options – across the street was a Mexican place and next to that there was a Japanese resto, both very expensive by even North American standards. Anyway, back at Tamarindo, we bought the bus tickets in advance that night (which I would also recommend). Essentially, we had to leave at 4:30 taxiing to the bus station to catch the 5:15am bus to La Ceiba. The bus took just over three hours and stops about halfway through the journey at a somewhat modern comedor which is way overpriced. Hot food is available here in addition to souvenirs at a local shop. However, I remembered that I had left my camera next to the tv at Tamarindo so I called them using the cellphone of a very nice person on the bus. Tamarindo kept my camera, with all my photos from my trip, until I was able to pick it up on the way back from the Bay Islands. Very nice! The boat to both Roatan and Utila left at 9am, if I remember correctly. When arriving in La Ceiba (or just Ceiba according to locals), you need to take a taxi from the spot the bus drops you off to the ferry terminal. The taxi costs about $20 LP’s per person. The crossing, which was smooth and took about an hour, cost $467 Lempiras return, and the return day is flexible I believe.
I was unsure of whether or not to dive. As the boat docked, all of the workers from the dive shops and hostals approached, each saying that their dive store was “the best.” Some people from the boat got frustrated but I simply said thank you and got on a minibus from Mango Inn and went up the hill (200 meters). Mango Inn is affiliated with Utila Dive Centre and I heard nothing but good things about them during my four day stay on the island. I noticed that the crowd was a bit older at the Inn, so it’s not a place for crazy partiers. For partying, I was recommended Alton’s. In fact, I didn’t hear many bad things about any of the diving outfitters; just that each one had its own particular style. Thus, choosing one largely depends on what you are looking for. In addition, most dive centres offer accommodation onsite and the first night is usually free, regardless of whether or not you choose to dive with them. The free night allows one to explore other options and decide on the best, the thinking goes. Moreover, they all say they have a “private” beach, so don’t be fooled; these “beaches” are usually a pier from which to jump into the water. There are only two beaches with easy access for travellers and they are on opposite ends of the main strip. I went to both and would recommend the private one, which is located on the south end after you cross over a small bridge (they are both a ten minute walk from the centre of town). There is small charge of $3USD which goes to the keeper who runs the place during the day. He is an American man from Alaska who has been living on the island for a while and has a pet parrot which roams the grounds. The beach isn’t big but there are white wooden chairs to sit lounge on and the sand is nice. The water is full of plant life but it is very warm and soothing. Beware of sandflies, though! There is also a small wooden bar that sells beer and soda. The Mango Inn, where I stayed, was very tranquil. It has a decent-sized pool and surrounding lounge area. The restaurant also serves good food which large portions! There is free internet access on site (but only one computer) as well as available Wi-Fi. The crowd was a mix of young and old, and I enjoyed my time there a lot. I paid $8USD a night for a bed in four-bed dorm. Each dorm has two fans. I ate mostly street food, which was tasty.
There are loads of cheap restaurants lining the main drag next to the ferry dock. Probably the most unique bar I have ever been to, anywhere in the world, was the Jade Seahorse Bar located 100 metres from Mango Inn downhill towards the water. It used to serve food (as noted in the LP guide) but the owner has stopped doing so. The place has to been seen to be believed. It is something resembling Parc Guell in Barcelona (and no, I am not exaggerating). The bar is only a piece of the premises which also includes rooms. It consists of structures made from mostly purple stone and tile. The structures include a man-made cave and a tree-house. It really is stunning and feels like something out of a Tim Burton movie. What’s more, the barmaid told me the owner is constantly adding new pieces to the premises. The bar gets happening after 10pm and consists largely of expats who have been living Utila for some time.
Personally, I enjoyed my stay on Utila, even though I did not dive. I found the island relaxing and the people warm and friendly, despite the place being “touristy.” Bring mosquito repellent and any particular food you may like as things are a bit pricey at the local markets. The only thing I didn’t was that everyone seems to own an all-terrain vehicle which whiz by on the narrow roads. Based on my conversations with some locals, the buggies are new on the island and the result of the new affluence of the islanders.
After three days on Utila, I took a boat to La Ceiba and subsequently, a bus to SPS. My destination was Lago de Yajoa and the D&D Brewery located next to the lake. At the bus terminal, I caught a minibus to El Mochito. Mention to the driver that you are going to the D&D and they’ll laugh before dropping you off on the side of the highway, where you walk up a stone and dirt road about 250 meters to the hostal. The town where the brewery is located is called Los Naranjos. I have read a few posts on the Thorn Tree asking about the safety situation around Lago de Yajoa. For me and everyone else I met, the place was fine. Now, coming from other parts of Honduras, it’s hard to believe the D&D actually exists. Arriving in the late afternoon during a thundershower, I was even more skeptical. However, after walking up the pebbly road, you see the big green gates and walk inside. The place is beautiful. It used to be owned by an American called Dale but is now run by another American called Bobby, who bought the land about two years ago after it had become dilapidated. D&D has both dorms and private rooms, I stayed in double room, which cost $10USD per person. At the D&D, I did several activities. First, I went to Pulhapanzak Falls with three other travellers staying at D&D. The instructions on how to get to the falls are on a board outside the kitchen. We walked out to the main road and took a taxi to the falls. Once there, we went to the office and a guide took us down to the actual water. You must leave everything at the park office as you will get soaked! Also, bring shoes with good grip! We walked down some steps and eventually reached an area where I believed was the furthest you could venture and closest point to the falls. However, I was wrong. The guide opens the gate, which essentially says ‘no trespassing’ and takes us on the rocks and towards the water cascading down. What happened next was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. We continue walking over boulders until reaching a small pool which we swim across – and it is quite deep. At this point, it is difficult to hear anything other than the thundering water raging down in front of us. After the traverse, we walk towards the side of the wall-face until reaching small caves. Things begin to get very dicey as water is splashing everywhere and it is difficult to see in front of you. Finally, at one point, the guide yells to use to hold hands because we are about to go “through” the falls. Walking out from underneath the shallow cave, the raging water now stands in front of us. He tells us “I am going to go to the other side of the water; when you see my hand, grab it, and go through to the other side.” At this point, the water is almost neck high and much of it is already thumping on your head. I think all of us looked at each other in amazement and bemusement when the guide uttered his instructions. It took a leap of faith, alright, but each of us did follow through and submerged ourselves in the falls. On the other side was another small cave where we rested and caught our breath. There was another deeper, smaller cave, according to our guide, which would have involved us going under the water to reach. We politely declined his offer and returned to the park office, which is located next to the river that feeds the waterfalls. The river is cold but clean and good for a nice swim. To get back to the D&D, we walked back to the town where the park is located, and hitched a ride on the back of a truck for a few Lempiras.
The next day, a bunch of us went on the bird watching tour organized by Malcolm, a traveller of British descent who has been in Honduras for many years. The tour was about $100 LP’s and you need a group of at least four, I believe. You wake up at 5am (ish) and walk to Los Naranjos town and have coffee before heading to the lake and onto kayaks. Simply put, the lake was stunning, made more so because of the absence of motorized boats. The tree-lined Santa Barbara mountains, at altitudes reaching more than 2500 metres, surround Lago de Yajoa. I am not a bird expert but we saw ten or fifteen different species (save for the toucans, which we could hear but not see). The best part for me was just being on the lake, seeing local villagers go about their business, relaxing, listening to the sounds, and taking in the views of the scenery. In addition, Malcolm seemed knowledgeable and was friendly. If we had any questions, he was eager to respond and if he didn’t know the answer, he simply said so. The tour lasts from between 3 – 5 hours, depending on the day. Ours was close to three and half hours, which was plenty. Back at the D&D, we ate very well. The blackberries are grown locally (blueberry pancakes in the morning) and the beer is brewed on site. If you are looking for luxury, go elsewhere; if you want a comfortable place to chill out away from the hustle and bustle of Central America, then D&D is a good place to do so. I have no complaints, other than I wish I could have stayed longer. There is a pool next to the kitchen and an outdoor covered area with tables where you eat and drink. I also went into town a few times. There are a few shops which sell basic items. As well, there is a football (soccer) field which hosts games most afternoons and where you can sit on the benches and watch. I also read a few posts from people saying that they had encountered “partiers” at the D&D. When I was there, it was a mix of older travellers – 24 + - and middle class Hondurans. On occasion, local bands play in the courtyard.
Getting to Nicaragua from the D&D Brewery:
We tried but, in the end, did not make it to Managua in one day. Leaving D&D at 5:45am, we walked to the turnoff on the main road. The bus came around 6:15ish; sometimes it comes early, sometimes it comes later. The bus, called Tinoco and run by the company is TransLidia, cost $120 lempiras and is the only one that goes direct to Tegucigalpa. The journey was supposed to be 5 hours (and had it been, things may have worked out differently). Unfortunately, the bus got a flat tire which added about an hour to our trip. We were dropped off on the outskirts of Tegus, in the middle of traffic – there is no central bus station from what I know – and although there were four of us, the taxi still cost 50 lp's each. That seemed to be the going rate. The taxi took us to another station across town so we could catch the bus to Las Manos. Luckily for us, he stopped in front of the last direct bus that was leaving (at noon) so the bus couldn't leave. Tickets to Las Manos cost 92 lp's and the journey was about 2 hours. Note: there is now an exit fee for Honduras - 60 lp's AND an entry fee for Nicaragua - $12 USD plus a $1 USD development fee that someone charges you once you leave the border gates in the country. We arrived in Las Manos around 2:30pm but the border took a long time (we had to walk a good mile because of the backup of trucks made it impossible for our bus to reach the border). Then we waited for a bus to Ocotal (1 hour) which left around 3:30pm and cost 13 lempiras. Upon arriving at Ocotal, we found out the last direct bus to Managua leaves at 3:30pm. Thus, we took a direct chicken bus to Esteli which cost 30 Lempiras and left at 4:30(ish). The bus took about 3 hours.
I strongly recommend Hospedaje Luna in Esteli as it was super clean and the employees were extremely friendly. Free coffee, tea, and biscuits are available next to the front desk at reception. There is a large courtyard with hammocks as well. The place is 4 blocks from where the bus drops you off (near a gas station) of the main road. I paid $20USD total for a double room (with my friend). For dinner, I walked across the street and ate at Café Luz (I believe both places are owned by the same person). The food was cheap, good, and the place had a chilled out artsy vibe. Free Wi-Fi is available too and I think some of the profits go to an NGO the owner runs. I woke up at 3:30am the next day, and caught the 4:30am chicken bus to Managua. Note: although we walked to the main road to catch a taxi, I would recommend ordering a taxi to pick you up from whatever hotel you are staying at. Nothing happened to us, but we had to change route several times as people were following us. Be careful.
We arrived in Managua around 6:30am but had to take a taxi to another bus station (also quite a bit of a hike) for $50 Cordobas. We caught a direct bus to Rivas (3 hours) and eventually got on the 11am ferry to Isla de Ometepe. Note: the bus takes you to Rivas but you need to take a taxi to the ferry (San Jorge) which costs about 20 lempiras ($1USD).
The ferry takes roughly one hour and cost about $10USD each way. Our ferry dropped us off in Moyogalpa, one of the biggest towns on the island. When disembarking from the boat, you will be approached by people offering to take you anywhere on the island. They are quite friendly and, depending on your schedule, will make you a pretty good deal. Instead of taking the bus, I got onto a minibus with my friend and another traveller who was going in the same direction – to the other side of the island. The island is essentially divided into two connected by a spit of land; on either side of the spit is a volcano. Volcan Concepcion, the higher of the two by about 300 metres, is on the side of Moyogalpa and can be seen towering above Ometepe on the ferry ride over from the mainland. My friend and I wanted to check out a ranch that sounded really cool in the LP guide. The place was called Hacienda Merida and located in the small settlement of Merida in front of Volcan Maderas. Note: it’s slow going on the island. From Moyogalpa to Merida, it must have been 30 kilometres (22 miles) and it took us around 2 hours on the minibus! By public transport, add 60 – 90 minutes. The trip cost $10 USD per person; it’s less than half that price for the bus. Also note that there are three ATM’s now in Moyogalpa (instead of the one that the LP guide mentions) but it is still the only place on Ometepe to get cash out. I had a problem at the first ATM but luckily, the second one right across the street accepted my bank card.
My friend and I did not make reservations before arriving on Ometepe and neither had most of the people we met on the ferry. If you are heading past Santo Domingo on the Maderas side, the road turns from interlocking stones to mud the rest of the way making driving treacherous, especially during afternoon downpours. Hacienda Merida, although a bit sterile, was a good place to spend four days. It really is like a ranch …….. by the sea (which is what the lake actually felt like). We got a room with two beds. The room, which cost $20 USD each night, was very clean and had soft linens, mosquito nets, two fans and a stone-floored shower (no bathtub). Power often goes out on the island, especially during bad weather, so be warned. It was hot, especially with no power and thus no fans! The Hacienda has a set all-you-can-eat breakfast and dinner buffet nightly at 7an and 7pm sharp! Both cost about $7USD. They also serve various dishes for breakfast and lunch in case you are not in buffet mode. For food, I would recommend going into town (200 metres on the dirt path past the gates of the Hacienda) and getting some good local fish and meat (complete with avocado, rice and fries) for about $4USD. One place you will come to is at a fork in the road and directly behind it you can see Maderas towering in the distance. Another good place to eat is Caballito’s Mar, located on the road towards Hacienda Merida (about a 20 minute walk) or a 7 minute kayak (which is what I did). The owner is from Spain and moved to Nicaragua after having had enough of the fast life in Barcelona; he now has a wife and daughter and seems happy to run his place right on the lake. He grilled for me a huge fresh Tilapia from the lake with all the fixings for $7.50 USD. It was juicy and delicious. The place has rooms as well, and there appeared to be a few people staying there when I went for lunch.
The setting at Hacienda Merida is spectacular. It is nestled along the coast hidden by lurching jungle which serves to nearly hide the ranch. There is a small, surprisingly nice and clean, beach which is next to a jetty/ pier that runs out almost 100 metres into the water. The sunsets alone are worth the price and again, it felt like I was on the ocean, not a lake. Swimming in the lake was fun although I was told there are sharks. According to local guides, however, most of them were culled many years ago; in fact, one of the guides told me he had never seen a shark in his entire life. Hacienda Merida offers mountain bikes and kayaks for rent. I went with a guide on a kayak all the way to a river that strides the spit in the middle of the island. Although the distance appeared short, it was a good two hours on the way there. We saw some wildlife and the scenery, with volcanoes on either side of me, was breathtaking. To organize a trip to the volcanoes or elsewhere on the island, just speak to the guides who come to the Hacienda just after dinner. They are very nice and I only heard good things about them. Me and my friend planned on climbing Maderas and left early one morning (at 7am). I made it a quarter of the way up before returning (due to a recurring health condition). My friend continued upwards and returned looking like Casper the Ghost. He told me the heat and humidity was unbearable and that the last half of the trail was incredibly steep. In addition – and something the guides had mentioned – he was unable to see the rest of the island from the summit due to the cloud cover. There is a lake in the crater which takes 1 hour down and up from the summit of the volcano. The entire trip cost $15USD per person.
Something I forgot to mention is that, in case you need to catch a boat and are running late, Hacienda Merida has a speed boat that will get you to the dock at Moyogalpa in 15 minutes and costs $45 USD per person, maximum four people.
There are frequent departures from Moyogalpa to San Jorge. There is one at 9am, 11am and 2pm.
Back in San Jorge, we caught a shared taxi with two others directly to San Juan del Sur for $10USD per person. The trip took about one hour.
In SJS, we stayed in Casa Oro, two blocks from the ocean. Dorms were $7USD (they only have private rooms for three people or more, so no double rooms) with a shower and the price includes a surprisingly nice breakfast – local dishes which change daily, no toast and jam. The reason we stayed at Casa Oro was because of their night trips to watch the Ridley Olive Sea Turtles hatch. The trips cost $25 USD each and leave at approximately 7:30pm from the main reception area although you have to be downstairs at 7pm to watch a 30 minute instructional video. You do not have to be staying at Casa Oro to go on the trip. The ride to Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor is bumpy and takes about 90 minutes, even though it’s less than 30 kilometres from SJS. You cannot use flashlights once on the sand as the light distracts the turtles and causes them to lose their sense of direction. My experience was amazing. It was stormy and thus lightning – without thunder – illuminated the night sky while the waves crashed against the shore. We stayed on site for around 90 minutes before eventually leaving because there were too many turtles. In fact, it did look like a bunch of army tanks (an analogy I have heard often). The grounds are heavily guarded due to the poachers that come to steal the eggs. On the ride back to SJS, we passed quite a few poachers walking to the beach. Our driver and guide duly radioed back to the Refugio to inform the guards (who are actually members of the Nicaraguan army, I believe).
The beach at SJS is in the shape of a half-moon and it’s lovely. The water seemed clean and because of the heat (and man, it was hot, probably the hottest place I visited on my trip), was very refreshing. People told us SJS was going to be touristy but I found it welcoming and peaceful. At night, we ate fresh lobster in butter with asparagus on the side for $40USD at a place right next to the beach. Also note that most places along the beach offer happy hours in which cocktails and drinks are $1USD.
The next afternoon we travelled to Granada via public bus. Since this was the last stop on our journey, we decided to forgo the party atmosphere apparently available at the Bearded Monkey and, instead, stayed at Hostal Oasis. The name of this place is appropriate as the courtyard in the middle has lots of shade. Oasis also has a small pool. We got a double room for $20USD, including breakfast. I liked Granada; people told me that it was similar to Antigua in Guatemala but I found Granada much more palatable. The locals went about their business, offering help when needed. Also, the city is very clean! I found the atmosphere super chilled and would have loved to have stayed a few more days.
On our last day in Granada, we went on a night tour to Volcan Masaya, which also included a stop at the famed market by the same name. The trip cost about $30USD and, in my opinion, was good value. The tour picks up people staying at various hotels around Granada. First, we stopped at the Masaya market where I bought some souvenirs for friends. Next, we went up to Volcan Masaya. There is a car park at the summit where you get out and see the steam coming out. Due to this, you cannot stay at the top for long. Instead, you walk about 20 minutes up a narrow path which provides views of Volcan Apoyo in the distance as well as Volcan Masaya on your right. After returning to the car park, you head down about 200 metres until reaching the entrance to bat caves. The guides provide you with helmets and flashlights. There are lots of bats, so if you don’t like them, stay away! The whole trip took about 4 hours. If you are short on time, this tour is a good idea. Hostal Oasis also organizes tours to Laguna de Apoyo, which I regret not visiting. They also have lodging on site, and, at the time I was there, were looking for someone to either buy or manage their hostal in the laguna.
Instead of spending a night in Managua, I ordered a taxi through Hostal Oasis. My flight was at 7am and the trip to Managua is 1 hour without traffic. The taxi picked me and another traveller up at 4am and I was at my gate at just after 5. The trip cost about $25USD. The international terminal is new and easy to navigate. There are a few shops where you can buy Nicaraguan rum and cigars as well.
I know it is long but I hope this report is of some help to fellow travellers. Before leaving on my trip, I was on this forum constantly, asking numerous (and at times, stupid) questions. I would like to thank everyone for their help and patience. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to send me a private message.
Nov 12, 2012 6:29 PM
Nov 12, 2012 7:18 PM
Nov 12, 2012 9:01 PM
Nov 13, 2012 1:33 AM
Nov 13, 2012 4:34 AM
Nov 13, 2012 5:51 AM
6Good point about the "nickle and diming". I know so many 'wealthy' people who go to great lengths to drop 50c/$1 on a purchase (some to the point of rudeness and aggression) and I often wonder what the sellers must make of this as they eye their clothing, watches, cameras etc. But if you try and question it EVERYONE says "but its what you have to do, they expect it, only a fool pays more" etc etc.
We've all done it....
Nov 13, 2012 5:59 AM
7Its a hard balancing act...particularly if you don't know a place well and are only there for a few days.
You don't know how much things should cost.Many sellers take advantage of this by asking ridiculously high prices.Not only in CA but all countries where there is no fixed price.Indeed when haggling is expected,sellers will always start at a higher price than they think they will get.
That's one reason why its always better to stay longer and look at several different options before you start buying anything......
Nov 13, 2012 6:20 AM
8Like I say...we've all done it.
I don't think it takes long after wandering around a market to have a pretty clear idea of what something should cost and what you are prepared to pay. What hurts is the sense of getting it for the lowest price and lower than the next person. I know people who would be genuinely upset if they paid $1 over or would laugh with glee in my face if they got it for $1 less. Its sad..
Nov 13, 2012 8:37 AM
9Well sad that you missed El Salvador, the best country in CA!:(
Nov 13, 2012 12:29 PM
Nov 13, 2012 1:29 PM
Nov 13, 2012 4:26 PM
Nov 13, 2012 4:37 PM
Nov 14, 2012 12:33 AM
14I liked your trip report.
I especially liked the part about the spiders and you not wanting to go to the bathroom. Because this also happened to me, many years ago. I was all alone staying in a nice cabin in the jungle (actually a cloud forest) in Nicaragua. Saw something out of the corner of my eye while reading....wasn't sure if it was a spider or a mouse, but then I wouldn't turn out the light to go to sleep. The second night I slept in the back seat of the car/truck instead! A few days earlier I had seen a tarantula running around an outdoor restaurant in Managua, and boy, can those things ever go fast.
(3 star Hotel)
From US$73.33 per night
(3 star Hotel)
From US$79.00 per night
(0 star Hotel)
From US$20.00 per night