Friday, December 14, 2018

Chickens on the Chicken Bus

Where do I begin??? Yesterday was one of the most challenging travel days I’ve had on this trip. But it was also one of the most personally satisfying. Read on to find out why.
A tuk-tuk in Gracias.
I hailed a tuk-tuk on the street in front of the hotel in Gracias, Lempira at 8:30 a.m. I went to the bus terminal, which is just a large dirt parking lot surrounded by produce stalls and food vendors. I started asking around for the next bus to Santa Rosa. I found it within seconds and boarded the old school bus i.e. chicken bus. The winding drive through the mountains took about an hour because of all the stops to pick up anyone standing on the side of the road who signaled with their hand or arm as the bus approached. I got off at the “bus station” in Santa Rosa and immediately guys were all around me shouting out the names of other cities, offering taxi services, etc. When I said my next destination was Ocotepeque they backed off and one guy led me across the parking lot and out to the main road.
I took the bus on the right from Gracias to Santa Rosa.
There, hidden around the corner on a side street, was the minibus to Ocotepeque. It was just pulling away from the curb but my helper flagged it down and I boarded quickly. The bus wasn’t full but the driver still insisted I sit up front across from him, which was a first. Whereas in previous travels in other parts of the world I actually prefer sitting near the front as it’s more conducive to watching the scenery go by, here in Central America I’ve learned to find a seat about midway back, especially on the smaller buses, or otherwise passengers and their belongings will be piled on top of you when the bus gets full.
The bus on the right is the one I eventually ended up taking to Ocotepeque.
We didn’t even make it to the Santa Rosa city limits before we got stuck in traffic caused by construction work. While we were waiting, the driver spotted another larger coach bus that was also going to Ocotepeque. He sent his assistant to chat with the other bus driver and they decided it would make more sense if all of his passengers, me included, transferred onto the larger bus which was also not quite full. That way the minibus could go back to the station and wait for more people. We pulled over on the side of the road and made a quick transfer. I ended up in a window seat near the front but was in the blinding hot sun with no air conditioning, no way to open the window to get some air, and no curtains or shades. Thankfully I was dressed in layers and I took off my blouse to use it as a sunshade.
Ears of corn drying in the sun.
The three hour drive to Ocotepeque was one of the most scenic I’ve had on this trip, winding through a beautiful mountain landscape layered with lush green coffee plants, many with berries ready for harvest. There were also numerous drying patios and processing facilities. I swear I could smell the dried coffee berries, even while trapped in that sweltering bus!
That's not gravel on the ground; it's coffee!
There were a few other passengers also going to the border at El Poy so the driver dropped us off on the main street in Ocotepeque and said to take a taxi from there. We crossed the street and four of us piled into a beat-up old hatchback. I was the only one with luggage. The fare is fixed per person and was posted on the front windshield so I didn’t have to worry about negotiating or getting ripped off. On a related note: When I'm on the chicken buses, I just watch what other people pay and what they get back in change. Coins are rarely used so it’s easier to see the bills and do the math. The biggest challenge is that, since you can hop on and off these buses at any time, not everyone pays the same amount. It helps that the assistant walks through the bus to collect the money, so if you’re sitting midway towards the back you’ll have a chance to observe the exchange a few times before he gets to you.
Coffee plants and mountain scenery.
The taxi ride to the border took about 10 minutes. The driver pulled into a small parking area and pointed to an old man on a bicycle cart. He said the man would take me and my luggage to the appropriate places to process out of Honduras and into El Salvador. So I followed his instructions and soon discovered the bicitaxi driver, who appeared to be about 70, was also mute. Thankfully it turned out to be a relatively straightforward process: wait in a short line to get my passport stamped by Honduran border security (she only asked where I had been in Honduras and where I was going next); get back in the bicitaxi and ride about 500 feet across the border; get stopped by another Honduran agent standing in the road checking paperwork for vehicles (she just looked at my passport to make sure I had the Honduras exit stamp); go a bit farther to reach another building and get in line to have my passport examined but not stamped by El Salvadoran border security (she asked me specifically about my travel dates in the CA-4 countries and reminded me that, by her calculation, I was already on day 71 of a maximum 90 days of travel allowed in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua without a visa); get back in bicitaxi and ride another 1000 feet to the bus station, which was another dirt parking lot. The whole process took about 20 minutes.
This is how I crossed the border from Honduras into El Salvador.
While waiting for the next bus going in the direction of San Salvador, I paid to use the toilet. The posted price was $0.25. I wasn’t thinking clearly at first and I got out 25 centavos (Honduran cents). But the attendant quickly shook his head no and I realized my mistake: I was in another country now and El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar! Thankfully I prepared for this in advance and have been carrying 20 U.S. $1 bills in reserve cash since I left the U.S. three months ago, just for this purpose. It's no big deal if you aren't carrying U.S. currency when you cross the border; just be sure to change money with one of the guys standing by the immigration building as there are no ATMs in the immediate vicinity.
A food vendor boards the bus to San Salvador.
About 15 minutes later I boarded yet another bus. Out of all the chicken buses I’ve ridden on so far, this was the most conspicuously decorated. The outside was the usual vividly colored paint and praises to God, but the inside is what really caught my eye. First, I couldn’t help but notice the huge Union Jack on the ceiling. Then, I saw that there were multiple types of hair clips (the claw type) attached to the rearview mirror. Finally, I spotted the bumper sticker above the windshield which said “I love …” but in this case the “…” was replaced by a graphic of a man on top of a woman, obviously having sex. The driver, who is also usually the owner, was a young man in his mid 20’s. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, he turned on some club music and cranked it up to full volume with the bass booming. This is what I, and all the locals including two preachers, endured for the duration of the two hour ride to Aguilares, which is where I hopped off on the highway to find my next connection.
Zoom in on this photo and you can see
the hair clips and bumper sticker.
Standing on the busy road in Aguilares, there were no signs indicating where I might find the next bus. Once again, a local man kindly offered to lead me to my connecting bus to Suchitoto. The bus was parked a few blocks away on a side street, invisible from the main road. I never would have found it without asking. I boarded the back of the bus and had to climb over a huge bag of grain (some type of animal feed) that was bigger than my suitcase. The final 22 km on a small two-lane road were very scenic with mountains in the background and fields of corn, sugarcane, or cows in the foreground. I also saw evidence of the recent civil war in a neighborhood we drove through about five kilometers from Suchitoto that was called El Barrio.
Scenery on the final bus ride to Suchitoto.
The highlight of the day happened on the very last bus ride from Aguilares to Suchitoto. A mother and daughter (she looked to be about eight years old) boarded the bus in the rural area outside Aguilares. The girl was carrying a medium-sized cardboard box that was tied shut. There were no available seats on the bus and I couldn’t give them my seat because of all the people around me, so instead I offered to hold the box and the little girl gave it to me. It was only then that I realized that something inside the box was moving and soon I heard the peeping chicks! I couldn’t hear them right away because, as usual, the driver was blasting music at high volume throughout the bus. Soon enough the family got to sit down and the mom came up and took the chickens from me.
The view from Suchitoto to the lake.
I showed up in Suchitoto without a hotel reservation, with only a couple of budget-minded possibilities on my radar. For the first time during this entire travel day, I actually used Google Maps to find the hotel. I got lucky and they still had a bed available for $8 a night. It's very basic and is in some kind of converted barn with unfinished walls that are only about 10 feet high and therefore the rooms are not fully enclosed. I’m sharing a single toilet/shower stall, with an accordion-style plastic door that doesn't lock, with at least four other people.
Iglesia Santa Lucia in Suchitoto.
As soon as I dropped off my luggage, I headed back out for a quick walk around town before it got completely dark. I also went to an ATM machine to get cash and was shocked when it dispensed $200 worth of brand new $10 bills (it gave me no other option of denomination or currency). Later, I bought a few items from a tienda, and the shopkeeper gave me my change in $1 Presidential coins that were minted in 2007 and which I have never seen before in the U.S.!
Check out the $1 coins on the right.
So, besides the obvious highlight of finally encountering chickens on the chicken bus, why was yesterday so personally satisfying? It's because I managed the entire travel day without a definite plan, on local buses that don't have a fixed schedule, by only speaking Spanish and by asking the locals for directions as needed. I didn’t see another non-Central American tourist the entire day except possibly a couple from South America who were carrying backpacks and camping gear on the bus to Ocotepeque; nor did I see any local tourists with the exception of five teenage boys who were on the bus to San Salvador. Every bus I took was filled with people going about their day-to-day lives and business. Plus, the total cost for nine hours of travel including all forms of transport was only $12.76.
The welcome sign after crossing the border at El Poy.
I also should mention why it was one of the most challenging travel days I've had so far. Last weekend I was sick in bed with a virus that caused severe body aches, fever, stomach cramps, etc. for more than 24 hours and left me very weak from not eating. It took a few days to rest, recuperate, and to have enough strength to travel from Copan Ruinas to Gracias, Lempira on Tuesday. Unfortunately, I've still been suffering from some of the symptoms since then with some days being worse than others. When you travel on public transit in Central America, there are no restroom breaks and generally nowhere to go if you needed or wanted to. So it's best if you don't eat or drink anything for the entire time you're traveling, which will then leave you dehydrated and even more exhausted than you would have been normally.

Well, that's the full story of the chickens on the chicken bus, among other things! It was so much fun (ha ha) that I'm doing it again tomorrow to get to Santa Ana!

A Recap of November 2018 - Part IV

I’m starting this post where I left off the last one which is the final week of November.

On Saturday, November 24th, I arrived in Livingston, Guatemala after traveling by small boat from Punta Gorda, Belize. Livingston sits at the mouth of the Rio Dulce where it flows into the Amatique Bay in the Gulf of Honduras. There is no road linking Livingston to the rest of Guatemala; it is only accessible by boat.
This is the boat I took from Punta Gorda, Belize to Livingston, Guatemala.
I had reserved a bed at La Casa Rosada, which is the best-rated accommodation in town, and I walked straight there after getting off the boat. I was a bit shocked to discover that my single bed, complete with mosquito net, was actually on the upstairs porch with no fan, no place to hang clothes or a towel, no reading light or shelf, and nowhere to stow my luggage securely (although there are lockboxes, they are only large enough for electronics). I also discovered there was only one en-suite bath (the sink, toilet and shower were all in the same room) upstairs for what I counted as more than 16 possible dorm occupants. The dorm area was not secured either, meaning you didn’t need a key to access the property or the upstairs sleeping area. I tried to put my initial concerns aside and focused on the positives, primarily the beautiful waterfront location.
View of La Casa Rosada from their private dock.
After having a look around the property, I set out to explore the town of Livingston and to get my passport stamped. This is a necessary task which would be totally easy to forget since the immigration office is not at the dock but instead a few blocks up a hill. It’s a tiny building adjacent to some shops and restaurants and it is basically unmarked. I walked right by it at first and a traffic guard (a necessity for directing the tuk-tuks at the blind corners and steep hills) pointed it out to me when she asked where I was going as I crossed the intersection.
The immigration building (left, with women in front of it) in Livingston, Guatemala.
Border formalities complete, I then explored the streets of the relatively small town center, only turning around when I reached water and could go no further. The one exception was to the west, which I saved for another day knowing that it would require more time and energy. I returned to the hostel and sat out on the dock watching the almost-full moon rise. I went to bed and slept fitfully, with the constant feeling that small bugs were crawling on me even though I was under the mosquito net.
This photo of moonrise was taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7 phone.
The next morning while eating breakfast at the hostel, I was joined by Henri, who had traveled from Punta Gorda on the same boat I took yesterday. Henri was born in Cameroon, in Central Africa, but now lives in Montreal, Canada. However Henri’s work with an NGO has him based out of PG for the past few months. After some chit-chat about not having specific plans for the day, we decided to go to the Siete Altares waterfalls together.
Walking along the beach to Siete Altares. Sometimes you have to walk in the water.
After a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride we reached the end of the road at the beach near the Quehueche River. From there it was a 30 minute walk along the sandy, garbage-strewn beach to the park entrance. The fastest and easiest (but far more expensive) option is to take a boat. We paid the 20Q (~$2.50) admission fee and then started hiking up the rocky path. In fact, the only place there is a paved path is at the very beginning where it is steepest; after that you either have to walk through the water or along the side on uneven rocks. Thankfully the rocks are not slippery.
Walking through Siete Altares to get to the final waterfall.
When we reached the final (seventh) waterfall, Henri decided to follow the lead of some local kids and climbed up to the top to jump into the natural pool below. I opted to wade around in the shallow part of the pool and take pictures. Later, as we relaxed on some of the larger rocks surrounding the pool, I happened to look down and saw something moving. I couldn’t believe it; there was a very large snake swimming in the water! I pointed it out to Henri as it swam under a rock and that was the end of our time in that pool.
Henri climbs to the top of the final waterfall.
We took our time hiking back down the path, enjoying the beautiful scenery. While there were plenty of tourists like us, there were even more locals and Spanish-speaking tourists from other parts of Guatemala. When we got back to the main entrance, I asked the older guy who was handling the money if he ever saw any snakes in the area. He said that there used to be snakes many years ago when there were fewer people around but that he hadn’t seen one in a long time and didn’t think they lived there anymore. When I told him we had seen one in the water and asked what kind it might have been, he didn’t have a clue!
Me looking for birds at Siete Altares.
As we walked back along the beach we were joined by Linda, a girl from the Netherlands who has been working in Toronto for the past year. Farther along, we also ran into another girl from our hostel, Agnes, who is from Edmonton. After taking a tuk-tuk back into town, Henri, Linda and I decided to eat lunch at a tiny unmarked restaurant away from the more touristy places on the main street. It was comical because, although they had printed menus, when we tried to order a variety of dishes, every time we would name one the woman would say “we don’t have that.” Linda and I ended up with fried chicken, rice and pasta salad, while Henri (a vegetarian) got a big bowl of steamed vegetables. The food was actually pretty good, but the best part was the cook’s daughter, Dulce, a precocious eight-year-old who kept us entertained with random questions and comments (in Spanish, of course!).
This is Dulce, a Livingston resident.
While we were waiting for our lunch to be prepared, I asked Linda why she had so many huge red welts on her back and arms. I assumed that she was sensitive to mosquito bites but the truth was far worse. On her first night at La Casa Rosada, she woke up in the middle of the night feeling itchy. She turned on her flashlight and could see the bedbugs crawling on her! She immediately went down to reception but they only offered to give her another bed and did nothing else, even the next day, to resolve the issue other than to change the sheets on the bed she had been sleeping on. As the hostel was booked full the next night, a new unsuspecting victim had been assigned to that bed.
The public laundry area in Livingston, Guatemala.
After lunch, we returned to the hostel to relax for a few hours, then met up again that evening. We had heard there would be a street party leading up to tomorrow morning’s Garifuna Settlement Day celebration. While plenty of people were out eating and drinking, there was actually very little in the way of festivities. After walking around for more than 30 minutes, we only found a DJ playing for a crowd of none in one large tented area and some young drummers prepping for a performance on a stage in the main plaza. We decided to eat dinner at a very popular pupuseria where we had to wait more than 30 minutes to get a table and our food. While we were hanging out people-watching across the street, a huge elephant beetle crashed to the ground near us. A local man captured it and then spent the remainder of the evening showing it off to anyone who walked by.
Male elephant beetle in Livingston, Guatemala.
After our delicious meal we returned to the main plaza hoping to see some drumming and dancing, but when we got there at 9:00 p.m. the main entertainment was already over. The girls and I returned to the hostel and went to bed, setting our alarms for 4:30 a.m.
The pupuseria where we ate dinner.
The next morning we all met up as planned at 4:45 to walk to the beach together for the Garifuna Settlement Day reenactment. Interestingly, this holiday is also celebrated by the Garifuna community in Belize on November 19th. But in Livingston it is celebrated one week later. We walked through the empty streets of Livingston in the dark and we all thought it was strange that no one else was stirring. Of course, we soon discovered that the start time was 6:00 a.m. not 5:00, so we sat alone on the hill overlooking the beach, waiting for the sun to come up.
Sunrise on the beach in Livingston as people gather for Garifuna Settlement Day.
Slowly a crowd of people began to gather and then, just before 6:00 as promised, we spotted a boat pulling the bamboo raft farther out in the bay. It took another 45 minutes for the boat to reach the shore and by then there were around two hundred people watching on the beach or from the cliff.
One of the boats arrives at the beach in Livingston, Guatemala
on Garifuna Settlement Day. The bamboo raft is in the background.
After the landing celebration which featured singing and imitation gifts of food and drink, the Garifuna paraded on foot up the hill and around town, singing and dancing. We followed for a while but they were going very slowly so we ultimately split off and walked back to the hostel around 7:30 a.m. We did get to taste the special liquor called guifiti, which is made by steeping roots and herbs in rum. It is potent and, considering the early hour and our empty stomachs, we each only had about an ounce.
The Garifuna walk up the hill from the beach to parade around Livingston.
Linda, Agnes and I spent most of the day reading and relaxing in the hammocks on the dock while Henri’s boat left for Punta Gorda at 11:00 a.m. In the early evening I went for a walk and bought some empanadas from a street vendor. Then I packed and went to bed early since I had to wake up early again to catch the boat to Puerto Barrios.
Us with our guifiti samples on Garifuna Settlement Day. L to R: Me, Henri, Linda, Agnes
On Tuesday morning I took a tuk-tuk to the dock and made it just in time to avoid a heavy downpour. Even though I arrived at 6:15 a.m., the 6:45 boat was already booked full (20 people max). I had tried to secure my spot yesterday but you can’t buy tickets in advance. Thankfully there was enough demand and they added another boat shortly after the first one left. This was the same size boat as I had taken from Punta Gorda a few days before, but there was much less luggage to load and we left quickly after everyone boarded. This time they didn’t even bother to take the life jackets out of the large cloth bag they were stowed in.
Departing from Livingston. The life jackets are in the white cloth bag in the bow.
The trip across the bay took about 30 minutes and the water was as calm as an empty bathtub. We reached bustling Puerto Barrios, a true container port where all of the ships I saw docked were being loaded with containers marked "Chiquita."
The Chiquita banana ships docked in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
After I got off the boat, I took a taxi to the McDonald's a couple of kilometers away. This was the rendezvous point with my pre-reserved Roneey Shuttle to go to Copan Ruinas, Honduras. From there it was only a 20 minute drive to the border crossing at Corinto.
Changing money at the Guatemala / Honduras border.
We reached the border at Corinto at 9:30 and didn’t have to wait in line to get stamped out of Guatemala (Line/Window 1) and into Honduras (Windows 2-4). After changing money (buying lempira) at a 23:1 rate for U.S. dollars or 3:1 rate for quetzales (a fair rate for a non-bank transaction), we were on the road again by 9:45. We stopped again briefly for a toilet break and to use an ATM machine at a gas station/convenience store a couple of hours later and then stopped again at a gas station in El Progreso at 12:30. This time we all changed to different vans, for ones going to La Ceiba, Copan, Puerto Barrios and even Nicaragua. We had to wait more than 20 minutes for a late inbound van, so we had time to order a pizza from the Little Caesars across the street; there was also a Popeyes Chicken, Baskin Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts in the same shopping center. Four of us (a couple from Slovenia and a girl from Zurich) shared a large supreme pizza.
They are completely rebuilding the road from Santa Rosa to Copan Ruinas.
Now in a van with four “new” travelers and the driver, who had brought along his wife and two young children, we set off for Copan. It was pretty slow going the entire way as the road had lots of speed bumps and there was a fair amount of slow-moving traffic. Soon we were winding through the mountains and there we encountered major road construction. They had completely graded down the old road to only dirt and rocks and were gradually pouring concrete for a new road. The speed limit was only 15 kph and we had to stop in several places to wait for oncoming traffic because only one lane (of two) was open. We also got behind big trucks that were barely moving up the hills and we couldn’t pass them because of the one-lane road, so we were going only 5 kph for many stretches. We finally arrived in Copan at around 6:15 p.m. (making it a 11.5 hour travel day for me), where the other passengers were dropped off at a hotel, and I was taken to a gas station where my Spanish school instructor Dunia was waiting with her family to take me to my home for the next two weeks.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Recap of November 2018 - Part III

Week Four

As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, when I arrived in Hopkins, Belize on November 20th it was obvious that I was in a community with a different culture and background than the other parts of Central America that I had visited up to this point. From the color of their skin to the sound of their language to the style of their dwellings, the Garifuna retain many traditions of their past. If you would like to learn more about this unique group of people, this site has a good overview: Global Sherpa.
These local girls (and sometimes boys) rode around town on bicycles most afternoons
selling homemade empanadas, Johnnycakes and baked goods like coconut muffins. 
After settling in at the hostel, I went for a walk around town and stopped at one of the three grocery stores. Over the next few days I discovered that all of the grocery stores in Belize (at least in the towns I visited) are owned by Asians. They can be quite interesting to explore due to the inexplicable decision to put consumables directly adjacent to, for example, polyurethane varnish. Most of the canned items were rusted, sometimes severely, due to the high humidity. I ultimately decided to make a pot of soup for dinner and then discovered that the style I wanted, which had collard greens and white beans and was sold in a sealed pouch similar to Knorr brand noodles in the U.S., was 18 months past its "best by" date. The cashier offered to sell me the soup at a significant discount so I decided to take my chances since it, theoretically, wasn't a perishable food product. Back at the hostel, I cooked the soup as directed. The end result had a nice flavor but looked nothing like the photo on the package and had the consistency of soupy corn meal. Thankfully, I suffered no intestinal issues as a result of this meal. Being a budget-minded traveler, I even ate the leftovers for lunch the next day!
These cans of sausages were not expired,
just severely rusted from the high humidity.
I spent the next morning researching my onward travel plans since I hadn't booked anything else beyond the two night stay in Hopkins. This included my plans for the following day which would be Thanksgiving in the U.S. I had just talked to Greg a few days before on his birthday, so I called my grandmother and chatted with her for 30 minutes, and then tried to call my mom but didn't reach her or my stepdad. I also wrote and published a short blog post: Happy Thanksgiving from Belize. That afternoon I borrowed a rusty single speed bike from the hostel and explored the extended reaches of Hopkins on my own, no map or guidebook needed since you basically can't get lost!
I biked to a more remote part of the beach in Hopkins.
That evening, after returning the bike to the hostel, I decided to treat myself to a nice meal at a nearby restaurant. I had grilled fish topped with mango salsa, coconut rice, and steamed vegetables. I even splurged on a fresh coconut margarita. It was a delicious meal that I enjoyed while watching the almost full moon rise over the Caribbean Sea.
My delicious meal at The Coconut Husk restaurant.
The next morning, two of my hostelmates and I got up early as planned and took the 7:00 a.m. local bus out to the highway to catch a connecting bus heading south. We reached Maya Center Village at 7:45 a.m. and unfortunately, though we had hoped to catch a ride down the rough dirt road the remaining six miles into Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, no inbound vehicles went by for almost 30 minutes. Not wanting to waste any more time, we reluctantly paid $40 Belizean ($20 U.S.) for a taxi, which is the standard rate. We were in the park by 9:00 a.m. and started our first hike shortly after checking in at the ranger station. As it happened, the Belize Audubon Society was in the process of doing a three day bird count and we were allowed to tag along on a net run with Luti, a park ranger and bird guide, and some volunteers.
Luti (R) and a volunteer (L) banding two birds for the Belize Audubon Society.
After getting a close look at some birds being banded, we set off on our own on the Wari Loop Trail. Not too far down the trail I stepped in some taller grass to avoid the mud. Melanie was a few feet behind me and I heard her shout as she walked in the same spot I had. A huge spider the size of my hand had jumped out beside her foot!
This is the tarantula Brachypelma vagans I almost stepped on!
After having a good look (from a safe distance) at the spider, we vowed to be more cautious about where we stepped, and then continued on through sometimes deep mud all the way to the river tubing area. There we spotted many more colorful birds in the surrounding trees. We doubled back to the main trail and a bit farther on we reached the starting point for the Victoria Peak Path, which requires a guide. We returned to the ranger station and then hiked the opposite direction on the Waterfall Trail. After taking a break at the small waterfall and, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, sharing snacks with a family from Indianapolis, I decided not to continue up the even steeper Ben's Bluff Trail. Instead, I walked back to the ranger station on my own where I planned to reconnect with Luti for a guided birdwatching hike.
Kristel and Melanie cool off near the waterfall.
Ultimately the Audubon volunteers decided they were tired from a full day of bird banding and the hike was canceled. I waited for Kristel and Melanie to return from Ben's Bluff and then, having no other option than to spend another $40 Belizean on a taxi, we hitched a ride on Luti's 4-wheeler all the way back to Maya Village Center. Yes, five full-size adults somehow managed to fit on a standard-size 4-wheeler and to ride six miles on a bumpy dirt road without falling off! We even stopped for a few minutes to check out the wreckage of a small plane crash that occurred in the jungle in 1983 while the founder of the wildlife preserve was tracking jaguars. We also saw a large snake (most likely an Indigo) quickly moving off the road as we approached.
Then, continuing to "do as the locals do," we hitchhiked from there to Hopkins in the back of a pickup truck! The driver, who works for a hotel in Hopkins, also stopped along the way to pick up a huge bag of oranges that were propped against a fence (obviously a planned delivery) and at a roadside stand for fresh tamales. We couldn't resist the chance to have a cheap meal so we hopped out and bought some, too. The tamales, plus a few beers from the grocery store, and later, a walk to Nice Cream with Melanie for some homemade soursop ice cream, was my Thanksgiving dinner.
L to R: Melanie, me, and Kristel hitchhiking near Hopkins, Belize.
Selfie credit to Melanie.
Friday morning I again got up early, along with pretty much everyone else staying at the hostel, to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus out to the main road. I then transferred to the southbound bus and took it all the way to its termination at Punta Gorda, a ride of about three hours. The driver blasted horrible electronic-overlaid pop music in Spanish the entire time. Unfortunately I was sitting at the back of the bus where it was loudest because I wanted to keep an eye on my suitcase. That's because people actually open the back door to get on or off when the bus is full, even though it is a good three-foot drop to the road with no steps other than a small trailer hitch.
Repurposed school buses serve as public transportation all over Central America.
I arrived in Punta Gorda at noon in the steamy tropical heat of midday. Thankfully I was able to check into my air-conditioned private hotel room right away. This is something that I normally would not have paid extra for, but as there are no true budget options like hostels in PG, I didn't have a choice. I decided to go ahead and walk down to the port to verify my travel options for the next day. Normally the boat only goes to Livingston, Guatemala on Tuesdays and Fridays but thankfully they were running at least one boat each way daily due to the Garifuna Settlement Day holiday which is observed on different dates one week apart in the two countries. I bought my ticket, got all the information I needed to prepare for the border crossing process on both ends, and then took a quick walk around town before retiring to the hotel to relax and enjoy the cooling AC in my room.
The Family Court building in Punta Gorda, Belize.
As my boat was not until 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, I decided to go for a longer walk around town the next morning. I left my luggage with the hotel manager and then ate a huge breakfast burrito at a nearby local spot he recommended. After walking around for about an hour as the temperature continued to rise (daily highs the whole time I was near the Caribbean were over 90F and the "feels like" temperature was closer to 100F), I spent my remaining Belizean dollars on a couple of bottles of beer and then returned to the hotel to drink them in their slightly cooler (but not air-conditioned) reception area. Then I walked the few blocks to the port with all of my luggage and paid the $40 Belizean exit fee to leave the country.
The immigration building at the port in Punta Gorda, Belize.
After getting my passport stamped, I went out to board the boat and only then realized how small it was. When I saw all the luggage, food, boxes of unknown items, and all the people that would be getting on the boat I was shocked. We left 30 minutes late because it took that much longer to get everything loaded and secured in the front of the boat. The pile of luggage was much higher than our heads! Thankfully the water was calm and the crossing only took about 45 minutes. Still, as we were all crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing bulky life jackets, and with no way to move around, I sure was glad to get off the boat in Livingston and stretch out my legs!
Yes, I put on my life jacket after this picture was taken!
By now, if you've read all of my recent blog posts, you may be wondering why I didn't spend more time in Belize (only six days and nights total) and specifically, why I didn't go out to the famous diving and snorkeling or beach spots like Caye Caulker. The reality is that, as I expected, the cost of traveling in Belize was pretty much double everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala. Where a bed in a hostel dorm in those countries averaged $7.50 (U.S) per night, the same type of accommodation in Belize was at least $16 (U.S.) and that's in the less touristy places I chose to visit. Food, whether groceries or restaurant meals, was also twice as expensive. Honestly, I had no desire to spend time and money at a more touristy beach destination plus, knowing that many cruise ships call on Belize as part of their Caribbean itineraries, there is a decent chance I will be back in the area someday (and not on a backpacker's budget like I am now).
Add this up and divide by two; that's the equivalent in U.S. dollars.
Once again, this post has gotten too long to continue, so I will leave off here and write one more, separate post about the remainder of November 2018.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Recap of November 2018 - Part II

This is a continuation of my post from last week: A Recap of November 2018 - Part I

Week Three

After being out until 1:00 a.m. on November 15th, Alfonso and I woke up a couple of hours later at 3:30 a.m. and he drove me to the Fuente del Norte bus station in Guatemala City. I had a ticket for the 7:15 bus but we arrived early enough that I was able to get a seat on the 5:20 bus just before it departed. The drive to Flores took more than 11 hours with one 20-minute pit stop at the bus station in Morales. The scenery was mountainous heading east and we had to go very slow due to construction on the winding main road. It eventually opened up to farmland and cattle ranches. The landscape was very green and sparsely populated.
Interesting scenery on the bus ride to Flores.
I arrived on the island of Flores that evening and went for a sunset walk along the lakefront before retiring to my hostel to catch up on sleep. The next day was the first time in several weeks that I had no plans other than to do some reading, writing and research. But when I got in touch with Selene Castro (a member of the extended Perez family), I was soon on my way to her beautiful home in nearby San Benito and thus began a full day of adventure. Along with Selene’s husband Francisco, we set off on an eight hour exploration which included the caves at Actun Kan, the Mayan archaeological site of Yaxha, and sunset at a dock in El Remate on Lake Peten Itza. The entire day was such an unexpected and delightful surprise! That evening I discovered that my new loftmate at the hostel was a girl from Portland, Ore., a first occurrence during more than two months of travel at this point.
Francisco shines a light on some
interesting formations in the cave.
The next morning I met a shuttle driver at 3:00 a.m. for the hour-long trip to Tikal, the vast Mayan archaeological site in northeastern Guatemala. There is nothing like hiking through the pitch black jungle at 4:30 in the morning with two other travelers (one from Australia and one from the Netherlands) plus a guide with only a headlamp to keep us from tripping over tree roots or stepping on insects or animals! We summited Temple IV just after 5:00 a.m. and sat quietly at the top for an hour, listening to the jungle wake up as sunlight slowly illuminated the landscape around us. Afterward, we spent the next five hours exploring the ruins; a couple more hours with our guide and the remainder of the time on our own.
Me climbing one of the many pyramids at Tikal.
After taking a two-hour nap upon my return to the hostel in Flores, I enjoyed a sunset dinner on the rooftop of a nearby restaurant. Then I walked up the steep hill to the main plaza for the town’s Christmas light illumination party complete with food vendors, fireworks, and live music. While enjoying the festivities, I ended up bumping into the couple from Wisconsin whom I met in Monterrico (on the completely opposite end of the country) one week before.
The recently illuminated Christmas tree in Flores.
The next morning I had a ticket on the one daily bus that goes from Flores to San Ignacio in Belize. The border crossing was painless but took over one hour because of a problem with one couple’s documents. I actually crossed the border on foot: you take all of your luggage off the bus, get stamped out of Guatemala, walk about 200 feet, and get stamped into Belize. I arrived in San Ignacio around noon and, after checking into the guesthouse, I walked to the main tourist street in town to arrange for an excursion to Caracol. That evening I had a delicious meal of a traditional Garifuna dish called hudut (mashed plantains and coconut soup served with a whole fried fish) at Authentic Flavors, a restaurant that was recommended by the manager at MayaWalk Tours.
San Ignacio has some fantastic murals!
I was at the MayaWalk office the next morning at 6:45, ready to depart for Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize. We ended up delaying our departure until 7:30 because all of the activities that involved water, in particular the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves, had all been canceled for safety reasons due to heavy rain overnight. Those people were given the option of a full refund or to transfer to another tour. We left with 11 passengers. I soon discovered that the only other solo traveler in the group was a woman from Beaverton, Ore. I also met a couple who live near Seattle, Wash.
This is before the road got really bad.
The tour was a lot of fun and really necessitates a dedicated blog post to describe it in full detail. Suffice it to say that the road to the archaeological site requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and takes about two hours each way to navigate. After being tossed around the van like rag dolls, it then continued to rain, hard, for the first hour of our tour at the site, meaning we were squishing through the mud, slipping on the worn stones of the ruins, and battling to keep our cameras dry and defogged in the hot and humid jungle air. This also meant that we did not get to do two of the activities that are normally part of this tour: exploring Rio Frio cave and swimming at Rio On pools. But the sun came out eventually, I saw lots of interesting and unique birds, and the ruins, as always, were a sight to behold. Upon our return to San Ignacio that evening, I ended up hanging out with Lauren from Beaverton (Lauren, if you're reading this, thanks again for the beers, food, and friendship!) and a couple from Sweden who were also on the tour, drinking beer and talking about life and travel.
This is Rio On after a couple of days of heavy rain.
The next morning I had time to visit the smaller but no less impressive Mayan site of Cahal Pech which sits above the town of San Ignacio. For a bit more legwork but $90 less than cost of the tour yesterday, I had the entire site completely to myself for the better part of two hours. I returned to the guesthouse just before another torrential downpour that lasted for over an hour and quickly flooded the streets. I also discovered that all of the public water supply in the entire city had been shut off for an unannounced reason. It was still off (at that point going on six hours) when I departed for Hopkins.
I loved having the ruins at Cahal Pech all to myself!
The drive to Hopkins took about three hours, first going east to Belmopan and then continuing on the Hummingbird Highway which runs southeast to Dangriga. About 8 km before reaching the coast we turned right onto the Southern Highway and followed it to the turnoff for Hopkins. The scenery was mostly pastureland, banana trees, and citrus (orange and grapefruit) orchards. In Belize, the fruit is processed into a juice concentrate which is then exported to the U.S. to make a well-known brand of the breakfast beverage. Since this is harvest season, we passed many large trucks hauling huge loads of fruit to the processing plants.
Citrus fruit in transit to a processing plant in Belize.
Upon my arrival in Hopkins I immediately noticed two things: 1. The town is tiny, essentially two streets running parallel to each other and to the Caribbean Sea; and 2. The vast majority of people were dark-skinned. This is because Hopkins is one of several Garifuna settlements along the coast.
The beach in Hopkins, Belize.
Since this post is already running long, I will continue with my third and final November recap as soon as possible, including more information about the Garifuna culture.